Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Romance Mistake: The Physical Doesn't Matter

The tension between the mind and the body is not reserved for traditional Christianity. It crops up in American intellectualism--and it makes an appearance in romance.

On the one hand, romances, specifically erotica, pay reverence to the physical experience. Life is
boring and wild, mundane and prosaic, sensual and palpable and observable. On the other, friendship and intimacy is threaded through with a transcendent desire: minds and bodies that instinctively, intuitively, spiritually recognize and understand each other.

I've always said the human race is broadly divided into angels
trolls. Believe me, the angels don't always get the best of it;
when beautiful people fall in love with each other, they'd
better be sure it's not because they're beautiful people.
When [my late wife] and I fell in love in 1953, we were
both pretty ugly customers. That's how we knew it was real.

The problem arises when writers want to argue that love/the spiritual connection should/ought to triumph in the face of physical bodies.

It sounds wonderful. Even in traditional romances, stunning, beautiful, handsome, and gorgeous characters like to know that they are loved for "themselves," not for the careful appearances they present to the world.

Besides, as the adorable Trevor Peacock points out in a Jonathan Creek episode, all kinds of people marry all kinds of people in real life--since weird and ordinary and funny people find each other in reality, why shouldn't romance novels reflect this?

The latter point is precisely why the physical needs to be dealt with directly. The physical is a reality for everyone, not just for pretty people. Studies show that happy couples perceive each other as more attractive over time. The point: they start with and react to something tangible, not to a metaphysical concept (see People Don't Do Abstract).

More importantly (from the point of view of this blog), the physical is a writing issue. Characters, no matter the genre, need to behave in recognizable ways. And behavior is a physical phenomenon.

In a Star Trek: Next Generation episode  "The Outcast," the Enterprise helps members of an androgynous race. One of the race's members tells Riker that she actually self-identifies as female. Towards the end of the episode, she gives a "if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech in defense of her desire to leave the community and live and marry as a female. The episode is decently written with a nice arc and semi-Greek-tragic ending. In fairness (regarding what I'll write later), Melinda Culea as Soren and Jonathan Frakes as Riker give off a believable vibe as a couple.

And yet . . .

The episode was presented (and perceived) as a statement about gay rights. Even at the time, I remember thinking, "But do gay men truly want to be seen as androgynous? Wouldn't that, I don't know, kind of irritate them?"

The writing issue is a more pervasive problem. Is it likely that Riker--who falls for women like Troi and Carolyn McCormick--would, as Phil Farrand puts it, fall for a "small-breasted boy"?

No. Not unless Riker became a completely different person than he has been established as being for five seasons.

It sounds nice to ignore the physical for the sake of the soul. However, not only is it not realistic, it actually isn't all that nice at all. Think less "meeting of the minds" and more "perfectionist craze meets OCD." When a "personality" is cleaned up and rendered untouchable and non-smelly, it is no longer entirely a person.

Consider that people in studies tend to react more positively to composites than to individual portraits (what with the latter's troubling idiosyncrasies and distinctiveness). This is not a tendency that romances (or for that matter good Christians or decent intellectuals) should applaud.

A romance that presents the physical as unimportant/inconsequential is less than good writing. It also isn't a good romance.

More to follow . . .