Bad Boys – How Bad is too Bad?

badboys So, apparently Chris Brown has a new album out.

What?

The fact that he isn’t in jail somewhere is hard enough to reconcile, but that his career is still viable? I’m truly shocked. Worse yet, prior to his assaulting Rihanna, he was a “good boy” in the music industry and now it appears he’s being marketed as a “bad (but sexy and non-threatening) boy”.

I’m under no illusions about record companies – they operate on balance sheets and profit & loss; they understand gold and platinum. So they must think that his album sales are going to be worth their while. But, unless Chris Brown’s fan base has changed significantly, these album sales are going to be taken up in large part by teenage girls.

What? And, why, please help me understand, why?

As Chris Brown was, and most importantly, still is an attractive male for many, I’m using his continued viability in the music industry as the jump-off for a thought on heroes in romance:

When is a bad boy too bad? If Chris Brown had been the hero of a novel and Rihanna a previous girlfriend and the heroine found out about his assault, would his actions be considered past redemption? Would it depend on the details (How long ago did it happen? How old was he? Did he come from an abused home? Had she threatened him? Had she threatened someone else?) or would the reasons or situation be unimportant, and the actual physical act push him beyond redemption?

In romance, heroes get away with a lot of physical, verbal and emotional misbehavior. Heroes often “grab” their women, they “crush” their lips to hers, they say “you’re mine”, they “unleash” their power, and they give quasi-freedom by saying things like “tell me ‘no’ now before it’s too late and I can’t stop”. They also frequently use social or monetary status to bring heroines to heel and all of the above is perceived to be ways in which the hero loves, desires, protects and saves the heroine.

A good example (chosen because I recently re-read it) is a personal favorite of mine, Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas. When Sara is compromised and Derek presents her with a list of eligible bachelors, he is frustrated when she refuses to entertain any of them as possible husbands and says, “Pick one or I’ll cram this down your throat!” In response, “Sara was unfazed by his fury.”

Later, as newlyweds, Sara makes a joke about returning home and calling it a day. Derek “grasped her upper arms with bruising force” and says, “I won’t let you leave me.” This time, Sara manages to be “alarmed” but she still reassures him that “nothing would make me leave you.”

I’m certain many of you for whom Dreaming of You is a favorite, may be thinking “You’re taking it out of context! You’re not providing a proper backstory for Derek! Leave Derek alone!!”

I only choose these examples because the story and characters are such favorites of mine. By and large, such domineering male behaviour is ok – even expected, even desired – in RomanceLand.

I myself can’t read a “you’re mine” whispered into the ear of a heroine without getting all tingly. However, in the world of romance, readers are cushioned from reality because they know their HEA is coming and it is an assumption from Chapter One, that the Hero and the Heroine are “good people”.

However, it sometimes takes real life situations from real life people to make uncomfortable juxtapositions between fact and fiction in romance. It also highlights – quite apart from the sex scenes – why some romance novels really aren’t meant for more impressionable, teenaged eyes; aren’t meant to be read by young teens for whom these books represent their field guide to relationships. It can also explain why some safe houses for battered women do not carry romances, or choose to review each book before it is accepted into the their libraries. Things to think on a Friday morning.

-Abi Bishop

19 thoughts on “Bad Boys – How Bad is too Bad?

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  2. Interesting blog post… I never would have made the connection. But with reading all fiction, we tolerate crazy things which we would not in reality.

    BTW – I’ve noticed Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas referenced many times on this site, I think it’s about time I read it!

  3. >>If she is cowed and broken, there is nothing he can do to make up for his behavior.

    @Jane O – I agree with you on this. There have been books that lots of other people have enjoyed but that I just couldn’t rate as highly because of this.

  4. Nana- I read a book by Diana Palmer that was like the one you described, including the character assassination. The “hero” is cruel to the pregnant heroine, alternatively verbally abusing her and ignoring her until she is literally “sickly and pale.” Frankly, I’d have pulled a gun on him. It made me so bleeping angry. Of course, he suddenly came around and loved, loved, loved her, so it was all okay, right? WRONG! I tried one more Palmer book, and when it had the same type of abusive dynamic, I called it quits. She isn’t for me.

