Friday, November 22, 2013

Abusive Tropes are not Romantic

'Ball and chain' photo (c) 2006, Simon Law - license:

Though each book is supposed to be new and unique, invariably paranormal romance, like it’s bigger cousin conventional romance often ends up following the same patterns. Obviously all fiction has its tropes and there are certain patterns which, while they may be overdone, are not necessarily damaging. For example, there is the obvious boy meets girl, girl hates boy, problem arises, they overcome the misunderstanding and live happily every after screwing their brains out for eternity

These books are meant to sell us on the idea of romance and the inevitability of true love. However, some of these tropes are less benign and that path to true love can often be highly misogynist which is either expressed through characterisation or placing the female protagonist in untenable situations, even outright abusive situations - where she should be calling the police while running away screaming. Yes, these are not meant to be more than fantasy but this does not excuse the horrible messages that are repeatedly sent.

While we have addressed many individual elements that uphold abusive relationships, it is when we see several of these troublesome elements come together that the full scale of the problem becomes clear.

1) The Inexperienced/virginal woman is an absolute favourite. This places the man in dominant position because he is more sexually experienced and inevitably suggests that the perfect woman, is the woman who is pure. Let’s have a look at a few characters which we were introduced to as virgins: Sookie Stackhouse (Charlaine Harris) Bella Swan (Stephanie Meyer) Cassandra Palmer (Karen Chance) Clary Fray (Cassandra Clare) Chrysabelle (Kristen Painter) Cindy Spencer Pape - 4 out of 5 of the female protagonists, Damali (L.A. Banks), many of the female love interests in Lyndsay Sands Argeneu series. This long list of doesn’t even include the penchant for the gently used protagonist, who has had few experiences and is, of course, tortured to some degree over it (see Anita Blake before Laurell K Hamilton discovered that porn sells). The woman must always explain why she has not saved her virginity whereas this is an acceptable status quo for the man and any sexual experience she has had will have been deeply inferior and unsatisfactory (as if bad sex gives one honourable virginity). Virginity or little experience is always stressed and yet these women moan and carry on (supposedly in pleasure and not pain) about being penetrated with 12 inch penises as round as tree stumps.  

2) Centuries Old, Powerful Love interest: To contrast with the virginal purity of the protagonist, her love interest will have been around for years, sometimes centuries, boffing away at anything that moved. He will be experienced, he will be skilled, sometimes supernaturally skilled, he will teach her and show her and open her eyes (and other places). Yes, this fits the usual fantasy elements of the romance story - shouldn’t the love interest be the epitome of excellent sexual prowess? But it’s a power imbalance - his experience, his skills contrast sharply with her complete “innocence”. Her ignorance and sheltered life leaves her prey to being coaxed into “expanding her horizons” whatever reservations she may have and inevitably puts him in the driving seat of their love life.

And he will often be more powerful than her as well, especially if he is a supernatural creature. The power imbalance is pushed wide open by centuries old, supernatural monsters seducing inexperienced teenagers in school, women - or girls - who are utterly helpless and dramatically fragile in contrast.

3) The Woman is Isolated: This common trope in a lot of Paranormal Romance (or Urban Fantasy with strong romance elements) repeatedly brings us women who have few people in their lives. It’s a running joke that parents are an endangered species in the genre - given the number of orphans running around (Sookie in the Sookie Stackhouse Series, Elena in The Vampire Diaries, Nikki in the Nikki and Michael series, Elena - in fact, a number of female protagonists, in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, Tessa in The Infernal Devices, Gaby in Hopeless - the list goes on) and an equal number of characters who have either absent or inadequate parents (Bella Swan’s absent mother and out of depth father in Twilight, Clary’s comatose mother in The Mortal Instruments).

Similarly, many of these women do not have friends or many friends (many of the female characters in the Black Dagger Brotherhood, and many of the female characters in Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter Series) - they are often considered outcasts or freaks (like Sookie) or don’t fit in to their respected worlds (Sookie, Elena from Women of the Otherworld).

These isolated women are inherently vulnerable - they lack protectors and advocates, they lack people who are ready and able to warn of dubious behaviour, they lack second opinions and they lack safety nets.

4) The Woman is Unhappy/Unfulfilled: In some ways this is understandable - after all, many of these stories are fantasies of a dream come true and where else would you start but in a place of unhappiness to make the ending all the sweeter? There’s a reason so many fairy tale princesses have such miserable beginnings. The problem is in relation to the other tropes - because it’s another element that serves to make the woman vulnerable. By being unhappy and unfulfilled, often with either no job or a job they find deeply dissatisfactory or they’re lonely or sad (again, the Black Dagger Brotherhood features heavily here, but so does Sookie, the grieving Elena in The Vampire Diaries, the frustrated Elena in Women of the Otherworld and Bella) makes them easier prey. Having no ties means, again, having few means of support and protection, fewer choices and fewer alternatives to the man who swoops in to make things better.

