I’m going to use this blog now and then as a normal blog, not just related to specific excerpts or art pieces to share but also about some thought processes that are central to me as a person or writer. I hope no one minds.
A week ago Sonny mentioned a blog post he was writing about tropes vs reality and said he wasn’t sure how to conclude it, because tropes don’t always work out the same way in reality. I wrote the below post but then forgot about it in the holiday rush. Today he wrote a post about what descriptions or exposition to use in a diverse cast (read here), and through the ensuing conversation I was reminded of this post.
Everything below is what I originally wrote.
The question of tropes vs reality got me thinking about the romance genre (regardless of whether it’s straight, LGBT*QA, or something else) and how it seems to me it’s a fetishization of love.
You might have seen me mention in the past that I’m semi-asexual. There is a specific list of terms I can call myself that gets at what I am but I don’t really go by that. Basically, I’m not often attracted to other people, and when I am it’s usually first for their personality, and then I’m only interested in other women. But most of the time, I have no romantic interests in anyone.
As a result, I’ve spent most of my life seeing the idea of “love” from the outside. Throughout high school, I couldn’t understand why all my friends seemed obsessed with constantly cycling through boyfriends, and in college when others seemed to have hooking up and/or partying as a priority, I wanted to sit in my room and watch anime with friends. After college, when people started to settle into long-term relationships, I lamented that I couldn’t get a dog.
This may or may not be normal for other people who identify as partially or totally asexual; I really don’t know, you’d have to ask them. I can only say what it’s been like for me, regardless of whatever labels I might give myself to try to understand why I am how I am. Even now, I don’t know how asexual I am except I think I must be because when I’ve read the descriptions of different terms, they fit.
As the years have passed, I’ve watched the lifecycles of all these other people doing the things that are “expected.” Friends and family settling down with their significant others (SOs), moving in together, getting pets together, buying houses, getting engaged, married, having kids… All of this feels so disconnected from me as a person, yet as a writer I’ve found it to be interesting to watch the way “normal” people progress.
I don’t truly understand love. I mean, I understand it in terms of how much I love my dog, my family, my friends. But I don’t understand the human connection of love between two significant others: the way it might differ from other forms or the way different people experience it. All I know of love I learned from books, fanfiction, movies, and the way people interact around me.
Despite not understanding it on a personal level, I’ve come to recognize the variations in other people. Friends ask me for advice in dating or love a lot, and I always say, “Well, I don’t really know anything, but it seems to me…” and I explain based on my objective view of what seems to happen with two humans in love.
What’s interesting to me is that I’ve started to notice trends.
There are people who, when I look at them, I can fundamentally understand that they are in love the way I understand love to be. It’s layers of subtleties, often, and not in the extent to which they proclaim their love verbally or through public displays of affection.
It’s in the way I watch them interact, the silent looks that pass between them, the body language of whether they are open to the other person or not, the distance which they stand apart from each other, the way their eyes search the other out in a crowd, the way the lines in their face relax at the other’s presence. It isn’t always handholding and smiling and kissing and saying, “I love you,” in public or even on the phone. It’s the way the person talks to me about their SO when they aren’t around, the tone of their voice or implications of their mood combined over vast periods of time. It’s whether they seem truly happy or content or okay with themselves, around their SO or in comparison to how they were before the SO came into their lives. It’s in the doofy, quiet smiles they have when looking at their phone texting the person back, or the way they worry over whether they have gotten them the right gift. It’s in the anecdotes I learn of their lives, and the stories the person doesn’t always realize they’re telling in the negative space between those words.
There are people who tell me, “Oh, I love them” “Oh, we’ve been together for __ years” oh this, oh that, and I look at them and think to myself, “This doesn’t seem like love.” But I feel like an alien many times, like a being from outer space that might not understand the intricacies of human interaction, so maybe, I tell myself, maybe I just don’t know their love. Maybe I’ve never understood what love really is.
But so far, all the people who I’ve thought, “I don’t think this is love, I don’t understand why they are together” have ended up breaking apart. Sometimes it took a decade, sometimes less, sometimes a divorce and sometimes not, and every time the person was devastated at first but then said, “It’s better this way.”
It’s better this way.
I hear the quote that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and it tells me there’s something wrong with me for not loving the way other human beings love, but I look at that decade of tight lines and snipped words and frustrated phone calls overheard, and I wonder if that’s really true.
