"Despite the fact that she was obviously capable of taking care of herself, she brought out his protective instincts" (Filthy Rich, Kindle Loc 525)
"I'm going to protect you on this, Cara. Trust me, okay?" (FR 1821)
"He'd fucking promised to protect Cara, and instead he'd allowed someone to get close while they'd ben dancing and endanger her again" (FR 3895)
"I told you once: violence is clumsy. But sometimes it's called for. And when me and mind are at stake, I'll do what I must. Show no weakness, accept no insult, allow no advantage: that's the law of the street. (Luck p. 216)
"Your wife, whom you will overrule whenever you deem it fit. Your wife, whom you will lock away when her desires strike you as inconvenient."
"To hell with that," he snarled. "If I think you in danger, yes. That's what a man does—for his wife, for his friends, for anyone he loves. You think I give a damn if you're angry now, so long as you're safe tonight?" (Luck 327)
The word "protect," or some form of it, appears forty times in the NetGalley ARC of Filthy Rich, most often in reference to the feelings that its rich businessman hero, Branden Duke, experiences towards the heroine Cara. In contrast, the word appears hardly at all in the novel by the more literarily-inclined Duran. Yet Duran's hero, a London crime boss, is just as invested in a conception of masculinity defined by its ability to protect a heterosexual beloved as is DePaul's Manhattanite financier.
Why, at this particular point in history, do so many romance readers find the fantasy of being loved by a protective man so appealing? Or, to ask the question another way, what are romance readers today so afraid of? In real life, few of us are in danger of having someone ruin our reputations with a false sex tape, or being abducted by a mad Russian general, or being attacked by a crazed colleague, or being incarcerated in a Victorian madhouse. What is is that many romance readers feel in danger of, then, that draws them/us like bees to pollen to heroes who promise to save us, even at the expense of our independence?
*See my Goodreads review of Filthy Rich if you want the particulars of why I consider this one unfeminist
I think these sorts of questions (and answers) are interesting, but at the same time I'm a bit concerned about anyone being asked to justify their desires, if that makes sense? Like, it's interesting in a sort of self-exploring, quest-for-personal-knowledge way, but when one person's answers are expanded to an entire class of readers, I worry that we're maybe looking at over generalizations that could actually be pretty harmful?ReplyDelete
(And I don't say this as a criticism, or at least not a criticism of you or your post! I've just found myself very inclined to try to figure things out intellectually, often, when really an intellectual answer may not really be appropriate. Like, I have a raging hatred of alpha-hole heroes, and when I try to understand why so many readers like them, I find myself making a lot of assumptions about other people's interests and desires which are maybe not really fair. Well, they're almost certainly NOT fair, I'd say, given how negative I can be right after reading a particularly awful, yet inexplicably popular alphahole.)
Anyway, I think it's fine to ask why readers find protective heroes appealing. But I also think it's okay if the answer is sometimes: I have no idea! I just think they're hot!
I mean, why do I get butterflies in my tummy when I see a particular kind of male hands, strong and tanned with a couple scars in just the right places? I have no idea! But that's okay!
Do you think the "romance readers like controlling heroes because of the second shift" argument is a valid one? Or do the worries you describe in your opening paragraph apply to larger scale socio-historical arguments in general? Are all such arguments overgeneralizing?
I'm wondering if there's an analytical middle ground, something between demanding that individual readers explain their desires, and overgeneralizing about "the" romance reader. And I was thinking that middle way might be a socio-historical argument. Are women today afraid of the gains of feminism? Are they afraid that those gains will be taken away? And are such fears being metaphorically addressed by the "protective hero" trope?
The romance genre is so dominated by Alpha males. Masterful in the bedroom is one thing, but outside the bedroom masterful quickly and often crosses the line to controlling in this genre (e.g., Kristen Ashley). I particularly struggle with contemporary romance where these men and protector scenarios seem so out of place. It is not just the limited to the "hero" subgenre. I try to avoid them in historical romances as well, but the uneven power dynamic was a product of the age and doesn't seem so offensive there.ReplyDelete
Obviously, the alpha-male must appeal to a lot of women based on what's out there and what sells. I don't get it and seek to avoid it. It's what led me to a sites like this one.
