Neely Steinberg thinks present-day romance is a genderless concept.
What does romance look like in the 21st century? I have been pondering this question for the last few months, ever since I published what I thought was a rather lighthearted list of ways I appreciate and love men. To be sure, many of the items on the list were of a romantic nature. Some readers found fault with the old-fashioned brand of romance and chivalry I espoused to love, that the list evoked a nauseatingly romantic, antiquated Prince Charming archetype that promotes dangerous lessons about masculinity (and femininity) and therefore has no place in modern times. These critiques got me to thinking about the construct of romance and its role in current-day relationships.
As Christina Nehring writes in her book “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century”: “We inhabit a world in which every aspect of romance from meeting to mating has been streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence. The result is that we imagine we live in an erotic culture of unprecedented opportunity when, in fact, we live in an erotic culture that is almost unendurably bland.” Nehring believes that romance in today’s society has become anemic; it’s been bled out of us, replaced by a commodification and demystification, among other things, of sex. Romance in our day has become “a poor and shrunken thing,” says Nehring. “To some it remains an explicit embarrassment, a discredited myth, the deceptive sugar that once coated the pill of women’s servility. To others, romance has become a recreational sport.” As we have lost sight of romance we are no longer able to let it “sweep us up, to take us for a flight in the heavens, a twirl into the unknown.”
But what exactly is romance? Can it even be defined in specific terms or is it too personal an experience to be painted in precise strokes?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that many modern-day women still want to perceive and define romance in old-fashioned ways and long for a traditional brand they fear no longer exists, a brand that flourished in bygone eras when the rules to courtship were perhaps clearer, when the act of courting itself was in vogue. I can understand why.
For many years, during college and beyond, I participated in a rather unromantic yet thoroughly modern hook-up culture, in which sexual tension between two people was acted on with immediacy and sexual relations, for the most part, felt like apathetic, drunken business transactions. Feelings were shut off, false messages of empowerment switched on. You can imagine why, over the years, I’ve gained an appreciation for clichéd, old-fashioned ideals: chivalrous gestures, stolen kisses, flowers just because, candlelit dinners, love notes, hand-holding, slow dancing, delayed gratification. Call me a romantic old fart but the lyrics to Kitty Kallen’s 1954 hit “The Little Things Mean a Lot” resonate with me. She soulfully croons: “Blow me a kiss from across the room. Say I look nice when I’m not. Touch my hair as you pass my chair. Little things mean a lot. Give me your arm as we cross the street. Call me at six on the dot. A line a day when you’re far away. Little things mean a lot.”
I don’t think I’m alone in yearning for a sort of nostalgia I never actually knew (I’m 34) but learned about through songs, books, television, and film. Whether during the dating stages of a relationship or further down the road, many women still view this brand of romance as a gold standard. Understandably, they are worried about its demise. As Barbara Ellen writes in her commentary “Is Romance Dead?”: “Where romance is concerned, it seems that women in particular never get used to the sudden terrible absence of it all.”
Just visit the message boards of dating sites, read the letters that come in to dating and relationship coaches and pundits, scan facebook updates and blog entries, and you will feel, quite palpably, this frustration and anxiety. “Chivalry is dead; romance is gone,” the fairer sex claims. “They’re not after my heart; just what’s in my jeans,” writes a jaded blogger.
The Romantic Appeal of Jane Austen
Despite the truth universally acknowledged that, at least by today’s standards and culture, a female’s life in Jane Austen’s day was quite restrictive, millions of women still have an appreciation for the romantic aesthetic and courtship rituals found in her novels, or the brand of romance we see play out in other such classics. In the movie adaptation of “Emma,” for instance, Mr. Knightly confesses: “I only felt hope again when I heard of Mr. Churchill’s engagement, and I rushed back, anxious for your feelings, keen to be near you. I rode through the rain, but I’d ride through worse if I could just to hear your voice telling me that I might at least have some chance to win you … What of my flaws? I’ve humbled you, and I’ve lectured you and you have borne it as noone could have born it. Maybe it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another. Marry me? Oh, marry me, my wonderful, darling friend!”
