Warning: Caveman Alphahero?

Do you play that mindgame where you tell yourself, “Once X is over, life will be so much easier?” And then X is over, and suddenly Y looms ahead, and you realize life is a series of mountains to climb?

I sure do. “Once grades are in, I’ll be freeeee!” I told myself. And then I realized that my worklife is pretty much non-stop meetings and policy-wonking until the end of June. After that, I might be sort of freeeee (and oh yeah, I’d better fill out my vacation form).

That’s why my hiatus lasted longer than planned, and why I’m returning with an off-the-cuff post that is basically a comment that’s too tl;dr and too off-topic to leave at Dear Author. I’m percolating reviews, though, and hope to get some up in the next couple of days.

Many of you probably read Janet/Robin’s most recent post on rape in Romance fiction, in which she suggests that readers will interpret these scenes in a variety of ways, adding:

This is not to say that we should not question portrayals of violence against women, that we should not be individually and collectively be discussing, debating, disagreeing, and generally digging deep into the complex dynamics of the stories we tell ourselves.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the lengthy comment thread is largely a debate over whether Romance novels with rape or “forced seduction” scenes should be labeled or tagged. The labeling discussion is sometimes interesting, but Robin’s point that we can treat these scenes as “problematic,” complex and worthy of discussion, without shaming readers who enjoy them or implying that writers shouldn’t write them pretty much got lost. Very little discussion of specific scenes/books and how specific readers responded to them took place.

Given that conversation, I found today’s review (by long-time blogger and new Dear Author contributor KatiD) of Kristen Ashley’s Knight and the comments on it interesting. Knight appears to be an amped-up version of that Romance staple, the possessive, jealous, controlling, protective alpha hero. Most of the comments, though–and the main reason for KatiD’s low grade–are about the fact that he’s a pimp.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Why is it that when the issue of rape comes up, people argue for warning labels, suggest that reading this trope might lead people to be more tolerant of date rape, and argue about what is triggering? Why is rape in Romance fiction so quickly literalized?

Discussions of the controlling alpha typically proceed differently. There are certainly readers (like me) who express their dislike of this trope, and may do so in terms of their feminist beliefs. But almost always, there is acceptance on all sides that these representations of masculinity are an over-the-top fantasy, a symbolic way of exploring the desire to be passionately desired. Over and over, I’ve seen readers say things like, “Of course in real life these guys would be abusive stalkers and I’d be staying far away, but in fiction I love them.” I guess the need to say that suggests some shame is attached to this taste, but even readers who hate this kind of character pretty much accept that they are symbolic and don’t assume that readers who like them would be desensitized to real-life abusive behavior. There’s seldom the implication, as far as I can see, that “if you like that you’re sick,” and I’ve never seen a call for a “Warning: Caveman Alpha Hero” label (unless we’re talking young adult fiction, when people are more concerned that readers can’t distinguish reality and fantasy).

I guess I’m curious about what makes the difference. Because I thought some of the passages KatiD quotes in her review could be triggering for domestic abuse survivors (a big guy looming over you, yelling at you, dictating what you can and can’t wear, threatening to kill other men who so much as look at you and to punish you if you disobey?).

Is it because we live in a culture that often suggests rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman, but abuse is not? Because most “alpha heroes” don’t act and talk as much like real-life abusers as Knight does? Because such alphas are typically found in certain sub-genres, like paranormal, where readers can seek them out or avoid them? I really don’t know.

I’m not arguing for warning labels. I’m pretty conflicted about them even in the case of rape or forced seduction scenes, though I feel like that’s easy for me to say because I’m not a rape survivor.

I do think that both rape/forced seduction and the controlling alpha are similar “problem” areas in romance–by which I mean that they overtly problematize adn draw our attention to issues of gender and power; they provoke readers to respond strongly in a variety of ways; they reveal how women’s fantasies are often intertwined with real-life gendered power differences in complex ways; they allow readers and writers to rewrite, rethink, reinscribe, challenge, confirm cultural views of gender and power, sometimes all at the same time. So I’m curious about why Romancelandia seems to have such different responses to them.

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3 Responses to Warning: Caveman Alphahero?

  1. mezzak says:

    Really interesting points and confirms for me my discomfort about tagging. I love your points in the last para especially, Liz.

    Anyone who has seen me comment on DA before knows there are things about rape and its representation in the genre that make me arc up and act badly in comment threads; that is, there are things that are triggering for me. Yet I will quite happily read rape, dubcon or FS I think because of your points “they allow readers and writers to rewrite, rethink, reinscribe, challenge, confirm cultural views of gender and power, sometimes all at the same time”.

    For me in romancelandia, it is what happens around rape eg. an author telling someone who has been raped that online piracy is just the same, or a female protagonist’s rape-like actions being given a pass or an author’s almost gratuitous use of rape in a story or ignoring the consequences of events that the author has set up that create triggers for me. My triggers are around the power situation and how the act of rape is manipulated and used by others, how the person who is raped is not allowed to own or define their experience because of the over-powering needs of others/culture/society.

    To go back to the DA review and the thread on Robin/Janet’s post and your comments, I wondered at the avoidance of the issues raised in the post by the focus on tagging too. I know the controlling behaviour of Knight is much more likely to be a trigger for me with my past and because I can’t suspend my disbelief about the future of the couple’s HEA; at the best they end as co-dependents more likely they break each other. Sometimes stories can have me believing things for the protagonists that I just wouldn’t in real life, but that belief has to happen for the author to be allowed a pass on subject matter.

    I am thinking as I am typing – so this is reaction not a solid hypothesis; I am wondering about how we understand or engage with rape in romancelandia being bound up with rape being an aspect of control by society of women’s sexuality. When a woman is raped it isn’t just the event of the rape that is traumatising it is often what happens around it and how other people respond to it. There are many cultures still where a woman who has been raped is seen as unchaste and therefore bad or profoundly shamed. Degrees of this still operate in our western societies, especially with the focus on the victim and all she might have done to avoid being raped. Responsibility for a male person’s actions are still squarely on the shoulders of women (vide the AAR thread).

    An abusive relationship is a sadly common thing and something that a woman can usually get herself out of and is not the sole prism through which she knows herself or is known even when lots of reparitive psychological work may be needed. According to society it seems to me, being raped has a lot to do with scapegoating of the victim and as such with determining social boundaries and what we are willing to know/own about our world.


    • lizmc2 says:

      Thanks for this comment! Your point about how rape and domestic violence/abuse may be treated differently by society is interesting. (Neither, of course, is dealt with particularly well, especially when it comes to the justice system, though I think we’re making progress).

      I really don’t have a theory about it myself, and certainly there are critical comments about Knight-type heroes. But the conversation about the two issues does seem different to me.

  2. mezzak says:

    I have also been thinking that I am in two minds over tagging. I clearly don’t think it is capable of addressing all the issues raised when it comes to triggering topics but if I go back to the porn/erotica debate of a few months ago, then I think there needs to be ‘labelling’. I even call them different things with different moral weights in my mind. So on one hand I think ‘don’t want/won’t work’ and on the other ‘yes please’ both are true at the same time. I have no answers but am making the observation so I can own my own wishy-washyness and uncertainty.

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