Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Archetypes: Blue Collar

Books we’ll be reading this week

Every now and then Erin will send something that captures her attention to the group chat, and for whatever reason when she saw this post from @LadySadieReads on Insta she sent it along…

…which, combined with SuperWendy’s August TBR Challenge, inspired our August buddy read week. Several of the books on Sadie’s list were already on our TBRs, so this was the kick we needed to get reading!

Bottom line: Do you like the Blue Collar archetype?

Erin: It’s not one that I actively seek out, but when I come across a book because of some other hook and see there’s a blue collar element I’m usually like, “Ooo, hello.”

Holly: Like Erin, I don’t actively seek it out, but I usually enjoy it when I do. There is a much lower likelihood that we’ll be dealing with billionaires, which is always a plus in my book.

Ingrid: I have started enjoying them more as I’ve gotten older? I think there’s something about capable partners that I appreciate more than I did when I was younger and more ridiculous.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Blue Collar archetype?

Erin: The character who’s blue collar is a laborer. One who engages in physical work for pay rather than administrative, sales, or hospitality work. 

Holly: Think carpenters, plumbers, and mechanics. Blacksmiths. Oilmen, for the bonus blue collar billionaires. Sometimes contemporary cowboys have blue collar vibes.

Ingrid: All of the above. And there’s often a “humble and capable” vibe?

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Holly: This is usually a great opportunity for competence porn. Who doesn’t love a person who can fix things? 

Plus the jokes write themselves. 

Erin:  You know, all the things I like about it do boil down to competence porn. Thanks, Holly! Brains are hot and all, but there’s something elementally sexy about working with one’s hands. Or watching someone work with their hands, I guess. 

I also like that it is an opportunity to value work that’s often looked down on in our culture. Like, we need mechanics and janitors and so on, but there’s also this broader expectation that youths need to focus on academics to get “good” or “better” jobs, like the folks keeping society running did something wrong in their lives to end up with these jobs. Stories featuring this archetype can be an equalizer. On the other hand, see the next question.

Ingrid: I like all of the above. You can have capability porn with a Duke who has never lifted a finger in his life, technically—maybe with subterfuge and machinations instead of with his own hands. Sometimes it’s nice to have the all powerful fantasy and sometimes it’s nice to have characters feel accessible and real.

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: The blue collar archetype much more frequently applies to the hero in cis-het romances. (We’ve reviewed a handful of books featuring blue collar heroines, which can be found here.) And within that realm, this is a trope that is commonly subject to some gender essentialism. Like, manly man fix things with tools, womanly woman look pretty in kitchen. 

We could call it the flip side of competence porn: one character is supremely competent (read: manly), which underscores the incompetence (or even helplessness) of the love interest.

Erin: Yeah, this one definitely falls into some gender essentialism problem areas because often a component of the attraction is how sexy all that pure masculinity is. Because tools and sweat and grease are gendered. Obviously. 

Holly: Look, Erin, I once read a book where a woman was given a cute pink toolbox with a cute pink hammer in it for a wedding shower gift, so please don’t tell me that tools aren’t gendered. 

Erin: I have spent 8 years drilling into my children that there are no girl colors and no boy colors, so I must hold the line. Except that’s kind of funny, more than kind of sad, and I kind of want a pink toolbox because pink is delightful and all the orange and black ones are boring. 

But I digress.

Also oftentimes there might be class conflicts in play, where a white-collar love interest or LI with a white-collar family is snobby and the blue collar character(s) prove that they’re equally as valid as the characters with more education and/or an office job. Sometimes authors pull this off, but also sometimes they play into stereotypes that reinforce the class differences or overly glorify blue collar work either by glossing over difficult aspects that often come along with it or by using the difficulties / stereotypes to enhance drama. Not necessarily a problem problem, but something that might be frustrating to readers.

