Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Control and the Alpha Male: Suzanne Brockmann's DO OR DIE

Award-winning romantic suspense author Suzanne Brockmann is the owner of a more-than-intriguing reputation. On the one hand, her celebration of the military in both stand-alone volumes and in her Navy SEAL-focused Troubleshooters and Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series, has won her a devoted following among politically-conservative readers. On the other, her championing of diversity, both within her books and via her personal activism on behalf of gay marriage rights in her home state of Massachusetts, has won her the label of "groundbreaker." Though many romance writers before her had written heroes and heroines of color, Brockmann is oft-cited as the first mainstream romance author to include an openly gay romance subplot in her work.

How do celebrations of the alpha military male coexist with celebrations of diversity, in particular, celebration of male homosexual identity? When being gay is often equated with being feminine, or at least un-masculine, how is masculinity constructed in Brockmann's books?

Given the breadth of Brockmann's oeuvre, I suspect one could write an entire book attempting to answer these questions. This post attempts to give an abbreviated answer by looking at the main male character in Brockmann's latest novel, Do or Die, the first book in her new Reluctant Heroes series.

As in many of Brockmann's Ballentine-published books, Do or Die features multiple romantic storylines: the developing one, between former Navy SEAL and currently-jailed bad boy Ian Dunn and his would-be lawyer, Phoebe Kruger; the already-established one, between Ian's younger brother, Aaron and his high-school sweetheart, Shelly (Sheldon) Dellarosa; and a third, unresolved one, between Shelly's half-sister, Francine, and several potential love interests. Ian, though, is the hero of this particular volume, not only because he's the leader of the group who must rescue two kidnapped children from a foreign embassy while avoiding the wrath of Shelly's murderous gangster Dellarosa family, but because he is the one who experiences character growth over the course of the novel.

Ian, much older than Aaron, served as his brother's parent during much of their childhood, taking on the responsibilities that should have been shouldered by a mother who abandoned them and a father who drank far too much. His desire to protect, as well as his supersized body, military heroism, and leadership skills, marks him as a typical romance alpha male. Interestingly, though, up until now, his protective instincts have focused largely on his gay younger brother rather than on the more typical genre romance figure of a woman. When the novel opens, in fact, Ian is fulfilling a deal he made with Manny Dellarosa to keep the gangster from killing Aaron and Shelly, a deal which had Ian spending the last eighteen months in jail after taking the rap for a crime Manny's son actually committed. A deal about which Ian has not told Aaron, leaving Aaron upset and worried, wondering what has happened to his missing brother.

Over the course of the novel, however, Ian's protective instincts become awakened toward the more conventional romance figure. Lawyer Phoebe Kruger becomes inadvertently embroiled in the kidnapped-children-retrieval caper, and the verbal and physical sparks between her and Ian soon start to fly. In many a romantic suspense, we see the controlling alpha male being repeatedly ignored by the mouthy independent woman, typically to the woman's detriment so that the alpha male can then swoop in and rescue her from whatever danger she would have avoided if only she'd listened to him. Brockmann plays with this trope to interesting effect in Do or Die. Phoebe has a TSTL moment at the opening of the book, ignoring Ian's instructions to remain in the safe house, not believing that the Dellarosas would threaten or harm a member of the law firm that represents their interests. Ian, predictably, comes to her rescue when the Dellarosas come calling.

But in several other instances later in the novel, when Ian instructs Phoebe to remain behind while he trots off into danger, Phoebe initially agrees, but then disregards Ian's instructions when the situation changes and she must warn Ian about a new threat. Though Phoebe's disregarding of Ian's orders complicates each situation, the novel makes it clear that her decisions are the correct ones, saving both Ian and their larger mission. Blindly obeying orders, even those of the alpha male leader of your team, is not always wise, especially when conditions on the ground are rapidly changing. Over the course of the novel, Ian will learn that he cannot always control all situations, and that he must learn to trust the skills, knowledge, and instincts of those around him, especially those about whom he feels the most protective—his female lover and his gay younger brother. Neither women nor homosexuals need the protective alpha to infantilize them by condescendingly protecting them.

There's lots of other gender-related questions that the novel asks us to consider, or that we could ask after reading it: Is a romance between gay men the same as one between heterosexuals? To what degree are women and gay men equated as "other"? Is it morally right for a woman to use sex to forward a mission? Is it for a man? (My favorite line: "I was lying here thinking I'm guilty of being sexist... That it's somehow okay when James Bond does it—sleeps with someone in order to learn the secret code, but then I realized that I kind of hate James Bond. Probably because he sleeps with people to learn the secret code"). When does the "we're all alike once you get to know us" type of diversity celebration shade over into homogenization and appropriation? Is there room in the Brockmann world for masculinity (or femininity) that isn't always competent?

If only I had the time to go back to school and earn another Ph.D., this one in Suzanne Brockmann studies...

Photo credits:
Firefighter saving woman: Women's Happiness

Do or Die
Reluctant Heroes
Ballantine, 2014


  1. I think the awesomeness that is Suzanne Brockmann is quite possibly that you are totally sucked in and want to be lifelong friends (or lovers) with her characters. They're funny, sensitive, sexy...all that and socially redeeming, too!

    1. Just a bit of a fan, are you, Teri Anne? Do you have any favorites? Or do you just love everything Brockmann writes?

  2. My personal experience with Brockmann is... kind of addictive. I think that she's bad for my leftish ideology. But I cannot stop reading her because, well, she writes very compelling stories. Something is wrong with me -I know- for liking her so much, but I cannot help it. So, it's like a drug for me. No good for the brain but giving a lot of pleasure.
    On the other hand, I'm very proud when I can mention her books to all those 'romance-despisers' of the world, because she breaks many clichés. When you mention that there is male/male romance and even that one very important best-selling author -as S. Brockmann is- has told this kind of story, you just render them speechless. Because it breaks many prejudices against the genre.

    1. What about Brockmann's books makes you feel they're "bad for your leftish ideology," Bona?