In a (not surprisingly) depressing post railing against equal marriage rights over at National Review, Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the misleadingly-named Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, quotes an anti-equality speaker who argues that “Only one creature has been known to calm men down into faithful and stable relationships since the dawn of time — a woman.” What makes that attitude so sad is the low estimation in which it holds men, an attitude reflected in the hysterically angry reaction to the idea that men can play a role in stopping sexual assault. To different degrees on the same spectrum, these views both agree that men are not particularly in control of themselves, and that if they are to be tamed into monogamy and consensual sex, women will have to do a sometimes enormous amount of work, at great expense to their own expectations and personal liberties, to bring about those outcomes.
These views are very sad, but part of what’s depressing about them is that they aren’t necessarily exceptionally marginal. The idea that it takes a woman to tame a man is at the core of an enormous amount of popular culture—particularly culture aimed at women.
One of the most prevalent arenas for the idea that men need to be tamed by good women, and one of the places where that trope has evolved most, is in romance novels. As I wrote at Slate last week, that genre’s evolved from its earlier reliance on character arcs in which the heroine would be seduced, ravished, or outright raped before winning over the heroine to one in which the rakish hero, whether he’s seducing opera singers in the Edwardian era or dating hotties in contemporary Cleveland, meets the woman who makes him realize that monogamy isn’t just socially acceptable—it will make him happier than he’s previously been tomcatting around. These men in contemporary romance novels are rarely as repulsive as their earlier counterparts, or as profligate as Gallagher and her ilk might make them out to be. But there’s still an air of condescension operating there: it seems to have never occurred to any of these otherwise smart, handsome, and professionally adept men that their own behavior might be causing their unhappiness. And often, rather than being truly responsible for their romantic and sexual choices, romance novel heroes are broken in a certain way that can only be fixed by the ministration of heroines whose value was previously overlooked: often they had cruel or absent parents, particularly fathers, who damaged their ability to connect, and rather than seeking out therapy or staring their own deficiencies straight in the face, its up to women to give them the love they were previously denied.