Is This Our Collective Fantasy?

My workout playlist runs to guilty pleasures, and Whatever You Like is among the guiltiest. I prefer this more indie, Joan as Policewoman version to the TI original. In case you’re not interested in listening – or unfamiliar with the words – the message in a nutshell is “I find you attractive and want to sleep with you, so I will buy you stuff. Expensive stuff.”

I got to thinking about this during the summer when I read two books with uber-rich heroes back to back. Both of them are household names: Roarke from the long running J.D. Robb series, and Johnny come lately Christian Grey from Fifty Shades. Roarke is of course the classic. He owns half the planet and plenty of stuff off the planet. In the earlier books, he was always working, wheeling, and dealing. Lately he seems to have enough time to own the world and serve as expert consultant, civilian on Eve’s cases. It’s a nice gig, if you can get it.

Christian is also loaded. He buys Ana a car because he thinks her VW bug isn’t “safe”. He buys her a computer, and another car. And then he buys the company she works for. When she protests his largess, he offhandedly tells her that he makes, like $100,000 an hour. I’m not sure whether the savvy, twenty-seven year old makes 100,000 an hour for an eight hour work day (208,000,000 a year) or $100,000 an hour twenty four hours a day, waking or sleeping ($873,000,000 a year). Either way, it’s a ridiculous amount of money.

Both Eve and Ana have somewhat uneasy feelings about the money. To Eve, it often comes across as irrelevant, though she gets her back up when she feels Roarke has crossed a line. This seems to happen less frequently in the more recent books, as she comes to terms with the baggage (good and bad) that great wealth entails.For Ana, Christian’s money is tied up with issues of control. When he upgrades her to first class and then follows her out to Georgia, it’s both flattering and stalkerish.

These two are hardly alone. Wealthy Regency Dukes are a dime a dozen, and the Harlequin Presents line is based on wealthy, exotic magnate heroes. All of it got me thinking, is this what we want in a book? Is it our real fantasy? Is it not enough to be in love and comfortably middle class? Does our drop dead handsome, ripped hero also need to be able to whisk us off for a luxury cruise, buy us dresses from the best London modistes, or buy the company we work for if our boss is a sexist jerk? Obviously, it’s a popular fantasy, often with Cinderella roots. But is it too popular…or anti-feminist? A quick Google search indicates that about 40% of wives out-earn their husbands, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this in a romance novel – or at least, I’m not sure I’ve seen it addressed directly. Is a hero man enough if he earns less than the heroine? It makes me wonder whether there are any romances out there with, say, an investment banker heroine who falls in love with a high school biology teacher. I read one years ago with a hero who was the heroine’s handyman, but I’m pretty sure he was actually an FBI agent in disguise.

I also can’t help wondering whether our personal financial circumstances have anything to do with our reading preferences. If perhaps we are more likely to fantasize about a husband buying a diamond as big as a cat’s eye when we’re getting by on ramen and discount tuna. But money and class are touchy subjects, and I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I do find it easier to accept an over-the-top wealthy hero when the rest of the book is grounded in fantasy. The In Death universe is getting closer, but it’s still nearly fifty years in our future. Similarly, wealthy dukes seem a world away. Twenty-seven year old tycoons and the like? Sometimes they’re a little too much for me.

How about you? Is incredible wealth a necessary part of the romance fantasy? Or can two people just fall in love, raise some kids and put them through college (or not), and go out to a nice restaurant once in a while? Can you think of any book where the heroine out-earns the hero?

31 thoughts on “Is This Our Collective Fantasy?

  1. No, but I do like people that are self-sufficient. Don’t need to be rich or even close, but able to pay their own way and be proud of their ability to do so. I don’t care if they work at Walmart.

    In today’s world I think this is a very important message.

    The “rescue the little woman” – especially wrt finances – has been added lately to the “not interested” list along with the “secret baby” and other plot devices I don’t enjoy.

