A not so recent release of a book that featured a girl who managed to escape a religious cult (I would stop there, but there's more), only to find herself under the wing of an older, powerful man. It's not too hard to guess that he's gorgeous and she finds herself attracted to him, because well, he's hot (aren't they always?) and her lack of experience combined with the allure of being with someone protective cements the feelings. The blurb and the reviews had me incensed over this story. Why was I so easily triggered? Because like many of the stories published as Romance, it smacks of something unhealthy and insidious which to me, perpetuates the fantasy that we as women are looking for father figures to fulfill our relationship needs. I say it's time to stop this trend.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Why Romance Needs to Ditch the Daddy Complex
Romance is a wonderful genre because one of its primary purposes is to make the reader feel. Happiness, sadness, love, wonder, heartbreak. A single book can contain myriad emotions that remind us of our humanity, and god knows how badly we need reminding of that on a daily basis. And the fact that it’s fiction makes it all seem safe, as if what takes place between the characters, however damaging, doesn’t matter because there’s a love that will be written into the story that excuses the behavior of the main characters. They can be stupid, selfish, abused, broken, violent, rude, and even really, really stupid. The flaws in the characters make them realistic. They can offer redemption to a character who needs to grow and come into an understanding of herself through personal conflict. When that happens, we want to be able to connect with that growth, to believe in what’s possible, and it feels good.
Yet, when I recently saw promos for a new Romance novel by a bestselling author that features an underage girl with an older male character who insists she call him “Daddy,” I was deeply disturbed. The “Daddy complex” (akin to the “Savior complex”) that often appears in some of the darker Romance stories is perturbing because of the way in which it disempowers and infantilizes women. Writing a “happily-ever-after” ending (or “HEA”) for such a story seems not only disingenuous but downright unhealthy because it doesn’t leave any room for the younger female character to come into her own power since the male character assumes and remains a dominant figure in the relationship.
I’m not disturbed by stories in which there’s merely a significant age difference between two characters, but rather those books that portray an older man or woman and a young girl or guy (who may or may not be under 18) over whom the older character wields power and influence. The fantasy exists for sure, and we’ve seen this line get crossed in reality between teachers and their underage students. Some Romance writers attempt to toe this line carefully by writing characters who are eighteen, which is somehow supposed to excuse the teacher because at least the affair is between consenting adults. Yet, however careful the author is being (or not) in their portrayal, and no matter how this is playing in the realm of fantasy, the truth of the matter is that such a relationship is not okay because it’s fundamentally abusive.
Ultimately, the Daddy complex stems from a lack of genuine paternal presence and attention. When a girl experiences this, it can have far-reaching implications in the choices she makes during adolescence and into adulthood. I myself became an attention-seeker, and the older the guy, the better I felt about myself. (And, by the way, none of them ever asked me to call them “Daddy”). In my case, the need was benign compared to those girls who willingly give control over to another person in order to feel complete or valued because their self-esteem is low to non-existent.
Paternal abandonment, whether actual physical or emotional, is a real trauma that gets acted out through our various relationships until we can heal them (which often results in choosing poor relationships until we can gain the consciousness to learn to pick the right ones). Novels in which the “wrong” guy, the Father Figure who represents this trauma, eventually becomes the “right” one serve to negate a girl’s trauma and thereby devalue her experience. What’s more, such endings don’t allow the male archetype to evolve beyond that of the Father, the one who symbolizes and holds complete control. So long as we, as authors and women, continually place men in roles of power, they themselves will not be able to grow beyond that limited identity. And isn’t it a better ideal to have whole and complete characters, who, while possibly flawed, do not perpetuate very real and painful trauma?
Some may argue that writing these types of Romances with a positive ending gives hope to abuse. It doesn’t. It can’t because of the way in which the love is created between the protagonists is too imbalanced to allow it. They remain locked in an unequal relationship in which the hero plays the Father Figure, the savior, and the girl is merely a “rescuee” forever grateful for being “saved.” Perhaps a better story would be written if the young character ends up moving onto a healthier relationship with someone else. Even then, the healing required for a truly abused character is a different kind of book altogether—not a romantic one.
I get that it’s a fetish, but I think it’s time to explore why we’ve allowed these stories to persist by continuing to write and consume them. We don’t need another fantasy that bestows power and control upon another person. We need authentic and real men and women (not girls please!) who represent our ideals for relationships and those we can hope our children may one day end up having. Not dysfunctional, abusive stories that appear safe because they’re written as “fiction”. We all know fiction is borne out of something real, an author’s experience or emotions buried deep within our psyches and souls, which give our stories and characters a real life. We make them real for readers, even for just the brief time they spend in our stories.
I’m pro-Romance all the way. HEA, HFN or just plain hope for love and a bright future is an ending we all want. It’s the optimist in me. However, when I see books circulating that dwell in dark places but call themselves Romance with characters who deserve better than abuse passing itself off as “love,” I become dismayed. It’s time that authors understand that we have a responsibility to write stories that empower both women and men and give them a narrative that honors them all.