How Far We’ve Come

jordan I see frequent mention of the rapist heroes of old on the message boards, but I have encountered relatively few of them in my own reading. I think the first Catherine Coulter historical I read will be burned into my brain for ever and ever and I remember a particularly bad rape-deflowering from a Jennifer Horsman book, but most heroes I’ve read just didn’t cross that line. Then again, I first started reading non-YA romance in high school(early 90s) and those were almost all Harlequin Historicals, Harlequin Intrigue and Silhouette Shadows. The stories had sex scenes, but nothing like the rape-fests that were apparently all over the place less than a decade before.

When I came across this article at Jezebel, I have to admit that I was flat-out amazed by their description of this 1980s Penny Jordan novel. Literal bodice-ripping (or at least bathing suit ripping), a sleazebag hero who insults the heroine and then sleeps with her cousin before insulting her yet again on the way to that HEA, and a heroine who must be the most passive creature imaginable. Oh, and the fantastic silver tongue this man has: “No? I think you mean yes…In fact I’m going to prove to you that you do mean yes!” This book is apparently from an ongoing feature at Jezebel, so I’m guessing there are more of these princes just waiting to be featured. I know that some folks like the fantasy of a super-alpha hero, but rape and emotional abuse as romantic?! Perhaps the notion of having a hero who can be strong and dominant without being abusive hadn’t had its day yet. I’m not sure what embarrasses me more – the behavior of the heroes or that their heroines were subservient enough to accept it. Yikes.

I had vague notions about rapist heroes from blogs and AAR boards, and as I’ve read more UBS finds, I’ve certainly encountered some, but there’s something about these heroes from books of 20+ years ago that just seems to be from another world. Many heroes of the early 80s seem dated, and not just because of their fine, feathered hair. I’d like to say that I doubt a book written with an old-style rapist hero would fly today. Romance has come so far and has branched out into so many subgenres, and best of all, many of the romances I read give their heroines a positive voice rather than forcing them to be “tamed” or to cower in awe before the great mighty Supreme Alpha. There are certainly some doormats still out there who waive child support, keep thieves on the payroll because they don’t have the heart to actually exercise business acumen, etc.., but I can’t say that I often have to complain about running across the Love at First Rape plotline. And that’s a very good thing.

In addition to treating heroines with more respect, modern romance heroines(at least the best of them) have started taking charge of their lives more and more. I’ve been reading romances where heroines actually make their own decisions, kick butt in the vampire world, engage in battles of wit and act like adults – and equals. Though I would LOVE to see more variety in areas such as historical settings, we do appear to be seeing a great creative ferment of sorts in romance. Over the past few years, I’ve been seeing new types of heroines, new subgenres and authors trying things that push boundaries. It’s a wonderful time to be reading romance!

I have to admit to a certain sort of horrified amusement at some of the books from the 70s/early 80s that we consider romance, but I am very glad that we have moved away from those plots. There are still some trends I like more than others and some ways in which I think things should change, but when I look back at books such as the one profiled yesterday on Jezebel(not to mention Sweet Savage Love), it seems that a lot of progress has been made in twenty years. What would you like to see in the next twenty?

-Lynn Spencer

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23 Responses to How Far We’ve Come

  1. Katie Mack says:

    First I have to say that I am so thankful those heroes/heroines are (mostly) a thing of the past. Luckily I started out with progressive contemporaries in the early 90s. I say “luckily” because if the first romance novels I read had featured rapist heroes and doormat heroines, I would probably have forever crossed the romance genre off my read list, and that thought gives me heart pains. :)

    In the next 20? I’d like to see the elimination of the TSTL heroine (and any heroes) for starters. I’d also like to see more blue-collar heroes. There are a fair amount in today’s romances, but there still seems to be an overabundance of tycoons, billionaires, and noblemen. Where are my everyday guys?

    I’d also like to see more romances with traditional mystery storylines. Not suspense; mystery. I’m tired of the heroine being the target of psychotic stalking serial killers. But give me a good old detective story any day! Throw in a romance and I’m in heaven.

  2. Misty9 says:

    I agree that romance novels have come a long way: I remember that I tried one or two books in the 80s and made a note to myself never to read that rubbish again!!.

    Casually, I read JAK’s ‘Soft Focus’ 5 or 6 years ago, and found that I loved those new romances. I still shy away from all romance novels written before 1990.

    One thing that bothers me and that I hope will change in the next few years, is the difference in the way sex is treated: men are almost always very experienced and women are virgins, or have had a bad first relationship.

    I’d like to see women with a healthy attitude towards sex, and not frozen before meeting their heroes

  3. Elaine S says:

    “I still shy away from all romance novels written before 1990.”

    And yet, I think those who prefer well-written historicals, particularly regencies, might say the opposite! I think contemporaries started to improve in the late 1980s and in the 1990s really evolved. It’s interesting though that many readers still prefer the alpha or even uber-alpha hero whose origins are in the nasty chaps from the earlier days.

