Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Feminism in Romantic Suspense: Jill Sorenson's BACKWOODS

Jill Sorenson, you're making me eat my words. In a post last year about Robin Schone's The Lover, I asked, "Is there any such thing as a feminist romantic suspense novel?" and suggested the answer was "no." Because romantic suspense, like a related genre, the Gothic, relies so heavily on the threat of violence against women to propel its narrative and to create tension in its readers, I theorized that feminism and romantic suspense might be inherently at odds.

Several readers, including Sorenson, took exception to my overgeneralized and unsubstantiated claim. Sorenson wrote:

I've always thought of romantic suspense as being a little more progressive than other sub-genres. The characters are often evenly matched as far as power and socioeconomic status (vs. the duke and pauper, billionaire and secretary, Dom and sub, etc.). Most RS heroines have established careers. Many of the heroines work in law enforcement, in addition to or instead of the hero. Sure, there are damsels in distress, but not always. For me the appeal is in a protective hero and a strong heroine, who are both in danger and work together to get out.

One of my favs from Sorenson's
Sorenson herself is an author of romantic suspense, and in the wake of her responses to this post, I borrowed several of her backlist books from the library. I enjoyed all of them—Sorenson is a strong writer, well-versed in creating compelling characters and placing them in a story that keeps you eagerly turning the pages—but none of them quite hit my feminist sweet spot. This weekend, though, as  I raced through her latest, Backwoods, I couldn't stop folding down page corners and marking relevant quotations, eager to write more specifically about what bothers me about much romantic suspense, and how Backwoods refuses to engage with those more disempowering aspects of the sub-genre.

Sorenson argued in another comment to the above-mentioned post that the trope of the "damsel in distress" is "an inherent part of the subgenre," but that "I'm just not sure I agree that it undercuts the image of an empowered woman." She goes on to note, "When the hero is in danger, which is the case in all or most suspense, mystery, and thriller novels, do we see that as not empowered? Only if he can't rescue himself. Often he's challenged by another man or men, so there is no gender inequality to the question." Sorenson seems to be arguing that since we don't regard men as disempowered when they are being chased by a villain, it is sexist to see women being chased by a villain as disempowered. And also, that a heroine in romantic suspense should not be seen as disempowered if she acts to rescue herself, rather than simply being a passive victim waiting for her hero to do all the rescuing for her.

In Backwoods, neither Abby Hammond, nor her college-aged daughter, Brooke, are presented as passive. After Brooke disappears during a hiking trip, Abby is determined to track her kidnappers, refusing to listen to the hero, Nathan Strom, when he tells her she's "not thinking clearly" and threatens to tie her to a tree to keep her from what he considers a foolish pursuit. She attacks and distracts one of the kidnappers when she sees he's poised outside a cave, waiting with a shotgun for Nathan and his son Leo to emerge. And she is able to use her wits (and a surprising source of wire) to break free both from the plastic zip-tie with which the kidnapper restrained her and from the locked cage in which he'd imprisoned her. Brooke uses a different set of skills—her ability to connect with others—to win the sympathy of the second kidnapper. Neither woman plays the passive victim, but instead actively works by herself, and later with others, to rescue herself.

Yet is disempowered female characters the only anti-feminist thing about romantic suspense? I'd like to think a bit harder about the parallel that Sorenson posits between heroes and heroines, pointing out other areas besides self-rescuing that impact a romantic suspense's underlying ideology.

A lot of the romantic suspense that I've read relies on a particularly gendered, sexualized violence, a violence different from that facing a hero in suspense, mystery, and thriller novels. In much romantic suspense, a male villain is after a female victim, often intent on inflicting sexual violence upon her body. This sexual threat seems far less common when a hero is under threat.

Backwoods features just such a villain. Abby, a worried, vigilant sort, notes the disappearances of three different women in the past four years in the area in which they will be hiking. No one else has connected the three, but Abby cannot help but be suspicious. And it turns out her suspicions are correct; the kidnappers focus only on abducting women (even killing one man in order to capture his companion), and for reasons that turn out to have everything to do with sex and sexual violence.

Yet I didn't have the negative response to this trope that I often do in works of romantic suspense. I think it is because Sorenson chooses not to give the reader access to the villain's point of view, as do so many other works of suspense. Such passages work to heighten reader tension, but they always strike me as icky and distinctly sexist, because as a reader, I am being forced to look at the imperiled woman through the eyes of man who sees her as an object, not as a person. Such passages are intended to make me more afraid for the heroine, which they certainly do. But at the same time, by forcing me to see the heroine through his eyes, they simultaneously ask me to objectify her, to both want her for her sexual appeal and to want to punish her for her for the same, just as the villain has/does. No matter how vigorously I reject such an invitation, unless I skip over said passages, I can't but feel complicit in the villain's objectifying, sexualizing, and ultimately punishing gaze. By refusing to include such passages from the villain's POV, Sorenson refuses to extend the sexist invitation.

