Shelf Love

084. Captive Romance: Problematic Favorite Tropes

Short Description

Evil Prince Jack Harbon busts captive romance out of its cage: is captivity and kidnapping only found in dark romance, or are its themes more prevalent? We discuss why this trope is pleasurable and different manifestations in popular culture: Beauty and the Beast, Persephone Hades, the patriarchy, medical school, and alien abduction.


problematic favorite trope, genre discussions

Show Notes

Evil Prince Jack Harbon busts captive romance out of its cage: is captivity and kidnapping only found in dark romance, or are its themes more prevalent? We discuss why this trope is pleasurable and different manifestations in popular culture: Beauty and the Beast, Persephone Hades, the patriarchy, medical school, and alien abduction.

Show Notes:

Shelf Love:

Guest: Jack Harbon

Twitter | Instagram | Website | His Beauty | Worship


The Fascinating Link Between Alien Abduction Reports and Sadomasochistic Fantasies


[00:00:00]Andrea Martucci:   Hello and welcome to episode 84 of Shelf Love, a podcast that unpacks romance novels with nuance. In conversations with scholars, readers, and other experts, Shelf Love contextualizes, the popular romance genre within the broader critical discussion of identity, culture, and love.

I'm your host, Andrea Martucci, and on this episode, we are unpacking Jack Harbon's problematic favorite trope. Thank you so much for being here with me, Jack, what should people know about you before we begin?

Jack Harbon: I am a romance author. I primarily write romance, male/male, but I've been dabbling in MF and I'm also a freelance creative who helps people with their book covers and promo images and just kind of author services.

Andrea Martucci: Cool. Yes. And you created Katrina Jackson and Brandy Bush's famous Twitter. What do you call those banners?

Jack Harbon: Yes. And Jodie Slaughter too.

Andrea Martucci: Oh, and Dame, Jodie Slaughter. Of course I told Dame Jodie Slaughter once, that I think of you as Prince Jack Harbon. She agreed.

Jack Harbon: Evil prince.

Andrea Martucci: Okay.

You're now evil Prince Jack Harbon. This is a problematic favorite tropes episode. And I think this project, to borrow a term that my friends at Whoa!Mance Podcast use quite often, I think the project of the problematic favorite tropes series is to explore how, in the romance community, we acknowledge that things are problematic. Tropes are problematic. But if we're not also willing to dig into why those things are problematic, what makes it problematic, how individual texts are playing with those elements, that it's kinda not going far enough. If it's, why is it problematic?

Jack, what is your favorite problematic trope and how would you define it?

Jack Harbon: So my favorite problematic trope is kidnapping, or I think a little bit more palatable of a name, would be captive romance. And it's honestly pretty self-explanatory it's when one protagonist kidnaps the other protagonist and eventually fall in love.

Andrea Martucci: Of course. Because it's a romance novel.

Jack Harbon: Exactly.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. So what do you think makes that problematic?  It feels kind of self-explanatory. What is problematic about one person stealing and kidnapping another person and making them their captive?

Jack Harbon: I would say it's probably the lack of consent, I think is the biggest issue because a lot of times there's really no consent for the kidnappee, the victim of the kidnapper. And so for a lot of people that just rubs in the wrong way. That's just what I think would be the problematic part of it that [00:02:30] kind of has people a little bit antsy to read it.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah.  And you know, that,  kidnapping is an actual crime. So I think we can see that. What's a romance novel that exemplifies this trope for you? And it can be one that you really love. It can be one that you're like, I don't know about this. So what's the book and how do you feel about it?

Jack Harbon: So I read recently Wrong Way Home by KA Merikan. They are two authors. And I actually really enjoyed it, especially because it hit two notes that I really needed it to hit for I think, a kidnap romance to really work for me. And those would be that , in the beginning, at least, the victim fights back or makes an attempt to escape. So many times and a lot of books that I don't really enjoy, the victim is just kind of like, well, I guess I'm kidnapped.

And I just like the fighting spirit a little bit more. It makes it feel a little bit more realistic. And then there is a moment pretty early on where I'm like, Oh, I can see how this is going to become a romance because. For a lot of times it's like, I don't know how this is going to work out. I don't know how they're going to fall in love in this scenario.

Andrea Martucci: I had asked on Twitter what people's favorites were, this book came up, you seconded it. And I actually read a little bit of it this morning. I think I know what you're talking about.  Do you remember the names of the characters?

Jack Harbon: Colin is the college guy I believe. And I think Taryn is yes.

Andrea Martucci: The premise of it is that Colin decides for once in his life to take an unexpected path home and inadvertently witnesses,  like this big burly, like bearded dude who happens to just check all of his boxes in terms of sexual partner or romantic partner - well, sexual partner, let's say.