Compare that with the type of romance depicted in some of today’s movies. Take the blockbuster hit “Mr. And Mrs. Smith,” for example. Romance knees us in the groin in the form of a high-octane thriller. Both man and woman are skilled assassins, badasses in equal measure. “Love gets lethal,” the trailer narrator warns. “Come on, sweetheart, come to daddy,” Brad Pitt says to Angelina Jolie, who then kicks him in the balls, replying, “Who’s your daddy now?” You kill somebody; I kill somebody. Awesome. Now let’s pull guns on each other and screw each other’s brains out.
Swoo … oh, never mind.
This is not to say that one construct of romance is necessarily better than the other (raw passion is great), but I think many women feel more moved emotionally (and physically) by the Austen variety, even in 2012.
Why else do they gobble up Austen’s novels and flock in droves to the theaters to see Austen adaptations (and other such films within that genre)? “There is, it seems,” says Elizabeth Day, in a Daily Telegraph article titled “Why Women Love Jane Austen,” “an endless appetite among female readers for a romance with a happy ending, perhaps because Austen’s novels allow one to escape from the pitfalls and humiliations of present-day courtship. In Austen’s books, men really know how to behave. They make their intentions clear by marking your dance card, by taking a leisurely turn round the vicarage gardens and indulging in polite conversations about the Napoleonic wars. All of which is far more genteel and straightforward than gyrating to thumping disco beats in the seedy half-light of a crowded nightclub, the floor sticky with spilled alcopops.”
Dan Stevens, the heartthrob star of Masterpiece Classic’s recent silver screen period hit Downton Abbey, seconds this sentiment. He believes the depiction of old-fashioned romance is a reason the series has been so successful: “These days it‘s a quick speed date, straight in the sack, game over. … People [back then] took their time and considered things a lot more. I think we have lost that now,” he says in a recent interview.
Of course, you can’t have a discussion about women’s hunger for old-school romance without giving a nod to a more recent period love story detailed in “The Notebook” (written by a man, incidentally), which sits atop millions of women’s favorite books and movies lists. The novel-cum-film is a throwback to another time, an era that unapologetically embraces traditional romance and chivalry and femininity. “The Notebook” is just one of thousands of romance novels that women spend billions of dollars on each year. According to statistics from Romance Writers of America: Romance fiction sales remained relatively steady in 2010, though dipping slightly to $1.358 billion from $1.36 billion in 2009, and romance fiction continued its dominance of the consumer market at 13.4 percent (in terms of revenue of market categories), beating out mystery, science fiction/fantasy, and religion/inspirational titles.
Good news for Fabio!
Even the most progressive women I know still want a little traditional romance in their lives. They want their boyfriends to pop the question; they long for engagement rings; they plan their weddings, at which they will wear lacy white gowns and promenade down the chapel aisle to the sweet, sonorous notes of J.S. Bach’s Ave Maria. In her book “Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939,” Katie Roiphe discusses the paradox of various progressives who struggle with bucking traditional mindsets as it pertains to gender.
She writes: “Even formidable feminists like Rebecca West and Elizabeth Von Arnim, who devoted a great deal of thoughts to the power relations between men and women, were enraptured and nearly defeated by traditional, almost brutal displays of male power. … [these women’s] most progressive, most outrageous desires clash with the retrograde yearning for traditional roles….”
The Frustration of Today’s Man
Adding more nuance to this issue, today’s woman doesn’t just yearn for the traditional; she wants to mix and match traditional gender roles and concepts with more liberal ones. In today’s society, women want to have it all. They want to be stay-at-home moms and career women, or maybe a little of both. They rejoice in being liberated and empowered but somewhere in their depths still long to be swept up in old-fashioned forms of romance and chivalry, in which men treat them as the women, nay, ladies they desire to be. Women are ultimately caught, as Laura Kippnis writes in her book “A Female Thing,” “between feminism and femininity, between self-affirmation and an endless quest for self-improvement, between playing an injured party and claiming independence.” (It’s curious, I suppose, that even amidst all the gains and “progress” women have made, women’s happiness has been declining steadily since 1970. According to a recent study The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness: “The relative decline in women’s well-being is ubiquitous, and holds for both working and stay-at-home mothers, for those married and divorced, for the old and the young, and across the education distribution.”)
