Making power imbalances uncreepy, or, how authors can stop annoying me

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This is depressing, so have some kitty. With bonus bat collar!

Power imbalances are everywhere in romance. Although they’re ubiquitous in YA, they’re even more common in the adult romance industry. If you’re at all familiar with the romance genre, chances are you’ve read a story that features one. Maybe it was about a pirate captain who captures some British noblewoman. Or another billionaire and a random girl (God forbid!). Usually, the imbalance is skewed in the male character’s favor, for reasons that would take a whole post to get into. These types of stories often turn me off, but not because the premise is inherently bad. It’s just, well, authors screw up. A lot, in various cringe-worthy ways. Luckily, I’m here to show how to make skeevy gender dynamics more palatable!

To be honest, I understand why power imbalances are popular because I can enjoy them just as much as the next reader. But I’m having trouble explaining why. Maybe I like reading about rich mythical creatures who love teenage girls because of the inherent cuteness of the premise–character A has everything, but something about character B just draws them in. Isn’t that sweet?

Sometimes, of course, imbalanced couples are distinctly not sweet, but there’s a chance I’ll enjoy those stories too (I’m currently mentally cataloging some of the more…interesting pieces in my Kindle collection). Even the sweet couples can have their pitfalls (no, it’s not adorable that you’re trying to micromanage her life, I don’t care about your oh-so-benevolent intentions), but the dysfunctional romances really get bad when the author is clueless.

First step to getting a clue: Try to avoid having one character try to rape the other one. If you absolutely must, don’t handwave it. This should be obvious, but it apparently isn’t, so here we are. This happened in a Georgette Heyer novel of all places, and that book still annoys me years later.

I know Jareth. I know.

Second: Male leads can be overbearing jackasses who use wealth and status to lord over their significant others. Female leads with the same advantages can be just as unbearable, but they’re usually portrayed as spoiled brats who aren’t taken seriously, as opposed to (male) spoiled brats who are very much in control of the situation.* If you have either of these problems, take a step back and reassess. There are two solutions–have characters that act like decent people, or be aware that they’re not decent people. Authors who think their horrible characters are the cutest things ever will only piss readers off. When I read a book with this problem, I get whiplash because surely I’m not the only one who thinks these guys are wackos? It’s not just me, right?

If your male lead is being abusive, please, please have other characters call him out on it, especially the heroine. If it’s not in the heroine’s character to do so, give me SOME indication that you, the author, know that his behavior is wrong. ANYTHING. There is a way to write dysfunctional romance. But it must be done with full awareness and much forethought, and most dysfunctional romances seem unintentionally so.

And if your hero remains a jackass until the last minute, is it too much to have him grovel? Pretty please? At least have him acknowledge his douchebaggery. And don’t tack it on for the happy ending, either. Make it feel natural. Above all, do not let him get away with walking all over the heroine. DON’T DO IT. Even Charlotte Bronte humbled Edward Rochester in the end, and he was the original byronic asshole.

Likewise, your heroine shouldn’t mistreat the hero, though I can’t remember a woman doing that and walking away with dignity and dominance intact in any romance I’ve ever read. (Unlike the men…)

So, if your irritating spitfire heroine never says a word worth taking seriously, please give her gravitas. Please give her sense. Please give her respect.

And, I don’t know, maybe give her the fortune and the awesome car for a change.

And I believe I’m done. If you have any books to recommend in the comments, do it, especially if they’re horrible in all the right ways. I really love a review I can sink my teeth into…

*Source: Romance novels

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4 thoughts on “Making power imbalances uncreepy, or, how authors can stop annoying me

  1. ‘If your male lead is being abusive, please, please have other characters call him out on it, especially the heroine. If it’s not in the heroine’s character to do so, give me SOME indication that you, the author, know that his behavior is wrong. ANYTHING. There is a way to write dysfunctional romance. But it must be done with full awareness and much forethought…’—AMEN.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with you, except maybe about Jane Eyre. Rochester going blind seems to be going a bit far in redressing the imbalance. It’s also a bit deus ex machina. Couldn’t Bronte have been more nuanced in creating a relationship dynamic where the male character’s power is neutralized?

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    1. Oops. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

      I didn’t mean to imply that he ought to go blind just so that he and Jane could be on a more or less equal footing. In fact, I have no problem whatsoever with a male character (or anyone else) retaining power and status and happiness provided he doesn’t use it to abuse others. (And I hope that came through in my post. I may need to go back and edit.)

      I honestly can’t say whether Rochester abuses Jane, but something about his dynamic with her struck me as deeply exploitative. I don’t think Rochester DESERVES to go blind, but I much prefer the book we got over a story in which he manipulates Jane into fulfilling his every whim, right down to the last paragraph (which is glorified in a lot of books.)

      I agree about the deux ex machina. It resolved the moral problems too easily, and I wish that Rochester had been able realize his behavior was wrong without his house catching on fire. It was a bit unsubtle. 😀

      Anyway, thanks again for pointing this out, and my apologies for writing a novel in the comments. I always love talking about nineteenth century novels.

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