“What Does a Woman Want?”

…famously asked Sigmund Freud. A couple of neuroscience researchers have attempted to answer that question, at least as far as the preferred profession of a romantic hero goes. Researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed 15,000 Harlequin romance novels (fifteen thousand???)  and tabulated the professions of the male leads.

I don’t know to what degree Harlequin readers are representative of romance-novel readers as a whole, nor to what degree romance-novel readers are representative of the female population as a whole…but for what it’s worth, here’s the list that resulted from the study.


1. Doctor
2. Cowboy
3. Boss
4. Prince
5. Rancher
6. Knight
7. Surgeon
8. King
9. Bodyguard
10. Sheriff


20 thoughts on ““What Does a Woman Want?””

  1. Status, power, authority, wealth, unpredictability, capacity for violence.

    The usual things that arouse the female half of our species.

    Notably not men who share the chores and do the dishes uncomplainingly, are caring and warm, share their feelings, and who sometimes need a good cry, too.

    15,000 Harlequin romances cannot be wrong.

    It is pablum which is produced solely to make money.

    If these depictions of fantasy males did not work, they would not be used.

    This is a classic case of revealed rather than disclosed preferences.

  2. You would not believe the incredibly strict format for writing Harlequin romances … it’s like a cross between an identikit and an airman performance report – very structured.
    Or so I am told by the writers who have done a stint in the Harlequin romance barrel.

  3. It seems there was a PRINCE, who had to leave his native land because of a revolution instigated by evil people. He came to America, where (back in those days) there wasn’t much demand for princes, so he studied and became a DOCTOR and SURGEON. Sadly, one of his patients died, through no fault of the heros, but the patient’s influential family got the prince/doctor’s license yanked. He went out west and became a COWBOY, which career choice was greatly helped by his riding skills, which had been sharpened as a young cavalry officer. But, as a result of the loss of his kingdom and his medical license, he developed a somewhat cynical and even bitter manner.

    Still, his cowboy-ing skills were so advanced that he became a RANCHER, and BOSS of fifty other cowboys…he was also made SHERIFF of the area, and shot several bad guys.

    Comes now the ***heroine***, traveling alone in a dangerous area where she really shouldn’t have been. She is attacked by some of the not-yet-killed bad guys, and the hero saves her, then chastises and rebukes her for traveling alone in an outlaw area.

    Despite his rather harsh and cynical and even bitter manner, the ***heroine*** sees the tenderer and softer side of the hero, hidden under the psychological scar tissue. She falls in love with him and encourages him to take back his kingdom.

    The first step in this project is that he travels alone to a country, adjacent to his old country, which is ruled by a Good King. He takes a job working for the Good King, slaying dragons, killing bad people, and protecting women—especially beautiful virgins (who, however, cannot hold a candle to the ***heroine***. While working dutifully at these tasks, he is gathering intelligence about the state of affairs in his old kingdom. He raises an army of good and loyal peasants, overthrows the evil ruler, and becomes KING by acclamation.

    He now calls for the ***heroine***, who joins him and becomes his queen, living in modest luxury (lusciously described) and giving bread and mush (even, at Christmas, a little meat and wine) to the more virtuous among the peasantry.

    Think it’ll sell?

  4. All kidding aside,
    women used to read those books for the same reason men watched shoot-em-ups and war movies.
    They depict heroes and archetypes that our collective narrative is constructed around.

    Now some are suggesting that they read them now because men increasingly just aren’t available at all anymore:


    Specifically, remember that pajama boy in the Obamacare ads?
    If that represents the field these days, then I don’t blame them so much for dreaming of princes and cowboys.

  5. Speaking of archetypes, one could categorize the professions on the list, thusly:

    Protector, direct implementer of violence: Knight, Bodyguard, Sheriff

    Ruler/Leader of men: King, Boss, Rancher

    Healer: Doctor, Surgeon

    Person of Inherited Status: King, Prince

    Worker with Animals: Cowboy, Rancher, Knight

    Independent Man: Cowboy, Knight

  6. There are probably a couple of doctor ex-wives in that survey, hence the ranking of surgeons below “doctors.” We don’t make great husbands, I’m afraid. My second wife was an ICU nurse and, after we were married, she told me she could not believe how many times the phone rang at night.

    The story reminds me of an old joke. A man is traveling on an airplane when a pretty girl sits next to him. He’s a salesman and an extrovert so he strikes up a conversation. He asks her about her trip and calls her “Nan.” She asks why the name and he refers to her embroidered NAN on her blouse. “Oh,” she says,”That’s the name of my organization. I’m just going home from the convention.”

    He asks her what group and she replies, “The National Association of Nymphomaniacs.” He asks what they do at a convention. She replies they have seminars (no that’s not a pun) and workshops. He asks about the topic of the seminars and she says she was at one to decide which men make the best lovers. “Which were they ?”

    She says, “We tied between Jewish men and Native Americans.” “Oh,” she says, “I’m sorry what’s your name ?” He replies, “Tonto Liebowitz !”

  7. Interesting piece here by a female psych professor who does work as a consultant for Harlequin…although she says she always found romance novels boring when she was younger.

  8. I’ve read a few romance novels (not Harlequin), and some of them were pretty good.

    Given what Sgt Mom said about the “incredibly strict format” for writing the Harlequins (and really, the writing would have to be practically Taylorized given the volumes produced), I would imagine that the Harlequin fans really are different from the romance readers who prefer a layer of somewhat-sophisticated writing on top of their serving of warm archetypes.

  9. I don’t really know, Bill – I never got into Harlequins, either reading them or writing them. About the closest that I ever got was Barbara Cartland, which bored me beyond tears.

  10. It is an unexpected pleasure to see David Friedman comment above. Almost a half century ago we hung out at the coffee shop in Ida Noyes Hall, and argued politics instead of studying. He was, at that time well versed in liberal thought, having, no doubt, imbibed it with his baby food. I was, sad to say, a sort of squishy Democrat Progressive. David schooled me, and the others in the room, in the good , the true, and the beautiful.

    David, I have wanted to say this for a very long time, you were right, and I was wrong. Thank you for the education.

  11. I’m surprised at professions that didn’t make the list.

    Lawyer, the Perry Mason type hero defending against “the system”?

    Pilot, riding the “flying horse”?

    Veterinarian, the surgeon doctor who fixes the Pony Pal’s horse?

    Mayor or other elected official besides Sherriff?

    Architect or somekind of other “home builder”?

    And the classic “absent minded professor” as in _Bringing Up Baby_ or _What’s Up, Doc?_.

    Seems like a market void waiting to be filled…

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