Friday, February 8, 2013

Guns, Love, and Ideology in Romantic Suspense

In the public debate about gun control currently taking place across the United States in the wake of the December 2012 killings at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, politicians, lobbyists, and pundits of all stripes have set forth arguments both rational and emotional for changing the nation's laws regarding the ownership of guns. In the past, the majority of disputants in the gun rights vs. gun control debate were, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the male persuasion. But as Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker recently noted, both sides in this current debate have turned more and more to women, using them both to frame the terms of the debate and to symbolize the stakes of gun ownership and abuse.

Why was I so surprised, then, when I started to read what I thought was an entertaining work of romantic suspense only to discover myself immersed in gun advocacy ideology? And not a heavy-handed, preachy, easily brushed-aside advocacy, but an advocacy woven with extreme skill and care right into the heart of the novel's romance? Uninformed critics of the genre may beleive that romances contain nothing but escapist fluff, but a closer look reveals potent political ideology in this particular novel, ideology that may be all the more effective for being packaged in the form of a compelling narrative than in political punditry or dry statistics and facts.

As discussed in Tuesday's post, many works of romantic suspense rely on the Gothic trope of placing a woman in danger to guarantee their readers thrills. In their jointly-authored Running Wild, Linda Howard and Linda Jones follow the formula, putting their heroine, Carlin, right in the cross-hairs. After only two dates, Carlin's would-be boyfriend becomes so obsessed with her that he believes her refusal to see him again demands her death. Though the narrative choice to make Brad, her stalker, a cop makes sense plot-wise, to explain his skill with firearms and computers, it also functions to foster a larger suspicion of government institutions that arm their members, a suspicion common among many gun rights activists.

After Carly's stalker mistakenly murders her co-worker (she'd borrowed Carly's raincoat), Carly flees from Texas (no slacker when it comes to gun rights) to Wyoming, the land where, the narrative informs us, carrying a concealed weapon is legal, and private gun sales require no background checks. Unsurprisingly, it's also where she meets her Prince not-so-charming, taciturn ranch owner Zeke, quite handy himself with a pistol.

Interestingly, Zeke doesn't simply tell Carly that he and his gun will protect her; neither does the narrative overtly show Carly depending on Zeke to keep her safe. Carly is constructed as tough, independent, and sassy, not a girl in search of a savior. So when Zeke counsels Carly to learn to shoot and carry her own weapon, his advice can easily be interpreted as empowering, perhaps even feminist. But the novel's true leanings become more apparent as the plot progresses.

Carly, put off by the idea of gun ownership, initially ignores Zeke's advice. The text thus must put her in a position of danger again, to persuade her how wrong such a decision was. It is not Brad this time, but a ranch hand who plays villain; his inexpert flirting leads to an attempt to coerce Carly into having sex. Although she threatens the reprobate with not one but two knives, it takes Zeke and all the other (male) ranch hands to rescue her. Zeke not only removes the threat, but beats up the miscreant in the bargain. That Zeke had the bad judgment to hire the man in the first place, and then to buy his story about needing to go back to the ranch house where he knew Carly was alone, are facts the narrative would have readers conveniently forget.

Allowing Zeke to rescue Carly, even though she never asked him to, clearly intensifies Carly's growing attraction to him:

The idea that Zeke had gotten into a fight for her—that was what was bothering her [in a good way]. After Brad, she simply hadn't been tempted by any kind of relationship, but Zeke was kind of the antidote to Brad. Brad threatened her; Zeke protected her. (197-98)

It simultaneously convinces Carly of the wisdom of learning to shoot:

She'd thought a lot about taking shooting lessons since Zeke had first mentioned it, and she still couldn't make a firm decision about whether or not she wanted to go that far. Arming herself seemed like such a drastic step. On the other hand, Brad was definitely armed, and if by some nightmare she found herself face-to-face with him she never, ever, wanted to be empty-handed and defenseless.
     There was her answer right there, reluctantly arrived at or not. (222)

A woman needs a gun not to hunt, or to enjoy target practice, as male-focused gun advocacy typically asserts, but to protect herself from dangerous men. Women are "defenseless" without a pistol in hand, the text urges readers to believe, a belief also commonly expressed in gun rights propaganda.

