Power Dynamics in Romance Novel Tropes

Every time I discuss my favourite tropes in romance novels, I’m struck all over again by the similarities between them.

The tropes I like tend to set up a situation in which the hero and heroine are more equal – generally by making the hero vulnerable to the heroine in some way. I enjoy books like this, because I feel like they are my one escape from the patriarchal world I live in, showing more ideal male-female relationships than I know tend to exist in the real world.

All the tropes I dislike tend to do the opposite, giving the power to the hero over the heroine. These tend to increase the power imbalance between the hero and heroine, and they tend to make me deeply uncomfortable.

Some examples of tropes I avoid include:

  • Boss/Secretary
  • Amnesiac Heroine
  • Alpha/Alphahole hero
  • Famous hero/“normal” heroine
  • Billionaire hero
  • May/December romances
  • Guardian/Ward
  • Rake/virgin
  • Royalty or Duke hero/Commoner heroine

That’s not to say these tropes can’t be done in a way that would interest me, but it would take me a lot to get over my aversion to them. Of course, I’m not judging anyone who does like these tropes. We all get something different out of the books we read, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

With most of these the power dynamics in favour of the hero are obvious, because he’s in some position of power over her.

Boss/Secretary: With the allegations of workplace sexual harassment coming to light more and more in the wake of the Weinstein articles, I think it’s become more than obvious why the power dynamics in Boss/Secretary romances (and similar) are so horribly unequal. He could fire her if she displeased him, or make her working life hell. If I don’t feel the heroine can say ‘no’ without punishment, I don’t believe that she can truly give consent, either.

Basically, my litmus test on tropes like this is: if the same actions were performed by a man the heroine didn’t secretly fancy, would I have the same reaction to the situation? Because if the only reason the scenario is palatable to me is because the heroine has the hots for the hero, then it turns out it’s not palatable at all.

I have a similar issue with Guardian/Ward romances. He has far too much power over her for me to ever see the relationship as equal.

Billionaire Hero: This one is often used in conjunction with the boss/employee trope, which makes the discrepancies even worse. Billionaire heroes often buy their way out of trouble, or tempt the heroine with their money with an “offer she can’t refuse”. These guys are often paired with good-hearted heroines in dire financial straits. Given that being self-sacrificing is part of the heroine’s personality in these scenarios, the hero offering her the money she desperately needs again feels like something she can’t or won’t refuse. So is she really consenting? Or is he just using her against herself to manipulate her into giving him what he wants?

Plus, I hate the idea that he can just buy his way out of trouble, or buy his way into her life. I’ve seen storylines where the billionaire hero buys the heroine’s company, and things like that, which again feels like he’s taking away her agency and forcing her into close proximity to him. And it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Plus, in the age of Trump, is anyone still digging the entitled billionaire hero? It seems to have lost the sheen of fantasy, no?

Famous hero/“Normal” heroine: This trope can often be a combination of the previous two. The heroine works for the actor/musician, and he’s usually very rich. But even if the former isn’t the case, it’s still not a trope that works for me. These are men with fame, fortune, and power. Often they are playboys that use women, regardless whether the heroine is the innocent type.

Even if the hero in this scenario doesn’t have direct power over the heroine, he is still more powerful in the world at large, more so than a “normal” man. And therefore the power discrepancy between them is too great for me to enjoy myself when reading.

Royalty hero/Commoner heroine: This is similar to the trope above. He just has so much power and privilege in the world that their power dynamics are too uneven. There are scenarios it can work, but mostly this is another trope I simply avoid.

Amnesiac heroine: So, this one is a little different to the other tropes on this list. Rather than giving power to the hero, it’s taking away power from the heroine. Can you imagine waking up and having no context for who you are? You’d be so reliant on others. They (in this case, the hero) could tell you anything and you’d have to believe it. You couldn’t make any choices based on your own skills and experiences, you’d have to rely on others to do it for you.

I saw a movie recently where the heroine loses her memory in an unfamiliar small town. The hero is her doctor – a nice guy, and one that won’t act on his feelings given that she’s his patient. But in the film she’s allergic to nuts. Which of course she doesn’t know once she loses her memory, and eats nuts and nearly dies. This sort of thing terrifies me.

Any trope that depowers the heroine, puts her on the back foot, and makes her scared and vulnerable is not a trope I enjoy.

Rake/virgin: This one is about the discrepancy in experience between the two. I especially can’t stand this trope when the hero is the one trying to seduce the heroine. (I can handle it if it’s the heroine attempting to seduce the rakish hero, sometimes). Often times it comes off as incredibly manipulative. He uses her own desires against her to get what he wants (sex). Those scenes where the hero is trying to seduce the inexperienced heroine, and her head is telling her all the reasons it’s a terrible idea, but her body is so overwhelmed by sensations? Yeah, that. He knows perfectly well what he’s doing. He’s using his skills in the bedroom to coerce her into something she doesn’t want, using her inexperience and her body’s reaction against her. I find it incredibly creepy and often feel sick reading those scenes.

