Romance and Emotional Justice
So I recently saw the movie version of Gone Girl, which had some provocative differences from the book, even though both were written by Gillian Flynn. Those differences, which include a reversal in sympathetic portrayals between the husband and wife, may have been a function of directorial or editorial vision. Or it could be that filmmakers believe that no one wants to see Ben Affleck play a self-absorbed, duplicitous asshole. Either way, I left the theater frustrated and uneasy with how the film ended, because the unfairness completely destroyed any trust I had given the rest of the movie and its characters.
Without revealing the major spoilers in Gone Girl, I will just say that I was struck by how both the book and the movie play on and use tropes and expectations associated with romance – the meet cute, the opposites-attract relationship, the marriage-in-trouble plot – and how much the narratives rely on the reader’s understanding and investment in these narratives. We’re being told a story about two people falling in love and then dealing with all sorts of normal life stresses on their relationship. It’s important that we believe in that relationship, and we’re cued at many points along the way to emotionally invest in these characters. We get both of their POV’s; we see their vulnerabilities and the way they seem to find in the other that one person who really understands and accepts them.
All of that is necessary for the ‘big twist’ of the story to do its twisty work. And it doesn’t take much – just a few shifts here and there – for all of that romantic architecture to crash down, and for a book like Gone Girl to read like the antithesis of a genre Romance novel, even as it concerns many of the same issues we see covered in Romance. Even as the story seems to be mocking these stories — the great romance, followed by the marriage in trouble – it’s using those stories and putting the lovers through their paces in living them out.
During one of those cable-tv interviews they force on you in lieu of commercials between programs, Ben Affleck described Flynn’s story as one where people wear masks as they enter into relationships, and as the relationship matures, those masks come off and you see who you’re really with.
Again, something akin to the development of the romantic plotline, but in the case of genre Romance, the revelation of the authentic self is cause for greater emotional closeness and romantic happiness. The guarded but noble hero becomes emotionally vulnerable in his feelings for the heroine; the aloof heroine who is really just afraid of being hurt again learns she can trust her heart to the hero. That sort of thing. Once those masks are discarded, the true emotional bond can be solidified, and the love relationship is allowed to flourish and shift from mere attraction to long-term emotional commitment and investment.
But perhaps because of the way the movie switched my perception of the two main characters, at the end of Gone Girl the film, particularly, I felt like there was a real lack of emotional justice. Not just romantic fulfillment, but an unbalanced distribution of power that pissed me off because a) it seemed to feed into some negative stereotypes about men and women, and b) it felt like a cop out from the book.
And as I thought about that, I also got to thinking about the importance of emotional justice in genre fiction. Genre fiction is all about delivering on the emotional justice. Criminals are discovered and/or caught in Mystery novels; love beats the odds in Romance. When social strictures, rules, laws, and customs rule against people we root for, we can be comforted by the way love’s victory can eclipse, or at least challenge, the other injustices.
Emotional justice is not the same thing as love conquering all, although it is often related. For example, if a reader believes that one protagonist comes out ahead of the other, love may not be enough to overcome a sense of unfairness or imbalance between them. Or when one protagonist hurts the other in some way and is not adequately humbled. When once is unfaithful, for example, and does not have to go through enough to win back the love of the other. If the reader does not feel that sense of emotional justice, even if the protagonists are in deep and exalted love, it may not be enough to make the book believable for the reader.
Miranda Neville got a great discussion going on Twitter the other day when she asked about whether readers would rather see the hero or heroine grovel. Neville indicated that hero groveling came out slightly ahead. A number of people indicated that they liked to see both hero and heroine grovel, while others talked about the circumstances under which the groveling should occur. Groveling is incredibly important in Romance, because it can go a long way to the payment of an emotional debt. Since certain actions cannot be undone, the injuring party has to make it up to the other in a way that is commensurate with the harm. The grovel allows for the injuring party — often the hero – to show understanding of and remorse for the harm. It opens both the injured party and the reader up for forgiveness, and presents the opportunity that forgiveness will not be given. The good grovel is the quintessential example of emotional justice, because it’s always a substitute for undoing the wrong.
Emotional justice is an equation that cannot always be quantified, but as a reader, I know it when I see it. But because it is emotional, there is no universal calculus. Sometimes it’s an eye for an eye, and other times it’s a balancing of the relationship scales where some things may be heavier than others. Any story can give the reader the promise of love, but without the reader’s trust in that love, the promise becomes hollow. And one way we gain that trust is by seeing the relationship as fair and even, just and right. Every reader has that point at which they feel that things are in accord, even if they are not strictly equal. But not every book will give every reader a sense of emotional justice, and not every type of story will require the same kind of justice. But without it, it’s difficult to believe in the validity of an HFN/HEA.
I’m tempted to argue that emotional justice is even more important than love, but I’m not sure how many of us make the differentiation when we read. When it’s really working, I think we tend to see that emotional justice as intrinsic to love’s success. But when it’s not, I think it’s easier to discern those aspects of the relationship that seem unbalanced or unfair.
How do you define emotional justice in Romance? What book exemplifies that perfect balance for you, and what book felt so unjust at the end that you could not buy into the love relationship? And just out of curiosity, would you rather see the hero grovel or the heroine, and why?