Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Archetypes: Cowboys

Our theme week for this month is cowboys and to kick it off, the Smut Reporters sat down to talk about the cowboy archetype.

Preview! Here are the books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the Cowboy archetype?

Erin: With this question I compare myself to my college roommate, who was all about the cowboys when I was not. So I guess no? But it’s not an aversion as much as indifference.

Holly: Yes. It’s the competence porn of blue collar romance plus wide open spaces plus animals. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to a lot of Ye Olde Country Music. (Obligatory link to “El Paso” by Marty Robbins.)

Ingrid: I absolutely do. I agree with Holly—there’s a level of competence and skill involved, and I’m not remotely sorry to say I’m a huge sucker for it.

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

Erin: Mentally I think I conflate “cowboy” with historical Westerns, but if I’m thinking more carefully about this question then… historical or contemporary (or other – space cowboys, anyone? Firefly?) the overall aspects of the cowboy would be the same: rugged, confident, plainspoken, casual (boots & jeans pls & thx), independent, instinctual and probably a little bit paternalistic. And, of course, not every hero with those qualities simply is a cowboy; the character must also be directly identified as a cowboy. 

Holly: Does the hero wear boots and a stetson? Does he live on a ranch—or long to live on one? Is there at least one scene with a horse or cows? (Though Erin’s right that space cowboys are a thing and generally involve none of these things…)

Erin: Oh, yeah, the setting definitely plays into this archetype in a big way.

Ingrid: There’s a quite literally a song about it. Hello Dixie Chicks.

Holly: Obligatory links to “Wide Open Spaces” and also “Cowboy Take Me Away” by the amazing band now known as The Chicks.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Erin: There is much to be said for a man who knows how to get his hands dirty and get the job done. And tips his hat and wipes his boots while escorting his date to the local watering hole in perfectly fitted jeans and his nicest checked shirt. 

The small town worldbuilding that’s available for stories set in isolated locations like this is also often really enjoyable to read. And I was born and raised (mostly) in South Dakota, so I love me some wide open spaces.

Holly: Cowboys are basically a very specific niche of blue collar romances. So everything that’s sexy about the blue collar archetype applies here. Plus there are horses.

Ingrid: I agree. The capability. The skill. The care and consideration for animals. Plus the stoicism! It’s good stuff.

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: Cowboy romances, both historical and contemporary, tend to be very, very white. And that’s just…not the reality. About 25% of cowboys working between 1860–1880 were Black, and while I can’t find numbers, cowboy culture borrowed heavily from vaquero traditions, which implies that there were a lot of Hispanic cowboys as well. On the other hand, most “cowboys” in romance novels are ranch owners, not itinerant ranch hands—but the whiteness of those ranch owners ignores the significant population of wealthy Tejano and Californio landowners. Of course there are authors who buck that trend—Beverly Jenkins’ and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Black cowboys come to mind—but this is a romance space that is linked intrinsically to stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be a “real American,” and we’re missing huge chunks of that story.

Erin: I think it’s very much meant to tap into a privileged ideal of what is AMERICAN and COMPETENT and MANLY, and yes, as Holly has said, that does not actually reflect the history of American cowboys (which are by no means the only cowboys in the world, even if we think they are). It’s such a narrow narrative that reinforces a broader American cultural narrative about our history that isn’t based in reality. This isn’t a significantly different argument from what’s wrong with Regency romance – people have consumed so much of a certain type of media that they think they have the correct historical narrative without having actually consumed any historical research at all. 

Holly: Obligatory link to very smart piece I wrote about realism and genre back when I only had one child and more functioning brain cells than I do now.

Oh hey, and here’s a fun fact! I was looking up data on cowboys, and apparently 30% of contemporary cowboys are women. Don’t see many female ranch hands in these cowboy romances either.

Ingrid: I agree with everything said here. Absolutely. I would also like to point out that there are a lot of historical cowboy books that represent indigenous people (especially indigenous women) in harmful and inaccurate ways.

