On Heroism in Romance
We speak routinely of heroes and heroines in Romance, but do we all share the same definition of those terms? For some, the protagonists of a genre Romance novel must act in ethically or morally upright ways to earn these titles, while for others they are mere genre vocabulary. Most likely fall somewhere in between.
I confess that I tend more toward the vocabulary side of the discussion, in part because I think the genre is already so narrow in its subject matter, that narrowing it in other ways creates too much limitation, repetition, and simplification of the genre. Also, I have a baseline objection to the idea of “earning love,” and I think there is often a fine line in the genre between a protagonist finding love and somehow being “good” enough to have it.
Still, I know this is a hot button issue for many readers, who perceive part of the aspirational message of the genre to be connected to the moral and ethical character of the protagonists, as well. And if we are going to use terms like “hero” and “heroine,” why shouldn’t the characters be elevated in some way above the average individual, perhaps even as moral exemplars. So Romance heroes who are criminals may not be okay, while heroes who fight for personal justice (even to the point of vigilantism) might be acceptable. Still, heroes seem to be able to push the line more readily than heroines, perhaps in part because they are often portrayed as being changed by love. The rake who becomes a faithful husband, for example, is redeemed by love, and therefore elevated by being proved worthy of more.
Heroines are sometimes set against “bad” types of women – the ‘evil ex-wife’ for example. It is sometimes difficult to portray an angry heroine. For example, I remember when Molly O’Keefe’s Crazy Thing Called Love came out, some readers found Maddy unreasonably angry. Then there are some of the unspoken rules around how much sex the heroine should be allowed to have and with whom. Although virtue was originally conceptualized as a masculine ideal (virtus in Latin is sort of the ideal of excellent manly character) has more readily been applied to Romance heroines, especially virginal ones.
It’s actually an interesting question, to think about how different ideas of heroism have passed down into genre Romance, because if you look at Aristotle’s Poetics, his conception of the hero in Comedy, where you’re more likely to see a marriage plot, is that of an average individual, both in social status and moral character. The Tragic Hero, on the other hand, is the more powerful or extremely honorable character who experiences a steep fall, often through error or misjudgment, that allows the audience to feel “fear and pity” and to then purge those feelings though catharsis.
As Romance develops into its various modes – Chivalric or aristocratic, for example – the hero, especially, takes on different postures and forms, elevated or grounded depending on the type of story. Northrop Frye, whose work on literary types has profoundly influenced much contemporary literary theory, has this to say about so-called “domestic comedy”:
Domestic comedy is usually based on the Cinderella archetype, the kind of thing that happens when Pamela’s virtue is rewarded, the incorporation of an individual very like the reader into the society aspired to by both, a society ushered in with a happy rustle of bridal gowns and banknotes. . . .
The romance is nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfilment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role. In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy. This is the general character of chivalric romance in the Middle Ages, aristocratic romance in the Renaissance, bourgeois romance since the eighteenth century, and revolutionary romance in contemporary Russia. Yet there is a genuinely “proletarian” element in romance too which is never satisfied with its various incarnations, and in fact the incarnations themselves indicate that no matter how great a change may take place in society, romance will turn up again, as hungry as ever, looking for new hopes and desires to feed on. The perennially child like quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space. . . .
We can see much of this playing out in genre Romance, too. The Cinderella effect, in which protagonists are rewarded in love with some kind of social or financial boon. Or what about the role of nostalgia in, say, small town Romances or historical Romances? The prettification of history, for example, that we often see in the genre can be part of that search for a ‘golden age,’ where those with social, political, and/or economic power were also necessarily people of moral worth. Or where love could raise them to a level commensurate with their elevated social position (just as a heroine was often raised up through the social ranks by marrying a noble hero). The play on nobility in historicals is another place we may be able to note some merging of the aspirational qualities of Romance with a sort of nostalgia for a more ‘perfect’ historical moment.
