London: Alpha males, step aside! Women are more likely to prefer men who have a damaged, vulnerable side that makes them ready to be tamed into ‘husband material’, according to new research. While nearly two centuries have passed since moody Mr Rochester gave Jane Eyre the run-around in Charlotte Bronte’s 17th century classic, it seems the tropes and narratives of romance have barely moved on.
Carol Dyhouse, professor of history at the University of Sussex in the UK studied what creates heterosexual female desire and found that those knee-trembling moments for women are just as pervasive today, even if their lives – and their expectations of men – are completely different to several generations ago.
Reviewing the heroes of novels, magazines, films and a parade of popstars over the decades, Dyhouse in her latest book, “Heartthrobs: A history of women and desire” showed how economics and technology have shaped women’s passion as much as the accessibility of the men themselves.
For Victorian women, a man was a passport to security and a future.
Without marriage, the well-to-do would have remained being supported by their father, or brother. “I don’t think you would have found much discussion of heartthrobs. It would have been irrelevant,” Dyhouse said. With the advent of cinema, it also soon became apparent that the traditional ideal of masculinity was not what women craved.
Many of the most popular screen idols – Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Dirk Bogarde and Richard Chamberlain – were gay (even though this was never revealed during their careers). “There’s often this assumption that women go for alpha male types, but historically that hasn’t been the case at all,” said Dyhouse.
“Women don’t always like what men think they ought to like,” she said.
Dyhouse describes the 1970s as a turning point, with women no longer regarding men essentially as meal tickets. “Feminists always used to say that feminism liberated men as well as women. If you don’t need a man to provide for you, you can relate to them more as human beings,” said Dyhouse.
However, while the heroines of contemporary films and novels are more self-possessed, and the heroes less brutal, the rules of romance have remained the same. As the massive popularity of the books and films of Fifty Shades of Grey have demonstrated, the most satisfying outcomes for women are the situations in which they are taming and transforming a damaged man.
“This is what intrigues me as a social historian. Because falling in love as a young woman and expecting it to last forever is not how it is any more,” said Dyhouse. “A more modern idea is that women are using romantic fiction as a political agenda. They are writing about how, through the influence of a woman’s love, a man becomes husband material,” she said.