In some cases this can lead to outright desperation to find anything or anyone who can make them happy - in true extremes it can leave them in a position where ONLY the love interest can make them happy

5) Woman often endangered - needing his protection.  Why is it that the majority of these pure and gently used women are always facing some kind of danger? Is the hymen just a natural magnet for trouble? Inevitably, little Miss Taint-Free will find herself on the run because someone or something wants to hurt her because of her extra special specialness. Being purer than the driven snow, and no experience with the world, she cannot possibly protect herself or even act in her own self defence. Enter dark, brooding stranger with a secret heart of gold who is fascinated by her extra pure specialness to save the day. Oh look, now she feels feminine and loved  Now that he has protected her with his extra special man powers it’s okay for them to have lots of sex that includes words like yahoo palace, turgid manliness, and everyone’s favourite, liquid core.

Of course, the additional problem is that the peril binds her to the man. Her life/freedom/woo-woo literally requires her to remain with him, accepting his protection and often on his terms. Again she is vulnerable, again there is a power imbalance

6) Woman Becomes an extension of the Man’s life: This is another pernicious element that works badly with nos.3 & 4. Because the woman has such an unhappy life and few or no ties holding her down, we often see women entirely abandon their old lives and become extension of their menfolk (again, The Black Dagger Brotherhood and the Dark Hunter Series.) Their old lives are discarded either entirely or almost entirely with just small shreds of any previous ambition, career, dreams or plans (assuming they even had any; some, like Bella, didn’t even bother).

In many supernatural cases, this is often combined with the woman turning into the same being as the man and breaking from her old life (such as Elena in the Vampire Diaries and Elena in the Woman of the Otherworld Series and many examples in the Argeneu series). In others, the woman is either mystically bonded to her male love interest, (Cat from the Spiritwalker Trilogy, and The Black Dagger Brotherhood again and, yes, the Dark Hunter series, repeatedly, again) never to leave again, or the woo-woo ensures she will not be happy with other men, or without men like her love interest (such as Sookie’s telepathy requiring a supernatural partner). She quite literally cannot leave.

7) Badly Behaved Love interest: And all that isolation, vulnerability and eternal bonding comes together and reaches a really nasty peak when we reach this trope - the badly behaved love interest. Maybe his supernatural nature makes him aggressive and jealous and controlling (yes, the Blackdagger Brotherhood. Again. Camille and Smoky in The Otherworld Series, Adam Hauptman in The Mercy Thompson series, Clay in Hopeless). Maybe he just is aggressive and jealous and controlling without needing a woo-woo excuse (Edward Cullen from Twilight). Maybe the woo-woo makes him bad tempered and dangerous, prone to losing control or shapeshifting or simply being deadly (Beauty and Beast). Maybe they’ve had a tragic, torturous past and their super-epic manpain means they lash out at everyone and treat the woman like shit until she heals him with her super special loving (The Dark Hunter Series, pretty much all of them, but Zarek and Aidan take special prizes).

Taking all that vulnerability and near unbreakable commitment (or actually unbreakable commitment) and throwing in overtly abusive behaviour and then calling it true love is frankly horrifying.

Each of these tropes, separately, has some questionable elements and certainly makes the relationships we see over and over again seem, at best, to involve a large power imbalance and, at worst, to be outright abusive. But what is most disturbing is when a number of these tropes come together. These tropes are all common, they’re not one off story elements appearing in a few books; they are story staples.

And they overlap - you will often have, for example, an isolated, inexperienced woman with an unfulfilled life who is endangered and falls for an older, experienced supernatural being prone to violent outbursts of jealousy whose tragic, horrible past means he often lashes out at her or treats her cruelly or unfairly. Individually they are bad, but when they start piling up we quickly establish not just elements of an abusive relationship, but a pattern that is outright worrying. Especially when these patterns are repeated over and over in book after book.

Ultimately, these stories are presenting things as “romantic” that read like text book examples of abusive relationships. Not once, not occasionally, but over and over again and in a genre that is heavily marketed to women and young women.

Our very concept of romance in fiction so often contains at least some of these elements as a necessity and, as we’ve said repeatedly, fiction does shape society. Our very idea of what we should want, what we should accept and what we should tolerate, in a relationship is shaped by these depictions of romance.