The Romance of Violence

Over the last I’m not sure how many years, I’ve noticed a shift in violence in books. I tend to read romantic suspense, paranormal romance, and all fantasy, plus some other stuff. What I’ve noticed is a growing comfort with violence. Or maybe comfort is the wrong word. But violence is depicted, often graphically (I tend to write gritty/graphic sorts of scenes in a number of my books). But there’s another thing that the title of this post is about. And that’s the violence of and in romance.

It seems to me that in former times, violence was perceived as a weakness. Virile men overcame their violent tendencies and only unhinged or evil women were violent. Now it’s quite different. There’s an understanding that in reality, violence happens and not only that, you may be required to do violence to someone else. The difference between the good and the bad guys tends to revolve around whether the person being attacked is deserving of violence.

I’ve also noticed that violence in male heroes is often used to depict the depth of their emotional engagement and the level of passion they feel. It might be a protective instinct; it might be revenge. The key thing is that instead of overcoming the violence, giving in to it seems to now be a positive hallmark of a male character, so long as he’s also kind, loving, generous, and so on to the love interest. (Keeping in mind that there are male heroes who aren’t so kind or loving or generous, but that means they are either super alpha and have other sympathetic qualities, or they are broken/damaged and will grow and develop positively as the story moves toward the end).

With women, violence has become acceptable and even celebrated. Much like with male heroes, female heroes who are violent are perceived as strong, passionate, determined, and self-sacrificing–they put their lives on the line for others, they take risks for others, they damage their souls for others. Now obvious there are major exceptions in terms of timing Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley are two big obvious exceptions. But I’m talking more about the general spread of this sort of violence and character building across the board in books, TV, and movies.

For both men and women, the violence must be directed toward deserving parties, and there must be a positive emotional center that prompts the violence–again this might be the urge to protect, to get revenge, or something else along those lines. Otherwise, the characters are just psychopathic assholes, making them enemies.

I’ve been trying to postulate just exactly why violence has become such a key ingredient to a great deal of characterization and plot. I think on some level it’s because reality has more violence–from terror attacks, to wars, to  road rage, and so on. I also think that we see a lot of terrible things happening in the world that a single person or several could change or stop if only they stepped in. The guys on the train in France. The guys in Portland stepping up against a racist killer to protect two teenage girls. There’s a sense of what if I was in this situation–would I/could I kill someone to save innocent lives? Or would I fold and let it keep happening?

We have a great deal of respect and a certain romance going on with the idea of the lone wolf hero–or lone wolves– who are few but determined and capable and willing to do whatever’s necessary to defeat evil. Part of the romance is that a single person in the right place at the right time and willing to commit violence can make a difference in saving lives.

I see a strong element of aggression/determination inherent in the heroic violence. That this person will not be deterred, will not be distracted. This person will get the job done no matter what. This is part of the sense of strength and passion in the character that the violence helps to establish.

I know the subject is a lot more complex than I’ve said it. I’m curious what your thoughts are and whether you see things differently. I’m also curious if you see it as a romance type of trope also.

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The Romance of Violence — 38 Comments

  1. I find that violence goes in waves. Early novels (ever sampled Mary Davys, writing around the turn of the century 1700?) was id vortex violence, savage, really. Then as novels became more mainstream, politesse became more important.

    An interesting thing I notice in reading Victorian novels is how sublimated it is, how civility was important on the surface (especially in heroines, who had to be very, very pure) but there is extreme violence fairly close to the surface. For example, take Framley Parsonage, by Trollope, a seemingly civilized novel about a churchman (and this was not the typical churchman of contemporary novels, in which they are pretty much all child molesters, etc)–about this novel, Mrs. Gaskell said it was so lovely that she wished it would go on forever. But there was so much violence that people took as everyday living, such as fox hunting. Which is a disgusting sport to anyone who doesn’t want to watch a bunch of mounted people and dogs chase one small animal until it is ripped to pieces. Stories for children depicted extreme violence against animals and children, especially in cautionary tales. Strwwlpeter, anyone?

    Then there was the realism wave in the early twentieth century, in which violence is not as graphically depicted, but again, it’s everyday. Read early Nancy Drew books, meant for young readers, and watch how often Nancy is beaten up, tied up, her roadster crashes, people die. In after years, the language has been steadily simplified and the violence sanitized.

    Now YA is going back to the violence of earlier years, and romance written by women tries to make violence sexy–man on man violence that still leaves them pretty, man on woman violence with the woman having agency enough to kick ass. (There are some female writers who are writing their violence the way men do, that is painful, distorting, ugly.) It’s definitely a thing–and there are readers moving away from it in droves, so maybe (assuming we survive the assclowns currently trying to become kings in our and other nations) there will be another swingback toward civility in fiction.