The novel devotes an entire chapter to Zeke teaching Carlin to shoot, a performance watched by all the male ranch hands. Each man brings out his pistol or rifle so she can try different weapons and find out which one she likes best. After firing her first shot (which, of course, comically misses its target), Carlin exuberantly exclaims "Yes! I want to shoot everything. This is fun!" (230).

She likes handling the rifles, but

when she picked up her first pistol, she felt something click inside her. As much fun as the shotgun had been, some primitive gene deep inside her sat up and took notice when her hand closed around the butt of the pistol. Oh my God. This was it. This was what suited her best. (230)

The desire for a gun is coded here not only as a natural, biological urge (what chromosome do you think that gun gene is on?), but also as a romantic imperative. The wording used to describe Carly's discovery of the right gun parallels the wording many romance novelists use to describe the discovery of the other "right one," the one and only true love; romance and gun ownership here become inextricably linked, even conflated. As an added bonus, Zeke finds the sight of Carly with her pistol a clear sexual turn-on: "If you could see your expression," Zeke said, his own voice low.... His eyes were heavy-lidded, intent." (231).

Now that Carly can wield her own gun, is she safe? Does she no longer need protecting? The narrative almost immediately puts her in danger again, not, this time from a man but from mother nature, which brings down the snowstorm which causes the truck in which she is a passenger to slide partway down a cliff. Zeke and the other ranch hands come to her rescue, of course, and the near-death experience leads to another intensification of her relationship with Zeke. Intriguingly, the narrative does not overtly suggest that being saved by Zeke makes Carly desire him; instead, it positions her earlier decision to refrain from becoming sexually involved with Zeke as a misguided attempt to protect, both herself and him:

     She thought she was protecting herself, protecting him, and all she'd been doing was depriving them.
     She'd be damned if she'd let Brad have that much control over her, over her life. (256)

Carly's attempt to protect Zeke from Brad by not acting on her attraction to Zeke is thus constructed  as a negative giving over of control; readers are meant to see Carly's going to Zeke's bedroom, and asking him to have sex with her, as a positive, empowered move, one in which she refuses to knuckle under to the patriarchal control of the mad stalker cop. When Zeke asks "You want me to fuck you?" Carly tells him, "No.  I want to fuck you" (259).

Yet even before Carly takes a step into Zeke's bedroom, she's already putting constraints on her own empowerment. "She couldn't take back control of her entire life, but right here, tonight, she could be a woman. She refused to let Brad keep her from that anymore" (257). Engaging in sex is equated with "being a woman"; being a woman means not being able to exert full control, not being able to protect herself fully. (Ironically enough, Carly's initial sexual encounter with Zeke is "unprotected"; neither uses any form of birth control. Though they later use condoms, Carly is glad when she's able to get a friend to procure her birth control pills, happy to do away with the "annoying" condoms; apparently, there are no STDs, as well as no background checks, in Wyoming).

After they have sex, Carly finally confides in Zeke, telling him about stalker Brad, but makes him promise not to tell anyone, or to try to "fix" her problem. "A part of him wanted to call Brad himself, to hunt the bastard down and issue a challenge—Come and get her, motherfucker, try to get through me. But this wasn't the Old West, and unfortunately, 'He needed killin' was no longer an acceptable defense," Zeke thinks. He ultimately agrees not to butt in—at least "for now" (313).

But a few months and a mere sixty pages later, Zeke decides it's time to take action. Without telling Carlin, he engages a detective to track Brad down, a move that almost leads Brad right to Zeke's ranch. The narrative lets Zeke off the hook, though, by making the meddling of another woman—Zeke's former housekeeper, an older woman who's known Zeke since he was a child and feels protective of him—what really leads Brad to Carlin. Once again, a woman's misguided attempts to "protect" a man backfire.

