By Anna Ilona Mussmann
A few years ago I found myself talking with a woman who said, “Shouldn’t we encourage girls to aspire to finding the right guy? Isn’t it healthy to dream about love?” She said that she’d read an abundance of romance novels when she was young, and hoped that her daughter would enjoy them, too.
I couldn’t find the right words to explain my reservations.
It’s not just that most recently published romance novels (even the “Christian” ones) are blatantly sexual. Drawing lines between specific levels of physical intimacy is not the point. The issue is bigger than that.
The stories we read are all, in one way or another, about a single question: what does it mean to be human? In other words: what are humans like? What makes us miserable, happy, joyous, suicidal, sublime, contemptible, heroic, villainous? What is our purpose in life? How do different kinds of people think, reason, and live? What is it like to experience the challenges of human life?
Literature doesn’t always provide good answers, but it does truthfully illuminate the human condition and so teach us more about the divinely created bipeds whom God loves. Literature doesn’t have to be “literary” to tell us about our humanity--engaging commercial fiction is also built around the same theme. Indeed, many of the works of fiction that we now consider great art were originally constructed for popular entertainment.
Similarly, stories that run the gamut from pulpy bestseller to high-brow award-winner are equally capable of communicating attractive lies. These tales obscure what it means to be human. Often they subtly nurture the very appetites that make it harder for fallen humanity to recognize and love truth, goodness, and beauty.
Stories are important. Even Scripture is full of history, fables, and parables. I recently stumbled across this quote about the connection between stories and education:
“One advantage of a liberal education* is that, through novels, poems, histories, and biographies, it takes us through the human condition before we ourselves are much exposed to it. This vicarious learning is what education is supposed to be, not merely a preparation for a job, which we can usually learn quickly. Liberal education is a preparation for life about which we need to know much, if we can, before and during the time we live it ourselves.”
Our daughters absolutely need stories. The question is, which ones?
What do romance novels teach us about our nature and purpose as humans? Stories of romantic love generally flow from one of three alternative premises. All three may sound similar, but they deliver different results.
Type One: It’s All About Big Feelings
In the first type, a guy and girl meet. Perhaps he’s a rogue gunrunner who won’t commit to any woman. Perhaps she’s a wounded beauty who sheers off from men. They both, of course, take an instant dislike to one another while feeling immense chemistry. Love, of course, conquers all--eventually his passion overcomes him and he finally admits that she is the center of his world without whom he can never be whole. Ultimately she knows it is true love because of the strength of their feelings and because he meets all of her romantic needs.
Suzannah Rowntree, an astute blogger and author, points out that many readers use romance to retreat “to a place where one is the centre of one’s own little solar system. Here, all the men are fictional, and thus perfect . . . . And when life in the real world becomes a little frustrating, there’s always a book to crawl into to help you get back to that personal solar system.”
This kind of story is so endemic and, ultimately, so silly, that it is tempting to write it off as harmless fluff. Yet, as many commentators have pointed out, even PG versions of these books can be emotional porn. Many boys build a warped sense of sex by watching scenario after scenario in which unrealistic women cater to male sexual desires, and many girls build a warped sense of love by reading about scenario after scenario in which unrealistic men cater to female sexual and/or romantic desires--in particular, the desire to be affirmed as valuable by a man.
A steady diet of these stories conveys the message that being human is all about chasing big feelings and seeking people who will make us happy. Unfortunately, the message is not only a lie, it also will make it harder for girls to build real-life marriages with real-life guys.
Type Two: It’s All About Defining Your Own Identity
The second type of novel is more often classified as coming-of-age than as “romance” per se.
Young adult lit is no longer expected to avoid topics like incest, rape, suicide, extreme violence, etc. Parents who want to avoid all this will no doubt be able to identity the most explicit novels. However, a large percentage of more cheerful books for teen girls also involve the protagonist’s sexual awakening. The books are largely about something else. Overcoming a physical disability, say. Growing up in ancient China. Grappling with friendship and jealousy. Readers may be startled to turn the page and realize that, yes, some of the characters are engaging in the marital act.
Teen sex is necessary to the worldview from which these books are written. After all, if one accepts the progressive tenet that human identity is defined through sexuality, it would seem obvious that finding oneself requires experimentation with sex. Furthermore, if one accepts the idea that differences between men and women are purely cultural, it makes sense that girls will become freer and stronger (rather than more vulnerable) if they engage in casual intercourse as lightly as does the average secular male.