How do contemporary and historical cowboys differ?

Erin: Probably in many essentials they don’t differ significantly, and I haven’t read a ton of contemporary cowboy books, but I would guess that the cowboys in the historical romances are tapping heavily into the Western genre, where we’re going to see one-horse towns and gunslingers (I’m thinking of Deadwood, I admit), while the modern cowboys are going to lean more to small town tropes and relationships with hardships tapping into working class struggles. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised to find two cowboys who are struggling to make ends meet, but the historical one might be looking at dealing with lawlessness, supply issues (a lot of Old West communities were pretty isolated), and big impacts from the vagaries of nature while the contemporary one might be looking at dealing with dying/changing industries (vagaries of global economics), sinister big agriculture, and (in my experience) problems that don’t stem from the agricultural part of being a cowboy at all. (Rebekah Weatherspoon’s cowboys own a really swanky hotel ranch, for example.)

The other thing I would expect (though this might be changing with more current releases of historical romance)(at least I hope it is) is more overt racism in historical romance. Holly’s right that these books are typically super white, but I expect that a lot of contemporary romances will simply go the way of so many other contemporary romances and simply not account for racial diversity at all, while the conflicts between white settlers and Indigenous peoples and/or Mexicans are more likely to be a plot point in historical romance and almost certainly told with a skewed eye favoring the white colonial narrative. Even if there’s a person of color included in a non-villainous context, that character will likely be cast as a two-dimensional sidekick type that offers a nod to the existence of cultures that were obviously present but have not been fleshed out with thoughtfulness. Or, you know, they’re ignoring racial diversity just like contemporaries and ALSO they’re ignoring entire historical narratives. 

Holly: Building on what Erin said, don’t even get me started on the historical cowboy stories where the cowboy is also a “savage” but he’s secretly actually the white heir to a giant ranch. 

But I think the big difference between contemporary and historical cowboy stories is that almost all historical western romances are lumped into the cowboy category, regardless of whether the character is actually a ranch hand or owner—because of the setting, you’ve got boots, horses, and wide open spaces, even if the hero is actually a lawman or a bounty hunter or a gold prospector or whatever. In contrast, contemporary cowboy stories are much more tightly focused on ranch life, though I don’t think I agree with Erin’s assessment that contemporary cowboy stories are focused on working-class economic struggles.

Erin: To clarify my assessment—I think I said that I haven’t read many of these, so definitely I can be corrected, but I wasn’t thinking it’s a universal aspect of contemporary cowboy romance so much as it is more likely to be a working class struggle if the hero’s not a wealthy ranch owner. Diana Palmer’s 1980s Calhoun is really wealthy, so obviously economic hardship is not one of his problems, but none of his problems related to ranching. Maybe y’all would argue that working class is working class regardless of time, but even though that’s essentially true, I still feel like a modern working class struggle and an Old West working class struggle have different flavors or vibes. If that makes sense. I think this is kind of a tough question because how different is different when the big difference is the setting?

Holly: I guess what I mean is that I feel like a good number of cowboy stories that I’ve read feature ranch owners rather than itinerant ranch hands. So even if the ranch is in trouble, these cowboys are still landowners. The bigger point I wanted to make was that in contemporary cowboy stories, the boots/ranch/horse trifecta is a much more narrow signifier of the kind of work that the hero actually does. A contemporary cowboy is much less likely to be a sheriff or whatever—he is either a ranch hand or owner, or occasionally, a rodeo star.

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 went through my books (ALL of them, not only the ones I’ve tracked since we started the blog), and there are so few that I’ve actually read and remember that I’ll advise you to look to my colleagues here first. 

However, I loved Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins, which I’m reviewing this week. While Ian does have a huge ranch in Wyoming, and he definitely dresses the part, most of the story takes place with Ian primarily focused on his lawman role, so it might not scratch your itch perfectly, but the scene when Maggie sees Ian for the first time is cowboy PERFECTION, and the setting is ultra Western.