    Though maybe not: more than ever before, readers can easily find their niche likes within their chosen genre. Back when I was young, we read everything in genre. Now you can’t possibly keep up–and I don’t want to. I pick and choose what I want to read, as do many others; grimdark (all violence on every level) is popular, but I don’t want to read it. There’s enough in the daily news.

    • I think that in the 19th century, the manners were an effort to control what couldn’t be controlled–life, politics, death, relationships, and so on. Plus change happened so very rapidly. Plus, of course, the element of serving as a way to gatekeep and maintain status, especially with the rise of the nouveau riche and the return of the nabobs.

      Have you read East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret? The violence in those two reminds me a little bit of the Jerry Springer sort of spectacle.

      I think you’re right about agency being key, particularly female agency. I wonder if some of the romantic fantasy of this sort of violence is the ability of people to withstand, survive, and overcome. That they aren’t victims, but warriors, even if they lose. It feels like a redefinition of what women are expected to be and what does feminine mean. Actually that’s something to explore more. Maybe in the next blog.

      One of my professors way back when said that the first generation feminists were angry, and that the second generation were less angry and focused in different ways–largely because they hadn’t been as subject to the things that first gen feminists had been. I wonder if that violence is an exploration of agency and femininity and where they intersect and also a way to demonstrate that being female isn’t a weakness. I think some depictions of women kicking ass is angry first-gen and some are second-gen after the anger has morphed into something different, or is channeled in a different way.

      I don’t think I said that very well. I hope it makes sense.

      • These are interesting thoughts. Indeed, I’ve read Lady Audley’s secret–in fact, there were a number of books with a similar plot around that time, making wonder if there was something being worked through culturally. (But I have no idea who Jerry Springer is; I’ve heard the name, but assumed it was some TV thing.)

        And I agree that anger is definitely tied to agency-imbalance.

        • Jerry Spring–80s TV spectacle with lots of on stage arguing/fighting/secret babies and that sort of silliness.

          In East Lynne, we have bigamy, a wife that returns scarred and unrecognizable as the nanny, and if I remember murder. Quite a fun book.

  2. The tipping point for women believing it was cool and acceptable for women dealing with their problems — or even points of view they didn’t like — was violence seems to have arrived in the sf/f writing world with almost all the women authors who hadn’t previously written juveniles or YA switiching to serve that market. This seemed to happen sometime around 2008, post the tsunami of popularity that was publication of The Hunger Games.

    After that, even in social media discourse these same women authors, as in their fiction, gleefully erupted into “I am going to punch her in the face!” And — it was always another female figure in real life — and in their fiction — that the punching in the face was aimed at. I stopped reading all those women’s books after that.

    • I read a lot of these patterns (glorifying woman on woman violence, and heroines solving all problems with violence i.e. being tough and kickass) as a step toward gaining agency, and feeling it, even if only fictionally. Girl groups have always been violent and vicious, but now it’s cool, not covert, imo. It’s not very evolved toward civilization–most of the books I’ve read in this category are emotionally adolescent–but it is a leveling out, sort of.

      The next step–I hope–is okay, I can do this, but I choose not to.

    • I think it was before that, with Anita Blake in particular. I don’t much care for the whole women against women trope either. I like women characters who are capable of whatever is necessary, but smart, and also with emotions and heart.

  3. Adding to comment above — when I say I stopped reading their fiction, what that meant is that I lost respect for their work and for them as human beings as well. Because previously they voiced in their fiction and presonally that violence should be a last resort, when forced upon a person, not a goal strived for. But suddenly for sf/f female writers the new sexy to be earnestly strived for was to be — I loathe this term, but this is the one these ilks have taken to their bosoms — badass. They gloried in their idea of being mean girls. In real life, as usual, as with bully sorts, badass in their case meant mostly throwing nasty words at those they perceived as different, and making cabals to exclude and expel other women who didn’t go along.

    What this indicated to me, at least — I cannot speak for others — that these women were hypocrites, as so often are the groups of girls — who can only swim in groups anyway — in both their work as writers and as human beings. There became something small, petty and mean in their work as in their social – professional interactions as well. In fact, as toxic as middle school and high school — the same audience they seemingly went out to not only attract, but to become. It was very odd. And it still puzzles me to this day.

    • Meanness for the purpose of meanness bugs the crap out of me. I’m reading a thriller (non-fantastic) by Rachel Caine right now and it’s really good. One of the most important things about it for me is that the female lead is a mother, a badass in that she’s made herself capable of protecting herself on all fronts, is willing to fight if she has to, and is still emotionally real. The book is chilling, but my goodness, so well written.