Hi, Anonymous, and thanks for adding your thoughts. Do you think there is a difference between the "controlling" hero and the "protective" hero? Or are they just two sides of the same alpha hero coin?Delete
In response to your comment on my post above...There is a difference between "protective" and "controlling", but it is a fine line, which is often crossed. A thoughtful hero who values the heroine and protects her is good and a pleasure to read (i.e. many of Sarah McLean's books). Unfortunately, the heroine is all too often a "helpless little lady".Delete
I also think "alpha" for me has negative connotations, but there are plenty of men with dominant personalities that also respect their partner's autonomy. A large part of my beef is just over use the "alpha" type is in romance. I always think "ladies is this really all you want -- a big strong guy to save you (with a large serving of fabulous sex)". If you want to read about a beta male or gamma male hero you have do your research....which is how I blogs like this.
Hi, KettleK8, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I, too, am often frustrated that writers/publishers/the market/readers think that our fantasies of the perfect men are so similar: a big strong guy to save you + great sex. Women have a lot of different ideas about what constitutes the perfect guy, and alpha guy just doesn't do it for everyone.Delete
Glad you're enjoying the blog.
I wonder if this construction of the hero isn't about women per se but implies a question that is about what are men for? If not this then what? Also, I was talking with a young Mum about life and partnership yesterday. The gist of our conclusions was a partner is someone who has your back. Is the emphasis on protector/caring/alpha heroes in our reading about this and perhaps what is a struggle to manifest IRL?ReplyDelete
Merrian: Interesting move, thinking about the prevalence of this trope as an answer to the question "what are men for?" Men are to keep women safe. But then I wonder, doesn't that just lead back to the question, "safe from what?"Delete
From other men of course. Wild animals are hardly an issue anymore, and natural disasters and diseases no one person can really protect you from.Delete
I think...well, I think a lot of stuff, but in this particular instance, I like protective heroes because I AM afraid. Not to go to the grocery store alone, but the world IS a scary place. Every time I turn on the radio, good old ISIS is blowing someone up, and then there is our own version of the suicide bomber, the School Shooter (or movie theater, or church). There is climate change and poverty and heroin. Scary stuff everywhere.ReplyDelete
I CAN protect myself--I have the training to use lethal force and some self-defense stuff--but I'm still not as physically strong as almost any man on the streets. Having a giant, sexy, focused-on-me guy at my side wouldn't suck!
And then, maybe, instead of him bossing ME around when we got home, I could tell HIM to hit his knees (okay, I totally couldn't do that in real life, but maybe I could write about it, LOL).
As for the second shift question, I do think that alot of women want to be relieved of their burdens...I suspect a lot of men, do, too. We are looking at these questions in a woman-centric fashion...is it possible that foot fetishes and videos with a woman in leather boots carrying a riding crop are men's version? Instead of wondering why women are turned on by this fantasy, I wonder why PEOPLE are turned on by it? Is it the same for men and women? Hmmm...once again, Teri's internet search history heats up...
Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful musings. Yes, the world is often a scary place, and I think both men and women are often scared. But the fact that far more adventure novels/films show men as defeating their enemies themselves, than being "relieved of their burdens" by being domainted sexually says something important about gender and fear, I think.
And then romance novels show women wanting men to protect them from their enemies--suggests a far different relationship to fear for women than for men, right? Men aren't allowed to show their fears, while women are encouraged to sublimate their fear by loving a "protective" man?
Well, yeah, when you put it that way, ;-)Delete
I guess I'm considering kink (and the second shift issue) in a different light than the protector trope/archetype discussion.
So here's a question: are we "encouraged" to sublimate our fear, or are we "allowed?" Of course--in a romance novel, the perfect protective guy (at least the perfect ones that I like, LOL) is not psycho jealous, doesn't expect me to cook dinner, and isn't going to slap me around if I don't do everything he says.
And my favorite romance heroines are ones that are more than willing to dive in there and mix it up, too.
It's a complicated issue, isn't it?
I think protective/controlling and protective/have your back are two very different things. Anything that smacks of control turns me off, but any partner who is protective in a way that indicates love and admiration can be very endearing. Those little things that a lover does to make his/her partner more comfortable or to express empathy let the reader know they are thinking about the safety of their amour because they want them to continue to be around. When you come home from work and your lover has stopped at the store because he noticed you were out of toilet paper and milk is the best kind of protective; especially if he also wants to hear about your day and agrees your boss was a jerk to use your idea without giving you credit. I like romance novels with that kind of protective hero. I know the HEA/relationship has a chance with that behavior.ReplyDelete
I do think the fascination with BDSM is the result of the second shift. The dominatrix fascination with men definitely had its origins in escaping the crush of responsibility.
