Psychology Today has a blog column called “Love’s Evolver”, and a recent article called “How Much Do Romance novels Reflect Women’s Desires?” was getting some discussion on Twitter yesterday.
Taking down critics of the romance genre is not my usual bailiwick — there are other bloggers with much bigger audiences who can marshall community responses much more effectively – but I thought I might have a different perspective to share.
In the article, Maryanne Fisher, an associate professor of evolutionary psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, N.S., studies Harlequin romances (she doesn’t actually read them, finding them “formulaic”. Guess she doesn’t read mystery, thrillers, spy novels, sci fi or fantasy either!), and draws some conclusions about women’s desires. Here’s what her “research” shows:
So, basically, women are reading stories where they meet a ‘bad boy’ or cad and then he manages to turn around and become a doting dad. She gets the best of both worlds! And the way that this dual-hero is solved for readers is the hero claims that he’s loved the heroine since the very start, and that reason he had to behave so badly was to hide the fact that he was overwhelmed by his love for her. Either that, or she made him see the error in his ways.
What woman doesn’t swoon at this? What woman can resist wanting a daring, confident, attractive man who also is so deeply in love with her that he can’t even look at another woman? And he wants to marry her, on top of it all. She’s having her cake and eating it too. She gets all the benefits without any of the costs. The cad won’t expect hot, casual sex and then take off- he becomes the dad, who, given his history, isn’t boring.
A lot of romance readers chimed in, on Twitter and on the article itself, to point out the many problems here:
- that all women read romance for the same reason
- that all Harlequins – let alone the whole genre! — can be summarized in this way
- that we can jump from what romance readers read to what romance readers actually desire in real life
- and from there to what all women desire
The author’s “research” was reported in the Guardian earlier this year:
Theorising that mating instincts, developed over thousands of years, mean that women want a wealthy, fit, fertile, committed man, the researchers speculated that titles published by Harlequin – the owner of Mills & Boon – would be heavy on words such as baby, father and paternity; wealth, tycoon and billionaire; marriage, engagement and bride; and handsome, attractive and athletic.
Cox and Fisher concluded that Harlequin romance novel titles were “congruent with women’s sex-specific mating strategies, which is surmised to be the reason for their continued international success”.
(By the way, folks might be interested to know that several HQN authors, such as Sharon Kendrick and Penny Jordan, felt very positively about the study, which included scanning and retrieving these buzz words in some 15,000 Harlequins, narrative apparently being totally irrelevant to this study of … books.)
But here’s the thing: the author is an evolutionary psychologist, which means she doesn’t have to worry any of these things. She can read every romance novel in existence, and the conclusions she draws from it about human psychology will still be undermotivated. Leaping from small poorly chosen samples to grand claims about what all humans are wired to be like is what evolutionary psychologists do, and they do it with special relish when they are proving retrograde things about gender, love, and sex.
Take a recent Time Magazine article, “The Science of Cougar Sex: Why Older Women Lust”:
A new journal article suggests that evolutionary forces also push women to be more sexual, although in unexpected ways. University of Texas psychologist David Buss wrote the article, which appears in the July issue of Personality and Individual Differences, with the help of three graduate students, Judith Easton (who is listed as lead author), Jaime Confer and Cari Goetz. Buss, Easton and their colleagues found that women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense sexual fantasies) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands. In other words, despite the girls-gone-wild image of promiscuous college women, it is women in their middle years who are America’s most sexually industrious.
As per usual, Time breathlessly and uncritically reports this study. But doesn’t it worry a thinking person that some three-quarters of the participants in the study were recruited on Craigslist????? This isn’t just a limitation of the study, it is a tragic flaw.
Here are some more “findings” from a 2005 piece in Slate.com by Amanda Schaffer:
One of EP’s academic stars, David Buss, argues in his salacious new book The Murderer Next Door that men are wired to kill unfaithful wives because this response would have benefited their distant forefathers. [Former Harvard President] Larry Summers took some cover from EP this winter after his remarks about women’s lesser capacity to become top scientists. And adaptive explanations of old sexist hobbyhorses—men like young women with perky breasts and can’t stop themselves from philandering because these urges aided ancestral reproduction—are commonly marshaled in defense of ever-more-ridiculous playboys.
Starting to see a theme here?
Check out about this gem on women’s innate preference for the color pink:
“We expected to find gender differences, but we were surprised at how robust they were,” said Anya Hurlbert, professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University. “They appear to give biological and not simply cultural substance to the old saying: pink for a girl and blue for a boy.” Using rapid reactions to flash cards, the survey, published in today’s issue of Current Biology, is the first to show that human colour preference can be broken down into two spectra: red-greenness and blue-yellowness. While men plumped for a wide variety of favourite tones across both, women overwhelmingly went for the red end of the red-green axis.
Yes, because getting adults in the west who have been socialized their entire lives to associate pink with feminine to respond to flash cards is the way to prove something about our prehistoric ancestors.
Or this (from a WSJ review of Adapting Minds)
Evolutionary psychology claims that men prefer fertile, nubile young women because men wired for this preference came out ahead in the contest for survival of the fittest. The key study here asked 10,047 people in 33 countries what age mate they would prefer. The men’s answer: a 25-year-old.
Evolutionary psychologists don’t bother taking the time to reject plausible alternatives to their view, for example, that our engagement in useful behavior could be an accident, a predisposition of our physiology rather than a trait selected by our environment, or learned behavior. Evolution is right, but there are a lot of other players in the game — other evolutionary pressures and non-evolutionary ones that must be accounted for. But evolutionary psychologists just … don’t care.
So rather than telling the author to read more romances, or to actually talk to romance readers, suggest she find a new research paradigm. Because no amount of knowledge of the romance genre or its readers will justify the leaps an evolutionary psychologist believes she is entitled to take.
Finally, if you object to the study, consider why Harlequin hired the author as a consultant. Is Harlequin hoping to increase sales by tapping into EP “research” to pick its titles? Looks like it to me.