The Dangers of the Damaged Hero: Gender and Suffering in Romance Novels

The Dangers of the Damaged Hero: Gender and Suffering in Romance Novels

I unabashedly love romance novels. As a reader, I find that a well-crafted happy ending is a wonderful antidote to a world that seems at times utterly devoid of them. As a scholar of gender, I am fascinated by the ways in which sexuality, power, and desire are constructed, discussed, and challenged. Moreover, I heartily reject the descriptor “trashy” that is so often applied to the genre by those who insist that stories about self-fulfillment and positive and rewarding personal and sexual relationships establish “unreasonable expectations” for readers.

Instead, I argue that they offer the potential to imagine a world where such things are possible, and even to demand better from the world around us. This is especially true in the #MeToo era, as romance writers seriously reflect on the manner in which consent, power, and emotionality are depicted in their books.1 That doesn’t mean the genre is perfect; nor is it an ideal site of feminist and intersectional discourse. Romance often walks a fine line between examining systems of patriarchy and reinforcing them through overuse. Consider, for example, the kind of hero who becomes the object of the heroine’s affections.2

Romance thrives on the notion of the “broken” or “damaged” hero. From Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre to E. L. James’s Christian Grey, these novels have explored and exploited the dark, troubled, and brooding hero, reveling in — even fetishizing — the ways he has been warped, scarred, and isolated by the world. Within the genre itself, this emphasis makes sense, as heroes are both represented by the patriarchal systems in which they are created and serve as commentary against them. They posses alpha-male qualities, including strength, size, wealth, and leadership abilities, but all of these traits can be deployed to protect a heroine from a world that is pervasively threatening.3

A sign on a bookshelf says What to read instead of 50 shades of grey.
“What to read instead of 50 Shades of Grey” sign at Puddn Head Books in St Louis, MO. (Cory Doctrow/Flickr)

Nevertheless, heroes are often written as victims themselves of the dark side of patriarchy: civilians are sometimes isolated and unfulfilled despite their fantastic success, while soldiers and veterans tend to be scarred from an enterprise they believed was their “duty” as men.4 With the emphasis on militarism within American culture, the prevalence of military heroes, specifically heroes with PTSD or PTSD-related disorders, has grown exponentially and forms a significant theme in many romances, both historical and contemporary.

To an extent, this construction allows for a productive commentary on the damaging effects of toxic masculinity and the very real suffering of heroes who have been trained to embody an unattainable model of masculinity.5 The trope appeals to readers because it provides an opportunity for heroines to perform the role of “knight in shining armor,” providing healing and emotional support that their suffering heroes have been lacking, even as those heroes rush in to physically save them. The heroine’s power seems to be magnified when a hero is particularly damaged or broken because his rescue seems so improbable.

So often in literature, women are victimized as a result of their emotions, their sexuality, or their outspoken nature. Romance celebrates these very qualities, emphasizing that heroines are perfect precisely for who and what they are, and that they have the power to effect positive change through their emotional strength. It also rewards them for their instincts, for seeing the inherent “good” in otherwise damaged or angry men. In “saving” or “fixing” a damaged hero, a heroine is defeating the system that has victimized both her and her love.

However, the constant (and, frankly, growing) fascination with damaged heroes has a number of problematic consequences for the heroines in the narrative. This is not only a significant drawback in a genre premised on recognizing female protagonists but perpetuates systems and expectations that actively harm real women. From a purely narrative perspective, the emphasis on a damaged hero and the intense focus on his personal tragedy runs the risk of distracting readers from the heroine’s individual growth and fulfillment. She becomes a blank slate upon which the damaged hero can work out and, potentially, overcome his personal struggles.

Romance. (Charles Kremenak/Flickr)

Not only does this render the heroine’s own personal journey less significant than the hero’s, but it also forces the heroine to bear the burden of the hero’s emotional growth and suffer the consequences too. Sometimes, this trope can be comparatively benign, such as when a hero is unable to recognize a heroine’s real worth and beauty until after he has tried his hand at dressing her up to conform to his (imagined, socially-defined, and often misogynistic) definition of attractiveness.6

Or perhaps the transformation occurs when an aloof Byronic hero like Rochester learns the joy of domesticity and fatherhood through the patience and acceptance of an emotionally-mature woman like Jane Eyre.7 However, the damaged hero often needs far more than an attitude adjustment in order to work through his issues — he needs control. He needs a release for his rage and his fear and his repressed memories. He needs to lash out in order to express the emotions he has no healthy way to release. All too frequently, the heroine is called upon and expected to meet all of these needs, and cope with all his emotional baggage and physical demands.