    • FYI, “works at Walmart” generally brings someone in UNDER the poverty line just as most minimum wage jobs do. Figure out the wage at 7.25 at 32 hours( because retail rarely gives 40) at 52 weeks. It’s not much.

      • Wow lj, talk about “off topic” and snobby, to boot. Some of us are pretty darn gratefull for our time at Walmart. It kept us off food stamps and up to date on our bills.
        Back “on topic” … I agree farmwifetwo. The “rich guy saves the day” senerio is not a fantasy of mine either. I like knowing that money is NOT a part of the HEA equation.

        • I don’t think lj is being snobby. I lived on this kind of salary for several years as a new immigrant. I paid my bills and saved some money to help my parents in my home country. I didn’t need to be rescued. But… it wasn’t much. I am fortunate to have more now, and conscious that while I could live on less, my life is simpler and easier as it is these days.

          If I saw a hero/heroine in those kind of circumstances, I’d definitely believe that the romance is possible, and HEA is possible as well. But I would want a feeling that they are working towards more, for them or for their children, just because it’s so much easier if you have more than the bare minimum. I agree that self-sufficiency is a great virtue. But there is no virtue in living with little money in and of itself. So I would want to have a heroine who is independent and self-sufficient, but if she starts poor, finds a way to a bit more than that at the end.

          I very much liked Courtney Milan’s “The Governess Affair” in that respect. The heroine wants to own a farm, and the couple end up as (well off) farmers. This is a far cry from the typical “marry a rich duke” situation, but Milan gives a sense that this will provide a comfortable way to live for her and the hero, more so than the precarious situation of a governess, and it worked really well for me.

  2. “Can you think of any book where the heroine out-earns the hero?”

    My first thought: Of course I can – but actually, in all the books that immediately come to mind – such as Judith Duncan’s ‘The Renegade and the Heiress’ – while the heroine is richer than the hero, she hasn’t actually earned the money. And it’s not presented as a straightforwardly positive thing that she’s well-off, in the way it would be if he were well-off. Her wealth is a problem to be overcome. Putting on the thinking cap now…

    Nora Roberts maybe? She had a great category about a television writer and a cop. Though again, while the heroine presumably did earn more, she was also from a wealthy family.

    As to the riches – I always found Roarke’s wealth a minus more than a plus – I think you’re not meant to read him as ammoral or criminal but I’d always an uneasy underlying feeling that he must have hurt a lot of people to make that much money that fast. (Mind you, I can’t do assassins-as-heroes either.)

  3. I don’t like super-rich characters in any sub-genre; I get that this romance novels don’t have to fully reflect reality, but a combination of handsome, hot, smart, good in bed, young and obscenely rich defies belief. Good writing can transcend it, but I would certainly not seek out books with that sort of relationship dynamic. I don’t mind more realistic levels of income, even if they’re high (e.g. I can deal with millionaires ;)).

    Books in which the heroines out-earn the hero:
    - Liberating Lacey by Anne Calhoun was the first one I thought of, and it’s really the best example I can come up with. The various differences between Lacey and Hunter (age, income, social class) are a major issue in the book.
    - Libby in Meg McGuire’s Headstrong doesn’t do much with her money, but she definitely has quite a bit of it, and the hero doesn’t. OTOH, it’s not money she’s earning herself.
    - There are some historicals in which the heroines are better off than the hero, but their wealth tends to be inherited or by marriage rather than earned. Does Edwina in Ivory’s The Proposition make more than Mick? It’s been years since I’ve read it.

  4. This is a timely post. I just published a regency novella (“The Lady Who Courted Scandal”) where the woman has a hefty dowry and is part of the upper echelons of society, while the man is the son of the family’s steward. As both Marianne and Yulie mentioned, the money is inherited rather than earned, although social class is an issue. Still, even in my book I didn’t make the man weak, as women are often portrayed in romance novels. Perhaps because I can’t stand helpless heroines? :)

    It’s true that in almost all the romance novels I think of the men either are wealthier or of the same class/income bracket as the women. This goes back for centuries (“Pride and Prejudice” comes to mind…), and continues right on to today’s novels, regardless of the setting.

