A Tale of Two A**holes, or: What a difference female agency makes

I recently listened to a book with an asshole hero and, around the same time, read another with a similar type of male lead.  Though there were problems with both, one of the books worked much better for me than the other.     The main reason I disliked the first book was that I could not like the hero.  But in both books, the hero is  an asshole.  So: why did I like one and not other?  This post is the result of my mental ramblings on the topic.  And it all comes down to female agency.

Book 1 was Fever (Breathless #2) by Maya Banks.   This author seems like a lovely lady from what I can tell from Twitter. My opinion of this book is in no way an opinion of her.  She tends to be a hit or miss author for me.  I loved Sweet Surrender and I enjoyed Rush, the first book in the Breathless series quite a bit.  But Fever was not a success.  While lots of people loved Fever (which is fine because Vegemite), it didn’t work for me.

The second book was Tangled by Emma Chase.  Ms. Chase is a new author but I enjoyed her writing style and the humour of the book very much. (and again, just because I thought Drew was an ass, doesn’t mean I think she is. Just to be clear).
The two books are very different in tone.  But they have in common that the male protagonist is a jerk.  I discussed Drew a fair bit in my review of Tangled. As the book is told from his point of view, we are steeped in Drew from start to finish.Fever is told in third person with the POV shifting between the two main characters.  But, Fever is almost always in the male gaze so our hero, Jace Crestwell is the most prominent character in the book by a factor of about a million.
Jace is arrogant, domineering and controlling.  His heroine is Bethany.  She is much younger than he (23, to his 38). She is homeless, he’s a billionaire.  The disparity in their stations could hardly be more different.  Jace falls instantly in love with Bethany when he sees her waitressing at his sister’s engagement party. He and his friend Ash, usually share women.  But Jace doesn’t want to share this time (which is how we know Bethany is “the One”).   Even so, when Ash sets something up for the three of them, Jace goes along with it because he thinks it’s “the only way he’ll have her.” (*rolls eyes*)  Bethany disappears the next morning and Jace, who really has no more knowledge of her now than when he saw her across the room the evening before (except for what it’s like to have sex with her), goes all out to search for her.  He finds her a couple of weeks later in a women’s shelter. Bethany has lived on the streets for 4 years but she isn’t particularly tough.  She comes across as very fragile for the most part.  Jace literally carries her out of the shelter (without asking her permission) and installs her in his sister’s old apartment.  He wants her to have a “semblance of control” so he doesn’t move her into his place. Yet.  Within a week however, he’s done with being “patient” and “giving her time” – even though they’ve not spent a night apart.  He wants a Total Power Exchange relationship.  Except, she doesn’t have any power to exchange.  She has no agency whatsoever.  At one point Jace even thinks to himself that all she has is the “guise of power” because he has all the power in actuality.
For her protection (there is a reason but the threat is quickly dealt with even though the bodyguards still keep watch), Jace has arranged bodyguards for Bethany and she’s not allowed to go anywhere without them, unless she’s with Jace. At this point I was thinking the woman had basically been kidnapped.  For her part, Bethany did virtually nothing other than make herself available for Jace – it seemed to me she was nothing more than an animated sex toy.  He rode roughshod over her at every turn, allowing her no choices, acknowledging that he held all the power and control and that he liked it that way.
I never understood why he loved her.  She wasn’t even really allowed a personality. It was all about pleasing Jace. Ugh.  During the course of the book, she was content to sit waiting for Jace to come back to the apartment and have sex with her.  She didn’t attempt to get a job – it wasn’t even something she thought about doing – apparently she pretty much just waited for him to come home (and jump to conclusions or have sex. Or both). Jace bought her clothes, food, gave her a roof over her head and all she had to do was put out.
And, if Bethany were to object in any serious way, her choice was the street. (I understand that, for some, this type of hero appeals to the fantasy of the woman not having to decide anything for herself in a world where many women are overwhelmed by all the decisions they have to make.  But, for me, this crossed the line from sexy fantasy to creepy asshole. YMMV)

To contrast, the heroine in Tangled is Kate.  She is a professional woman – a peer of Drew’s who is his equal at work, who doesn’t need him to provide for her, who lets him know when he’s crossed a line (as he often does), who pushes back and gives as good as she gets.  She is almost the total opposite of Bethany.

In pondering the asshole factor, I came to the conclusion that the big difference was the heroine the ass was paired with.  The ass and the doormat is no fun for me.  The ass and the ass-kicker – now that’s a different story.  It is perhaps a bit of a stretch to refer to Kate as “ass-kickers”, unless you compare her to Bethany whose doormat factor is so high it’s a wonder she doesn’t have permanent boot marks on her face.
A couple of years ago, I didn’t even know what female agency was.  I notice it now.  If a woman has no power, there can be no negotiation of it.  If she has no agency at all, the relationship is so unequal for me as to be more that of a master/slave  (and not in a kinky fun way either).  Her adoration reeks of Stockholm Syndrome, not love.
I didn’t really see Bethany gain any agency during the course of the book. Kate had agency to start with and she never lost it.  I could see why Drew was attracted and stimulated emotionally, physically and intellectually by Kate.  But I struggled to see the attraction for Jace – it seemed to me that Bethany could be interchanged with generic blow up toy number 36 and there would not be a lot of difference. I’m a hero-centric reader but if the heroine is basically invisible, there is no joy in it for me.  A hero is only as good as his heroine. A strong heroine can make even an asshole appear attractive but with an invisible, powerless, heroine: he’s just an asshole.

