July 12, 2013

Heroine Week, Day 5: Can Romantic Suspense Be Feminist? By Jill Sorenson

Author Jill Sorenson

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.

In Closing

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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  1. I'm a sucker for a rescue story. I agree with you Jill - I too like active, independent heroines and dramatic rescues.

  2. Really interesting! What disturbs me about too many RS books, though, is something you don't mention. You cover the victimisation and abuse of the heroine here (and I do agree that it can be done well, and it's all in how the author approaches it), but my issue with RS is with the preponderance of crime against women in the cases investigated. It seems like 9 out 10 murders are of women, and too often they involve sexual abuse and torture presented in a way which borders on titillation. I don't know, maybe it's that I gravitate towards police procedurals in RS, but it bothers me.

    1. I sometimes think RS uses the serial killer (killing women) so that the final potential victim is the heroine, upping the stakes dramatically. And while this can definitely be well done, I've seen it more than I'd like to. I'm not that well read when it comes to murder mysteries, but I think they have a similar trajectory? Following a serial killer who then turns his sights on either the protagonist or someone close to the protagonist, making it personal and more intense.

      I mean The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo certainly did that. Mind you, I could feel that author's anger against violence against women, he wasn't supporting it. I would never accuse authors of writing it because of poor motives (not that anyone here is); I think it's most likely the opposite. But I do find it hard to read too many, too often, with a similar setup.

    2. Good point. The serial killer is the ultimate threat, and suspense is all about high stakes. I haven't read The Girl w/t Dragon Tattoo but I saw the movie (Rooney Mara version?) and loved it. The anger--yes. So palpable. Interestingly, I was squirming and tense for the female rape scene (of course) and my husband had the same reaction when the tables were turned on the perpetrator. I loved that.

  3. That is such a great point, Rosario. I never thought about it, probably because I mostly read RS that is more action/adventure oriented (military romance, etc.) but you're right that some authors do have a disturbing amount of sexual abuse and torture of women in them (Karen Robards is one that comes to mind). I wonder if it's conscious, though. I'm not an expert, but I think most serial killers predominantly target women, and also it could be that RS is replicating trends or conventions found in the traditional mystery genre (of which, again, I know little to nothing, so I could be wrong). I'm not trying to make excuses, though, I'm only trying to understand. I'm also surprised that readers don't question this more often, although RS must be one of the least talked-about sub-genres at the moment.

    Great comment! (And great post, Jill!)

    1. Oh, and not to sidetrack the conversation, but I would like to see readers be more critical of sexual abuse used as plot device, and of the sexual abuse of the heroine in particular. In Urban Fantasy, for example, rape is almost a rite of passage for the main character, and it's become a disturbing trend in NA as well.

    2. I have Many Thoughts about sexual abuse as a plot device. Is there really such a wide discrepancy between its prevalence in romance and in real life? If 1/4 women have been raped, I can't be surprised when this trauma is part of 1/4 heroines' stories. If it's more, or the execution is problematic, those are different issues.

      As far as serial killers. Yes, women are the common victims and the crime often has a sexual nature. Most serial killers are straight men who target the objects of their desire/obsession. John Wayne Gacy was gay, I think, so his victims were young men. I can think of a pedophile serial killer whose victims were children.

      RS with serial killer villains aren't as popular as they used to be (it seems to me?) but I think it's an understandable choice because serial killers are fascinating and scary. They target women, so the heroine in jeopardy factor is built in. And suspense is all about what's going to happen next, rather than "who done it." With a serial killer, you know he's going to kill again.

      Other go-to villains in RS are terrorists and drug dealers, which raise different problems. I didn't mention this, but it bothers me when the only people of color in the story are villains. This is another problem in RS.

    3. This is a great post, Jill.

      I love where you say that a woman being abused doesn't make her weak, because I agree--if anything, the best books with this setup show her being strong (though everyone exhibits that strength differently). I also agree with what you say here, the statistics are truly horrifying with how prevalence violence is, and in addition, sexual are under reported. I don't think these villains are a stretch.

