Unpacking the Navy SEAL hero in romance or the magic in “Let me take care of you”
Since last week, there has been an increased interest in romances featuring Navy SEALs. The Washington Post and Glamour magazine both took a stab at what makes these archetypes popular with readers but they only skim the surface.
“They have all of these abilities that the average guy doesn’t even have,” White said. “They appeal to the side of women who want to know there are really strong men in the world who aren’t afraid to take responsibility. SEALs are not not going to pay their child support. They are not couch potatoes who don’t care. They are active in making the world better.”
In the romance world, the competency of SEALs knows no bounds. “They are trained from Day 1 to notice the tiniest detail,” Melton said. “A man who can pick up on the smallest little nuance is bound to be able to please a woman, if you catch my drift.”
They’re highly trained in narrowing in on targets, finding objects in demolished buildings and even underwater, and tracking down pretty damn un-track-down-able enemies. This is appealing for two reasons. They’ll never ask for directions—because they don’t have to. And, if SEALs can find a terrorist who has eluded capture for 10 years, we’re pretty confident they can also find a clitoris.
I think the appeal of the Navy SEAL is not only the competence that the archetype is deemed to possess, but also the safety and certainty that is embodied in the Protector archetype. This is particularly appealing right now. There are natural disasters occurring left and right. Earthquakes and tsunamis. Floods and tornadoes. People are being laid off and families are being put out on the street. It’s a very uncertain period in our lives. The Protector archetype brings certainty and safety. No matter what the costs, no matter how difficult the effort, no matter what the challenges, and no matter how long it will take, this archetype will take care of you.
I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy the Lisa Kleypas hero. She once described her alpha heroes as being so capable and FULL OF CARE for the heroine (and I am paraphrasing here) that the heroine doesn’t even need to worry about her own orgasms. Her three trilogy of contemporaries featuring the Travis family is replete with examples of this.
In Smooth Talking Stranger (review), Ella is trying to negotiate a settlement for her sister who was impregnated by a man of a big, famous church. This negotiation is taking place without the consent of the sister who calls to yell at Ella for interfering. Jack is present when the sisters’ phone call takes place:
I looked up at him bleakly. “Do you have Mark Gottler’s number? I have to call him.”
“Got it right here on my cell phone. You’re welcome to it.” Jack studied me briefly. “Would you trust me to take care of it?” he murmured. “Can I do that for you?”
And Jack goes on to take care of it:
“Hey, Mark. How are you doing? Great. Yeah, things are okay, but we have an issue here, and we need to get it straightened out. Ella just got off the horn with Tara? about that meeting we had, the contract? yeah. Ella’s not too happy, Mark. Tell you the truth, neither am I. Guess I should have made it clear that it was confidential. But I didn’t expect you to go talking out of school.” He paused to listen.
“I know why you did it, Mark.” His tone was quiet but blistering. “And now you got these sisters as aggravated as two cats in a bathtub. No matter what Tara says she wants right now, she’s not in any shape to make those decisions. You don’t need to worry about if or when she signs the contract. Once my lawyer sends it over, you have your boys look it over, you sign the fucker, and you send it to me.”
Jack listened for a moment. “Because Ella asked me to be in on it, that’s why. I don’t know how you usually handle these things? yeah, that’s what I’m implying — Fact is, Mark, I’m here to make sure Tara and Luke get their due. I want them to have what we talked over and what we shook on. And you know what it means to cross a Travis in Houston. No, of course that’s not a threat. I consider us friends, and I know you won’t back down from doing what’s right. So let’s be clear on how the next couple of months will play out: you’re not going to bother Tara with this stuff again. We’re going to nail down this contract, and if you cause any problems for our side, I guarantee you’re going to have even bigger problems. And I don’t think any of us want to go there. Next time you want to talk about any of this stuff, you call me or Ella. Tara’s out of the loop until she gets well enough to leave that clinic. Good. I think so, too.”
He listened for a half minute or so, looked satisfied and said goodbye, and closed the phone with a decisive snap.
Jack just doesn’t help Ella out here but he does things like put together the crib for Ella, spends some morning time with the baby so Ella can sleep in.
“We’ll work at it,” Gage said. “Believe me, I’ll have no problem helping you practice.”
I dared to touch his thigh, which felt like concrete beneath my palm. “What’s the other rule?”
“I’m in charge.”
I blinked, wondering what he meant. Gage’s hand closed on my nape in a light squeeze that sent an erotic shock down my spine. “Just for tonight,” he continued evenly. “Trust me to decide when and where and how long. You don’t have to do anything except relax. Let go. Let me take care of you.” His mouth lowered to my ear, and he whispered, “Can you do that for me, darlin?”
I think the fantasy is this. This hero archetype knows you are capable of doing everything but they are willing to “take care of things” once you give them the go ahead and then able of following through and accomplish whatever task is set before them. Encapsulated within that “ableness” is the concept that they get things done. For Jack, he gets it done with a simple phone call.
