I love romance novels. There’s something for everyone, and with few exceptions, there’s always a happy ending. Whether you’re reading the groundbreaking tomes of Kathleen Woodiwiss or the ridiculously entertaining books of Katie Macalister, you can count on that happy ending. But there’s something else you can almost always count on that I find less agreeable: feminine sacrifice.
Don’t start freaking out, I don’t mean that old “virgin sacrifice” trope. No, I’m talking about something far more insidious. I’m talking about the sacrifices the heroine makes for the hero.
Sacrifice for love is rampant, not only in romance novels, but in movies, on television, and (of course) in society. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, and, in fact, many of its iterations. What I object to is the blatant inequality of the sacrifices made in romance novels. This is particularly true in older books, such as the aforementioned Woodiwiss’. Considering the time at which they were written, as well as the often historical settings, it really comes as no surprise, even if it does irk. The problem is that, though feminine sacrifice is less noticeable in modern contemporary romance, it is still there.
What really brought this to my attention was a recent re-reading of Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child. While it is now removed from truly contemporaneous novels by a decade or three (it’s older than I am!), it’s got several references to feminism and equality of the sexes. But don’t worry, I’ll be bringing a more recent publication into play, too. Just bear with me.
In Sarah’s Child, Sarah has been in love with Rome for years, despite him being married to her best friend. Unfortunately, the best friend and Rome’s young sons die, leaving them both devastated. But after a few years, Rome and Sarah finally give in to their mutual attraction, and emotions happen. There’s sex and emotional growth; there are misunderstandings, fights, and resolutions; there’s a child; and, of course, there’s a happily ever after. Now let’s look at the quantifiable sacrifices made by the hero and heroine in order to achieve that happily ever after.
Sarah gives up her job, at the same company where Rome works, because they form a romantic relationship. She gives up her old, comfortably safe apartment to move into a new place with him once they’re married. She believes she’s given up the possibility of children, though she would take them in a heartbeat.
Rome, on the other hand, sacrifices…his widower/bachelor status.
There’s good news, though! Sarah’s first sacrifice, her job, wasn’t really one. She states, in her thoughts and to Rome, that she’s been thinking of quitting anyway, and has no intention of remaining jobless. And, happily, she sees that through. She ends up owning her own business, through which she develops new (wonderful) friendships. It makes her happy, though it alternately impresses and annoys her husband. Mostly annoys.
Her second sacrifice is less easily brushed aside. Sarah is a very private person who needs to feel safe and stable, particularly in her own home. Upon moving into their wedded home, she has a minor breakdown because she can’t find anything. Even though it’s all her old stuff (presumably), the layout is different, and it freaks her out. Admittedly, this is a normal concern for anyone moving into a new place, one that can be resolved by time, but for Sarah it’s more. She’s temporarily lost some of her peace of mind. However, because it is temporary, we can wave off this second sacrifice with a sigh of relief.
The final sacrifice she makes is problematic because, as indicated by the title, a child happens anyway. But – and this is a big but – her pregnancy is an accident. Had she recovered her brains a little quicker after being seriously ill, she would not have chosen to risk her relationship with Rome by possibly becoming pregnant. She had already made the decision to give up on having children until Rome might change his mind, but with very little hope that he would.
So, despite wanting children herself and hoping that someday Rome will want them, too, she sacrifices that option in order to have any sort of romantic relationship with him. If they hadn’t accidentally gotten pregnant, that sacrifice would have been lasting.
As for Rome, he loses nothing. Not. A. Thing. At least, nothing he’s not better off letting go. True, he gives up being a single man, able to sleep with a different woman every night, but is that really a sacrifice? For some men it might be, but not for Rome. Because we get his perspective as often as not, we know that Rome prefers “domesticity.” He likes being married and focusing all his sexual attention on one woman. That vaunted bachelorhood? He could take it or leave it. And he does leave it, without a second glance.
You could argue that Rome makes emotional sacrifices to be with Sarah, but I think not. All of the emotions and feelings he lets go of are negative: grief, anger, guilt, pain, selfishness. What he’s actually doing is finally working through the loss of his wife and sons, releasing himself from negative emotional shackles so that he’s free to form (and, incidentally, remember) positive emotional ties. As wonderful as that is, it is not sacrifice.
In the end, the only reason you might be able to argue that neither the hero nor heroine sacrifices anything is that accidental pregnancy. Keyword: accidental. That makes all the difference.
Well, that, and that Sarah does choose to give up her job, her security, and the possibility of children. Each of those is her choice, and that is the saving grace. And, if we can trust in the depth of her love (it’s a romance novel, of course we can), even if she and Rome had never had children, she would not regret loving him. If the author hadn’t done such a good job of showing Sarah consciously choosing her path, it would be a different story. Pun intended.
Okay, that was one book from the eighties. Feminine sacrifice tally: one. Let’s have a look at something a little more recent, shall we?
In JR Ward’s novel Dark Lover, vampires are the name of the game. Leaving out many of the details that separate Ward’s vampires from other authors’ (and the logical/biological issues with which her world is riddled), the plot goes something like this: Wrath, sort of abdicated, almost-blind king of the vampires, sort of promises to help a friend’s half-human daughter (Beth, the heroine) through her transition from human to vampire. They fall in love. If I remember correctly, he then takes responsibility and ascends the throne. There’s a whole lot more that happens, of course, but that’s the bare-bones version. So what do Wrath and Beth each sacrifice in order to be together?
