We give many reasons for reading romance and loving it so. The comfort of a guaranteed happy ending, the feeling of being swept away to another time and place, fascination with the workings of the human heart – and the list goes on. A couple of conversations recently have given me another reason that I hadn’t thought of very deeply before, but that definitely holds true for me the more I ponder it. And it is this: In the books I like best, the heroine usually gets treated with respect. It may not be there at the beginning, but from what I’m seeing online and in my own experience, readers more and more expect it by the end.
Now this obviously has not been the case historically. However, I think we’ve primarily moved beyond the rapist “heroes” and doormat ladies of 20-30 years ago. While you do still find the occasional cringeworthy throwback, attitudes found in romance have changed for the better. In a recent discussion on our message forums , a reader posted looking for books in which hero and heroine function as equal partners. While that discussion dealt more with suspense novels, it occurred to me that even when historical circumstances do not allow the characters to be treated with full equality, I am still seeing women treated more respectfully in romances as a whole.
When I think of respect and equal partnerships, Eve and Roarke from the In Death series immediately come to mind. Roarke is definitely an alpha hero, but he respects Eve and her abilities. In addition, he finds her attractive and desirable. Her strong personality is not a minus in that relationship, but is instead found worthy of respect – something that can resonate with any strong woman who has been told to be more “ladylike” in order to land a man.
In historicals, things become more thorny. A historical romance with any pretense to historical accuracy would have difficulty featuring a heroine with a career beyond that of a governess or servant, and at many times in history, women couldn’t even own property or leave home unaccompanied. However, even within the plainly unequal boundaries of various time periods, many good historicals(please don’t get me started on the wallpaper!) show women living within the bounds of their societies and yet receiving not just the love, but the respect of the hero.
I recently read Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark. In the novel, Lady Anne’s position in society as well as her gender proscribe her role in public life. However, within her relationship with the hero, she is never taken for granted or forced into subservience by him. In fact, even though Anne is described as rather plain, her intellectual curiosity makes her more attractive to the hero. Though they exasperate one another at times, the hero notices Anne as a human being and treats her with respect.
And that brings me to the other incident which made me start pondering respect. One of my friends, an avid romance reader, commented that she has a hard time making herself buy books at the used bookstore. Though she knows it would save money, she told me that her local UBS stocks mainly older romances and she just doesn’t like them as well. The dominating heroes put her off and in many of the contemporaries, she felt like “the heroine just gives and gives, but receives very little in return. Everything she does is just taken for granted and we’re supposed to like her because she sets no boundaries for herself. ” We talked about it for a while and it soon became obvious that she liked newer series books and conteporaries both because the heroines were stronger, but also because she could find more heroes who paid attention to women as people. Heroes who noticed and appreciated all the work the heroine put in as a good mother, daughter, lawyer, shop owner, etc.. caused her to connect more deeply with the story being told.
I thought about it, and realized there’s definitely some truth there. The usual mental lusting and chemistry between hero and heroine is alive and well – and we need chemistry if it’s to be a good romance. However, I’ve noticed more books in which the hero actually discusses and cares about the heroine’s point of view and beliefs, and I’ve found that refreshing. The old way of “I’ll just keep pushing myself on you and eventually you’ll be so hot for me that you’ll realize you can’t live without me” still exists, but I’m seeing less of it and that makes me happy.
I’ve been a fan of romance since high school, and I used to struggle with the notion of justifying my reading habits because it seemed as though the characters in so many of my books treated women disrespectfully or thought about them primarily in the context of the physical relationship. This goes against my beliefs, and it bothered me at times that I came across it so much in my reading. I’ve run into this less in recent years, and I think it’s in large part because readers have begun to react negatively to the traditional domineering hero and doormat heroine of old. Do disrespectful heroes and passive heroines still exist? Oh yeah – but thankfully I’m not seeing them as often. And that’s a very good thing.