Set the World on Fire

By Poison Ivy,

I just had an interesting thought. A romance usually is an intimate, even a domestic story. Often, it’s about women who are quite content to be anonymous in their world—known by relatives, friends, and coworkers, but with no ambitions to achieve the kind of significance on the world stage that would lead them to become best buddies, say, with Michelle Obama.

Yet the hero of the romance might be an international player, a famous man who has met the movers and shakers of the world and is known and even reviled by millions for his sharp business dealings. That’s an old-style Harlequin favorite: sheer power with no apologies. American heroes tend to be more PC. But my point is that, except for the occasional romance in which the heroine is a famous actress or model, she is usually a nobody. And she aspires to stay that way, even if she has some ambitions to achieve worldly success by running a business or effecting some important civic change.

Take a look at the Beyoncé photo. Is this a woman who needs a man to champion her because she has been slighted? To tell the world that she ought to have won a certain award? No. She’s at the top of her game, she’s got a billion-dollar smile on her face, and she is the epitome of a powerful woman. And she even radiates niceness, which makes her accessible to a very wide range of people. That’s a good-girl smile on her face, thank you very much.

But she’s not the heroine of a romance, is she? Why not? Because romance heroines usually are not presented as powerful, fully self-actualized women. They more often are shown to be women on the cusp, or women in jeopardy, or women who are lovelorn. Even if they have some measure of success. And often, they are losers who are one step from impoverishment, abuse, or death. Either the hero rescues this kind of heroine and gives her a better life, or knowing the hero empowers the woman to think more of herself, or it all is organic and they raise each other to a happy ever after that includes social and economic security.

Contrast this standard personality range with that of the typical paranormal heroine. Does she want to set the world on fire? You bet. She either has a mission or receives one that is so important that she must risk her life to save herself, her family, her tribe, her city, the world—or even the entire universe. Good versus evil on a big scale. It’s the opposite of the small-picture intimacy of the standard romance. What a vastly more important role the paranormal heroine has to play on the world stage.

In other words, in a paranormal romance, instead of Cinderella, the hard-done-by heroine who waits for a hero to rescue her from her misery, we have the Angelina Jolie-as-Lara-Croft heroine. Or even Jolie herself, carving her own unconventional life from out of some fairly miserable clichés of world celebrity. No wonder people are so fascinated. Powerful women are few and far between on the world stage. Those who openly work their sexual appeal without apology (such as Madonna) are both admired and derided. But they are not ignored. Imagine Madonna as the heroine of a typical paranormal: her best friend has been turned into a vampire and now she has to kick vampire butt to keep the entire town from turning into a vampire nursery. All she has are her stilettos (both knives and heels, of course), her incisive understanding of men (you go, girl), and maybe a hunky, leather-clad, semi-undead guy who’s hot for her (yeah). Is she going to kick vampire butt? You betcha.

Do you see why I am suddenly excited by the subtext of these paranormal romances? These typically are stories in which the heroine effects change directly because of her own powers. She’s not solely dependent on the strength of the hero to fight the bad guys. Even though she and the hero may be on the same team, she’s seen as a powerful member, not a weakling who has been brought along via the hero’s strength.

Of course most paranormal romances take the form of uphill battles in which negative imagery abounds. The outcome of a war between shapeshifters and werewolves and demons is never certain, or even (if the writer is doing a series) permanent. But the heroine is committed to the importance of the fight, and she is a key soldier. Unlike the standard sword-and-sorcery cover of years ago (epitomized in the original Star Wars movie poster), the man in a paranormal romance is not the all-powerful figure with the woman at his feet. (Considering that Luke was a tyro who needed Han’s help to do anything, that original image was a lie even then.) Nor is it the other way around. The hero of a paranormal has not been neutered or made weak simply to produce the effect that the heroine is powerful. It’s the real thing: each person has powers that contribute. We need a new visual for that. Currently, the covers of paranormal romances do not usually show men at all. But these stories are not about a female-only world. Paranormal romance plots are not resolved by practice of the domestic arts. Except as wicca can be so characterized (after all, magic spells are recipes), the heroine can’t bake a pie or nurse a sick child or perform other classic womanly tasks to win the day in a paranormal romance. She has to be a full actor on the big stage. She has to set the world on fire.