Sorenson also weaves in several feminist issues in the non-suspense portions of the story, the parts focused on character growth and development. Nathan, the primary hero, forged a successful career in Major League Baseball by following his father's tough-it-out approach, and overcame a slide into alcohol abuse when a former coach kept on his case. His own son, college-aged Leo, though, has little interest in sports, and does not take at all well to Nathan's tough-love parenting style. Talking his difficulties through with Abby, as well as reflecting on his own upbringing and his differences from his son, allow Nathan to begin to realize that there is not just one way of being a real man, and that acting the same way but expecting a different outcome may not be the smartest move to win back his son's trust.

Leo's not only dealing with his anger at his father, but also at his frustration with his stepsister, Brooke (Brooke's father, Abby's ex, is currently married to Leo's mother, Nathan's ex). Brooke, affectionate but rather naive, is free with her hugs and kisses, especially when it comes Leo. Just out of a less-than-ideal first sexual relationship, Brooke wants love and affection, and tries to get it from her stepbrother, roughhousing with him in that way that young adults sometimes do, pushing past then withdrawing back across the boundary between childish wrangling and adult sexualized play. Given that they are step-siblings, and that Brooke's father has threatened Leo against engaging with Brooke in any sexual manner, Leo's feelings about Brooke's actions are more than a little mixed. I can't recall another adult romance novel that addresses the issue of adolescent female sexual aggression at all, never mind in a way that doesn't point the blame at one or other of the parties involved. Sorenson has a real gift for exploring teen sexuality in a nuanced, sympathetic, sex-positive, feminist way; I'm eager to see how Leo and Brooke's relationship (unresolved at the end of this book) plays out in a later work (although I'd appreciate it if Brooke were not placed in the victim's role—being in an earthquake AND being kidnapped seem quite enough for one girl to take...)

So, Jill Sorenson: thanks for proving me wrong. Romantic suspense can be feminist. Particularly when it is written by you.

Photo/illustration credits:
Stop violence: Trauma, Violence, and Human Rights

Jill SorensonBackwoods
Harlequin, 2014


  1. I'm so thrilled to read this post!
    I read this column all the time and also write romantic suspense-- I've tried to stay true to the feminist perspective as much as possible--although I'm sure I've colored outside of the lines all over the place.
    My first novel, DEADLY CHEMISTRY (and this isn't a sale's pitch, honest) IS a woman in jeopardy story, but it's her career that's in jeopardy, rather than her sexual safety. And her inner romantic conflict is all about whether or not she can have a career as a scientist and a husband and family at the same time (after seeing her mother give up a career to be her mom).
    This is something I've seen women in science struggle with during my career. Many women manage just fine--but many women make huge sacrifices to keep their labs afloat--sacrifices that most men don't seem to have to make. But that's another comment.
    And I have to tell you--there were an awful lot of points during the editing process that my editor reminded me that my heroine needed to be active, not reactive, during a situation...I worked hard to make sure Lauren tried to be in charge of her own future, even after the bad guy grabbed her. Still. You gotta give the hero something to do...

    1. The idea of the woman being in jeopardy so the hero "has something to do" is problematic to me, both in theory and in practice (i.e. when I notice it as a reader). If that's his only relevance to the story, then it strikes me as a very sexist set-up, even if the characters themselves aren't sexist. It assumes a certain way of constructing the plot and the world, in which women are gonna get kidnapped and men are gonna rescue them and, particularly, that this sequence of events is sexy. (Note I'm not commenting about your work in particular, I'm not at all familiar with it, just the concept).

    2. Congratulations on your novel, Teri Anne. I'm looking forward to reading it.

  2. Really interesting analysis, thank you!

  3. I asked, "Is there any such thing as a feminist romantic suspense novel?" and suggested the answer was "no." Because romantic suspense, like a related genre, the Gothic, relies so heavily on the threat of violence against women to propel its narrative and to create tension in its readers, I theorized that feminism and romantic suspense might be inherently at odds.

    I always thought your thesis was flawed. The tension you posit only exists in novels that make women into victims. The idea that threats of violence against women in books are always sexist limits author's choices and assumes perpetual equality. After all, do we feel that way when men are put in danger?

    It's especially flawed when viewed in the context of books like Mary Stewart's (I would agree with you that Victoria Holt's are more problematic), J.D. Robb's In Death series, and other novels of romantic suspense where the women are in law enforcement and/or act bravely and sensibly. Outside the strict romance genre, look at Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night. It's a matter of how authors want to write it, not of the subgenre itself.

    That said, even though I feel as though it shouldn't have taken reading a Jill Sorenson novel to realize this, I enjoyed Island Peril, a novella from the same series as Backwoods, and enjoyed it very much for much the same reasons you adduce here. I'll have to read Backwoods sometime also.