And he's murdering somebody, but like I believe a bad guy.

Jack Harbon: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. He comes upon him murdering somebody. And so he takes him captive because he doesn't want to kill him, but obviously he doesn't want Colin going and telling anybody that he's murdered somebody.

Yeah. There is literal captivity. There's a cage, there's like a shock collar, I believe involved?

Jack Harbon: Yeah, it's the whole shebang.

Andrea Martucci: And it's a contemporary. And I think that makes this a bit out of the ordinary, because I think that a lot of the romances that kind of fall into this are either historical or like sort of fantasy paranormal. And I think it's rarer to see it in contemporary, unless you're talking about dark romance and maybe this is dark romance.

Jack Harbon: Yeah, definitely. It's it's a lighter, [00:05:00] dark romance cause I've read darker. But this one, I think falls into, just with the opening scene of an ax murder in the beginning, I think would classify it pretty strongly in dark romance.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. so what I gathered from the plot, I like that you identified that the victim fights back so shows the fighting spirit is not a willing captive.

I think what the made clear in what little I read, admittedly, was that Colin felt oppressed by his life and being held captive and not having a choice, abdicated him from all of these responsibilities that he felt were somewhat oppressive.

Like he's getting his bachelor's degree, but he's like studying to become a doctor and just feels the weight of all of this on him and letting go and not having a choice is freeing in that sense. I, And I don't know how this book resolves at all in the end, but so I think for me , I think maybe that's what it's about.

What do you think the pleasure comes from in this scenario, at least for you and maybe what do you think other people are enjoying about this setup?

Jack Harbon: So for me, it was - and I sat on this for a while because I was like, why do I enjoy this trope so much? And for me it was, it's like the ultimate like, I want a man to order for me and take charge, but like you take it to the, as far extreme as you could possibly go where he's okay, so I'm going to make every decision for you.

And so I think that in a fantasy situation it really just makes it a little bit more enticing and something that people are kind of like, this is bad, but I'm going to keep reading it.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I know that you had said in DMS that you had sat and thought a lot about why you liked this trope and you had discovered some things that you, you hadn't realized before.

Jack Harbon: So basically my revelation was that I, I realized growing up that I was always in the background and I wasn't like somebody that people paid attention to. And I did have this daydream of somebody coming in and being like, Hey, here's my phone number. You, me, I'm going to make all the decisions.

As I sat on that. I realized that part with the Beauty and the Beast, which also was my favorite Disney movie growing up, those two together just grew into a fascination with this whole idea. And I noticed in my writing throughout that, I'm also touching on the trope of one character who's more dominant making the decisions and being the one to make the first move.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. You touched on that taking care of element. And so let's talk about the taken care of element here.  This is definitely part of the Beauty and the Beast trope, right? Where Belle is an [00:07:30] unwilling captive, or, whoever the character is in like the captive role, is an unwilling captive of this person who appears really terrible at first.

And then the more they get to know them the more attractive, they find them. And they see beneath whatever initial exterior. I think that the captive narrative is also present in present in Persephone Hades type retellings a bit. There seem to be books that kind of hit both of those.

And so there seems to be a lot of melding of those. I'm not sure if actually Beauty the beast kind of came out of that Persephone myth, or a lot of like folklore across cultures has like similar themes and then it bubbles up into our modern consciousness , and there's like really no origin.

It's really like, the origin is like the psyche of our weird human minds, right? But there's this commonality across cultures where there is this expression of wanting to see this story told. And I was thinking about that "I have no choice, but to let you take care of me," element of it right.

It's not just being taken care of, it's that you literally don't have the, you don't have the choice, you can fight back a little bit, but you can't remove yourself from being forced to be taken care of. And I was there's definitely like a sadomasochistic element of that.

I think it's like that permission to enjoy something. Because you don't have a choice , but it's a little naughty like, I personally think that this fantasy is attractive in an age where the politically correct idea is that we should want to be independent and take care of ourselves, which in the particular moment is a bit of a, neo-liberal  we're all going to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and do everything for ourselves.

We're all isolated. We can't depend on anybody else. And so I think there's like this, like a, Oh my God, somebody is just going to take care of paying the bills and like feeding me.

Jack Harbon: Yeah. And a lot of times people are, they don't want to admit that's what they want.

Because like you said, society at the moment is saying that we should all be independent. We should all strive to get our own. And if you admit that, then you're seen as like reductive or, and it's that's the old way, even though, it's nice sometimes to just let somebody make all the decisions.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I think that's why the fighting back element is important because if you accept it too readily, there's something wrong with you.

Jack Harbon: I'm like, why are you doing that? You're cool with this. That's a little too easy.

Andrea Martucci: And you're selfish. How dare you let somebody take complete care of you without [00:10:00] insisting that you do things on your own, right? Like you must be lazy or selfish or something.