  4. Magnolia88 says:

    I agree with Misty: The number one I think I want to see is equality in terms of sexual experience, at least in a contemporary romance.

    I’d love to read that a heroine who has had previous sexual experience is not considered “loose” or promiscuous, and actually — gasp — enjoyed sex with men other than the hero. I’d also like to see a hero who has had a few previous lovers but — gasp — wasn’t a total sex fiend and actually cared about some of those women. Of course the H/h find True Love together in a way they never have before, but I’ve never understood this unwritten rule that a Good Girl can’t have Good Sex before meeting the hero.

  5. Claire says:

    I’d love some more beta hero’s. And I’d like to hear more from the man- what he’s thinking.

  6. Rebekah says:

    I think it would be good to see more child-free heroines. No, not barren women who are tragically unable to give birth, but actual heroes/heroines who do not want kids and are comfortable with that.

    I do have to say that one of the things that I adore about romance novels is the lack of religious content. None of them are trying to give moral lessons or teach us about Christianity (or insert your favorite religion here) or convert people unless you choose novels that are inspirational. As an atheist I really appreciate that :)

  7. Karen says:

    I think people overstate the numbers of rapist heroes from the 80′s. I started reading romance in the mid-80′s, and they weren’t that prevalent. Catherine Coulter is probably the most noteable exception. But most of the authors I read in the 80′s weren’t writing rapist heroes – Jude Deveraux, LaVyrle Spencer, Judith McNaught, etc. The only rapist heroes I remember were from a few early books by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, and those were from the late 70′s and early 80′s. (And a few books by Catherine Coulter.) I think people remember the rapist heroes, and get the mistaken idea that they were everywhere in the 80′s, but that doesn’t fit with the books I read back then.

  8. CherylHC says:

    There is a big difference between an alpha male hero and a bully and a rapist. There is nothing romantic about being forced to do something against your will. Thankfully. we have gotten away from that for the most part.

  9. Sunita says:

    I agree that while there were a lot of plots, characters, and tropes from the 1970s and 1980s that I have no desire to revisit, it’s not really the case that they were all that were available. For every Penny Jordan there was a Mary Burchell or Essie Summers, and for every rape-fest historical there was a non-explicit Regency or Victorian or even an Edwardian (does anyone remember Mary Ann Gibbs?).

    For whatever reason, a lot of people cut their teeth on the Woodiwiss/Rogers/Coulter books. But if you dig a little deeper there are a lot of heroes that would fit right in today.

  10. mingqi says:

    i’m hoping nonsensical clinch covers will die out within the next 20 years. And also the reduction of ridiculously rich or uberly-high-status heroes: cut down on the dukes and stick in some more young country squires or untitled gentlemen. Replace the greek tycoons with accountants and computer IT workers?

  11. Lea/AAR says:

    Having missed out on romance in the 1980s, I decided to read one of the “rape” romances about 7 years ago and chose Devil’s Embrace by Catherine Coulter. This rape, in no way, can be debated as forced seduction – it is out and out rape. I made myself finish it as a sort of romance education. There is so much more this heroine has to endure and not all at the hands of the hero. How in the world Coulter thought she could make this supposed hero romantic is beyond me but this may have been considered mild compared to the famed Ginny and Steve written by Rosemary Rogers in the 70s.

  12. elainec says:

    I agree with Katie and mingqi that it’s time for less affluent/titled heroes and heroines. The only romance I read before 1999 was “Pride and Prejudice”. The heroes were Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. The heroines the Miss Bennetts. It worked for me! I reread it every year and re-watch the A&E version. It’s so romantic. :-)

    I’ve read the older works of Rosemary Rogers and Catherine Coulter and hated those with heroes who raped the heroines. It made me sick.

    Having sexually liberated heroines works much better for contemporaries, than for historicals. Women were shunned in society if they were sexually active in Regency/Victorian times.

    The covers with men without their shirts and women pulling up their dresses to show their legs(Who’s looking? The men are kissing them.) seem silly to me. Last year I won a TP of Candice Hern’s “Her Scandalous Affair” from Australia. The cover is beautiful – looking up through saucer magnolia trees to some windows with ornamental railing -all light green and pink and white flowers. It left me to imagine what was going on behind those windows.

    I wrote her Candice and asked why American book covers are so blatantly sexual and she wrote back that sex sells. That would indicate that we readers of romance need to contact publishers to express our feelings. I haven’t yet, but I think about it. How about a sort of grass-roots movement to let publishers know that we’re more sophisticated in our tastes? Does anyone have any ideas of how we could do this?

    As always, this has been another interesting and thought-provoking blog.


  13. MarissaB says:

    I’m with Claire. More beta heroes like the guy next door. Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job is based on a beta hero and that was an excellent change from all the alphas we normally get. Of course, it is not a romance.