    I live in Scandinavia, where gender equality, equal pay and paternity leave are normal, yet romance novels of the kind described in this post are best sellers here. So I guess no matter the level of gender parity in a society, women still want to be swept off their feet by Prince Charming?

  5. Blythe,

    Its true in some books it seems like extreme wealth is just another fantasy to buy into (pardon the pun) like extravagant beauty or improbable sexual endowment and stamina. There was an essay in the Book Review of the NY Times back in June which touched on this fantasy of wealth and male heroes in the canon of American lit (if you consider MAD MEN part of Amer. Lit.) I hope this links works: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/magazine/what-don-draper-and-christian-grey-have-in-common.html?emc=eta1

  6. What a great, thought provoking post and comments. As a romance author, making my vampire characters moderately wealthy was a way of removing how much things cost from the considerations of the plot. And it’s a bit of a trope in that genre that long-lived characters can accrue vast wealth. But I do find the fascination with “billionaires” bizarre. As a reader, I like to escape the real-world considerations of class and poverty, and enjoy other types of romantic conflict, although money is always a fun part of the conflict in the historicals I love.

  7. I am not a fan of the rich hero device…it is trite and a bit of a turn off for me.

    There aren’t too many novels that flip the stereotype and feature a wealthy heroine and poor hero. Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince tackles both class and wealth with a rich, noble heroine and hero of humble means.

    Thankfully, there are also more and more novels with heroines at about the same income level as the hero. I find these dynamics more interesting.

  8. There are the rich heroines, like Millie from Sherry Thomas’s _Ravishing the Heroine_, that save impoverished aristocratic men from debt.

    The belief that men provide for women is clearly outdated and conservative and I would be happy to read more books demonstrating women’s equality in the financial sphere. I’m one of those women who outearns my partner quite substantially but we both are pretty resistant to gender stereotypes. My favorite heroines are the highly intelligent bookish ones. I liked that Colin in _A Week to be Wicked_ admired Minerva’s intelligence and success. That seems encouraging. My favorite working class couple is from Nora Robert’s _Rising Tides_. Ethan and Grace both struggle to maintain their living standards, and it was refreshing to read a book that focuses less on glamorous lifestyles.

  9. Interesting comments, everyone. In my mind I am kind of excluding heroines who have more money because they are heiresses. They seem common enough, especially in historicals. Now if she runs a newspaper and he’s a miner or something…

    • In that case, Liberating Lacey is the only one of my suggestions that works. I did come up with another one eventually – Carrie Lofty’s His Very Own Girl. Lulu is an Air Transport Auxiliary officer, and the ATA had equal pay for men and women. Joe’s an army private, so there is something of a power imbalance.

      I think that romantic suspense tends to have fewer income disparities, I guess because soldiers/cops/agents/etc. aren’t likely to be making more money than the heroines in those books, and the plot doesn’t really require any prince charming/Cinderella stuff – maybe because the heroes can be all alpha without making obscene amounts of money.

    • Blythe: Interesting comments, everyone. In my mind I am kind of excluding heroines who have more money because they are heiresses. They seem common enough, especially in historicals. Now if she runs a newspaper and he’s a miner or something…

      Blythe, fair enough. But how many women were running newspapers in the 1880s? Heroines in historicals are necessarily limited to heiresses, governesses/maids or the feisty daughter of an indulgent professor/archeologist type who teaches his daughter Greek & Latin. Women did not have many professions open to them so if it is a historical, then heiress is one of the more realistic devices to give the heroine some financial independence.

      I agree with Yulie that $ disparities are not such an issue in romantic suspense due to the working class hero jobs (police officer, etc.)

  10. “Can you think of any book where the heroine out-earns the hero?”

    Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt. H is a commoner.
    Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer (ok, h is poor but at least she has her house. H is ex-convict and starving.

