Equality and Power: Is There An Imbalance in Romance?
Power play vs equality can be a difficult balancing act in a romance during a more enlightened, post #MeToo era. KJ Charles and Adite Banerjie share their perspectives.
KJ Charles - The Power Play
When I was an editor at Mills & Boon, one of the chief things we considered was conflict. When you filled in the acquisition proposal form for a new title, there was a line at the top where the conflict had to be summarised and if you couldn’t identify it, the acquisition meeting would be painful.
Conflicts can be internal or external or both. For example: he’s the boss, she’s the employee. He’s a duke, she’s a nobody. He’s a billionaire, she’s broke. He’s rude and abrasive, but she needs his protection. He’s a bad boy cage fighter, she’s an office worker. She’s a struggling single mother, he’s the previously absent father suing for custody...
Notice anything about that lot? It’s all power imbalance—and I’ve written them all as powerful man, less powerful woman for a reason.
Of course these stories can be played out in same sex romance too. Big strong Dom and physically smaller sub. Wealthy older character ‘buys’ young escort. Assertive/aggressive person and quieter, non-confrontational sort. When anyone says that you can get away from oppressive gender dynamics merely by reading queer romance, laugh in their face.
It is a rare thing to find a romance not based on power imbalance of one kind or another. What differs dramatically is whether authors acknowledge that imbalance, and how it’s treated. Older titles often have the woman on the back foot throughout the book, weaker, poorer, frequently humiliated or thought poorly of, until the hero finally comes to his senses with a grovel and elevates her with a declaration of love and probably marriage. It’s a fantasy. But it’s one that modern readers are increasingly recoiling from, in favour of relationships that give women more agency, and which demand different things of men—such as self control and an awareness of their power.
There’s nothing sexy about a boss pursuing an employee in the #MeToo era—whether it’s a single dad/live in nanny, billionaire/PA, duke/governess or lord/valet. There is everything sexy about a boss desperately trying not to abuse his position or his employee, so that the progress of the relationship is driven by the less powerful partner. Some of my favourite reads involve these grossly unequal and often unethical relationships—because what we see is a powerful person voluntarily laying down their power, demonstrating real respect, accepting refusal, and understanding that their partner is truly equal to them, no matter what worldly status they have. That’s romance.
Romance readers love unequal setups for a reason; the world is an unjust place and romance sets it right. But it’s not good enough any more for things to be set right in the last chapter. Readers are increasingly looking for a rebalancing that holds through the book. That might be through putting women in the boss/billionaire position, or showing both MCs as differently skilled but equally important, or pairing fierce, angry women with gentle men who do the emotional labour, or showing masculinity coming in all kinds of types that don’t have to involve violence or toxic behaviour, or stripping away all the trappings that disguise an unequal situation and making the characters confront it directly.
Inequality—of wealth, status, gender, sexuality, age/experience, physical size and strength, race, ability—is baked into society at every level. Romance novels that confront power imbalances can offer us new angles at which to see the things we could easily take as immutable truth, new lights on stuff that previously went unconsidered, new questioning of the roles we expect people to play.
Writers should not just ask themselves, “what is the conflict?” but also, “where is the power?” Because if we don’t examine our power relationships, we’ll probably find ourselves replicating existing unjust ones as though ‘that’s just how things are’. Of course the taller one is more dominant; of course the man pursues and the woman resists; of course the rich boss instigates the relationship and sets the boundaries. Those stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that we may not notice we’re writing them. (NB that if you are a white author writing characters of colour, or a cishet author writing queer characters, there may be all sorts of other power imbalance situations that aren’t obvious to you. I cannot sufficiently advise paying for a sensitivity read.)
We can’t fix inequality as writers. But we can identify it, show the harm it does, and even offer a vision of what equality might look like.
Some recommended reading:
All Talia Hibbert’s books think deeply about power relationships and consent. Try Untouchable: single dad/live-in nanny where that is the entire conflict, because he knows it’s utterly out of order.
Mina V. Esguerra writes amazing balanced relationships and non-toxic men. Better At Weddings Than You has two rival wedding planners, but she’s the focused career woman as well as the one who’s not bothered by her single status, and his respect for her expertise is a joy.
Alexis Hall’s m/m romances all show varied forms of masculinity that aren’t toxic or violent. Waiting for the Flood has two quiet, gentle men: one lonely and painfully vulnerable, one kind and quietly strong. The Arden St Ives series, meanwhile, is 50 Shades by someone who understands power imbalance, if such a thing is imaginable.
Adite Banerjie - Time's Up
For the past couple of weeks, a storm has been raging on the Internet. The global #MeToo movement hit Indian shores like a tsunami and the fallout has been just as devastating. Many well known authors, media personalities and celebrities have been named and find themselves embroiled on either side of the sexual harassment fence. As many of those who stand accused are prominent people, holding positions of power, a slew of law suits is only to be expected. For many of those who have shared their horrific stories, the movement afforded them the opportunity to attain closure. However, it remains to be seen if #MeToo will change anything on the ground. Will publishing and media companies become more vigilant about nipping such predatory behaviour? Will it lead to safer working environments for men and women alike? Will victims get the justice they have been denied? And more importantly, will it lead towards more equal relationships between men and women?
Having worked in the media industry for a couple of decades, many of the revelations have not come as a surprise. What has, though, is the fact that survivors have found the courage to share their stories, braving social stigma and humiliation. That perhaps is a signal that at least for a certain section of working women in India, social stigma is finally not the huge barrier it once was.
As a writer who chooses to write about romance and relationships between men and women, the movement has definitely given me pause for introspection. As storytellers we’re all inspired by real life, we design characters that are human, flawed and relatable. We often tend to, in the interest of drama or entertainment, glamorize ‘dark’ characters. While it’s easy to rationalize it as mere fiction, should we be worried about the kind of message we are conveying to readers through our stories.
Readers often relate with characters in novels at a personal level. I have often had readers tell me how much they enjoyed one of my stories particularly because they have shared similar situations, emotions or perhaps one of the characters in the story was very similar to someone they know. To take that thought forward, can one’s writing, therefore, influence someone’s behaviour or send the right/wrong signals?
While the jury is still out on the question—does life imitate art or vice-versa?—the fact is that books and cinema can have a big impact on real life. No one can dispute the fact that actors are often huge role models. Similarly popular novels and characters can send certain cues that may amount to glorification of violence and/or dodgy attitudes towards the opposite sex. Often we notice on social media bullying traits being endorsed and even applauded. Given the global reach of social media channels today, there is a risk that such anti-social traits and characteristics are being normalized and accepted as the ‘done thing’ or perceived to be ‘cool’ and thus worthy of being emulated.
As a writer of mainstream fiction, I do feel that I need to err on the side of caution. Sure, readers can draw the line between a fictional and real world and can use their own judgement. However, reinforcing positive values can never do any harm. Recently, I read Kelly Oram’s novel V is For Virgin (and its sequel A is For Abstinence) and I admired the manner in which the author has so proactively dealt with the sensitive topic of sex and dating among young adults. It’s an entertaining read and hits all the genre highlights but it also gently sends out a positive and strong message: sex should be a choice and not an inevitable outcome of dating.
Given the digitally connected world we live in, authors can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the subliminal messages that we are encoding in our writing about man-woman relationships. #TimesUp
How do you feel about power and equality in romance novels? Do you feel they should be promoting more equality or ignore what is happening in the real world and focus on the fantasy? Let us know in the comments or on our Social Media using #StandUpForEquality