May 4 2010
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Not too long ago I had a brief exchange on Twitter with Maili in which she stated her belief that Romance is a hero-centric genre. That view seems to reflect Mary Jo Putney's assertion in her Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (New Cultural Studies) essay that "[a] romance can survive a bland or even a bitchy heroine, [my note: bitchy heroine = negative] but it cannot survive with a weak hero." However, just a few sentences later she points out that "the dark hero is obsessed with the heroine" and that it is the heroine whose "task and triumph is to civilize him, to turn him from a marauder to a worthy mate whose formidable strength will be channeled into protecting his woman and his cubs (sorry — his children)." The inference here is that the stronger and more "uncivilized" the hero, the more "triumph" in the domestication. In fact, I'm flashing back to virtually every Linda Howard hero I've read as I write this (remember Dane in Dream Man having sympathetic pregnancy and labor symptoms?!).
Anyway, back on track. My view is that Romance a heroine-centric genre, despite the strength, power, and controlling charisma of some of its more memorable heroes. I cannot deny the number of readers (like Joan/ Sarah Frantz), who read Romance for the hero, even if the majority who responded to Jane's post last week on the hero's point of view said they wanted dual pov's.
As to the question of whether the genre as a whole is hero-centric, though, I can see where some subgenres present that way, namely Paranormal and perhaps Romantic Suspense. Although as strong as some of Kresley Cole's heroes are, for example, the women still dominate that series, and their mates, in my opinion. And in general, I still perceive the genre, in its m/f form, at least, to be heroine-centric both in dominant point of view and in terms of the romantic idealization of the genre. For all the heroes who are tortured, transgressing, reformed, redeemed, and renewed by the love of a good heroine, at its core I would argue that Romance affirms a somewhat domesticated idyll for its protagonists – if not a white picket fence and 2.5 children, at least a core unit of romantic stability, which has, traditionally and historically, been more associated with the female point of view. The growing popularity of male/male Romance may challenge and even subvert this feminized perspective overlaying the genre, but I have not read widely enough among its offerings to make or refute this argument (hopefully someone will weigh in on this question).
Beyond the superficialities of a genre written and read largely by women (and the ridiculous idea that a writer cannot produce authentic and compelling characters of different genders, cultures, religions, etc.), and bypassing a simplistic Jungian analysis (we are all parts of the narratives we produce), for me, as a reader of m/f genre Romance, even most stories about the heroes are, essentially, heroine-centric in the narrative focus on a stable, utopic, romantic union. That genre Romance itself has descended from sentimental fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, fiction that often focuses on courtship and domesticity, as well as sensationalistic fiction that was often a morality play (young, naÃ¯ve woman is seduced and abandoned by dishonorable rake!), I also find a good deal of its literary ancestry still alive and well in the genre.
There may also be differences among subgenres. I find Romance influenced by Fantasy often heroine-centric, with the heroine on a quest, of sorts. Historical Romance to me often seems as if the primary journey is the heroine's. Even a book like To Have and To Hold, where Sebastian seems to dominate the narrative (and Rachel) at so many points strikes me as centrally focused on Rachel's empowerment. Sebastian is changed, reformed, rejuvenated, and redeemed by his feelings for Rachel and his desire to be a better man for her. At the end of the novel she is the one who faces the choice of whether she wants to be with Sebastian, and he must literally beg her for that chance. For me, his entire journey toward self-realization and happiness is ultimately circumscribed by his relationship with Rachel and by her approval and acceptance of him.
This is not to say that I believe the hero's perspective to be false, non-essential, or even less important than the heroine's. However, ultimately I think genre Romance in its traditional m/f form elevates and idealizes values and priorities traditionally associated with the feminine – home, heart, and family.
So what do you think? Is the genre heroine-centric or hero-centric? Both or neither? What do either of those terms mean to you? Does it make a difference that women are largely writing Romances, and if so, how? Does the centrality of the female or male protagonist vary across sub-generic categories? Has the genre changed over the years in its focus on either the hero or heroine?