October 30, 2006 - Issue #243

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Don't Hate Them Because They're Beautiful!

So far I've finished the first seven books in J.D. Robb's In Death series, as well as the short story that comes between books seven and nine. Obviously with three DIK's so far, it's clear I'm enjoying myself. One of the reasons I'm sure the series resonates for so many women - based on the results of our recent Top Ten Heroes mini-poll, is that readers, including myself, love Roarke. And one of the reasons I love Roarke as much as I do (he moved to number one on my hit parade, supplanting a hero who'd owned that slot for two years) is that he loves Eve as he does. I do find him slightly too good to be true in that their relationship through those first seven books is not quite a 50/50 proposition, but nonetheless they are perfectly matched. Roarke may not be the perfect hero, but he's the perfect husband for Eve.

Something else about Roarke...he's drop dead gorgeous. And something else...Eve isn't. It's true that when she's cleaned up and hasn't been hacking away at her hair and changes out of bloodied clothes, she is quite lovely, but just about the hottest scene in the series so far for me occurs in Ceremony in Death, when Eve reveals her insecurity to Roarke about her looks while they are together in the bathtub. (The scene also points to a theory I read long ago about men, that men consistently over-rate their girlfriends and wives in terms of attractiveness. The underlying reason, apparently, had less to do with the women and more to do with the men's egos.)

"Most people figured you stepped wide of the mark with me."

"Most people?"

She downed the rest of the wine, set the glass aside. "Sure. I get the drift when we've got time to make with some of those rich and high-toned business associates of yours. Can't blame them for wondering what came over you. I'm not big, beautiful, or exotic."

"No, you're not. Slim, lovely, strong. It's a wonder I looked twice."

She felt ridiculous and flustered. He could do that to her just by the way he looked at her. "I'm not fishing," she muttered.

"And it surprises me that you'd give a damn what any of my associates thought of either one of us."

"I don't." Damn it, she'd stepped right in it. "I was just making an observation. The wine's got my tongue running away with me."

"You annoy me, Eve." His voice was dangerously cool. A warning she recognized. "Criticizing my taste."

"Forget it." She dunked again, surfaced like a shot when his hands clamped down over her waist. "Hey, what are you doing? Trying to drown me?" She blinked water out of her eyes and saw that his were indeed annoyed. "Listen--"

"No, you listen. Or better yet." He crushed his mouth to hers, hot, hungry, hurried. It made the top of her head lift off and spin. "Well just move to the third part of our program a little early," he said when he let her suck in a gulp of air. "And I'll show you why I'm precisely on the mark with you, Lieutenant. Precisely. I don't make mistakes."

She scowled at him even as the blood hummed under her skin. "That arrogant routine doesn't work for me. I said it was the wine."

"You won't blame what I can do to you on the wine," he promised...

Although I have no way of knowing whether or not Robb had Gone with the Wind in mind when she wrote this scene, I immediately thought of Rhett and Scarlett's encounter after she returns from Ashley's birthday party, not only because of the consumption of alcohol and subsequent ravishment, but also because Rhett understood Scarlett for who and what she was, and loved her regardless. I'm certainly not comparing Scarlett and Eve, although isn't it interesting that the first line of Mitchell's book is: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."?

But, back to Roarke, and to some extent, Rhett (and Clark Gable), because this isn't all about Eve. <g> Would we love them if they looked like Andy Sipowicz from TV's NYPD Blue...or character actor Vincent Schiavelli? It's true that lots of women found Sipowicz sexy, but if Roarke looked like him, would Eve - and us - react to him as we do?

Robin hit a nerve last month with her ATBF on fat women in romance. When heroines in romance novels aren't beautiful, they are attractive, or plump, or perhaps plain. But ugly? Just as very fat women are not a staple in romance novels - although apparently more common in romances targeted at African American women - truly ugly, hair-coming-out-of-a-mole ugly is not the type of heroine we read in romance novels. Or hero. Do we want to?