I also had an absolute blast reading Calhoun because it was just so perfectly old school tropey Texan cowboy spectacular. I reviewed it last year, so read more for content notes, but it made me want to go read a bunch of 80s categories just for fun. 

Holly: Look, I am a sucker for a good Western, but man, many of the old ones are so yikes. A more recent one I enjoyed was The Gunslinger’s Vow by Amy Sandas, though I guess Malcolm is technically not a cowboy (no cattle, just horses). For a contemporary cowboy, I liked Cowboy Take Me Away by Jane Graves, which features a bad boy bull-rider, which is a nice change of pace from the emotionally constipated ranch owners who populate this space. (Disclosure: I read this book like eight years ago; I remember liking it, but not a ton of the details.)

I’m also gonna drop Operation Cowboy Daddy by Carla Cassidy in here. I don’t read a ton of Harlequin contemporaries, but there’s a lot of cowboy action happening in that space, and this is one I mostly enjoyed. I liked that Tony is a Native American ranch hand, with all the social and economic precarity that comes with it. (There are some bits about motherhood in here that I…didn’t love.)

Ingrid: Keep in mind I can’t remember books, but I did have a very stressful time period where I only read buttoned up, prim westerns—and there were three series I read with a ton of cowboys. Brides of the Wild West by Katie Wyatt, Bear Creek Brides by Amelia Rose and Pendleton Petticoats by Shanna Hatfield. Then I went through a phase with books that had quite the opposite style, so.

Books we mentioned in this discussion:

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!

Continue reading “Let’s Talk Archetypes: Blue Collar”
Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Fake Relationship

Here’s a fun one for us! We just happened to have several fake relationship ARCs, so this month we’re talking about the fake relationship trope.

Books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the fake relationship trope?

Erin: Even though I often think the reason the protagonists think they need a fake relationship is absolutely ridiculous, there is honestly nothing better than the angst associated with catching feelings when you weren’t supposed to because all the affection is just for show, right?

Holly: Yes. Full stop. (To refresh my memory, I scrolled through all the books we’d tagged as “fake relationship” and almost every time I got to one I’d reviewed, I’d be like, “OH YEAH! That book was great!!!!!!”)

Ingrid: For some reason, it’s a special kind of ridiculous that always hits the spot.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a fake relationship trope?

Erin: I like fake relationship as an all-encompassing term for fake dating, fake engagement, fake marriage, and any other iteration of partners who agree to pretend to have a romantic relationship because of Reasons. 

I would also argue that a true representation of the trope is a throughline, but an “I need a fake date” that sort of spirals into more works, too.

Holly: I agree with what Erin says, with the addendum that both parties in the fake relationship must know that the relationship is not real (at least at the outset) and are in general agreement about the terms of the relationship. There are also usually some boundaries about when and where the relationship is performed—and those boundaries inevitably get crossed, which is always a delightful moment.

Ingrid: It pretty much has to go from “it’s just harmless and temporary” to “oh no–have I caught feelings?” to “the other person clearly does not feel the same way” to “oh dear, what silly numpkins we are for not realizing we’ve been in love literally this ENTIRE TIME”.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: Nothing delights me more than “OMG I’m catching feelings, and that’s against the rules, and what am I going to doooooooo?”

It’s also a great format for a legitimately great comedy OR for a really angsty read (or maybe both?!), so it’s got depth.

Holly: The creativity! When we sum up the plots of books, we usually say, “They’re in a fake relationship for REASONS,” but the reasons vary so widely. What will those authors think of next??!? (I can’t wait.)

Ingrid: There are just so many ways to stoke the flames in these books because they have to pretend to do all the things we do when we’re actually falling in love with someone. So many opportunities to crank up the heat AND the tension, and it’s super fun.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: Unless the protagonists are looking at exploiting a legal loophole (I’m thinking of With You Forever by Chloe Liese in which a legal marriage gained access to a trust), it often relies on lying, which is not something I would endorse. But that’s kind of the point of the trope, too. They have to figure out that their initial choice maybe wasn’t the best or healthiest one, even if the ultimate outcome was good.

