This month on Trope Anatomy 101, Carlie St. George examines the Sexy Douchecanoe trope.
Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George. For her inaugural column, Carlie tackles one prickly topic:
Reader, I Didn’t Marry Him–I Kicked His Jerk Ass to the Curb
Congratulations, everyone. If you are reading this, you have survived another Valentine’s Day. I’m proud of you all.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that romance, as a genre, has never been my thing. Action is my thing. Horror is my thing. Mysteries and magic: definitely my thing. But when it comes to stories, I’ve never been a hearts and flowers and multiple orgasms kind of girl. I’ll take a good blaster at my side any day, and all that.
Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder why that is, especially after reading Sunil Patel’s fantastic post last year about overcoming an internalized disdain for romance novels. I thought to myself, “Self, it’s not that you hate all romance. There are some rom-coms you enjoy, admittedly, few and far between, but still. You ship certain couples on TV like whoa, and if you really can’t stand to read a love story, then how have you read gyzym’s DomesticVerse, like, 87 times? What’s keeping you from checking out actual romance novels?”
I’ve considered it, and I think I keep coming across two stumbling blocks:
- Sex scenes rarely do much for me.
- Hunks are jerks.
It’s unfortunate that I generally find sex scenes boring, but if I’m engaged enough in the characters and their relationship, I can get past it, like, that’s not a deal breaker. No, it’s the latter point that really trips me up, and the one I want to discuss today: the ongoing problem of the Sexy Douchecanoe.
The Sexy Douchecanoe isn’t an official trope, as such; at least, it’s not one that I often find people analyzing, subverting, and/or railing against. It is one, however, that I run into constantly because, while they’re often unfairly associated with strapping, half-dressed men on paperback covers, Sexy Douchecanoes actually pop up in every medium and every genre. The first time I remember coming across one, I was maybe 20 and reading Naked in Death by JD Robb. At the time, I’d been interested in giving romance a go, but as I hadn’t read much of the genre, I wasn’t entirely sure where to start. I figured the best plan was to pick a romance that was also a murder mystery set in the future.
And maybe that plan would have been successful, if I hadn’t hated the love interest with the power of a thousand suns.
Roarke is Irish and gorgeous and a billionaire, so obviously, he has some qualities working in his favor. Unfortunately, I was less enamored by the way he continuously decides things on Eve’s behalf. If Eve says she doesn’t want to eat, Roarke assures her that she does. If Eve decides she wants to go home, Roarke refuses to take her there. If Eve says no to handcuffs during sex, Roarke will see the hidden desire in her eyes and handcuff her anyways, because Roarke is always right about what Eve really wants, and maybe safe words hadn’t yet been invented in the 90’s?
At one point, Roarke also breaks into Eve’s apartment and waits for her in the dark like a total creeper. He then has the gall to be offended when Eve checks to make sure he hasn’t looked at or otherwise tampered with her criminal files. And have I mentioned that, at the time of this B&E, Roarke is also a murder suspect?
I did not want Eve to end up with this man. I did not want anyone to end up with this man, but I especially didn’t want our strong and capable female protagonist to literally be carried into the happy ending by a big, strapping stalker. And that right there is my big problem with this type of character: if I don’t want our couple to get together at the end of the book, the romance has utterly failed for me.
Of course, tastes vary. You may find one hero appealing, and I may find him a garbage fire of a human being, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much; certainly, one instance does not a trope make. Which is why we’ll now be heading back to gothic romance to discuss the most classic version of the Sexy Douchecanoe: the Byronic hero.
Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre might be the most quintessential example of this. (Well, him or Heathcliff, anyway, but I’m happy to say I’ve never seen nor read any version of Wuthering Heights, for I suspect I would not survive the endeavor with full sanity intact.) Rochester is rich and arrogant and moody as hell, and he has peculiar ideas on how to court a woman, including disguising himself as a gypsy to try and uncover Jane’s secret feelings towards him, while also attempting to incite jealousy by lying to Jane about his supposed engagement with Blanche Ingram. He’s very secretive, too, as people tend to be when they’ve indefinitely imprisoned their mad wives upstairs in the attic.
