Words Will Never Hurt Me?

By Laura Vivanco on

Stephanie Burley, writing about popular romance fiction, asked her readers

to make a theoretical leap of faith based on two premises. The first is that the language of whiteness and blackness, light and dark, constructs the way readers imagine the fictional bodies populating these texts. The second is that this representational spectrum is indeed connected to our everday experience of actual bodies and the racial schemas that condition our understandings of those bodies. This color imagery invokes traditional racial taxonomies and their ideological investments in the erotic possibilities of light and dark skin. (326)

If that sounds fanciful, perhaps the reader would like to consider Lakoff and Johnson's research, in which they argue that although

metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. [...] We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. [...] Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. (Lakoff and Johnson 3)

So, I was doubly perturbed to learn about "Dark Romance":

Forced seductions popped up fairly often in the historical romance novels published in the 1980s, wherein a lecherous duke or stable boy driven mad with wild lust would overpower a heroine and ignore her (ambivalent) protestations. Unadulterated rape fantasy, all but absent from romance paperbacks through the ‘90s, eventually came back to life through discreet self-publishing and has continued to gain momentum through online sales.

Currently, the taboo genre is thriving online under the banner of Dark Romance, which takes the rape fantasy even further by removing consent and kink. Books like Prisoner and Consequences are straightforward depictions of men taking women hostage and raping them; eventually falling in love with them, and then living happily ever after with their former victim. (Vargas-Cooper)

First of all, I'm finding it difficult to see how this really fits the definition of a romance novel in anything other than a technical sense. It seems to me much more like erotica with a tacked on happy ending. After all, the RWA definition of romance involves:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

That's not:

A Central Rape Story which centres around one individual forcing themselves sexually on another, who struggles to escape. The writer can include as many violations as he/she wants as long as the rape is ultimately legitimated by the victim's emotional capitulation.

An Emotionally Implausible Ending (unless you factor in Stockholm Syndrome): In a romance, the rapist who risks their victim's mental and physical wellbeing is rewarded with unconditional love.

And yes, perhaps the combination of the two was common in large numbers of romance novels in the past but I wouldn't have liked to read about it in the days of the "bodice-ripper" and I don't want to read about it now.

To get back to where I started, though, I'm also troubled that this is being called "Dark Romance" because I can't help thinking that in the past an association between darkness and rape led to the creation of

the figure of the "black beast rapist." In response to the mere rumor of such an outrage against a white woman, white men formed lynch mobs. They killed hundreds of Black men during the 1890s. (Martin 141)

The association, and the killing continued:

Make any list of anti-black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of black rape. The Tulsa race riot of 1921—when white Oklahomans burned and bombed a prosperous black section of the city—began after a black teenager was accused of attacking, and perhaps raping, a white girl in an elevator. The Rosewood massacre of 1923, in Florida, was also sparked by an accusation of rape. And most famously, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered after allegedly making sexual advances on a local white woman. (Bouie)

And on 17 June 2015

A white supremacist gunman told his black victims "you rape our women and you’re taking over our country" as he massacred nine people inside a historic African-American church in the southern city of Charleston. (Sanchez and Foster)

Words matter. They shape how people think, often in a subconscious way. Instead of falling back on euphemistic language which has the consequence of reinforcing damaging associations between darkness, violence and rape, why not just call a romance with a central rape story a "rape romance"? And while we're on the topic, can someone come up with alternatives to "dark secrets" "blackhearted", accident "blackspots", "black marks" and the phrase which suggests it's a good thing to be "not as black as one is painted"?


Bouie, Jamelle. "The Deadly History of 'They're Raping Our Women'." Slate. 18 June 2015.

Burley, Stephanie. “Shadows & Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance”. Paradoxa 5.13–14 (2000): 324–43.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Martin, Joel W. “‘My Grandmother Was a Cherokee Princess’: Representations of Indians in Southern History”. Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Ed. S. Elizabeth Bird. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1998. 129–47.

Romance Writers of America. "About The Romance Genre."

Sanchez, Raf and Peter Foster. "'You rape our women and are taking over our country,' Charleston church gunman told black victims." The Telegraph. 18 June 2015.

Vargas-Cooper, Natasha. "My Hot, Consensual Introduction to the Rape Fantasy Romance Novel." Jezebel. 19 May 2015.