But Carlin is packing now; if, as gun rights proponents such as Women Against Gun Control (source of the photo to the left) suggest, owning a gun means you're safe from the murderers and rapists of the world, then Carlin should be fine. Carlin certainly thinks so:

Her pistol lay on the passenger seat, fully loaded, one in the chamber. Thanks to Zeke, she knew how to use it. And she would, by God, fight for her life and the lives of everyone she loved. Brad knew her as a woman who would run rather than fight. He knew her as an easily manipulatable, scared mouse.
     That wasn't who she was anymore. She'd changed—and she was more than willing to fight for what was hers. (348)

At this point in the novel, I wondered aloud whether it would be Carlin or Zeke who got to pull the trigger on the despicable Brad (because of course, even though Wyoming is not the Old West, you just knew that this book was not going to allow Brad to be captured and sent off to jail without some blood being shed). If Carlin did the honors, wouldn't such an act undermine the text's message that women are in danger from bad men, and need good men with guns to keep them safe? But if Zeke did, wouldn't readers understand that the novel's gestures towards empowered femininity were just a form of appeasement, a move to allow female readers to pretend to be empowered while really still embracing the old construction of man as protector, woman in need of protection?

Howard and Jones solve this apparently no-win situation by allowing both Carlin and Zeke to have their turn at Brad. I'll leave you to guess which one only wounds him, and which one "fired, and the side of Brad's head blew out in a red mist of blood and brain matter" (362).

In order for gun advocates to successfully deploy the figure of the woman in their rhetoric, they must balance between two apparently opposing visions of femininity. Women must be constructed as in danger, subject at any time and for no apparent reason to the violent behavior of marauding male criminals such as Brad. Yet they must also be shown as believing that gun ownership will empower them, will allow them to protect themselves and others from any such depredations.* Howard and Jones demonstrate how conflating romance and gun ownership might just make this ideological tightrope that much easier for gun rights activists to walk.

Running Wild is taut, tight, and deeply engaging, a showcase for the skills of two gifted writers. But as a feminist, I find what they say with those skills disturbing. What other romance novels can you think of that engage so successfully (and/or disturbingly) with political ideology, of either a liberal or conservative stripe?

* That twelve times as many women are killed by guns owned by men whom they know, rather than by strangers, is a fact conveniently hidden in the course of such rhetoric. Violence Policy Center, When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2008 Homicide Data. Violence Policy Center, September 2010.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Gun Owners are Compensating and Gun Control T-Shirt: Women Against Gun Control
Protect Children, Not Guns:

Next time on RNFF:
A Wrinkle in Time goes graphic


  1. I'm so glad to read this thoughtful piece about a (sadly) timely issue, especially because it seems to me that the politics of gun control are absolutely shaped by its cultural representations. Thanks for the brilliant blog in general!

  2. Thanks, Ariel, for stopping by. Totally agree that the politics of gun control, and so many other political issues, are shaped by cultural representations, including romance novels.

    Glad you enjoy the blog!

  3. It’s a pretty fascinating argument. First, it presupposes that women are most in danger from strangers, when in fact most acts of violence against women are perpetrated by men we know and even love — men that, presumably, we might hesitate to shoot. Secondly, it offers a blatantly masculine-coded version of empowerment — both because it suggests that the solution to aggression is more aggression, and because it puts a symbolic phallus in a woman’s hands. But then we have to soften these ladies too, so they don’t appear to be TOO man-like, so they'll still “be a woman,” and not be “able to exert full control.”

    That said, I think all romance novels engage with political ideology, whether they intend to or not. Our heroines have certain problems to solve, and the way they go about solving them always says something about gender/class/race/cultural issues. Always. It’s so great to see you explore that here!

  4. Thanks, Rebecca, for adding your thoughts. Love your point about this "offering a blatantly masculine-coded version of empowerment."

    And yes, all fiction engages with political ideology, at least on the implicit level. But I'd just not seen a romance novel do so explicitly before (or at least when espousing an ideology which I found disturbing; I probably just read right over the ones where the ideology matches my own political beliefs...).

  5. Great article. I was just reading another recent Linda Howard book (Shadow Woman) and having thoughts about the use of guns in it, since that issue is very much on my mind. I'd love to see you take a look at that one as well.