This in itself is problematic but is compounded by the lack of general reciprocity. The fact that the damaged hero is such a familiar figure in our romances, and our literature in general, speaks eloquently to whose suffering we continue to acknowledge, in both our books and our society. Romance heroines, generally, are already shown as having coping mechanisms in place (healthy ones or otherwise). Their suffering tends to be quiet, and their damage comparatively well-concealed. We seldom see deep anger from our romance heroines, even though we know they have just as much, if not more, about which to be angry as their heroes.8

Perhaps it’s because romance readers know all too well about the suffering that women must endure in society that makes their suffering uninteresting, especially in comparison to the damage sustained by men who are publicly portrayed as successful.  Maybe it’s because women — in literature, as well as in real life — are forced to mature and learn to cope faster than men. As such, there is some vindication for women to see how men mature and learn to handle their damage in the name of love. But the emphasis on the damaged hero doesn’t always lead to reciprocity or allyship. Instead, it can often risk perpetuating the same cycles of abuse and harm that caused the damage in the first place.

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, and especially as the #MeToo Movement has gained strength, romance authors have been engaged in a very necessary discussion over issues of consent in romance novels.9 The result is an increasingly diversified group of romance writers who are committed to crafting stories that hinge on explicit consent and communication between partners when it comes to issues of physical intimacy.10 This is a positive result that can only mean good things for the future of romance and its readership. But there is still room to continue improving and pushing much harder against these unequal social structures and boundaries. Rather than helping protagonists cope and recover from the harms of the world, a process which, in a sense, reifies and perpetuates the patriarchal systems they critique, I fantasize about romance creating a space to imagine and realize a better world altogether.

Heterosexual romance novels challenge assumptions of gender and subjectivity, simply by placing women at the center of a narrative about desire and self-fulfillment. In so doing, they have the potential to deconstruct the toxic elements of the misogynistic system that continue to damage women, men, and the ways in which they interact. There is something undeniably compelling in realizing that men have suffered from the same system that has consistently victimized and oppressed women.

However, there is a fine line between examining the harm that patriarchy causes men and reveling in their damage and scars to the point that it allows us to excuse behavior that, in real life, is absolutely unacceptable. Moreover, forcing women — on the page and off it — to bear the burden of men’s emotional healing and growth perpetuates a number of harmful cycles of co-dependency and abuse. Now, I am just one reader among millions, but it seems to me that romance novels provide an ideal place to imagine and to demand a more equitable, fulfilling world — but it will mean looking beyond the scars in order to do it.


  1. Alison Flood, “‘Women Are Having Different Fantasies’: Romantic Fiction in the Age of Trump,” The Guardian, March 8, 2018, accessed May 10, 2018. Return to text.
  2. For this post, I am specifically examining monogamous, heterosexual romances (those featuring one female/woman heroine and a male/man hero whose story ends with a romantically fulfilling happily-ever-after together). Return to text.
  3. Catherine Roach, “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1, no. 1 (2010). Return to text.
  4. For more on this, see Veronica Kitchen, “Veterans and Military Masculinity in Popular Romance Fiction,” Critical Military Studies 4, no. 1 (2018), 34-51. Return to text.
  5. Kitchen, 37. Return to text.
  6. See, for example, Meredith Duran, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal (New York: Pocket Star, 2011), or Gina L. Maxwell, Seducing Cinderella (New York: Entangled Brazen, 2012). Return to text.
  7. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016 reprint). Return to text.
  8. There are exceptions to this, of course. I would especially recommend the work of Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, and Maya Rodale for those looking for some heroines who are fed up and demanding change on a large, as well as a small scale. Return to text.
  9. Kelly Faircloth, “The Romance Novelist’s Guide to Hot Consent,” Jezebel, February 14, 2018, accessed May 15, 2018. Return to text.
  10. Michelle Carroll, “Romance Novels to Read During the Age of #MeToo,” Wear Your Voice Mag, February 22, 2018, accessed May 16, 2018. Return to text.

Bridget Keown is a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is leading their gender and science initiative. She received her doctorate in history from Northeastern University, and her MA in Imperial and Commonwealth History from King's College London. Her dissertation focuses on the experience and treatment of war trauma among British and Irish women during the First World War. She is also researching the history of kinship among gay and lesbian groups during the AIDS outbreak in the United States and Ireland.