  11. That’s an interesting question. I think being uber-rich is indeed a fantasy, though a complicated one. I have uber-rich relatives, who probably earn as much as Christian claims to in a year. I visited them a couple of times. In all honesty, I have seen enough that don’t want their life. They lost too many old friends climbing to the top, and didn’t acquire new ones. People get alienated over too much of a difference in means; so too many of “average” friends and relatives feel uncomfortable around them and burdened by their generosity; and too many people with the same level of wealth are really barracudas waiting to eat the weaker ones. My relatives experience real loneliness and isolation that wealth does not compensate for. And they have to have bodyguards around all the time, and worry about a myriad things I can just ignore.

    I really do feel like I have seen what is on the inside, and I don’t want it. And yet, occasionally I still have this fantasy of “wouldn’t it be nice to not to spend time searching for cheap airline tickets, or on lots of quotes for repair work, or used cars, and just get it sorted”. I don’t even mean fancy vacations or expensive cars – I think the fantasy is having my daily attention to the money removed, and just be able to get the daily necessities without having to add things up and make sure that I conform to a budget. The trick is, it’s having these daily struggles, to some extent, is what lets you relate to other people around you who are in similar circumstances, and also makes other people feel that they can relate to you. Once you don’t remember how the daily grind feels like, or once others feel that they cannot connect because your life is just too different, then the wealth backfires and maintaining friendships and close relationships becomes its own worry.

    I think I have seen it close enough and personal to have this fantasy, and then to successfully remind myself that I don’t want to live it. But I can totally see where it comes from, and how it would be seductive and interesting.

  12. I love love Whateveryoulike by TI didn’t know there was another version. Love the video too “Patron on ice” give me a man with money any day life’s too short tp struggle if you don’t have to. Love Roarke too.

  13. I absolutely love the wealthy hero plotline. I read for escape not to encounter daily struggles paying bills I see in reality.
    Unfortunately I’m not seeing alot of wealthy heroes these days.

  14. One of Robb’s characters–McNab, maybe–put it succinctly: Money doesn’t just talk; it sings.” Or something like that.

  15. The Cinderella fantasy has never really worked for me, neither as a reader nor as a writer. Like many women today, I was brought up expecting to support myself and not to assume that a man will do it for me. And as a result, I don’t go looking for rich heroes in romances either. Particularly if the hero has nothing else going for him except being filthy rich (which applies to Christian Grey IMO).

    I do enjoy the In Death series, but Roarke’s wealth is not really the reason why I enjoy them. I don’t mind the occasional wealthy vampire or intergalactic prince or regency aristocrat either, but in contemporaries I prefer my hero and heroine to be more ordinary. Billionaire heroes in contemporaries tend to alienate me and make me feel as if I’m reading the romance equivalent to 1980s soaps like Dallas or Dynasty. It’s not just unrealistic wealth that puts me off, though. Billionaire heroes like Christian Grey or the Harlequin Presents heroes also tend to be controlling and sometimes borderline abusive and paired with weak or downright doormatty heroines, which is a gender dynamic I don’t like at all. I prefer my heroes and heroines to be largely equal, both with regard to finances and in their relationship in general.

    This also explains why I like the In Death books, but don’t like Fifty Shades of Grey or Harlequin Presents. Because while Roarke is an alpha hero, he’s not controlling or an arsehole. And Eve is lightyears from being a doormat.

    Now a romance novel featuring a geeky beta dotcom billionaire, that’s probably something I would read.

    • Cora, I think you just hit the nail on the head. I have problems with (most) Presents and with Fifty Shades for the same reason – the money is often used to control. I read one Sheikh romance, and that was enough for me. It just isn’t my fantasy.

  16. Pingback: George R.R. Martin interviewed on German TV – and a bit about Fifty Shades of Grey and its Influence on the Romance Genre | Cora Buhlert

  17. I completely agree with Cora. While Cinderella isn’t one of my favorite tropes, it’s less troubling in paranormals and historicals. Maybe because its removed from reality. The imbalance between Bellla and Edward in Twilight for example, didn’t really bother me.

