Lesson Plan: Hunky Heroes, Steamy Sirens and the Psychology of the People Who Read About Them

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In this lesson, students will watch documentary video clips that provide a case study of a woman who reads modern-day romance novels and tries to recreate a fantasy from a novel in her real life. Students will break down and analyze her behavior, and then use a psychological theory of motivation to explain it.

The video clips in this lesson are from the film Guilty Pleasures, a documentary that offers a perceptive look at the world of the romance novel by profiling five people involved in it. The roles of these five vary widely, and through them the film reveals the deeper personal and social meaning of the genre's allure. Guilty Pleasures discovers not so much a business as a global community of shared imagination, a community whose yearning for romance fiction's Holy Grail--true love--seems to know no barrier of language or culture, and whose enthusiasm shows no signs of abating any time soon.

If you would like to use the complete film in the classroom, please note that the festival version contains profanity and some explicit sexual dialogue. You can avoid such content by using the broadcast version of the film.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Examine statistics related to the readership and popularity of romance novels.
  • Break down and analyze the behavior of a woman who reads romance novels and tries to recreate a fantasy from a novel in her real life.
  • Determine which psychological theory of motivation best explains this woman's behavior.




Psychology, Sociology, Women's Studies



One 50-minute class period


Note: The following clips are in Japanese with English subtitles.

Clip 1: "I Discovered This Dream World in The Books" (length 2:00)

This clip begins at 3:37 with a shot of a train moving through Tokyo. It ends at 5:37 with the phrase "...to compensate for what I can't give her."

Clip 2: "He Has the Look of the Heroes" (length 1:00)

This clip begins at 10:40 with a shot of a busy street in Tokyo. It ends at 11:40 with the phrase "...Savannah insisted in a heated whisper."

Clip 3:"This Must Be a Dream" (length 1:20)

This clip begins at 21:12 with Hiroko and her teacher dancing. It ends at 22:32 with the phrase "...a wonderful romantic dream."

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1. Ask students to describe the person they think is the typical buyer of romance novels in the United States. Prompt them to respond with details about gender, age, marital status and where in the country that person might live. Lead a brief class discussion that results in a consensus about the profile of a typical buyer.

2. Distribute the handout "Buyers of Romance Novels in the United States" and compare actual buyer characteristics with the class profile. Do any of the statistics on the handout surprise students? Why or why not? What might account for any misconceptions that students had?

3. Tell the class that romance novels are big business all around the world. Every four seconds a romance novel published by Harlequin or its British counterpart, Mills & Boon, is sold somewhere in the world. The books are published in 26 languages and sold in 109 countries. And readers around the world buy more romance novels than any other type of book (Source: Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2010). Ask students to speculate about why romance novels are so popular.

4. Give each student a copy of the handout "Guilty Pleasures Viewing Guide: Dancing in Tokyo." Tell the class that they are going to watch three brief video clips from the film Guilty Pleasures that show a fan of romance novels named Hiroko, who lives in Tokyo, Japan. Ask students to take notes on the handout as they watch the videos. Then, show clips 1 through 3.

5. Discuss student responses on the handout. Do students think that Hiroko's passion for romance novels and ballroom dancing has enriched or harmed her life? Have them cite evidence from the video clips to support their answers.

6.Ask student pairs to look more closely at the motivations behind Hiroko's behavior by reviewing Theories of Motivation online or in their psychology textbooks. Have them determine which theory best explains why Hiroko reads romance novels and brings some of her fantasies to life with ballroom dancing. Ask each student pair to summarize its analysis in writing.

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  • Compare student analyses from the main lesson activity. Have each pair of students share its thinking with the rest of the class. Which theory of motivation best explains Hiroko's behavior? Did each pair come to the same conclusion? Why or why not? Did male students think differently about Hiroko's behavior than female students? Does student diversity influence conclusions? Explain.
  • Analyze the messages depicted on the covers of romance novels. Guilty Pleasures includes scenes from two photo shoots for romance novel covers where beautiful models pose as the characters in the stories. Select two or three romance novel book cover images from the Internet and ask students to examine them. (Note: It is recommended that you preselect the images that best meet your curricular goals rather than having students search for them, because such searches have the potential to return sexual content.) For each image, ask students the following: What is the purpose of the book cover? Who is the target audience and how do you know? What are its messages? Which stereotypes are reinforced? How might such an image influence a reader's beliefs and behavior? For additional ideas for analyzing media messages, see our Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
  • Study psychological research that evaluates how partners are selected in romance novels. Have small student groups read and discuss articles, such as "Pride and Prejudice or Children and Cheating?: Jane Austen's Representations of Female Mating Strategies" and "Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads: Alternative Mating Strategies in British Romantic Literature" Why do students think novels like those by Jane Austen are so enduring? How do the theories in these psychological studies apply to other books students have read?
  • Capture ideas for creative writing projects from the world around you. The romance novelist featured in Guilty Pleasures says he often carries a notebook in his pocket to record bits of conversations he overhears that make him think, "I wonder why he said that?" These ideas then inspire him as he writes new stories. Have students mimic this approach by asking them to jot down interesting quotes and observations that they encounter over the course of one week. Students should then incorporate at least one of these ideas into a romantic or other type of short story. For a succinct summary of romance story structures, see "How to Write A Romance With a Classic Story Structure".

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Book Review: A Natural History of the Romance Novel

This review of A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis describes eight narrative requirements that make a romance a romance.

Romance Writers of America: About the Romance Genre
This page explains the basic elements that comprise every romance novel.

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Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

SL, 9-10, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on [grade-appropriate] topics, text and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

W.9-10, 11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

W.9-10, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.

Content Knowledge: (http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/) a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).

Behavioral Studies, Standard 1: Understand that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior.

Family/Consumer Sciences, Standard 1: Understand the family as the basic unit of society.

Family/Consumer Sciences, Standard 2: Understand the impact of the family on the well-being of individuals and society.

Health, Standard 3: Understand the relationship of family health to individual health.

Geography, Standard 10: Understand the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

Language Arts, Standard 1: Use the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Language Arts, Standard 9: Use viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.


Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.