Pretty People Behaving Stupidly

I’ve been learning about the romance genre recently. I have no intrinsic interest in it at all, but I have an intelligent friend who plows through romances the way I read SF, and we’ve been discussing the conventions and structural features of the genre. Along the way I’ve learned that romance fans use an acronym TSTL which expands to “Too Stupid To Live”, describing a class of bad romance in which the plot turns on one or both leads exhibiting less claim to sophont status than the average bowl of clam dip.

My wife and I have parts in an upcoming live-action roleplaying game set in early 16th-century Venice. As preparation, she suggested we watch a movie called Dangerous Beauty set in the period. I couldn’t stand more than about 20 minutes of it. “It’s just,” I commented later “pretty people behaving stupidly.”

On reflection, I’ve discovered that PPBS describes a great deal of both the fiction and nonfiction I can’t stand. It’s a more general category that includes not just TSTL, but celebrity gossip magazines, almost every “romantic comedy” ever made, and a large percentage of the top-rated TV shows (especially, of course, the soap operas).

Obviously there’s a huge market for this stuff. I must be from Mars or something, because I don’t get it. How is wallowing in PPBS any different from going to the zoo to watch monkeys masturbate?

B-but… half my readers are probably spluttering, “…those are monkeys. PPBS is about people. Their hopes, their loves, their foolishness and dreams.” Yeah. And your point is? The entire emotional range of PPBS is duplicated in the social dynamics of any chimpanzee band; that’s exactly what makes it so boring.

There is nothing there about what actually makes us human, neither the good stuff like science and art and discovery nor the bad stuff like warfare and governments. In a universe of satoris and supernovas, the people who produce and consume PPBS only care about who slept with or dissed or made up with who.

I find that truly sad.

UPDATE: I’m a shadow Tourette’s Syndrome case, not a shadow autist like many other geeks. Nevertheless, this description of neurotypicality seems relevant.


  1. Dangerous Beauty indeed! Had it been me, I would have suggested a three week vacation in Venice! I don’t know much about RPG’s but they sound fun. I don’t know much about PPBS, it sounds like reality TV as they have it in the UK. I’d rather watch Monkeys at the zoo…LOL

  2. Indeed! I never saw what was so compelling about people making the same stupid mistakes over and over again. Part of the reason I like SF is because it tends to be about people who are smarter, wiser, cleverer than me. I started watching “The L Word” because… well, I’m not quite sure why. I’m finishing out season two because I want to see how the plot threads wind up. But I’ve started waving and shouting at the characters that they’re being really, really… stupid. Yeah, you’re right. It’s frustrating, and if I had less patience and less of an attachment to long, involved storylines, I’d have stomped out at the first signs of Big Stupid.

    Maybe media about characters who are stupid but pretty reflects a different set of priorities. I thought it was axiomatic that everyone would rather be smart and ugly than stupid and pretty, but maybe SF is for for former set, and PPBS is for the latter.

  3. There’s always the meta-question. I frequently watch what many people would call crap, not because I particularly *like* the crap, but because it fascinates me that someone cared enough to make it. Not only does someone out there not agree that it’s crap, they actually believe it’s good enough to produce. Think about the kind of mind that believes in this crap so strongly, they can convince a massive media juggernaut to dump millions of dollars into the vision of that crap and make it a reality.

    And what primarily interests me is, WHY? What could possibly have been so interesting about this crap to ANYONE?

    When you start asking that question, interesting patterns begin to emerge, and those patterns are all about what makes up the human condition. There may not be a baby in the bathwater, but there’s certainly something someone THOUGHT was a baby. Maybe it’s worth a little examination, if only to see what that person was thinking and whether there is any hope whatsoever for that person in the future.

  4. This may well represent a difference in overall outlook on life between SF and romance fans. SF fans believe that the world is, or at least should be, rational. Being too stupid to live in an SF story generally gets you messily dead. Even so, we all know that there are, in fact, people that stupid, and that such books sell tells me that the average romance fan doesn’t believe that getting messily dead is just reward for being too stupid to live.

    That difference in outlook is probably why SF fans don’t read romances and romance fans don’t read SF.

  5. You’re not from Mars, Eric; just a geek.

    I have noticed that for most people, social interaction seems to be the highest purpose in life and also the highest form of expression. Love, trust, betrayal, commitment, even dominance and submission — kinky as it may sound this actually governs quite a bit of workplace relations, for example. All of which chimps are capable of too but somehow these have been reframed as “what makes us human”. Geeks engage with the universe on a more fundamental level; and things like Linux and single-stage-to-orbit rockets precipitate out of this deep engagement. So science fiction, with its bold enthusiastic predictions of what we might do if we really put our engineering faculty to use, resonates well with geeks, speaking to their wavelength a message of “Technology Good!”

    Science fiction changed with William Gibson, who changed that exclamation point into a question mark. Having recently read a few of his books, I think I understand why people keep enthusing about his tepid, Gordian writing: his fiction is mainly about social stuff, not geeky technical stuff. And social stuff is what people want, mainly, so it is what writers will write and publishers will publish.