Also most of the time authors don’t seem to have a great understanding of how green card marriages work, but suspension of disbelief, okay. The one author I think handled the green card marriage story well was Mariana Zapata in The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, but the rest I’ve read are, uh, fantastical.

Holly: But here’s the thing: lying to whom and for what purpose? For example, in Hate Crush by Angelina M. Lopez and Act Like It by Lucy Parker, the protagonists are public figures who are set up by their managers to have public fake relationships specifically for media purposes. Is lying to the tabloids any better or worse than lying to the government to get health insurance or gain custody of some kids? (see: Learned Reactions or Best Fake Fiancée) Is it a bad thing to pretend to be engaged to someone you trust so that predatory creep will leave you alone? (see: The Brightest Star in Paris) Or is it even that terrible to lie to your toxic family and bring home a date so they just get off your back about not being married yet? (ok, so maybe the parents in Her Pretend Christmas Date aren’t toxic, but you get the idea)

Basically, what I’m saying is: Erin, whatever, lying isn’t that terrible. What was the question again?

Erin: Ugh, fine. But I was thinking of situations like The Wedding Crasher by Mia Sosa, in which Dean uses the relationship to get a leg up at work while Solange doesn’t directly address her family’s biases, or Sailor Proof by Annabeth Albert, in which Derrick is jealous and angry and wants to get back at his ex, or Muffin Top by Avery Flynn, in which Lucy’s self-esteem can’t handle her trip back home. Basically any story in which the protagonists are using the relationship to avoid addressing whatever problems they’re dealing with in a healthy and honest way. (Which includes Her Pretend Christmas Date, which I absolutely loved. Hello glasses and sweater vests!) It’s not that they don’t have a reason to do it, it’s that the reason is eek. A person’s boss should not be pressuring a person to be in a relationship, even if it’s fake. They might not even be caught out in their lies (although they often are), but putting a cute spin on an unhealthy starting point, while fun and even entirely understandable, is still at its root unhealthy.

Besides, the question is general, and I stand by my answer. Even though your argument is very good, and dynamic characters do have to start somewhere. But I challenge you to identify something problematic!

Holly: Usually I am an expert at teasing out problematic content, but I honestly can’t think of anything. Perfect trope is perfect. 

Ingrid: Uhm…so like, lying erodes trust and all that, and people always say that a relationship is built on trust so maybe that. I don’t find a problem with it, this trope tends to be pretty wholesome. Basically what you guys said just without all the evidence.

Do you think people actually have fake relationships? 

Holly: If you look at the whole list of reasons I gave above where it would be perfectly legitimate to lie about being in a relationship, then it becomes obvious that there’s no way that this doesn’t happen in real life. 

Erin: I mean, a fake date I could see. And a marriage of convenience that is for something like a green card or insurance coverage and not a ridiculous caveat in a will. But sometimes the lengths to which these characters seem to feel they need to go seems bananas. 

But I would definitely be game for a fake relationship, so there’s that.

Ingrid: No, that’s ridiculous. Who does that? That’s why it’s fun in books.

Why is this such a popular trope?

Holly: It’s both specific and extremely versatile. By that I mean that it’s specific in its beats: people have a performative relationship, the performance bleeds into the private space, feelings ensue, one or both parties wonder if it’s real. But within those beats, there’s so much space for widely different ways for the story to unfold, depending on how and to what extent the different beats are emphasized.

Erin: Holly’s spot on. I think I would add that it includes a very natural tension that doesn’t need any additional manufacturing. If a story is done well, the question that should have a good, clear answer all the way until the end is “Why can’t they be together right now?” (Thanks, Sarah MacLean!) A fake relationship starts with a clear problem and characters who have made a clear agreement, which, when the agreement falls apart, flows into new tension because one or both characters are failing to adhere to the initial agreement, having caught feelings.