Eric Selinger (not verified)

Wednesday, 12 August, 2015

Thank you for this, Laura--I saw your original tweet about the nomenclature for rape fantasy romance, and wondered if this might be where your thinking was headed.  The last few times I've taught Suzanne Brockmann's "The Unsung Hero" I've been perturbed by a moment early in the book when one African American Navy SEAL is described as "very stern, very silent, very black, and very, very dangerous looking" (it's on p. 1 or 2, I believe).  That opening chapter is deliberately full of ethnic and other stereotypes, in homage to WW2 era films about multi-ethnic (though not multiracial) American troops, and the passage makes sense in that context--but it also reinforces a very common American equation of "black" with "dangerous" that has very bad real-world consequences, day after day.  (I wonder if anyone has written a romance novel in which a character is described as "very stern, very silent, very white, and very, very dangerous looking."  That's hardly an unrealistic combination.)

I wonder if anyone has written a romance novel in which a character is described as "very stern, very silent, very white, and very, very dangerous looking.

White tends to be the default, so it's not generally mentioned/commented on. Unless it's the heroine's whiteness, in which case it quite often is mentioned, especially when contrasted with the hero's darker skin-colour. I think that's probably because in people pallor is associated with illness/delicacy/femininity. [Vampires kind of run against the grain, although there's still an association there with disease] White skin's association with femininity goes back a long way:

when Shakespeare and his predecessors praised a lady for her white hand, white neck or white breasts, that colour coding was gender (and class) specific. In all ethnic groups, women are paler than men: statistically, globally, women have less melatonin in their skin, less haemoglobin in their blood, and less body hair. Like other bodily features that tend to differentiate the sexes, the relative pallor of women was, in Elizabethan England, fetishised, exaggerated and faked. Elizabeth I - like many other well-to-do women in classical, medieval and Renaissance Europe - painted her face white.

But while whiteness was gendered, it was not racialised. Elizabethan male idols did not wear white makeup or wigs, did not avoid sunburning and did not want to be called white. Applied to men, "white" described a corpse or a coward. Or a eunuch: the hormonal changes caused by castration made the skin of a eunuch as soft and white as an aristocrat's pampered indoor trophy wife. To call a man "white" was to impugn his masculinity. (Taylor)



Taylor, Gary. "Race Card: How did the English become white? Gary Taylor finds the answer in a piece of 17th-century street theatre." The Guardian. 19 February 2005.

Fascinating!  I suppose the code of feminine "whiteness" plays somehow into Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets, although I don't know them all that well.  

If I recall correctly, Karyn Langhorne's interracial romance A Personal Matter has some entertaining early scenes in which the heroine, who is black, sees the white hero's body in a state of undress and is rather put off by his color, his hairiness, and other specifically racialized features.  It takes her a while to find him attractive: a nice twist on the usual "default" mode that you mention.

I'm not sure if it's a "twist on the usual 'default' mode" because I'm not sure to what extent Langhorne put that in deliberately to play with the expectations of readers. It could just be a realistic depiction of this heroine's reaction. Also, the "default" for Langhorne's expected readership might not be the same as the "default" for a different author: at the end of the book there are advertisements for books by "African-American writers from Avon" so it looks as though HarperTorch were expecting her book to appeal to readers who read AA romance/AA fiction, in which white skin is presumably not the default.

It's one of my favourite romances because I really enjoy the way the protagonists "both get to be ourselves" (31) and "We tell each other the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" about "Our expectations of each other, what we think of the work, how we're measuring up" (32). They're constantly running up against their own and others' expectations and prejudices and they think about them analytically and confrontationally.

Nu (not verified)

Thursday, 13 August, 2015

Not just femininity but beauty, let's say it. It's pretty significant in romance, where the reader must admire the heroine or the romance fails for many people.

But I came to say that I agree about "dark" as a metaphor, although I'll say, with a writer's hat on, that it is useful for evoking something milder, as an adjective, than "malevolent," which seems to be the alternative and carries a serious, dangerous connotation. It is so hard to replace those "dark smiles," but I do avoid "dark" anyways because I don't like a human color/tone being a convenient shorthand for evil, unless one is subverting a trope.

I'm glad we're finally recognizing the roots of some romance tropes, like rape fantasy. I also see perceived sex differences and stereotypical, traditional masculinity elevated a lot (and probably makes male readers uncomfortable in the same way male fantasies make women uncomfortable), but I think we'll see that diminish over time as they're ironed out of society. Not sure about the rape fantasy, lol.

Eric Selinger (not verified)

Friday, 14 August, 2015

Maybe it's in terms of beauty (or handsomeness, in this case) that the Langhorne novel makes that "twist," Laura.  That is, it seems pretty standard fare in an American romance novel nowadays that the heroine finds the hero physically attractive right from the start, even if she resists or dislikes him in other ways.  In the Langhorne novel, if memory serves, the hero isn't as attractive to her at first as he becomes later, in part because of the strangeness (to her) of his whiteness.  Will have to reread it and check, but that's my recollection!