Culture sells us a romantic ideal, and we believe

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jettisoned into the living rooms of millions of television viewers last month, five Seattle widowers, marketed as potential "Sleepless in Seattle" romances, talked about grief and their late wives.

They were a kayaking aerospace engineer; a computer systems analyst and father of two; an attorney with a love of opera; an accountant and father of one; and a soft-spoken young doctor who enjoys running. All, despite the probing eye of a camera beaming their images to the Oprah Winfrey show's estimated 14 million viewers, rated high on the vulnerability scale. It was a potent mix.

Ms. Winfrey, matchmaker of the moment, encouraged women interested in meeting the five to write. And write they did.

About a week later, she drove a forklift carrying 60,000 letters onto the set of her TV show. There were women who wrote songs and women who sent fish ("I'm quite a catch!"). There were photos of women in bikinis and women in ball gowns.

And, to the satisfaction of an audience aflutter over the notion of real-life love stories unfolding before their eyes, each man's choice was revealed. Jeff, the young doctor who alone received 40,000 letters, was a new national heartthrob, Ms. Winfrey said.

It was talk TV at its giddy best. According to show spokeswoman Colleen Raleigh, Ms. Winfrey's "Sleepless in Seattle" program was one of the most popular of the new season, with ratings several notches above the norm.

It's not surprising, given the nation's preoccupation with romance.

In the 1990s, the Noah's Ark syndrome -- the desire to go through life two by two -- prevails.

Today, with 39 percent of the nation's adult population single -- 33 million men and about 40 million women -- the Big R has hit the media mainstream.

Both men and women are reading such books as the best-selling romance "The Bridges of Madison County," watching movies such as "Sleepless in Seattle" and dozens of TV shows with love themes, and placing and answering classified ads at a steady clip.

In fact, the SM/NSTD (single male, no sexually transmitted diseases) looking for the SF/NSTD of his dreams, once the turf of the alternative press, can be found in newspapers as mainstream as the Seattle Times and the Washington Post.

The theme is also evident in the popularity of romance-hero pinup calendars, dating services, matchmakers and vacations earmarked for singles.

There are a number of theories to explain the trend.

Haven in a cold world

"I think the romances we see now are a break from the serious issues we have to deal with today. A kinder, gentler emotional world is something we long for from time to time," says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

In a tough economy, two paychecks are better than one; monogamy cuts the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS; and when relationships are all they should be, they're emotional havens in a stress-filled world.

According to Dr. Schwartz, the romantic tales of the '90s are like the sweet romantic tales of the World War II years, which, by the time the politically charged '60s and '70s came around, seemed without substance and beside the point.

Dr. Laura Kastner, clinical associate professor in the University of Washington's psychology department, agrees.

"We need more 'up' movies right now," she says.

While in the '40s, Hollywood offered "Meet Me in St. Louis" with Judy Garland and "State Fair" with Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain, today it offers "Sleepless in Seattle" (which grossed $44 million in its first 11 days), "The Bodyguard," "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman."

" 'Pretty Woman' would have been the airhead material of the '60s," Dr. Kastner says. But it's embraced in the '90s because "we want to believe in love right now. Love is the ultimate happy ending. The more alienated we become from each other, the more we yearn for that connection of romance. We want to believe that perfect love can be maintained. As the divorce rate and domestic violence rate goes up, there is this desperation to believe love works."

Romance by the book

Romantic fiction has been at the forefront of the trend. Today, 46 percent of all mass-market paperbacks are romances. While romantic tales date to the days of Shakespeare, today's romances are considerably different from Kathleen Woodiwiss' "The Flame and the Flower," which launched the paperback romance genre in the '70s.

Rape is no longer acceptable. Women are stronger and, instead of always being of wealth and privilege, may be ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They may have stepchildren, a sexual history, a past.

Some, like Sandra Brown's "French Silk," about a lingerie company owner who is suspected of murdering a TV evangelist (the love interest is the prosecutor), are being made into TV movies.

