NSFW: The Indestructible Male Hero

on Joanna Bourne's novels, fan fiction and the power of romance tropes

I.

A few years back, my dear friend Christa and I did two podcast episodes devoted to Romance Novel Tropes. You can listen to them here and here, if that’s your thing. Part of making that podcast that was so winning for me was that it adhered to my various sordid interests, and allowed me to discuss them in-depth with someone I love very much, who also feels called to the prurient.

In Episode 15, the trope I chose to discuss was that of the “Indestructible Male Hero.” This is very much a favorite of mine when it comes to romantic story-lines, though, like all compelling tropes, I have a range of feelings about it.

Recently, when I was having a lousy day, I decided to cheer myself up, as I sometimes do, with a re-read of The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne. There are no other romance novels like Bourne’s books; they fire on all levels for me as a reader. The prose is superb, the history intricately researched, the fictional world beautifully crafted, the characters shaped so vividly and true. And the sex scenes, though not every 30 pages, are absolutely divine. I buy copies of Joanna Bourne’s books whenever I see one for sale; I’m always giving them away to people because I love them so much.

That said, the hero character of The Spymaster’s Lady (as well as in Bourne’s other books, The Black Hawk, The Forbidden Rose and Rogue Spy) is a classic Indestructible Male Hero. What lesser people might label "a badass.” I hate the word “badass” so I would not call them that. What’s more accurate to say is that all three heroes of these books are physically formidable, intellectually skilled and absolutely lethal when it comes to carrying out espionage work and protecting the women they love.

These four heroes are not all built on the scale of say, Juggernaut. Though you could make a decent case for this with William Doyle of The Forbidden Rose. Robert Grey, of The Spymaster’s Lady, is not exactly pocket-size himself. In contrast, Adrian Hawker of The Black Hawk and Thomas Paxton of Rogue Spy are better described as ectomorphs, though ectomorphs strapped with lots of wiry sinew that offers them massive strength as well as stealth. No matter their size, all four heroes are able to take a lot of violence, hardship and physical abuse, though if you needed someone to help you move furniture into a new apartment, you’d probably think to ask Doyle and Grey first.

II.

What amuses me about this trope is its very defiance of the laws of physics. Recently, I received some comments on some very old fan fiction I’d written, which prompted me to revisit these works. A fond little trip back to a time I’d forgotten, something I rarely do with my traditionally published stuff that has my real name on it. There’s something even more complimentary about hearing nice things about your work when it’s completely anonymous. With fan fiction, there is no other context, no marketing scheme designed to lure anyone in, beyond the endless tags at A03 and the love for a particular narrative and pairing.

All my fan fic is sleazy. Like the title of this essay: Not Safe For Work. I don’t have interest in fan fic that isn’t, to be honest. In fact, I’ve spoken often of being propelled into a new story by way of a sexual image or action. I’ve always chalked up this tendency of mine to the fact that I’m a gross dirt bag; recently, in therapy, I’ve come to see this habit differently, which is a whole other story.

Regardless of motivation, I try to be realistic in my fan fic. I find adding ordinary obstacles strangely makes the situation even more compelling and erotic: a guy leaving his socks on the whole time while navigating a broken arm, a woman feeling shy about being seen naked while on top of him must hunch to avoid cracking her head on the upper bunk. I like those details, though it’s not accurate to say that all my fan fic is some kind of romantic-yet-ungainly struggle fest. I just find that by adding a frisson of gawky gracelessness, you increase the realism. Which, paradoxically, makes the fantasy better.

In any case, the stray comment led me to re-read these stories I’d made using other people’s intellectual properties. Which brought me to the realization that I’d defied biology and physics with this same Indestructible Hero trope myself. Despite my own criticism of such! It has long been hilarious to Christa and myself to read through a piece of fiction and marvel at how the man is able to hold his woman in his arms while kissing passionately, fucking her against a door, touching her breasts and stroking her clitoris. The author may as well have the guy answer his email and juggle bowling pins, too.