In Breaking Point (review), former SEAL and current deputy US Marshall, Zach McBride, leads the Natalie, the heroine, across the desert between the Mexico and the U.S. for four nights. He knows every supply they’ll need:
ZACH READ OVER the list of supplies he’d just written, checking to make certain he hadn’t forgotten anything. Handheld GPS. Batteries. Compass for when the GPS fucked up. Wristwatch. Night vision goggles. Infrared binoculars. Night scope for the AK. Box of 115 grain +P jacketed hollow point rounds for the Glocks. Cartridges for the AKs. Double shoulder holster. Flashlight. Two backpacks. Sturdy trail shoes, athletic socks, BDU pants and jackets for both of them. Thick leather gloves. Bandanas. A heavy wool blanket. Duct tape. Sunscreen. Lip balm. Hats. Rope. Powdered electrolytes. Moleskin for blisters. Antihistamine. Insect repellant. Snakebite kit. Codeine-caffeine tablets. Hard candy. MREs if he could find them. Canned food and a can opener if he couldn’t. Hand wipes. And eight gallons of water–enough to last three or four days if they traveled at night.
And this is a comfort to her:
She’d be lying if she denied that what he’d told her had made her feel safer. A short trek across the desert into the U.S. was surely a cakewalk for a man who’d fought in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. He’d probably had lots of outdoor survival training. He would know what supplies to bring. He would know how to navigate with GPS so they wouldn’t get lost. And if they ran into armed traffickers in the middle of nowhere, he would know how to deal with them, too.
Contrast these types of heroes to say, Sam in Rachel Gibson’s Any Man of Mine. While Sam is good for child support, he breaks promises to his kid and lives a life of unadultered self pleasure. The first thing in Sam’s mind when he gets up isn’t “how can I best take care of my kid” but “how can I get the most pleasure out of today for myself.” He’s an incredibly selfish creature and one who probably doesn’t know where the clitoris is.
“I’d be with him more if I could. You know my schedule makes it difficult.”
“If he were a priority in your life, you’d make time.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “You had this past summer off, but you only spent three weekends with Conner. You canceled on him at least eight different times, and every time you did, I had to try and make it up to him. Every time you’ve ever let him down, I’m the one who has to tell him that you love him and would be with him if you could. I’m the one who has to lie to him.”
The Navy SEAL archetype would not act like Sam in Rachel Gibson’s Any Man of Mine (dueling reviews). What the author Pamela Clare (aka P White) explains above isn’t universally true obviously. Spousal abuse is high in the military as is divorce and infidelity. Just because a guy is a SEAL and can take out a compound of a terrorist in under 40 minutes doesn’t make him a good partner or a good husband. (In fact, I believe you aren’t allowed to enlist in the SEAL program if one is a single parent). What is being sold in romances is, of course, a romanticized version of the SEAL, one where the attributes that make someone a good SEAL are extended into the ordinary routines of life.
What evens out the power balance, at least within Breaking Point, is the fact that all Zach feels he is capable of doing is soldiering.
But the bottom line was that he didn’t know how to live a civilian life any longer. He could never be the family man with the house in the suburbs, the wife, the two kids, and the dog. The only way he knew how to go on was to keep fighting.
Despite all of his abilities, his competence, his ability to keep her bodily safe, he is not a good bet emotionally.
Natalie deserved a full and happy life with a man who wasn’t fucked up or in the line of fire, and he aimed to see she got her chance at it. He would get her safely home even if it cost him every last drop of his blood. But then they would go their separate ways. It sucked for him, really, because if ever he’d met a woman who made him feel . . .
Of course, this is a sort of paternalism in and of itself. In other words, Zach knows best here when really, maybe Natalie would rather have a few years with Zach than none at all. (And this is later brought to bear as Zach agrees that life is only worth living if he is with Natalie). By removing himself from her sphere, she doesn’t get to make that decision. (This is the crux of the conflict in Miranda Lee’s Not a Marrying Man).
Allowing someone to take care of you implies a lot of trust. In other words, by ceding control to the partner, the heroine has to know that the other person will still hold her with the same esteem. With someone you trust, the power exchange can happen. I think it is important that in each of the scenarios above, the heroines are asked permission. With the Navy SEAL archetype, men are not only trustworthy, but honorable and full of integrity. This type will understand that the directive is not to get in take control and hold control, but to take control for the moment in time that it is allowable. Let me take care of you.
I think that the appeal of the Navy SEAL archetype is less knowing where your clitoris is and more the concept that this is a type of man who will go to the ends of the earth to take care of you. The fantasy power balance is that he is emotionally fulfilled if you let him and the heroine ultimately controls the hero’s emotional happiness. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Blue Eyed Devil.
Jack grinned. “I almost pity the bastard. Okay — you handle Cates, and I’ll set Dad straight on a few things.”
“No,” I said automatically, “don’t do anything about Dad. You can’t fix my relationship with him.”
“I can block or run interference.”
“Thanks, Jack, but I don’t need blocking, and I really don’t need any more interference.”
He looked annoyed. “Well, why did you waste all that time complaining to me if you didn’t want me to do something about it?”
“I don’t want you to fix my problems. I just wanted you to listen.”
“Hang it all, Haven, talk to a girlfriend if all you want is a pair of ears. Guys hate it when you give us a problem and then don’t let us do something about it. It makes us feel bad. And then the only way to make ourselves feel better is to rip a phone book in two or blow something up. So let’s get this straight — I’m not a good listener. I’m a guy.”