Is Romance Addictive? Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Seduced by Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind. Movie poster of the film directed by Victor Fleming and starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Unites States, 1939. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

I might have been 12 when I read Gone with the Wind, the only time I read a book with a flashlight under the covers all through the night. What kept me reading? Not the Civil War. It was the romance. I couldn’t wait till handsome, sexy Rhett Butler made the scene again. 

Mom, a literary person who read books constantly, was not pleased. “It’s not literature,” she said. Later I thought that was code for racist. By that time, in the early 1960s, the novel had gained ill will for its Confederate perspective. Or maybe Mom was simply telling me that romance novels are not great literature. Maybe she had also read it all night under the covers. Maybe she, too, was embarrassed for liking it so much.

I know she liked it. The book I was reading was a first edition, collected by my mother when it came out in 1936. It was the bomb and three years later Mom engaged in a nation-wide contest to see who could guess which actress would be chosen to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie. White America was captivated. Black America protested and worried that racist caricatures would result in violence.

Although I was obsessed with Gone with the Wind and couldn’t stop reading until the end, I didn’t get addicted to romance novels like some women seem to be, perhaps because my literary mother steered me elsewhere.

Obsessed with Bridgerton

Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Sixty years later I find myself obsessed with the Shonda Rhimes Netflix series Bridgerton, which takes place during the late Regency era in England. Bridgerton is based on eight romance novels by Julia Quinn, about a wealthy family of the period (the early 1800s). The main characters are beautiful and super rich but, thankfully they are not all white people. Instead, some of the most powerful characters are people of color, including the queen herself. 

Shonda Rhimes, the show’s producer, is right now the most powerful Black woman in TV land. She got famous with Grey’s Anatomy and has gone on to produce a plethora of shows. How do the folks in ShondaLand decide what to show us and how to show it? I’m imagining Shonda exclaiming, “Let’s make a series about rich English people and populate it with people of color! We can turn the 19th century on its head and give work to some Black actors.” (I might add POC writers, directors, producers and show runners. I see that Cheryl Dunye, the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film, is working on this project.)

It does feel like a subtle nose thumbing to the white supremacy rearing its ugly head all around us. But it’s more than just colorblind casting. Rhimes calls it “color conscious casting.” Miscegenation turns out to be an introduced element that maintains interest even when the plot turns to cliché as it sometimes does. Characters have been called “deeply shallow,” and the series “silly.” Like the romance novels the series is based on, the tropes can be overused. Still, like Gone with the WindBridgerton is wildly popular. It’s the most watched English language television series on Netflix.

Is romance addictive?

Photo: Time Inc.

Why am I binging? It’s the romance. I can’t get enough of these beautiful people falling in love. I don’t wish for them to have sex. There was a lot of sex in the first season of the series, and I didn’t care. I read that the actors, too, watching with their parents, were embarrassed and fast forwarded through the sex scenes. Regé-Jean Page, the handsome hunk of the first season, said he wasn’t wild about his family seeing so much of his bum (he does have a lovely bum and I did enjoy looking).

In the second season sex is more apogee. The characters spend time working up to it—the touch of hands, the looking into each others’ eyes. Shonda and the writers know how to orchestrate anticipation. In the early part of the second season, the main characters, obviously madly in love, barely touched and certainly didn’t kiss, though they got very close often. 

The show has my attention not only because of the sexual tension, which lasts through the season. It also has no violence or murder. Rivalries, power plays, deception, class conflict yes. Also palace intrigue, family relationships, friendship between women, queer subtexts, Jane Austen tropes, fabulous costumes and interiors. We know not to expect car crashes, explosions or automatic weapons and for me that’s a relief.

Watching or reading romance is kind of like a drug. The feeling I’m left with is like the day after a night of passionate lovemaking. I keep replaying the scenes in my head with a smile on my face. I can see why it might lead to addiction.

I suppose that’s why romance still sells. A few writers of popular romance novels are making millions, and millions of women (and some men) are reading. Who cares whether we get addicted to romance? Maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Except some christian diviners of moral behavior have labeled it addiction and are worried that romance novels will cause women to leave their husbands, who can never match up to those bodice-ripping heroes. It is a disease they say, just as porn has captured the attention of men. But I suspect these christians associate anything that gives women pleasure with sin. 

if it’s sin, I’m all in. I can just add Bridgerton to all the christian sins I commit daily like being happily married to another woman. Now I’m looking forward with great anticipation to season three. Shonda knows what we like.

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