      I do like a damsel in distress setup, despite how inherently non feminist that might be. A woman can be very strong but still need someone else's help if she's being stalked by a serial killer. Like you said, that doesn't make her weak. On the other hand, my love of damsel in distress probably does have its roots in something more visceral, the desire to feel safe and to know that the strong men around us want to help, not hurt. After all, if only the women were solving crime and the men were villains--that wouldn't be a very fair portrait either. The other option is to have the woman saving the hero, which I've seen a few times though it's rare.

      I think you're right about race being a bigger problem in RS. I can understand how it comes about, if an author is used to writing white protagonists, so they keep doing so, and then they want a large organized enemy, which is often a terrorist group or something. But it's a problem.

      And whereas the gender issue is maybe not an issue on a book-level but more a broad scale, I think the race issue can be seen in a single book. One woman getting saved by a man doesn't say that all women need to get saved by a man (although it depends on the way its written). However, a book where all the "good" people are white and the villains are all of another race is problematic all by itself, and I see it a lot. Though not in the book I read by you, Jill, and I appreciated that.

    4. Thank you so much for this comment, Amber. Yes yes yes to all of this. I've written more non-white "good" characters than villains and I'm proud of that.

  4. Great post, Jill! I do think women get dinged as TSTL (or Mary Sue for that matter) much more often than men. I don't know if it's that readers are harder on women, writers present women in that light more often, or a combination of both. I actually love when the heroine rescues the hero :)

  5. Jill: I'm not saying that sex abuse should be banned from romance; I'm saying that it should be dealt with in a more sensitive way. If rape is part of the heroine's story, then it shouldn't be used just as an excuse for the hero to cure her with sex.

    The two Rebecca Rogers Maher’s books I’ve read feature heroines who have been victims of abuse (one was raped and the other was molested by her father). Those stories focus so much in the heroines’, their path to recovery and the way they deal with it every day, that they read more like women’s fiction than straight romance, even if yes, there is a love interest that helps them recover (and by the end of the book they are better, but not fully or magically recovered). This is how rape should be handled in Romance, IMO.

    And yes, serial killers seem to be less and less popular. Terrorists are the new villain of choice, which as you said, brings a whole new set of problems. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been reading less RS and there’s only a handful of authors I trust to be sensitive about the way they portray the villains.
    Going back to your post: one positive trend I’ve notice in RS is the shift from heroines who are damsels in distress in need of rescuing, to more complex characters who take action and are active parts of the story and at times even save the day (they are police and FBI agents, PIs, etc.). I would like to see more heroines who are part of the military, though (maybe even paired up with civilian heroes who need to be rescued).

    1. Oh no, I didn't think you were saying rape should be banned from romance. I just don't know if I agree that it's overused or a disturbing trend. I don't read much UF or NA but if I did, and 9/10 books featured rape, I'd definitely take note.

      Thanks for the Maher recs. I've read one book by her that didn't feature abuse.

      My concern is that when I see rape being criticized as a plot device, I get this feeling of victim blaming. It's disturbing to read about (and relate to) women who are victims. We know rape is common and can happen to us. If it already has, we don't want to be reminded. So when this plot device is singled out as problematic, I wonder if part of the reason is that the storyline is just too uncomfortable.

      I read an erotic western a few years ago in which the hero forces his touch on the heroine and strokes her to orgasm the first night they meet. She's been a victim in captivity. He does this to show her that sex can be pleasurable. For me, it was too soon, non-con, and wrong. I wanted her to get to know him first.

      Another example that springs to mind is Dirty by Megan Hart. The heroine has a history of sexual abuse. She has sex with the hero well before any healing takes place or emotional connection is established. Was the characterization realistic and well done? Yes. But it still made me uncomfortable to see a troubled character engage in erotic sex. I think I felt the same way about Lead Me On by Victoria Dahl. The mix of erotic and unhealthy is difficult for me to process.

      BTW I love derailing. Everyone, feel free. Sometimes the best discussions happen that way.

  6. Great, thoughtful blog post, Jill. I write romantic suspense and give serious thought with each book to making feminist choices for my heroines.

    One of my pet peeves that wasn't covered here is when, at the end of some romance novels, the heroines give up their homes and often their jobs to be with the hero.Sometimes they move into their men's houses, become a part of the men's families, and when the men live and work far away from where the heroines do, the heroines often give up their careers to follow the hero. In RS books, oftentimes the heroine who has suffered abuse also has a terrible family situation, and so making the hero's family/home her own goes hand-in-hand with that.

