Monday, June 23, 2014

Bait and Switch? Or Point of View? Judging a Romance Hero

I've been mulling over my negative reactions to two romances I recently read, trying to figure out why each made me feel squeamish about accepting the pleasure that a romance typically offers—being happy that a hero and heroine have overcome their difficulties and have formed a lasting relationship. In both of these particular books, I found myself really bothered by a heroine's acceptance and/or forgiveness of certain behaviors or beliefs on the part of her story's hero. Each book asks me as a reader to accept the heroine's acceptance, to forgive and forget, too. But I found myself resisting.

Why? At first I thought it was because the authors each attempted to pull a bait and switch—to introduce asshatty behavior on a hero's part, only to distract the reader from said asshattery by introducing another person who behaves even more badly than does the hero. Giving the reader a different target for the anger that the hero's action originally evoked struck me as a disingenuous bit of bait and switch. But then I began to wonder—did the real reason why I wasn't cutting these heroes any slack have less to do with the author's sleight of hand, and more to do with issues of point of view?

Maybe if I tell you a bit more about the two books in question, you can help me figure this out. Both contain major spoilers, so stop here if you haven't yet but are still hoping to read Linnea Sinclair's Gabriel's Ghost (2006) or Emily Giffin's The One & Only (2014).

I've been trying to read more widely in science fiction romance, a subgenre in which Sinclair's name pops up as a recommended author on a regular basis. Her most recent books are part of an ongoing series, set in the Dock Five Universe, so I decided to start with the first in the series, Gabriel's Ghost, a RITA award winner. The story opens with Chasidah Bergren, a career military interstellar pilot unfairly framed and court martialed, being extracted from the prison-planet to which she has been sent by her nemesis, smuggler and rogue Gabriel "Sully" Sullivan. Sully convinced Chaz to work with him and his team to thwart a secret project to breed jukors, vicious killers who have long been outlawed by the Empire, but he has other, far more personal reasons for coming to Chaz's rescue.

Chaz used to be married, to another career military officer, but divorced him when he reneged on his agreement that he'd never demand that she bear a child. Early on in the novel, a government ship in pursuit of the escaped prisoner turns out to be piloted by said ex, Philip, making Chaz both fearful and angry, although she makes no outward show of her feelings. But it turns out that Sully is a secret empath, as well as someone who can enter another's mind without his or her consent; his feelings for Chaz are so strong that when he senses her anger and fear, he immediately delves into her mind to discover the reasons for her emotions. Needless to say, Chaz is less than happy about Sully's actions:

"Stay out of my goddamned mind. I'd meant it. Stars forgive me, but I'd meant it. And he knew that. When he'd invaded my mind I'd been shocked. It was like everything I'd read; it was like rape. A forced intrusion on my self, my soul." (195). Although Sully promises he'd never hurt her, Chaz upbraids him for thinking he already knows what would and wouldn't hurt:

"Did you think at all, Gabriel Sullivan, before you ripped into my mind, just what my feelings might be? Did you stop to consider that?" I thrust my finger at him. "Or was your anger, your... I don't know, petulant jealousy, your ego's temper tantrum more important than anything else? .... How in hell would you know what hurts me? You never even bothered to ask." (198-99)

It takes Chaz some time to forgive Sully's rape-like mind invasion, but she does, eventually. She even gives her approval when he invades the minds of several others (the means justify the ends?). As Chaz explains to her ex when he finds himself on the receiving end of a Sully mind-probe, "We had to know," then thinks to herself "Another no-choice situation" (392).

This is troubling enough, but when Sully once again takes away Chaz's agency by not telling her all of the implications of a link they forge together during an act of sex, I once again want to kick him into the doghouse. Sully warns Chaz, "this is a very deep link. You must be sure." She tells him she is, and when he says "We have time. Just knowing you're willing is enough for me" she tells him, "But not for me. I want all of you." (318). But Sully never told her that the act has made her his ky'sara, his bond-wife.

Sinclair gives clear reasons for Sully's lack of forthrightness—his powers are so feared, and so despised, by almost all sentient races that he would be outcast if he told anyone, even the woman he loved, the truth of what he is. Chaz is not at all happy to discover that Sully has kept things from her yet again, omissions that took away her ability to choose for herself:

"I thought of all the half-truths, the almost-lies that Sully layered around himself as a protective wall. And I reclaimed his hand when he offered it because, if I expected him to be honest with me, then I had to be honest with him. For all that I loved him—and I did, beyond all measure, as he'd once told me—part of me was angry over his deceptions and his usurping of my choice when he'd made me ky'sara to him. I wouldn't have refused, but it would have been nice to have been asked. He needed to feel that, read that from me" (445).

Philip, Chaz's ex, believes that Sully will use and kill Chaz, and that she only wants to stay with Sully because he is manipulating her mind. Sully takes issue with Philip's beliefs, telling him that Chaz isn't his servant or slave, but "An equal link.... If she is ky'sara to me and I am ky'sal to her, it's a link forged of love, not command. And that zragkor you threaten her with would kill me" (414-15). Philip doesn't buy it, and demands that Chaz separate herself from Sully, to prove that he's not controlling her.

Philip thus gets to fill the role of über-patriarchal bad guy, urging the reader, and Chaz, to redirect our anger at Sully's equally patriarchal actions onto Philip instead. Chaz refuses to cave in to Philip's condescending demands, and flies off into the sunset with Sully at book's end.

