What Romance Readers Want

This week, over at Miller-McCune, results of a study were published that examined the title hook words of romance novels from Harlequin:

Coming from an evolutionary psychology perspective, they hypothesized these titles would reflect mating preferences that have evolved over the millennia — specifically, a desire for a long-term relationship with a physically fit, financially secure man who will provide the resources needed to successfully raise a family.

You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m shocked. I’m Googling the word “agog” to see how I can best modify my facial expression to accommodate the definition. Linda Holmes from NPR’s Monkey See blog asked me to respond to the research study, which I did under the title Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Indeed: Expert Guidance On Romance Titles:

Stop the presses: Harlequin titles reveal our—by “our” I of course mean “women’s”—evolutionary coding and psychological desire for … wait for it, wait for it … You sitting down? Good.

We prefer to mate with “a physically fit, financially secure man who will provide the resources needed to successfully raise a family.”

In other news, ice is slippery, water is still wet, and those silly romance readers are once again looking for fantasy men. Pah….

What baffles me is that any of this would be a surprise. Certainly it’s not to any romance reader: a lifetime of reading narrative tales of successful courtship teaches us to value a partner who is a partner, someone who splits the unpleasant tasks and celebrates the joys equally, knowing that each person has contributed fairly.

This is not to say that contemporary men, particularly contemporary fathers, are not getting the job(s) done. Far from it: another aspect of the mythical fantasy male revealed in Harlequin titles is that, for many of us, the wonder male already exists. While popular media portrays fathers as absent, bumbling, stupid or abusive, most husbands and fathers of my acquaintance are more likely to share the sticky and smelly responsibilities and revel in them—just as they share in the wage-earning and home-building.

I grow more and more fascinated with how romance novels portray men because it is so often at complete odds with how other forms of popular media portray them, particularly in fatherhood roles. But I remain unsurprised about what women desire in a man according to this study.



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  1. 1
    Elizabeth says:

    Ah, more breaking news from the department of Stuff Everyone Else Already Knows at the Institute for the Study of the Bleedin’ Obvious.

    Who exactly funds these studies into things any random person on the street could have told you anyway?

  2. 2

    I’d just like to [maturely] point out that the analysis was conducted by people named Cox and Fisher. Apropos given that the study is about the psychological motivations of women who are essentially fishing for cocks. Snicker.

    Aside from a physically fit, financially stable man, I also desire low-brow puns. To that end, I’ll soon be writing The Millionaire Potty-Humorist’s Immature Tart Bride. Get that contract ready, Harlequin.

  3. 3
    Beki says:

    Is it possibly something to do with the fact that men watch tv and women read romances that they are seeing the gender roles reflect wishful thinking in both arenas?  Men would prefer to see themselves as bumbling (as long as they also get to go golfing and are the providers) on tv sitcoms since it somewhat takes the pressure off their perceived roles?  We’ll need to ask them.

  4. 4
    Deb says:

    It’s not just television programs, but also television commercials, that are insidious in their treatment of men, especially fathers.  They’re either nincompoops who can’t even purchase the right brand of [consumer item] or simply providers of services to their bratty, entitled kids.  And don’t get me started on the way men (and women) are portrayed in beer commercials…just don’t go there!

    Spam filter:  position45:  But I can only figure out 44 of them.

  5. 5

    It’s not just television programs, but also television commercials…

    This made me think of a Dove commercial I recently saw on Hulu. It’s for some kind of moisturizing men’s body wash, and it’s the reverse of the usual ad with a woman luxuriating in her soapy lathery steamy fantasy shower. Same deal—sexy dude soaping up, but instead of toweling off and being appraised by his foxy mate (à la Axe Body Spray), he cuddles his daughter. It was like, take a Downy ad, replace woman orgasmically doing laundry with buff dad in shower.

    Not sure who this commercial was for. Was it for the women who want their men to be perfect parents and have a petal-soft six-pack? Or was it for guys? Is fatherhood the new garage band?

    So confused.

  6. 6
    Lindsay says:

    Men would prefer to see themselves as bumbling (as long as they also get to go golfing and are the providers) on tv sitcoms since it somewhat takes the pressure off their perceived roles?

    I think you may be on to something. I think this may also explain the way romance heroes get written off as the unrealistic fantasies of us silly women – if they’re unrealistic, then we can’t hold real men to the same expectations. It takes the pressure off men, and teaches women and girls that they’ll have to settle. Of course there are plenty of men who are perfectly capable and willing to step up and be responsible, mature and equal partners, but I am also acquainted with a number of overgrown man-children.

