A long time ago, my husband read a romance novel I had lying around. He was appalled that the character I called the hero acted like a villain. The romance cliché of the day was the dominating hero and the oppressed woman. I had a hard time explaining that my seemingly helpless heroine was going to bring this arrogant guy to his knees. And that I, a feminist, was going to enjoy the process.
Though there still are some romances like that one, in which the hero has excessively hard qualities, today’s typical romance hero is considerably softened. Even the alpha male types; I doubt a man reading a romance would mistake today’s hero for a villain. Even the Navy SEALS are mannerly. In part, this is because the women in romances are stronger now than they ever have been, reflecting the improved position of women in our society. And marriage is far less important as an ideal relationship than it has ever been. Since the marriage question is no longer the magic question, the romantic relationship in romance now depends on different power dynamics. Basically, on how these two people get along, not who holds the power.
Most romance nowadays is conducted more or less between equals. The man shows his feelings along the way, too, instead of hiding them under angry outbursts or drunken binges, or whatever. He doesn’t patronize the heroine. If his behavior is suspect, he’ll beg for her trust, not necessarily demand it. If he isn’t giving her a rational reason to trust him, he’ll admit it and ask for her trust anyway. Old-style romances relied on the man’s superior strength, his social and economic power, knowledge of the world, and more. The heroine was pretty much at his mercy, and always unable to fight him on her own terms because she simply never was his equal. This led to lots of stories in which men got away with being physically cruel. (Yes, I’m referring to marital rape.) And the only effective level on which the heroine could resist was that intangible, the emotional. But today a hero who uses such power over a heroine is seen as a creep. Though pushy, arrogant heroes still exist in romances, they’re been taken down a substantial peg. Even in the most old-fashioned stories now being published, heroes show more physical respect for the heroines, and it’s a good thing, too.
This had to happen, because the inclusion of sexual details drastically altered the dynamics of romances. Previously, the men held all the power because the heroines were all virgins who knew nothing and were always caught off guard and shaken by the force of their own sexual response. Heroines did not know or understand their own sexuality, and thus they had no hope of controlling it. They became victims of it instead. So their only option in old romances was to withhold sex. If forced into sex anyway, they then withheld affection. Eventually, the men capitulated. This was negative power only, a double-edged sword of deprivation. By contrast, today’s romances rely on an elaborate expression of the consciousness that both the hero and the heroine have of their sexuality. The heroine has full knowledge of her body, and is able to participate fully in sexual behavior and to control herself and her suitor if she wants to. The result is fairly equal roles for both hero and heroine, though the hero usually remains the aggressor.
The old-style romance hero got away with casual cruelties, and often he succeeded in breaking the heroine down. But she broke him down, too. In our culture, this conflict is less and less popular because we don’t need it. We don’t need to see situations in which the passive-aggressive woman wins the conflict with an overbearing man. We don’t need to see situations in which the heroine triumphs over a competing other woman because getting the guy is the only thing either woman can do to succeed in life. We don’t need to see situations in which a hard-done-by heroine gets revenge (however modestly denied) against every one who has sinned against her. As American women gain a more equal role in our culture, we simply don’t find this power dynamic as appealing as we used to.
Unfortunately, even though the mainstream of American women have moved on to more equal relationships and better economic prospects, there still are plenty of women in our culture who feel trapped and lacking power. For them, the story of a sweet young woman who manages to disarm the heart of a sophisticated man of the world through her sheer goodness is empowering. In a kind of negative manner, true. It seems to encourage them to accept bad situations in the belief that if they just keep smiling, sooner or later the mean boyfriend, cruel husband, or selfish kids will change. On the other hand, it also reminds these downtrodden women that happiness is their right and that it can be found in even the most intimidating and negative circumstances. As with many stories, readers will take the message they find most appealing to them at the moment.
Of course this negative power dynamic still resonates strongly in the rest of the world because the position of women is much worse elsewhere. So that’s why stories like “Trapped by the Billionaire” (I made that up) still sell. Because there still are women who want to experience what it is like to fight against unfair odds and win anyway. There are moments in most women’s lives when they feel downtrodden and trapped, no matter how egalitarian their relationships or personal situations seem to be. And sometimes, as un-trapped and un-helpless and un-dominated as I am, I enjoy reading these stories, too. Because no matter how unfair the battle is, the heroine always wins.