    Rarely do heroes give up their careers to follow the heroine. Like you said, the heroes are often established in community service careers or the military, and for the sake of the RS conflict, their military/law enforcement/bodyguard jobs are often more important to the storyline than the heroines'. In one of my recently published books, I purposefully chose to have the hero give up his job to follow the heroine so her career could be advanced. Obviously, it would be great if both people in a romantic relationship could keep their jobs, but in this case the conflict was set up in such a way that made that impossible. It felt good to turn the tables like that.

    Luckily, I think the trend of the heroine giving up her status/home/career for the hero is changing, and I'm thrilled that it is.

    Thanks again for giving me so much food for thought.

    ~Melissa Cutler

  7. I don't think it's the rescue theme that holds the RS subcategory together--because as Jill points out, this theme is a major marker of all of romance. Violence is. So much page time in RS is devoted to violence in one form or another. Describing abuse/beatings/torture/stalking/murder. And the "good" guys (of either gender) often exist in a gray area--they chase bad guys because they are dark characters too. And they are capable of dark deeds--whether they act on these urges is sometimes the central tension of the story.

    I read RS but sparingly because when RS is good, it's like great film noir/Raymond Chandler (okay maybe a touch lighter than Chandler). It can be amazing. Chilling. Bleak. And yes, empowering too.

    But, when it's not good, it devolves into torture porn.

  8. I agree about the TSTL label. I've rarely characterized a hero by that term. I think the reason is that most authors are pretty conventional when it comes to gender roles and dangerous situations. Not that you don't see women defending themselves or taking charge is RS novels, but you rarely - if ever - see a hero make a stupid mistake for fear that he'll be labelled as weak or incapable. Alpha heroes dominate RS and, traditionally, alphas can't be weak and must know how to handle danger.

    1. It's funny because my heroes are very prone to making mistakes in crucial moments. I think this ramps up the tension. A brave person will take stupid risks for a loved one, even when the odds are stacked against them. Both my editor and an early reader make this comment about the hero of my next novel: "Poor Owen! He never wins any fights!" And it's true, but not an indication of weakness (I feel).

  9. Ditto to what Jacqueline said about the TSTL label. Reading this blog - it totally occurs to me it's always in combination with the female character. Makes me want to make my hero in my WIP do something really stupid!

  10. Great post and discussion! I think romantic suspense is a great place to explore feminist issues because it deals so extensively with fear, both personal and cultural -- who and what we're afraid of, as women, and why, and how we go about addressing or overcoming those fears.

    I think the first consideration is the scariest of all -- that in real life bad things happen to good, strong people all the time. People who didn't ask for it and don't deserve it. And the villains in most scenarios are not evil "others" who can be neatly categorized according to race, religion, gender, class, sexuality, or psychology. They too are nuanced characters with rationales that make sense to them. I think the best RS operates in this terrifying gray area. Problems arise, for me, when these complicated issues of good and evil are reduced to easy stereotypes and shorthand.

    It makes sense that sexual assault would show up frequently in RS because it is such a common and realistic fear for women. I have the impression (and correct me if I'm wrong) that a lot of these assault scenarios get resolved by killing the perpetrator, who is portrayed as an evil villain and often a stranger. That actually doesn't reflect reality because, as RAINN points out, 2/3 of sexual assault survivors know their abusers. This statistic is almost certainly worse, since many survivors don't report abuse by people they know and/or love. I worry about suggesting that murder is the path to recovery, because what do you do, then, when you can't or won't kill your abuser? It also suggests that once the perpetrator is dead or punished, the recovery process for the survivor is over. To take just one example, an alpha hero would be awesome at bashing a perp's brains in. But would he go to counseling with the heroine, or deal with her ongoing flashbacks, and are these realities even suggested in the story? Also, who is stronger, all things considered? The hero who wins the one-time physical battle, or the heroine who survives the assault and then takes on the intense emotional battle of recovery day after day?

    Which brings me to a final thought. I agree that the presence of assault does not indicate a weak heroine. But I definitely prefer to see a rape survivor whose strength and courage are made abundantly clear. Because there is no other kind. It takes guts to survive such a thing, and to not convey that is just not realistic.