Ingrid: This can be true. I think there’s also a big trend to have blue collar also = grumpy, and that’s where I see more clumsy gender essentialism. I notice less of this with the quiet, cinnamon rolls. And it does drive me INSANE when the women (where applicable) are dumbed down or made to look incompetent to highlight the blue collar character look stronger and more competent.

Are all romances featuring working-class protagonists “blue collar” romances, or is there something that distinguishes this archetype?

Holly: One of the books I read for this week was The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt, because it showed up on a list of best blue collar romances…and I would not classify it as “blue collar.” Yes, the hero is working class—he’s her land steward—but the angst comes not from the specific work he does, but his class position and the fact that he’s her employee. 

Furthermore, though cops and firefighters are technically blue collar laborers, I would not classify law enforcement romance as blue collar. 

So I think when I’m looking for a romance featuring the blue collar archetype, I specifically want one of the protagonists to work with their hands. There should be a scene where they have to clean the dirt (grease / sweat / etc) of their labor off their body.

Erin: I do think there’s a difference between a blue collar archetype and a blue collar worker and my argument is this: there is already a separate lawman archetype for sure, and I would argue also there is a firefighter archetype as well (expanding on Holly’s argument here). I think even that oil baron might fall under a more filthy-rich-CEO type archetype as well, even though one of my book recs below does include such a character. (But they do go to the factory! Simon’s wealthy now but he hasn’t always been! Even if that’s a straw-man argument.) In terms of this archetype for a romance, I would also expect someone doing physical labor that’s going to make them sweaty and dirty. And farmers might technically fall under this category as well, but even there, unless they’re actually doing the farming on page. I mean, my personal tags have “farmers” as separate from “working class hero” (not because farmers aren’t working class but because they’re more niche). I guess I have a pretty narrow view of what to expect from this particular archetype vs. in real life. There are multiple archetypes that may include class conflict or protagonists who labor for a wage, but not all of them are blue collar.

What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?

Erin: I’m going to take Holly’s job and offer histrom Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas. Simon, son of a butcher, is now a wealthy railroad tycoon, and he wants Annabelle Hunt, who is a gentlewoman looking for a wealthy gentleman husband, not a brash, new-money entrepreneur. The cool thing about this book is that social expectations and class play a big role in this Industrial Revolution setting. All the power dynamics relate back to the greater social goings on during this period.

Alternatively, if you like some Contemporary softness featuring A-level competence porn, may I suggest Cherish Hard by Nalini Singh or Strong Enough by Cardeno C.?

Or, you know what? If men holding grease rags and being bossy AF cranks your chain, Motorcycle Man might really do it for you. 

Holly: My recommendations depend on what you’re looking for in a blue collar romance.

Are you looking for competence porn, of the deck-building variety? Then I recommend Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday (please note that there’s a lot of grief and a dead child in this book). 

Are you looking for a working class hero and heroine who work with their hands and get dirty? Then I recommend Weep, Woman, Weep by Maria DeBlassie, where both are farmers (please note that I would call this book smut adjacent).

Are you looking for forearm porn? Then I recommend A Princess for Christmas by Jenny Holiday, which is just friggin’ delightful and features a cab driver who meets a princess (and shows off his forearms while driving her around).

Are you looking for a gentle electrician who bakes and lots and lots of angst about class? Then read Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall. 

Are you looking for a blue collar heroine in a bonkers historical set-up? Then please read A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran without delay.

All of these very specific recommendations are making me think that the blue collar archetype is not very clearly defined in my mind. Or put another way, this archetype is broad and includes books with many different vibes.

Ingrid: I recently really enjoyed Hook, Line, and Sinker by Tessa Bailey. It did have some “me man, you woman” vibes going on (rich, spoiled, social media maven gets sent back to her birth father’s fishing town to get her head on straight and falls for the town’s grumpy sea captain), and there are some ridiculous bits, but it was charming as heck and I was half in love with the sea captain myself before the book was over. 

Books we mentioned in this discussion:

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