The Missed Opportunities in Weakness

Anyone who’s been following this blog for awhile probably knows that I’ll take a “beta” hero over an “alpha” hero any day, but that mostly I wish the distinction didn’t exist. Actually, I don’t think sociology upholds the dichotomy at all so outside of romance novels, the distinction really doesn’t exist. It’s arbitrary, unrealistic and damaging to everyone, regardless of gender. “Alpha” is shorthand for a certain kind of strength in heroes, an unambiguous, worldly, most often physical, but sometimes also economic power. And even when we talk about “beta” heroes, we talk about different kinds of strength: competence and kindness, for example.

But outside of sociological and feminist arguments against subscribing to socially-constructed and ultimately restrictive portrayals of masculinity, I think there are missed opportunities when we focus so intently upon strength. And it’s not just in heroes. I noticed the other day while perusing Amazon’s romance novel newsletter that whether in the blurb or the extent reviews, everyone is obsessed with “strong” heroines. I’m guessing this is code for all sorts of things: independence, smarts, competence.

But lately I’m also seeing ruthlessness, willingness toward violence, and selfishness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. In nearly every other genre, women are most often cast in the caring, nurturing, selfless role
so having access to another narrative is bound to be empowering for romance readers and writers. In fact, I myself wrote a couple weeks ago about how in the most recent novella, the women of the Beyond series had seized their violent potential with both hands. It did and still does seem to signal progress in their ongoing struggle for equality, which I’m having trouble seeing as a bad thing in their environment.

I do think an opportunity for telling different kinds of stories is lost though when we approach every tale from the perspective of strength. If every hero and heroine must be intelligent, attractive, charming, likeable, morally
upstanding, physically imposing and/or eternally capable, we seem to be missing an entire range of human experience. In fact, most of human experience. The part of human experience where we admit how little control we really have over anything not within a very narrow range of our own personal behaviors.

I just wonder how much of the sameness of some of the romance marketplace can be laid at the doorstep of a readership obsessed with strength. When hero and heroine both must be strong and independent and stubborn, a certain type of plot is bound to proceed from that. It starts to look like every book is a power struggle. Because it is a power struggle when both parties are relentlessly strong and independent. They may struggle against other things too, but they’re bound to direct some of that stubbornness at each other, a particularly annoying facet of current romance novel conflict resulting in stubbornness for the sake of stubbornness. This isn’t the entire explanation, of course. It’s almost like writers have completely forgotten about the potential for the person versus nature option for conflict in favor of the often narcissistic person versus him or herself or the person versus person conflict detailed above. But I’ll leave that discussion for another post.

If I look back on my best reads of the year, the books that stand out are ones where one or more characters have a weakness to contend with, sometimes on more than one level, sometimes a weakness that is also a strength depending on the context. The couples in Glitterland and Living in Shadow are both nearly wrecked by mental illness. Social bias profoundly influences what actions the characters in Think of England can take and what they can risk. Have Mercy and One Kiss with a Rock Star both have characters who defy societal expectations and pay a price for doing so. A lack of confidence drives the characters in Private Politics, particularly the hero. And in Prosperity, ruthlessness, selfishness and obsession play both as strengths and as weaknesses, but so do kindness, compassion and devotion.

Not all of these books were entirely perfect, but they were original. And in every one, there’s also a kind of surrender: to hopelessness, to another person, to desires, to reality. There’s an admittance of powerlessness and a lack of control. And though the characters often eventually reclaim or reinvent whatever strength they brought into the story, they’re changed by submission (sometimes subtle), not by battling it out to the very end.

I often talk about a lack of context in terms of family relationships, spirituality, work and other non-romantic elements playing a role in the simplification of the romance story line. But the fear of weakness, of non-manufactured vulnerability, of allowing characters to do anything as long as it involves digging in their heels unyieldingly, well, that’s some of what separates the chaff from the wheat as far as my reading is concerned.

 

7 comments

  1. You don't see as much originality in m/m as there could be, but part of the reason may be that many m/m writers are new to the field and they aren't subjected to strenuous editing (and in many cases, they don't appear to be subjected to any editing.)
    Then again, if you restrict your reading to a couple of popular authors, which it appears from your list you do, you'll miss out on some good books by writers who are less well known. You can't assume a dearth of missed opportunities if you haven't given a chance to the wider variety of m/m now available.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment! I think we may be cross-ways. The books listed above are ones that I think buck the "obsession with strength" trend quite successfully. The Amazon crack at the start probably wasn't sufficient to indicate the
    sort of uber-popular, highly promoted, heterosexual romance that I'm mainly
    taking issue with in this post. The books I'm abstractly referencing here are m/f romances where the strong, jerky hero and the strong, independent heroine butt heads for 300 pages in lieu of describing a unique romantic arc. Unfortunately I've yet to see any LGBTQ romance recs in my Amazon newsletter. Hopefully that will change some day soon. Sorry that wasn't clear!

    It's interesting that you've seen the same trend in m/m though. You're quite correct that I'm no m/m expert. I only just started reading queer romance in September and have deliberately distributed my reading over the entire LGBTQ spectrum. I'll happily take suggestions though! If you do like all sorts of queer romance, you might come back Monday. I'm taking a look at E.E. Ottoman's A Matter of Disagreement, which was another good example of a really original romance that isn't at all obsessed with supposed strength. I thought it was terrific.

  3. Ooh! Those are great. The New Statesman one particularly resonated today since I was up WAY too late reading Sherlock fanfic. It really speaks to the kind of vulnerability/weakness I'm referring to. And I just love this:

    "I want to read books characters with agency and subjectivity who act on
    the world around them, but I also know that the moments when a character
    doesn't act for whatever reason might actually tell a reader more."

    That's really what I was getting at, however ineptly: the storytelling potential in a character getting something badly wrong. There's an inherent humanity in the inevitability of screwing up: running when they shouldn't, not running when they should, especially when it proceeds directly from a character flaw.

  4. Who's the author of Living in Sin? I find three on Goodreads.

  5. Oh, sorry! It's Jackie Ashenden. I should probably put links in there.Thanks!

  6. Christine Maria Rose

    Insightful as always. Thanks for this post Elisabeth!

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