    I certainly don’t want teenage girls reading books like this and getting any idea that hanging in there with abusive men is a healthy or show strength of character. Yes, these are fiction, but they can still give a skewed picture of relationship dynamics that can make an impression. I Honestly think the alpha-males from paranormal series are much less likely to impact impressionable teens, because those characters are more easily relegated to fantasy. There are no vampires, but there are controlling and abusive men out there.

  5. I confess that I haven’t read many books that featured physically or emotionally abusive heroes (as opposed to simply heroes who simply try to be dominant). Perhaps the big question is not so much how the hero behaves as how the heroine reacts. If she is cowed and broken, there is nothing he can do to make up for his behavior. On the other hand, I recall a Jayne Anne Krentz book where the hero’s brother says to the heroine something like “I see you two have worked out the way to get on. He gives orders and you ignore them.”

  6. I think verbal/emotional abuse is much more common in romances than physical abuse, and frankly it bothers me more because I feel the authors condone it in a way they’d never do with a physical hit. For example, I just read a book by Nancy Warren. The hero disavowed his wife when he discovered that she was infertile, accused her of sleeping with her landlord (which, by the way, as a separated woman she would have been within her rights to do), threatened to character-assassinate her to get custody of the child, forced her to come back with him to Sicity after discovering that she’d become pregnant, and slandered her to his relatives to ensure that within Sicily, nobody would take her side. She becomes gaunt, pale, and broken-looking. And one morning over breakfast he notices, although he doesn’t apologize, and suddenly we’re in HEA city. That man made Edward Cullen look like a beta hero, and I’ve run into him in many other books as well.

    The thing is, I think authors show “man hits woman” means “Oooh, bad man!” but “man emotionally erodes woman to the point of soul-destruction” means “only her soul mate could take her to such emotional extremes! What a dramatic relationship!”

  7. What an interesting article.

    I’ve always thought it very interesting that the line is physical abuse, and while it’s certainly a good thing that this is seen as bad, sometimes I…wonder. It seems sometimes like heroes can be emotionally abuse, sexually coercive, and insanely manipulative, with none of this behaviour really presented as wrong. But the second things get physical, it doesn’t matter the circumstances or whether it was shown to be wrong, there will be a HUGE outcry.

    I am personally more upset by anything sexually coercive…that is, I’d be more likely to read ‘An Unwilling Bride’ than any of those books where the hero semi-rapes the heroine…because in the latter, it’s often presented as happening ‘because he wanted her so much’, which leaves a really icky feeling behind.

    The overly possessive thing isn’t terribly appealing for me…honestly I just get the giggles at the whole ‘you are mine’ thing. I used to have a better reaction, but it’s been done. to. death and now I just can’t summon much reaction at all unless he is a jerk about it, in which case I want to hit him.

    I DO think it’s interesting though, that readers will scream and yell that it’s fiction and they can read what they like and it doesn’t mean they support it in real life! because if that were completely true, than even physically abusive heroes would be accepted in fiction. And I think most of us would have MORE than a raised eyebrow if someone came in and said they would be completely fine with a wife-beating hero. Even if it’s ‘just fiction and they don’t support it in real life!’

  8. “Some romance novels really aren’t meant for more impressionable, teenaged eyes; aren’t meant to be read by young teens for whom these books represent their field guide to relationships.”

    I know this is somewhat beside the original point but I’ve run across this sentiment a lot especially in regards to Twilight and the (in)appropriateness of Bella as a role model. I believe almost all readers, even teens, have no trouble discerning the difference between fiction and reality. I like to read about a variety of characters in romance but it has no relation to my life. I wouldn’t even like many of the characters I read about in real life but that’s what makes them so appealing. They are like no one I know.

    And I read romances as a teenager but suffered no ill effects. I think we should give teens more credit.

    Anyway, nice post!