  7. 7
    Rachel says:

    Sadly, people actually got paid to research that…and they could have just asked the Bitches! 

    But, on a nicer note—my dad is definitely one of these guys.  Not as physically fit as the ones in romance novels, by any means, but I always think of the fact that overall, my dad is a hero, even though my mom has never really needed one.  :-)

    He’s like the good fathers of heroines that they portray in romance novels—or many a secondary romance (but that’s mostly based on age than anything else.  I’m lucky to have him around, he’s a good basis for what I will look for in a mate.

  8. 8
    nekobawt says:

    ok, this thread is seriously reminding me of a particular “target: women” video—doofy husbands.

    the last line cracks me up EVERY TIME.

  9. 9
    JamiSings says:

    I won’t even start in how I feel about the whole theory of evolution. I’ll just say I don’t believe in it because it’s not mathematically logical.

    As for the whole “physically fit” what do they mean by that? If they mean the stereotypical buff, well, they’re wrong when it comes to me. I don’t like guys who have muscles. I like my guys tall and scrawny. The kind of “wimpy” guy that people often mistake for gay but is straight. I read romance novels not for then men but because I never get asked out on dates, for the kissing I never get to do, and for the sex I never get to have.

    But the men, IRL I’d find them a physical turn off.

    Sure, I want a guy who has money. Who doesn’t? Even men want someone who’s got enough money to keep everything secure. But buff? BLECH!

  10. 10
    Ros says:

    I can only hope that the actual report was a whole lot better than the journalistic summary of it because, um, that’s not science.  Or even social science.  That’s just a whole lot of unexamined assumptions thrown into a melting-pot to see what comes out.

  11. 11
    Fiamma says:

    That “Doofy Husbands” video is hilarious. Advertisers treat us like harpies and men dumb as a door. I have always wondered as well what most men think of their portrayals in commercials and sitcoms.
    No surprise the folks in the study think we are unrealistic when it comes to men and Romance novels as well. Ahhh the times, they are not a changin’.

  12. 12
    darlynne says:

    I really enjoyed your entire response, SB Sarah. We’re in good hands with Smart Bitches.

  13. 13
    Sybylla says:

    I read the first quotation in the post and my mind immediately went here:

    Given that I could find three (maybe four if I stretched it) of the squares just in that one sentence, I’m very tempted to read the entire study to see if I’m right that I could get Bingo before I finished three paragraphs.

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    @Fiamma “Advertisers treat us like harpies”

    I read that as “Advertisers treat us like hair pies,” and… well, YES, YES THEY DO. Harpies, too.

    Now I’m pondering whether ‘Harpy Hair Pie’ would be better as a band name or a blog name.

  15. 15
    Diana Peterfreund says:

    I know this sounds revolutionary, but most husbands I know would ALSO like to be:
    1) Physically fit
    2) Financially secure
    3) Able to provide the resources needed by his family.

    I mean, what’s the alternative? Frail, unhealthy slobs on the verge of bankruptcy who want to let their kids starve in the streets?

  16. 16

    Well, guess I caught me my romantic fantasy man then…these studies make me laugh out loud.

  17. 17
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I know this sounds revolutionary, but most husbands I know would ALSO like to be:
    1) Physically fit
    2) Financially secure
    3) Able to provide the resources needed by his family.

    As usual, Diana is point on.

  18. 18
    Bob Mayer says:

    So they don’t want the SEAL who is actually a time-traveling Highlander, who can speak 12 languages, is a gourmet chef, is excellent in bed ( but only with heroine), is secretly rich (from that uncle, you know, the one who never molested him), never lies (although he worked in covert ops), knows five martial arts (although he never seems to have to practice them), is in perfect shape (although he never seems to have to work out), is a sharpshooter (although he never goes to the range), will ask for directions (but only to wherever the heroine wants to go), has no addictions (except to heroine), has never been married (because he hadn’t met heroine yet)?
    Ok.  Sounds like my friend Fred.

  19. 19
    Miranda says:

    Well, mr.miranda isn’t that physically fit, but he’s my soul mate, so what are you going to do? Snce I don’t strike men dumb with my stunning looks and don’t have ladyparts that can cure all ills, I’ll call it a draw.

    Both of us work, and neither of us want kids, so we’re good on the financially stable and family resources front. BTW, what are the ‘resources to support a family’ as opposed to being financially well off? Mental resources? Must not run off random woman?

    But I still want a vampire pirate baron. Must have sense of humor.

  20. 20

    Hey Bob, where can we find your friend Fred?