You also touched on earlier that being desired element. So focused in on.  The captor is I want you, the captive so much, I'm going to force you to stay here and, give you a library or, do all these things for you because you're so desirable. And I think there's an element of that that feeds our ego, our um, our narcissism. And I don't mean that in a negative way, but just the sense that we are, we're trapped in these meat sacks that we live in and

Jack Harbon: Everyone wants to feel desired.

Andrea Martucci: We can't help but be the center of our own universe.

Jack Harbon: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: I don't know if you read any alien romance, alien abduction romance?

Jack Harbon: I read, I think the first in the Oh, what is her name now? Ruby Dixon series. Yes. The barbarians

Andrea Martucci: Ice Planet Barbarians. Yeah. As I was thinking about this trope, I was like, Alien abduction romance is the pinnacle of this.

Jack Harbon: A different planet and you only know how to drive a car and these people are driving spaceships that teleport.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. So as I was doing Googling research for this episode, I came upon this article written by I think it's Justin Lehmiller, and he's done all of this research into sexual fantasies.

And he had this article about the link between alien abduction reports and sadomasochistic fantasies. And basically he explains that a lot of people who report alien abduction, stories like, Oh my God, I was abducted by aliens may be people who have a very hard time distinguishing between what happened in their dreams and reality.

So like they have a really vivid dream and they're like, I think this happened. But then also how those people who have in particular, this alien abduction fantasy tend to be more masochistic. And so like how their psyche is manifesting their fantasy  they're like having this very particular dream where Oh no, I had no choice, but to be held down on this table and have things inserted into my rectum!

Jack Harbon: That's so crazy. I didn't make this up myself. I don't really want that in secret.

Andrea Martucci: Exactly. Who knows, maybe some people truly were abducted by aliens and anally probed. We don't know. I don't know.

Jack Harbon: You never know.

Andrea Martucci: But I found that sadomasochistic connection really interesting in this captive narrative. Are there other romances that you can think of - so I feel like we should mention His Beauty.

Jack Harbon: I didn't want to be like my book, but yeah, His Beauty does. It's not exactly a re-imagining I [00:12:30] would say a retelling of the Disney version with a little bit more the original storyline. And in the beginning, like I said, I realized that I had those two requirements when I was reading a book when I was writing that one, because I noticed that. I did have to have my character Ayla who is the  stand in for Belle, s he had to at one point either fight back and then realize at some point that the beast was something that she could actually desire.

Andrea Martucci: And importantly, he never turns back into a quote unquote handsome prince.

Jack Harbon: Yeah. That's alleged handsome prince.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Oh God. The Disney Prince is like, blah.

Jack Harbon: Yeah. He's not like he's not super ugly, but he could be better.

Andrea Martucci: Maybe like uncanny Valley or something like he's technically handsome, but you're just like what,

Jack Harbon: Gives me Armie Hammer.

Andrea Martucci: Ooh. (shudders)

But yes. And so in His Beauty, so you said that it was important to have that fighting back element. Do you feel like you were trying to mitigate some of the problematic issues of the captive narrative, the kidnapped narrative?

Jack Harbon: So in my version, I wanted it to be important that  Ayla was the one who was inspiring him to change. Like in the Disney version, it's obvious and like the kind of message that you get at the end of it is that if you love somebody enough, they'll change for you.

And I wanted my version to be a little bit more where she presents him the opportunity to change, and I feel like her giving him permission to be a better person, made it more digestible for him to then give her room to make decisions on her own. Because in the beginning he's not a nice person.

He's like, you'll be at dinner at this time. You'll wear this. And by the end, he's like, what do you want to do? Like he's suddenly the one who's asking for orders from her. And so I wanted that to be the twist on the typical dynamic that they had. But at the same time, I was also just in my Katee Robert zone, I was like, I'm just going to write this. And if it's problematic, then, we're all adults and we can all unpack it ourselves.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. But I do think that His Beauty problematized the trope, right? Like even though she was physically captive in the sense that she could not leave this place, she was not coerced into giving up sort of her intimate bodily autonomy.

Let's say, like he did not impose his body physically upon hers. He did not violate her consent in other ways. So I think that is problematizing that a bit where it's like, Oh, sure, I am forcing you to [00:15:00] stay here, but I have boundaries, right?

Jack Harbon: He's like, I'm a gentleman. Like I'm a kind captor.

Andrea Martucci: But Beauty and the Beast is interesting because while the captive, in whatever story is not so repulsed that they're completely disgusted.

There's like always a little bit of like a curiosity?

Jack Harbon: Am I into this now? I don't know.

