Thursday, September 22, 2011

whitewashed heroes

In some ways, the romance genre is pretty narrow-minded in its idea of acceptable heroes and heroines, but I can usually still find something to enjoy in its conventionality. Certainly I've always felt that the genre is easier on male characters than on female ones when it comes to likeability as a requirement. They're given much more leeway to be less than perfect and still deserve a happy ending (e.g. Reformed Rakes or the Bad Boy who is an asshole/misogynist to everyone until he meets the heroine). It's a worthy enough message when done right – that is, if the hero manages to grow from where he was when he started out at the beginning of the book.

There are times though, when authors take the popularity of those tropes for granted and use them as shorthand in the transformation of the decidedly less than heroic character to someone deserving of the heroine. It occurred to me how much this annoys me when I finished Wicked Games by Jill Myles the other day (it's free!). I thought it was a fun read. The survival game reality show set-up (I groaned at first, but the absurdity of the whole thing turned out kind of hilarious) with its highly competitive atmosphere provided a believable foundation for the h/h's Hate at First Sight as well as catalyst for changing their impressions of each other (they're paired and forced to spend copious amounts of time together alone).

In keeping with the unlikeable character theme, the hero Dean is shown to us as this arrogant, competitive jerk who is quite clearly willing to do whatever it takes to win. Fair enough, they're in an environment that's been calculated to bring out the worst in everybody. When their romance inevitably develops, the heroine Abby wonders about his sincerity, reasonably so, but things go swimmingly well anyway until she is eventually out of the game.

This event (at about 85% of the novella) triggers a whole new host of suspicions regarding Dean's possible betrayal and use of her, which is backed up by the accounts of the other candidates, as well as a set of pre-game video interviews Dean himself did. Cue the Big Misunderstanding. OK, I understand that continued smooth sailing from there on would've been boring and so it was time for some conflict, but I really felt it could've done without the pre-game interviews. Or they could've made it more open to interpretation.

Because quite frankly, they portrayed him as an unequivocally cruel douchebag. He is recorded talking about his planned strategy for the game – to hook up with whichever girl partner he has, get her wrapped around his finger, and discard her when he no longer needs her vote. He says, and I quote, "It’s all about me in this game…but of course, the girls don’t have to know that." It's kind of hard to try to redeem a cruel douchebag with only 15% of the book left to go. At this point, I think OK, maybe Myles can pull it off, because I did spend most of the book thinking the hero was a decent enough guy, so the groundwork has already been laid.

...What happens next? They completely and conveniently ignore that he ever said all those things. There's no admission of guilt, maybe wrapped up with a quick apology and a promise to reform. They don't even try to deny it, or claim it was just a joke. It's not brought up at all. Which brings me to my next question: why bother including the damning evidence of those video clips? Just so Abby could have a believable reason to distrust him? Well that part worked.

It didn't work when Abby finally reconciles with Dean (thanks to another set of interviews during the game after he met her), yet fails to say, "Well dude, you did say you were planning to use a girl, then proceed to do with me the very things you outlined, so what was I expected to think? And hello, are we supposed to gloss over just how much of an asshole you would've been if you hadn't, I don't know, fallen in love in me? But you really do love me, so suddenly that makes it all OK?".

I still say Abby should've slapped him on behalf of every woman out there he didn't love and thus would likely have no problems treating like trash. But no, she spends the emotional reveal scene guilt-tripping herself over her lack of trust and costing Dean his two-million-dollar-prize.

It's frustrating because it could've been smoothed over so easily. The author could've made him seem less unambiguously mean in the videos, have a simple acknowledgement of wrongdoing, or even just claim he didn't mean it (this would've been supported by how unexpected he found the direction his relationship with Abby was taking, but since it is never put out there, it just seems like he didn't expect to fall in love with her). Hell, I was all set to like him again; he seemed sweet enough apart from the videos, so we were already halfway there.

And therein lies the problem: the disconnect between the character I read about and got to know within the confines of the story, and the persona that was presented to the fictional public in bits and pieces. Never resolved. On a side note, I also mentioned having a similar problem with Julie James' Just the Sexiest Man Alive.

Sigh. Still, the authors probably have something there in their reliance on the popularity of those tropes. After all, I did end up giving Wicked Games 4/5 stars and Just the Sexiest Man Alive 5/5 stars. But those two worked for me despite myself, because I only personally got to know the good side of the hero. Meanwhile, I'm not even going to touch on the Harlequin Presents line's alpha-assholes-for-heroes (alpholes?). Too much WTF there.

No comments:

Post a Comment