Sunday, May 23, 2004

Lad lit, romance novels, and the objectification of men

Laura Miller's Last Word column in today's Sunday Times Book Review analyzes the underwhelming sales of recent "lad lit". I haven't read these books, but they sound roughly like a variation on "shopping and fucking" books, except told from a male perspective. We learn some interesting tidbits (e.g., that men constitute only 20% of the market for adult fiction), but overall the article's basic premise --- that lad lit was meant to appeal to women --- is dubious. Isn't it more likely that these books were published based on the distinct, though equally faulty, premise that the men who subscribe to "lad mags" like Maxim and FHM would buy a book that catered to the same fantasies, thereby opening up a hitherto untapped market? Miller's citation of an "events planner at a Chicago bookstore chain" who says Smith and Mebus "might attract women readers" seems like a bit of desperately speculative wishful thinking ("OK, the men aren't buying it... maybe, uh, women might buy this book?") rather than a reflection of the promoters' primary strategy.

However, the article does have one astute moment in the next-to-last paragraph:

Lad lit authors may be truthful about young men's preoccupations, but the recipe for great escapist reading does not include ample servings of stuff people would rather not know. The promoters of lad lit confuse the way women exhaustively analyze a boyfriend's smallest words and gestures with genuine curiosity about men's inner lives. What could be mistaken for a process of detection is actually an act of construction on the part of women who already have a pretty good sense of what's going on in the locker room and prefer to imagine something more appetizing.

Heh. In our culture, women spend a lot of time being objectified in a really obvious way, and for whatever reason most women have developed the facility of understanding their own objectification --- or, at least, the facility of maneuvering under these conditions. Men are, in their own way, objectified just as much. However, unlike women, I think that most men aren't too aware of their own objectification. In fact, I think that most of the time, it doesn't even occur to men that they could be objectified. Hence the error.

This puts me in mind of a totally fascinating post that I ran across on Usenet's rec.arts.sf.written a while back, discussing niche marketing in genre romance fiction:

When people object to porn, one of the things that comes up is the targeting, the way there's "big boob" porn, "shaved" porn, "tall girls" porn, blonde porn, brunette porn, and so on, and the way this divvying up of the female body objectifies porn and turns women into "sex objects."

But romance novels are no different. If women are "sex objects" in porn, then men are "success objects" in romance novels.

Consider, first, how _much_ "healthy sex" you want in a romance novel: You've got four lines from Silhouette to choose from: Superromance, Intimate, Temptations, and Blaze. The Superromance typically has one sex scene which fades out before they "do it." Initmate has one sex scene, which lasts the entire event, but uses different adjectives and gentler language. Temptations has one sex scene and uses the regular words we're used to in erotica; the characters may never "fuck" when they can "make love," but they have cocks and breasts, although "womanhood" is still a popular term for pussy. Blaze is pure smut; multiple love scenes, hot sex, deliberately targeting an audience that wants more. In used bookstores these books are so densely packed you only see the spine, where the letters "S", "I", "T", and "B" stand out clearly in black against the red cover at the top of each spine.

After that, consider your favorite scenario: A clock means that the protagonist finds the man of her dreams in a whirlwind romance that proceeds from introduction to love scene to marriage proposal within a weekend. A stork means that the woman finds the man of her dreams, love scene, marriage, and gives birth to a perfect baby before the book ends. A carriage, on the other hand, indicates the "unwed mother" scenario. A badge means that the protagonist wants and needs a protector, a strong man who can defend her against something, and usually he's a perfect lover and companion and ultimately husband as well.

I find this hilarious. When I read this, I knew at last how women feel when they look at the cover of a typical porn video. It's like, this is what they want? Ha ha! Get real!

(Disclaimer: Of course, none of my fine friends who read this blog objectify men this way. They objectify men in completely different, and much less laughable, ways. Right.)

No comments:

Post a Comment