After Harvey Wienstein was accused of abusing his position and of using his power to take advantage of women working either directly for him or in his industry, the #metoo campaign went viral.
Lots of romance novels involve powerful men. In recent weeks there has been a lot of discussion about whether romance writers are adapting their stories to the current #metoo climate, and whether the wealthy, alpha male is now metaphorically dead – especially where the alpha male also happens to be the heroine’s boss. An example of this discussion is here, in this Wall Street Journal article headed Will Office Affairs Ever Be the Same? Not in Romance Novels
The WSJ article sounded to me a little tongue-in-cheek. That often seems to be the case when romance novels are discussed in “serious” journals. Adele Parks and Joanna Trollope were part of a more considered discussion on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. If you missed it, it’s well worth watching the clip for Adele Parks’ thoughtful comments on why women read romance and how readers respond to her novels.
On BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, Anna Boatman, publishing direct of Piatkus, said a familiar theme in romantic fiction is for the hero to have the power to rescue the heroine in a practical way, while the heroine rescues him emotionally. She said this will always be a popular romantic theme, but that she’s finding it less interesting, and that she has seen changes in the romance submissions she’s receiving.
I’ve been mulling over Anna Boatman’s comment a lot these past few days, as what she said sums up exactly how I’ve rethought my own romance novels since I began writing. You can follow my train of thought exactly through the characters of my books in the order they were published.
The Alpha Male
In my first novel, The Silk Romance, the French hero, Jean-Luc, owns a silk mill in Lyon. The heroine, Sophie, comes to work for him. The story is a Cinderella romance, with a wealthy hero who – yes, as Anna Boatman describes – rescues the heroine practically. Sophie in her turn rescues Jean-Luc emotionally. Jean-Luc is a typical alpha male. Reviews of the hero and heroine said things like: “an old-fashioned romance”, “a charismatic hero”, “a strong female” and a hero who “enchants the reader”. One of the reasons people read romantic fiction is in order to fantasise. If a reader is going through a particularly stressful time, escaping with a tall, dark, handsome hero who has wads of cash and tells her exactly what she needs to do – or even better, does absolutely everything for her, leaving her to relax on the settee binge-watching her favourite programmes and snacking on M&Ms – is an enticing prospect. But could you live with a Jean-Luc organising your life for you every single minute of every day? I’m not sure I could.
Restoring the power balance
Over the years my heroes and heroines have changed quite a lot. In my last full-length novel, Felicity at the Cross Hotel , it’s my heroine, Felicity, who has the power in the workplace. Felicity Everdene arrives at the Cross Hotel in the Lake District to find the business is struggling. Patrick Cross, the hero, is a good businessman – he’s built up a thriving diving school – but he’s not sure he has what it takes to make a go of the rundown hotel his father has left him. Felicity has the business nous and the money to turn things round. I aimed to have the balance of power remain equal in this story, but also to show two characters with believable strengths and flaws.
Over the past few months I’ve been working on a non-fiction book about the lives of women in Halifax, West Yorkshire, from 1800-1950. Researching this book has been an eye-opener on just how little power women in Britain had over their own lives until relatively recently. Researching for this book has made me think even more deeply about how I portray the power balance in relationships in my romance novels.
Strong women characters
In a few weeks’ time some author friends and I from the north of England will be releasing an anthology of romantic short stories. The collection is called Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings. The stories are a mixture of historical and contemporary, and my story is set in Edwardian times – a time when women had no vote and very few rights. Although my story is a romance with (I hope) a strong hero, I made a deliberate attempt to make sure that everything practical in the story was resolved by women. There is only one incident in which the hero has to come to the rescue, but that’s only because women at the time didn’t have the same rights he did. But by the end of the story… Well, you’ll have to wait and see!
My story is called ‘Beatrice Marches for Women’, and I thoroughly enjoyed creating a cast of strong women characters. Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings is on pre-order on Amazon and will be released in print, too, on May 18th.
Talking of northern authors, Elizabeth Enfield – author and creative writing tutor – took part in the same BBC Radio 4 discussion as Anna Boatman. She made a wonderful comment that in one of the biggest #metoo romances of all time, a vulnerable woman goes to work for a powerful man. The boss tries to seduce the heroine, she discovers he’s married, she refuses to compromise and ends up losing her job and her home. Can you guess the title of the book? Yes, it Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre :)
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Do you think the alpha male is becoming less popular in romance novels? Do you think there is still a place for the CEO/employee trope in romance?
If you have any comments at all on this subject, I’d love to hear from you!
12 thoughts on “Romance novels and the #metoo campaign”
Such an interesting post – I don’t know if the alpha male’s becoming less popular but I find characters who are less alpha male more interesting to read about 🙂
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Hi Katy, yes, I do too! I also find them easier to write. Alpha males can easily come across as completely unsympathetic, and I find it a lot of work keeping their good qualities in the reader’s mind :) Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!