    1. Absolutely true, Rebecca. Rapists in RS are often portrayed as evil strangers, not loving family members, and that is not representative of reality. But I don't know that I could or would want to present a sympathetic rapist. The graphic scenes in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while difficult to watch, are cathartic. It's black and white, good triumphs over evil, and easier to accept.

      Good point about emotional strength, often overlooked.

  11. I love this post and this whole consideration, Jill! I'm really glad you're writing in these terms.

    As a feminist who loves romance and writes it, I find myself butting up against these definitions and having to look inside myself for what is true North in terms of my feminism coexisting with favorite tropes. Like the rescue narrative, which I do think can be feminist. Because, while men and their brute strength often have a starring role in the action of a rescue, it's not the only type of strength that gives characters power and agency in such a narrative.

    Even when I think about one of your books that's a fave of mine, Tempted by his Target, that contains a rescue narrative that still feels very feminist in my mind. Because the characters both have an incredible amount of expertise and energy in pursuing their goals, which eventually converge.

    Also, forehead slap, I never thought about RS being the home of the strong heroes vs SFR (or UF) as being the home of strong heroines. That is such an interesting observation.

    You know what's funny, too - I so love Anne Stuart, but I always hated seeing the heroes retire to go off and have a family with the heroines. I always wanted them to stay secret agents.

    1. I don't know why I didn't mention UF! Of course that genre is known for strong heroines, while PNR is not always. I've just developed a theory on this. The more a woman has sex one the page, the weaker she becomes. Unless she never gets emotionally involved, because emotions are feminine and weak. As if falling in love reduces women in a way that men are immune to. Maybe because women are expected to sacrifice more (see Melissa's comment) and lose their autonomy to a relationship, marriage, family...

  12. I think the gendering of TSTL has a lot to do with genre expectations in RS. Straight-up mystery is FULL of men who do "dumb" things--detectives (private or police) in the hard-boiled tradition are often made physically vulnerable; they get beaten up and shot. I can't count the number of books I've read where a guy who should know better goes off on his own, finds himself in a dangerous situation, and almost gets killed. (But it all turns out OK because he's the hero). I don't see the term TSTL being used in discussions in this genre, though I also don't see a lot of those discussion.

    But RS heroes seldom behave in this way, or if they do, things seldom go wrong (it seems to me). They don't strike me as being as flawed or as making the same kinds of mistakes as mystery/suspense heroes. I think that has to do with the introduction of the heroine and romance genre expectations. If a man puts himself at risk, well, we see that as heroic. If he puts HER at risk, readers would have trouble with that. If SHE puts HERSELF at risk, she's TSTL and making the poor hero save her again. The more "equal" a heroine is made--that is, if she's not a stray kindergarten teacher or whatever who got thrown into a bad situation, but a soldier/cop/etc. herself--the more problematic I find this judgment. Because heroines with that training are meant to put themselves at risk and shouldn't be judged differently from heroes for doing so.

    Great post and discussion! RS raises a lot of interesting questions.

  13. All of these thoughts have been rattling around in my head today and I wanted to make a few more points before I forget. First, I think romance has a complicated relationship with rape, period. Readers have good reason to be wary of RS and to question its portrayal of rape as problematic. When an assault scene comes across as "torture porn" or titillation, I'm troubled. Usually RS portrays rape as bad and awful, not ambiguous. The villain, not the hero, does it. But there is also a suggestion (maybe?) that the heroine is a target for rape because she's so sexy and irresistible. She's a heightened object of desire, "worthy" of being a serial killer's sexual obsession.

    I also wanted to thank Brie for a lovely introduction. Your appreciation of my heroines means a lot! ;)

  14. As the article and lovely thinky comments highlight, like the Mafia with bodies, there is lots of stuff buried in foundations of the construction of a TSTL heroine. Of course authors have characters take risks so that events will unfold and the plot advance but this is always gendered by the lived reality of the difference between male and female lives.

    One thought that for me arises when I think about this judgement on female characters is that aphorism 'men are afraid of being laughed at, women are afraid of being killed'. There is more at stake for women in the female character's choices and perhaps a feeling of 'there but for the grace...'brings this judgement into play. I can't read without the story being filtered through my life experience.


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