Many are national best-sellers, like Ms. Woodiwiss' "So Worthy My Love" and "Forever in Your Embrace" and Julie Garwood's "Saving Grace," about a victim of domestic violence.

While the average romance reader is a 39-year-old woman with an annual household income of $40,000, according to the American Booksellers Association, men are reading them, too.

"I think what's interesting about 'Bridges of Madison County' is that men have read it and liked it," says Ellen Berscheid, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "This goes along with a lot of things. The whole women's liberation movement has liberated men, too, to show the softer side."

Champion of the literary soft side is a 6-foot-3 Italian hunk named Fabio. He's the creation of Avon Books, which a few years ago put him on the covers of its romance novels. An estimated 55 million paperbacks later, Fabio has his own 900-number on which fans may call to hear him whisper sweet nothings at $1.99 a minute. He's collaborated on a book, "Pirate," complete with a centerfold and billed as a romantic fantasy. He also has his own brand of cologne, "Mediterranean," which he has been promoting in department stores across the country.

A TV show is in the works, along with more books like "Pirate."

"The idea is that he's written a book he can star in," says Ellen Edwards, senior editor at Avon Books. "He becomes the embodiment of women's fantasies . . . a great marketing tool." And it works.

Marketing fantasy

"We've become much more adept at marketing fantasy," says Dr. Schwartz. "A lot of women out there are having trouble dealing with the world as it is. Many don't feel they're going to get what they want in real life. They may live in a world where men don't conform to their needs for tenderness and the only place they can get it is on 'Oprah' or in books or movies." The fantasy man "is only looking for one woman. There is no competition. No doubts. He will find you and will change your life forever."

The media-spun illusions make love seem brighter during exotic vacations than back home over the breakfast table, book-cover heroes more exciting than the humble soul in the fishing hat, and matchmakers magicians capable of bringing fantasies to life.

Dianne Bennett, who runs Mutual Admiration, an introduction service in Hollywood, specializes in fulfilling fantasies, particularly for older women who want to meet younger men.

She recently searched Moscow and St. Petersburg to find a young Russian composer for a wealthy woman in search of a mate. "I found exactly what she wanted. She met me there and she went out on dates with the top 20 candidates."

The woman's choice is the tall, slim Vladimir, 35. She's 55. "We're submitting a fiance visa and expecting him in two weeks," Ms. Bennett says.

When "everybody is very specific, in a way it makes my job easier. I question my clients until I get a clear picture of the person they are seeking. I want to deliver what they are really looking for."

Seattle's Ken Palmer, 72, delivers fantasy.

As a host for the Royal Cruise Line, Mr. Palmer, a retired accountant, is dancing his way around the world in a setting as perfect as the sheen of his dress shoes, the paper crispness of his white dinner jacket and the sensuousness of his samba.

His job, and that of the other six or so hosts, is to dance with the older, single women passengers, many of whom haven't danced in years. While as a host he cannot show any one guest too much attention or become romantically involved, he can -- and has -- made contacts who became friends offshore. He, like other hosts, has had offers of marriage.

Mr. Kastner believes fantasy's success is linked to our view of relationships.

"If you look at the institution of marriage, we're asking more and more of our relationships today. Fifty years ago, a woman married to have someone to provide for her and a man married to have a family. Now we want equality, good sex, good communication and common interests."

In 1950, the wife had her bridge club and the husband was a workaholic who played golf on Wednesdays. "Today, women divorce their husbands for being workaholics," Mr. Kastner says.

Untested love, like the affair between the Midwestern housewife and the National Geographic photographer in "Bridges of Madison County," appears better.

It's the love-is-blind phase when "you are absolutely perfect." And if it seems that way, it's "because I don't know you very well," she said.

No matter what the age, according to Jeff Ullman, author and founder of the dating service Great Expectations, the interest in love never dies. "Anybody in the trenches of love knows how very aggressively singles are looking for the love of their life," he says.

"The new romantic reality of the '90s is that to get love, you have to have a strategy."

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