Great post, Helena. This will be a challenge for romance writers going forward, and a special challenge for historical romance authors!
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Thanks, Linda! I can see how it will be a challenge for historical romance authors. It’s difficult to portray strong and independent women in a realistic way, when the reality is women were forced to depend on men for pretty much everything until relatively recently. Thanks for taking the time to comment!
I think the office romance will always endure in some form or other. My particular position is the realization that, in the four unpublished Drusilla novels I wrote, Drusilla (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) did indeed become an empowered female heroine, which I hadn’t quite realised was so rare. Without help, those novels can never be published, which is a pity. It may also be a pity that the more traditional male/female dynamic might have a few kinks in it at the moment, but it can be evened up without the reader’s enjoyment being too eroded. In the last Dru novel, Dru evens things up with Spike quite a bit and even beats him up a couple of times. I enjoyed writing that and I hope male and female readers will enjoy reading it one day, too.
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an example of a show with some brilliant female leads, James, and it’s no surprise it’s appeal has lasted for decades. I love the way you carried on with Drusilla’s character and gave her a life outside the show. Your books sound a fabulous read! I do hope you get them published some day. Have you tried writing for fan fiction sites?
Very interesting piece, Helena. #metoo will I think have an impact like other social trends. I recently read (where??) that writers can now hire an editor not to advise on the usual stuff but on ‘sensitivity’ issues– I suppose that means warning you if you’ve written anything that could give offence in terms of ethnicity, gender etc. Has anyone else heard about this? You mention ‘Jane Eyre’, a book which gave a lot of offence when published as did ‘Wuthering Heights’ (my blog,January ‘A Most Unladylike Pursuit’). Personally what interests me is what you say about your own writing/artistic development and how your heroes/heroines changed. Why do you think that happened? Was it a conscious decision on your part? I’m currently revising the last book in a series and what seems to have evolved naturally is the role of the protagonists in resolving the romantic conflict at the end. In Book 1, the hero ‘galloped to the rescue’, in Book 2 hero and heroine met half way, and in this last one the heroine is doing the galloping (via Eurostar)…as far as I’m aware this wasn’t done on purpose by me, just the way the characters sorted themselves out! Fascinating subject…
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How interesting about your own characters, Laurette. With mine I think it was part a conscious decision, and partly because, as Anna Boatman said in the talk I quoted, I stopped finding the hero rescuer so interesting.
I think it’s a good idea for editors to check for anything that might cause offence. I read an American contemporary romance last year that had an eastern European character in it. He was a professor at a university, but he spoke with a comedy accent, and there was a sort of mocking superiority towards him because he didn’t speak English correctly. The rest of the book was great, but the handling of this one character ruined it for me. Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to struggle abroad in a foreign language.
I’d forgotten how the Brontes’ books caused a stir when they first came out. It would be fascinating to know how the sisters would write today.
Romance novels have always been at the forefront of changing times. It is a fascinating subject, and I’m interested to see how the genre develops.
Thanks for your great comment!
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The alpha male has always been part of society. We need strong leaders who forge ahead despite obstacles. Writing an alpha who takes advantage of a heroine’s need (of any type) has never been a fun read for me. I also don’t read office romances because, having worked in many offices over my career, I’ve seen the disastrous effects these relationships have caused for coworkers. Is the current trend of billionaire romances alpha-male-plus-money? Perhaps. I think there will always be a place for alpha males in any kind of literature. My first two books were about beta heroes with strong alpha females. Far from being submissive males, these two were teammates for their heroines. Whatever role the hero and heroine take, I think we owe it to ourselves as writers to empower others without denigrating anyone.
This subject and the whole debate around it has made me think about the romance genre and how it differs from other genres and literary fiction. We’re writing about relationships that are a sort of role model for our readers – about heroes who must be worthy of our heroines’ love. There will always be a place for the alpha male, but we need to make sure their relationship with the heroine is on an equal footing. We do need strong leaders, and nowadays there is no reason why our leader can’t be an alpha female. I like the sound of your first two books, Kayelle. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment on this interesting subject.
What a thought-provoking topic.I enjoyed realizing with you how your characters have changed through your writing career. I believe many of the relationships in romance begin with a woman who’s a bit timid, but changes and becomes stronger at the end of the book. But I wouldn’t like a read when the roles are reversed with a timid man coming out of his shell to dominate a woman. We have to find a balance in the romance novels, but also in our own lives. The interaction my daughters have with their husbands are different than what I have experienced. Writers have to keep up with so many changes in society, and some writers are forging the changes through their writing.
Hi JQ, actually I like that idea of a timid man coming out of his shell! (Not to dominate the woman, though!) But I like the idea of a shy man changing because of his love for the heroine. I can’t think of a romance novel where this has been done. It would make for an interesting read and would be a challenge to write.
Romance novels do keep up with changes in society, and it’s really interesting to read old romances and compare them to those today. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for dropping in!