You know the line. It’s been repeated so many times, in so many reboots and memes and jokes about rice: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spiderman’s mantra is so cliché, but it also points to a central component of our cultural understanding of what it means to Be A Man.
Let’s start by talking about how Spider-Man gets to this point. (Thanks to my husband for talking through Spider-Man’s origin story with me in excruciating detail.) He is bitten by a radioactive spider, which results in him being able to climb walls and other spider-y abilities. This is the power, which he spontaneously gets without much effort. And what does he do with it initially? He climbs walls for funsies, and he uses his newfound skills to make money. He wants to impress Mary Jane, or be cool, or just goof off. In the throes of his self-indulgent stage, he lets a criminal go, because catching him is inconvenient, and plus, he’s feeling a bit petty – and that criminal goes on to murder his beloved Uncle Ben. Uncle Ben had given him a lecture on power and responsibility just recently, but it took a personal tragedy for Spider-Man to decide that he is personally responsible for making the world better – because he has the power to do so – and to start fighting crime.
So what does this have to do with dukes? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Dukes, like Spider-Man, gain their power through no effort on their part. All a duke has to do is be born lucky, and BAM! Automatically one of the most powerful men in England. But what does a duke actually do with all that power?
Well, again like Spider-Man, many dukes in romance novels tend to spend their time goofing off. All those Debauched Dukes and Devil Dukes who use their name to sleep with women or get out of ridiculous scrapes or strike fear into the hearts of those tenant farmers that they definitely don’t want to deal with.
And then there’s the turning point, when the duke starts taking responsibility. Admittedly, the turning point is usually about finding true love, and not facing a life-altering personal tragedy; the life-altering personal tragedy happened before the action started, and set him on the path of depravity in the first place.
Let’s look at some examples of the particular arc of tragic childhood → gaining a dukedom → having power → finding love → accepting the responsibility to care for land / other people. The dukes in A Duke Changes Everything by Christy Carlyle and A Duke to Remember by Kelly Bowen both follow this arc – with the bonus of both dukes being locked up by their evil evil fathers. So when unexpectedly come into their power, there’s a lot to grapple with, making their paths to accepting their responsibilities slow, torturous, and a central plot point of both books. As they reluctantly come into power, their power explicitly changes them. In both cases, the men stop thinking only in terms of their own self interest; they start doing things they don’t want to do for the benefit of others. Noah, Bowen’s duke of Ashland, finally steps into his role to rescue his mother from Bedlam, even though he harbors a great deal of anger towards her, and even though doing so means that he has to step away from a simple life from which he drew a great deal of joy.
Of course, most duke stories are not quite this extreme, but the theme of the duke accepting the responsibility that goes along with his power is common. Bray, the Duke of Drakestone from The Duke in My Bed decides that it’s time to stop being so debauched and produce an heir. William, the Duke of Worth from A Good Rogue is Hard to Find starts the book deciding he needs not only a wife, but a cause to support in order to give his life purpose. Tavish McKenzie, of A Duke by Default, resists dukedom until he realizes the good he could do for his community with his newfound power.
In both romance novels and Spider-Man comics, it goes without saying that the responsibility entails using one’s power for good. Spider-Man fights crime and defeats villains who are obviously evil.
The actual responsibility that dukes take on is a little more murky, because romance novels generally focus on the arc of coming into a full life rather than what it actually means to rule well, but the subtext is that these dukes will maintain their family homes and treat their tenant farmers well and take their seats in Parliament and love their wives and have many children who they actively parent. He will be better than his peers, because a duke is more than just a man – he’s got that extra something special: extra power. And with that extra power comes extra responsibility.
There’s something insidious about the whole thing. Because you have power, that means you can be the arbiter of what is right and wrong – and this narrative tells me not only that they CAN decide these things, but that they SHOULD. In the case of Spider-Man, the villains have power as well, and maybe they also believe that they are using that power to make the world right. Maybe Spider-Man is deluded, and thinks he’s saving the day, but is actually making things worse. And it’s great that all these dukes are going to clean up their ancestral homes and take their seats in Parliament, but what policies are they actually supporting? As the most powerful men in the country, dukes benefit hugely from the status quo, and are therefore likely to use their power to support the status quo (even in the face of huge societal problems). The responsibility is maybe about making the world better – but for whom? And maybe it’s really about taking on one’s inherited paternalistic role to make sure that all those underlings and wives and children fall in line. For their own good, naturally.
At the outset of this piece, I said that the power / responsibility arc ties into a broader cultural understanding of manhood. (By that I mean masculinity, not manhood in the purple prose sense of things. Geez guys.) Men are told to step up, to take charge, to provide. And on the surface, that all sounds great, right? But by stepping up, taking charge, providing – by using their power to take responsibility for others – that means they also get to make the decisions. And what about the people they take responsibility for?
Look, I’m not saying that dukes should stop deciding to refurbish their ancestral homes after they find true love. But maybe we should think about what this actually means and interrogate the fantasy of the powerful man as the ideal romantic hero.
Next Time in The Duke Project: I haven’t decided yet, honestly. I think I need to do some more market research, i.e. read more Duke Books. Suggestions of good ones I should check out?