Friday, May 20, 2016

Happily Ever After: Catherine Roach's thoughts on the endings of romance novels

The third, and last, in my series of posts on Catherine M. Roach's Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture focuses, fittingly, on the endings of romance novels (see posts #1 and #2 here and here). "In romance, the ending is crucial," Roach notes in the introduction of her book's final chapter (165). That that ending be a happy one has become not just a given, but one of the key parts of the definition of the genre as a whole. Romance authors whom Roach interviewed "view the ending as a contract they have with their readers: No matter how wounded the characters are by plot conflicts in a book's middle, all will be well by the end" (166). What is the larger cultural meaning of the romance novel's HEA, or "happily ever after"?

Roach's answer is two-fold:

(1) People have faith in love. The romance story functions similarly to a religious belief system that offers guidance on the end goal of how to live a good and worthy life

(2) The romance story is a reparation fantasy of the end of patriarchy. In this fantasy, the romance hero stands in for patriarchy itself in a vision wherein gender unfairness is repaired and all works out. (167)

I'm completely on board with claim #1. Romance, at least for many women, has become "the Highest Good," a replacement for (or, perhaps a supplement to?) Christianity, a religion that has been in steady decline in the West and the North since the 18th century (see chart at right). Traditional romance novels certainly demonstrate a "faith in the healing power of love" (169). And even romances that eschew the romantic love heals lovers paradigm do share with their less progressive counterparts an "underlying conviction" in "the power of love to make the world a better place" (169). In almost all romance novels, to love romantically is to want to strive to be a better person, a kinder person, a person who does good, rather than harm, both within the romantic relationship and without, in the greater world. 

Claim #2, though, feels more iffy to me. To make her argument, Roach uses/revises the theoretical model constructed by literary critic Leslie Fielder in his famous essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" As Roach notes, Fielder's essay is

essentially about the literature of white male America as a homosocial reparation fantasy for racism. In this fantasy, the predations of racism are repaired through an interracial buddy story, a narrative of a white male and a colored male who share friendship and brotherly love. The story is offered with remorse and affection on the part of whites and read with pleasure by them, partly because the friendship offered by the characters of color implies forgiveness and absolution for white people's acts and attitudes of racism. (177)

Roach takes Fielder's model and turns it on its head, suggesting that the central fantasy of romance novels is offered not by the oppressors, but by the oppressed; not by the racists, but by the women who have been subject to patriarchy's sexism. Instead of a friendship and brotherly love of the oppressed, romance offers the emotional and sexual love of the oppressor: the "myth of the male beloved." In Roach's interpretation, the mythical male beloved figure, "the alpha male, the patriarch—loves with tenderness, devotion, and sensitivity, even while maintaining his alpha ways" (177). But not really. Because, Roach asserts, "the core appeal of romance fiction is this fantasy of the end of patriarchy in which the alpha male hero is revealed as the submissive"—submissive to the female, and submissive to a more feminine conception of gender relations, a conception based on love and connection (178, emphasis added).

When I was drafting the previous sentence, I initially added "not on dominance and oppression" to its end. But then I began to wonder: doesn't the idea of male "submission" by necessity imply female "dominance"? Can the hero be "submissive" by agreeing to a relationship that refuses a "dominant/submissive" binary? And if there is no refusal of a dominant/submissive binary, is there any real challenge to patriarchy?

This idea of alpha male submission echoes the arguments of many of the romance writers who contributed essays to Jayne Ann Krentz's 1992 essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. These writers argued that romance's appeal lies in the way it inverts traditional gendered power relations:

Why is this ending so satisfying? Not only because love has triumphed, but because he has capitulated and she has won. He's willing, finally and at the very last minute and after much resistance, to do anything to keep her with him. This is the ultimate fantasy, the quintessential escapist fare. (Doreen Owens Malik, "Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge," 76)

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 (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, "The Romance and the Empowerment of Women," 58).

The hero must be part villain or else he won't be much of a challenge for a strong woman. The heroine must put herself at risk with him if the story is to achieve the level of excitement and the particular sense of danger that only a classic romance can provide.
     And the flat truth is that you don't get much of a challenge for a heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. (Jayne Ann Krentz, "Trying to Tame the Romance," 108-109).

