Friday, 11 February 2011

Family Matters


I've been reading a bit of romance recently ... Actually, one of the books I read was the first volume of The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold, which pretends it's a fantasy about slaying demonic baddies but is written and structured entirely as a romance. Anyway, I've discovered there's a recurring theme in romantic fiction that totally squicks me out. FAMILY.

Also romantic

Not Romantic

Now before I go any further, I am aware that this whole rant is going to say a lot more about me than about any of the fiction I might appear to be criticizing. I am prepared to accept that I am twisted WASP saddo with no emotional maturity, and that all you other romance fans are right and I'm wrong. But what the hell. It's my blog and I'll froth if I want to.

And what I can't bloody bear is the sort of romance where the hero and heroine have met and then he spends several chapters demonstrating what an awesome man he is, and how great a potential life-partner, by dint of cheerfully winning the approval of her family, which usually is huge and includes several creepily possessive, macho brothers and a bunch of giggly sisters. I CAN'T STAND IT. It makes my skin crawl.

Oh, I do get that in real life it is practical and agreeable for your husband to socialise happily with your Mom and Pop and your stupid irritating brother and sister. But we're talking fiction here, and in romance I want it to be Hero and Heroine vs the Rest of the World, and to hell what anyone else thinks. I want my hero to be blind to anything but how much he wants his lover. I want my heroine to need no one else but the man who completes her. They should be sticking two fingers up to convention, not kissing its ass!

I mean, like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding ... Her new squeeze spends his whole screen time submitting patiently to the impossible demands of her ridiculous tribe of relatives, because he loves her sooo much ... and I just thought, "Oh, for fuck's sake grow a pair."

And she should grow a pair too, frankly. A heroine who can't cut the apron strings and leave her overbearing mother, or who has a pathological need to tell her sister every intimate detail of her love-life like she's still bloody twelve years old, makes me spit.

In one nameless story I read recently, the hero is sitting in the kitchen, and he gets so turned on by thinking about the heroine that he gets this huge hard-on in front of his his mother and brother. And instead of going off and KILLING HIMSELF like any decent human being would do, he has this sort of, "Ho ho, they've seen it all before" attitude and I wanted to TEAR MY EYEBALLS OUT OF MY HEAD AND WASH THE SOCKETS OUT WITH VINEGAR. How is that erotic? HOW???

Family is not sexy. NOTHING emasculates a hero more effectively than having his blasted mother hove into the text. NOTHING. And you Americans - why does every male protagonist in any long running series eventually have his father (who is inevitably a high-ranking soldier/policeman/hero) stroll into town for a bit of belated bonding with his hitherto estranged offspring? You did it in House and Star Trek:TNG and Lost and B5 and well, just about everything. Well, stop it now! Independence is attractive. Sobbing "Dad, I only ever wanted your approval!" is completely nauseating.

Sorry, Apollo. You'd be quite Alpha without your dad standing there.

And you know you agree with me. Who is sexier, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? One has a family who have to die before he finds the balls to leave home, while the other is a free-wheeling independent spirit and totally cool. With a big hairy gay buddy.

So here I put my demands on the table. This is what I want from my romance characters:

Hero: Ideally, his family past is a mysterious blank, almost as if he's been spawned, fully adult, from the Hero Vats. If not, his mother is dead. End of. It all happened many years ago, and he should never think about her and definitely not be looking for a mother-substitute in his lover. He can have a father, but must never have personal contact with the man. It's pretty acceptable if his father was some jerk who impregnated his mother and ran off, never to be seen again, his mother died and he was brought up by his Gran. Or in an orphanage. No female relatives of any other kind. He may have one (1) brother, provided that the brother is Evil.

Indiana Jones: stopped being cool when he acquired an annoying Dad.
Heroine: Orphans strongly preferred. She may have a family, but if so that family must be Bad. Either they abuse her, or they just despise her, and part of her growth process as her relationship with the Hero unfolds is that she finds she has a value and a strength they never suspected, but it is too late for them to say sorry and now she is free of them. Any Heroine who goes to her mother for advice about her lover must be taken out back and shot immediately. Any Heroine who walks away from her lover because of family obligations (mother is having a crisis and calls her away etc) should be shot, burned until crispy and then fed to stray cats.

There you go. Perfectly reasonable, I'm sure you'll agree.


Jo said...

I agree. Absent family much better. Sex in front of family, not so much my thing.

Anonymous said...

Oh thank goodness I'm not the only one who feels this way! It's so prevalent that I was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with me. It's just so ICKY.

Craig Sorensen said...

Yep, I couldn't agree more (though I must admit I enjoyed Indiana Jones' dad.) Sorry.

I always figured it was just my lone wolf ways. Glad I'm not alone...

Janine Ashbless said...

We are the lone wolf pack! Er...

I've not read all that much romance Anonymous, but I am seeing the theme crop up in multiple places and I was sort of surprised. Is it a new romance trope, do you think? I'm also wondering if it's something that appeals to older readers (in general), since it's all about the challenges of settling down rather than running wild.

Eloise said...

While I agree about some of the squicky family ties, I think your recipe for a perfect romance is just wrong.

