Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Office Romance, Feminist-style: Regina Hart's FAST BREAK

The boss/secretary romance has long been a staple of the category romance. In such books, a plot event leads the rich and powerful alpha male boss, formerly oblivious to the longstanding crush harbored by his hardworking female underling, to suddenly see the beauty behind the brains that have kept his office running at optimum speed. Inevitably, true love follows.  U.S. Department of Labor statistics report nearly 4 million Americans are employed as Secretaries or Administrative Assistants in the United States; I'm guessing that a large majority of them are women. So it's hardly surprising to discover that the boss/secretary romance continues to flourish, even in our post-feminist age. A woman dating her boss recasts the prince-marrying-the-commoner Cinderella fairy tale in modern dress, the tale of marrying up clothed not in ball gown and glass slippers, but in power suit and pumps.

What happens, though, when the gender roles are inverted, the boss cast as a woman, the underling as a man? Rather than satisfying fantasies of upward mobility, stories such as Regina Hart's Fast Break, the first title in her Brooklyn Monarchs basketball series, instead explore the line between professional and personal identities, the power associated with gender roles, and the ability of couples to forge new ground rules when the old givens about work and and home are no longer in play.

Jaclyn Jones, famed as the WNBA's "Lady Assassin," has just returned from grieving the death of her grandfather to take a full-time role as General Manager of the Brooklyn Monarchs, the New York City pro basketball team she's inherited from him. She's not happy with the decisions the teams' two other co-owners have been making her in absence, particularly their decision to hire an inexperienced new coach. DeMarcus Guinn may have won NBA championships as a player, but nothing about him suggests that he knows how to transform a losing team into a winning one. In the opening scene of the novel, Jaclyn blazes into the former NBA star like a house afire, dissing his coaching ability and demanding his resignation. But even while he keeps his temper, DeMarcus refuses to give this cantankerous woman what she wants.

It's not Jaclyn's attraction to DeMarcus that leads her to change her mind about him. It's hearing that he's tendered his resignation to her partner, Gerald Bimm, after Gerald informed him he hired him to lose. A losing season will guarantee that the owners of the arena where the team plays will opt out of their contract with the Monarchs, freeing the team to move to another city. Realizing that DeMarcus wasn't in on Gerald's plan, Jaclyn urges him to come back, drawing on their shared love of their home city, Brooklyn, and the team's longstanding links to the community. He agrees, but that doesn't end the conflicts between them.

The two have very different ideas about how to run a team. Jaclyn believes a coach needs to get to know his players personally, so he can "make the best match of their personal ticks against [their] opponents" (112). DeMarcus has no intention of playing shrink to any of his players—"I'm a coach, not a priest" (113)—and suggests it's discipline, not touchy-feely stuff, that will bring the team out of its losing slump. Since DeMarcus is the coach, Jaclyn cedes his right to run the team his way, although over the course of the season, she challenges DeMarcus several times to reconsider his previous assumptions.

DeMarcus has a more difficult time allowing Jaclyn to make her own big decisions, particularly after the two add a romantic relationship to the professional one they already have. The arena's owners put up the arena for sale, and as no new owner is likely to want to keep the Monarchs as a tenant, Jackie knows she has to put up the money to purchase the arena herself. DeMarcus wants to offer his financial help, even knowing that the league would likely not approve a coach holding even partial ownership of a team's playing field. He also doesn't want to tell her about players disrespecting her or him because of their personal relationship. But she finds out anyway, and tells him never to keep information relevant to her job from her: "I need to know everything that involves this team, whether it's the condition of the training facilities or tension between players and coaches. As head coach, I expect you to tell me. Immediately. I don't want to hear about it from the media" (192). DeMarcus's reading of her words shows that he recognizes that, as her boss, she has every right to make such a demand: "She wasn't flexing her authority or exuding her charm. It was a matter-of-fact statement that nevertheless didn't leave room for negotiation. 'You're right. I'm sorry.'" (192).

But DeMarcus's protective instincts are hard to rein in, particularly when Gerald Bimm, the other team owner, threatens him: unless DeMarcus starts losing, Gerald will leak rumors to the press that DeMarcus is a secret drug user. Jaclyn has too much on her plate, Marc reasons; she doesn't need to cope with this mess on top of everything else. He can protect her from Gerald by handling it on his own.

Of course, Marc's decision blows up in his face, and he and Jackie are left struggling to deal with the aftermath of not living up to his promise to Jackie. What finally brings them back together is more symbolic than a model of an egalitarian relationship worked out in specific detail, but their agreement to merge the personal and the professional depends upon their recognition that love will not magically make their disagreements in their roles as owner and coach disappear. It will take continued work, and respect for each other's areas of expertise, to forge a relationship that allows each both the authority and the autonomy both need in order to find fulfillment, not only in their careers, but also in their personal lives.

