The Latest Romance Novel Bad Boys: Genocidal Bigots
One of the most popular tropes of romance literature, aside from billowing outfits and adding the word “yearning” to every other sentence, is the brooding Bad Boy -- your Heathcliffs, your Mr. Rochesters, your sparkly vampire teens. These tortured souls can only be saved by the heroine who realizes these bad men aren't bad, actually. All they need is a good woman whose love can heal the scars of their haunted past, whether those come from carrying a dark yet sexy secret, leading a swashbuckling life of crime … or perpetrating an ethnic cleansing.
Over the past few years, the Romance Writers of America organization has been plagued with accusations of flooding the sexy sex book industry with bigotry, racism, and homophobia. Having promised to be more respectful of minorities, the RWA this year chose to celebrate one of the latest additions to the romantic canon: the genocidal white supremacist.
During the guild’s 2021 awards ceremony, it awarded the Vivian, the award the Oscar pines for with every fiber of their yearning heart, for Best Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements to At Love’s Command, a novel by Karen (spoiler alert) Witemeyer. Set in the Wild West, At Love’s Command tells the story of a Wild West lady doctor who falls in love with a dashing cavalry captain struggling to cope with the skeletons in his closet. Specifically, the 300+ Lakota men, women, and children he helped slaughter during the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
Now, having your lusty leading man be a war criminal who participated in a Native American holocaust might be a dealbreaker for some ladies. But “inspirational romance,” At Love Command’s brand of Christian romance, is all about that divine redemption -- the bigger the dirtbag, the more impressive it is when the heroine gets God to wipe his slate clean. And since these novels are written by and for women who are very Christian, very Conservative, and very concerned about Black joggers in their neighborhood, a man who wound up with a few dead minorities (and one minor) on his conscience while performing his Christian duties of making America great again can easily be redeemed by the love of a good woman and, more importantly, the love of her blonde, beach bod Christ.
The novel’s award victory sparked outrage throughout the romance industry, incensed that its biggest organization was (once again) rewarding a white woman reappropriating minority tragedies to do nothing more than pen a bunch of old-timey xenophobia and asks readers to sympathize with the white men who committed said tragedies. And while Witemeyer and her Christian right-wing publisher defend her writing by claiming the book's blatant racism is merely historically accurate (because readers of smut fantasies starring Jesus Christ are sticklers for verisimilitude), it’s really hard to ignore the Karen of it all.
As many critics have pointed out, like many in the inspirational genre At Love’s Command is steeped in modern American conservative tropes, which includes vilifying non-Christian religions (by, say, depicting Lakota priests as scheming war-clerics), fetishizing of the troops (having characters point out that the child-murdering soldiers were all “good men,” really) and, very zeitgeisty, insinuating that victimized minorities are 'no saints.' Witemeyer’s novel basically blames the Wounded Knee violence on the Lakota branch of BLM Antifa protesters deciding to riot instead of peacefully march to the reservation.
Not content with just one caucasian genocidal episode, over the past decade, inspirational romance authors have managed to swirl just about every flavor of white supremacy into their mayo bad boy narratives from colonialism to orientalism to pro-slavery to antiziganism. And let’s not forget the actual Nazis. Another (two time) RWA Awards nominee was For Such A Time by Kate Breslin, a WWII inspirational romance about a “blonde and blue-eyed Jewess” who falls in love with the SS-Kommandant of her concentration camp. Sick of making love among the corpse piles, Uber-Romeo and Unter-Juliet eventually convert to Christianity with the help of a magic Bible, the power of Jesus’ love finally allowing them to escape the camp while freeing the Jewish prisoners.
Now dirtbag male heroes have popped up in plenty of Harlequin literature like caveman romance, serial killer romance, and any romance book with a wolf on the cover. Even older, sadly, is the literary tradition of exploiting/misappropriating minority stories by white authors. (Until 1993, the Romantic Times Awards had a category for “Best Indian Romance,” and I don’t mean the fun Bollywood type). But what makes inspirational romance a true trashy trailblazer is its merging of these two fundamental industry flaws, creating an antihero arms race so nuclearly toxic its authors now openly fantasize about falling in love with the genocidal grandaddies of Proud Boys -- not to explore the horrors of white supremacy, but just so that it’s even more ‘inspirational’ when the heroine rehabilitates her monstrous boyfriend by teaching him how to read the Bible.
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Top Image: Bethany House / Charles Schreyvoge