In the minds of many of the contributors to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, for a heroine to "win," a hero must lose: he must "capitulate," he must be "tamed." And in the books of many romance writers, such a vision of female winners and male losers still remains.

But many 21st century romance novels do not rely on this dominance/submission model. Instead, they push for "equality" between the hero and heroine, a relationship in which power is shared (and in the sexual realm, often played with), rather than wrested from the male by the female. I'm not certain how Roach's idea that romance is "a reparation fantasy of the end of patriarchy" applies to them.

Even if we limit her argument to just those novels in which gender relations are constructed as a win/lose, rather than a struggle toward equality and parity, I wonder just how reparation "ends" patriarchy? Roach takes the concept of "reparative reading" from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a type of reading in opposition to "paranoid reading," critical interpretation focused on uncovering "the violence hidden in texts and culture," concerned about "oppression and false consciousness," and working to "leverage the power of exposing injustice to bring about positive change" (178). In contrast, reparative reading is less about suspicion, and more about love: "The desire of the reparative impulse is to repair an object of relationship—say, the readers' relationship to the hero or heroine—that will then have resources to offer the self" (178).

What resources does romance offer the (female) self? Roach argues that "Women readers 'extract sustenance' from romance novels in the imaginative play of repairing the alpha male and of restoring gender relations" (179).  This "repairing" of the alpha male "is one in which the domineering or uncaring patriarch becomes the good man" (182). A romance must still feature an alpha man, Roach suggests, because "if it is still a man's world out there, then for a woman to have a good man at her side is a good thing. A woman is safer from danger and has more resources to draw on, to the extent that she is in a committed relationship with, and thus protected and aided by, the good man" (182). This seems to contradict Roach's assertion that within the romance, patriarchy has "ended." The "good man" hero may no longer be sexist by book's end, but he is still enmeshed within, and benefits from, patriarchy, because patriarchy is a system, not an individual relationship. Both within and outside the book, patriarchy remains, no matter how "good" one's man becomes.

In discussing J. R. Ward's 2005 Dark Lover, Roach seems to comes to a similar conclusion: "The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues. In this end, you have the alpha-king for your own, since you have conquered him on the battlefield of love and taught him how to love" (187). There seems to be a vital "and" missing here: "and, because patriarchy continues, he still can behave with impunity like an alpha-hole to everyone else, and still reap the benefits of male power and privilege."

So yes, the traditional romance novel, invested in a binary conception of romantic power relations, does invoke a fantasy of female empowerment. But while gender unfairness may be repaired on the level of the individual couple, through the alpha male's "submission" to his beloved female, patriarchy as a whole has hardly been "ended." Because patriarchy isn't just about relations between an individual man and woman; it is "the predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with culture values and norms favouring men" (OED online). The fantasy, then, for a woman reader of traditional alpha male romance seems less about imagining the end of the system of patriarchy, and more about dreaming of becoming its unlikely beneficiary.

Or perhaps I am just too much of a "paranoid reader" to appreciate Roach's argument?

I hope you all have a chance to take a look at Roach's intelligent, provocative book, and talking about (and debating) its fascinating theories.

Photo credits:

Catherine M. Roach
Happily Ever After
The Romance Story in Popular Culture
Indiana University Press, 2016


  1. It's funny that you offer Dark Lover as an example because I remember thinking much the same thing. The illusion that these romances offer is that it's possible to tame the sexists (possessive guys) and benefit from patriarchy. There is no benefiting from it, and sexists do not hold back their sexism for one woman. I think this is probably why the whole tattooing and "I serve you" ceremony at the end of Lover raised my brows. It was all talk, no substance. Their male lovers are still making all the decisions and taking all the action. How much confidence do they have in their women? I mean, it's nice for someone to do all the work for a change, but...

    1. Hi, Anonymous. Yep, I do think that this is the fantasy in books with alpha heroes who are sexist: I can tame him and benefit from his privilege. I haven't read the Ward series myself, having read too many reviews & academic articles that talk about how sexist they are. But I'm not surprised that the "I serve you" ceremonies come off as empty.

      Are there non-sexist alpha heroes in romancelandia?