I nearly zapped a historical romance out of my iPad in exasperation, while reading it one evening. Not because it was badly written. Nor was it boring. Rather, it annoyed me that for the umpteenth time, the author describes her hero as having wide/broad shoulders.” Now, how often must we be reminded of such attributes in a romance hero? We know, even before we start, that he is well-built (and often handsome), with passion, power (or, perhaps, rage), and a magnetic personality to boot. Besides, he’s right there on the book cover, a big bundle of taut rippling muscles.
Ever the compulsive person, I tallied how many times the author felt obliged to use “wide or broad shoulders” (easy to do using search function). In this traditionally published Regency romance, the phrase comes up about thirty times. Too much? Just right? Not enough? Depends on your tolerance level. Romance readers, come in so many guises, after all.
For me, it is at least twenty-five times too many. I certainly don’t mind reading about it once and can even tolerate it a couple more times or so. But apart from broad-shoulder-induced tingling, life does go on in a hundred other ways, a great many of them wonderful and consuming. Love does happen in the context of an overarching life.
But maybe, I’m in the minority.
If romance novels do not tell you thirty times or so that the beautiful emerald-eyed heroine with abundant red tresses wants to or does, in fact, melt on the broad shoulders of the chiseled, muscled hero, would you still enjoy reading them? Would you feel cheated? Do you actually skip other parts to get back to such passages?
The language of romance novels, according to Jayne Ann Krentz (in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women), is “coded language” full of “allusions and resonances that are unrecognizable to outsiders.” This means that throughout a story “eyes sparkle, pulses race, hearts thunder, toes curl, and cheeks burn.”
This unique language of romance answers my question—somewhat. It doesn’t fully satisfy me. So I call up another of my compulsive habits. I googled “broad shoulders,” unsure of what results I would get.
The search yielded more than 1.3 million items. But contrast that with nearly 4.5 billion for “love” and a mere 125,000 for “heaving bosoms.” Interesting, isn’t it? Easy enough to understand the humongous number of entries for love. Every one of the 7 billion people on earth loves love—although maybe only women (roughly half the world) would admit it. But that paltry number for heaving bosoms worries me a little. Is it because it’s the purview of women? Writers and bloggers must care little for it.
It’s clear from these google results that “broad shoulders” preoccupy men much more than women. The first three pages of the search bear this out. Entries were mostly on two topics:
1. how to achieve them
2. a song or album with “broad shoulders” in the title.
I also clicked on an amazon.com entry (Broad Shoulders by Bob Hoffman) that caught my eye. It’s a book on how to cultivate said shoulders. If I needed more insight into the allure of broad shoulders, this book’s short blurb gave it to me.
“Broad shoulders are the most outstanding characteristic of a real man. Throughout the ages, broad, well muscled shoulders have constantly been admired. Proof of this is the fact that all men wear coats with padded shoulders.”
This book, by the way, first came out in 1949. Its target audience is men.
If, indeed, broad shoulders interest more men than women, why brag about it so often in any one romance novel—whose readership is overwhelmingly women?
But ask yourself this: What do you glom on to when you start reading a romance novel? I say it is the hero. Not the heroine. And how much you like him depends on how closely he comes to your ideal of a Real Man. That man, if Mr. Hoffman is right, has broad shoulders.
So, more than heaving bosoms, those shoulders feed fantasies admirably—particularly when bolstered by other throbbing parts. Maybe more than plot lines do. Romance genre novels—whether historical or contemporary—do count as escapist fare. An answer to dreams unrealized. Adult fairy tales which can make lives a teensy bit more bearable or, better still, more titillating for a few hours.
Maybe, some of us do crave the thrill of broad shoulders many times while reading. Broad shoulders are sexy, reliable. Every time the heroine cries or nestles her head on the hero’s shoulders, you may want to be reminded those shoulders are broad/wide.
But what of the legacy of Jane Austen, perhaps, the lady who started it all for so many of us? Her novels are classic, and graduate theses and literary critiques have analyzed them.
Pride and Prejudice often makes top ten lists of must-read literature. To a good number of us, it is one of the most compelling love stories ever written. Yet, Elizabeth Bennet is hardly a breathless heroine whose bosom heaves at the sight of Mr. Darcy. And Mr. Darcy rarely seethes with passion. Ms. Austen describes him only once:
“ … fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.”
No mention is ever made of broad shoulders. But doesn’t he make you tingle just the same? Tall and handsome is enough. Noble and rich makes Mr. Darcy fantastic. For me, his brooding, inner-directed mien also intrigues.
Faced with Ms. Austen, you may you ask: If romance is fantasy, is there room for realism in it? Ms. Austen actually makes that question moot. Victorian art critic John Ruskin said of her that she could:
“ …see straight and then report accurately. …It … came natural to her to tell the truth about average humanity as she saw it.”
Other 19th century female writers injected realism into their novels. Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, whose very popular North and South focuses as much on the problems of industrializing England as it does on the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Gaskell does describe Mr. Thornton as broad-shouldered—once.
I, for one, like complex heroes and heroines, even in romance novels. More like people you meet every day. People who have strengths and weaknesses, and who deal with the mess of everyday life. Sometimes, our strengths are not too obvious, but they surface when we meet adversity. And we all falter in one way or another.
My particular weakness is for strong-minded characters, male or female, hero or villain. Intelligent, with great convictions they act upon, undaunted by obstacles. Strong feminist heroines are empowering. They give us hope, make us root for something, and renew our belief in people, particularly when we see them deal with issues and problems that we, readers, face in our own lives. Weak villains don’t make worthy opponents, and we get more of a thrill from strong heroes as we ride along with them in their adventures, and grow with them as they surmount obstacles.
Broad shoulders don’t have to make up part of that picture. How many broad shoulders are you actually acquainted with, anyway? Me, I see them mostly in movies. It doesn’t bother me, though. As Jane Austen and others after her have proven, you can happily tingle through a story that mixes reality with Ever After.
My requirements for a love tale (no need for broad shoulders, heaving bosoms, thundering hearts or even abundant red tresses) may not fit the currently accepted format, tropes, and language of the Romance genre. But, why not?