    Romance and sex are, of course, the ultimate in social stuff; and in the period following the Sexual Revolution this has seemed to ramp up significantly. A friend of mine put it as people being sold their own genitals over and over again.

  6. I’m not sure that I’d say that Gibson particularly changed Science Fiction: the “Technology Good?” approach has been antedated by that of Huxley, Orwell, and for that matter Shelley’s Frankenstein. Gibson brought some of these ideas to the surface again, but I wouldn’t call him an innovator because of this approach. Personally, I haven’t quite figured out what so many people seem to see in his work, but hey, different strokes, right?

  7. I never said Gibson was particularly innovative; my specific description of his prose as tepid and Gordian should have implied the opposite. :) Like his namesake, William Henry Gates, he was not so much an innovator as in the right place at the right time. And there was kind of a cultural shift in the center of SF gravity away from the individualist ethos and penchant for technical plausibility which characterized the “hard SF” of much of the 20th century. But the broader culture which caused this shift was already there: in the main people care much more for the details of social networks than they do the details of packet-switched data networks, and they tend to fear the unknown, and perhaps fear that which is only intimately known by an apparent technological elite even more.

    Come to think of it, social networks are fun to observe — provided one keeps a safe distance or knows how to dodge thrown faeces.

  8. The bulk of the original post seems both interesting and relevent, and neatly ties up my opinion of any number of aspects of mainstream culture (especially romantic comedies).

    However, I’m less certain about the relevance of the neurotypicality article. I’ve noticed a certain tendency toward kneejerk condemnation of the mainstream in geek culture as well as any number of other subcultures, and using the word “neurotypical” to sum up the usual litany of horrible things doesn’t seem to add much to the discussion. Is there more to the classification that I just don’t see?

  9. Of course, I could just be showing my prejudices here, but it seems to me that the reason people go in for any of this nonsense is the same reason they go in for organised religion that talks of redemption and an afterlife. For someone who is stupid or weak to buy into a Nietzschean or Darwinian philosophy espoused in much of SF, such a person must admit that he or she is stupid or weak, and thus, that he or she has little to no place in the scheme of things.

    Conversely, organised religion of the Christian variety says, essentially, that “any fool can make it.” Likewise, with celebrity gossip, reality TV, etc. Whether it’s dragging everyone down to the same lowest common denominator, or giving everyone the possibility of fame and fortune, it operates on the same principle: slave morality.

  10. Caleb: You pretend that the stupid and the weak know and admit that they’re stupid and weak. (I do not exclude myself from this consideration.) This is seldom the case.

  11. BJD:

    The article on neurotypicality was written by an autist who is tired of people classifying his condition as a pathology. Since he sees nothing wrong with his neurological state, he wrote that parody, listing the bizarre and harmful behavior of people who are not autistic.

    And that is more than understandable.

  12. So what about people like me who like romance and hard sci-fi? I think of the PPBS as brain candy, but I go for the Niven or Heinlein when I want a satisfying meal.

  13. grendelkhan: Many do. The power of denial is a pretty strong motivator. However, you’re right. Maybe it’s my own form of denial in that I really don’t want to consider the implications of that. ie. that a lot (maybe even the majority) of people are irrational, stupid, weak sheep, who need to be led to their own slaughter, and that libertarianism is ultimately pie in the sky, when what we need is fascism. Scary.

  14. If romance is about “pretty people behaving stupidly”, science fiction is about “smart people behaving stupidly”. A vast proportion of SF is about the consequences of some arrogant genius’s folly, or some large-scale mistake by political or cultural authorities. It’s all a function of the necessities of drama. There has to be tension, conflict, and resolution. Something has to be wrong and come right. (Except in tragedies, where it just goes wronger. What’s Romeo and Juliet but PPBS?)

    In romances, especially romantic comedy, the easiest and most plausible ‘wrong’ is the protagonists being stupid. Then they wise up. It’s easy for the audience to identify with this. Just as it’s easy for many SF readers to identify with the nerd who invents the psychotronic interocitor and saves the day.

    I sometimes skim romances in the supermarket, mainly to see how they handle (for instance) single parenthood – it reflects the assumptions of the mass culture. The ‘hot-tempered protagonists clash by mistake at first meeting’ device is ludicrously overused. But then SF authors have grossly overused the ‘lost colony reverted to barbarism’ device, too.

    As I said, it all comes down to dramatic necessity, and the vast majority of authors in all genres rely on hackneyed devices.

  15. I have a lot of friends who like and enjoy reading romance novels. In fact, some of them have dreams of becoming romance authors in the future. Maybe that explains why they like to keep journals for them to be able write their own experiences in romance. Writing romance is interesting. Well, love has always been a meaningful subject and a good source of inspiration in literature and in the movies.

  16. I recently attempted to write a SF novel (actually a SG-1 novel that I’ll probably never get the licensing to publish, alas…).
    The research I did prior to the fact indicated that a Writer should develop Characters, then develop a Scene, then answer the question, “What is the worst possible thing (WPT) that could happen right now?” That becomes your Story.

    In order to have the WPT, you typically need Stupidity.

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