Nerds and Romance Novels

My son and I used to laugh over a guy we called “mousse man.” His image was often on the cover of romance novels, a collection of which were displayed near the checkout counter of our local public library. When we’d go in to get our fix of Tintin or Where’s Waldo? or The Pennywhistle Party Planner, we’d exclaim over how much mousse “mousse man” had in his hair and how (frankly) creepy it was that his pecs were so prominently and unctuously displayed.

Last week I read an article in Time. The online version is here if you’re a subscriber. It was about firefighters as the newest heroes of romance novels. It was about the ablutions and grooming necessary to prepare glistening abs for photo shoots and about the need to cater to Walmart and keep the pictures relatively tame.

One of the things I like best about being middle-aged and married is that I can weigh in on the merits of firemen and mousse men and nerds, and it’s just theoretical. I don’t have a dog in the fight.

What I want to say is this: if you’re a woman, don’t underestimate the guys who will probably never be the stereotypical heroes of romance novels. If you’re a man, do know that many (most?) women aren’t looking for those romance novel, slick guys anyway.

We all have these magnifying glasses trained on our own flaws, and we think we have all sorts of disqualifying traits. Yet bald spots, crooked features, short stature… who cares? There just should not be some masculine (or feminine) ideal that is a litmus test for whom we’d be willing to go out with or consider as a partner. If there were, we’d write off half the good candidates without ever meeting them.

In junior high school, I spent a lot of time unhappy with myself because I was not blonde and tan. I used self-tanning lotion (“QT” it was called). I can still remember watching it run down my legs in rivulets into my white polyester gym socks; apparently it worked great unless you perspired. Which I did, heavily. I had beautiful auburn hair; I was fit and healthy. But I thought I was a monster because I didn’t look like a particular girl (she of the blonde hair toss) for whom life just looked so easy and perfect.

I don’t know exactly what the male version of that is. But I bet it’s painful too.

What if romance novels had normal people in them and emphasized the things that really do make for good marriage partners — a guy who will listen to the same stories over and over, a guy who will wash the windows of your car before you go on a trip without him, a guy who sacrifices over and over to see you succeed at things he may or may not even understand, a guy who will bring you a wet washcloth, folded just so, when you throw up? He may be gorgeous, or he may look nerdy. It doesn’t much matter.

Idealizing or insisting we will only be happy with a particular type limits our ability to get on with life, happily partnered with someone great. And counting ourselves out because we don’t fit some stereotypical image of the person who should be on the cover of a romance novel in Walmart… well that’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

There are a lot of cool people out there, packaged in all sorts of ways. It’s more obvious from this side of the aisle.

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