A Lingering Obsession With Millionaires

One of the very first articles I wrote for xoJane when I was brought on board last year was a discussion of the rich guy/poor girl setup in an astounding number of romance novels. It’s a plotline that tends to fall out along very familiar lines; the poor girl is a maid or other menial labourer, struggling to make do, when she encounters a mysterious, standoffish millionaire (or billionaire) who slowly falls in love with her over the course of the novel.

He’s captivated by her down-to-earth life and often keeps his identity a secret, and as the tension builds, she starts to fall in love back. The dynamics of their relationship very much position him as the patriarch, the one who will swoop in to protect and save her (sometimes in a way that borders on the abusive), and by the end of the novel, they’re married or planning to be, and everything has worked out happily ever after. She’s been lifted from poverty, she can help her family members, and she’s happy with the man she loves. Who just happens to be wealthy, which is mighty convenient.

The cynical part of me, of course, points at the fact that this dovetails very neatly with the interests of the ruling classes, which naturally want to keep us complacent about the shocking inequalities in our society, the increasing absurdity when it comes to the distribution of wealth, and, of course, the fact that few millionaires and billionaires pay their taxes. And naturally, they have a huge impact on how we think and feel about wealth, how we interact with it, and the mythologies that we build up around it because they control the media and the means of communication.

A year later, I don’t see any radical shifts in book listings; this continues to be an extremely popular romance offering. And this doesn’t surprise me at all; as I pointed out on xoJane, it’s one of the oldest entries in the romance repertoire. Poor, ordinary girl with a feisty streak and a determination to survive meets a wealthy (and often older) man, wrestles her demons, and ends up on top, and with her name added to the deed of the family manse. There’s something in these characters that readers are identifying with, and I assure you, it’s not millionaires looking for a little light reading; it’s primarily women in the lower and middle classes who want to enjoy some escapism.

I happen to be a big fan of escapism, but this particular brand of it comes with some chilling implications. It’s all about reinforcing the myth of some sort of magical fairy who is going to swoop in from overhead and save you from poverty, not about challenging why it is that some people live in poverty while others have extreme wealth. Nor do these books do anything meaningful to allow the women to assert themselves as people, beyond some token protest before admitting that clearly, the match is meant to be.

In other words, don’t fight the man, or the system, just bootstrap until a wealthy man comes to swoop you off your feet. Very, very few books shift the dynamics of gender and sexuality here; it’s rarely a woman millionaire, or a queer partnership. And that, too, is telling, because the extreme heteronormativity in these books ties in with larger attitudes about the roles of men and women in society. Men are supposed to be the providers, the ones earning the money and taking care of the women. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be the nurturers, the ones who fill a hole in the heart of a man and make his life feel complete.

It’s not surprising to see ‘just marry a millionaire’ advanced as the solution to social inequality in a nation filled with a plethora of pop culture demonstrations of precisely this sort of attitude. Scores of television shows have people competing for very large prizes or being surprised with sudden gifts of money, the lottery is a huge industry across the United States, and when novels aren’t encouraging women to seek out millionaires to solve their money problems, they’re telling us that everyone has an estranged relative with a lot of money somewhere who will die and will it all to you, thus transforming your life. In all of these cases, the assumed goal of everyone’s life is wealth, or at least enough money to ‘live comfortably.’

Nowhere in these narratives is there room for resistance, for classwar. There’s certainly no critical evaluation of capitalism and an actual questioning of the structures that keep society highly stratified and reinforce boundaries between people in different classes. In all of these settings, capitalism is assumed to be the answer and the only logical way to run a society, and inequality is accepted as something natural and inevitable, rather than something that should be deeply offensive and infuriating.

These ‘deserving poor‘ are always recipients of largesse because they played the game right. They worked hard and they were meek and they didn’t try to start trouble, because that would be wrong. They may look askance on social campaigners, viewing them with deep suspicion and sometimes anger for not accepting their lot in life and realising that the only way they’ll get ahead is by climbing off their soapboxes and entering ‘the real world.’ Embedded in this, of course, is the belief that everyone wants to ‘get ahead,’ and that society should be a place where some people are always in positions of dominance.

Because if you’re getting ahead, that implies that you are leaving someone behind.