The Princess and the Baker’s Boy – or why I write unconventional gender dynamics

Last week, I blogged about Fifty Shades of Grey and gender roles in romantic fiction over at the Cora Buhlert blog.

In the context of that post, I also mentioned that I only just realized that I tend to write gender relations that are pretty much the opposite of traditional romance dynamics. The relevant bit is here:

This was brought home to me sharply, when I discussed my current work-in-progress, which is basically a science fiction romance, with a friend. “This is quite a departure for me”, I told her, “First of all, because the structure is not entirely linear – the story starts with the couple’s happily ever after and then flashes back to the beginning of their relationship and some turning points. And secondly, the hero is of a higher social status than the heroine, which causes problems for them, because they meet under circumstances (an intergalactic war) where social status doesn’t matter, but don’t know how and if they can make their relationship work once the war is over.”

And then I thought, wait a minute. The hero has a higher social status than the heroine is pretty much the default mode for romance. It’s the good old Cinderella fantasy. Doctor falls for nurse, Duke falls for governess, billionaire falls for virginal secretary. However, this is not the dynamic I normally write. Because for almost as long as I have been telling stories, I wrote stories about women of higher social status falling for men of lower social status. Even if the men were wealthy in their own right, there was usually something about them that was not quite acceptable in polite society, usually lower class origins or a criminal past or something like that. I don’t write about the prince falling for Cinderella, I write about the princess falling for the baker’s boy, sometimes quite literally (okay, so the story about the princess and the baker’s boy will never see the light of day). And until a few days ago, I never even noticed that I was writing the complete reverse of the traditional romance gender role dynamics. No wonder that I never really managed to write a romance

Initially, I wanted to use my e-published works as examples, but the original post was already long enough as it was, so I left it out. Still, I thought it might be fun to do it at this blog, so here we go:

El Carnicero:
Jonathan is an officer of the British army during the Napoleonic wars, which normally would make him a member of the gentry or maybe even aristocracy, most probably a younger son unlikely to inherit. Teresa is a rebel leader and descended from a noble Spanish family. I’m not sure if that last bit made it into the finished story, but trust me she is. So their social status is about even.

Hostage to Passion:
Sir Nicholas Harcourt is an English pirate who was knighted for his services to the crown, which means he wasn’t born a nobleman, even though he is one now. Rosaria is the descendant of a noble Spanish family and niece to one of the wealthiest men in the country. So she’s the one with the higher social status here.

The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade:
Geoffrey is a disgraced knight turned executioner, Angeline is a lady of noble birth. So her status is clearly higher.

The Silencer stories:
Both Constance and Richard are wealthy. Constance is a socialite and daughter of a scientist, who also happened to be a traitor. Richard is a millionaire playboy, which was pretty much the required background for dual identity action heroes of the 1930s and 1940s. However, he wasn’t born rich and he sure as hell didn’t make his millions by writing pulp novels – indeed, he only writes pulp fiction, because he enjoys it. As for where the money comes from, Richard is rather reticent about this*, but he hasn’t always been fighting crime. Indeed, there are hints of a criminal past during the prohibition, which is also where he acquired his butler/helper Cassidy. Again this backstory is only hinted at in the actual novelettes, but it is there. So even though they’re both rich and they both have dark spots in their past, Constance was born to wealth and Richard was not.

Rites of Passage:
Philon and Arianna are both outlaws and both heirs to the pirate empires of their respective fathers, which makes them about even. However, in the other stories I planned to write about those characters, early drafts of which probably still kick around somewhere in piles of forgotten papers, Arianna would have been revealed to be adopted and more than the daughter of a pirate. So she wins this one.

The Other Side of the Curtain:
Zane Smith is an American businessman and millionaire, albeit a self-made one. Shoushan Kariyan is – well, it would be a spoiler to say just what exactly she is – but she’s definitely of lower social-economic status than Zane.

You’ll note that I’ve left out Outlaw Love, for even though it is a love story, it’s not a heterosexual love story, hence the question of gender role dynamics doesn’t apply here.

To sum it up, there are four couples where the woman is of higher socio-economic status, one where both are about even and only one story with the traditional rich man – poorer woman dynamic. Though Shoushan Kariyan is certainly no Cinderella type. And even Nicholas Harcourt from Hostage to Passion, who is probably as close as I’ve ever come to the traditional alpha hero of the romance hero (and of course, the story ends the way it does, because Nicholas hasn’t sufficiently reformed from his macho ways) is still of a lower status than his heroine.

Besides, those are only the stories that actually found publication. The rich girl – poor boy pattern repeats over and over in unpublished and unfinished work.

As for why I tend to write this type of gender dynamic, I attempted to answer that question over at the Cora Buhlert blog, so I’ll just quote from that post again:

The thing is that the Cinderella fantasy was never something that worked for me all that well. Nor does it help that the version of the Cinderella tale that most resonated with me (and with many Germans my age) is one with a rather feminist Cinderella and more equal gender relations. I grew up expecting to support myself and take care of myself. I didn’t need a man for that. Nor did I need any expensive presents. I don’t need Christian Grey to buy me an Audi, since I already have a Mercedes (okay, just an A-class).
[...]
So if you don’t need a man to support you and buy you an Audi (sorry, but I still can’t get over that) and if falling in love and entering a relationship carries the risk of losing yourself and your identity in the process, then what exactly are men good for? And is it possible to fall in love and have a relationship without losing yourself in the process? I guess these are the questions that I’ve been trying to answer for myself these past twenty years or so. And the answers are not exactly conductive to the Cinderella fantasy that is popular with so many romance readers and it usually doesn’t involve a possessive alpha male except as a villain.

*Sometimes my characters hold back on me. They usually open up when they’re ready.

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One Response to The Princess and the Baker’s Boy – or why I write unconventional gender dynamics

  1. Pingback: Alternatives to the Euro 2012 Linkdump | Cora Buhlert

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