Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Modestly Scandalous Confession

I just can't pretend anymore. I haven't been honest with you. I've been living a lie this whole time, and though I've tried to deny the true me, to present to the world a façade, I can't continue. It just isn't who I am. It's time I come clean. It's time I tell the world.

I actually like romantic comedies. There, I said it.

Whew. Now I feel better. This scandalous confession comes on the heels of a shocking revelation: some romantic comedies are actually intended for men. I realized this recently when thinking back over my review of the movie Stardust (a romantic comedy I admitted to enjoying for the most part) and comparing it to some statements in Susan J. Napier's scholarly Anime from Akira To Princess Mononoke, a book Snuffles is currently devouring (sometimes literally), but which he insists on from time to time reading out loud to the rest of us. In chapter 8 of her book, Napier examines a genre of anime films she calls "magical girlfriend" romantic comedies, which she defines as follows:

...the "girl" is usually a literally otherworldly female, ranging all the way from Scandinavian goddess to video-generated fantasy. Interwoven with bizarre imagery and events, the material seems to offer perfect escapist fantasy.... the works also play a compensatory role as well, allowing the male characters to enact wish-fulfilling fantasies, but in all cases, the exaggerations help to highlight issues of concern that might be contained or swept away in a more realistic drama. [p. 140]

Almost certainly such a storyline must have primarily a male audience in mind, and Napier concurs:

...these narratives are essentially from the male point of view. In a world where women (and life in general) seem increasingly out of control, the notion that certain truths about love and relationships in which the male identity remains stable and the male ego is restored rather than destroyed may have more appeal than ever. [p. 156, emphasis in original]

Comparing Stardust, we see something similar. Because of its genre, we might in passing think of Stardust as primarily a feminine movie, but it has much in common with these so-called "magical girlfriends." It is essentially the story of an ordinary guy who gets to have a big adventure and romance a beautiful, magical woman who fell from heaven. Besides that, it's the woman and not the man who has to go first through the difficult and humbling task of proclaiming her love. Don't try to tell me that wasn't written with the male psyche (and ego) primarily in mind. Furthermore, Dark Horse Comics, which distributes several manga titles in the U.S., reports that the manga version of Oh My Goddess!, one of the anime series Napier discusses, is its most-requested Japanese title, suggesting the manga has a large audience, probably including a lot of men.

We might also compare these things to those romances clearly intended primarily for women. The stereotypical Harlequin romance involves a hunky, filthy-rich man romancing a lowly, dirt-poor woman (albeit a full-bosomed, pouty-lipped one). It is fair to postulate from the comparison that romantic fantasies for both men and women often involve someone "ordinary" of the intended audience's own sex having a romance with someone "extraordinary" of the opposite sex.

Quoting another scholar, Napier writes:

Annalee Newitz has speculated about the popularity of romantic fantasy anime in America and states that "Americans who consume anime values are also responding to--and perhaps attempting to escape--the hypersexuality of their own media culture by reimagining romance as a relationship that goes beyond the purely sexual." My own research bears this out to a degree.... [p. 156]

A few years back, I encountered a National Geographic article that offered a similar explanation for the increased popularity of romantic Bollywood films, which often depict romantic relationships without sex and sometimes with minimal physical contact between the characters. Examining my own tastes, I discover that the romances I find most appealing are exactly the ones matching what I've put forth here: "the male ego is restored" as Napier would put it, and sex is not emphasized.

Relevant to the discussion (as I'll explain in a moment) is this quotes from the Catechism on the subject of pornography:

It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offence. [par. 2354, emphasis mine]

The reason I have quoted this paragraph is to call attention to the emphasized sentence. It's an important sentence to ponder, especially since this is a Catholic blog devoted in large part to fantasy. Probably the concern here, in addition to the other concerns with pornography, is that pornography distorts the purpose and realities of sexuality. It gives people unrealistic expectations of sex, of members of the opposite sex, and of marriage. It also constitutes a negative form of escapism: by enabling the viewer to indulge, albeit voyeuristically, in an unrealistic sexual relationship, it may inhibit his or her ability to form healthy relationships.

I bring this up because even non-pornographic romance may pose a similar danger if over-indulged, much as any hobby--including video games, role-playing, and science fiction--can become an unhealthy obsession. "Magical girlfriends" (or ultra-rich boyfriends) can give people unrealistic expectations regarding romance. Besides this, the "hypersexuality" of our media (and of some manga and anime) is a real concern; much of what we call "romance" is disordered, and some of it actually slides across the line into pornography; I've even been informed by people who read such material that this includes romance fiction marketed specifically to Christian women.

But back to my original point: men, admit it. You like romance, too. Women, rest assured, when you go to the video store with your man and pick out My Best Friend's Wedding, he may grumble, but really he's secretly pleased, just as you're secretly pleased when he picks out Invincible Obsessed Fighter. (You are pleased, aren't you?) If we men finally admit these things, it will make our lives easier.

It's inevitable, I know, that someone will ridicule me for this post. Well, go ahead; I don't care. Just try to keep the attacks mild.

After all, I'm sensitive.

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