Romance vs Love Stories - The Good and the Ugh

| Thursday, February 27, 2014

A few months back, I was browsing Tumblr (because when am I ever NOT browsing Tumblr) and managed to catch the moment John Green first put up the freshly-released poster for The Fault In Our Stars movie. Internet squeeing ensued, and I thought it was a nice poster, as far as movie posters go. I'm not exactly a movie poster connoisseur, but you know, I thought it looked okay. Okay? Haha see what I did there I'm so clever.

ANYWAY. While I was admiring the poster, I also noticed the tagline beneath the title. It's riiiight there if you look at a larger version of the image, and this is what it says: "One Sick Love Story."

If you've read the book and know what this film is about, it's a 100% logical tagline. The characters are sick! And they fall in love! Clever! But that part isn't really what caught my eye.

It was the use of "love story."

Now, I'm just using the TFIOS poster as an example. It's certainly not a unique example, and no one connected with the book came up with that tagline. That's the film industry. But seeing this phrasing did remind me of something else.

Not long ago (almost a year exactly, in fact), Nicolas Sparks gave an interview in which he expressed an opinion that he's expressed several times before. You can read the whole interview here, but I'll quote the part I'm referring to below.

"Q: You once said the difference between a love story and a romance is that “love stories must use universal characters and settings.” What did you mean by that?

Sparks: 'Universal' means you feel as if they are real. You feel like you can know them. I don’t write stories about astronauts or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or millionaires or movie stars. ... [People] relate to these characters, they begin to root for these characters and by the end they are moving in sync with the emotions of these characters. You need to do all of these things well to have a love story that works."

I've never been a big fan of Sparks' quotes dictating the difference between a "romance" and a so-called "love story." He's always had a thing for separating his work from the romance label, insisting that he writes "universal" stories, not fantasies. It's clear that he has a certain perception of Romance as a genre, and that perception is also shared by much of the public -- romances are fluffy, fantastical, meaningless little throwaway stories for people who want to escape reality. Those people, of course, are usually women. Big words coming from someone who heavily utilizes romantic tropes and whose primary readership is women.

There's also the wonderful not-so-subtle implication that Romance novels don't feel real, don't convey genuine characterization, and aren't relateable. It brings up the image of Fabio dangling a swooning maiden off of his arm and staring into the sunset while simultaneously dictating that fantasies are meaningless and empty, not something that "real" people want.

This isn't an uncommon stance. When people hear "romance," they think of pulp fiction. Dime-store bodice rippers. Vapid rom-coms starring some young starlet with minimal acting credit. Simpering teenage girls giggling over boy band stars. Bad dialogue, barely-there plots, and junk food fiction for uncritical minds.

It doesn't end there. It bleeds into romantic subplots, romantic scenes, romantic moments. A book can be chock full of action, but if characters take a moment to steal a kiss, people wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes, declaring the scene unnecessary.

Or at least, they do with CERTAIN books. You know the ones I mean. Those friggin' GIRL books. Gross. Women, it seems, cannot write love stories."Love stories" are LITERATURE, even for someone like Sparks, who most people don't leap to when they think "literature." We can tie back around the The Fault In Our Stars, which has been declared far and wide a literary masterwork of YA darling John Green, full of poignant metaphor and clever one-liners. Although it relies heavily on romantic tropes -- indeed, our two lead characters' romance is a major driving force of the plot -- you will rarely hear anyone refer to it as a (GASP) Romance with a capital "R."

To be fair, there is a technical reason for this. Romance as a genre generally requires a HEA (Happily Ever After) in order to qualify by genre standards, so when we have a romantic story that ends... not quite happily, it can't typically be placed in the genre. However, for this argument, it's not about genre standard, it's about public perception. The general public is lightning-quick to slap a "romance" label on anything written by a girl/woman, starring a girl/woman, in which that girl/woman maybe kisses a boy, regardless of plot or outcome.