Ingrid: Holly hit the nail on the head, yet again.

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: Look, it’s Boyfriend Material. Not necessarily because of the trope (though the trope is absolute fake relationship perfection), but because it’s possibly the most hilarious book I’ve ever read in my life.

Another one that’s overall light-hearted and has a little fun with the trope is Boyfriend by Sarina Bowen. A college hockey player advertises being available as a perfect fake boyfriend every Thanksgiving so he doesn’t have to deal with family drama at home and he gets to have a fun experience. The woman who’s had a crush on him since she first served him at the local diner decides to take advantage of the opportunity he’s presented. Naturally, they keep swapping because they become friends…until their feelings turn more than friendly.

Holly: Act Like It by Lucy Parker is a phenomenal example of the fake relationship trope because both protagonists are stage actors who start dating as a PR stunt for the show they’re both in. The lines between what’s real and what’s pretend get real blurry real fast and it’s delicious. 

Since I’m contractually obligated to always recommend a historical romance when we talk tropes, Some Like it Scandalous by Maya Rodale is fun one! It’s one of those “let’s have a fake relationship to avoid having a real relationship” setups that is only found in romance novels.

And finally, D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins introduces a fun twist: fake relationship by way of reality television! (My full review is dropping tomorrow, so I’ll save all my gushing for why this book is so great til then.)

Ingrid: Real Fake Love by Pippa Grant stood out to me–first of all, they really are an unlikely couple (Pro baseball player and a secretly famous romance writer who’s been engaged an obscene number of times). Second of all, I loved that it ends in a way that works for both of them–they’re such an unlikely pair that they ended up having to create their own version of happily ever after, and it just works. But basically, she needs help not falling in love with everyone, and he needs help learning how to actually commit to someone, so they have a fake relationship and live together in exchange for lessons. It’s nutty and fun, and really hits the spot!

Books we mentioned in our discussion:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Settings: Between the Wars

Normally we do a buddy read focusing on a trope or archetype, but when we were talking about our goals for the year, Erin wanted to explore the setting of the 1920s. This (mostly) aligned with the TBR Challenge prompt for June: After the War, so we decided to do a “Between the Wars” week for our buddy read and discussion this month. 

(We note that Holly and Ingrid may not, in fact, choose to read a book set between WWI and WWII for the TBR Challenge, to which notice Erin offered a disappointed pouty face.)

This is a historical romance setting where we haven’t read a lot, so if you have some that we shouldn’t miss, drop the titles below!

Bottom line: Do you like the 1920s-1930s setting?

Holly: With the caveat that I’ve only read, like, three romance novels set in the Interwar Period, I’m going to say yes. 

Erin: You know, I do. I don’t know why I find this somewhat surprising considering this time period formed the basis for my college thesis.

Ingrid: I have read very few of these books, but the ones I read were very good. 

Beyond the datestamp, what would you expect to see in a book set in this period?

Holly: I expect that the characters are probably processing some trauma, either from World War I (see, for example, The Quid Pro Quo by A.L. Lester) or the financial insecurity of the Great Depression. 

I also expect there to be some social upheaval going on in the background. This period was incredibly politically turbulent in both the US and Europe. 

Erin: What I would first expect is Prohibition with some Jazz Age Gatsby-type imagery (art deco covers, amiright?), and then the Depression with its job shortages and increases in legitimized radical movements (I’m talking about Communism, but also this is the period of the Catholic Worker Movement, so socialist ideas are everywhere), plus Jim Crow…but actually this is an extremely rich period in terms of post-war recovery (that doesn’t go very well), shifting wealth (wealth disparities), and the resultant social movements. Also, Prohibition is only in the U.S. so that’s very limited. Also, also, WWI marked a significant shift in how warfare was conducted between nation-states, including who was involved, so I do expect to see repercussions of that as society shifts back into a non-wartime lifestyle but with the mental specters of the war still present.

