Beasts in men’s clothing

RickyNJ, "Arctic Wolf III," Flickr, 2009
RickyNJ, "Arctic Wolf III," Flickr, 2009

In my last blog post, I mentioned the persistence of the Galatea myth in romance fiction. There is, however, a parallel motif of men undergoing transformation that harkens back to Greek and Roman myths as well. While neither Zeus nor Apuleius’s Golden Ass would figure in a romance reader’s top choices of heroes, it is undeniable that much recent romance fiction that is classed as “paranormal” includes men—or what appear to be men—whose other selves are animals.

Dara Joy’s novels have featured men who become cats at will, Christine Feehan writes male protagonists who have a leopard form, Lora Leigh’s heroes include hyenas, and Sherrilyn Kenyon has were-bears. So extensive is this men-agerie that werewolf heroes are almost de trop, over shadowed by the crowd of mermen (Marjorie M. Liu), dragons (Katie MacAlister), and snakes (C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp).

The ubiquity of animal heroes seems to point to bestiality as the obvious attraction, but I would suggest that that’s a red herring, if you’ll pardon the pun. As with Galatea, transformation is the pivotal element. But while Pygmalion turned Galatea into woman, albeit a made-to-order were-woman, the trend to transform a man into an animal and then into a hero is a disturbing development.

In animal form, the men are physically more powerful, more volatile, more aggressive—in other words, reminiscent of the ‘70s alpha-male (itself a term taken from biology’s study of pack animals). Yet the were-animal heroes often retain their rational human mind in the bestial form, along with some awareness of appropriate behavioral etiquette toward the female partner, i.e., they have vestiges of the beta male hero that emerged in American romance fiction in the ‘80s. Male transformation (or transmogrification) thus appears to be an instance of romance fiction’s dialectical progression.

Yet I admit to strong reservations about this particular dialectic. In Greek myth, Zeus changed into the bull or the swan with the intent of ravishing a woman, while in the Golden Ass, Lucius’s transformation was somewhat involuntary and taught him some life lessons before he became a man again. Were-animal romance heroes do not follow in Zeus’s footsteps but they don’t quite take Lucius’s journey, either.

Instead, the stories tend to show the heroines accepting the animal—with trepidation in some cases, and with ease in others. (Often, the heroines become paranormal beings or are not quite human themselves.) A rare instance of a man actively battling his animal self is found in Laurell K. Hamilton’s genre-bending Anita Blake series but that character has essentially been labeled as tiresome in his self-hatred.

It is no grievous fault to desire a passionate hero but when that translates into animality (and a dismissal of men who do not care to be animals), it is time to reassess the desire.

Jayashree Kamble

Jayashree Kamble is the recipient of the first Romance Writers of America academic research grant and author of "Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Novels" in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.

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