A couple days ago, an article appeared at Jezebel about a recent increase in dating abuse amongst teens, which referred to an article in the New York Times about the same subject. Both articles list recent cases in which young women were killed by their former romantic partners, and both describe attempts to counter the controlling and abusive behavior of some young men, which is now aided by modern technology like cell-phones, through school programs. The NYT article quotes a doctor and the manager of a health program, saying that “Adolescents often mistake the excessive attention of boys as an expression of love”, and that “Many teenagers

[…] see the jealousy and protectiveness as ‘Oh, he loves me so much.’ Girls make excuses for it and don’t realize it’s not about love, but it’s about controlling you as a possession.” Neither article so much as mentions romance fiction.

It is highly illuminating to see, however, that commenters on Jezebel instantly put some of the blame for the situation at romance fiction’s doors, as, in their eyes, a number of popular romances teach young girls that it is okay if a romantic interest is domineering, controlling, abusive, and a general jerk. The very first blogger uses Spencer from the show The Hills as an example of controlling male behavior that is presented as at least half-way acceptable on TV, and the first comment on that introduces Edward Cullen from Twilight (both the book and the film) as another example. Another blogger mentions “Heathcliff (who has bizarrely been turned into a romantic hero)”, and someone further down levels the accusation at a large chunk of romance saying, “My friends and I recently bought a drugstore romance novel to read aloud in the car on a coast-to-coast road trip. We were all creeped out by the male protagonist’s dominating behavior, and the fact that the author seemed to think such activity was sexy. I think too many romance novels glorify ‘yes means no,’ possessive macho-ness as ‘real love.’” The commenters do NOT go on with general romance bashing (don’t worry). Still, their remarks made me think.

In general, I love the romance genre, but I cannot blindly deny that romances have their share of manipulative, domineering, controlling heroes, who, by the end of the book, turn out to be the heroine’s One True Love and the only man likely to make her happy, not to mention being the only man able to give her an orgasm. Some heroes even cross the line to abusive behavior, as in all forced seduction scenes and straight rapes. Novels that spring to mind here are both Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower (*cough* … a guilty pleasure of mine) and last year’s Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell which caused quite a controvery here at AAR . Then there is the theory trotted out periodically, which claims that many romance readers like the forced seduction and the ‘yes means no’ scenario, because it permits the heroine to enjoy something taboo without actively agreeing to it or even seeking it out, reaping the fruits of sin without sinning, so to speak.

Now I haven’t watched The Hills, or read or watched Twilight, and I do not consider Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights to be at all romantic. But, those of you who know The Hills or Twilight, or consider Wuthering Heights a romance, is there something in them that could make them a harmful role model for female (and male) teenagers? Is controlling or abusive behavior romanticized in them? Does romance, a genre beloved by us all, tend too often to whitewash men who insult women, who blackmail them into sex and who try to domineer in every way, by depicting such men, in the guise of alpha heroes (be they homo sapiens or otherworldly creatures), as acceptable or even desirable romantic partners? Do you think teenagers (or older women, come to think of it) can be influenced into believing this simply by reading romance, or watching movie romances? And what does this all say about our beloved romances and about us, the romance readers?

Okay, there are a lot of assumptions here, and generalizations. I do know that not all romance heroes are alpha males/creatures, and that by far not all alphas are controlling or abusive in any way. Still, enough romances come to my mind to make me feel some disquiet, at least momentarily. So, cheer me up, and tell me I’m wrong to worry!

-Rike Horstmann