Even though these books are ostensibly more realistic than an old-fashioned romance novel, they portray physical intimacy from a warped perspective. The truth is that sex isn’t just a fun way to express oneself or to show affection for a significant other. It is so much bigger. Powerful enough to seal a marriage, it is not a thing that girls in real life can engage in without tremendous emotional consequences.
We might be tempted as parents to assume that, since our girls understand the Sixth Commandment, it’s okay for them to enjoy books in which the character’s sweet and youthful romance goes a little too far. Some girls may indeed be able to read those scenes without internalizing the author’s presuppositions. Yet, without significant care and guidance, others are in danger of beginning to accept the idea that being human is about pursuing personal happiness while finding our own identity through sexual and romantic expression.
Type Three: It’s All About Relationships (and Not Just Romantic Ones)
In the third type of novel, the characters form romantic relationships with each other while also grappling with many other aspects of the real world. In these books, true love--while usually joyous--is also about sacrifice and service to others. It is about commitment rather than feelings.
One way in which these books keep romance realistic is by developing and exploring the characters’ relationships with friends, parents, neighbors, or others. These stories show that human identity involves the wider community rather than being something self-constructed through passionate feelings or sexual expression.
It is not that all the characters live pious and perfect lives. The point is not how “safe” the story is, the point is how truthful it is and whether it is more likely to broaden or to narrow the reader’s imagination. I would rather my daughter see the cost of Paris and Helen’s disastrous adultery, the tragedy of Lancelot and Guinevere, or even a sensitive and truthful portrayal of life within an abusive marriage than that she fill her mind with nothing more than dreams of passionate kissing by moonlight. I want books that illustrate the human experience rather than books that encourage vicarious thrills in a self-centered universe.
We humans have a deep-seated need for love and for the affirmation which being loved brings. Of course girls like to experience the thrill of watching heroines overcome all obstacles to fall into the arms of their beloved. That isn’t necessarily bad. The best kind of romance provides an honest portrayal of what human love really is. Flawed. Beautiful. A choice that isn’t always easy. A gift. A reflection of the much greater love of our Creator. I will be happy to see my daughter reading books that include romance and proposals of marriage, but I want them to be good books. I also want them to be moderated by a healthy dose of other plot lines.
What Does This Mean for Us as Parents?
Of course, rather than simply sheltering my daughter from bad books, I want her to learn to identify and enjoy good ones. I intend to do this in two ways. The first is to give her extensive experience with excellent literature of both the high and the lower-brow variety. The second is to let her read some sappy, silly books from different time periods so that she can see how ideas of romance have changed. It’s easier to roll one’s eyes at a novel that is neither realistic nor in-step with today’s sillier ideals than it is to see the silliness in something contemporary.
Girls need stories. Because storytelling is part of being human and of figuring out what humanity means, it is a powerful thing. That is why I don’t want my daughter to become a consumer of silly romance novels.
*Liberal education: an education that includes immersion in the liberal arts because it is intended for free citizens rather than slaves or peasants.
An article of mine about teaching your kids to read with discernment.
An article of Heather Judd’s about the need for literature that isn’t “safe.”
A piece from The Federalist about why teens need books that stretch them.
Some Reading Suggestions
(It’s important that girls read classic literature and some “boy books.” Yet I’m often asked about titles that provide girls with female protagonists. Here are some that I recommend. Some of the books include romance-done-right and some don’t include it at all. Of course, you may need to avoid even these titles for a while if your daughter is overly inclined to obsess about Gilbert Blythe or the equivalent.)
Curse of the Thirteenth Fey by Jane Yolen
Savvy by Ingrid Law
Calico Bush by Rachel Field
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Red Scarf Girl by Ji Li Jiang
The Road from Home by David Kherdian
Anne of Green Gables series (Note: now that I reread these books as an adult, I see passages that strike me as almost unbearably sappy--for instance, descriptions of Anne’s slender young figure in the moonlight, or all those scenes in which her magic tongue is always enough to save the day--but girls seem to love the books, and they do show the whole gamut of life rather than focusing only on Anne’s youthful romance.)
For young to mid teens:
(The Anne books, especially the later ones, apply here as well.)
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Pendragon’s Heir by Suzannah Rowntree
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Note: this book contains wartime violence and raises ethical questions.)
Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster (Note: the first volume includes a brief affirmation of Darwinism and of social morality as a replacement for orthodox theology; the second contains some period references to theories of eugenics. Consider them an educational look at the hot new values of the early 20th century. They are also charming stories.)
Pride and Prejudice and everything else by Jane Austen (Despite public misconceptions, these aren’t really romance novels--in fact, in some of her books, Jane Austen wryly skewers overly-romantic ideas of love).
Crowdsourcing: What would you add to this list?
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.