  9. In the last few years I’ve had three friends leave husbands because they were verbally abusive. Even though there was no physical abuse, the anger and control issues left these women emotionally wrecked and insecure. Because I know their stories, I can’t stomach “romances” where the male lead is verbally (or physically) abusive. I can handle hot-heads, arguing, angst, brooding, etc., but not anger meant to hurt, control, and belittle. It’s not romantic, and since in real life it is very difficult for men like this to change, I just can’t seem to suspend disbelief long enough to buy the eleventh hour change of heart and HEA endings.

    For what it’s worth, I also can’t stand authors who somehow think bitchiness is the same thing as being gutsy and independent. Save me from spiteful, thoughtless female leads! Male or female, a willingness to hurt someone isn’t romantic.

  10. About the only abuse I’ll accept in reading is when Jamie Fraser spanked Claire. I thought it was shocking on first read, but Gabaldon handled it well and so that seemed appropriate behavior for that era.

    I tend to feel differently about historicals if they’re appropriate to their setting than I would if that same behavior happened in a contemporary.

    It’s not usually enjoyable for me–that’s not my thing, but the realism is what I notice.

    Old skool romances drive me crazy and I rarely can stand to read them anymore. His ‘abusiveness’ whether physical or verbal takes ALL the romance out of reading it for me. I just won’t accept that in a hero. My mind just keeps shouting at the heroine, “Don’t do it! He’s a Creep! Stay Away! Ack! Darn it, she’s an idiot! (wallbanger…)

  11. Maria R. I think you’re thinking of The Burning Point, not Shattered Rainbows. (Both by Mary Jo Putney.)

    I think the reason most romances can get away with what would be in real life unacceptable behavior is because it’s carefully combined with other aspects that make the reader find it romantic, not repellent. As someone said above, you know the hero in that book would never actually hit the heroine. Obsessiveness is usually paired with obsessive protectiveness. When a hero actually does hit (An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley is another example) there is massive uproar amongst readers. I actually like both books, but I have never been a victim of abuse, so it’s probably easier for me to accept the possibility of redemption.

  12. “For those readers who are able to discern fact from fiction easily enough, romance reading is wonderful. However…”

    I agree with Tee here. The point is romance fiction is fiction. In reality, if one met a snarling, angry female like Eve Dallas from J. D. Robb, they’d think she was incredibly rude. However, she works in the confines of her book world. Certainly their are incidents in books that resonate with reality and if a person has had to live with that reality and the results were painfull, I can see why they would not want to read about it.

    That said, some things are just repellant. Men heros hitting women is a total no-no for me, whether or not they suffered as children or whatever. This is why I didn’t read “Shattered Rainbows”. I find this totally inexcusable.

    I do belive, though, that people can be violent in certain environments without resorting to violence in every situation. Thus I rather like my tough-guy, tortured heros, even Allegerto in “Shadowheart”, though he leaned towards being truly evil.

  13. I love a bad boy hero, too. But usually they are “bad boys” because they have had to be based on past experiences, etc. They are MEN who, more often than not, have lived a tough life. Chris Brown is a BOY who strikes me as spoiled and entitled – not a Romancelandia “bad boy” IMO. Derek Craven didn’t beat up Sara because he could or because she pissed him off or even because she tried to control him in some way. In fact, the reader just KNOWS that he would never raise a hand to her in that way (again, the HEA thing). His need to keep her was much more complex based in his past, his own self worth and the fact that she was truly the best thing that had ever happened to him. To me, that’s the essence of the attraction of “bad boys”. What woman doesn’t want to be desperately needed; the best thing in a man’s life? Yes, perhaps it always works better in fantasy than in reality (there are rules, afterall), and yes, I agree that teens should not be reading romances with these sorts of complicated emotional relationships – they just aren’t equipped to handle them. And I don’t think that most romance readers would tolerate a hero who is/has been violent with a woman he was in a relationship with – no matter what the context. Though I may not want to be with one in real life, I still want to read books with heroes like Derek Craven or Seth Mackey or Bentley Rutledge or Nick Allegrezza.

