Bottom line: Do you like the bedding the boss trope?
Holly: Don’t tell HR, but I kind of do.
Erin: I used to really like it, but I think I read too many similarly toned billionaire boss romances last year and now I’m kind of “meh.” But I don’t not like it! I mean, the first book I ever finished writing has this trope.
Holly: And maybe someday, if I bug you enough, you’ll actually publish it!
(Note to readers: I have to live my romance author dreams vicariously through Erin because the act of writing fiction does not actually bring me joy. Criticism on the other hand…)
Ingrid: I love it. It’s a real weakness.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as bedding the boss trope?
Holly: The protagonists have to work together, and one has to be in a position of power over the other. This frequently plays out in an executive/secretary dynamic, but I would argue that the Governess Trope in historical romance is a subcategory of bedding the boss romance.
I would further argue that this trope generally comes with some element of explicit power play between the characters as well as a side-helping of angst.
Erin: All of that. In particular I think there needs to be a workplace setting, even if they’re working away from the office, otherwise the tension of the boss/employee power dynamic doesn’t really pull through.
Oh, also it’s not just the governess trope in histrom. The nanny/parent dynamic in contemporary does this, too!
Ingrid: I agree. Power dynamics, paychecks, and pleasure. HELLO.
What do you think is fun about the trope?
Erin: It relies on a natural forced proximity that’s really easy to buy. Even if someone hasn’t had an office crush, a platonic work spouse isn’t uncommon because people tend to be social creatures. It also plays with a little taboo, which is scintillating. Sneaking around because we really shouldn’t, but we just can’t stop?! Pining because it’ll never happen and then it does?! Yum, yum, yum.
Holly: When done well, the tension is just delicious. I think I prefer historical romance because there is often a built-in societal pressure keeping the characters apart, and often, in contemporary romance, there isn’t really a reason for the characters not to be together, so the characters fabricate one. But office romances don’t have that problem! They are just chock full of real social reasons that characters can’t be together and I am all about it.
Ingrid: I feel like all of the above is true. You’re stuck with this person and you’re dependent on your work for whatever reason…the stakes are high and so is the tension.
What do you find problematic about the trope?
Holly: So here’s the thing. All of these secretaries are ingenues who learn so much about the *real world* from their hot older executive bosses, but in my experience, if you want shit done, you talk to the secretary. Secretaries are the ones that actually keep everything running smoothly. Probably more hot executives should learn about the *real world* from their middle-aged secretaries who manage everything with an iron fist. Where’s my romance about that dynamic?
NOTE: I don’t actually want to read that romance, not because I’m not into older-woman romance, or competent female characters, but these bad-ass women deserve better than the man babies they take care of at work all day. (See for example: Two Weeks Notice.)
Erin: I used to be a manager at a law firm, so I get super hung up on some HR nightmare scenarios. I don’t know why people think lawsuits waiting to happen are sexy. Not all authors thumb their noses at the power dynamics issues central to this trope, but when they do, I start to sweat.
Also, how often would an admin be like, “Oh, yes, my unreasonable and possibly abusive boss with no boundaries is very good looking so instead of rage quitting I will have sex with them”?
Ingrid: I’m going to throw down and say that this trope has perhaps the most potential to be both the best and worst in show. When it’s done well, it’s just delicious…but when it’s done poorly, it can really get your skin crawling.
Given that this trope frequently features one protagonist in a position of power over the other, do you think that books with this trope do a good job of discussing power dynamics?
Erin: This seems to go three ways.
1. The power dynamic is largely ignored. In this case it might technically fall under the bedding the boss trope umbrella, but it isn’t true to the tension that the trope is meant to evoke.
2. The power dynamic is part of what revs the protagonists’ up. I mean this in the context of those CEOs who get off on their assistants being extremely competent and also basically insubordinate. This method ignores real conversations about the power dynamic because it simply uses the dynamic as foreplay while the characters can’t be together.