  4. I have been told that my writing lacks validity because it lacks violence, gore, horrible death and other grimdark tropes. I disagree. Just because our society has become more violent doesn’t mean that every aspect of our culture must embrace it. A lot of us want a reminder that not everything is part of a horror movie.

    On a different forum a horror writer claimed that she found the horror genre comic relief from reality. I don’t want to share her reality.

    • Belated, but: in the U.S. at least, interpersonal violence has actually decreased, for decades now. There might be a small uptick in the last few years, but on the whole, we have less murder, assault, domestic abuse, and so forth than in previous generations.

      Not that you would know that, looking at the news. Our perception of the situation and the actual stats do not match up.

  5. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that actual violence is declining among human beings. I rarely agree with Pinker about anything, but I think he’s on to something here.

    Which makes me wonder if what we’re getting in the kind of fiction you describe is a nostalgia for times when that kind of violence was commonplace presented in works written and read by people who have no fighting skills or personal knowledge of violence. Right now many people are trying to cling to outdated ideas that are finally going away, such as racism, misogyny, homophobia. Romanticizing violence seems to fit into this pattern.

    Not that there isn’t still plenty of violence in the world that must be addressed. I’d class the men who intervened (and were murdered) in Portland as people who were willing to stand up to violence, not people who embraced it as a lifestyle. That may be a subtle difference, but it’s the kind of attitude most serious martial artists come to. A true warrior tries to stop violence and to protect others from it. True warriors don’t start fights.

    I also have trouble with a lot of the supposedly kickass women characters that show up in a lot of fiction and movies. These women have the kind of fighting skills that come from training, but they’re all angry. I have to say that I know very few women martial artists with significant years of training under their belts who are angry. (That’s true also of the men.) There’s something about knowing you can handle situations that cools your anger.

    • I’m not sure if I agree that there’s a general decline of violence. It seems to me that people seem to reach for a violent solution more and more (even if that violence is verbal attacking that’s ruthless and brutal.). That said, I think there’s a romanticizing of the violence as equaling competence to take care of yourself and the people you love in any situation. In a way, I think for some it’s reassurance that they aren’t helpless in a crazy world.

      The angry is so right. It seems to me that yes, anger can be a component–as in a cop who is angry at the horrible nature of a crime–but shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat of violent action. I think that many writers call attention to the problematical nature of violence and comment on the blind use of it to solve problems among men and women.

      • Pinker has lots of data that back up his argument that violence has declined. He’s hard to read — I’ve never read anyone whose arrogance came across so blatantly in the written word — but I still think he’s right. As an example, it wasn’t that long ago that lynchings were common and even an occasion for picnics, but now most people — even bigots — are appalled by that kind of behavior. It’s not a big shift, but it’s a shift. The fear driving many people these days could throw it back off track, but I see it as a small step in our messy path to becoming civilized beings.

          • Decline in domestic abuse, drop in murder and assault rates, etc. As I said in a comment above, our perception of violence is separate from how often it actually occurs: right now our stories glorify it and it’s all over the news, but the actual occurrence has gone down quite a bit from, say, fifty years ago.

            (And there’s some damn good evidence that the #1 reason for this? Is the reduction of lead in the environment.)

  6. The vast amount of money media franchises like Mad Max and Game of Thrones is making may have something to do with this. Gore brings in bucks these days.

  7. I don’t see much of a recent change. After all, decades ago we had Xena, Buffy, and the women in Charmed, who tortured demons almost every week. I don’t see any more in what I read these days. I think the violence is inherent in the sff system.

    • Good point. I’m thinking of it in terms of the romance novels. It’s becoming more of a hallmark there. As a way to show someone being powerful, independent, and protective, plus also the soft v. hard elements of a man.

  8. I give you fair warning–this is a rant. It’s the pet peeve I feel most strongly about, that people aren’t looking at things from a deep enough perspective.

    It may be paranoid of me, but I cannot help but notice that, since the end of WWII, there has been a steadily-growing glorification not only of violence, but of people as lone wolves. Personally, I think that the ‘powers that be’ got scared of the solidarity of groups of the thirties (in favor of unions) and sixties (in favor of civil rights and the end of an asinine war). I’m not saying the PTB planned it all out and did it on purpose, but I do say it could not have worked out better if they had. Stick with me here.

    If I wanted to make sure that people could not rise in large groups against me, I would first try to control the media to the extent that I anything that people heard on TV or read in the paper would support the kind of attitude favorable to my own aims. Then I would want to redirect the thinking to the point where every common man was made to feel suspicious of anyone else (remember the McCarthyism of the fifties?). I would also want to push the thinking that the common people could not under any circumstances unite (like in the spaghetti westerns of the sixties, where good people huddled like sheep, helpless till a stranger showed up).