  14. It isn’t just physical abuse or stalking in which many literary “romantic” heroes are presented as behaving in a “forgiveable” way.

    Perpetual verbal and emotional abuse by the hero of the heroine up to page 280 of 285 is a killer IMHO, no matter if he then grovels or not.

    Threats made by the hero to harm the heroine’s family and/or friends/godparents/employees unless she carries out his wishes go over the line of acceptability, IMHO — whether he carries them out or not, they amount to blackmail.

  15. There is a different for me between what I intellectually know to be true and what cultural dogmas I have absorbed growing up in the US. We often accept heroes who have been physically violent with other men; that’s seen as acceptable. There is an assumption that women are weaker and unable to defend themselves (and given the physical contrast set up by most romance novelists this is often the case) and we cannot accept the idea of someone hurting a weaker individual. This is wrong behavior.

    Any violent behavior, however, is problematic and should be considered. No, we don’t want the hero beating on the heroin, but it’s perfectly cool if he beats on evil undead things, people in his way, people who deserve it, etc. We don’t think twice about this kind of behavior. This is what bothers me about many of the paranormal novels. The hero beats on everything and anything that happens to rub him the wrong way, his aggression knows no bounds except when he is protective and loving with his “soulmate”.

    I have several issues with this. I personally think people who are violent and who use violence to solve disputes and win arguments will eventually resort to this tactic in other situations in which they feel threatened. It’s rather ridiculous to assume their rage and inability to handle their emotions would not spill over and eventually have them justifying to themselves doing violence to the heroin.

    In addition, many comments like “you’re mine” connote property, and people either care of their possessions, neglect them, or damage them, or all three, but none of these recognizes the heroin as a human being with her own self responsibility, reasoning, and power.

    All of this being said…I too really enjoy a badass hero being overcome by his love of the heroin. Product of my culture, what can I say.

  16. For me, a “hero” who did what Chris Brown did is not redeemable. He beat up his girlfriend. I can accept a fictional hero (or even a real-life guy) defending himself if she attacks him physically, but only to the degree that he stops her from attacking him. But short of the girlfriend holding a loading gun to the head of the hero’s child or a soldier POW escaping a female captor who has just spend weeks torturing him, I cannot imagine an acceptable reason for a man to hit a woman repeatedly.

    Regardless of backstory (abusive childhood), infrequency or time passed (happened only once twenty years ago), age of hero (he was only 16), etc., hitting a woman in anger makes the guy a jerk for pretty much ever regardless of context – real life or romance novel. The power imbalance is simply too great.

    Oddly, one of my favorite TV shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer – often had scenes of Buffy getting hit by guys who loved her and were designated as heroes – Angel (as Angelus) and Spike. While Buffy always gave back as good as she got and usually came up the victor in such fights, I never liked watching those scenes. I know she was physically equal to her abusive boyfriends, but I’d still wince all the same. Only because I understood that Angel and Spike were influenced by evil forces was I able to forgive them after the fact and allow myself to see them as heroes.

  17. —Abi said: However, it sometimes takes real life situations from real life people to make uncomfortable juxtapositions between fact and fiction in romance. It also highlights – quite apart from the sex scenes – why some romance novels really aren’t meant for more impressionable, teenaged eyes; aren’t meant to be read by young teens for whom these books represent their field guide to relationships. It can also explain why some safe houses for battered women choose to review each book before it is accepted into the their libraries.—

    Your article, Abi, was very interesting. I recall some threads occasionally throughout the years here at AAR that discussed this very thing. Of course, there were viewpoints all across the spectrum. I’ve often wondered how some readers may view these “fictional” stories and how especially the female role is presented, especially in the very first romance books. What impressions do they take away with them after reading one romance book after another non-stop? I was particularly drawn to the second to the last sentence about safe houses reviewing each book before accepting it into their libraries. That’s a very telling statement on its own. I think I’m going to look into that one just because it sounds as though it could be quite revealing. For those readers who are able to discern fact from fiction easily enough, romance reading is wonderful. However…

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