What’s funny is that most of my female characters on the receiving end of this hero’s powerful largesse are neither dainty nor weak-willed. Yet, at points, I had made them the recipients of similar impossible feats. One imagines these men would spin the women around like basketballs on the tips of their fingers if it served a sexual purpose. But that brings me to the other piece of the fantasy I find personally appealing: the woman’s body as negligible, manipulatable. I don’t mean this in a demeaning sense. Rather, the ease with which the hero is able to lift, contort and bend the woman implies she has a similar ease with her body. She’s able to truly lose her consideration of self in service to her passion. Which is often difficult for many women. There are always the nerves about how one will look naked. The need to serve and perform. The awareness of positions that flatter. The inherent awkwardness that comes with pressing close to share space with another, to touch the parts of another’s body which intrigue you, and ultimately, to conjoin.

Noses knock into noses, teeth into teeth, knees settle over another’s hips and crack with every movement. The height of the bed, the angle of the chair, the integrity of the dining room table all complicate things further when it comes to actual coital matters. It’s amusing to parse these scenes for this reason; it’s a laugh to consider the rarity of something so spontaneous and mutual also being excellently choreographed.

Somehow, these strong, unflappable men manage to toss their beloveds around, not breaking a sweat in positioning the relevant netherparts. This is the very stuff of fantasy. In fantasy, we are truly disembodied. Our wants are perceived instantly, and translated to the physical realm, no words required. In fantasy, the object of your affection has no extenuating circumstances, like a bad shoulder or a sensitive gag reflex. Everything happens smoothly and in proper tempo. Nobody knocks on the door or slips on a banana peel or suddenly begins menstruating. When the hero sweeps up the heroine to carry her to the bedroom, he doesn’t lose his grip, knock her into the door frame, or suddenly throw his back out. It’s beautiful and seamless. All of it welcome, all of it feeling good.

III.

Like all tropes, there are aspects to the "Indestructible Male Hero” that confound and even upset me. The main issue is its glorification of a man taking endless abuse in the name of being tough. It’s not often that a man can be battered constantly and violently and then not transmit his own pain and trauma in kind onto other people, usually those he purports to love and need the most. The notion of the Good-Hearted But Fierce Protector, who is able to rein in his ability to hurt when it comes to those he values is a muddy one. Trauma-informed clinicians would tell us he’s statistically rare. Additionally, the veneration of men who never cry, complain or otherwise express feelings is not a prosocial, healthy construct. Again, the clinicians would tell us that this emotional suppression is detrimental to a person’s physical health as well as the functionality of his relationships. This protector ideal is out of balance when dumped on one party; we all are in need of protection, of care, of saying what we need to say. It cannot be one person’s job to staff the watchtowers and scan the horizon for coming storms.

But I understand the lure this over-exaggeration dangles—imagine this incredibly powerful creature as your ally. That he would take the blows of this world for you, never stop fighting on your behalf, never tire and falter in his sheltering. If imagining someone who would walk through fire to keep you safe isn’t a turn-on, well. Different strokes, I guess. For me, this aspect of the trope is irresistible. It also represents something much more sweeping and utopian: the notion that there could be an end to the war between men and women.

I’m unbearably excited by the idea of a world that still presents perils, pitfalls and dangers, but where men themselves can no longer be counted among them. Instead, in this world, men esteem women, as well as the innocent or vulnerable, revering them so much their identity is built upon their protection, preservation and celebration. This is the undergirding fantasy, for me, and the reason I love Joanna Bourne’s novels, and writing fan fic and reading romance stories when I need comfort and delight. What could be more attractive than a world where apprehension and suspicion don’t dominate my brain? A world where I need not fear half of my neighbors. A world where pleasure is available and easily deserved. A world where I don’t have to wonder if the creature I desire will hurt me. A world where I can simply relax, let him toss me around like a cherished plaything, and enjoy his adoring, infinite attentions.


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