Over the years there have been a multitude of discussions about how handsome and/or beautiful most romance heroes and heroines are. And as a result of each of these discussions, readers invariably are quite vocal in clamoring for a bit more reality, just as we clamor for a bit more reality in our historical romances between romances studded with members of the nobility rather than the common man, and the rich or super-rich as opposed to middle class.

After we posted the results in our Top Ten Heroes and Top Ten Heroines mini-polls earlier in the month, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: Create a table of the top ten heroes and heroines with categories for beauty, wealth, and status. My point was to see whether or not we are only paying lip service to the idea of reality in romance, and also do ask if we have a different set of standards for our heroes and heroines. It was all starting to come together until Rachel Potter happened to mention that my testing methodology wasn't altogether sound in that since beautiful and wealthy heroes and heroines are the norm, what exactly was my point? Damn logic!

Top Ten Heroes and Heroines (in ranked order)
#
Hero
Beauty
Wealth
Status
Heroine
Beauty
Wealth
Status
1
Roarke
X
X
X
Eve Dallas
 
 
 
2
Jamie Fraser
X
 
 
Jessica Trent
X
 
3
Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain
 
X
 X
Penelope Featherington
 
X
X
4
Derek Craven
 
X
 
Elizabeth Bennet
 X
 
 
5
Darcy
X
X
X
Claire Randall
 
 
 
6
Rupert Carsington
X
 
X
Sara Fielding
 
 
 
7
Harry Braxton
X
 X
 X
Blair Mallory
X
 X
 
8
Matthew Farrell
X
X
X
Desdemona Carlisle
X
 
X
9
Zsadist
 
Daphne Pembroke
 X
 
10
Bey Malloren, Marquess of Rothgar
X
X
X
Minerva Dobbs
 
 
 
"Status" category is much easier to define in historical settings...all it really takes is a title, even if the hero is a black sheep

Still, it wasn't an altogether wasted effort. I think half my theory is proven. Well over half of the top ten heroes are beautiful, wealthy, and/or have status in society while on the heroine's side of the table, no more than half are beautiful, and fewer than half are wealthy or have status in society. There is a double standard in romance, and it makes eminent sense: the fantasy works because as women, we are not as a general rule the most beautiful, the richest, or at the highest ranks of society ourselves. Pretty elemental stuff, I know, but it's interesting to see the proof in black and white.

Something else...many of our favorite heroines may not be beautiful, but in the eyes of their heroes, they either are, or become so. I've finally read Lisa Kleypas' Dreaming of You, and the heroine is first described as being an average sort of pretty. While Derek feels a more or less immediate lust for Sara, she becomes more and more beautiful to him as the book progresses. Yes, the cap comes off, the clothing improves, and her natural prettiness is revealed to the world at large, but to Derek, Sara becomes a goddess of beauty.

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All the heroes in Jaid Black's SF/Romantica Trek Mi Q’an series are stunningly handsome, and while some of their Earth-born heroines are attractive, each has a quality that makes her drop-dead gorgeous or all-the-blood-out-of-the-brain-at-all-times sexy to her hero. It's either pale skin, freckles, her scent, or in the case of Dak, the dark skin of Geris, the African American woman who is his Sacred Mate (there's a great double entendre in the story when this blond hunk of a man tells Geris, "Once you go Dak, you never go back.") Probably the most plain of these heroines is Giselle from No Mercy, but her freckles are so revered (a goddess in the Trek pantheon was freckled) that she brings back her Sacred Mate from near-devolution...and saves her own life and that of their child by virtue of those same freckles.

Just as it's clear to me why heroines need not be beautiful or rich or at the highest levels of society, it's equally clear why more heroes fulfill these same criterion. It's one thing to love that balding hero every so often, but how many of the books you've loved would need to be entirely re-written if their heroes weren't handsome, rich, or titled? These men may be more than their looks or bank books, but their storylines often revolve - to some extent - around those attributes. Not only would we not react to Roarke as we do if he were not the entire gorgeous, bazillionaire package, much of his arrogance would be unacceptable and unbelievable if he looked like Andy Sipowizc.