Reading Jane Eyre wasn’t actually a tortuous affair, mostly because I rather liked Jane and, to my surprise, found that she displayed a surprising amount of power and agency in their relationship, despite the inequality of their social positions. (It also helps that Rochester is not quite as terrible to Jane on a day-to-day basis as some of the other men I’ll discuss today.) Yet I was still quite happy to see that, despite loving him, Jane leaves Mr. Rochester after finding out about Bertha, showing a welcome amount of self-respect that, unfortunately, goes by the wayside when she returns to our brooding hero at the end of the story. Rather conveniently, poor Bertha has died in Jane’s absence; meanwhile, according to every analysis I’ve ever read, Rochester is wholly redeemed of his faults and deeds when, during a fire, he loses his sight and one hand saving his servants’ lives, something that might mean more to me if his servants had been the people he’d wronged in the first place. Rochester does absolutely nothing to atone to Jane for how he treated her, and thus I find myself completely unmoved by their supposedly happy ending. He has done nothing to deserve her love, loyalty, or care.
But Mr. Rochester has nothing on our next Sexy Douchecanoe: Maxim de Winter of Rebecca.
Rebecca and Jane Eyre share a very similar premise, but Rebecca, by far, is the darker of the two novels. In many ways, it’s less of a traditional romance than an exploration of insecurity, jealousy, and codependence. Still, it appears that we are genuinely supposed to root for Maxim and our protagonist, the second Mrs. de Winter, which is unfortunate because their relationship is excruciating to read, as Maxim is the kind of temperamental, insensitive, patronizing jerk who thinks, “No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” is an acceptable way to propose marriage. He also refuses to consider a big, church wedding because he’s already had one before, and never mind the fact that his young fiancée, who’s never been married, clearly wants one. And this is all before we find out that (spoilers) Maxim murdered his first wife, Rebecca.
It turns out that’s okay, though, because Rebecca was really, really mean.
This novel was definitely a challenge to read, what with the way I had to keep taking breaks to hit my head against a desk as the second Mrs. de Winter trembles and quavers and continuously obsesses over whether her husband is still in love with his dead wife. I understand that Maxim saved our unnamed narrator from a lousy living situation with her former employer and all, but her complete lack of self-esteem and refusal to stand up for herself is just maddening. Still, you’d like to think if something will clue you into the fact that your husband doesn’t deserve you, it’s finding out that he shot and killed his first wife.
But of course this is not the case because Rebecca was, by her murderer’s account, a secretly terrible person who goaded Maxim into shooting her. And the problem is not just that his new wife forgives him; it’s that she’s not even particularly concerned about it, as all she really takes from this revelation is joy that Maxim isn’t still in love with Rebecca. And, incredibly, we’re meant to sympathize with Maxim as well; we’re supposed to be relieved when Rebecca’s death is ruled as a suicide instead of a murder, and our happy couple can move on together. Thank God Mrs. Danvers burns down Manderely; it’s the only part of that ending I actually consider happy.
Fortunately, not every Sexy Douchecanoe is as truly terrible as Maxim de Winter. Unfortunately, Sexy Douchecanoes are not limited to the gothic romances of years long past. We can find them in novels that came out as recently as 2015. For instance, let’s discuss Sarkan from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
The premise of this novel is that once every ten years, a wizard known as the Dragon (AKA, Sarkan) takes one young woman from a village as payment for protecting the people from the evil, magical Wood. The good news is that he actually has legitimate, if secret, reasons to take these women, and also that he never once tries to force himself on or otherwise coerce them into sex. Unfortunately, our protagonist, Agnieszka (or Nieshka), doesn’t know any of that. She is in a horribly vulnerable position, as she’s been taken away from everyone she’s ever known and loved and has no way to know what the Dragon will do to her.
And Sarkan certainly doesn’t help matters any by acting like a complete tool for the majority of the novel. He repeatedly insults her intelligence, abilities, and appearance. He forces her to alter the way she dresses so that she will better fit into his tower of beautiful things. He does not initially explain anything as he teaches her magic: not how it works, not what the side effects are, not even why he’s doing it, and of course is not at all concerned that his lessons leave her feeling physically ill and exhausted; if anything, her misery is an inconvenience for him. He also completely unnecessarily manhandles her the first night when she accidentally runs into him while looking for the kitchen.
