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Subliminal Messages in Romance

I received the following email from a post on the BRP blog about five romantic memes that need to die.  I will provide a link at the end of this post.

“Dear Ms. Hurwitz, Thanks so much for your 2/4/15 post on the Blood Red Pencil. My genre is contemporary romance and while I’ve tried to avoid the 5 syndromes that you’ve listed below, I’m jealous. For some authors those exact syndromes actually worked. And have brought major successes. My question, why do they work for some authors and not for others? Trying not to whine, B."

This is a rather long response, but I feel it is an important one.

I fear they work because there is a severe amount of dysfunction in our society. To whit:

Reality TV is a constant barrage of people behaving badly for ratings. Indiscretion, infidelity, financial excess, drunken brawls, verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and mounting body counts are daily sources of entertainment. There should be a line feed at the bottom of the broadcast with a warning: “If this resembles your reality, you can get help, please call…” followed by telephone numbers for domestic abuse and mental health hotlines.

A young girl posted a video that went insanely viral in which she stated that if your boyfriend beat you, it meant he loved you … because he invested all that energy in beating you and you should take that as a compliment and sign of affection.

College students are passing around passed out co-eds like blow-up dolls.

Domestic violence is at an all-time high, and women and children aren’t the only victims.

Hazing at the high school sports level has devolved into sexual assault with athletes literally getting “reamed” in locker rooms and school buses.

In the entertainment industry at large, and the romance genre in specific, there are too many stories that perpetuate the idea that you can fix that bad boy by being so amazing he immediately reforms in the blink of an eye with no professional help. All that matters is that they have a hefty bank account and six-pack abs or a title. These rogues are guilty of kidnapping, degrading language, physical manhandling, murder, and rape, but all is forgiven because they fall in love and his actions were “justified” at the time or the girl can be equally "bad ass."

Everyone who reads a murder mystery does not go out and kill someone. And everyone who reads a dysfunctional romance novel won’t go out and accept abusive behavior in their real life. But a steady diet of subliminal messages combined with a vulnerable population is a toxic cocktail.

Teens and young adults can be very suggestable. If you don’t believe that, you haven’t kept up with insanity inspiring pop culture amplified by an internet world full of cyberbullying, trolls, and provocative “selfies.” The high school and young adult phases are a time when many girls and boys are trying out new identities. They are easily influenced by their peers and the world around them. They adopt affectations. They are beguiled by the exotic and new. Joseph Campbell called it the knock, knock and twinkle, twinkle phase. Self-esteem can be shaky. More young women read books (especially romances) than young men, but both are affected by the entertainment industry and the culture they live in.

I believe we need healthy role models in all mediums of storytelling because our narratives influence the collective consciousness. We owe it to vulnerable teens and young adults. If bad boy heroes get a wink and a nudge for their “nefarious ways,” they make poor role models for our sons. Making female protagonists equally nefarious isn’t helping the situation. If our cultural expectation is that men are bestial as a baseline and must be tamed by the right woman, it is tacit support for unacceptable, even criminal, behavior.

In past decades, too many stories modeled women as helpless, compliant sex kittens fixated on finding the right guy. Women only went to college for a "Mrs. degree." 


Grooming kids for the mating game has trickled down to the grade school level. A six year old should not be concerned about being “sexy.”

Women from the baby boomer generation experienced a shift in cultural focus from finding the right guy and becoming wives and mothers, to focusing on self before making those choices and having the right to dictate the terms of those choices. 
 And we are ferociously fighting to hold onto our rights.

Millions of women worldwide are still subject to human trafficking, child brides, and arranged marriages. Women are still considered property of men. They are denied education and independence. They are raped, stoned, whipped, burned, and disfigured. 

That is the “reality" many people read to escape from.

We need to teach our young people that their prime directive is to become self-sufficient, stable, centered people with intact boundaries before they consider having relationships. 

Select schools have offered special classes for girls on how to recognize abusive relationships and protect themselves from rape (finally!), but no classes for boys on how to recognize abusive relationships and what constitutes rape, or any topic for that matter. It reminds me of when we were sequestered to view the films about our lady parts and monthly curse.

I wish my generation had access to Robin McGraw's Aspire initiative. Educating everyone about healthy relationships is crucial to changing the tide.


So, what does all that have to do with writing romance novels?

You can write a truly gripping romance without having severely dysfunctional/damaged characters. Mild dysfunction can create plenty of problems. You have to write realistic tension: obstacles that could potentially make or break their relationship. You have to convince your reader that the outcome is in doubt, even though in the romance genre there is always a happy resolution.

While many obstacles to love have been removed in cultures where people can randomly bed hop all they like, obstacles still exist in different personality types (wants, core needs, personal currency, motivation, ability to coexist amicably), misunderstanding, lies, secrets, betrayals, different backgrounds, socioeconomic factors, religions, ethnicity, strong opposition from other people in their lives, work, etc. As long as you make those obstacles believable, and ultimately realistically resolvable, you have the tension necessary to drive a love story.

In my opinion, the subliminal messages of your story matter. It is just as easy to model and inspire health while still addressing reality.

Thank you for your letter.

2 comments:

  1. All my books have healthy sex with adults who are either already married or engaged to be so. I guess to write something which doesn't reflect who I am at my best would demean me as well as those enjoying a book for its' perversity rather than how much enjoyment good people find in each other without hurting one another or demeaning each other either on purpose or as a normal part of an unhealthy relationship. I also write for FAMILY/Young People without any sex, just historical accuracy laced with dialogue imagined by circumstances, and all my books have great reviews by those who have actually read them cover to cover, so an author doesn't have to bend to the perverse to find readers, since many of us actually prefer to read about healthy folks with healthy relationships in a real world.

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