At the Back Fence Issue #304

May 26, 2008

From the Desk of Jane Granville:


If you are a teenage girl, or encounter any on a regular basis, you’ve probably heard of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series, if not read it yourself already. I’ve had friends talk about it for almost three years, and it is only recently that I finally gave in and read them. I liked them a lot, though that’s not the point of this. My main reservations were about the fact that Edward Cullen, the hero of the story, was a vampire. I’m not a paranormal fan, but when I finally sat down to read the book, his blood-drinking tendencies didn’t really bother me. No, it was something else that set me on edge: his lack of body heat.

This is a physical trait of Edward’s that Meyers emphasizes. Whenever he and Bella, the heroine, touch, it’s “his cool fingertips,” “his icy skin,” “his frozen lips.” I understood the logic behind this, as much as you can reasonably assign biological principles to mythological creatures. However, from a romance reader standpoint, it seemed wrong. It bothered me. But I wasn’t quite sure why it made me a bit uncomfortable; physical temperature of a body isn’t something I tend to focus on, and I’m fairly certain that if romance heroes always felt as warm as they are described in books, they’d all have had organ failure a long time ago for running a constant fever.

In the third book, however, my question was answered. There is a scene (with mild spoilers) where Bella is freezing – she is physically in danger of succumbing to hypothermia. And who climbs into her sleeping bag with her, to keep her warm? Not Edward – he would only do more damage, after all. No, her friend Jake does. There’s a line where Edward even says, “Of course I’m jealous. You don’t have the faintest idea how much I wish I could do what you’re doing for her.”

I mulled over this scene, and Edward’s persistently stone-cold body, and I realized why this trait bothered me so much: because heat was something that Bella needed, and he couldn’t give her. It felt wrong because romance heroes, as a rule, are able to provide what their heroines need.

This isn’t a very feminist perspective on these relationships, but in considering other books I’ve read, I’ve found it to be true. In terms of physicality, how many romance heroes are physically weak? Certainly none in stories with a suspense plot, where the heroine needs to be rescued. Where would we be if our hero needs to pull his lover from a burning building, but he just doesn’t have the upper-body strength? Those books where the hero has a limp, scarring, or missing limb (so often the result of the War on the Peninsula or Waterloo, such as in Brenda Joyce’s The Perfect Bride and Julia Quinn’s Dancing at Midnight), the heroine doesn’t need the sort of physical rescuing that the hero can’t manage. Edward Cullen, on the other hand, fails in this regard, as he is physically unable to keep Bella warm when she needs it – and even when she’s fine, too much prolonged physical contact can do her harm. And even more rare: how many heroes have low sperm counts? I, for one, have never read an epilogue where the happy couple has to visit a fertility clinic because he is physically unable to impregnate her.

Few heroes are unable to provide materialistically, or even emotionally, either. Not all are ridiculously wealthy (though a surprisingly high number are), but few are having a hard time paying the rent. As far as wealthy heroes go, why are so many wealthy? Why are almost all series novels about billionaire bosses or tycoons? J. D. Robb’s Roarke, of the In Death series is the most extreme example, but then there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other examples you can pick from. Chose your favorite author at random, and chances are at least one of her books features a wealthy hero. Off the top of my head: Sugar Daddy and Blue Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas, Roberts’ High Noon, To Catch a Cheat by Kelley St. John, Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door, Accidentally Yours by Susan Mallery, The Billionaire Next Door by Jessica Bird, and Diana Holquist’s Sexiest Man Alive. And these are only contemporaries – as nearly all historical heroes are some level of the aristocracy or nobility, wealth is generally taken for granted.

When the hero is poor, it rarely is of consequence; in books like Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas, the heroine uses her own fortune to bargain with the hero. Though he can’t provide for her monetarily, he is able to give her what she truly needs: protection. When I read Laura Lee Guhrke’s The Wicked Ways of a Duke, I was not surprised at all when, despite the fact that the heroine swore of her fortune (the reason her hero courted her to begin with), she still had her inheritance. After all, a truly impoverished duke wouldn’t do. I knew they would wind up wealthy in the end from the very beginning.