What other romances have you read that invert the typically-gendered boss/employee dynamic? Do they do so to explore gender roles and the gendered dynamics of power? Or do they end up re-inscribing traditional gender patterns?

Photo credits:
I love my secretary/boss mugs: Dreamstime

Fast Break
Book #1 in
The Brooklyn Monarchs series
Dafina, 2011


  1. As a lawyer who used to work in a firm that represents businesses and management employees in employment discrimination claims (among other things), I have a hard time finding romances between a supervisor and a subordinate sexy. They leave the employer open to claims of sexual harassment and are often terrible for employee morale, which is why many businesses either have anti-fraternization policies or policies requiring the reporting of such relationships and transfers so the people involved no longer report to each other in any way. So this is one area where the fantasy element of romance really leaves me cold.

    The only saving grace here is that pro and college coaches have employment contracts, but even so the relationship with a general manager, especially when she is also a co-owner and therefore has ultimate authority over whether his contract will be renewed, is likely to affect the quality of the coach's employment. Whatever the other merits of the story, I would pass on it for that reason alone.

    1. Yes, real-life office romance often can lead to problems, particularly of the sexual harassment variety. Why are office romance novels are so popular, then, lawless?

    2. I think it's a combination of being swept away by love and having a unity of interests. Others might say it's a power issue. While I've reluctantly come to terms with the fact that romances involve negotiations of power, I prefer mine not to have the overlay of societal assumptions about what's proper when men and women enter into committed relationships. IMO, it makes a big difference; living arrangements that would easily be accepted in a het romance get questioned in an m/m romance.

      I'm thinking of an m/m romance about which I've seen complaints that the character who wants to stay in the country gives up what he wants when he moves to the city to rekindle their relationship. Since I haven't read the book, I can't tell how fair a criticism this is, or if there's a countervailing factor here, but if the city dweller were a man and the country dweller were a woman, I doubt there'd be as many if any complaints about her moving in with him, especially if he makes more money or his job and career are viewed as more prestigious or important, as is still more likely than not to be the case. It's not only what's expected, it's what usually happens. Since m/m relationships are still not universally supported, they operate on more of a blank slate, leaving more room for variety and for working things out based on what's important to the characters instead of what's conventional.

      -lawless (blogspot is not recognizing my LJ/Open ID credentials)

  2. The female is supposedly the in power player position of the relationship but she's constantly blindsided professionally. She's effectively under attack and yet allows herself to undertake a conflict of interest relationship which is intimately wrapped up in her power struggle with her co-owners. Even so she still has time to professionally undermine and be undermined by her love interest. Lady Assassin NOT.

    The GM may be a Head Coach's "technical" boss but it's actually closer to equal peers and a partnership than a typical CEO / secretary relationship. He can't be fired without a financial clause being triggered in his contract. A typical secretary is an at-will employee.

    Should this story be considered an inversion of the typical romance boss/employee power dynamics? Could this story instead be seen as reinforcing modern perceptions of a woman's ability to effectively wield power?

    When feminists look at a story like this, what takes precedence the gender power dynamics of the couple or the gender power dynamics of the female's professional portrayal?

    1. Yes, Anonymous, you're right that I didn't dig hard enough to discuss the mixed ideological messages this book conveys. I think the book could definitely be seen as reinforcing negative stereotypes about a woman's ability to effectively wield power, even as it works to call the very same stereotypes into question.

      Interestingly, the team does have a "conflict of interest" policy: you're not allowed to date another employee. Jaclyn justifies her relationship with DeMarcus by the fact that she's not an employee; she's the owner, and thus not subject to the restriction. A bit of a dicey justification, to be sure.

      Also interestingly, at the novel's climax, DeMarcus has the opportunity to take a job with another team, a move which would lessen the potential for conflicts of interest between him and Jaclyn. But he chooses not to move, because he, like Jaclyn, is particularly invested in Brooklyn and in the team's relationship with the community. Jaclyn applauds this decision, because it shows her that he is committed to her not only personally, but that he loves her in her professional role, too. Though Jaclyn reads his action as a positive endorsement of her professional identity, I can definitely see it giving some readers pause.

      Your question about which takes precedence, the power dynamics of the couple or of the heroine's professional portrayal: I'd argue that neither should. Both aspects should be considered. My apologies for addressing only one in the original post.

    2. You said much of what I felt and wanted to say but didn't.


  3. The most obvious book with reverse roles and very similar plot is, I think, It had to be you, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The heroine is the owner of the team, and she is the one who signs the checks and can suspend him, Dan Calebow.

    1. Joane:

      Yes, there's definitely parallels to IT HAD TO BE YOU, especially given the sports settings of both books. Both books don't quite invert the traditional boss/secretary dynamic, though, do they? Can we even imagine a romance novel in which a female CEO ends up in a romance with a male Administrative Assistant? Or would such a hero be regarded as too powerless to make for an appealing protagonist?