  21. 21
    RfP says:

    I’m surprised you’re not questioning the study’s assumptions.  Based on reading the original research paper, the starting hypothesis relied on the sort of evolutionary psychology that’s largely a set of unreflected cultural beliefs, not really grounded in any actual science of evolution.  Given a simplistic starting hypothesis on what women want, it’s no surprise when a researcher finds exactly what she expects to.

    Claiming a clear link to an evolutionary mate-selection hypothesis is greatly overstating what the study actually investigated.  It’s at least as likely that an interest in reading about heroines who have babies is culturally mediated and rooted in readers’ experiences.

    The paper overstates its scope in other ways, too.  For example:

    approximately one third of all North American women are thought to have read at least one [Harlequin romance]. These figures clearly suggest that the appeal of Harlequin romance novels is universal, cutting across cultural and political boundaries (Linz, 1992).

    One-third of North American women does not a universe make.

  22. 22
    Polly says:


    I’m with you—there’s a big gap between women who read Harlequins in the last 50 years, and the entire human race over all time. I’m not sure I’m ready to claim universality on the basis of the third of North American women who are thought to have read a Harlequin (especially since reading one only proves that you read one, not that you liked it, approved of it, etc).

    I’d say romance novels definitely reflect cultural norms and/or ideals. But there can be a big gap between a cultural norm, no matter how widespread, and an evolutionary imperative (I’m not sure about my word choice here, but I can’t come up with anything better at the moment). The two might overlap, but I would think a researcher would have to explore the possibility that it could be the one and not the other.

  23. 23
    Fiamma says:

    The possibilities of using “Harpy Hair Pie” really are endless Sarah! LOL
    I good band name or one crazy ass Romance novel…hmmmmm

  24. 24
    ibm says:

    I agree with several others above: Is there evidence to support the idea that titles attract readers – or is it the brand name of Harlequin itself? Could it be that certain titles signal ‘harlequin’ more clearly to the reader and therefore increase sales?

    It looks like a simple case of the researcher setting out to find what they are looking for. Good researchers try to trouble their assumptions, not just prove them. Thanks for the link – I will use this as an example of what not to do in my research methods classes from now on :-)

  25. 25
    Deb Kinnard says:

    Most of this had me doing the head-scratch. If HQ and its dorky titles were only the whole paradigm here! I submit there are readers who pick up these books in spite of the titles, not because of them. Sheesh!

    And the nincompoop guy on the commercial might be into something. If you lower the expectations down below the cellar, anything you do is going to look brilliant. Who knew the husbands were that smart?

    Spamword: man36—no, thanks. One like mine’s more than enough.

  26. 26
    Carrie says:

    I have to say I’d be much more likely to read “The Doctoral Candidate and the Ravishing Researcher” than something like “The Millionaire Doctor’s Love Bride”.

  27. 27
    orangehands says:

    This whole study isn’t so much research as “here’s some stuff that kinda makes our point if you don’t look at it.” (Why oh why won’t they hire me? I can make shit up and use faulty evidence with the best of them.)

    My favorite quote from the paper proving this:

    It should be noted that although wikis are publicly accessible, readily modifiable, and not refereed, they can yield reliable data (for non-controversial information) because mistakes can be corrected by any technically proficient visitor to the web-site.

    Damn, I should have used that when I was writing research papers. Look, my evidence comes from a place that isn’t reliable, but I’m sure someone made sure it was since my topic isn’t, like, controversial or anything.

    Anyway, been laughing at some of the comments and nodding on with the rest. My favorite is from the evopsych bingo card: “Women love pink things, possibly because of berries in the forest.” Why yes, I will be using this in a conversation soon.

  28. 28
    micki says:

    @ Cara: I would so read that, LOL! Potty humorist and an immature person sounds like a match made in . . . vaudeville (-:.

    @ Bob: I would so read that, too, if you wrote it in the same snarky vein. Although, I think the uncle would have to be a molesting bastard, and the heroine would really have to be something else to hold a light to your friend Fred!

    (Book deprived? No, just a junkie . . . .)

  29. 29
    Diana Peterfreund says:

    On the topic of “women like pink because…” I was really interested in this article I read on Slate last week that talked about how the whole pink/blue thing for kids used to be reversed. From a Ladies Home Journal article in 1918:

    “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

    And Macy’s and other dept. stores particularly pushed this color coding.

    You can read the whole article here: http://www.slate.com/id/2245052/

    The truth is, women “like pink” because marketers told them to. Which means they don’t, really.

  30. 30
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I also read somewhere that in some ancient society (was it Rome?), pink was considered the color for boys because it was a lighter version of red, the color associated with men.

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