    I would particularly want to control what young adults see and read (can we say ‘bread and circuses,’ folk?), so that they wouldn’t be tempted to be as idealistic and demanding as older generations were, but content to play with toys while others ran things to their own satisfaction.

    I would do my damnedest to make people forget that lone wolves are easily picked off, and that the successful wolves are usually members of a pack.

    • Yes–and no. The lone, wounded, violent wolf has been popular for a long time. (Beauty and the Beast is a version of this trope.) Byron certainly intuited it when he wrote his poems, and had women swooning all over him.

      There is a great element of wish fulfillment underlying the trope. Nancy Jane is right about angry =/= true martial artists.

      I wonder how many writers of very angry kickass heroines are angry women wishing for agency, so by gum they will have it in their writing. Forming the story around all those lone wolf anti-heroes falling perilously and violently in love with them. (I myself can’t read another violently quarreling couple of badasses who have the emotional maturity of sixteen year olds, but I am an outlier: long series of exactly this trope sell very well, indicating it’s serving a function of some kind for the readership.)

      • I think that the lone wolf is sort of the Loch Ness Monster of romance–the independent (usually man) who is emotionally indifferent to love, who is self-contained, extremely competent, and of course, handsome, rugged, and deep inside–a marshmallow. Top that with a rugged job or lots of money or some exotic element, and voila! romantic hero. What makes him the Loch Ness Monster is he’s rare and impossible to find (except all over romance novels) and there’s the One woman (or man) who he will connect to. The special One who has the powerful thing that will draw him out–courage, smarts, independence, comepetence, and so on. I think that the trope is popular because it follows the Cinderella/Prince Charming sort of romantic plot and that clearly works.

          • Maybe a mashup? The chosen woman who can tame the beast? I’m reminded of Ever After with Drew Barrymore, which gave Cinderella far more agency than she’d ever had before. She even rescues Prince Charming from bandits. Not exactly the best movie in the world, but some interesting shifts. And also she can use a sword and does, can climb trees, and generally is physically able to protect herself.

            • Oh, yes, that’s a good point. There’s definitely a shift away from the passive Cinderella waiting sweetly to be chosen because she is good and sweet enough to be Special.

      • long series of exactly this trope sell very well, indicating it’s serving a function of some kind for the readership.)

        Which drives me nuts, as I think it’s a horrible relationship model to reinforce and show as desirable.

  9. I think that we live in a frenetic culture, and that we’ve lost contact with deepest need – to love and be loved. So we try and fill that hole with drugs and entertainment, the more action, the more violence the better. I recently reread Dragonbone Chair. When I first read it all those years ago, it engulfed me, and I adored it. It wasn’t competing with movies, video games, facebook, James Rollins or other roller coaster writers. I think that if Tad Williams were trying to get into the market now, he’d have a much harder time.

    Personally, I hate the whole “violent male is romantically attractive” trope. I like that the female leads are starting to stand up to them. I like that the female leas can defend themselves. But I desperately want to see more books where the guy is loving, always willing to lend a hand, but not trying to shack up with someone who is dependent on him.

    And I want books with less violence. So very often I put the book down and walk away at the climax because it’s just too intense.

    • I’ve noticed that intensity these days can push me right out. I can enjoy it when things are good, but not when things are difficult and the world is in turmoil.

      I loved the Memory, Sorry, Thorn series. I think I agree with you.

  10. I’m convinced that there is a slow rise and fall in this kind of thing. The field of fiction goes back and forth on the depiction and use of violence, sometimes in reaction to real-world events. (Consider the flood of fluffy social stuff after WWI, when people were sick of bloodshed, which was counterbalanced by loads of cynical world-weary works.) At the moment we’re influenced by the faux violence of video gaming and the bloodless mayhem in comic books. We see violence continually, but only on screens. When it actually arrives (think of the emotional outpouring after 9-11) we are overwhelmed.

    Female action heroines go farther back than we think. James Bond had his counterpart in Modesty Blaise; there were entire series of Edwardian thrillers featuring female detectives.

    • Nancy Drew goes back to the twenties–and the series was a potboiler because the trope was already popular, so yes. Intrepid heroines were definitely a thing.

      • Random info, but did you know that the most prolific American novelist of the nineteenth century was E.D.E.N. Southworth? She was incredibly popular and yet nobody now seems to have heard of her. Most of her books feature women having adventures of sorts.

        • Oh yes! Time was, you could find any number of dusty old copies of her novels for fifty cents, or cheaper, in old bookstores. Alas, the books, and the stores, are mostly gone now.

        • Yes! I knew that. I had a friend whose mother had a shelf full of Southworth. I read all of them, I believe, but I can’t remember details of any of them.

          I have always loved old books — I’m especially fond of the advertising in the back of them, since you get a real intimation of what people were reading then.

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