When I use the word 'message' I’m not talking about instances when an author becomes ‘preachy’ and drills home their point with all the subtlety of someone who’s just been given a new power-tool. Clearly Dorchester have had some bad experiences with this sort of thing appearing in their slush pile, because they say very clearly in their guidelines for submissions of time-travel romances that authors should ‘Beware of philosophizing about the meaning of time, and how the past affects the present’.
Messages can, however, be conveyed in subtle ways, and there is also a difference between sending readers messages they don’t want to hear (which, I suspect, will cause a negative reaction in the reader) and reinforcing the fantasies and aspirations that readers are already assumed to have. In the second case readers will barely notice such messages, because they’ve already internalised them. Nonetheless the messages will still be there. At the very core of the genre there’s a message: according to the RWA ‘Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice -- the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished’.
So who are the ‘good people’? According to Avalon:
HEROINES:I have to agree with Avalon that Heathcliff did not make a very good husband, but their description of what they don’t want seems to imply that they do want their heroes to be ‘models for husbands’. Notice also the reference to ‘traditional values’. While Avalon don’t specify which traditional values these are, presumably because they take it for granted that authors will be thinking of the traditional values of one particular culture, the result of specifying that all heroines must be ‘loyal’ to these values is to affirm their importance and continuing relevance to contemporary society.
Every AVALON heroine should be an independent young woman with an interesting profession or career. She is equal to the stresses of today’s world and can take care of herself, yet she remains feminine and loyal to traditional values; when he comes along, the man she loves will take priority in her life, just as she will take priority in his.
AVALON heroes should be warm, likable, realistic, sympathetic, understanding men who treat the heroine as an equal, with respect for her intelligence and individuality, and with courtesy. The rude, overbearing, patronizing, egotistical, brooding, macho men and Heathcliff types are not welcome in AVALON romances; they make very poor models for husbands—and men—in today’s world.
In Harlequin’s Romance (Mills & Boon Tender Romance) line, the guidelines regarding the hero and heroine are as follows:
Heroine: She drives the story — the reader lives vicariously through her. [...] The reader wants to be able to identify strongly with her, to like her, to want to be her, or want to be her friend. She must be a strong, convincing woman of the 21st century.These guidelines suggest that the publishers think they know what characteristics women readers would like to have, and what sort of man ‘women aspire to spend [...] their lives with’. These books will, then, either reinforce the preferences of readers who already have such aspirations, or send a message to other readers that this is what they should aspire to. In Kimani Press’ Arabesque Romance line the authors are instructed that ‘The hero and heroine should be role models — upwardly mobile and educated individuals that our readers can admire.’ ‘Success’ as defined by both the Arabesque Romance and the Harlequin Romance lines would appear to be linked to financial affluence, and the guidelines for the Arabesque Romance line make it extremely clear that authors are supposed to send a message to readers by creating characters who will be ‘role models’.
Hero: He's always strong and charismatic, successful in his own way and aspirational — a man you'd want to be with!
- Tower of Strength: He has a steely core, is not easily manipulated and uncompromising about the things that matter
- Aspirational: The guy with whom women aspire to spend the rest of their lives with; definitely Mr. Right
- Code of Honour: He has a strong sense of right and wrong, is reasonable and fair
- Sense of Humour: He can laugh at himself and life; he's often understated and modest in manner
- Status: Definitely successful, can be wealthy or just comfortably off; perhaps a specialist in his field
In addition to sending messages about which sort of people the readers should aspire to resemble, (this type of person is presented as deserving of a happy ending, since romances are about ‘emotional justice’), romances may also describe the kind of relationships that readers are thought to aspire to, as in the guidelines for Mills & Boon’s Modern Xtra Sensual (formerly Harlequin Temptation) line where it’s stated that these stories present ‘the kind of relationships that women between the ages of 18 and 35 aspire to. Young characters in affluent urban settings’. The messages sent out by this line are more than a little different from those present in the Arabesque Inspirational Romance line, where ‘The hero and heroine should delay premarital sex, while secondary characters may show the negative consequences of such actions’. In the Xtra Sensual romances the hero and heroine ‘meet, flirt, share experiences, have great, passionate sex and fall in love’ and it is only some time later that they are to be depicted ‘finally making a commitment that will bind them together, forever’. Premarital sex is clearly acceptable in this particular line of romances.
