Today we're delighted to host Sophie Barnes, whose The Trouble With Being a Duke is a twist on the Cinderella tale—so Sophie is here to talk about how fairy tales shape our perception of romance from a young age—and (possibly) foster unrealistic expectations about love. Thanks for joining us, Sophie!
As a Romance writer, I am often surprised by the frequency and the voracity of people’s preconceived ideas about the genre. From “Mommy porn” to “fairy tales for the naïve,” I’ve heard them all at one time or another, but the one running theme I come across most often seems to be that romance novels create “unrealistic expectations.”
Is this simply a reflection of the insecurity of modern men (since women make up an overwhelming majority of romance readers)? Do the critics have a point, or are these romantic stories simply an affirmation of a deeper human necessity, evolved across the ages? It seems to be a classical dilemma of life aspiring to imitate art versus art imitating life (or rather art aspiring to fulfill a primordial need, I would say).
Skeptics (or cynics ?) would have us believe that from a very young age, we are preconditioned by fairy tales (the likes of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and countless others) to believe in an unrealistic portrayal of love, which has no place in a modern world of harsh realities where many marriages end in divorce. They suggest that by the time we are old enough to marry or build meaningful romantic relationships, we are so brainwashed by how our partners should be/act, that few, if any, can live up to the ideals in our head.
There is no denying that classic fairy tales have become an integral part of almost everyone’s upbringing, but are the critics correct in their assessment?
Although a lot of these stories were written/collected in the 1700s, many likely predate their publication and were part of the oral tradition for centuries. Similarly, the ideals of chivalry and their complicated etiquette probably precede Chretien de Troyes and Maistre Wace’s Arthurian stories (written in the 1100s). And the first recorded stories of enduring love (e.g. Penelope waiting for Ulysses in The Odyssey and the 9 year siege of Troy for the love of Helen, in The Iliad) predate even the New Testament.
All of these stories spanning the centuries underline the same values: love, as an essential part of our existence, perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds and the triumph of good over evil. They address the principles that we humans hold in the highest regard: honor, loyalty and the act of self-sacrifice in the name of love.
Love is, after all, an innate need. We crave it in much the same way that we crave food and shelter. These stories reflect this basic requirement in a very stereotypical way by offering us clear characterizations of a prince on a white horse, riding to the rescue of a princess in need, while the princess never once doubts in his ability to succeed. He is her everything and he will come to the rescue, no matter what. And to the prince, she is all that is most beautiful and noble, and worth any and all sacrifice, her love the ultimate justification of his existence.
The message is the same: Love is important! Perhaps important above all else, as it offers us self-validation and comfort in the notion that we deserve to be loved. The stories simply serve as a reminder of something we already feel on a biological level and something we already know to be true on an intellectual level. So why the cynicism?
The world we live in today has become so complicated. The line between what is important for our soul and what is important for our material existence has become blurred. We spend so much time driving our kids to soccer practice, ballet, karate and music lessons, that we forget to just spend time talking to them. We stress about succeeding in our careers, not falling behind on our bills, and keeping up our living standards. We are bombarded by a constant media and advertising overload and end up debating politics and the economy, rather than taking time to enjoy each other’s company and go out on a date night once a week. We are simply too exhausted physically and emotionally to keep up. Furthermore, we see people leaping from one relationship to another in search of that intangible “spark,” while marriages crumble around us, not necessarily because people have fallen out of love, but because they have forgotten how to keep the “spark” alive.
I think most of us still long for a stable partnership with someone whom we can admire and trust, but our modern life has perhaps distracted most of us from the message that fairy tales offer—that unconditional love does exist, and that it should be cherished.
Today, romance novels are but an extension of the classic fairy tale. They address the same issues, reminding us of the importance and value of love in our lives. I don’t believe they foster unrealistic expectations about love. If anything, they help to illustrate just how much work is required if we wish to arrive at that Happily Ever After, and they offer us the hope that yes, it is possible to get there.
Yet there are many who are ready to demean them—to trivialize them and to make them seem like “fluff” rather than “substance.” Why is that? What’s wrong with a story that simplifies our innermost dreams and speaks to our desire while offering hope that it can be achieved?
…Nothing at all...
Born in Denmark, Sophie Barnes spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world. She's lived in five different countries, on three different continents, and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish and Romanian. She has studied design in Paris and New York and has a bachelor's degree from Parsons. But, most impressive of all, she's been married to the same man three times—in three different countries and in three different dresses.
While living in Africa, Sophie turned to her lifelong passion: writing. When she's not busy dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading. She currently lives on the East Coast.