Janice Radway, one of my professors in college, was studying the behavior and meaning behind romance novels’ readership for her book, Reading the Romance. Her research found that many of the women in her study read multiple romance novels a day, sometimes 3 or 4! She told me that readers’ “addiction” was a way for these women to deal with the absence of feeling devotion and nurturing in their own lives. “We read books so we won’t cry” was one woman’s poignant explanation. “In romances, the women find not only escape from the demanding and often tiresome routines of their lives but also a hero who supplies the tenderness and admiring attention that they have learned not to expect.” I remember Dr. Radway telling us that often the novels gave women a different perspective on the domineering, apathetic behavior of the men in their lives. Many of the novels used a template where throughout the book the hero seemed mean and unfeeling, but at the finish the reader finds it was all a pose disguising the enormity of his real feelings for the heroine. This allowed readers to look at their own indifferent husbands and tell themselves that deep down, he really loves me. He’s just too strong/brash/sensitive/shy/afraid/wounded to let me know.
Back then, I thought about the novels and movies I’d seen that had given me the same impression about love and romance. For example, Pride and Prejudice has Mr. Darcy seemingly aloof and supercilious, when underneath it all he’s so into Elizabeth Bennett he proposes. Another Austen classic has Commander Frederick Wentworth keeping it all close to the vest in Persuasion. In Emma, Mr. Knightly has been sweet on our eponymous heroine all along. (Austen knew a good formula when she saw one.) So did the Bronte sisters. Heathcliff is rough and mean in Wuthering Heights, but it’s only because he luh-uh-uhves Cathy so damn much. Sure, he hangs some puppies (!) but this is a cover for his hidden simmering sensitivity. In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester is mean and scary until you find out he actually really loves Jane, it’s just that he’s got problems of his own. (Crazy wife locked in tower.) Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has Maximillian de Winter kinda frosty and frustrated until you find out he actually really loves our sweet unnamed heroine, it’s just that he’s got problems of his own. (Dead wife he actually hated.)
Movies do this too. Just the other day I saw Reality Bites where too-cool-for-school Ethan Hawke spends most of the movie pretending he’s not in love with Winona Ryder. Hugh Jackman womanizes all through Someone Like You while actually having his heart set on roommate Naomi Judd. My number one favorite is Cary Grant’s ice-cold exterior hiding his burning passion for Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Plays made into movies do the job well: In My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins acts supercilious and uncaring with Eliza, though underneath it all he’s just a squooshy-ooshy cuddlebug insane for her. Captain Von Trapp seems all scary and thin-lipped in The Sound of Music, but underneath it all he wants those thin-lips on Maria’s.
Girls, if you’ve ever read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV series, you know what I’m talking about. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we can tell how much Greg loves Rebecca by the aloof way he acts. The more indifference there is, the more we’re meant to infer how lovesick he is. Luke on The Gilmore Girls is a great example of the cool, often brusque exterior hiding an abiding yearning. I could go on and on…and so could you.
There is absolutely no doubt that this trope exists and that it’s abiding and popular. Very popular. Why? Because it works. So, I have to ask myself, why does it work so well? What is it about it that has made it so effective, for so long? What is it about this formula that sucks us in? Is it akin to what Dr. Radway talked about? Does it feed a fantasy that the guy who doesn’t even seem to know we exist is actually carrying a torch? Do these stories allow us to believe in the possibility that the laconic barista is actually just too shy to profess his red-hot, undying devotion?
I confess that I am a huge sucker for this storyline. It gets me every time. The more cold and gruff our hero, the more romantic the story, as far as I’m concerned. Fortunately for me, the periods of my life living as a single woman have been few and far between. I’ve been in one relationship or another for my entire adult life. Obsessing over who does, who might, and who should love me hasn’t come up as much as it would have. And it would have, because I’ve suckled at the teat of this trope and swallowed every drop. There’s no end to the putting out and putting up with I would have done, certain that behind uncaring behavior lay deep feelings. This is danger and heartbreak I’ve mercifully avoided, but not everyone has been so lucky.
What do you think? Has this age-old plot point served us, or hurt us?