29 May, 2013

What's Wrong With This Series?

There is a liberating moment in the Southern Vampire Mysteries where Sookie Stackhouse realizes she doesn't have to live this way. She's been abducted and (yet again) maimed. She stumbles out of a cornfield into a blinding array of headlights. Humans have come to rescue her. The humans she disdained in Dead Until Dark, the humans whose thoughts have driven her to seek out paranormal beings, these humans are also the ones who run after an abducted girl. Over the course of Dead Ever After Sookie examines what she needs from life and who meets those needs. To the anguish of fan girls everywhere, the answer is not an abusive undead lover. Sookie chooses the imperfections of human life and a (mostly) human mate in her search for reliability and security. For me, unlike most, this redeemed what had been a deeply problematic ride.

Eve Duncan is another heroine with lovers vying for a place by her side as she endured multiple assaults and horrors. Even a stone cold series finisher like myself couldn't make it to Bonnie, the allegedly final chapter in the actually ongoing Eve Duncan Chronicles. Humanity wasn't enough for Johansen. She raises her I See My Dead Daughter ante with other paranormal aspects late in the game. What started life as a compelling series rooted in reality became mired in international government conspiracies, super humans and paranormal abilities. The Eve Duncan Chronicles was a total bait and switch. A dominant theme of this, like so many popular romantic suspense series, was mutilated women and children.

In the Charley Davidson series I'm experiencing a blend of both these worlds. Like Sookie, Charley is put through a horrific ordeal with each book. Tortured, beaten, sexually assaulted, Charley never makes it to the final pages intact. People she trusted betrays her. Her lover abuses her and withholds information. Unlike Harris, Jones appears committed to her core couple. No matter what information Reyes has withheld from Charley or what peril he places her in, the omgsohot sex will let Charley forgive him. There is a scene in every book where Reyes saves her from something, giving the swooning reader a chance to excuse whatever Reyes has done or will do to Charley outside of that action. The reader is told how protective and good Reyes is, an abusive past is trotted out to excuse dysfunctional treatment.

Robards, formerly one of my favorite authors, launched her Charlotte Stone series last year. The heroine is haunted by a dead serial killer who she finds sexually compelling despite the living and non criminal man in front of her. I panned the book but readers strongly defended it. There were hints laid that the serial killer might have been innocent. He. Might. Have. Been. Innocent. Maybe. Meanwhile, he was absolutely convicted. He absolutely played creepy mind games with Dr. Stone during their pre-death encounters. After surviving the required near death terror porn experience, Charlotte rejects the living supportive man in front of her for the less than honest dead guy who probably killed girls for kicks in her head. This is past Bad Boy Romance and deep into Toxic Self Destruction.

Remember Batgirl? Daughter of a cop, crime fighter, lover of Robin? In The Killing Joke DC made the controversial choice to break her spine. The Joker raped her and left her for dead. Afterward, she was faced with the long road to recovery. Her mental and physical changes were played out over years of story as she rebuilt herself into Oracle, a chair bound superhero who relied on her mind to perform the tasks her body used to. Barbara underwent a traumatic experience with real effects. She emerged a different but still highly capable woman. She did not start dating the Joker. In 2011 DC made the even more controversial choice to magically heal her and restore Barbara to the cowl as Batgirl. The Oracle, a more powerful character to many, was erased. I had complicated feelings about that (and other choices). DC and I broke up after many, many (many!) years together.

Where are our series with men who suffer unimaginable abuse and are still instantly hot for it? Where are our heroines who lie, abuse, mistreat and rage at our hero but are forgiven via their sad childhood? Why do we want to read about women being broken and men who make their burden heavier? I've lost count of the ways women or children are imperiled in romantic suspense. Girls in cages, books told from the killer's POV, girls buried alive, paranormal heroines having their skin peeled off, rapes and torture abound. Are these empowering because the heroine triumphs over an exaggerated version of real world horrors? Does the failure of the heroine to succumb to life ending injuries reinforce the lie that horror can never happen to us? Does her refusal to demand honesty and support from her problematic partner reinforce the message that wanting this in our own lives is unreasonable? We can be beaten. We can be tortured. We can undergo anything, see anything, and we can soothe Man Pain while we do it. Backwards. In heels. It's an incomplete thought, but it's on my mind lately. Extreme Romance (as DA's Robin terms it) may be on the rise but it's roots have been in romance for years.