Not necessarily in chronological order, Beth gives up her job, her human friends/contacts, and her independence. She keeps her cat. Wrath gives up some of his prejudice against humans, his abdicatin’ ways, and almost his life.
All right, now we’re cookin’ with gas! Three to three, much better than the ratio from Sarah’s Child. One at a time, though, one at a time.
First: the job. Beth is a reporter at the local newspaper and, though kept from much success by her sexist boss, loves her work. As soon as she goes vampire, though, pfft! It’s too dangerous for a lady vamp to be out in the world where lessers (undead bad guys) can find her! While that’s true enough, Beth doesn’t replace her old job in the human world with a new one in the vampire world. She just…sits at home all day, petting the cat?
The Beth we get to know in the beginning wouldn’t stand that for long. She’s had a lot of shocks in a short amount of time, though, so we’ll let her have her peaceful work-free time, for a time. But the book ends without resolving this character issue. It is the first in a series, so it is conceivable that something changes later. For the purposes of this article, though, we’ll stick with it being a sacrifice.
Second: friends. This one is trickier, because while Beth does lose a few friends (namely the good cop, José), she also gains the whole Black Dagger Brotherhood, their awesome butler Fritz, and she gets to keep Butch, a human ex-cop. (The lack of female friends on either side of the equation is fodder for a whole other article.) Because she gains more than she loses, we can toss this particular sacrifice out the window.
Third: independence. Beth’s independence is sacrificed in multiple ways, some more aggravatingly than others. For one thing, in addition to losing her job, she also loses her home. Again, this is due to the lessers that threaten, mostly. Of course, in order to be with Wrath, she’d have to move out anyway, considering vampires are a secret from mankind and he’s not exactly subtle, with his massive bod, tattoos, widow’s peak, attitude, and fangs. But, much like the friends “sacrifice,” Beth trades up. Instead of a ratty apartment, she gets at least one mansion, left to her by her late vampire father. They’re in her name, or at least belong to her, so she could conceivably kick out everyone else and retain that level of independence.
Even if the home situation isn’t much of an issue, the fact that Beth can’t step a foot outside the house without a male escort is. While she is still pre-transition she can get away with it, but once she goes full-on vampire, no way. It’s explained that vampire females are precious, lessers are out to get them, they have to stay hidden from humans, blah, blah, blah. What’s really being said is that vampire males don’t trust their females (at least Beth) to be smart and careful. So she ends up staying at home, worrying about her man – excuse me, male – who’s off fighting, with nothing to keep her busy except the housework she can’t do without sending the servants into spasms. And watch TV. The women of this series watch a lot of TV.
Now let’s examine Wrath’s sacrifices. The first: prejudice. Hmmm. Do I really need to say anything about this? I feel like I covered the “letting go of negative stuff is not sacrifice” thing with Rome. It might be difficult, it might effect change (no, duh), but it’s nothing he’s not better off without. One sacrifice down!
The second: his freedom from kingly responsibilities. Wrath is the hereditary king of the vampires, but he refuses to officially take up the position because reasons. The one I remember most strongly is that he prefers to be out in the field, killing lessers, to dealing with the glymera (vampire high society). Who can blame him? The glymera are pretentious pains-in-the-butt. But they’re not the only vampires, just the wealthy and (en)titled ones.
That’s the reason Wrath gives for ignoring the throne, but the real reason is that he’s afraid. Afraid he won’t do a good job, afraid it will emasculate him, afraid he won’t be able to go out and fight anymore, afraid to take on the problems of vampire society, which are legion. And what do we say about letting go of a negative emotion like fear? All together now: it is not a sacrifice.
The biggest kicker against this particular “sacrifice” is this: Wrath does not give up going into the field when he takes the throne. True, he goes out less often, but he does still fight and kill lessers on a regular basis. He loses nothing (except, perhaps, some patience) by shouldering his royal responsibilities.
His final sacrifice, however, is real: his life. Don’t worry, he doesn’t actually die, but he comes close, which counts. When Beth is captured by lessers (because they get lucky, not because she does anything stupid), Wrath flies to her rescue, getting shot in the process. It takes the vampire equivalent of a blood transfusion to keep him from dying. He nearly sacrifices all to save his beloved, a time-honored tradition of alpha-maleness. Even if it is a little cliché, it’s still a mark in his favor, leaving the sacrifice score at two to one.
Dark Lover’s ultimate feminine sacrifice tally: one. The same score as Sarah’s Child, a book from the eighties with an already uneven sacrifice count. At first glance, the hero and heroine of Dark Lover appear to stand on equal ground in terms of sacrifices for love, but in the end, the heroine sacrifices more.
Because this article’s grown longer than I intended, I won’t examine other novels here, though there are many examples to be had. But I will say that there are authors out there who do an excellent job of creating lovers who sacrifice equally. For example, Nalini Singh and Jennifer Crusie, though writing completely different types of romance novels, know how to balance the equation. Sometimes, that means that neither heroine nor hero truly sacrifices anything. Compromise, yes; sacrifice, no. Frankly, I’ll take that over unequal sacrifice any day. What do you think?
 SPOILER: it sort of does and sort of doesn’t. She helps Wrath with royal paperwork. She’s a glorified secretary, and even then, Saxton (a male) takes over.  Side note: it’s not very lasting, either. Through the whole series, vamps refer to humans as “rats without tails,” which I guess is supposed to be uncomplimentary, despite rats being rather intelligent survivors, even without their tails.