But here, of course, is where the rubber hits the road: Just because many of today’s women may yearn for a return to old-fashioned notions of romance and chivalry, is it fair for them to expect men to fall in line? In current society, men and women are equals (certainly not so in the time of Austen and even more recently, before the women’s movement came barreling along). Women vote; they own property; they raise children alone; they determine their own destinies. In fact, women are doing so well today that they are surpassing men in many areas: Women earn more college degrees; they’ve flooded the ranks of middle management; they’ve taken over certain industries. Women can do everything on their own. So why on earth should today’s woman expect a man to exhibit any form of traditional romance, that is, to pay for dates or pull out chairs or open doors, or engage them in any elaborate romantic fantasies (at any stage of a relationship) in which men put women on pedestals or treat them like the more delicate sex?
Many women say they don’t want such treatment, anyway; they can open their own damn doors, thank you very much! Candlelit dinners? Barf! Pay the tab on the first couple of dates? Let’s go Dutch instead! Take your time getting to know me? What’s a girl got to do to get laid around here, anyhow! So what’s a man to do; what’s a man to think? Women bemoan the downward trajectory of chivalry and romance in one breath but in subsequent exhales brand men as chauvinists for wanting to pay the bill and deficient for not being more like, well, women.
I can understand then the desire of many modern men to eschew outdated, one-size fits all models of romance and chivalry. (I can also understand their desire to cling to it. Take a middle-aged man’s comment on a blog entry about the death of romance: “From an old guy of 52… It is not only women who miss these things. I feel I am defunct… a dying breed whose time has passed and longs for a time when it was fashionable to woo a woman.”) I can also understand that while plenty of women long to be romanced in more traditional ways, plenty of women don’t care a snit for being treated as such, and many prefer to view romance in more progressive terms: “I find it romantic to come home to find he’s randomly cleaned my apartment or that he’s run an errand for me,” says a facebook commenter.
A 21st-Century View
Maybe, in the 21st century, females especially, need to start looking at this romance thing a little differently. As gender roles become less rigid, as definitions of masculinity and femininity are being rewritten, romance can’t be viewed so myopically anymore.
Modern-day women might do well to consider other definitions of romance aside from the traditional varieties they fuss over in fiction and film. Besides, having impossibly high standards and unrealistic expectations based on fictitious relationships can be unhealthy and unproductive for couples. (The same goes for guys and the mind-boggling female acrobatics seen in porn, not that I’ve seen any … .)
Women should also consider that today’s man needs romance too. But men must not forget that some form of romance is crucial for women. (Especially for physiological purposes: With regards to sexual intercourse, a man is often physically raring to go within seconds; a woman can take 20-30 minutes to get in the mood – her emotions need to be roused to get her physically aroused.)
Ultimately, romance in the 21st century isn’t necessarily about one gender doing and one gender receiving via opened doors or bestowed longstemmed roses or paid tabs (though it certainly still can be, especially in the dating stages); it’s a genderless concept. It’s about creating for another human being a feeling of being cared for, admired, special, appreciated, valued, protected even. Sweeping gestures can be great, but the real hope for romance today lives on in the attentive touches and thoughtfulness we bestow upon each other in our day-to-day lives. These things never go out of style, at any phase of a relationship. Considering the 50% divorce rate, which looms over our heads at all times, like a giant, immovable rain cloud, we may need romance more than ever before.
And the truth is that romance is too personal an experience to define as one way of being or acting toward one another for both men and women, and ultimately an intricate and unique equation for singles and couples alike to decipher. Although Nehring never defined it in her book, leaving that decision up to the reader, she enlists both genders to go to battle for romance, to fight for what she hopes will be “an era of revived romantic hope.”
I truly believe romance in whatever form works for you is a positive force for men and women, the glue that can hold us together through the inevitable confusion that erupts out of our sometimes volcanic differences. Understand also that its definition may change over the years: Personally speaking, a bouquet of flowers from my significant other may be one more thing I have to look after when I’m juggling babies and a career. I suspect I’ll always love the gesture, but nothing in life is ever certain (except, of course, death and taxes).
I’ll leave you with some sage advice from the adorably shy and inimitable Matthew Cuthbert, who says to his adopted daughter Anne Shirley (an eternal romantic), in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” (one of my favorite childhood books): “Don’t give up all your romance, Anne. A little of it is a good thing – not too much, of course – but keep a little of it, Anne, keep a little of it.”
—Photo Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr