I’ve been tired lately. Mind-and-heart tired. So tired that yesterday, I decided the most productive thing I could do was give my brain needed a much-needed vacation. I wasn’t in the mood for a movie, so I grabbed my Nook Color and plunged face-first into what my mom would affectionately call a “ninny novel”–one of those light Christian romances publishers offer for free to hook you on their authors.
I love fiction of all stripes, but haven’t had time to read a lot of it lately. Maybe that’s why the “hero” of the story I read–the typical alpha-male “beast” who just needs the sweet, charming “beauty” to look past his gruff exterior and see his big heart–hit such a dissonant chord in my head.
I’m sorry, but the man in that story was emotionally abusive.
I’ve written about this before, but my it got me thinking–how many Christian romance novels feature abusive heroes? I know when I started penning stories, years and years ago, my heroes were the typical tortured souls, alpha-males who were just misunderstood and needed to be softened up by the beautiful, sweet, spunky girls courageous enough to self-sacrificially put themselves at the mercy of the “beast.” I was young, and it was the blueprint of the stories I was most familiar with—never mind that I gave such men a wide berth in real life.
Now, I am horrified by these types of stories. What messages are we sending our girls??? Why are we giving supposedly intelligent, gracious, Christian heroines heart-thumping attractions to abrasive, possessive, controlling men they find intimidating? By romanticizing these types of “heroes,” and painting swoon-worthy word pictures of happily-ever-afters with men whose characteristics would make them HORRIBLE partners in real life, are we setting our daughters up for unhealthy relationships?
Not all romance novels are like this, of course. Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” series springs to mind. (Don’t laugh! Okay, you can laugh if you want, but only if you share your guilty literary pleasures in the comments!) I picked up my mom’s copy of “Love Comes Softly” when I was eight, and it was the beginning of a lifelong (though seldom admitted) love affair with historical romances. Everything about the book charmed me, from the cozy domesticity (heightened by the homesickness I experienced living in Africa) to the warm, caring relationships developing between the heroine and the people in her community–including the hero, Clark Davis, who happened to be a gentle, godly, virtuous man.
Clark Davis I can deal with. If I had a daughter, I would be okay with her dating someone like him. The hero of the last novel I read, on the other hand, would be a better candidate for intensive therapy and anger management classes than marriage.
As I did my mental tally of emotionally-abusive heroes in Christian novels I have read, an even more interesting–and troubling–pattern emerged. Some Christian romance novels DO address abuse–just not well. The standard storyline goes something like this:
-Woman falls in love with, and marries, bad boy. (This usually happens in the prologue, or maybe the first chapter or two.)
-Bad boy is physically abusive to the woman. (Because we all know that REAL abuse means beating someone up, right?)
-Woman flees her physically abusive husband.
-Woman encounters nice, godly, attractive man as she flees, and they fall in love. Tension ensues, because nice guy does not know that she is married. This takes up the bulk of the novel.
-Woman has a spiritual awakening, admits to the nice guy that she is married to an abusive man, and decides to “do the right thing” by going back to be reconciled with her abusive husband.
-God kills the abusive husband. (Think I’m using hyperbole? I’m not. The abusive husband could be gored by a bull, or shot by a sheriff, or tossed by his horse, or succumb to cholera, but one way or another, the bad guy winds up six feet under.)
-Woman and nice guy get married and live happily ever after.
You can see why this is problematic. (If you can’t, I have some reading suggestions for you–and they AREN’T romance novels.) There are some really, really unhealthy patterns at play here, including (but not limited to) the astonishingly common prayer among abuse victims that God would strike the perpetrator–or them–dead. Considering the fact that there are non-fiction books insisting that Christian women should submit to their husbands no matter what, because if the dude gets too out of hand God will just strike him dead, this troubling mindset should be taken more seriously than the fictional context suggests.
Fiction plays a crucial role in shaping culture. Most teenage girls I know don’t read non-fiction outside of school, but many of them guzzle romance novels like sweet tea on a southern porch. Perceptions are shaped by pop-culture influences like books, movies, TV shows, and songs, and just because something carries the label “Christian” doesn’t mean it promotes a healthy understanding of, well, anything. To the contrary, misrepresentations of what constitutes a God-honoring relationship could make these stories especially toxic.
Stories are powerful.
Even stupid stories.
Read–and write–with discernment.
What do you think? How can we support the creation of better stories?