Benjamin Button and Man Romance

- by Eileen Dreyer

Man Romances and the Myth of LIT-rature

I finally saw Benjamin Button last night, and I have to tell you, it pissed me off. Again. Just how many times were we going to watch man romance movies and be told that they’re great art? Let’s put this into context. I write romances for women. ‘Pulp fiction. Purple prose. Smut.’  Whereas when a man writes romances like Cold Mountain, Message in a Bottle, Horse Whisperer and, yes, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, they’re considered art. Deathless prose. LIT-rature.

Bollocks. What they are are man romances(and yes. There will be spoilers).

In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s simple. In a man romance, there is a woman. Lonely, not really living, needing SOMETHING. Yes, along comes our hero, who wakens her to life and cataclysmic sex, makes her a real woman,  yada yada yada. Then, when the inevitable consequence of all that great awakening happens–the need to take responsibility of any kind or God forbid, make a commitment, et voila! The hero has to leave. He’ll even go so far as to die to keep from having to raise his child, or take care of their farm or actually support the woman he claims a deathless love for. Let me tell you. If I’d written Cold Mountain, that guy would have stuck around to plant real fence posts.

And then, on a plain all its own, comes Benjamin Button.  

Up for countless awards, best movie of the year, best actor, actress etc. Amazing concept. Timeless. Life-altering. Uh huh. Let’s see. How is Benjamin Button a man romance? Well, Benjamin spends his early life being taken care of by a selfless woman who sees him for the ‘special’ child his is. And so, when he’s old enough to take care of her back, he bolts like a second story thief.

But wait. There’s more. There’s the girl he grew up with, whom he finds again just in time to be old enough to have sex with. So he does. With her. Constantly, living in that kind of Vaseline-lensed world that only exists in movies. And here’s the best part. It’s not enough that when his great love actually gets pregnant he leaves before he has to provide, oh, I don’t know. Adult guidance. Compassion. Patience. Commitment. He says to her, being, of course, terribly noble, “No, no (yes. I’m paraphrasing). I can’t stay. I’m getting younger all the time (the concept is that he ages backwards). How can I make you care for two children at the same time?” (I guess he’s never heard of the concept of twins). So, when she’s asleep(because he’s so heroic he doesn’t even have the chops to face her and leave), he sneaks out and goes back to living a perfectly selfish life. Not really accomplishing anything. I mean, he doesn’t leave her to save orphans in China or join the freedom fighters to overthrow tyranny  or write symphonies. Nope, he joins a tramp steamer and spends his years pretty aimlessly wandering the world, never so much as contacting his child, much less supporting it.

When does he come back? When he grows young enough(old enough) that he once again needs complete care. And guess who he expects to take care of him?

“WHAT?” I screamed at the TV. “You’re going to take him back? I don’t care of you love him. Drop-kick his little toddler butt into the next county!”

What happened to all that altruism? All that compassion and selfless love? Guess it only lasts until you need your diaper changed. Fah!

So next time there’s the book of the year or the movie of the decade, and the hero manages to disappear before he is made to take responsibility for any of his actions, will you do me a favor? Don’t call it LIT-rature or art. Call it what it is. Man romance. I’ll be a lot happier about it.


  1. Amen, Sister!

    I call these novels mainstream romances although there’s nothing romantic about the man escaping the work of a real relationship but who gets a chance to be emo for a short time to prove what a wonderful, tender person he is.

    To misquote the first big mainstream romance, LOVE STORY– Real love means you never should say you’re a sorry excuse of a real man.

  2. Marilynn, I love your version! At least Ryan O’Neill stuck it out with her. Today’s hero wouldn’t have lasted past the first round of chemo.

  3. I couldn’t agree more, Eileen!! As an author of REAL Romance (the kind where everyone is equal, the heroine doesn’t NEED anyone to be complete, but chooses to be with the hero because she loves him, and he loves her – and sometimes goes through hell to stay with her), I often get disgusted with the shoddy excuse of what they call “Great Romantic Literature.” It should be labeled as “Oedipus Complex Fiction.” That would be more truth – the guys in them are just looking for a mommy they can have socially-acceptable sex with.

  4. You’ve made some excellent points, Eileen, but I’ll go see any movie with Brad Pitt, and I don’t care what sort of a scoundrel he plays. I know, I’m shameless.
    The theatre was packed when we went on Christmas soon after it had opened. There were some teenage girls seated in our row, and when Brad walked into the hospital looking gorgeous, they all sighed, “Ahhh….”
    So many of the man romances are popular not because of their stupid stories, but because hot actors are in them.

  5. Hmmm. You do have a point. I guess I’ll just watch them with the sound off.

  6. Eileen,

    I think the greatest point that you have made is that “man romance” centers on a weak woman who NEEDS the hero for some reason. Romance, the genre, focuses on women who aren’t perfect–none of us are–but the heroine is usually self-sufficient and able to survive on her own. And the hero needs the heroine just as much as she needs him.

    Awesome post!


  7. Thank you. I seem to be in a mood.

  8. Yay for saying it, Eileen! Didn’t know you were doing historical romances, how fun!

    Curious what you thought of Time Traveler’s Wife, if you read it. I loved that book–not sure why–is it a “Man Romance”? (I didn’t like the ending.)

  9. Let’s call this kind of trash what it is: a shallow never-grow-up male fantasy of all the perks and none of the responsibilities. I have no patience for it at all. I agree. She should have kicked his little butt into the next county for his selfish lifelong behavior and lack of respect for any female.


    Can they go away now?

  10. Man Romance. Ugh. My emotions range from apathetic to hate for those stories. They’re so frustrating and leave me with no satisfying feelings whatsoever. I realize there must be an audience out there or they wouldn’t be so wildly popular, but Lit or Art? Must be new euphamisms for ‘expect a sad or confusing ending’.

  11. Carol–Actually, I think that should be the definition of everything that is now considered lit.

    Kara, I actually did enjoy Time-Traveler’s Wife, but I think it was because I was fascinated by the structure, more than anything. And I’ll be perfectly frank. I didin’t finish it. Maybe I didn’t want to get to that inevitable end where he disappeared again, just in time.

  12. Eileen, I was so catatonically bored by the time Benjamin leaves, I was nearly asleep then… but what woke me up what that, having abandoned his partner and child… he then spends years traveling around having fun. EXCUSE ME? If you’re well enough to travel the world, why the freaking hell are you NOT well enough to, oh, RAISE YOUR CHILD and STAND BY YOUR PARTER? That part of the film made me so annoyed, it woke me up again (which also annoyed me, since in addition to being every bit as appalling as you note, it was also dull, dull, dull).

    One of my all-time favorite moments in movies is in the old family comedy film YOURS, MINE, OURS, when Henry Fonda is helping his pregnant wife, played by Lucille Ball, get to the hospital for delivery, he’s simultaneously lecturing one of his daughters or step-daughters (it’s a huge blended family), who’s about 17-18 years old. Her boyfriend has broken up with her because she won’t boff him. And Fonda’s character, while dealing with the chaotic household and escorting his groaning about-to-give-birth middle-aged wife to the car, is explaining to the girl that going to bed with someone isn’t love, it’s fun; getting up and facing the day with someone, day after day, is LOVE.