by guest blogger Maya Rodale, author of smart and sassy romance novels
In Pakistan, people watched as a pregnant woman was stoned to death by her own father for marrying the man she loved.
In India, two girls were raped and hung from a tree. The police are accused of failing to respond.
In Nigeria, nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their school. No one prevented their attack, and attempts to retrieve them have been lackluster. They are still missing.
In America, a boy went on a killing rampage, fueled by his hatred of women.
Is it any wonder that women read and watch stories we call rescue fantasies? From a young girl’s obsession with Disney Princesses to the mass-market romance novels millions of adult women read today, women crave stories in which a hero comes to save the day before something really bad happens. According to an informal study of romance readers, “protective” was cited as the #1 most desirable quality of the hero. Not surprising, given that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced intimate-partner violence and non-partner sexual violence.
The industry of rescue fantasies is BIG: Romance novels alone are a $1.4-billion business, and Disney Princesses help to generate $3 billion globally. Are people capitalizing on our fear and desires? Or are rescue fantasies fulfilling a primal need to feel safe?
Often, these rescue stories are ones where marriage for love is celebrated and accepted. Where women’s sexuality is theirs to explore and enjoy, not something to be used once and destroyed. Where women are to be loved, listened to, and cherished—not chastised, degraded, or stoned in public. Where men also explore their sexuality, relationships with women, and definitions of masculinity. Given all the heartbreaking stories on the news, where often no one comes to save the day, it’s not hard to see the appeal of romance novels, Disney Princesses, or even Kardashian weddings.
These stories are often dismissed—by men and women alike—as fantasies rather than dramatic descriptions of reality. Instead of asking ourselves why they are written and read in such massive quantities, or what these ancient, endlessly retold stories are trying to tell us, we simply dismiss them as dumb. And girls of all ages are told they’re stupid for believing in them…for daring to dream about a world in which men help instead of harm.
These stories shouldn’t be fantasy.
Women shouldn’t want to be rescued, we are told. Too often we criticize these heroines and the women who read them as helpless, lazy, foolish. We shouldn’t wait for a man! And yes—every individual should be as self-sufficient as possible.
But would you really tell those Nigerian girls that they should save themselves from an armed mob of delusional, violent maniacs? What about those two young girls in India, who just went outside to relieve themselves? Don’t you think they tried to escape? Don’t you think women are trying day in and day out to keep themselves safe and secure in a world that often sees them as worthless and disposable?
We are all trying. What’s wrong with a little teamwork?
When we scoff at rescue fantasies, it sends the message that women should never expect help from men and should live with threats to their safety, that Prince Charming doesn’t exist, and men shouldn’t overexert themselves in protecting women.
That snarky attitude toward rescue fantasies suggests we should just accept the status quo and not try to create a better world.
This serves no one.
As an author of those “rescue fantasies” who avidly follows the news, I tweaked the typical formula by writing a novel, What a Wallflower Wants, in which something bad does happen to the heroine—and no one comes to save her.
Instead, her love story begins in the aftermath, when she learns to live and love in a world that would dismiss her as worthless if what happened to her became known. I wanted to give her—and all the women like her—a happy ending in a world that so often doesn’t have one. But it still is a rescue fantasy, in that her self-discovery and personal transformation don’t happen on their own but with the love of a good man—whom she saves, too. Because what these rescue fantasies show is that not all men are bad and that true happiness occurs when men and women are united.
There’s no shame in wanting to be rescued, or in crying out for help when you need it. There’s no shame in protecting women or championing their rights, their choices, their equality. (And no, legislating away their choices is not being protective). It’s OK to be Prince Charming—aristocratic title, white horse, and tights not required. It’s OK for men and women to unite in making the world a safer, happier place. And it’s OK to enjoy stories that show how men and women can accomplish that together.
Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels, as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master’s degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Visit her online at mayarodale.com, or say hello to @mayarodale on Twitter.