This is gonna be a long, ranty post probably, so I’ll start out here with the short, sappy (but true) version of the answer: J is a good man. He’s the BEST man, in my opinion, and I never saw a man like him featured in a contemporary, heteronormative romance (which is MOST contemporary romance). Not a novel…a sweet love story OR a hot erotic one; not a TV show; not a movie. OK, ONE TV show…J IS kind of like Jim Halpert on The Office.
So I started writing my own stories featuring men (and women too) that I thought weren’t being romanticized, but should be.
There are some men like J in ‘classics.’
Mr. Knightley in Jane Austen’s Emma…”I cannot make speeches, Emma. If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
Bogart in…*every movie he’s in* with a love interest.
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. (I wrote a whole post on that already.)
And there are some men like J in stories that aren’t written as ‘romance.’ I read Andy Weir’s The Martian (the book only…I’ve not seen the movie) when J was out of town, and I had to stop reading it until he returned, because Mark Watney reminded me so much of J, the reading was no longer a distraction from his absence; it was making it worse. And J basically just IS Jimmy Chitwood from the movie Hoosiers. The writers of that film totally nailed Reserved, Honorable Indiana Farm Boy. “I play, Coach stays. He goes, I go.”
Maybe that means J is a rare breed, or that he’s old fashioned, or I’m old fashioned (or weird), because these are the kinds of men I find attractive. I actually AM old fashioned AND weird in many ways, but I have a theory (that’s not scientific by any stretch) that J is J because he’s never been one to retain fiction, and our contemporary fictional romantic heroes are deemed ‘romantic’ for behavior that’s dishonest and selfish and ungentlemanly. Even considering the romantic heroes women love, men misinterpret what we love about them. We don’t like the Beast because he imprisons Belle and is angry and grouchy and potentially violent all the time. We love him because he’s conscientious of failing the staff of his house that he feels responsible for, and he regrets his past selfish behavior that cursed them all, and that he comes to adapt to HER, and he begins to prioritize HER. We don’t like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice because he’s stoic and cold and sometimes rude. We like him because when he was turned down, he didn’t keep hounding Elizabeth. He listened to her reasons why and *worked on it.*
I see men in love stories glorified for stalking behavior, lavishing a woman with gifts but still acting cold or even hostile toward her, and using deception and/or blackmail to get dates with women (I’ll gladly provide examples of all of these things if anyone wants to discuss it in further depth privately). Infidelity is excused and sometimes considered honorable and romantic (he’s ‘saving her’ from her loveless marriage…she understands him on a level his wife cannot…blah). Emotional manipulation and even abuse is regularly portrayed as romantic behavior. While a lot of heteronormative romance work makes consent seem fuzzy and hard to navigate (it’s not), almost all of it is pro-coercion when it comes to men communicating with women on any level. “Just one drink…” “Come on, go with me…” “Stay for one more song, episode, five more minutes, etc….” And when she says, ‘No, but really I can’t/don’t want to/have to go…’ Instead of accepting that and wishing her safe travels home, or offering to HELP her get home safely, he nearly always keeps pushing, and she nearly always caves. I’m not cool with this. I’m not cool with ‘heroes’ being guys who ‘don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,’ because I think that behavior is pushy and entitled and shouldn’t be encouraged, even in fiction. Like it or not, fiction informs reality at least to a small degree. “Don’t give up on your dreams” is a great theme for fiction, but it should be framed like, ‘If you want to be an actor, join the drama club and don’t care if people make fun of you,’ or ‘If you want to be a firefighter, but lack upper body strength, work out more.’ Dreams that involve other people’s time, attention, and affection require *freely offered (NOT coerced) informed consent.* I like a man who’s INTO consent. Who thinks it not only necessary in his dealings with women (it IS necessary), but doesn’t view it as a chore to be done. He wants it…seeks it…finds it a turn on. (Aside here…maybe oversharing…but J is this kind of man. And there aren’t enough of them in fiction.)
And it’s just as annoying how women are portrayed in fictional romantic relationships. If a woman is written as ‘feminine,’ she often has several characteristics like, ‘flighty…flaky…clumsy…inept…absentminded…fearful…’ and if a woman is written as ‘strong,’ she is given traits like ‘rude…standoffish…impatient…bossy…snobby…’ It bothers me that feminine and strong are so often written as mutually exclusive, as if women can’t be combinations of both the positive and negative attributes associated with these words, or be the positive attributes without some of the negative ones. A woman can be impatient and shy and capable and intelligent and brave and love the color pink and giggle (all the same woman). And of course, it bothers me that in romance, men are drawn to feminine ‘weakness,’ and when they do fall for a strong woman, it always seems to be ‘in spite of herself.’
There’s a consent lesson women are taught subliminally (or not…I think it’s pretty overt when I see it) in fiction too. Men want to ‘conquer.’ Men want a coy, retiring, nervous woman they have to convince (coerce) into sex. Men don’t want a woman who’s into sex with them. Women are told that men don’t want women who offer freely given, informed consent. (RIGHT?! I know men who do want it, though. Good men. Honorable men. Why aren’t these guys the romantic heroes in fiction?! Anyway…)
An old, dear, real life friend of mine recommended a TV show on Netflix to me a few years ago. “I think you’ll love this series! The lead reminds me so much of YOU!” The premise was a woman who has a typically-male career, who is friends with a bunch of guys. Of the people in my real life, this friend knows me *maybe* the best besides obviously J, so I bit. I didn’t get past episode 1. In episode 1, the main character (who reminded my friend so much of meeeeeee) is interested in a man she meets in a bar, invites him back to her place, and when it’s clear she’s *into* physical intimacy, he recoils from her. (I’m paraphrasing here in the scene recreation)…
Her: What’s wrong?
Him: You’re so…into it.
Him: You’re supposed to be shy and hesitant and embarrassed and I’m supposed to talk you into it. <barf…I’d have kicked him out right there…but SHE goes…>
Her: Oh. So you’re into that? <now I’m hanging in there, briefly, stupidly thinking maybe they’re having an advanced role playing discussion on a first date playing out on a bad basic cable sitcom…I know, right? I totally should have bailed at my first instinct to bail…> (she giggles, turns away from him, ‘Oh <name of dude>. I dunno if I should…we’ve only just met each other…’ giggles some more, playing along with ‘what he’s into.’)
Him: Well, no. I’m still turned off because I know that really you DO want it and you’re just pretending to be modest. What I really want is to commit date rape. <See? Obviously I paraphrased that, but for real. That’s how the scene looked/sounded to me when I watched it.>
He leaves and she feels bad about herself for not being what he wanted…a date rape victim.
Please pardon my French, but fucking REALLY?!
So I try to write both men and women who are attracted to one another for the complex mixture of personality quirks, assets and flaws that come with all real human beings, and I try to write romance that values and elevates informed, freely given consent. I don’t see enough of it. Toni Morrison has this great quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So that’s what I’m trying to write.