I just finished reading Backstreet Hero by Justine Davis. Normally, I view romance novels as the candy of literature and rarely do I turn a critical eye on them. However, lately as #MeToo gains popularity and more women come forward, I began to think that these novels more critically. Because romance novels are so often read quickly and not examined they are shaping the way their readers think.
In Backstreet Hero the message is not particularly bad. In fact, on the surface, and unlike many romance novels, it actively challenges the stereotype of the alpha male and the submissive female. Yet, if we look below the surface it becomes more problematic. The plot is that Tony Alvera, Redstone Security, takes the assignment to investigate a possible assassination attempt on Lilith Mercer. So, while Tony is working to find out who might be trying to kill Lilith he’s acting as her bodyguard. That’s a position of trust and Lilith can’t give consent to a relationship when Tony has that kind of power over her. The advantage to fiction over real life is that we know what they're both thinking. The problem with this type of fiction is that it is so prevalent and makes us think that such actions are okay in real life.
After all, everyone knows that the bodyguard sleeps with the girl. She must want it, we read it in novels, and see it in movies such as Bodyguard. Though it is fair to point out that Bodyguard is an old example it set the stereotype in many people’s minds. While fiction is not the real world, it is our reflection and interpretation of that world. I am not suggesting that we stop reading romance novels that present these stereotypes, but I think we need to be aware that they are stereotypes and not real people. One of the main problems that things like affirmative consent and #MeToo face is disbelief and the idea presented in novels that consent can be given in situations where one person has power over another makes this problem worse. Too many people take the lessons learned from novels and movies and apply them directly to their own lives.
Zoe Whittal in her recent article “CanLit Has a Sexual Harassment Problem” mentions that often when discussing her recent book The Best Kind of People she gets trapped in these discussions about how teenage girls lie and male teachers are often targets of false accusations. Besides being a very strange way to read her novel, it highlights the level of denial found in the general population. Especially when a male is in a position of authority over a female student, that woman cannot give consent because the man has power over her. This should not be a difficult concept. The message is out there and it is becoming more main stream the trick is to listen and the read between the lines the next time you pick up your favorite Tessa Dare or Elizabeth Hoyt.
Elizabeth Ramsay is English tutor and ESL Teacher.