This is about the idea that certain "love stories" are poignant explorations of the human condition, while others are to be chucked onto the pile of candy fluff and sad lady dreams. This isn't even about content -- many, many, many female writers create emotive, literary, gorgeous novels that incorporate romantic tropes, and those novels are time and again passed over or written off as fluff. It might be the misleading cover copy, or the soft pastels, or the fact that it's covered in lady feels. Whatever it is, the general opinion is clear -- "love stories" are good stories, and romance writers do not write good stories.

Ultimately, when men write about love and sex and passion, it means something. We respect it, or at least give it a fair shake. It's interesting. It's human. Even when they write from the perspective of a woman, they still manage to capture that SOMETHING, somehow. When women do it, we focus too much on the fantasy. It's too twee. The writing's not strong enough. There's something missing. It's not "good."

Heaven forbid it end happily, too. Endings in which love prevails and the couple closes on a happy note apparently aren't realistic. Realism must involve pain, misery, and death. Which precludes romance, naturally. Romance is, after all, a mere fantasy.

Though somehow we never seem to muster the same derision for dark, gritty, male superhero power fantasies. You know, like Batman. Hm.

In the same breath that we keep telling lady writers to push harder and kick their romantic darlings to the curb, we also call them cruel for taking the path so many male writers take. You killed someone the heroine loved? How could you? How needless. What melodramatic manipulative nonsense. Young women don't want to read about doomed love! Not from you, anyway. Maybe you should make sure the guy lives in the end, just to be safe.

This is so layered. It comes from so many angles. "Real" literature versus books-to-sneer-at, rejecting romantic relationships as something that brings a story down, refusing to give female-written work a chance if there's even a hint of romance, lauding men's work as literary genius while women's work is swept aside to make more room on the shelf, yada yada ya. So much.

In summary... I call foul, as I typically do in these situations. There's so much more I want to explore about how we perceive romance according to gender, genre, and approach, but this post is already unwieldy, so. It's a multifaceted issue, and one I'll likely explore in more depth in future posts.

In the meantime, I recommend you go read The Sky Is Everywhere or If I Stay or Eleanor and Park or something.

The Frozen Girl: Visual Cues and Evil Femininity

| Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This post has been a long time coming. I originally wrote notes on it weeks and weeks ago, back when I first saw the film Frozen. At one point, it WAS timely, I swear. I wanted to write about the sisterly relationship and feminism and criticism and all that stuff, but many people already got there before me, and have said it much better.

Like, you know, this essay by a Saami author discussing Frozen's missteps with Saami culture, or this post with a reimagined POC cast. Or this post about its progressiveness, which has some iffy points and some great points. There have been posts reading Elsa as queer, many feminist essays, squees about the incredible sisterly love, and a pro-con list from Bitch Magazine. Please ignore me as I gnash my teeth in frustration over here about the whole "omg annoying love triangle ugh" bit.

All of this to say that this is already heavily mined territory. People have come at Frozen from all sorts of angles. So, instead of adding to the pile of stuff everyone's already said, I'm taking a different tack. I'd like to go in a direction inspired by the little girl who was sitting in front of me in the theater.

If you're reading this, I'm assuming you've seen the film. So imagine sitting in the theater during "Let It Go," the much-lauded ballad during which Elsa sheds her restrictive past and truly acknowledges her emotions and desire for freedom at last. She unleashes her full power, sending snow magic over the mountain and building a glittering palace of ice. She literally lets down her hair, changes into a flowing icy dress, and somehow gets some darker eye makeup.

In the brief quiet as the song ended and the door slammed shut, the little girl in the seat in front of me turned to her mother and whispered, "Did she just turn bad?" (Mom responded, "Keep watching and find out.")

Naturally, this set the wheels in my head turning. It wasn't an absurd question -- she was probably about five years old and had likely been raised on a steady diet of Western animation. After all, Elsa was allegedly slated to be the film's villain, but the decision was thankfully reversed. It stands to reason that some of those lingering threads would remain to cast an unclear light for a little girl who's used to a certain kind of story.

