Suzanne Brockmann’s Prince Joe was published in 1996, not exactly what we think of as the Dark Ages of feminism. But when I pulled it off my keeper shelf for a reread the other day, I noticed something that drove me absolutely bonkers: nicknaming.

The hero, Joe Catalanotto, is a Navy SEAL who grew up poor in New Jersey but happens to be a dead ringer for the prince of Ustanzia. When a wanted terrorist group tries to assassinate the prince, Joe steps in to impersonate him as bait. Veronica St. John’s job is to teach Joe how to pass as the prince. With just 48 hours until the tour resumes, and with admirals and senators involved and the economy of the prince’s country and the fate of one of America’s Most Wanted on the line, it’s a high stakes impersonation.

And Joe gives Veronica the least time and respect he can get away with.

“You name it, honey,” Joe said. “We can do it.

“My name,” she declared in her cool English accent… “is Veronica St. John. Not honey. Not babe. Please refrain from using terms of endearment. I don’t care for them.”

She was trying to look as chilly as her words sounded, but Joe saw heat when he looked into her eyes… He knew, with a sudden odd certainty, that when they made love, it was going to be a religious experience. Not if they made love. When. It was going to happen.

Joe’s willful refusal to see her complaint as anything other than an attempt not to look sexually interested in him is obnoxious. Women have lots of good reasons not to want to be called “honey,” and Veronica doesn’t owe him an explanation of any of them. She has a name, and she clearly asks him to use it. How does Joe respond?

He suggests “Ronnie.” Veronica counters “Ms. St. John.” Joe responds:

“I’ve decided if I’m the prince I can call you whatever I want, and I want to call you Ronnie.”

“No, you most certainly will not!”

“Why the hell not? I’m the prince,” Joe said. “It’s your choice – Ronnie or Honey. I don’t care.”

Aw, Joe. You’ve given her a free choice between two names she’s already said she doesn’t like. How magnanimous. You really are a prince.

He continues to call her “honey,” “babe,” and “sweetheart” throughout the book, although thankfully never in front of other people. He calls her Ronnie, however, whenever he wants, including in front of fellow members of the mission. It’s patronizing and undermining, and it drove me up the wall.

What’s going on with this?

First of all, it’s intended to show an immediate and intimate bond. “Honey” and “sweetheart” and “babe” are all relationship nicknames. Perhaps the implication is that by calling her those, Joe can will that relationship into reality. Giving her the name Ronnie, which nobody has called her before, creates intimacy (in theory, anyway), as we typically take nicknames from people close to us. Plus, Joe knows that Veronica doesn’t REALLY want him to stop calling her by nicknames. It’s all a front to conceal her sexual desire for him. This is a large part of what rubbed me the wrong way – all of this happens too fast. Joe names her Ronnie long before the characters have an actual connection.

It’s also character shorthand. One reason I picked Joe for the example here is that he’s not Southern, which is the usual group who is allowed to get away with “good ol’ boy” speech patterns, but it can also be a way to show class. “Honey” and “sweetheart,” for Joe, are the equivalent of a patronizing “my dear” from an aristocrat. Yet while misogynist speech from the wealthy is a hallmark of villains and the older generation, for the working class, the author uses it to show confidence and arrogance. Veronica is beautiful and posh, but Joe’s not going to yes-ma’am her. He’ll do the opposite, using speech to create a dominant position. No intimidation here. Every time Joe talks to Veronica, he can put her in her place.

Just like any other alpha male tropes, this can be used to be sexy, but I expect I’m not the only one who finds it polarizing.

I don’t always hate this trope, and my visceral indignation at Joe’s behavior had me thinking about why. My favorite hero of all time, Han Solo, nicknames Princess Leia incessantly, and I love him anyway. He calls her everything from “Your Worshipfulness” to “sweetheart,” even though she asks (more “orders;” this is Leia, after all) him not to. Why can Han get away with it, and it didn’t work for Joe?

Well, Harrison Ford is a large part of it. But there is more.

First, there’s a question of consistency. Han creates disrespectful nicknames for everybody. He calls Obi-Wan Kenobi “old man.” He calls Luke “kid.” His list of names for C-3PO may be pages long. This takes away the gender sting in a way that I didn’t see in the Brockmann, where Joe never talks to any other characters impolitely. Additionally, Han’s nicknames for Leia aren’t limited to gender. “Your Worshipfullness” and “Your Highness-ness” take shots at her social position and her autocratic conduct. There’s a clear line from this type of nicknaming to another one that never bothered me, Jamie Fraser’s Sassenach-ing of Claire. It indicates that unlike Joe, who sees Veronica from the beginning as a female to sleep with, Jamie sees an ethnic and political dimension to Claire, and Han recognizes Leia’s aristocratic, powerful, and affluent background.

Leia, a royal and a leader, has power and social status. Han is a poor wanted criminal. Han taking nickname shots from socially below holds no danger for Leia. There is no chance that she will lose her position in the Rebellion, or not be taken seriously, because a foot soldier like Han calls her by a nickname. By contrast, despite his humble origins, Joe has Veronica over a barrel. She must be professional with him as she tries to persuade him to study Prince Tedric. Beyond this mission, her career future depends on her having successfully carried off this tour. But Joe’s natural gift for impersonation means that while Veronica can make his life easier, he has no real need for her support. Veronica has no choice but to swallow the “honeys” and “babes,” and Joe knows it.

Joe’s verbal deprecating intersects with his relegation of Veronica’s job to “less important,” magnifying the disrespect each presents on its own. His laughing “Ronnie, Ronnie, I do take you seriously, honey,” is about the most slap-worthy line in book. When Veronica retorts that she won’t let his “stupid ignorance” foul up the mission, the author and Veronica both act as though she’s tagged Joe with the worst slur imaginable, forcing her into a public apology scene. Where is Veronica’s apology for Joe’s patronizing verbal pat-on-the-head?

What struck me the most personally, however, was the fact that Joe and Veronica have a professional working relationship in a modern environment which I can relate to. Sure, George Lucas didn’t put enough women in his rebellion, but the galaxy far, far away just doesn’t have the same resonance as a modern government office. When I see Veronica getting “honey”ed by a man who is supposed to be working with her in a professional context, it gets my back up in a way that I just don’t experience when Han calls Leia “sweetheart” in a spaceship in a space worm in an asteroid field.

How do you feel about “honey?” Have you been “honey’d” or nicknamed in real life, maybe in a professional context, or a relationship? Have you ever told a person to stop, and what happened?