Valentine’s Day is behind us but I think it’s important to continue thinking about romance and the kind of impact these kinds of stories have on readers. It’s one of the reasons I created this blog and continue to return to romance series. Reading romance books and manga were majorly important to me when I was growing up. I started reading them back in middle school, or about 12 to 13 years old. I’ve never really thought about the significance of starting around that time until this article from Vulture pointed it out: the kinds of books you read in school are mostly stories of boys and men with the occasional dead girl so, in essence, romance books become a way to see girls and female characters in prominent roles. They’re thrilling, a way to experience and read about sex, something that is usually frowned upon in academia and some social circles. The US in particular isn’t very good about including comprehensive sex education in their schools, so for many girls, this is their first and sometimes only major way to learn about sex and sexual relationships.
The romance genre has gotten a bad rap over the years, considered “popular” literature or just not literature at all. Why? It could be because its an industry dominated by women who are writing predominantly for women. It could be the sometimes silly, “bodice-ripper” covers showing half naked women and men on full display. It could also be the escapist nature of romance fiction in general which tends to make people point at it and say, “there’s nothing good or intelligent you can get out of a story like that. It’s all just trash for bored housewives.” Which is completely and utterly wrong. Dismissing a whole genre in and of itself is wrong, and I’m here to tell you there are quite a few important life lessons you can learn from romance.
Sex can be a positive and healthy experience
You don’t necessarily need sex to make a good romance story, and it definitely doesn’t need to be explicit. But I think out of all the genres, or at least compared to literary fiction, romance has the most positive portrayals of healthy sexual relationships that I have seen. Like I mentioned above, far too often the books we are forced to read in school either have no depictions of sex or have negative depictions that usually have bad endings for the women in them. Combined with the whole absolutely no sex ever attitude of most US health classes, it’s safe to say that some people’s ideas of sex can be a little warped.
This is where romance comes in. Stories of women, often confident in their own bodies and willing, enthusiastic even, to take control in the bedroom having sex in their own time and in a way that is pleasing to both partners. I’ve gravitated to those stories since I was a teen and it’s something I’ve more often found in the romance genre than not. I think these kinds of depictions are so important for people, especially those who have been shamed into thinking sex is something dirty or even an obligation for their partner. These women have confidence, both in their bodies and their ability to set boundaries. It also helps that the genre is becoming increasingly more diverse with queer, ace, and a wide spectrum of different stories out there for everyone. Now people within a spectrum of sexualities can find stories that are representative of who they are and what they might be looking for in and out of the bedroom.
Mutual trust, respect, and communication are vital to any relationship
It seems so straightforward, this statement, but in my experience it can be one of the hardest to grapple with, communication specifically. We see so many different heroes and heroines in books, each coming into the story with their own histories and experiences. Some of those experiences involve prior relationships that may have lacked one or more of the aspects above and come to influence their present or future relationships. A lack of trust can lead to growth in jealousy. A lack of respect can begin to lean towards abuse. A lack of communication can lead to stagnation. What romance novels offer is a chance to see how characters overcome these hurdles and improve as a couple, learning to trust, respect, and communicate effectively with one another.
Often in these stories we’ll see a character who has come from an abusive relationship or someone who is currently in one but trying to escape. I think these stories are so important for survivors and current victims of abuse to both give them hope and show that yes those types of relationships are wrong and unhealthy. I personally love seeing stories where there’s this sense of mutual support, that each partner would have each other’s back if they say changed careers to follow their dream job or suddenly got sick or had a death in the family. It shows that there’s a balance in their relationship, that they see each other as equals and distinct people outside their relationship to one another.
This also translates to within the bedroom too. Mutual respect is shown through consent, foreplay, and discussion over what each person is comfortable with. Mutual trust evolves from revealing vulnerabilities such as body image issues or emotional insecurities and knowing that the other person will love you regardless, or even loves you for the things that you hate about yourself. Mutual communication is honestly vital in a sexual relationship, and watching characters become more and more comfortable saying what they want, need, or desire is what makes some of these scenes so exciting.
You don’t have to change yourself for anyone (conversely don’t attempt to force change on anyone)
And why should you? Relationships may involve some compromise, but never on important, core ideals. The best relationships are where each partner loves and accepts the other for all their faults. I think far too often women especially are told starting when we’re young that if you just become prettier, use more make-up, become skinnier, or run with the popular crowd you’ll find the person of your dreams. And that’s honestly bullshit. Improving yourself for you is going to do you more good than improving or changing yourself for someone else. And I think this message is the most important for teen romances. I tend to see these kinds of story lines all the time in manga: the heroine feels she has to hide some part of herself to be liked at school only to find that she makes more friends and finds love when she opens up and starts acting like who she really is (Kare Kano, Horimiya). It also comes with this kind of need to fit in, this idea that you have to act like everyone else because society says so. But I think so many of these stories try and point towards the opposite and we come to find that the quirkiest or most down-to-earth characters become our favorites.
The inverse of this lesson is also true: you should never try to force change on someone else either. I think I see this far more often than I like, Disney movies being a prime example. Staying with someone in the hope that they change or become a better person is never a good idea and often leads to people finding themselves stuck in abusive relationships. Ideas of “I can totally save him” or “I can totally make him into a better person” are fundamentally flawed because that person may not want to change and they’re the only people who can do it. Romance writers know this is a dangerous thought process to have and often try and tell stories where the quest for love leads that person to someone who both loves them for who they are yet pushes them to better themselves in a beneficial and respectful way.
I can’t deny that I love reading romance novels of all kinds. It’s been an obsession of mine since I was a teenager. Dark fantasy, paranormal romance, teen romance, historical romance. I read anything I could get my hands on and that love translated easily into manga, anime, and comics. It also helped me a lot when I was going through middle and high school, offering life lessons comfort, and escapism in a time when I desperately needed that distraction and knowledge. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that I am who I am today because of romance novels, but I can say they were a major part of my life and I really hope more people can get past the covers and the stigma to see the kind of valuable stories I’m seeing.
~~Thanks for Reading!~~
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