    But when it comes to contemporaries, I avoid the “Millionaires Maid” stuff like the plague. I don’t see it as wish fulfillment, I see a relationship where the man will always have the upper hand and can use his money to control the heroine. Given Cinderella’s perennial popularity, I’m obviously in the minority in that I don’t love this theme, but I’d much rather read about a couple who are on somewhat equal footing financially, even if their fabulous romantic getaway is a road trip to a B&B, rather than a private jet whisking her away from her waitress/maid/nanny/secretary job, to his private island.

  18. What Cora said, there’s a huge difference between the Cinderella fantasy in books like 50 shades and some Presents and the In Death series.

    Julie James is one author whose relationships feel modern to me, more like those I see around me (even though I don’t know any FBI agents or movie stars -I mean the power dynamics between hero and heroine). She has one book where the heroine is a very high-powered prosecutor, who I would guess earns quite a bit more than the FBI agent hero. It’s not a huge issue. The book is Something About You. I especially loved that the hero shows up in another book, A Lot Like Love, and he and the hero of that book very clearly love the fact that the women they’re with are clever and strong and choose to be with them, even though they can quite easily stand on their own two feet.

  19. Cora is completely right about money and control. This reminded me of a great book, Jennifer Crusie “Strange Bedpersons”. The heroine, Tess, is poor; the hero, Nick, is a lawyer and has a lot of money. He tries to replace Tess’s wardrobe, and this becomes the point of conflict. The book effectively makes a point that it’s not OK to use your money to change another person. There is also a secondary couple, don’t remember names, and the woman, who was always poor, enjoys the nice things about dating a rich guy – nice dinners, other things made easy. He does not try to control her with money, though he has a big problem standing up to his snobbish parents, which becomes another conflict. I think overall it creates a nice exploration of wealth and related issues.

  20. I guess I’m in the minority as I don’t mind romance not reflecting feminism. Controlling heroes, Cinderella plots are perfect escapism. I can see Feminst examples of women all the time in real life.

    • erika: I guess I’m in the minority as I don’t mind romance not reflecting feminism. Controlling heroes, Cinderella plots are perfect escapism. I can see Feminst examples of women all the time in real life.

      Hi Cora,
      I think maybe you’re part of the silent majority given the popularity of these storylines.
      Not as a steady diet, but I too like uber-rich heroes and I don’t mind controlling heroes if there is a good grovel at the end. I like more realistic income level heroes and heroines too and the richer heroine can really be an interesting plot point.
      If I pick up a Harlequin Presents then I want there to be an uber-rich hero and an emotional heroine and lots of melodrama and I feel cheated if its more realistic and won’t pick up the author again. When I pick up and HP I’m looking to escape and not worrying about money – not just in the sense of having it but also not having to earn or manage it – is part of that fantasy.
      If I pick up a single title or a category romance from one of the other lines then I’m open to all sorts of plots and devices as long as they’re well-written.
      I don’t think its anti-feminist to have these sorts of fantasies or to portray them in fiction. If you treat them as a recipe for real life then that’s a problem. I think we’ll know we have true equality when fiction aimed at men also features the fantasy of the uber-rich partner.
      In the meantime there is room for all sorts of plots and something for every taste.

      • Hi, you respnded to me not Cora:)

        Thanks for your response. I guess I put feminism in a box. Its all about choices right?

  21. Great discussion. I too enjoy equally strong characters. I love the dynamic between Brockmann’s Alyssa Locke and Sam Starrett. By the end of the series, he actually reports to her, but even in the beginning he’s an enlisted man, she’s an FBI field agent. I also enjoy the very middle class/not uber wealthy characters in Kristan Higgins novels. . .

  22. I was going to mention Morning Glory but how about SEP’s First Lady. She is not only richer, if I remember right, but she wound up being more powerful.

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