Something similar happened in Emily Giffin's latest, The One and Only. Thirty-three-year-old Shea Rigsby has long idolized her best friend's father, Clive Carr, the coach of the local university's beloved football team. Shea, a rabid football fan, is so devoted to the team that she's worked in the college's athletic department writing press releases rather than pursuing a more ambitious job as a sports reporter. At the start of the novel, Shea begins dating Ryan, an alum of Coach Carr's team, now a professional football player, a guy that everyone around Shea thinks she should be down on her knees with gratitude to for deigning to notice lowly old her. But Shea can't seem to summon nearly the same level of enthusiasm for Ryan as she does for her hometown team, or for its recently widowed coach.

Things become even more complicated when accusations of abuse—an NCAA investigation of Coach Carr's program, and hints from the ex-wife of Shea's boyfriend that he's got a serious anger management problem—begin to roil. Shea dumps Ryan after he takes his temper out on her, and begins a tentative relationship with Coach Carr. But their relationship runs into quick trouble, not only from the expected shock and protest from Coach Carr's daughter, but also from the coach's revelations about his role in an earlier accusation of abuse against Ryan. The coach, an honest, upright guy, feels compelled to tell Shea about it:

"Then she said he forced her to have sex."
     "He raped her?" I said, the word leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
     "Well, she didn't say that exactly. But yeah... That's what she alleged. That he had sex with her against her will. So yeah. That would be rape." (354)

Coach advised the girl, a former girlfriend of Ryan's, to report the assault to the police. But he didn't believe her accusation, nor did he report it to anyone else at the university. As he explains,

     "You have to remember, Shea... There are rules now about this sort of thing. Rules that say coaches have to report all incidents to the university president or athletic director or police. Or all three. But back then... there was nothing in place. I had never dealt with anything like that before.
     "Did you tell Connie?" I asked, unsure of why this mattered to me. [Connie is his now-dead wife]
     "No." (355)

Coach Carr claims now, though,

     "If I could go back, I would change how I handled everything. I would have done more. I really thought I was doing the right thing, but now I can see that I let that girl down.... The other night, when I walked into your room and saw Ryan on top of you... It was almost as if I were standing up for both of you."
     I nodded, as if I accepted this explanation, but couldn't help feeling that throwing a couple of punches in my living room couldn't fix the past, and I felt myself withdraw from him in a way that scared me.

Shea, who throughout the novel has been a conflict-avoider, a get-along-with-everyone, make-everyone-else-happy kind of girl, experiences an epiphany of sorts when she finally is able to say "I'm angry" after listening to Coach's story:

    "At me?"
     "Yes" I said, shocked by the emotion, the very notion that I could be angry at Coach. "You should have reported it. You should have at least helped her report it."
     "Yes... I should have... I know that now... But, Shea... I honest to God didn't think he raped her. I still don't."
     I looked at him, thinking this was the wrong response, feeling a fresh wave of indignation, this time on Tish's behalf. "That's not the point," I said. "That wasn't up to you to decide." (339)

Coach yanks Shea from the high ground, though, when he takes major exception to her fear that his reluctance to report Ryan's girlfriend's claim might have stemmed from an all-too-important desire to win. He protests it's not about winning, it's

"...about commitment to the people you love. Your wife. Your family. Your friends. Your team. It's about giving it your all and doing the very best you can with what you have, in every moment you're in. And that's what I did that night in my office. That's what I do on the football field. And that's what I'm doing right now as I defend myself to the woman I love" (362-63)

This major impasse between Coach and Shea, no matter how troubling, is not what keeps the two apart, however. Like Philip above, we're given a replacement figure at whom we can direct anger originally inspired by the hero. Lucy, Shea's best friend, demands that Shea choose between Lucy and her father, or she'll cut off all contact with her. Shea chooses Lucy, and breaks up with Coach Carr. Several months later, though, when, out of the blue, Lucy changes her mind—"I was wrong, Shea. Go to him. You belong with him"—Coach's earlier revelations don't seem be in Shea's mind at all (412). She immediately seizes on Lucy's offer. In a weird, kind of sick way, those revelations might have even made their relationship possible, as Shea implies when she points out that she no longer holds Coach up to "mythic standards," but instead "see[s] him as a flawed man and a fallible leader," an insight that "only makes my faith and trust strong in him" (406).

Bait and switch, yes? But as I re-read the passages I planned to quote for this post, I began to wonder if issues of point of view had as much to do with my "ick" responses as these bait and switch moves. Both of these texts are told in the first person, solely from the point of view of the heroine. Because I wasn't allowed into the heads of the male halves of these relationships, I wasn't sure I could trust their claims. Does Sully truly believe that he will never again use his powers to "rape" Chaz's mind again? Does he truly see her as an equal? Is Coach Carr being entirely honest with himself that the desire to win played absolutely no role in his decision not to report the accusations against one of his star players? In romances in which I'm allowed inside the heads of both the male and the female protagonists, am I willing to grant heroes who engage in blatantly sexist behavior but claim that they've reformed the benefit of the doubt, when I'm not willing to do the same in a woman-only pov story? Is this a sexist refusal to trust my heroines? Or a closer reflection of the caution we should all take in the real world, a world in which we can never truly get inside the head of another person?

Have you ever read a romance that engaged in a bait and switch like the ones described above? Do you find yourself more forgiving of bad behavior when you're allowed to see inside the head of the one who's behaving badly?

1 comment:

  1. I would agree with the first story. It just seems to leave a bad taste in my mouth but the second story, I see as less awful. I live in a college town where football is everything so I get it. I, also, understand the not reporting a potential rape. He didn't believe her and there was no precedence in place. I don't have to like it to understand it. He goofed and, obviously, it bothers him. He may not have done anything to fix the situation but even his confession shows he's a better person than he was.
    I haven't read either but based on your description, I would feel less dissatisfied with book number two. He made a mistake and it wasn't something he did to her. However, book one - he was doing it to her and then going oops. I have no faith that he wouldn't continue to manipulate her in one way or another.