Friday, March 11, 2016

Male Friends and Romance Heroes

My adolescent daughter seems to spend far more time hanging out in mixed gender friend groups than I did when I was her age. I've been wondering if that's true of my favorite authors of New Adult romance, too, and if so, thinking about what effect such a change in everyday adolescent social relationships might be having on the depiction of romance heroes in their books.

For an earlier generation of romance writers (say, the women who contributed to Jayne Ann Krentz's 1992 essay collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance), relationships between men and women in romance were/are, by the very nature of the genre, adversarial. The central story of romance is the conquest of the alpha male hero by the moral, virginal, emotionally-adept heroine. In Krentz's words, "Romance novels are tales of brave women taming dangerous men" (113). Or, in Doreen Owens Malek's: "So what is the fantasy? Simply this: a strong dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman" (74). Or in Daphne Clair's: "The thrill is in the contest and the chase, in the complicated advance-and-retreat by which the strong-minded heroine, while appearing to be hunted and ill-used, finally turns the tables on and lovingly entraps the hunter" (67). Even Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who asserts at the start of her essay that she is an "outspoken feminist," echoes Krentz's belief in the characteristics of the romance hero: "He is the mightiest of the mighty, the strongest of the strong. But because he has been tamed by our heroine, because she exerts such a powerful emotional stranglehold over him, his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command" (58). For the romance writers in Krentz's collection, men are dangerous, scary, and above all powerful; it is the romance heroine's task to use emotion (i.e., love) to "tame" that power and use it to her own ends. Female empowerment comes from subjugating the male, overcoming her own limitations because, as Phillips asserts, "his strength now belongs to her" (58).

Do women who hang out in co-ed friendship groups fantasize about this type of heroic masculinity? I'm guessing probably not, or at least not as often. My daughter doesn't value her male friends because she can tame them and thereby borrow their power; she values them because they encourage her and support her as she works to discover the ways in which she herself can exercise power in the world around her. After experiencing supportive, rather than antagonist, friend relationships with boys, would a young woman truly wish for a romantic partner who is more "dangerous beast" (in Krentz's formulation) than encouraging partner? Or to read about one in a romance novel?


Would love to hear from romance writers about if/how their friendships with boys/men when they were teens have influenced their vision of what makes for a perfect male romance hero.



10 comments:

  1. What a great question! I immediately thought about my middle-ish school besties when I read this post. When I was in 8th and 9th grade, I spent every waking non-class minute with three boys and another girl from my neighborhood. And while those boys weren't "wimpy," they were the "smart kids" and more likely to run cross country than play football--which probably speaks to their place in the he-man alpha male hierarchy. And I have a tendency to write "nice guy" heroes. I almost always have to go back and "alpha them up," in edits. So there's an experimental group with an n=1 for you!

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    1. Thanks, Teri Anne, for sharing your thoughts. So interesting that you have to "alpha-up" your heroes. Is that something you do because you prefer alpha heroes in your books, or because an editor or beta reader advises you to?

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  2. This is quite interesting to me in terms of my own writing because I had several good male friends in college (and now) and I tend to write heroes who are more beta and who are good partners rather than alphas to be tamed. I never considered it was a generational thing though. But it does make some sense that my friendships with men would make me write my heroes as equals instead of opponents (to the heroine). And I write historical so I'm aware of the likelihood my take is fantasy, but I certainly don't want to write alphaholes who need reform. It's just not my jam. Though I do read and enjoy many of them.

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    1. Manda:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps it's not entirely a generational thing, or at least, it may be partly a generational thing, and partly a question of whether a writer was exposed to situations in which co-ed friend groups were the norm. In many colleges, I'm guessing, the co-ed friend group is pretty common, and was common even when we were kids. But I'm seeing that co-ed friend group trickling down to my daughter's (high school-age) peer group. But then again, she attends a fairly progressive school. So: geography, age, and social groups, all relevant.

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  3. As a reader of modern romance, as well as some of the earlier stuff I find that there is a greater variety of heroic types and more stories where the conflict doesn't hinge on the hero's lack of emotional fluency. I don't know if that has much to do with changing social interactions, or if the genre has simply broadened and evolved.

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  4. Real life has disillusioned me for so called "alpha men."

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  5. Hi, longtime reader but 1st time poster here. As someone's your daughter's age (also a senior in high school) I agree that emotional support is a crucial part of my friendships (male and female), but I don't know if it's just because of my age, and therefore lack of experience, that I'm more attracted to the "bad boy" type currently. So I definitely understand the theoretical attraction to an alpha, dominant male, but having never been in an actual relationship with one, I don't know how that would pan out.

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    1. Hi, Prithi:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and your counter-example of being more attracted to "bad boy" types, despite having emotionally supportive male friends. I always appreciate hearing stories that complicate or contradict my own take on things :-)

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  6. “Do women who hang out in co-ed friendship groups fantasize about this type of heroic masculinity?”

    I think there’re two types of the extreme, masculine hero. One type is the current oh-so popular dominant, pushy stalker guy, and then there is the hero who is oh-so masculine, but also a decent, sane guy.

    I was in high school in the mid to late Nineties, and half my friends were male, half female. It was completely normal, and we’d have sleepovers at male friends’ houses without anyone thinking there was anything odd about it. That popular girl/popular guy thing you see in YA fiction didn’t exist.

    And yet, I still tend to go for the totally, stereotypical manly man in my reading. I HATE the Christian Grey/creepy dominant type of alpha male with a passion, but I do prefer my heroes to be more of the clich├ęd manly man. I like my military men, for example. I can’t explain it, but that’s just the way it is.

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