Unrealistic expectations or abusive romances; which fiction is most damaging?


There are countless blog posts and articles dedicated to the phenomenon of how popular abuse is in romantic fiction today, as well as an equal amount of scorn dedicated to the idea that some romances perpetuate the idea of unrealistic relationship expectations. There is no denying the overwhelming popularity of these relationships and their portrayal in fiction, but is that healthy? Are young impressionable readers too influenced by these ideas of ‘romance’ that most would deem damaging? Which is worse?

There’s the perfect Disney romance, where the handsome prince whisks you away to be his bride, and you live happily ever after. And then there’s the lovable sociopath, sure he’s abusive, manipulative, and has probably done things that may or may not be a federal offense, but hey, he’s cute, and you can change him!

These types of romances are very prevalent in fiction, and many argue that they are damaging to the way young women view love and relationships.

The fairy tale romance involves a perfect man; he’s handsome, he’s powerful, he’s rich, he’s successful, he’s charismatic, he’s socially dominant, he’s aggressive, but he’s also 100% loyal, kind, caring, sensitive, romantic, heroic, brave, nurturing, and has a gigantic wang! Fiction is filled with these male stereotypes. The only problem is that the average male is, well, average. Most men could never live up to such standards, yet fiction, fairy tales, and Disney keep giving the message: “Keep waiting, ladies, your Prince Charming is out there.”

Now, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having standards for dating. People should have some standards, but when is being too unrealistic damaging? Are women really looking for the Perfect Prince Charming? Are they disappointed if he isn’t out there? Does settling for Prince Not-quite-but-he’ll-do leave women feeling that they’ve been cheated?

Realistically, most women understand that there is no such thing as a perfect man (or woman), and they adapt to life and love accordingly. Yet, fiction that features such perfect male characters is some of the most ubiquitous. The truth is most women know the difference between fantasy and reality, and there’s nothing wrong with having a fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism where you can read a book about a perfect man and a perfect romance to help you forget, if only for a few hours, the mundane existence of everyday life. People play video games to have vicarious adventures, it doesn’t mean they expect that sort of existence every day all the time, and it’s the same with romances that depict unrealistically perfect characters. And, yes, I know there are a few rare fringe cases of people who get so addicted to video games that they can’t function in the real world, or women who are so addicted to fictional characters that they end their own real-life relationships. But these cases are rare, and those people probably suffer from deeper and more severe psychological issues than just being too influenced by escapism.

Speaking of psychological issues – abuse anyone? How about abuse everyone! Seriously, why is abuse so glorified in modern romance fiction? From Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey, from teen fiction to adult romance, abuse is HOT right now.

An abuse romance usually involves a man who is handsome, powerful, rich, successful, socially dominant, and aggressive, but instead of being lovably charismatic and supportive, he’s manipulative and obsessive, he stalks and controls, his character focuses on nothing but the female lead and expects her to do the same for him. He uses the female lead’s love and attachment as a means to hold power over her, he denies his love until the female conforms to his wishes, he uses guilt or even violence to get what he wants, he isolates the female lead from friends or family, or he threatens suicide if the love interest tries to reject him. But, hey, you can change him – and he’s got a big wang!

The fantasy that the right woman can take a mentally unhinged man and change him and make him into the perfect mate is pervasive. Beauty conquers beast! Your love can save him, ladies. You just have to want it bad enough! Or the idea of a perfect man who obsesses over the female and makes her his whole world, to the point where most other men would be put on a restraining order, but it’s okay for a fictional man because he’s young, attractive, and rich. Even though he’s creepy, the female lead reciprocates his feelings. (Note the keyword being RECIPROCATES!!)

Yet, these characters are prevalent in romance fiction. One only has to look at the hot list on Wattpad to see that readers consume this type of fiction at an alarming rate. Perhaps, this is arguably more damaging than the unrealistically perfect male character of fairy tale fantasy because abusive relationships happen waaaay more often in real life than women who find their Prince Charming.

Most women recognize the inherent problems in the portrayal of these types of relationships, and they can separate from the fantasy that they can fix a broken man versus the reality that some people cannot be helped and that they are toxic and should be avoided. But there seems to be an almost instinctual drive in many women to want to “tame the beast” or “fix” a flawed person. Perhaps women are more nurturing and forgiving and empathetic than men, but there is certainly a point where one can be too forgiving, and that is a line that some women in the real world struggle with, especially in their own real-world relationships.

Abusive relationships in fiction and cinema strike me as being far more potentially harmful than the concept of an unrealistically perfect man. I’d rather spend my whole life waiting for Prince Charming, who never comes and die alone, than end up falling for someone who’s a Christian Grey or a Patrick Bateman. But I can also understand why some women are tempted by the fantasy of “taming” the wild beast. It’s actually a sense of taking something powerful and asserting your own power or influence over them instead. That usually doesn’t work in real life (like almost never), but it’s a charming fantasy. I don’t automatically dislike all fiction that depicts abusive relationships either; it depends on how it’s portrayed. If the characters acknowledge that the abusive lead is indeed abusive and address those issues, rather than romanticizing or glossing them over, and the abuse is something the characters are trying to help each other with or even escape from, and the abuse isn’t glorified but addressed head-on, then yes, I can read something like that.

What do you guys think? Which is the worst/most dangerous romantic cliché; the guy who is too perfect to be true, or the guy who is flawed but who needs a woman to ‘save’ him? What was the last book you read with these types of male leads?


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One Reply to “Unrealistic expectations or abusive romances; which fiction is most damaging?”

  1. On the other hand, men aren’t that forgiving if a woman is flawed. They abuse her in order to change her. A woman has to be perfect and so does a man.

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