I Dream of Romance Heroes Who Defy the Patriarchy

On Saturday nights, my oldest son and I stay up and watch something together after the little kids go to sleep. It’s time just for the two of us. After finishing all of the episodes of Bake-Off on Netflix, we were at a loss of what to watch, until we happened upon a bunch of early 90’s Disney live action films. We watched The Mighty Ducks and Cool Runnings and some others I remember enjoying when I was his age. For the most part, he’s gotten a kick out of them, and we can talk about them later, what’s positive, what’s problematic.

This week Netflix suggested Mulan, and I thought, sweet! A movie about a woman who defies the patriarchy and kicks some major ass. So we watched it, and Mulan does defy the patriarchy (mostly), and she does use her brain and kick some major ass. (By the way, did you know that Miguel Ferrer voiced the bad guy? I had no clue. He was also the villain in Blank Check, because yeah, we watched that classic too.) But the message about gender roles, like how Mulan can’t help but be nurturing bothered me. Then the song about what a real man is was so full of stupid toxic messages that I almost stopped the movie to tell my son that no, that’s not what a man is. And while I am that lame mom that’s going to make him talk to me about, I’m not so lame that I’ll hold up the movie.

But good Lord, I cannot get that song out of my head. I mean, it’s a Disney song sung by Donny Osmund, so it’s catchy as hell, and I’ve been singing it for days. But the chorus has been bothering me for other reasons.

The Chorus (from Google)

Be a man
We must be swift as the coursing river
Be a man
With all the force of a great typhoon
Be a man
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon

These qualities are describing what it means to be an ideal man: swift, forceful, strong, and my favorite, emotionally unavailable. Looking outside Mulan, how often do we see men depicted this way across pop culture? Real men are strong, real men are assertive, real men are stoic, real men know how to take charge of a situation.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Bullshit.

All it takes to be a real man is to identify as one, but the expectations of toxic masculinity still permeate our culture. They are especially rampant in romance novels.

While the last couple of decades have seen heroines in romance novels gain agency, purpose outside their relationship, careers, and independence, the heroes haven’t come nearly as far. Far fewer of them are rapists. But the popularity of manipulative dipshits like Christian Grey and his hundreds of cheap billionaire-fiction knock offs greatly disturbs me.

I can’t figure out what is sexy about an emotionally disturbed, abusive gaslighter who lets you think you’re being independent while manipulating every move you make. Apparently, all is forgivable (even desirable) if you are young, rich, white, and conventionally handsome.

Christian Grey and his ilk is where toxic masculinity leads us, and just like romance writers need to do better by women than limp noodles like Anastasia Steele, we need to do better by men than Christian Grey.

Compassionate, caring heroes do exist in romance novels, but often I find they are still put on a pedestal by the heroine. He is the sexual agressor and/or tutor. He is the long time crush that makes her feel insecure. He is the suave businessman who somehow wows her with his cool disregard. And she is always striving to be worthy of him somehow.

There is never any question that he might not be worthy of her.

I want to see more heroes take an emotional journey of their own. I want them to come to understand how their socially ingrained misogynistic mindset can work against a successful relationship.

As he was reading latest novel, my husband commented that Ethan, the hero, had to overthrow his inherent misogyny to be with Juliet. I took it as a huge complimemt because my husband is a smart dude, but I hadn’t really thought of it as anything special before that.

Who doesn’t want their partner to think of them as their equal?

That’s fucking sexy.

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