3. The characters actually process the challenges of the power dynamics in play beyond simply an “HR would be so mad if they found out!” way and negotiate ways to be together that do not compromise their integrity.
The books that fall in the #3 category are probably the most interesting and thoughtful, but I would argue that the majority of books in this trope fall more in the #2 category.
Holly: Books in category #2 are still really fun to read!
Ingrid: I’m not sure it’s that easy to simplify. Some do, and a lot don’t. I think we’re going to have to watch the genre for a while too, because as a society we have reached this new level of awareness and clarity where I think we can really start to pinpoint where these dynamics aren’t fun to read. I think the genre will come up with sexy ways to rise to the occasion.
Holly: Ingrid makes a good point—I too am curious to see how this trope morphs as the labor force continues to change and evolve.
What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?
Erin: I take it back, I freaking LOVE this trope. I started going through my read books list to find one for this question and I found so many that delighted and entertained me.
So the most recent read that just totally made me have all the little feels was Thorned Heart by Eden Finley. Band manager has been secretly in love with lead guitarist for two years. Novella. Totally worked for me.
BUT while I have plenty of books tagged as “Bedding the Boss” on my list, I would argue that the ones that really work the best with this trope include the prospect of bedding the boss being a point of conflict or secrecy in the romance. Bypassing that makes the trope fall a bit flat. So if you’re looking for that bossy tension, Karina Halle nailed it in A Nordic King. If that’s not the driving desire for you, then I can’t recommend Nalini Singh enough, and I’ll suggest Cherish Hard because Sailor and Isa 4ever!
See me not choosing one book again? Sorry Holly and Ingrid.
Ingrid: All I can say is By a Thread by Lucy Score. This book is like the winner of the whole dang trope.
Holly: If you want an excellent histrom example, Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt is excellent. This one is definitely a case of power dynamic #2, where Val, the Sinful Duke, is absolutely revved up by his hyper competent and also insubordinate housekeeper. He’s also a toxic boss, but this book is so fun to read.
If you’re looking for a bedding the boss romance where the characters thoughtfully navigate the power dynamic inherent in their relationship, Swing Batter Swing by Zaida Polanco is very sexy and very deliberate in how it interrogates power imbalances.
Books we mentioned in this discussion
Love workplace romances? Absolutely despise them? Have a favorite you think we should read? Let us know in the comments!
5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Tropes: Bedding the Boss”
I did not read all of this but romance authors should stop this type of story NOW. Hello ME TOO !
Monica Lewisky is a perfect example of a person in power taking advantage of someone who worked for him!!!!
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First, there are definitely ways of writing an employer/employee romantic relationship that isn’t gross or about the boss taking advantage of someone who works for him. Characters can know about MeToo and feel weird about the feelings they have for their co-workers (and this can be a delightful source of tension)
And second, romance is a place where we can play out our fantasies—like, maybe it’s fun to read a story about a boss-employee relationship that would be absolutely gross in real life, but that is kind of sexy if you don’t think about it too hard.
This trope is as old as romance in the 20th century. As soon as women entered the working sphere, this opened an avenue to romance besides falling for the neighboring farmer or the long-suffering family friend. From the governess raising the widowed hero’s children, to the Doctor and Nurse comics, to an arrogant director or writer at odds with the actress in his production, to the boss and secretary/PAs dramas of today, this type of romance is here to stay, so long as men and women are working together.
I enjoy this trope when the heroine is so capable, the hero would be lost without her, and then something happens to make him realize he’s also attracted to her, and she to him (and has always been). I’m a little tired of the billionaires when a simple millionaire can do, but I do adore this kind of romance!
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Oh man, Doctor/Nurse romances! Those mid-century Betty Neels romances definitely fall under this category—I don’t love them, but I can definitely see why many people find them satisfying.
And 100% agreed that a lot of whether this trope works is contingent on the heroine being capable, rather than a naive ingenue.