None of this behavior is particularly romantic, or even remotely acceptable, but the final straw for me comes when a visiting prince attempts to rape Nieshka, and Nieshka, defending herself, nearly kills him. Sarkan’s immediate response upon discovering this is, “You idiot, what have you done now?”
To be fair, this is a serious situation: Sarkan first has to save the prince’s life, and then has to alter his memory to keep him from executing Nieshka. But it’s an undeniably terrible reaction to finding a woman who’s just been attacked, a reaction that’s quickly compounded on the very next page: “’And now you’re going to blubber, I suppose,” the Dragon said over my head. “What were you thinking? Why did you put yourself into that ludicrous dress if you didn’t want to seduce him?’”
Nope. That’s it. I’m done.
It doesn’t matter that Nieshka is only in the “ludicrous dress” because the prince tried to tear her other, less sexy dress off her. It wouldn’t matter if Nieshka had been walking around in period-piece lingerie; that’s victim-blaming bullshit, the kind of thing you usually hear as an excuse coming from the rapist’s mouth, not from your lead romantic hero. At this point, I knew Sarkan would need an incredible redemption story to excuse (or at least forgive) his atrocious behavior, but like Jane Eyre, Uprooted doesn’t really provide one, just a brief, mildly tragic backstory that, presumably, is meant to show how his character has become bitter over time. Sarkan never really apologizes for his needless cruelty, never does anything that indicates any real regret for his actions. Nieshka repeatedly calls him out on what he’s done, which is great, but his response is to invariably sulk off into another room, then return a few days later like nothing ever happened. Their love story is all forgiveness without apology, absolution without penance.
And that’s another big problem with the Sexy Douchecanoe: I don’t believe we’re taught to expect these guys to reform or repent. Their rude, controlling, and/or sexist behavior seems to be considered acceptable, maybe even desirable, either because that’s not who they really are “on the inside,” or because it’s the woman’s fault that they act this way in the first place. Switch mediums and genres, for a moment, and take Grey’s Anatomy: in second season, Meredith confronts Derek about how he constantly watches her with Bedroom Eyes, despite the fact that she’s trying to move on since Derek left her for the wife that he conveniently forgot to mention. (In an earlier episode, he also tried to slut shame Meredith for moving on, in case you needed more evidence that McDreamy is actually a creep.) Derek, with gross, angry intensity, responds:
“Do you think I want to look at you? That I wouldn’t rather be looking at my wife? I’m married! I have responsibilities! She doesn’t drive me crazy. She doesn’t make it impossible for me to feel normal. She doesn’t make me sick to my stomach thinking about my veterinarian touching her with his hands! Oh man, I would give anything not to be looking at you!”
This immediately leads to the two getting it on in the exam room, and I get it: tempers run high, it’s supposed to be passionate, etc. And for a lot of people, it was, just like how many readers found Roarke, Rochester, Maxim, and Sarkan swoon-worthy instead of awful. But when I watched this episode, I didn’t see a steamy scene between two ex-lovers; I saw a petulant man whining about the poor choices he alone was responsible for making. I saw a man entirely blaming his jealousy and lust on a woman who did nothing to incite them but exist. And I found that I didn’t want Meredith to take Derek back, not our young, sex-positive protagonist who had awesomely told her jerk ex-boyfriend that he didn’t get to call her a whore. It no longer mattered that McDreamy had great hair and a charming love for ferryboats. He didn’t deserve her.
But we’re expected to ship them anyway because, you know, passion.
And passion is the same reason we’re supposed to ship another couple from ShondaLand: Olivia and Fitz on Scandal. Honestly, if I’d been willing to re-watch the series on Netflix, this entire column probably could have been about Olivia’s love affair with the temperamental, possessive President Fitzgerald Grant. One memorable episode (“Hunting Season,” but probably better known as Treegate) has him using his Secret Service officers to fetch her against her will, all so he can yell in her face and jealously interrogate her about sleeping with an ex before pushing her up against a tree and fervently kissing her. (He also super aggressively changes her footwear, like he’s auditioning to be the most off-putting version of Cinderella’s prince ever.) And this, this is supposed to be our OTP. Sure, Olivia eventually pushes him off and yells at him in this particular scene, but it doesn’t take long for the two to get back together so that their vicious cycle can start again.