Not only are many romances written around the hero's appearance and standing in society, there's an entire sub-set of romances featuring heroes who have lost either their looks - generally through war or an accident such as a fire - or their wealth or status, but in these books too, their storylines revolve around what they lost, and how they were able to recover from those losses through the love of their heroines. While heroes scarred emotionally in war make a powerful statement, physically scarred heroes like Jack Carstairs in Anne Gracie's Gallant Waif and Adrian Montfort in Lynsay Sand's Love Is Blind returned from serving their country only to suffer broken engagements from women they thought they loved, women who couldn't handle their new "ugliness".

Scarred heroes are sure to provide an angst-fest for readers, even if only for a while...Jane Eyre, anyone? Oftentimes a scarred hero's heroine totally dismisses his flaw in a way he can't imagine. Setting aside the over-used instance of a heroine who lovingly kisses the scar to illustrate that she doesn't find it ugly, it's hard to determine just how bad many of these scars are. In Love Is Blind, for instance, it seems that while Adrian's scar was initially fairly horrific, over time it faded so much as to barely be an issue to everyone but him. Many a hero has felt totally unlovable because of a scar. When he finally talks about it with his lady love he discovers she barely sees it at all...in much the same way as many men simply don't see that ten pounds most of us would like to lose.

Seven of the ten heroes in our top ten were beautiful. Another two - Derek Craven and Zsadist - were scarred, the former by the henchmen of a vindictive ex-lover and the latter by an evil villainess. I doubt Derek would have been described as the most handsome of men prior to his slashing, but as powerful, dark-haired, and with penetrating green eyes. Only Sebastian Ballister was not attractive in the traditional sense, and while it seems clear that he was not a beautiful baby, I think perhaps he "grew into" his looks more than he believed; after all, Jessica thinks he's the sexiest thing on two legs.

There's a moral aspect of romance novel scarring that intrigues me. Many a romance novel hero was scarred fighting a war or rescuing their family from a fire. Zsadist certainly didn't "deserve" it, and though the husband of the nutcase who arranged for Derek's slashing believes he had it coming, there is a sort of moral absoluteness to the scarring of most romance heroes. They were made "ugly" while doing a "good thing" rather than simply being born "ugly". More weight is given to this type of "moral ugliness" because of the rejection these men suffer from the same society that once adored them.

When I mentioned to my family the theme of this column, my daughter had an interesting comment when I said that readers decry the overwhelming abundance of beauty in romance. She said, "People don't want to seem superficial" - and I think to an extent, she's got it right. Superficial is "wrong", after all, as is the admission that we might like to read a romance because the love scenes are good. I've heard readers, after all, compare certain romance authors to some of the greats in fiction, and I can't help but think they do this because to admit they liked their books for less exalted reasons is something they couldn't accept in themselves...or felt other would not accept in them.

I'll put it right out there...I'm often superficial when it comes to reading romance if enjoying great-looking heroes is superficial. Yes, I enjoy a beauty and the beast story as much as the next person, and I too have fallen in love with heroes who weren't gorgeous, rich, a CEO or in the ton, but given that I read romance for entertainment and escapism, why not escape with a guy like Roarke?

Consider your favorite romances and the looks, wealth, or status of the hero and/or heroine. Could you have eliminated those factors without changing the romance?

What are your favorite romances featuring a hero and/or heroine who was not handsome/beautiful, wealthy, or had status? Were those factors integral to the storyline?

Do you prefer books where the hero is gorgeous? If so, why?

What do you think of stories where there is a disparity of some degree between the looks of the hero and the heroine? Do you enjoy them or not, and why?

Are you a fan of "Beauty and the Beast" heroes? What draws you to that type of story? Or if you hate them, what do you dislike about them? Does your dislike relate to the appearance of the hero, or more to the plot these stories often have?

When you read a story with a disfigured hero, how do you visualize the disfigurement? Does it ever get in the way of your image of the hero, or of your enjoyment of the story?

What are your least and most liked cliches regarding descriptions of looks, status, or wealth in a romance?

TTFN, as Tigger Said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

 

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