We all have families. Instead of making the couple do crazy things to appease them, make the family the source of at least some of the conflict. For example (and sneaking away from your heteronormative example), A & B lurve each other. This causes A to come out to their bible-belt true believer family, hoping that familial love will overcome silly, religion-based prejudice and they can continue to have a mature, occasional visits to each other, type of family relationship. A's family react in various ways: dad explodes and goes for physical assault, mum looks supportive then goes all passive-aggressive "oh, but I'd so hoped to see you at a big white wedding" and "Oh, but I'd so hoped for grandchildren" etc. B supports A through the trauma, bringing them closer together. (For extra fun, B can have funny anecdotes and flash-backs to their own coming out story, maybe one with totally different problems or no problems at all.)

You still keep the true love conquers all but you can be a lot less prescriptive about having to kill all parents and siblings in interesting (or otherwise) ways.

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes, you are right Eloise - I'd be more than happy to read a story that involved one of the protagonists' families, as long as that family are the villains - the nastier the better - and as long as the protagonists fight back. I will allow that as an exception to my rules! ;-)

Though I'm not sure how that storyine would end, except with our protagonists riding off into the sunset. Any form of compromise would be bad. I'd hate the thought of a heroine consumed by guilt at the thought she's letting her family down by loving someone. Ugh.

Charlotte Stein aka The Mighty Viper said...


You know, I don't even really think about my hero and heroine's families all that much. Until I realise I probably should have mentioned that they do actually have parents- like in Past Pleasures. She just flits off to the future while her poor old Mum probably cries herself to sleep every night, wondering where her daughter went. Either that, or families have had some sort of corrosive effect on the hero and heroine, and only copious sex can heal them. Ha!

Great post.

Jo said...

So many reasons and levels on this one.

If you consider that our task in life is to become fully autonomous and develop healthy relationships of our own, separation from our parents is a vital part of that process.

Therefore parents interfering in romance = process of growing clearly not followed through, and romance is likely to be dysfunctional one way or other.

However, there is also much to be said for a culture of extended family, especially where child raising is involved, and valuable concepts such as taking care of the elderly. In a way, there can be a clash between these two ideas.

I um, wrote a thesis on the idea of the female bildumgroman. I think what Janine is in favour of is the male version - the sowing one's wild oats, grand adventure version - while the female coming of age story is far more likely to be domestic, involving the woman's role as a daughter-sister-wife-mother than the gloriously liberated male's will be. Women defined themselves alongside others. Men defined themselves individually. Often, because of this, you find a parallel female character, perhaps an older woman, in many female bildungsroman, with whom the protagonist shares their protagonism or identifies with.

You can see why Janine might take issue with this, and prefer the out in the wilderness idea.

Chris said...

Well, I was feeling guilty about regaling you with "my latest role playing character" like some twelve year old the other day. But since there's a fair match with your ideal romantic heroine I'll forgive myself. And maybe start chatting up the giant berserker priest I share the game with.

Eloise said...

Surely the lovers have to win. If "Wuve, twue wuve" doesn't win, it's not a romance. It might be a tragedy, it might be a 'gritty true story' but it's not a romance?

Janine Ashbless said...

Oh, you callous person Charlotte! Putting that mother through all that pain!

Janine Ashbless said...

I think what Janine is in favour of is the male version

No surprises there, Jo!

And I think you have so totally put your finger on my bildungsroman ... if that isn't rude. Yes, I can nod sagely along to your thesis. And I have a really good writers' book somewhere that divides story-arcs into "feminine" and "masculine" types... (And incidentally, horror stories almost all fall under the feminine.)

Madeline Moore said...

Actually, a real romance novel depresses me. I occasionally try to read them as the market is lucrative but . . . I couldn't write one. And not really for any of the reasons you list, Janine.
In 'chick lit' (which has become a pejorative term but forgive me I'm using it so I don't have to write some definition) there are families and friends and yes, a mother. But chick lit is funny stuff. In 'Sarah's Education' I gave Sarah a family and a boyfriend, a job as well as her studies at University and her new job as a highly paid, um, escort, because I was kind of tired of erotica heroines having no ties to the real world. (I write contemporary erotica, which supposedly takes place in the real world.) It's by far my most successful erotica novel.

Romance novels depress me because A (female) meets B (male) in Chapter One. By Chapter Three, at the latest, they have kissed. BUT - they misunderstand each other.

Then there are, like, 300 pages of boring boring boring misunderstanding until they admit that they kissed each other because they were falling in love with each other.

Then they get engaged or get married. The end.

I can read as far as the kiss and the misunderstanding, but then, when I see that I have 290 pages to go until the misunderstanding is resolved, my heart sinks. And the book flies across the room until I do my next load of laundry, which is where I will leave it for someone who likes this stuff to 'enjoy'.

ps - Valentine's eye candy Monday. I'll show you mine, show me yours . . .

Janine Ashbless said...

Yeah Madeline, the "misunderstanding" trope irritates me too. I like my characters to be intelligent, and grown up enough to recognise their own emotions. Misunderstanding works in the right social conditions - where communication is limited by social convention for example, like in Pride and Prejudice. But not so much in a contemporary romance.

That's why I write romance where the hero and heroine get kidnapped and tortured. That slows them down on the way to their HEA!