There are other reasons I don’t like Rake/Virgin stories. Mostly to do with the “heroine has never had an orgasm until the hero and his magic wang comes along” kind of vibe I get from them. Why innocence is so prized in a genre targeted at women, I don’t know. (Well, I do, but I don’t like it). But this is all only tangentially related to this blog post so I may expand on it later.

Alpha/Alphahole hero: OK, so. For me, the alpha and alphahole heroes are basically walking privilege. They are arrogant, brash, overly-confident, think they know best, etc. Worse, they don’t tend to see their own privilege in the world. Or, if they do, they don’t care. In fact, they’ll often use it for their own gain. They’ll order the heroine around, be jealous, possessive, etc. And due to whatever circumstances they are in, even if the heroine fights back, the hero always ends up winning. Because otherwise he’d have to sit down and examine his faults and feelings and realise he was in the wrong, and pretty much no alpha hero would do that. At least, none of those I’ve come across.

So, he’ll end up just steamrolling the heroine until she’s like “it’s just easier to go along with what he wants”. I hate that. A lot. I see it in real life, too, and it is such a clear example of male privilege, of women groomed to be the “peace-keepers” that I can’t deal with it in romance.

In addition, even if the hero did accept his faults and privileges, how much work is that for the heroine to have to teach him this basic human decency? Because clearly no other woman in his life has got through to him before. So now the heroine has to spend days, weeks, months, years, of her life teaching this guy what empathy is? How to be an okay human being? About privilege and feminism and all of that stuff? What heroine has the goddamn time and energy for that? She’s not paid for that kind of labour.

And it’s worse if he’s like “my heroine is special and she’s the only woman I respect and will treat like a human being”. Like what kind of misogynistic…Anyway.

I just can’t deal with it.

Again, I think it comes back to that “is this only acceptable because the hero is doing it, rather than some random creepy dude? If so, no thanks” thing from earlier. In that sense I think the romance genre expectations work against us. We know that the hero and heroine will end up together, happy, therefore people tend to think the hero can get away with a lot more. At least, that’s what it looks like.

 

So that explains the tropes I don’t like. What about the ones I do?

The tropes I like tip the balance of the scale back in favour of the heroine, usually by making the hero vulnerable to her in some way.

The most common way to do this is to make the hero fall in love first. You’re never more vulnerable to someone than when you are in love with them, because they have a very unique power to hurt you more than anyone else. This is why I love stories where the hero is unrequitedly pining (or so he thinks) but hate stories where the heroine has been in love with the hero forever and he’s been oblivious to her. They, again, put the hero in the position of power over the heroine, just in a different way.

Therefore my favourite tropes are:

  • Beta hero
  • Man in love with his best friend or brother’s widow
  • Scarred/Wounded hero
  • Virgin hero
  • Heroine protects the hero
  • Lower class man/upper class woman
  • Hero in pursuit

A lot of these tropes are about the hero feeling inadequate when it comes to the heroine, thereby giving her the power in the relationship. Whether it’s because he’s a virgin and is nervous about his potential lack of sexual prowess; whether it’s because he’s horribly scarred and doesn’t think the heroine could love him; whether it’s because he’s from the wrong side of the tracks and has been told all his life he’s not good enough.

But it’s funny. When the heroine has the power in the relationship, like above, I feel that this balances out the hero and heroine. He has privilege in other ways, being a man in our society. By giving the heroine a measure of power in their relationship, it makes me feel much better about the place the heroine is in, if that makes sense.

And beta heroes? Well, they are in many ways opposite to alphas. They are often aware of their privileges, and more sensitive to the heroine’s position and feelings. He may not necessarily be without privilege, but at least he wouldn’t use it against the heroine. The sweeter the hero, the better.

 

This is not by any means a comprehensive look at the tropes in the genre, and I have read and enjoyed stories that use my least favourite tropes before. It just depends on the way it’s done. You can add a sweet beta hero to anything and I’d pretty much be guaranteed to read it.

Instead, I use these tropes as a shorthand to tell me what to avoid. Each trope has expectations that go along with it, and for me some of those expectations are good (a la beta heroes) and some are bad (alphas). Sometimes the expectations are met, other times they are not, for good or bad. But it helps to narrow down my reading, because there are SO many books out there and I don’t have time for them all.

And I’m a mood reader, too. Very occasionally I’ll dip my toe into a trope I’m not usually into if my mood calls for it, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. But often I’ll just stick to what I know.

 

So, tell me. What are your favourite and last favourite tropes? Do you agree with my assessment of power dynamics? I’m interested to hear!

2 thoughts on “Power Dynamics in Romance Novel Tropes

  1. On the “do-not-want” scale I’ll also add a lot of paranormal where mind control/super strength are in play. There is a very popular author who was highly recommended to me and the first thing I read of hers was a situation where the hero is just one step away from a god. How in blazes can the heroine ever meaningfully consent in this situation? I backed away from that book so fast I think I left skidmarks. I read another of her books-straight contemporary, no PNR aspects-and the hero was a massive, stalker-y alphahole.

    I came to the conclusion that this author and I were just not a fit…

    • Yes, I’m definitely with you there! There’s actually a lot of PNR tropes I avoid, fated mates being the big one.

      Totally understandable!

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