I started this post on 25 October, and put it aside because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. In mid-October, I put Heavy D’s “Now That We’ve Found Love” on my running mix and was thinking about the song and how much I liked it (and Heavy D) while I was out one day. Heavy D died unexpectedly on 8 November at age 44, and the news headline made me remember this post and that I’d never finished it. While I’m still not sure that I made every point I wanted to make (my train of thought while out running moves long the lines of Huh. Heavy D. Romance heroes. Why not heavy D heroes? …. Squirrel! Treebranch… manhole cover. Hi doggy! …. Romance heroes. Huh? ) I am still thinking about this topic, and wanted to ask your opinion.
While listening to Heavy D tell me about how he’s found love, I got to wondering whether we’ll ever see heroes who don’t fit a physical ideal – a super hard muscular one. There are built heroes and slender heroes, but even the slender heroes, once they take their shirts off, are described in such a way that almost always mentions muscles. I’ve read runner heroes and swimmer heroes and the absolutely physically astonishing Navy SEAL heroes, whose muscles have muscles of their own. The image of romance heroes is pretty darn sculpted much of the time.
Many hero descriptions include specific mentions of broad chests, narrow hips, defined arms or abs, or all of the above. In some romances, it seems like the heroine was undressing the Incredible Hulk, what with some of the descriptions that made the hero seem larger than life.
For fun, I searched Google:Books for romance author names, like “Catherine Coulter” or “Kathleen Woodiwiss” alongside the word “muscles” and looked at the sample text that appeared.
“His muscles were well honed to a vibrant hardness.” – A Season Beyond a Kiss, Kathleen Woodiwiss, 2001.
“The full length of her thigh was pressed to the granite-hard muscles of his.” – The Flame and the Flower, Kathleen Woodiwiss, 1972.
“The shirt lay open to the middle of his muscular chest, revealing sun-bronzed skin…” – The Elusive Flame, Kathleen Woodiwiss, 1999.
“He was well made, looked to be as strong as Prince, her grandfather’s most vicious wolfhound, his muscles stark and hard.” The Penwyth Curse, Catherine Coulter, 2003.
And it’s not just the romance authors whose careers have spanned decades who I searched for. I was curious about some of the more recent popular authors, too, in my highly and completely un-scientific searching.
“His chest was pure muscle, the kind that came from fighting thoroughbred horses for mastery, day after day. Even in the waning light, she could see that his shoulders were enormous, his arms rippled with muscles as he loosely held the reins. He was turned to the side, slightly away from her, so she could see how the muscles marched down his broad back.” The Lady Most Likely, Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Connie Brockway, 2010.
“He undid the buttons on his shirt and peeled it off, revealing a tight white T-shirt that showed off his firm chest muscles.” Something About You, Julie James, 2010.
“His chest was tanned, sculpted muscle, sprinkled with golden hairs. Not big, bulging muscles, but the muscles of someone who did physical work every day, hefting tanks around and lowering boats into the water…” – Crazy for Love, Victoria Dahl, 2010.
And of course:
“His abdomen was ribbed as if he were smuggling paint rollers under his skin. His legs were thick and corded.” Dark Lover, JR Ward, 2005.
I could keep going, but you get the point. The heroes, they are muscular. And not just Down There.
I don’t meant to call out these authors as if they’ve done something wrong in their descriptions – they haven’t. Not at all. One of the odd things is that the cover model might not match the hero’s appearance – his hair or eye color, for example – but the muscles will probably match up in strength and definition.
The funny thing about that super, possibly superhuman, physique: it takes a lot to maintain it. Yet these super-muscular heroes aren’t going to the gym in every chapter, despite the fact that keeping those hardened and sculpted leg muscles and all those washboard/paint roller/eight pairs of parked Volkswagen Beetle abs requires regular maintenance. All that gym time would cut into the wooing time. And the business time, too. (Question: Was there a Regency GNC, selling protein powders and weight gain shakes for all these heroes back then?)
Anyway, these authors are successfully writing the heroes we read about, and continue to read about, ostensibly giving us, the readers, what we want: really finely sculpted specimens of manly manhood with extra muscles of manfulness on the side (and back, and legs, etc).
There seems to be a very wide chasm between the depictions of heroes in romances, and men like Heavy D, and other men of size. Or just men of different sizes. I mean, come on, Heavy D found love, right? He sang about it (over and over and over. Seriously that song has, like, 14 repeats of the chorus). Heavy D was a stumbling, bumbling overweight lover (though I have NO idea why he’s dancing in a raincoat in that video).
And most men don’t match that described muscled ideal. Men gain weight in different places than women – often in the stomach area (though for some reason as they age, many men lose their asses. Where the hell do they go, anyway?). Most of the fathers and husbands I know are not super muscly. They aren’t physical ideals as defined by the romance genre, but they are, some of them, pretty hot. And their wives and partners and girlfriends love them.
If part of the underlying message of romance is that the hero and heroine aren’t idealized images of perfection, and are instead two people with human flaws who are perfect for each other, why are the heroes continually ripped and cut into muscled ideals? I know the muscular descriptions are ways to reinforce the virility of the hero, but are there other models of heroic proportion we could embrace as readers?
We’re seeing more heroines of different sizes, slowly but surely. Would we accept a hero who isn’t muscled and physically ideal?
I would like to think so. Have a look at this Tumblr blog of romance authors posting pictures of their real-life husbands and partners: Romance Authors Present: The Sexiest Men Alive. Some of them are truly adorable and gorgeous and funny (I love the expression on Daisy Harris’ husband’s face). But these are real men with real bodies, many without the stark hard muscles of rippling, granite-hard hardness.
So do we want to cross that chasm between the romance depiction and the shaped varieties of they actual human male body? What descriptions would we as readers welcome, and conversely, what would repel us?