But this is the thing: I don’t think passion alone makes for a particularly great love story, nor do I think that the Sexy Douchecanoe is an entirely harmless trope. On one hand, at least for the older novels, you’re supposed to take the time period into account, which is, quite frankly, sometimes easier said than done. And obviously personal preference comes into play when it comes to what kind of characters you find sexy. I’m definitely uncomfortable with the thought of policing other people’s preferences.
On the other hand, girls are already taught to accept a lot of crappy behavior from boys as though it’s both normal and complimentary, like, he teases you, bullies you, pulls your hair? Don’t worry, that just means he likes you. Aren’t you flattered, little girl?
Well, no. Not really. My scalp hurts, and I’m crying now, and what exactly are you telling me here? Boys are entirely incapable of being kind to girls they like? If girls want boys to like them, they have to accept this kind of behavior? And if girls don’t accept this behavior, what? They will never find a boy? Their expectations, their standards, are just too high?
I can’t see how the Sexy Douchecanoe is much more than an adult, masculine, and probably shirtless version of this bully, whose jealous, controlling, and/or downright abusive behavior toward women is often blamed on the women themselves, behavior that comes with little, if any, actual consequence and is easily excused by all. Phoebe Salzman-Cohen’s review of Uprooted agrees that the Dragon is “impossible to like at first,” but found the love story convincing, despite the fact that Sarkan’s basic nature never changes. “Agnieszka doesn’t wish him into someone different,” Salzman-Cohen writes, “and he, likewise, loves her for the very clumsiness that he finds intolerable.” Which is a point I agree with in general–sometimes, you have to accept and love your partner for their flaws–but has disturbing ramifications when applied to unhealthy relationships. It’s true that Agnieszka is clumsy and not particularly well-dressed, but Sarkan is consistently, needlessly cruel to her. These are not equatable flaws.
Meanwhile, one recap of Scandal’s infamous Treegate scene insists that it is “painful, exhausting, and fucking sexy as hell,” and that Olivia and Fitz’s agony is what makes their relationship “beyond real.” Fitz is the only one in the wrong here, the only one lashing out, but our sympathy is supposed to go to him as well as Olivia because he wouldn’t try to hurt her if he didn’t love her so much.
And Dear Author’s review for Naked in Death argues that Roarke is “somewhat less of a dickbasket than a lot of the other alpha heroes” and that he’s “nowhere near as controlling as this character often is.” But the fact that I believe this reviewer is almost certainly right doesn’t mean that I have to accept a narrative where women are successfully seduced by not-entirely-dickbaskets.
I don’t accept that this is just what love looks like. My standards are too high for that. I do expect a more compelling love story. And I bet those stories are out there, in both the romance genre and otherwise; after all, in Sunil Patel’s post that I linked to earlier, he lists a number of reasons that he’ll continue to read romance novels, the very first of which is complex and relatable characters, and–while this is a presumption on my part–I assume that he’s not talking about Sexy Douchecanoes and the Heroines who Settle For Them. Those are the stories I want to find, in every genre and medium, ones where couples are good for each other, good to each other; stories with couples I can actually root for. They can make mistakes, but those mistakes should be resolved, not hand-waved away. They can fight, but forgiveness shouldn’t only come in the version of sweaty make-up sex. By all means, include the sweaty make-up sex, but also include the honest conversation, the talking problems out, the actual, legitimate apologies and making up for what you’ve done.
And if the hot, broody hero is just too tortured and jealous and passionate to engage in any of that, then it doesn’t matter if he likes ferryboats or is the President of the United States; it doesn’t matter if he has a castle or speaks with a sexy Irish accent. Dump him, ladies. Dump him now because you can do and deserve so much better.
And because, sometimes, love absolutely means saying you’re sorry.