  14. Jennifer P says:

    It was mentioned earlier in the comments the desire to see less billionaires and tycoons as the heroes. It’s interesting to see as I listed below what the top 10 books are on I guess they keep publishing books with type of hero because they sell. June 25, 2009
    Top 10 Bestsellers (Updated daily)

    1. Billionaire Prince, Pregnant Mistress
    2. The Mighty Quinns: Teague
    3. Talk Me Down
    4. The Brunelli Baby Bargain
    5. Pregnant with the Billionaire’s Baby
    6. Taming the Texas Tycoon
    7. The Sheikh’s Love-Child
    8. Bought for Marriage
    9. The Salvatore Marriage Deal
    10. Intimate Seduction

  15. Karin says:

    I agree with elainec – explicit covers have even stopped me from buying books. I read my books in front of my whole family, in the dentist’s office, on the train, where ever I am. I would rather not feel like I have to hide the cover – but I have been known to hide a few!

    Also in the next 20 years, I would like to see less of the uber-experienced hero. Frankly, the thought of a man that has been with many, many women sexually and not cared for any of them is not very appealing to me. What if the hero actually asked his partner what would please her, instead of assuming she was exactly like every other woman he’d ever been with? Cause we’re all the same right? :-) Just apply step one and skill two and we are satisfied. Personally, I like a hero that is less sexually experience and more willing to please.

    I agree with Claire – I would like to see more from the hero’s point of view. I think it is very romantic when a hero is able to express his feelings to the heroin.

  16. Lynn Spencer says:

    >>There is a big difference between an alpha male hero and a bully and a rapist

    @CherylHC – so true! I appreciate that we’re seeing books now that have strong alpha heroes as opposed to being bullies in alpha clothing. I do still have a soft spot for the beta heroes, though.

  17. ldb says:

    Before you judge those books I really think you have to read them. And I’m not saying that because everyone is a gem, but because a skilled author can show the silent strength of a woman who has all that abuse thrown at her and still comes out on top. Of course I have a harder time reading contemperaries where there is actual physical abuse because there’s no way a woman should stay with a man if that’s the case, but historicals where that was considered not only acceptable but being the right kind of husband I can sort of deal with it. In contemperaries I look at old Linda Howard books with a few very early exclusions and I don’t see her heroines as weak even though her heros do boss them around and pretty much ruin their lives, I see the strength it takes to come back from it and undestand the motives behind it. I just read a Sandra Brown that I almost through agaisnt a wall, until I realized that the heroine only started out a doormat, nad it was about her finding her true self. I was uncomfortable with a questionable rape in the book and yet even that she was able to rationalize. While the book wasn’t perfect it was still good and I did repsect the heroine, though I can 100% see her being called a doormat. My main point is that a lot of people over look a lot of strength in women because it’s not kick ass but rather quite and subtle.

  18. StacieH4 says:

    I’d like to see better covers and titles (esp Harlequin’s titles). While they are fun to pick on, they have deterred me from buying books that might have good stories inside. I may need to invest in an e-reader.

    As far as plots go, I think there is a ton to choose from these days and I don’t know what I’d need more of. I like a little bit of everything if it’s done well and there are strong characters.

  19. lee says:

    I don’t think anyone should feel they can judge the fantasies of other women as well as authors, even if they are darker and un PC. Some of us may have strong positions in the workforce and may want to feel like that cowering girl. Most of the romance favorites listed on amazon are exactly like the ones aforementioned in your article.

  20. Lorraine says:

    I grew up in the 70s and loved all the Woodiwiss/Rogers/Lindsay books I read them. In fact, I still have them…keepers all. While it’s true some of them haven’t aged well, these authors wrote history that was more than just wallpaper, and Woodiwiss and Lindsay wrote emotions beautifully.

    I almost exclusively read historicals–the medieval era is my favorite. The forced lovemaking often feels as if it belongs in the stories, lending a certain reality to them. Let’s face it, women didn’t get the right to vote in the US until the 1920s, I believe. Historically, we have been powerless and voiceless. Most of the H/H we read about are from the upper echelons of society, so the women often even lacked the freedom to decide whom to marry. It doesn’t bother me at all if the historicals I read have scenes of forced lovemaking between the H/H in them.

    However, I would absolutely hate it in a contemporary. Modern women have rights and the power to walk away from abusive men. Pre-20th century women often didn’t.

  21. Misty9 says:

    You are right that forced sex (borderline rape) was probably very common historicaly speaking.
    But we are talking about ROMANCE novels.
    I just do not find that sort of theme romanctic, and I despise those ‘heroes’, and simply will not buy (or finish, if bought) the book.
    It most certainly is less ‘true to the era’ but I prefer men who listen when the heroine says ‘no’ and who respect their women. It’s fiction, and I want a book that makes me feel good at the end of the story, not sad bercause the heroine is married to a jerk!
    Publishers cater to the market, so from the evolution of the romance novel that we are talking about, it seems that readers in general nowadays prefer more ‘sensitive’ heroes than the alphas of the 70s and 80s, and that’s the reason why I read romance today, and didn’t read it then.

  22. Lorraine says:


    It’s great that you’re finding the kind of romance novels you like these days. Reading is such a wonderful way to spend time. Enjoy!

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