One of the reasons why I love Jill’s heroines so much, and this is something I've never had the opportunity to comment on before, is that they know their bodies well and know what gives them pleasure and how to get it. It seems like a silly, inconsequential thing considering how many other virtues her books have, but in a genre where the heroes seem to have all the answers to the heroines’ sexual fulfillment, books like hers always make an impact.
Can Romantic Suspense Be Feminist? By Jill Sorenson
There have been a number of discussions online about feminism and romance. Some people think the romance genre is inherently feminist because it’s written by women, for women. Others think it’s inherently non-feminist because the heroine finds happiness (and self-worth, perhaps) through her relationship with a man.
Narrowing the genre down into categories further complicates the question. Are some subgenres more feminist than others? Fans of m/m say they enjoy the gender equality and lack of sexism. Paranormal romance readers discuss problematic themes such as “fated mates” and captive heroines. Alpha males run rampant across genre lines.
Romantic suspense isn’t debated as hotly as other subgenres. Maybe it’s just not as “hot,” as in popular. Maybe its readers aren’t as passionate. Maybe its readership is less female, overall. Let’s look into that.
RS is crossover fiction, like scifi romance, which means that it appeals to some non-romance readers. These two subgenres are known for high stakes and violent action—typical “male” attractions. There are life and death battles. The characters are in danger for a good portion of the story. I don’t read much scifi, but my impression is of strong heroines. Spaceship captains and freedom fighters.
In contrast, RS is known for strong heroes. Navy SEALs, bodyguards, law enforcement officers. Physically imposing men with big guns. Alphas to the max. These men are usually paired with heroines who need protection. Her vulnerability ramps up the tension. If she can defend herself or defeat the villain single-handedly, the hero is superfluous. Isn’t he?
Not every romantic suspense story relies on this setup, but there is certainly some truth to the “damsel in distress” stereotype. The rescue fantasy is a powerful one, and I see nothing wrong with it. Is it feminist? No. Is it anti-feminist? Hmm.
In Defense of Damsels
I don’t believe that being abused or victimized makes a woman weak. Rape and battery doesn’t make women weak. In real life, this isn’t something women choose to have happen. In fiction, the author chooses it, sometimes to gain the reader’s sympathy or to give the character a traumatic past to overcome. When I make this choice, my basic motivation is to promote a healthier attitude toward women who have experienced abuse. I try to present an anti-shaming, anti-blaming perspective. If only well-adjusted, privileged, “innocent” women are represented in romance, the underlying message is that they are more deserving of HEAs.
Damsels aren’t limited to RS, either. Desperate young women in financial straits are a common trope for romances of all time periods. In BDSM stories, dominant heroes save submissive ingénues from a lifetime of bland vanilla sex. Virgin widows, repressed spinsters, damaged heroines—they all need a magic penis, am I right? Orgasms to the rescue!
Of the rescue “types” (sexual, emotional, financial), physical rescue doesn’t strike me as the least feminist choice. Maybe because physical strength is a feature of biology, not patriarchy, unlike other sources of male power.
Although all romantic suspense heroines are in danger at some point, they aren’t all damsels. Most are independent, working women. Many have jobs in criminal justice, medicine, and emergency services. They are the rescuers. RS heroines are more likely to be on equal financial or professional footing with their male counterparts.
RS heroes are working men, public servants. Most have humble origins. They aren’t aristocrats, rock stars, or billionaires. Their protective instincts are a function of their job duties. Law officers have to answer to female judges and supervisors. Many RS heroes are caring, straitlaced and respectful of women. Others are bad boys, bank robbers and ice-cold assassins. As with other subgenres, there is a wide range of character types.
TSTL and Heroines in Peril
Some readers are uncomfortable with heroines in jeopardy. Even more say they avoid “children in jeopardy” storylines. Almost everyone hates animals in danger.
So…are heroines like dogs? Are they children, small and helpless? I’ve never heard anyone complain about men in danger. Men can handle it. Men are capable. We don’t worry about men getting hurt. Dogs, children, women = special cases.
I’ve also noticed that the “TSTL” (too stupid to live) designation is reserved for female characters exclusively. Most of my heroines have been called this, but never the heroes. Often this is a legit criticism because the heroine’s mistakes are a plot device to instigate rescue. Whereas the hero rarely makes a false move.
I don’t know if I’ve argued for or against my original question. I think feminism has a place in romantic suspense. I’m in favor of active, independent heroines and dramatic rescues. Danger is part of the journey. If only the hero’s safety is at risk, what purpose does the heroine serve? She can’t be relegated to the sidelines. The best RS, like the best romance, centers on the heroine. Her needs, her obstacles, her fears, her desires.
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