This essay was inspired by Carrie’s review of Roomies, a book I enjoyed despite it prompting a rant from Carrie. Her review is a great read, in part because it caused me to examine my own reading, specifically how much my own tastes have been affected or changed by current political and social issues.
I have been doing a lot of self examination, especially after a recent shopping trip to a bookstore.
I wandered the shelves, looking at all the different books, and I realized that romantic suspense has been shut out from my reading interests.
And I realized why: I want no part of the “guy with a gun” pictured on the covers.
Reading trends and personal tastes are in a constant state of flux; as the world changes, so do our opinions on tropes. In Carrie’s case, a modern marriage of convenience story that included an immigration workaround for White people negated her enjoyment of the romance. When people of color are consistently targeted by ICE agents, I can understand why the specifics of that plot would leave a reader with a very bad taste in their mouth.
And that’s exactly how I feel lately when I see a man with a gun, poised and at the ready, on a romance cover.
I don’t envision being safe from danger or feeling protected.
I envision every newscast from every shooting that’s happened recently – one after another.
It makes me angry.
It makes me feel frightened.
It makes me want to cry.
Those feelings have nothing to do with a reading experience I actually want.
I grew up around guns. I’d say my relationship with them is well-informed, coming from a place of experience and education. I received a BB gun as a Christmas present at the age of seven. I can clean them, load them, and store them safely. I competed in marksmanship competitions while in high school. Firearms are a large part of my family identity and were also a source of bonding. My grandfather collected them and made his own ammo. My brother inherited part of my grandfather’s substantial collection.
But while I respect guns and proper gun ownership, I can’t ignore that there is a widespread problem with how guns are sold, modified, and used. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, which occurred in the county where I was born, and with the mass shootings that have already happened and the others that are likely to come, the last thing I want is more guns.
I don’t want more guns in my community.
I don’t want more guns in schools.
And after a recent book shopping trip, I realized: I don’t want them on my romances.
I’ve been trying to figure out why a gun-toting cover model bothers me so much and I think it comes down to how threatening and upsetting I find the image now, and how much guns are tied to White masculinity, and how much that really grosses me out.
I am a White woman and come from a White family. My brother has his concealed weapons permit and is in the military. The notion that he may be pulled over and shot by a police officer for having a gun in his possession or even just the idea of a weapon in his possession has never crossed my mind. I have that privilege. Many, many others do not, because a White man with a gun is seen as either a protector or, in the wake of a shooting, as pitiable, as someone with mental health issues who was failed by the system. For anyone of color, that is not the case. They get a whole different set of labels – racist ones like “terrorist,” “thug,” etc.
For the sake of this argument, I’m going to be referring to romantic suspense, as this is a trend I see most often for the subgenre, though I do realize it’s not mutually exclusive. Other romances and thrillers use this imagery as well.
In a typical genre cover involving a firearm, the hero is typically the one in the protector position on the cover. He’s front and center, with or without a heroine clutching his biceps. He’s tasked with guarding his love interest and is often some sort of security expert, or works as a bodyguard, is in the military, or a member of law enforcement. While the hero may be trained in various protection tactics like negotiation or martial arts, there is almost always a gun involved. The weaponry is a shorthand symbol for power, authority, and, let’s be real, sexual prowess as well. I immediately think of the joke, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Guns are extremely phallic.
Seeing a man on the cover with a gun, to me, used to be code for, “look how strong I am. I can protect you, keep you safe, and will probably pop a boner from all the danger we’re in.” The cover was effective shorthand representation of what I’ll find inside the book: action, suspense, and most likely that dude and his gun.
However, my reaction to that cover imagery has changed drastically, in part because my awareness of reality interferes with my ability to accept the image as standard marketing. If I were a romance heroine in a book or out on a date with an actual person, knowing that a man I just met has a weapon on them would make me extremely nervous. (Sarah asked while editing this essay with me if I’d still feel unsafe if a member of law enforcement had the gun. And yes, I would.)
But I know I’m privileged to have that reaction. People from marginalized communities don’t have the luxury of feeling safe in the presence of law enforcement, or even merely nervous.
Then there’s the fact that right now, a gun is relatively easy to acquire. Because so many people who should not have access, such as domestic abusers, manage to get them through proper channels with little interference, I no longer equate gun ownership with being a law-abiding member of society. The idea of a man with a gun doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me feel afraid.
There’s also the issue of race. Most men on the cover of romantic suspense novels, especially those that are wielding a handgun, are White. We’ve seen what happens to men of color when they are even suspected of having a weapon. White men with weapons are “vigilantes” and “isolated loners.” If they commit a crime, they’re “mentally ill.” But men of color are treated as suspects or terrorists by default, facing incarceration or murder by the same individuals who are supposed to protect communities.
I’m gun exhausted. I’m sick of seeing mass shootings in the news. I’m sick of zero changes being made at the expense of our safety. I’m sick of having these debates every three months or three weeks. And I don’t want romance to be a reminder of the cycle of gun violence in which we are permanently stuck.
I’m not averse to stories about the effects of gun violence, to be clear. I recently enjoyed The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren which is a romance between adults who were victims of gun violence as teens. The series follows several of the mass shooting survivors and, so far, the emotions and lingering trauma felt terribly real. I’m reading the second book now, though I had to set it aside after the Parkland shooting. The reality of gun violence overshadowed my ability to read the story. I’ll undoubtedly pick it back up, but I’m also dreading it, because how long until another mass shooting in real life means I’ll have to pause again?
For those who enjoy or write in the genre, keep doing your thing. You should read what you like, but for me, I sense that my aversion to pistol-packing heroes gracing romance covers is only going to worsen as America’s gun problem persists. I react with repulsion and disgust at the image of a White guy with a handgun on a cover of a romance now. It’s not effective marketing. It’s a reminder of the immediate and increasing threat that guns pose, and how little is being done to change that. So when I see that image, I look elsewhere.
What about you? How do these covers make you feel?
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