Disney stories in particular tend to have a specific structure to them. There's a good guy and a bad guy, and the bad guy is the one who typically isolates themselves and gets all those obvious "bad guy" visual shortcuts loaded onto their character design. You know what I mean -- darker color palettes, heavy eye makeup, likes to hang out in shadows, very thin and emotive eyebrows, all that stuff.

That little girl got me thinking about how we perceive "badness" in women, and how young we start to learn those cues. An older viewer can watch that scene and understand the lyrics, realize the optimistic nature of that scene, and understand that Elsa is celebrating her freedom, not singing a villain's song. This young viewer, however, just saw the isolation, the clothing change, the loose hair, the cocked eyebrow and smile. To her, this indicated that Elsa might have "turned bad."

I don't think that a five-year-old child was making complex connections like "she's breaking free of preconceived norms and taking her life into her own hands, and that makes her a BAD GIRL!" No, I think it's much more general than that. It's the visual cues. Disney villains tend to stick to specific formats. The lines of their faces and bodies are sharper. They're often either rail-thin or very fat (and if fat, shown to be fat due to living in excess). Their clothing or color palettes are markedly different from the hero's, often skewing darker. Their eyes are hooded, their makeup dark. Even the men occasionally don eyeliner.

Speaking of male villains, this is a great post illustrating the ways in which they're often made effeminate, "camp," or "sissy," which are all coded stereotypes for gay men. But I digress.

Filmmakers rely on these cues often. Color theory is heavily utilized in film, comics, and many other visual mediums. It's shorthand for conveying information to the audience quickly -- this is your hero, this is your villain. The problem is that this shorthand is often conveying some pretty negative stereotypes. In the case of women, "evilness" is conveyed through choice of clothing, makeup, and attitude.

The sweet, innocent heroines typically wear very little or no makeup, allowing their natural beauty to charm their suitors. They're young and are clothed in simple outfits or bright, happy colors. They're charming, kind, accommodating, surrounded by friends. This has very sloooooowly been changing with newer additions to Disney's canon, but the history is still there.

Villainous women, on the other hand, are typically older -- once you reach a certain age, it seems innocence and charm no longer apply. Their outfits are elaborate, dark, sharp. They're often shown all alone save for a possible trusty evil sidekick or two. Introverts? Nah, they're clearly alone because no one likes them!

This sort of media message can sow a lot of not-so-great seeds in young minds. Certain kinds of femininity are good, others are bad. Heavy makeup is a bad thing. Good people are surrounded by others, bad people are alone. You can make assumptions about people based on what they look like, not who they are. Certain fashion statements and mannerisms indicate a person should be distrusted. 

This is a hard-line pattern that kids learn young in the media, and it can be very hard to shake. It seems small, but it's quickly and easily compounded. Colors are powerful.

So thank goodness Frozen took the direction that it did. This was the first Disney film that really caught me off guard with regard to villain because they completely flipped the script. The isolated woman with the purple eyeshadow got to be free AND a hero, and the perfect Prince Charming type who seemed so endearing turned out to be a snake in the grass. That little girl needed to see that she can't rely on visual cues to tell her what good and bad really looks like.

We still have miles to go, but Frozen was perhaps a small step in the right direction. It wasn't perfect -- there was still a marked lack of notable female characters vs male characters (yes, the snowman and reindeer count as male characters). A subverted love story, but ultimately a heterosexual happily-ever-after anyway. The constant refrain of "omg so crazy" used for laughs when Kristoff tries to introduce the trolls. Speaking of the trolls... kind of weird.

Even so, there was a lot to love. A beautiful sister-sister relationship, fantastic music, surprisingly un-Disney-like plot twists, and some really cute lines. I hope that little girl left the theater with a lot more questions for her mother.

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