Similarly, in a scene in a book I read several years ago and whose title I cannot recall, the hero tells the heroine on their wedding night that he’s unable to consummate their marriage, as an injury has kept him from getting an erection. A romance hero who can’t get it up? I knew it was a lie automatically. Even in my early days of romance, I knew there was no way an author would write a book with an impotent hero. This predictability makes it very easy for readers to tell when a character (or even author) is lying.

AAR’s Rachel Potter had a similar experience to mine about Laura Kinsale’s The Prince of Midnight. She says, “Part of my problem was what a mess the ex-highwayman hero is: S.T. is partly deaf, has chronic dizzy spells that leave him more or less physically useless, and is emotionally depressed to boot. And he has no money or resources. The heroine, Leigh, fetches him from his wallowing in order to help her train to wreak vengeance on the man who killed her family. But he’s so debilitated he has a hard time offering much assistance, and he’s hard to focus as well, being dreamy, lonely, and a bit maudlin.” A physically useless hero isn’t exactly standard.

Andi, one of AAR’s newest reviewers, had a different reaction to the same book; she liked the book precisely for the reason Rachael had trouble with it: “I think it accurately portrayed what it would be like to have life interrupt your plans. S.T. couldn’t get over the fact that he was no longer himself, or that he was a different version of himself, especially given his former glory. He had to realize that he could still lead a happy life without all that he’d lost. I just really appreciated the fact that he wasn’t whole and had both physical and mental obstacles to overcome. If anyone bothered me, it was the heroine, who IMHO took too long to soften. Anyway, the weaknesses are what made me enjoy this hero, as well as Christian in Flowers from the Storm. So, that’s just a differing opinion of those particular heroic flaws.”

However, I don’t characterize these things as “flaws.” Heroes who are able to give the heroines what they need are not perfect. The things that prevent them from doing so are not always things that I would call flaws, which I associate with personality issues. For example, I would hesitate to call someone flawed because they have a limp or use a cane.

It can’t be said that these are simply imperfections, and that they only take away from the mythical perfection of the men in romance novels. In terms of personality, heroes get away with quite a lot; most are far more stubborn or arrogant or temperamental than any of us would put up with in real life, and these qualities fall short of “perfection.”

So why don’t authors write male characters who are either physically or materialistically lacking? Because we don’t like to read about them. Even as I wrote this, I found I was unable to come up with examples of heroes who couldn’t give what the heroine needed. Any so-called “flaws” that may show up in a hero in the books that I’ve read are such that they don’t hinder an ability to provide. However, this is my own reading experience, and my own observations. Are yours similar?

Questions to Consider:

Have you read a book where the hero had a particular trait or characteristic that prevented him from providing for his heroine? What was it, and did it bother you? If not…why not?

Do you think this is based on a conscious effort by the author, or just a side effect of other uniquely “heroic” characteristics?

Have you read any of the Stephenie Meyer books…either her YA series or her new, adult SF novel? What can you tell us about them? Do you like all of the books you’ve read, some, none…and why?

Are there aspects of romances – or other books you’ve read – that ought to have raised your feminist hackles, but haven’t? If so, please provide examples, and explain why they weren’t a problem for you in those particular books.

In an ATBF from 2006, Laurie asked whether or not, in romance novels featuring heroes who are fabulously wealthy, handsome, or have high societal or political status, the author could have eliminated those factors without changing the romance – ie, “if Roarke looked like Andy Sipowitz, would we react to him as we do? Let’s flip that now…can you envision in those occasional romances involving a poor or unattractive hero, the romance being the same? And how integral to the story line were their lack of money, looks, or status?

What do you consider to be a flaw in a romance hero? Are there aspects to certain heroes that might be considered flaws to others but not to you, and if so, what are they?

When you read a story with a disfigured hero, how do you visualize the disfigurement? Does it ever get in the way of your image of the hero, or of your enjoyment of the story?

How often – if at all – would you like to see more “normal” – or “challenged” in terms of money, looks, or status – heroes feature in romances? Are you okay with the status quo, wish to read about them occasionally, would prefer more of a 50/50 mix, or want most or all of the heroes you read to be “normal” or “challenged?

Jane Granville

 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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