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Random musings on Romance and The Terminator

A lot of writers take pride in pushing the boundaries of genre, refusing to be constrained by it. Indie publishing has turned genre mixing into some sort of bloodsport though, where anything goes, which is fine to an extent.

I know it’s only January. But I’m nowhere near as bad as the grocery stores that were selling Christmas candy alongside Valentine’s candy and St. Patrick’s day candy, so bear with me.

I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Romance reader, i.e. it’s been some time since I’ve read a Harlequin novel of any kind. So, some of what I’m about to say comes from distant memories of it and some of it comes from the excellent material from the Genre Structure class I took (Psst, it’s really great and if you want to learn more about genre conventions, I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, all of WMG’s classes are top notch).

A lot of writers take pride in pushing the boundaries of genre, refusing to be constrained by it. Indie publishing has turned genre mixing into some sort of bloodsport though, where anything goes, which is fine to an extent.

While writers love that the genre walls have come down, I don’t think readers are enjoying the deterioration as much. As a reader, I know I certainly don’t. I like to know what I’m getting, i.e. the label on that can better match the ingredients inside.

When I look at a cover or read a blurb, it sets up certain expectations in my mind. This is going to be a Romance. Or this is going to be Sci-Fi. Or Fantasy.

Despite the genre-bending trend, one of the complaints I hear far too often is that a book with a spaceship on the cover is actually a Romance when in fact, it’s not a Romance at all. It may have the elements of a romance*, i.e. two people who fall in love or two people having sex or being in a romantic relationship, but the story structure is NOT that of the Romance Genre. This genre is actually one of the stricter ones when it comes to how all of its elements must come together–unlike its opposite, science fiction–which often seems to be made up entirely of pirate code.

Sometimes the “it’s a romance” complaint is about the rather annoying “technique” of having characters stop in the middle of the action, to have sex. For the most part, I agree with this criticism. The reason I say for the most part, is because I can also see where it would be totally plausible that two people in a life-threatening situation might just stop and have sex. I can also see it as plausible when it’s required for the story.

For example, let’s take a look at The Terminator (1984). Does the fact that Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese fall in love and have sex make it a Romance? They DO stop right in the middle of running from the Terminator who is determined to kill them and they do the deed.

Now, I know they didn’t do it while they were literally running away (cause that would’ve made them dead), but the action in the movie was stopped in order to allow them to have sex. And the reason it worked was because it was necessary to the plot (the Terminator was sent to stop John Connor’s conception from happening). It also made logical sense, i.e. humans need to stop and rest and two healthy adults who are attracted to each other or just in desperate need of affirming survival, might just need to relieve some stress. Throw them into a motel room and–shocker!–we have a sex scene.

So now that we’ve established that the sex and romance weren’t gratuitous, let’s look at other elements of Romance present in this hit movie that is billed as exactly what it is: Action and Sci-Fi.

One of those romance elements is that the couple is together most of the time, and Sarah and Kyle certainly are.

One could argue about the required Romance ending of an HEA (happily ever after) or HEAFN (happily ever after for now). On the one hand, Sarah lived and she’s pregnant with John. Kyle is still alive somewhere in time. But Sarah and Kyle can’t ever be together. Still a helluva love story, though, for there is no greater love than giving one’s life for another.

A third romance element is that the point of the story is for the couple to get together. Yup, check. The ONLY reason the future John Connor sent Kyle back in time is because he knew that Kyle was his father and he would NOT exist otherwise. So, yes, the whole point of this movie was for Sarah and Kyle to get together and make a baby!

The story was even set in her world, as most contemporary romances are. Time travel romances have the heroine traveling to another time but that’s a specific sub-genre of Romance and the “fish out of water” aspect of a time travel romance is a very popular trope (Outlander, anyone?)

So, why isn’t “The Terminator” a Romance? Well, for one thing, the setting and plot overwhelm the romance, even though Sarah and Kyle getting together and making a baby was the point of the story. In this case “setting” refers not to the fact that the story took place in 1984, but to the whole story relying on a time-traveling cyborg. That’s the speculative element that takes this story out of the Romance genre and turns it into a Sci-Fi Action story with a romantic sub-plot. Also, while Sarah and Kyle do spend most of the story together, their focus isn’t exclusively on each other, it’s on surviving. Now, in a way that does mean that their focus is on each other, but it’s external, i.e. the cyborg hunting them.

This is why the cyborg is on the cover. It’s why the sales copy says “A seemingly indestructible android is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a waitress, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against the machines, while a soldier from that war is sent to protect her at all costs.” (IMDB)

Genre-mixing and genre-bending aren’t new. The indie revolution in publishing did not create it. I don’t often agree with Hollywood, but this is one thing they did right. They didn’t mislabel the can. It was billed as what it actually was: an action movie starring one of the biggest action stars of the time.

And yes, the best part about it was the romance.

This is why: Take out the romance aspect of it. Let’s say that John Connor sends Kyle back not because Kyle is his father, but because he’s the best one for the job. Kyle’s mission is to keep Sarah alive so she can hook up with some random dude. In fact, Kyle has specifically ruled out sex or romantic interest in Sarah because he doesn’t want to upset the timeline. His loyalty to John Connor and to the mission that would ensure the destruction of Skynet was the driving force for Kyle. So his motivation wouldn’t have to change. John would’ve never given him Sarah’s picture. Kyle wouldn’t have fallen in love with Sarah even before he’d met her. We’d have another plot-driven (rather than character-driven) action movie with lots of explosions and people dying. Would it have made it less of a hit?

I think it would have, because while everyone can understand the need to be loved, not everyone can identify with the honorable man following orders that will get him killed.

*the difference between small “r” and big “R” romance is that one refers to romance in general and Romance refers to a specific genre with strict rules. Some people use the terms interchangeably.

  1. OldNFO says:

    Excellent points! And the genre bending is getting ridiculous. It’s pushing me back to the old classic books… sigh

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