On the healthier side of the coin we have both Eve Dallas and the Bishop's Special Crimes series. While women are still injured or tortured on the regular, the heroines are promised healthy and unconditional support from their partners. Women injured in the line of work stay injured. There is very little paranormal instant healing. The men generally support their choices and respect their agency. Most importantly, the relationships are mutually supportive. Past abuse is used as motivation or explanation, but never as an excuse or a free pass. These series are romantic suspense without the self hatred, and they are what I look for when I pick up a series. I wish they weren't so damn hard to find. I wish I knew why we (collectively) want the abuse dynamic reinforced in our fiction. If we didn't, it wouldn't sell.


  1. This reminds me of the line in the musical Carousel that goes something like: "If (your man) hits you and he hits you hard but you don't feel it, it means he loves you," followed by the great song "What's the use of Wondering (if He's Good or Bad)?" I loved that musical when I was a teenager. Yes, later, I went into therapy.

    1. I never saw Carousel so I had to go read academic papers about it. Wowser.

  2. This is a really interesting post (and makes clearer to me why I was uncomfortable enough with the 1st Charley book to quit there). I wonder if there is some uneasy genre-blending going on that accounts for this in part. That is, you have noir elements--hard-boiled detectives are always getting beaten up, and what about the femmes fatales they are drawn to?--mixed with romance, and this tends to give me at least the feeling that the book is endorsing behavior. The femme fatale is clearly trouble and NOT heroic; the "big bad" is something else because he's built of romance as well as thriller tropes. Maybe. I'm troubled by a lot of these elements too. I like the idea of romantic suspense, but have a harder time finding actual books I like. I want the hero and heroine to be partners in solving a crime/problem.

    I had a conversation with someone who suggested New Adult was issues of YA + adult romance tropes, and that these combined in ways that she often found problematic. I think this is a parallel example.

    1. It's not very articulate. I'm still in the KILL IT WITH FIRE phase of my feelings about current romance based conversation. I like the noir aspect you present, because the woman in those tales is generally toxic for the man. Plus the beaten half to death and pushed out of a moving car to roll down a cliff is absolutely what I expect from those tales. I think you're on to things with this entire comment.

  3. When a friend did a self-development course she explained it to me like this: We live pretty safe, and most of us don't have a life-changing event like cancer to give us a new perspective on our lives, but this course constructs a sense of urgency that helps me look at myself in a different way.

    I think people who don't ACTUALLY suffer traumatic life events romanticise the emotional experience of them. It looks, from the outside, like a powerful catalyst that transforms life from ordinary and safe and a little bit boring to something full of live-wire emotion and living-in-the-moment. We can wonder how we'll copy when life throws the worst it can at us - and we can end up constructing it the way these narratives do, ignoring the actual reality of awful things happening.

    I suspect there's also a level of masochism at work here. Women are sexualised to have the sex done to them - to be self-sacrificing. I think that often becomes a kind of low-level masochism that gets a thrill from "taking" high levels of abuse.


    1. Point 1 - totally alien to me. I specialize in life-changing events. It's like, my hobby.

      Point 2 - Mmm, I think that is certainly true for some readers but I hesitate to broad brush it. Forex, I once had a friend who was addicted to 1970's plantation novels, the more racist the better. She was a Dutch islander of African heritage living in America. I don't know that this sort of reader fits the mold, unless they are taking an awful reality (ie, living among american racism having been raised with a different flavor) and acting it out to an extreme for the same purposes of acceptance? It's a ponderable. (Also, my black friend example is specialer and snowflaker than anyone else's!)

      Point 3 - Yes, absolutely. I think socialization plays a huge part in kink preference. You get the cookies for the behaviors and preferences supported by your culture. This is why so few BSDM-lite romance feature sub-men. It's not a cookie producer for the brain, it's not reinforcing any socialization.