Friday, September 30, 2016

A Romance Novel a Trump Supporter Could Love: Christine Feehan's SHADOW RIDER

I usually do not spend time here on the blog writing about romance novels that strike me as distinctly anti-feminist. But after reading an ARC of popular romance author Christine Feehan's latest contemporary/paranormal romance Shadow Rider, I couldn't help but feel that writing about how Feehan's novel worked could, weirdly enough, help me understand why some women might be supportive of Donald Trump's candidacy for President of the United States.

Let me explain what I mean...

Shadow Rider is the first in a series about a powerful Italian American family who "keep the neighborhood safe" (Kindle Loc 492). Rumors abound about just how the Ferraro family does so. Are they playboys? Assassins? Mafia? No one in their Chicago neighborhood seems to know, exactly; all anyone will admit is that the Ferraros are sexy, predatory, and dangerous—and that they will protect those who respect them.

A damsel in major distress winds up in Ferraro territory, and is almost instantly "claimed" by the eldest sibling in the predominantly male Ferraro clan. Stefano Ferraro feels an immediate "primal reaction" to his first sight of Francesca Capello, a reaction that he quickly discovers is because she, like he and his siblings, is a shadow rider, someone who can move through space via shadows.

J. R. R. Tolkien and other theorists of fantasy literature argue that in order to make a reader willing to suspend his/her disbelief, a fantasy must create a logical, consistent secondary world, and for many fantasy readers, the appeal of the genre lies in the detail of its world-building. Feehan's book, though, is not interested in exploring the hows and whys of the shadow riders' abilities, never mind the efficacy of their business model (the Ferraros hire themselves out as executioners, only killing the bad guys, of course. Am I the only one who found it hard to believe that a family could earn millions of dollars from innocent people who pay them to kill off evildoers?). Feehan only provides a brief description of what it takes to ride the shadows, or to conduct an assassination business. Nor does she give much in the way of backstory or explanation for how their paranormal powers came to be. Readers well-versed in fantasy conventions would likely find the book unsuccessful because of its weak world-building. But Feehan gives readers something else that makes them willing to suspend their disbelief in her very lightly sketched paranormal world: a hero who, through magic, becomes a larger than life protective figure, both for the book's heroine and for the readers (predominantly female, I'd guess) outside of it.

Because Francesca, unlike Stefano and his siblings, does not understand her own power as a shadow rider. Francesca is running from the murderer of her sister, a politician who has gotten away with his crime by making Francesca appear unstable and thus discrediting her eye-witness account of his atrocity. Francesca has no money, no family, and only one friend when she arrives in Chicago, and continually makes decisions that put her even further in physical and sexual danger. This is a woman in need of protection, Feehan's story asserts, in need of a powerful, dominant, domineering man to keep her safe, not only from her sister's murderer, but also from her own poor choices.

Francesca is a resistant romantic heroine, one who protests a lot about Stefano's protective (domineering) behavior. Luckily for Stefano, Francesca's only friend, Joanna, serves to undercut Francesca's early doubts: "It isn't wow. It's creepy," Francesca protests after Stefano thrusts money into her hand and orders to her to buy herself a coat and new shoes during their very first interaction. Joanna disagrees: "It's wow and you know it. He's hot. He's rich. He's interested in you" (606). Not only is Francesca wrong, she's ungrateful, Joanna asserts, which is a big feminine no-no: "You are so stubborn, Francesca. If I had an opportunity like you have, protection from the Ferraro family, and a thousand dollars to spend, believe me, I'd be counting myself lucky, not resenting it" (772). Readers who enjoy Feehan's story want to believe that a domineering, violent man isn't "creepy," want to believe that his attentions are "wow." And that in exchange for their acceptance of his domineering ways, said domineering man will offer them protection from a cruel, violent world.

