I got asked to edit a friend's romance novel a few months ago, so naturally I started thinking critically about the genre and its moments of unreality. Here are a few observations:
1. What's with all the fake marriages/engagements/etc.?
Only once in my life have I known anyone to consider a marriage for some reason other than intending to be married thereafter (so everyone else has gotten married because they luuuurve each other or were arranged to be married). In the case of the considered fake marriage, they didn't end up going through with it anyway. In my recent reading of way too many romance novels, I'd estimate about 1 in 15 is a fake marriage/engagement that becomes real and about another 1 in 10 is what I'll call an accidental marriage (amnesia/too drunk to remember/etc). I understand that it's more interesting if they met some improbable way but those odds are over the top.
2. What's with every conversation about ditching condoms including her saying "I'm on the pill" and almost universally him saying "it's been a long time since I was with anyone else so I'm clean?"
Two problems here: I really hope more women are using some contraception besides the pill than the only one in about 100 romances I can vaguely recall from the last year or so (implant, IUD, shots are much more reliable and require much less attention from the user). Granted it may be cost, but I really hope women are using something better than just the pill at a higher rate than that.
Secondly, STDs do not magically vanish just because you haven't had sex in a long time. They need treatment and you need to be tested to know you had them. HIV is silent until you are late in the disease and have AIDS. I am strongly in favor of the joint testing visit and the reading results together and then swapping in a new relationship before you ditch condoms. No heat of the moment "oh, everything will be all right baby" conversations should be accepted either.
3. Why are all the strong female characters so interested in being dominated by a guy, often a guy who is of a very different status in life (ie she's a lawyer and he's a welder or a farmer)?
In real life, women tend to attach themselves to folk of a similar level of education and status within the community. This big disconnect that is very common in romances just doesn't happen nearly that often. See: CEOs married to CEOs of other companies. I'm not saying it's impossible, just so improbable that it bugs me. Likewise you see a lot of the big, powerful man (usually physically big and economically powerful) rescuing a plain and simple woman from her drudgery.
I get the appeal but it's a nasty heteronormative trope that even the most successful woman wants a man to take charge of her life (or some part of it).
4. The "jerk factor" gets overcome all the time. He's a jerk, she ditches him, they get back together because he apologizes. I feel like this kind of story is great for telling women who are in an abusive relationship to give the abuser just one more shot because this time things will be different. That makes it dangerous to glorify it as the only way a relationship could ever work (he screws up, she forgives him). I worry that this story tells women also that they should be forgiving of any transgression. It makes women doormats to be traipsed all over. Dislike.
5. Where are the "we met on the internet" romances? I don't think I've read any like that in the last year (again I read about 100 to 125 different romances in that time) or ever. Yet I know quite a few people who met their spouse on the internet somehow or other (ranging from a random blog hop to twit.ter to internet dating sites). I imagine this will be a growing area but I'm shocked it hasn't exploded already. I've been on the internet the majority of days in the last 15 years so it follows internet hook-ups have been common and getting more common that entire time.
So why does it matter? Romances are the one genre where you can get published because they sell better than hotcakes. My spouse buys me a grocery bag of them for a dollar at the semiannual library book sale and there's always a vast quantity left over after the sale. Many women read romances, lots of them. The magnitude of the messages that get repeated is therefore high just because the same things are being said over and over again.
Just like the way little girls get the "someday my prince will come" story stuck in their subconscious after hearing fairy tales about the prince saving the princess a thousand times, likewise these story lines matter because of sheer repetition.
Can we do anything about this? No idea but I think knowing the problem is a good first step. At the least it gives us all a chance to critically consider what media we consume so we know when someone is selling us something we'd rather not buy - ideas included.