Yesterday, I came across this great post by Foz Meadows about the frequency of abusive romance narratives particularly in media aimed at teenagers. The post is a response to a post by someone named The J. Gatsby Kid, in which they point out that Rey/Kylo Ren shippers tend to be primarily teen girls, because Kylo Ren is exactly the sort of tortured, brooding and abusive figure that YA romances present as boyfriend material to teen girls.
Much as I would love for Finn and Poe Dameron to end up together (though that wouldn’t make them the first gay Star Wars characters seen on screen, since it’s pretty obvious that Obi Wan is gay), it also triggers a “Please, don’t have Rey end up with Kylo Ren” reaction, because Kylo is a relationship disaster waiting to happen, regardless of the potential incest that some fan theories suspect. No, better for Rey to follow in the footsteps of Jedi celibacy (and I was never a fan of Jedi celibacy, never mind that the films themselves point out that it doesn’t work) than to end up with Kylo of all people.
It’s not just Rey/Kylo shippers either (and there are shippers for pretty much any conceivable and inconceivable pairing out there). When Jessica Jones dropped in late November (and I should probably do a post about Jessica Jones some time), a fandom sprang up that focussed on Kilgrave, the mind-controlling villain brilliantly played by David Tennant. Now Kilgrave is probably one of the vilest characters to pop up in popular culture of late. Kilgrave makes Kylo Ren seem like a whiny little emo boy by comparison and yet there are fans who have a crush on him. And yes, I know that the fact that both David Tennant, who plays Kilgrave, and Adam Driver, who plays Kylo Ren, are handsome men (though neither does it for me personally) certainly has something to do with their transformation into romantic figures for a subset of the viewership of the respective works.
Nonetheless, Foz Meadows and the J. Gatsby Kid are right. The proliferation of narratives that romanticise abuse and abusers is troubling. If anything, the situation has gotten even worse in recent years. Because until fairly recently, growly alpha males and flat-out abusers as romantic heroes were on their way out, at least in the romance genre, as reader tastes finally shifted away from the rapetastic bodicerippers of the 1970s/1980s and the Harlequin Presents type tycoon/billionaire romances with their ultra-possessive heroes. But then the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and to a lesser degree Twilight brought the growly, ultra-possessive, borderline (and frequently crossing the border) abusive alphajerk back with a vengeance and the rise of the so-called “new adult romance”, which pretty much exclusively features these jerky heroes, has only exacerbated that trend. As a result, I’ve largely stopped reading romance except for a few trusted authors.
Now a lot of the time, whenever someone dares to criticise Fifty Shades of Grey and its copycats or rapestastic bodicerippers or growly, ultrapossessive alpha heroes or Rey/Kylo Ren shippers or Jessica/Kilgrave shippers, the response is, “How dare you criticise other women for their sexual fantasies?”, usually followed by an explanation how rape and domination fantasies are extremely common and what that signifies.
So no, I’m not criticising other women for their sexual fantasies. If you want to fantasise about Christian Grey or Edward Cullen (who doesn’t really belong into this company, for while Edward’s behaviour is problematic, it’s not outright abusive and/or rapey, as with the other characters) or Clayton Westmoreland or the hero of Stormfire or Kilgrave or Kylo Ren, then fantasise away. I won’t stop you nor can I.
Nonetheless, we still need to ask ourselves whether the reason that rape and domination and “Heal the abuser” fantasies are so very common may be that our pop culture is absolutely saturated with such stories. Because, as Foz Meadows points out in her post, we quickly internalise the common patterns in the stories that we consume to the point that she was initially confused when she came across King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott in which the handsome but abusive guy is the villain and not a romantic hero, because that was not how the story was supposed to go.
Worse, because narratives romanticising abusive relationship dynamics are so pervasive in our culture, they also tend to become invisible, even to those of us who are pretty attuned to problematic relationships in the fiction we consume.
A few years ago, there was a space opera series with a strong romance element that I liked a whole lot. I eagerly devoured the series until about halfway through the fourth book, when the heroine’s lover (and the couple had already been through hell and back in the previous volumes) suddenly decided they had to call it quits for the greater good and began behaving abominably towards a woman he claimed to love. I somehow finished the book, increasingly angry, and started the next one, only to see that it was more of the same – hero and everybody else mistreating the already psychically damaged heroine – and stopped reading. There was one more book in the series which I never read at all.
Now a few months ago, I suddenly got a hankering for space opera with romance and a strong female protagonist. And since there aren’t a whole lot of those around, I remembered the series I had abandoned and thought, “Why don’t I read the last two books of that?” After all, I had really enjoyed that series when it was still good. And who knows, maybe the problems I had were really just a temporary blip caused by the need to artificially keep the central couple apart, because happy couples are considered boring, even if they free slaves and fight flesh-eating aliens and all that. Never mind that there are plenty of series that prove that happy couples are not boring at all and can still have adventures. See Eve and Roarke from J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Hawk and Fisher from Simon R. Green’s eponymous series (plus John Taylor and Suzy Shooter are together and mostly happy for several of the latter books of Green’s Nightside series) or Silas and Lainie from Kyra Halland’s Daughter of the Wildings series.