The messages can extend beyond the characteristics that are deemed to be admirable and/or sexy, and the relationships to which the reader is encouraged to aspire. Some romances send messages about the ideals of a particular society, for example the guidelines for Harlequin’s American Romance line state that ‘Above all, it's important that these stories have a sense of adventure, optimism and a lively spirit — they're all the best of what it means to be American!’
It’s also important to note that what’s left out of books can also send messages. Authors may not intend to send particular messages-by-omission, and the existence of such messages cannot be deduced from reading just a few examples of the genre, but, if members of particular groups cannot find many romances which feature people like them, they may well feel there’s a message being sent to them: they are not the sort of people who are deemed worthy or likely to find a romance and happy ending of their own.
For example, there are relatively few gay and lesbian romances, romances about overweight people and romances with heroes and heroines who are middle-aged or older people. Does this mean that these people are deemed less worthy of romance, and less likely to get a happy ending of their own? I think it’s quite possible that the lack of romances about people like them might lead members of these groups to deduce that they are being sent that message. There are, of course, certain lines dedicated to romances about groups who are less likely to feature as heroes or heroines in the majority of romances. For example, African-American heroes and heroines can be found in books published by Harlequin’s Kimani Press, with books written ‘by [...] African-American authors’ and featuring African-American characters and in Avon’s African-American romances. In Genesis Press’ Indigo line the guidelines state that:
Heroine should be Afro-centric in her physical aesthetic. The presence of a non-black Hero is enough to make the book cross-cultural. No boasting, “I’m part Cherokee” or “I’m a quarter white.” Heroine must be proud and be relatable. Heroine must not have given up on black men. Do not bash black men.That last sentence made me wonder what sort of ‘bashing’ of black men they’ve received in submissions.
Linden Bay Romance’s guidelines, in which they say they’re interested in receiving romances featuring ‘Non-traditional relationships (male/male, multiple partner, older female/younger male, etc)’, make it rather clear what they would expect to find in ‘traditional’ romances. Older couples feature in Triskelion’s After Hours line, where ‘"Sex doesn't stop at 40!" But how often does one read proclamations that ‘sex doesn’t begin at 40!’? Never - because people under 40 are generally assumed to be sexual (even if not sexually-active). It’s pretty much a given that romance heroes and heroines will be under forty, and it’s still rather unusual for them (particularly for a heroine) to be over that age.
It’s not that one never finds African-American, over-40 or gay/lesbian characters in other romances, but they either don’t, or don’t often, get to star as the hero/heroine. And I do think that regardless of whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally, that sends messages to people in these groups.
As for gender roles, here's what one poster at AAR, Lynda X, had to say:
In spite of some notable exceptions, romance basically portray the man as more knowledgeable, more sexually experienced than the woman whom he loves partly because she doesn’t have those qualities! If I were an alien from outer space and looked at romances, written and bought mostly by women, I'd assume that the basic plot elements of the boy rescuing the girl, the rake or the bad boy tamed by the good girl, and other clichés reflect more than just our society’s values. [...] I'd assume that these sexist conventions are so deeply satisfying because they reflect how we'd like the world to be. [...] I’d also assume, as an alien, that these repetitions of sexist characters and situations reflect our basic wiring, our basic gender differences.My reading choices must be a little different from Lynda's because I've read quite a lot of romances which aren't like the ones she describes. Nonetheless, these books do exist in large numbers. Lynda concludes that there's a biological basis for gender roles: 'I think this basic plot (the bad boy redeemed by the virgin) is hard-wired into women and probably men, aided by the endless reinforcement in society, but the brain came first'. I may not agree with the conclusions that Lynda reaches about the biological basis of gender roles (gender, and the extent to which biology is responsible for differences between the sexes is still hotly contested), but what's more than clear is that she's getting messages from the romances she reads.
In conclusion, I think that romances, like other forms of literature, send messages: 'Narratives, in addition to whatever aesthetic pleasure they may give us, always interpret life; they tell us about our lives and other possible lives' (A review of Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction). As I think I have demonstrated by quoting from some publishers' guidelines, some messages are very intentionally included in texts. Some messages are more overt than others, and the messages in one book, or by one author or line may vary considerably from those in others. Furthermore, the reader plays a part in identifying messages, and may receive messages which the author did not intend to send. What seems clear is that the romance genre is not message-free.