Monday, March 1, 2010

Shifting Sands of Gender in Romance

I've been noticing how romantic tropes are shifting due to changing gender roles lately. Going back into books and film from the 70s and 80s, there is a common theme of "really, ideally, women are soft and vulnerable and men are hard and competent." In many cases it seems almost as though it is a "doth protest too much" kind of situation, as if these gender roles need to be defended, which is probably accurate given strides in feminism and so on. He is arrogant, she is vulnerable. His life is over controlled in a logical way, she brings balance by understanding the more chaotic nature of emotions. Her warmth saves him from being cold, and he gives her life meaning. She belongs to and is a possession of his.  

But this begins to change over time. The heroines begin to get stronger, more assertive. The heroes then get even bigger, badder, more dominating. It seems to be a statement of "yes, woman, you are strong, but really you like it when man is stronger." Every dominant woman really needs to be tamed by a more dominant man. Yes, women might be getting more dominant, having more power, but we must keep the balance in the Force, so men just have to step up to their A game and tame the willful filly. 

Then enter the theme from the late 90s on of "woman, learn to control your power or the world will be destroyed." This gets into a lot of sci-fi and fantasy story lines so that women can come into sudden supernatural or magical powers and then they don't learn to use them properly, something awful happens, and then the women have to go get training, usually from men on how to use power. I think this is probably commentary on fear of women's power even as it acknowledges the sociological shifts. 

I am finally seeing some romantic gender dynamics where the hero and heroine fight for dominance, but instead of it being a given that he will win and she will surrender into a happy ending and his paternalistic care, now I am seeing more of the woman fighting for partnership. She is not making him prove himself as a man dominant enough to alpha over her, but instead is demanding respect and partnership for herself so that they can have more of a relationship of equals. Suddenly the men of these story lines seem to have a lot more self-doubt and self-reflection than before. And they all appreciate and are attracted to the power and strength of their women instead of wanting to tame or own it. 

There is another story line that I would like to see. All of these stories start with alpha men, and it is the ideal of what an "alpha" woman/paragon of virtue/ideal heroine is that has shifted. I would like to see the idea of alpha male change as well. As a general rule, these heroes are cool and controlled, keep their emotions tightly locked away from the world, lead men or go their own way in a maverick sense, and are generally competent at inflicting violence/offering protection. 

I am excited to see where the shifting sands of gender leave the definitions of masculinity. Femininity has changed, the vise of gender is being pried wide open to disclose the spectrum between the poles, and now let us see how the masculine morphs as well.

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