To refresh my memory, I grabbed the previous books in the series and began to reread the relationship bits. And was horrified, because I realised that the great love of the heroine’s life had not suddenly become a jerk halfway through the series – no, he had pretty much always been one.
Now the hero’s jerkiness was obscured by the fact that the series is written in the first person from the heroine’s POV and she is not always a very reliable narrator. She is deeply traumatised, not to mention paranoid in the first book, so I was inclined to dismiss her fear of the hero as the result of her unfounded paranoia (so does the heroine, once she is no longer afraid of him). Except that the heroine’s paranoia was not unfounded, because the hero had explicitly threatened her in the dialogue.
And once the narrator has fallen in love with the hero, she idealises him to the point that she is blinded to his very obvious faults. And because the novel puts us firmly in her head, so are we. What is more, the romantic bits are really, really well written, so we root for these people to get together, though come to think of it, I never liked the hero all that much as a character. Okay, so he is no Kilgrave or even Kylo Ren and he does have his good bits, e.g. he is nurturing and protective towards those he cares about (and indeed an interlude caring for an alien infant in the first book goes a long way towards redeeming the character) and does some genuinely heroic things. Nonetheless, the relationship is deeply problematic. And in fact, I mainly liked the hero because the heroine loved him and because these two deeply damaged people seemed to be good for each other.
Of course, it’s quite possible that the heroine decided to ditch the hero in the end – as I said, I didn’t read the last two books. And there definitely were other romantic possibilities for her, which I for one would have preferred.
Nor do I intend to rag on this particular series (which you’ll note I didn’t name, even though you may be able to guess, if you’ve read it), since I have enjoyed other works by the author. No, my point was to illustrate that these problematic and downright abusive relationship dynamics are endemic in our culture, so endemic that they can become invisible, especially when there is enough to like about the work in question otherwise. And so it’s really no surprise that a lot of women and girls fantasize about taming the domineering, growly alpha hero and redeeming the tortured abuser, because our culture keeps feeding such stories to them.
Even if you try to avoid such stories – and I do, because I’ve never liked abusive jerk heroes – it can still be damned difficult, because this stuff is everywhere. Trigger warnings only offer a limited help, especially since a lot of the time, there was zero warning at all about problematic relationship dynamics, even if I read reviews beforehand. Quite the contrary, often heroes described as “swoonworthy” in reviews turned out to be abusive and controlling jerks, when actually reading the book. What is more, sometimes the abusive dynamics only become apparent upon rereading.
So is it any surprise that many women will write the sort of stories they have internalised, whether as fanfic or profic? Especially when there is economic pressure involved and writers are clearly told that beta heroes don’t sell, cause no one wants to read about them (never mind that plenty of people do like beta heroes). I don’t even exclude myself here, some of my early stories have problematic gender and relationship dynamics as well, particularly those written for a specific market which liked that sort of thing and bought pretty much everything I sent them. I usually kept the outrightly abusive behaviour confined to the villains. And there is a reason that Hostage to Passion ends the way it does, because at that point the hero does not deserve the heroine. I always intended to write a sequel and I still may on day, but at this point in my life that story is no longer as appealing as it was when I first wrote it more than ten years ago.
Nowadays, I make a point to write positive relationships, particularly in ongoing series, but also standalones like Christmas Gifts and Christmas Eve at the Purple Owl Café, which happens to be my bestselling title in two languages. Because there are plenty of ways to generate conflict without artificially keeping a couple apart or having one or both characters resort to controlling or outright violent behaviour. It’s even possible to write about darker themes without resorting to standard “love and heal the abuser” narratives.
For example, I am currently working on what will eventually become a space opera series with strong romantic elements (because there aren’t nearly enough of those, so I have to write my own) and a central couple. Now the hero and heroine start out on opposite sides of a conflict and the hero does some things that are unquestionably wrong. He lies to her, captures her and she even finds herself his prisoner for a while. However, what the hero does not do is abuse her in any way. And in fact the realisation that the people he works for are planning to abuse and very likely kill the heroine is a large part of what causes the hero to turn against them. Nor does the heroine forgive him that quickly, though once she does they face everything I can throw at them as a couple.
Of course, I still write problematic relationships on occasion, but only in contexts where it is clear that this relationship is far from ideal. For example, no one could mistake Alfred and Bertha von Bülow for a model of a happy couple (plus the Alfred and Bertha stories are pretty obviously parodies). Several of the stories in Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Women Who Love Them parody the problematic gender dynamics of golden age science fiction, including such ugly tropes as forced breeding, while Kiss of Ice has the supposedly evil queen turn the tables on the knight sent to slay her. And the relationships depicted in the The Milk Jug (the second crime shot in Spiked Tea) and the two crime shorts collected in Seeing Red as well as the marriage from Family Car are so clearly problematic that they all end in murder. And no, I have no idea why I have the tendency to write domestic conflicts that escalate into violence and murder.
The question remains, what do we do about the proliferation of abuse narratives disguised as romance? Shaming people for their fantasies and reading choices is obviously not okay, but nonetheless we should call out problematic content when we see it. Even or especially if we otherwise like the work or the author. After all, the romance genre had largely moved away from the excesses of the bodiceripper era largely because a lot of readers, critics and writers began to call out and discuss problematic things in the books they read. And it is possible to criticise a work and its problematic aspects without shaming those who happen to enjoy said work.