And so Francesca, though initially verbally feisty, fairly quickly becomes a behaviorally submissive heroine. Though she continues to protest when Stefano tells her what to do and how to act, she always ends up giving in: "There was no use fighting him on it. He was going to get his way. Both of them knew it" (361); "There wasn't any sense in arguing. Stefano was a law unto himself" (2778); "There was no point in protesting. She was being steamrolled, but she'd asked for it. Stefano was a force" (2837).

And of course, at heart, Francesca really likes the way Stefano tells her what to do and hauls her bodily around when she resists: "She secretly liked that he was bossy. It made her feel as if he could really protect her from anything, although she knew better" (2405). Because of course, "Stefano might snarl, he might even manhandle a woman, but he would never hurt her. Never. She knew that instinctively, like that was written somewhere in stone" (2556). Therein lies the heart of this novel's appeal: a violent man, one who will protect me and will never harm me, is what I need to be safe in the world.

Francesca, unsurprisingly, is also lacking in self-confidence in the looks department, a busty, curvy Italian girl who cannot imagine herself being appealing to hot, sexy glamour boy Stefano. But luckily for her, she has what no other woman outside Stefano's family does: the ability to breed future shadow riders. Because Stefano is not attracted to Francesca because he wants to train her as a shadow rider, to bring out her latent talents. Rather, he sees her as the key to his future, to the future of his family: "His first duty was to Francesca. He should have ensured her safety before anything else—even a job. Without her, there would be no future generations" (1800).

Stefano, like his brothers, "had been raised to respect women. To treasure them. To protect them" (1163). They will deal death and violence, thereby keeping their women safe and sound. Ferraro females will, in turn, provide a safe haven for their men, a sense of warmth, of tenderness, of family to which the Ferraro males can retreat to, to take a break from their "world of unrelenting violence" (1017).  It's almost as if we've been transported back to the nineteenth century, when the doctrine of "separate spheres," which dictates that men fight out in the cruel public world while women keep the private home fires burning, first arose. Unsurprisingly, then, Stefano tells Francesca towards the end of the novel, "You don't ever do violence, Francesca, not unless it's self-defense or in the defense of our family. I won't have that on your soul. You're going to be my wife. The mother of my children. You're about love and softness. Not killing. Never that" (6282).

Not surprisingly, Stefano expects Francesca to stay at home with any children that the two will have: "When we have children, I want you to be with them, not working in some fucking deli so you can call yourself independent. You're never going to be independent" (4960). And again, though Francesca initially resists, eventually she caves and gives up her job.

The readerly desire that Feehan's novel appeases is a desire for a world of separate spheres, a world that asserts that women and men are inherently different and that distinctive gender roles are the norm. And in particular, that men will fight, violently at times, to keep their women safe. "Stefano was larger than life. A throwback to an era gone by when men were fiercely protective of women and children. Where having a code meant something. Giving his word and keeping it was a matter of honor" (5558), Francesca thinks. Whether that world ever actually existed is moot; it is the fantasy that it did, and could again, that appeals to Feehan's readers.

"I have so many women that really want to have protection,
and they like me for that reason."

And, I'm guessing, to many of the women who support Donald Trump.

Photo credits
Behind Every Succesful Man...: Buzzfeed
Trump supporters: Conservative Tribune


  1. Honestly, I was going to pass this post up. I was a fan of Christine Feehan and loved her Drake Sisters series, until the last one. It's fluffy writing and I didn't give it much thought. It was just fun but the last book of that series was so appallingly offensive as a rape survivor and as a woman, I couldn't believe what I was reading. I read it to the end hoping for something to redeem it but in the end, I just decided she was an author best to avoid. And in reading this post, I'm feeling like that is never going to change. It's sad when women do so much work to keep themselves oppressed.

    1. I agree, Sara; it is very sad when women contribute to their own oppression. Especially when they don't even seem to recognize that they are doing it...

  2. I attempted to read Wild Cat by Christine Feehan and couldn't stomach it. It's as if she has copied the story and changed the names and abilities. When he told her that because she was pregnant with his child, she was his and would stay with him, I was done. I couldn't help but wonder why women read it.