I remember the first romance novel I ever read. I was a voracious reader as a kid and read above my grade level. I spent summers on the family farm, being the lazy city kid who found it quaint and cute to feed the calves as they slobbered all over my arms trying to reach the milk bottle but getting bored when it came to milking the cows as the machines droned deafeningly (literally; one of my cousins is deaf in one ear from not having used proper protection during his life).
One summer, I raided my cousin’s bookshelf. I don’t even know what the book was called, or what it was about, except I know it was a romance novel and it must have seemed intriguing to me from the outside. I don’t know how old I was. Tween probably.
All I remember is starting the book while laying on my cousin’s bed in the upstairs room, with the window open and the white sheers drifting in and out on the gentle breeze; summer heat infiltrating the room, and the whir of the fan as it oscillated back and forth from head to toe, head to toe, only stirring the heavy, warm air rather than cooling it. Distantly, I heard the horses neighing, the drone of the milking shed a comforting tonal sound that lulled me to sleep when far enough away, and the bustle of my aunt heard through the open floor grates. That grate opened into the living room below, which was itself open to the kitchen and right next to my grandparents’ attached apartment.
Grandpa was probably down there, zoning out in his old lazyboy, the tiny black and white TV playing old movies in the corner while he sat in his ubiquitous striped overalls. Grandma was probably picking berries in the garden with her flock of animals following her everywhere, while she snapped at any child who came too close and didn’t act the way she expected. My aunt was probably waiting for when my uncle and cousins would troop in, coated in grime and dirt and ready for a meal that dwarfed the small island they inexplicably used as a table despite there always being at least 7 people in the house.
It was a day like that when I started reading the book, alone in the room but included in the background sound of life and living around me, and I don’t remember anything next until I got to the sex scene. It was shocking to me at the time, and I mention it now only because it’s a funny memory.
Just as something wholly unexpected was happening on page, I heard my cousin running up the stairs–stomping up two by two–and just before she got to the bedroom door I threw myself down on the floor between the bed and the wall. My cousin burst into the room, calling out for me but stopping mid-syllable when she saw I wasn’t there. I stayed very, very still, a spider not wanting to be seen by prey or predator, while she stepped further into the room. After wondering aloud where the hell I’d gone, she went back out the door and jogged downstairs. I shoved the book somewhere safe, and tiptoed over to the bathroom where I made sure to flush the toilet, and then came down the stairs a minute later asking confusedly, “Did you call my name? Sorry, I was in the bathroom…” (Real smooth, right? I certainly thought so at the time.)
I read the rest of the book later, but I couldn’t tell you what it said. But I think that was the first time I connected the idea of love as I was supposed to see it as love that was presented on a page.
The thing is, even from childhood I understood love to be represented by the way I saw family interact, and as I grew older I looked for the cues in the way I saw peers and acquaintances interact. But meanwhile, I was informed by books, fanfiction, shows, and other media that This Is What Love Is.
I know the idea of fetishizing people (or types of people, such as someone who is a gay man for example) has come up in the past, particularly in the m/m genre– but when I thought about the topic after talking to Sonny, I realized that from my asexual perspective, the romance genre fetishizes love– or at least the idea of Romance As I See It Presented in Media.
When people are fetishized you end up with stereotypes of “well one has to be ___ and the other one has to be ___” but when you fetishize love, it doesn’t become this idea of what the people are, but rather this idea of what the people are together. The idea that the interaction of two people easily slides into a neatly packaged happily ever after no matter the disparate beginnings of the characters themselves.
It’s how I repeatedly see stories of one character who comes from another era suddenly falling in love with someone more modern, who seems to be just like anyone else but somehow is The One to the older character. The way they don’t often have moments of confusion from conflicts in their vastly different norms from having grown up in entirely different lifestyles; instead, somehow they’re just suddenly perfect for each other, because Love.
Or the way a story takes Sad Story One meets Sad Story Two and They Click In Their Imperfections, but there aren’t always times where they stop and realize that they’re both damaged in a way that requires they work on themselves first to address their issues or else miscommunication will keep pulling them apart. From most things I’ve seen, that miscommunication seems to just not happen or if it does, it’s there for a dramatic plot point and disappears easily a chapter later, because Love.
It seems like the characters/story doesn’t often acknowledge that maybe there are variations of love, and maybe sometimes Love As They Believe It Should Exist is simply not enough.