14 comments on “A Tale of Two A**holes, or: What a difference female agency makes

  1. azteclady

    The hero is only as good as his heroine—YES, a million times yes.Until recently, I didn't have a name for the concept of "agency" but it has always been something essential for me, as a reader, to be able to sink into the world the author has created. Doormats and other two dimensional characters hold absolutely no interest for me, and I'm always aware that anything they do is to serve the plot, which pretty much finishes off any interest I could have in that either.

  2. Kaetrin

    @Aztec Lady I don't think I'm a placeholder reader for the most part – I tend to be more voyeuristic than that. I wonder if a placeholder reader would appreciate the invisible heroine more?

  3. azteclady

    I am not sure, unless the story appeals to a particular fantasy–as you say, "for some, this type of hero appeals to the fantasy of the woman not having to decide anything for herself in a world where many women are overwhelmed by all the decisions they have to make."Even then, though, I think the fantasy only works in a very limited way–in real life, even the most abject doormats have opinions, feelings and thoughts, and if the reader can't see these expressed/reflected in the story some way, how can you accept the validity of the whole construct?I'm not sure I'm making sense here, but it's part of the worldbuilding bot me–I would need to believe that this particular doormat both understands and wholly acquiesces to conform/submit to the circumstances, and why. Because it's easier to let life drag you than to guide your own life? Not my cuppa (vegemite) but to each her own.The lack of self awareness in characters written as plot devices is what gets me, I guess.(Sorry, rambling much?)

  4. Kaetrin

    @Aztec Lady IDK, as I said I'm not really much of a placeholder reader but I wondered if a heroine such as this would suit some readers better? I'm sure there are myriad reasons why a particular reader would like this book – there were certainly plenty of readers who did if the GR rating is anything to go by.

  5. Marg

    Everything I am hearing about Tangled is making me want to read it!Interesting dissection of agency. It does seem that there are more asshole heroes in romance than there used to be, or maybe that is just a reflection in my current reading choices.

  6. Kaetrin

    @Marg – I liked Tangled but there were… issues :)I think there have always been assholes (Steve from Sweet Savage Love anyone?) – but perhaps there's more of the billionaire asshole at present?

  7. Vi Dao

    Rush was my worst read this year. *grins* Thank you for putting into words why I like the occasional asshole hero.

  8. Kaetrin

    @Vi I didn't mind Rush. Gabe wasn't all that different to Jace but Mia had a job, independent wealth, her own group of friends, etc. She wasn't dependent on Gabe for everything like Bethany was. I think that was the main difference between the two books but I didn't want to do a "blame the heroine" post because it was Jace who was the asshole here – Bethany was wet but she deserved better (and also, a personality).

  9. Vi Dao

    I read the Fever excerpt at the end of Rush. It didn't appeal to me. I'm glad I didn't read it after your review.

  10. Kaetrin

    @Vi I've seen reviews where people really loved Jace but didn't think much of the heroine. But Jace got on my last nerve in this one! 🙂

  11. AJH

    I find your musings on heroine-centric versus hero-centric readings very interesting… I'm always paying more attention to the heroines for some reason. Not get all gender essentialist about it, but I don't know if there's an instinct to draw towards the unlike over the like, since you've already got the other angle covered. I don't know, that's not a very sophisticated take :PAlternatively, I think I go to where the interesting stuff seems to be happening and, actually, in romances, or at least in the pathetic handful I've read, I usually find the women much better 'realised' than the men, as the men stand around basically wanting to sex the woman, but don't have much more going on with them.Incidentally, I think this book might be marmite for me. I don't really like TPE in general (again, that's a personal preference) though I understand why it's a legitimate lifestyle choice and/or fantasy. But I think when that entangles with actually issues of social and cultural power – eeek. Disaster, waiting to happen.

  12. Kaetrin

    @AJH I'd be very surprised if you liked Fever! Brandon Birmingham was a saint compared to Jace! LOL. I don't mind some of the power exchange stuff in my reading when it is an exchange but it isn't the first thing I reach for and it's kind of more a curiosity to me than anything else – because I can't imagine it in real life, even though I know it really works for others. I don't know what makes a reader hero or heroine-centric. There are plenty of females who are all about the heroine – I think they are probably in the majority actually. But I think it does inform one's taste in books. I can probably go for a darker hero because of it. Maybe. I've probably got to think that one out a bit more actually. Hmmm…I think I'm becoming more heroine-sensitive as I get older however, as I am exposed to interesting feminist discussions and observations and as I engage with the romance genre in other ways than pure entertainment (which is still a very good thing and I do that too).

  13. Nicola O.

    "The ass and the doormat is no fun for me. The ass and the ass-kicker – now that's a different story."What an excellent distillation. Great analysis!I'm pondering some thoughts about an Anna Campbell hero who was a rilly big jerk, but I liked the book– and yes, the heroine, while disadvantaged, is in no way a doormat! (are doormat heroines ever good?)

  14. Kaetrin

    Thx Nicola :)No, I don't enjoy doormats of any gender actually. Most often it's the heroine though and it seems so much worse when she's paired with the uber-dominant "hero".

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