Ingrid: I think I’d say an undercurrent of upheaval simply from the time…plus, the presence of some opulence v poverty. Maybe a few references to “progress” and “change”. 

What do you think is fun about the setting?

Holly: This setting is incredibly rich, creating tons of opportunity for authors to tap into historical events. In the US, we’ve got Prohibition and the rise of organized crime; we’ve got the Harlem Renaissance; we’ve got the Great Migration. 

Erin: Politically and socially it’s an interesting period, with more modern elements than Gilded Age or Victorian settings, but also it predates most of our modern social and political markers that occurred after WWII. There are cars and airplanes, but no computers. Social movements that we might have studied in 20th C. history are present but not in the context of today. There are still class divides, but the Industrial Revolution and the rise of New Money industrialists presents a different cast than does a landowning aristocracy and a sociopolitical landscape centered in monarchy or landed gentry. 

But mostly the radical movements of the early 20th century are the most fun. I mean, we all like our weekends, right?! 

Ingrid: I agree with Holly—there are a lot of perspectives that could come from this time period with wildly different feelings and outcomes. There’s just so much going on!

What do you find problematic about the setting?

Holly: This is the flip side of the fun part of the setting—we also see the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the whole Communism thing in Russia. Let’s not fall into the trap of romanticizing mass murderers, mkay?

Erin: In and of itself, nothing. Depending on the author’s background and understanding of the historical landscape, however, it would be really easy to neglect to acknowledge what’s going on in the landscape. A story about a Dupont-type character could very easily overlook everything that’s going on with race and class and money in this period. A story with an exclusively white cast would probably overlook a lot of the legalized racism occurring. Etc. So basically it’s the same as other historical romance? 

Ingrid: That’s all very, very true. And in today’s climate, that could hit a bit differently than it might have years ago.

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

Holly: “Let Us Dream” by Alyssa Cole is a novella set in 1917 New York (so I guess it’s technically not the Interwar Period, but it’s close) and it’s fabulous. The problems and triumphs of the characters are really specific to their time and place. (I talk about it in more detail in my review of the anthology Daughters of the Nation.) 

I also enjoyed Trouble and Strife by Laura Kinsey. Unlike basically everything I’ve talked about in my discussion of the time period, this book is very quiet and domestic. There’s not a lot of political or social upheaval going on, but there’s still a very strong sense of place (Birmingham, 1931).

Erin: In my attempt to prep for the TBR Challenge this month, I found that I actually have several on my TBR list that I’ll just have to bump forward, because I haven’t actually read that many, and I really like what authors are doing with the setting. So I might have more to say later.

To answer the question, it wasn’t the first I read, but Spellbound by Allie Therin (and the whole Magic in Manhattan trilogy) managed to ensorcel me (see what I did there?) not only with the magical intrigue but also because Therin really did consider so many different identities—class, race, sexuality, and their intersectionality—in such a wonderful way as she also unpacked other trauma, including Arthur’s post-war recovery and Rory’s childhood of abuse and abandonment. I really appreciate that many of the authors I’ve been reading who have published in the past couple years have been conscious of the great scope of what was happening during this period (which I will also discuss in my K.J. Charles and Jordan L. Hawk reviews this week).

Ingrid: Forever Eve and After Eve by JB Lexington was pretty trippy feeling and interesting! 

Books we mentioned in our discussion:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Accidental Pregnancy

When we were discussing our goals for this year, Holly said she wanted to talk about the accidental pregnancy trope even though she hates it. So here we are! 

As usual, we’re starting the month with a discussion of the trope, but we have to say in advance…none of us is super pumped about it. If you’re an accidental pregnancy trope lover, we’d love to hear from you about your faves and why you love them!

Accidental Pregnancy

Covers of romance novels:
Make Me Yours by Katee Robert
I Think I might Need You by Christina C. Jones
Scoring the Player's Baby by Naima Simone
Books we’ll be reviewing this week
Continue reading “Let’s Talk Tropes: Accidental Pregnancy”