Romances reflect the state of our society. Not very long ago, we used to think that a man proved his love by showing jealousy of his girlfriend or wife. He loved her so much he wanted her all for himself, and so on. That was common in an era of men who were strong and silent, who simply didn’t have the tools to communicate their love openly. They were expected to act out their feelings, not talk about them. But only aggressively. Thus in romances, jealousy was acted out by anger. And softer feelings were hardly ever admitted except on the very last page of a book.
Today, men in our society are expected to be more articulate. No more violence substituting for words. No more going on drunken benders as proof of manliness. (Smoking and drinking, once the hallmarks of the sexy male, also are long gone fashions.) But as acceptable behaviors by men have changed, so have behaviors by women. Today they are expected to be more direct. No more coy denials of affection. Certainly no more manipulative ploys to make their man jealous in order to prove his love.
We now recognize jealous behavior as usually stemming from insecurity, not love. Further, we believe that a jealous husband or boyfriend is being abusive when he acts out his insecurity by showing rage. If the man tries to dictate or restrict the heroine’s life, or if he touches her with violence, he’s not even cast as the hero anymore. He’s the villain. These days, a lot of romances start with women fleeing abusive men, men who won’t accept being escaped, let alone rejected. This now common romance plot reflects the rise of the stalker ex in our society. Such stories end happily in romances. Instead of the estranged ex husband killing his former wife as so often happens in real life, in romances she learns to fight back, finds a hero to help her, and finally routs her jealous, insecure, sore loser nemesis.
You might be surprised to know that not so long ago, authors were writing romances in which the men not only threatened violence against the women they claimed to love, but meted it out, too. There were lots of marital rapes in old Harlequins, for instance. These usually occurred in relationships in which both the hero and the heroine were totally unwilling to communicate honestly. Often a clash of cultures helped exacerbate the conflict. But it was the unwillingness of the hero and heroine to talk truth that got them into hot water. In fact, they often were in such denial about their feelings that they deliberately incited rage by treating each other poorly, making each other jealous by clinging to rivals, saying mean things to each other, and more. Marital rape is a classic weapon in the arsenal of marital combat, especially in societies in which the social and legal position of women is unequal to that of men. These stories were highly combustible and everybody in them behaved badly. And afterwards, they both were ashamed and eventually admitted fault.
Our opinion of intimate behavior like this has changed, thankfully, and romance writers simply aren’t writing these kinds of stories anymore. We no longer think it is thrilling in a good way if in order to rule over her, a hero grabs a heroine and shakes her, or threatens to spank her, or just threatens her with force. We no longer confuse violence with sexual desire, or rage with love. We’re not even convinced that either person should rule over the other. Mostly the dynamic of romances today is that of achieving equilibrium, not beating the other person into submission, whether the weapon is physical violence or mean words. The sheer level of violence threatened and acted out in romances has dropped off substantially. But if you’d like to search out a few romances written decades ago that are amazing apologies for marital violence, just to see how much romances have changed, here are some examples:
Sheila Bishop is a British writer known mostly for many Regency and historical romances, but she also wrote several contemporary romances. One of them, Desperate Decision, is long out of print and justifiably so. It featured a heroine married to an insecure guy who jealously beat her up so much he drove her to contemplate infidelity. But eventually, her social world pushed her to reconcile with him and to accommodate his tendency towards rage. It became her fault because she provoked him by daring to talk to other men. Even at the time, long before domestic abuse became a topic for public discussion, I thought it was a lousy ending. As an astute reviewer on Amazon.com’s listing of another Sheila Bishop novel, Consequences, notes, “her heroes sometimes have a disturbing abusive streak.”
American author Amii Lorin, better known today as Joan Hohl, wrote a story of violent abuse, Morgan Wade’s Woman, in which the macho, inarticulate hero who voluntarily agreed to a marriage of convenience suffers from such outraged masculine pride that he constantly beats the heroine black and blue during punishing sex, as a way to subdue her own pride and apparently equalize their relationship. That’s my opinion of his motives, anyway. Jan Cohn, in Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-market Fiction for Women, claims that their battle is one of sheer sexuality. But if that’s so, then I still think the so-called hero cheated, because he used superior force and the heroine ended up physically bruised for all to see. I had an opportunity to meet the author soon after reading the book and I remonstrated with her about how the hero treated the heroine. I said his treatment of her was not fair—that he was punishing her for a situation that was not her fault. The author replied that life was unfair. Ouch. Curiously, Wikipedia’s Amii Lorin/Joan Hohl entry does not list this abusive romance as part of her oeuvre.
Sally Wentworth wrote a Harlequin Presents in which the heroine lies to the hero about who she is as a person, but by the time he discovers this, they’re stuck far from England. Then he proceeds to totally treat her like dirt. I don’t recall physical violence, but the psychological abuse was intense. Utterly destroyed, she considers infidelity with a sympathetic other man. But she finally finds personal redemption by turning instead to helping others during a natural disaster, thus also winning some respect from her abusive husband. I’m going to say that this was Betrayal in Bali, although it might have been her earlier novel, Candle in the Wind. Like other readers who discover that they own a repellent book, I got rid of my copy.
Reading how the heroines were treated in these books will probably make you seethe with rage. We are not used to such casual acceptance of violence towards women anymore. But the cruel lies the women tell will probably make you angry at them, too. We expect more kindness between the sexes these days. Maybe that’s as much a societal fantasy as the prior mislabeling of jealousy’s meaning. Only time will tell.