Now *this* element of romance I can understand and seems more straightforward to me. Since so many women are shouldering double burdens now -you mentioned it yourself- the modern fantasy is a guy that you can count on. Taken to an exaggeration/extreme, that's physical protection against some enemy, but for many of us, it will not come to that, and we're satisfied if we can count on a man to carry groceries or pitch in with the kids -the mundane doesn't sell as well, lol- or even notice that we're tired. You may have noticed another element of the fantasy is a super sensitive guy.ReplyDelete
I agree with "enrage femme" and Anonymous directly above. Too, I remember Jane Thompkins book from years ago about men reading westerns. She pointed out that men would come home from a hard day at work and would pick up a western that presented the hero as a man who was equally utterly exhausted. You would think that men would not want to relax with a book that puts them back at the point of conflict (with the boss, coworkers, etc.). But it seemed that men were trying to work through the issues of conflict as if looking for other options as well as getting some comfort from their trials. I think women do this with romance novels. Not only do we find comfort, but we also return to the site of conflict. We may try to see ways that relationships can be worked through in unexpected ways. I know that I have occasionally read something that made me think of my relationship or conversations with my husband that have been helpful. In westerns, the hero shoots the bad guys -- that doesn't mean these men readers do this. I think women sometimes want to turn to a significant other or ex and say, "Why don't you bloody do something about this? Why do I have to do everything?" If you want a great example of how this works and how familiar this is, you have to read "The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days," by Ian Frazier. Look at the excerpt on Amazon – the book is out of print but is readily available on e-readers, as a used book or from the library. It will give you all the reasons in the world as to why you would like to be protected once in a bloody while. And you will find it utterly hilarious. Trust me on this one!ReplyDelete
I was wrong -- The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days is in print. But Amazon didn't have a sample you could read. You can read a sample on e-readers. If you don't have one, call your library to reserve or order it. I never go to this much trouble to tell people to find a book because I don't want to annoy them. But really, you have to check this out. It's one of the funniest books I've ever read.ReplyDelete
What are romance readers afraid of? We might not be in danger of getting abducted by aliens or vampires, but it's wrong to say that women are not in danger. The #1 health threat to women is domestic violence. Which brings up questions about why abusive heroes are so popular--transforming the scary powerless reality into a sexy, safely reader-controlled fantasy, perhaps.ReplyDelete
Protective heroes I don't have any issues with. I agree with many of the comments here about controlling or abusive heroes. That dynamic can lead to loss of independence for a heroine. Protectiveness is more like a shield, leaving the heroine unchanged behind it. Whereas control is a manipulative tool, bending the heroine to the hero's will.
Yes, this is what I was trying to get at with this post. Are romance novels with protective heroes a metaphor/proxy in some way for the actual dangers that many women actually face, and feel in need of protection from, in particular domestic violence? A way to transform fears into a fantasy of safety?
If this is so, might romance novels with protective heroes also, more problematically, also suggest to women that it is OK to stay within an abusive relationship, because so often "bad boys" of romance are really "good boys" underneath all the pseudo-abusive behavior?
Might they also be a way of making women who aren't in danger still FEEL like they are in danger, and thus more willing to accept/welcome domineering behavior from their romantic partners?
No answers here, just questions I've been mulling over...
Personally I differentiate between protective and controlling, and I consider it situational. My response to hero actions is going to be very different if he's a body guard protecting her from the Russian mob vs mixing it up with some smack talking jerk in a bar. Could be the exact same words and behaviors, but I'm going to respond differently likely considering the former protective and the latter controlling.ReplyDelete
But on why I enjoy protective heroes, it brings a sense of conflict that is internal rather than external, and when done well (in my opinion) both characters are protective, both characters need protecting, and it just creates a lovely push pull that I enjoy reading. Plus, the kind of action/suspense books I enjoy reading seem to call for that sort of hero. I enjoy the Bruce Willis flicks of romance novels. I enjoy them even more if sometimes the heroine gets to be Bruce Willis too.
Part of why I wrote this post was an attempt to differentiate between the "controlling" hero and the "protective hero." In many books, the two are conflated; but in others, the two roles are clearly differentiated. Books where the hero is protective but not controlling are far more appealing to me than books with out and out controlling heroes, but I think I would appreciate heroes who do not feel that it is their role/burden to "protect" a heroine from daily life. As you note, the difference between a bodyguard and the Mob vs. a boyfriend butting in to defend a girlfriend from a jerk in a bar...
Yes, books where both romantic parties feel "protective" of the other are the most appealing, at least to me...