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Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014

Romance Novels and Frenemies

Do pop culture relationships influence us in real life?

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While walking through our latest snowstorm, I was listening to Frenemies, http://veritypodcast.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/verity-episode-34-frenemies/ the Jan. 29 podcast from “Verity!” (“six women talk all things ‘Doctor Who’”). As happens so frequently, my play (geek-related) life collided with my work (sexuality-related) life when “Verity!” member Lynne Thomas started talking about how popular the “frenemies” trope is in romance novels as an introduction to the episode’s theme of enemies who become friends in “Doctor Who.”

Lynne’s basic point was that the plots of romance novels very frequently revolve around two people who start out disliking each other or being at odds, but eventually fall in love. This trope is used so often because it introduces a lot of narrative tension, which makes the book interesting to read—more interesting than a harmonious relationship would be. Other “Verity!” ladies comment that this is also a common storyline in rom-com movies and “shipping” (fan fiction that imagines a romantic or sexual relationship that doesn’t exist in the original work). 

Why would I care about this as a sexuality educator? (I swear it’s not just because I wanted to reference “Doctor Who” in a sex advice column and link to one of my favorite podcasts.) I care because the discussion of whether and how depictions of sex and relationships in pop culture and the media influence our actual relationships is one that I have a lot. And it interests me that adversarial relationships are more common and more interesting not only in explicitly romantic stories, but also in fantasy and science fiction and even in derivative works that we create as a response to our favorite books, shows and movies.

When Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were published, there was a lot of hand-wringing over whether the relationships depicted in these books normalized stalking, relationship abuse and badly-negotiated BDSM and thus would make it harder for people to see those kinds of relationships as harmful. Critiques of these critiques stated that media consumers are able to analyze what they’re reading or watching in a sophisticated way and understand that this is fantasy, not real life (and also noted how gendered criticism of these and other works is—it tends to be works that are perceived to be written for female audiences, whether teen or adult, that come under fire for being damaging, wrong or vapid).

Ultimately, I do believe that representation matters. For example, whether we see people of color, women, LGBT people and polyamorous relationships depicted in non-stereotypical ways has an impact on how those types of people and relationships are viewed by society. I’ve worked with young adults for more than fifteen years, and I see a common perception that jealousy means someone really cares about you, that relationship drama means you have an intense bond and that make-up sex is the best kind of sex. We’ve created a relationship ideal that involves constant narrative tension instead of trust, communication, and mutual comfort and support.

I don’t think that we shouldn’t consume works that feature the omnipresent “frenemies” narrative. But this podcast gave me another tool to help analyze the media we do consume and think logically about why this trope is so heavily used (thanks, “Verity!”). The best thing we can do is keep talking and keep thinking critically.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than fifteen years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXPress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.