Then there’s the wish-fulfillment element in, for example, the virginal heroine whose first time is a wondrous, multiple-orgasm-filled utopia, perhaps in contrast to the reader’s own disappointing experience (I didn’t make that up: an author explained to me that one of the appeals for her of the virgin heroine was the chance to vicariously enjoy this fantasy, in part because it contrasted with her own experience).
When it comes to how ‘heroism’ is represented in Romance, there are many variables and many different considerations related to our expectations of genre and of the experience of reading. What is our expectation of the genre in terms of how the protagonists are represented? Should they represent a social or moral/ethical ideal, and if so can we agree on what those should be? What about values that seem to have a very distinct social context – like virginity or pre-marital sex (even though pre-marital sex was much more common in other historical eras than our Romance novels often want us to believe)? What about the conventions of marriage and child-bearing, or the distribution of domestic labor?
There are, in fact, many different ways in which moral and ethical principles and values are built in to Romance heroes and heroines, and the way a reader engages those values will reflect his or her expectations a) of the genre, and b) of what the genre should present and represent by way of social exemplars. What do we want society to look like, and should a genre focused on love and marriage be held to a certain level of responsibility in terms of projecting that vision?
Where I think we sometimes get caught up is in not looking at our own expectations, or in taking our own standards for granted as universally accepted. For example, although some readers do not want to read inspirational Romance, there is, at least, an overt doctrine that is being relied upon and reproduced in the text. I am not saying that every inspirational author or text or reader replicates the same values or the same religious doctrine, only that the subgenre is written and read with an expectation that certain types of values will be forefronted.
At the same time, there are levels and registers of social homogenization in the genre that are really problematic, and I think some of the ways the genre idealizes certain social contexts can reinforce exclusionary and decidedly non-democratic values. Which I think is why the nostalgia element can come across as reactionary and socially regressive, rather than idealistic in a progressive way. In fact, the tension between social progressivism and nostalgia is very much tied up with the aspirational aspects of the genre. However, I think it can be easier to ignore these larger issues when so many books focus very tightly on a single couple and on their personal growth and happiness.
Complicating matters is the element of fantasy, and how that shapes the reader’s experience, often in a way that is disconnected from social reality. What every reader finds fulfilling as a fantasy will vary, and when we read Romance as a literal social allegory, it can be easy to simplify the role of fantasy and of escapism in the experience of reading. Idealism is a fantasy element, but what constitutes any given ideal is not uniform. For example, some readers will prefer a certain moral character in Romance protagonists, while other readers will connect to an idealized social setting, whatever that may be.
Then there are more abstract ethical and moral principles like “goodness.” I remember my 9th grade Latin teacher trying to explain that virtue, in a Roman context, was more about “the best that [wo]man could be” than about some specific value like chastity or prudence. Yes, I know there were specific values within Roman society, but the idea in the abstract is that for each of us, and every society, there is an ideal in the form of personal potential, and that there is a difference between reaching one’s potential and hitting some behavioral yardstick of what defines you as socially acceptable or worthy of idealization.
For me, it’s this more abstract idea of goodness I tend to embrace in the genre. Not that I need every hero to be a law-abiding guy who can and wants to change a diaper and run a multimillion dollar corporation at the same time. More that I do like reading about people being improved by love (not earning love, but having love make them want to be the best they can be), even if that improvement doesn’t bring them to a level of heroism that is beyond what I might expect of any average person in love. I also like to see society progressing because of that love, although I think the genre is less interested in society as a whole than it is in how a couple functions as a happy unit within a broader social structure that may be more implied than illustrated.
I wonder sometimes if the genre wants me to expect more from characters we call hero and heroine. But that’s not what draws me to the genre; often it’s the idea of ordinary individuals facing extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes, though, I do really enjoy the extraordinary. I just worry that if we ask too much of these characters, the options we have for ‘success’ will narrow to the point where we lose all those characters who reside closer to the edge.
So what do you think? Do you want your hero and heroine to be more aspirational, and if so, for what? Or are you looking for characters who are closer to the ground, and who may be more relatable than admirable?