Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Heroines in Sexual Jeopardy

Image source: Cheezburger
I've encountered heroines who fall into sexual jeopardy of one sort or another in six of the science fiction romance books I've read over the past several months (with varying publication dates). Probably coincidence, but it's hardly the first time, either. My reading experience hasn't revealed a rampant pattern in SFR of this trope, but the recent brushes with it made me realize I wouldn't miss it if I never encountered it again.

One reason it bothers me is the assumption that a heroine's gender automatically makes her vulnerable and her body a target for villain(s). I'm not arguing that it should never make a heroine vulnerable; rather I'm challenging the assumption that an author writing a story has *no* other options--none, nada, zip--than to place a heroine in sexual jeopardy for the purpose of a plot complication.

Another reason is the implication that her body belongs to the hero, who is expected to rescue her before the villain can sexually assault her. The objectification/heroine-as-possession factor, as it were.

Over-reliance on this trope can also prompt me to question a villain's motivation. Why is sexually molesting the heroine a major goal of the villain (or henchmen, as the case may be)? Does he seriously have nothing better to do? No worlds to conquer? No valuable objects to steal? Have studies shown that sexual assault is a more effective type of torture for extracting information than other physical means?

I become especially uneasy when this trope is paired with a heroine who is established to be kick-butt. Sure, she can be sexy while saving the day, but that doesn't mean her sexuality has to be the default plot point. Even if the heroine is able to defend herself without the hero's help, I still question why she had to become a sexual target in the first place.

My concern isn't so much about the device itself as its overuse. In some stories it's justified and organic to the plot while others make me go, "Really? Is that all there is?" This trope sometimes implies that a woman's worth resides mainly in her sexuality. Occasionally it even contradicts what the author has told us about the heroine's worth previously (e.g., she's a brilliant scientist or a mechanical whiz and therefore more than the sum of her lady parts).

SFR frequently features futuristic/technologically advanced/alternate settings. I expect those settings to open up possibilities for heroines and their roles, not simply to recycle what has gone before. Much of the time, my expectations are met and heroines become embroiled in jeopardy of the non-sexual kind. If it continues down that path, you won't hear me complaining!

What are your thoughts about the sexual jeopardy device?

Joyfully yours,