The common denominator is that fetishizing love oversimplifies the interactions between people, and makes it into Love Is This One Thing (like marriage and kids, or devotion for life until they die of old age) in order to give the pun-intended climax of the book.
Without a backdrop of deeper topics, the exploration of a relationship can become one-dimensional and fall really easily into connect-the-dots simplicity of what, instead, should be two very complicated human beings finding themselves and each other, and then who they are together as a whole.
It turns that Single Idea into The Only Idea, when truthfully love might exist in many forms across the board, and different people may have different happily ever afters, and some people never wanted a HEA in the first place, and so on. (This is sort of like what I think of when I consider Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of a single story.)
Tying it back to Sonny’s post and the idea of tropes vs reality, it’s not necessarily that the tropes are bad or wrong, but rather that if they make it seem like it’s this way all the time for everyone, it discounts a huge portion of the way things happen, and it denies variations of love or respect or mutual admiration or interest that might otherwise exist in reality.
Because some of the people I know are in love don’t meet the qualifications I saw put forth in all the media that told me what to expect, told me how to identify and label love. And other people check every box on the surface of their relationship, but I see their unhappiness in the shadows of their face and in the words they won’t quite say. The pauses in conversation, and the moments when they seem ready to break down, to question it all, but they stop themselves because they’ve allowed themselves to believe in That Idea Of Love. They say to themselves, “No, I must be wrong because this is just what love is” or “We had that love before so it must still be there, it must be my fault or we must have to work harder to achieve it…”
It can be in the way that all characters are expected to develop a sexual relationship at some point, despite the fact that people exist (like asexuals) who might never want that sexual aspect but it doesn’t mean their love or respect for one another is any less in comparison.
Or it’s in the way I see people view others in love, particularly in celebrity couples where especially the younger fans can’t understand that love is fluid, and sometimes people break apart but can still feel love for each other, and sometimes things just don’t work out. Or the people who can’t wrap their minds around a love that isn’t personal to them, like love between people of different orientations or identities or even ethnicities.
I’m an asexual lesbian who doesn’t truly understand romantic love. I’ve felt like an alien for most of my life because of this, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But from my perspective, a lot of the “love” I see portrayed in romance media is the sort of thing that falls short of the love I see reflected in people I know in person, while simultaneously and conversely sometimes that media version of love represents the real-life relationships I see on a slow downward spiral, unwinding the thread of connection and respect until it’s nothing but frayed pieces of string, liable to break at any given pressure. It seems like it’s that connection to The Idea Of Love that makes them keep trying, because they think love is what they were told it was, and in that belief they find conviction rather than finding that dedication in each other.
But the love we’re told to emulate seems to me to oftentimes be unbalanced, codependent, unhealthy or with a weak foundation that wasn’t later strengthened with communication. It’s often portrayed as grand gestures and dismissing problems and ignoring red flags in favor of lust or idolization. It’s portrayed as reckless and wanton and because people think that’s hot that makes it right, and for some people that probably is their ideal love, but it isn’t the only love that is out there.
I don’t think what I’m talking about is confined to the romance genre, but it seems to be most evident there in my personal experience, because those are the stories that tend to put emphasis only on the relationship and not on the context in which the characters live, or if it’s mentioned it’s only specifically for the development of the relationship.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying romance shouldn’t exist, or that it’s wrong, or anything like that. I’ve found it to be informative over the years, and I think there’s definitely something to be said about the fantasy of romance as it’s often presented, this idea of a forever that’s tangible no matter the cost of reaching it.
I would definitely label myself a romantic at heart, because despite never having felt it for an SO I do believe in the idea of true love, of devotion and loyalty and weathering all odds. I believe in a chance for happy endings, and I believe in contentment in small and large measures.
The danger I see is in mixing up the fetishization of love with the reality of loving, and how people sometimes trap themselves in something that under any other umbrella term would be seen as unhappy or unhealthy or unwise, but when the idea that This Is Love is thrown into play they makebelieve it into something desirable and needed.
I think if we all let ourselves be our own version of happy, own version of content, and give ourselves our own version of forever, we will open ourselves up to our own version of love. It might not match the movies or the books; it might not check off all the boxes that we’re told we’re supposed to find. But it will be attainable, and it will be meaningful, and it will be ours. And when that asexual lesbian friend of yours views it from the outside, she will understand what it means to you, because it will be written in the story you don’t even realize you’re telling with every unspoken word and every quiet smile.