Andrea Martucci: But there's also sort of I'm not initially attracted to you and only upon knowing you longer and getting you past the point of being a surly beast, can I get to know the true you and we need this forced proximity situation in order for you to appeal enough to me to -do you like how I just inserted myself right into that dynamic? I don't know if I have a point there other than maybe from the Beast's perspective is a bit of a, nobody will love me love at first sight.

However, if somebody is forced to spend time with me...

Jack Harbon: You just have to get to know me in my cella r.

Andrea Martucci: Exactly.

But as I just had this conversation last weekend about Alien Mate Experiment, I was definitely thinking about that sadomasochistic element of this, because I was like, Oh my God.

I think I'm, I think I'm realizing there were elements of that book that had a little bit of like humiliation kink in it. And I don't think that has been in some of the Beauty and the Beast sort of retellings we've talked about, but I think  Wrong Way Home definitely had an element of sort of humiliation kink.

Jack Harbon: There's I would say most of the time that Colin is out of the house, he's pretty naked. I don't remember him ever putting more clothes on. So I think that humiliation and like the nudity of it all really plays into the humiliation aspect of it.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And and I don't have answers on really like deep exploration of that, but I think that like lack of control and a little bit of the humiliation play can come into these because I think particularly in these close quarters, captive situations, you just have like less control over your body in those situations.

And somebody either has to do something for you, help you with the bathroom or is just like privy to parts of your intimate world that you normally wouldn't share with somebody, like a stranger.

And this came up in Alien Mate Experiment cause at one point they're like lizard aliens, and they  smell by flicking their tongue out and the heroine is [00:17:30] aroused and they can smell her arousal. And I was like, Ooh that's not my fantasy. And we talked about it a little bit more and Katrina actually was like, I think you landed on it. That's not your fantasy, but that's kind of what that book was playing with. Is the sort of she's a little bit humiliated that even though in their culture, like they don't find it weird. Like she finds it weird that they can smell her arousal. I was like, Oh I do not like that. Like I'm not into that, but

Jack Harbon: right.

Andrea Martucci: But I think some people like that is actually part of why they're attracted to this, is this, is that element of humiliation. And there's no shame in that. It's just I think encountering those things when it is not your particular fantasy, it's a little bit like, that was an odd choice. And then you realize, no, it was an intentional choice.

Jack Harbon: I think it plays into forcing the romance to develop faster, especially because you're seeing all these parts that you normally wouldn't like, I know couples don't use the bathroom in front of each other for like months or years. And then in these close quarter romances, like you have no choice but to do all of the things that you would do in private, in front of somebody who's holding you captive.

So it's just like peeling back another layer of yourself, much quicker than you normally would, which kind of, I think makes the romance a little bit stronger, faster than normal.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And so then it's also, it is literal forced proximity,  so even without  literal forced proximity, forced proximity,  the trope in general, is pleasurable because it speeds up that knowing of each other.

As you were digging deep into, Prince Jack Harbon's  psyche, was there anything else you were like, Oh my God this is why I love this. This is why it's calling to me.

Jack Harbon: I think it not necessarily a new development or anything extra than what I've already said, but I did think it was like liberating. Like you said, even just writing it. I didn't feel as boxed in when I was writing this and I think it was super important for me to do that when I wrote that book because I was starting to feel, and it was probably just me imposing it on myself, I was feeling a little bit trapped in writing super sweet things or the pretty standard contemporary romances where I was like feeling a little bit trapped.

And so writing this, it was in the way that you said it's liberating for the character to have their options removed and all their choices made for them writing this felt freeing. It was like, I could just do whatever I wanted. And so I think it opened the door for me to explore other things in future projects, especially with the humiliation kink, because that was something else that I was like, hold on, let me put a pin in that so I can come back to that later.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I did read also  The Babysitter by Prince Jack Harbon. [00:20:00] I'm going to make this, I'm going to make it happen. I think it's interesting what you were talking about, like playing with the power dynamic in your work where you do prefer to have one character be more dominant and the other being more submissive. Cause like I definitely saw it in that and I think that was a book that I read where you definitely seem to be playing into sort of this the kink aspect right of that power play. And I feel like a lot of romance and erotica is power play, like at its core.

Do you feel like you realize that as you were writing or do you feel like when you started writing, you were like I'm doing power play stuff?

Jack Harbon: I definitely didn't think about it until I started looking back. I noticed that all of my characters are usually in a May, December, an older, younger relationship, which again is powerplay.

And then a lot of the times my earlier work there's a character who is a sugar daddy and a sugar baby, and then a boss and an employee. And so as I was looking back at my catalog, I was realizing that this is a common theme. And in His Beauty, it was just like the ultimate play of this person, this monster could kill me. But I'm into that.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. You know what, I'm also realizing as I'm listening to you talk about this, there's also an element of a lot of like cis het, Regency romances that play into this captive sort of narrative structure. Because when you think about what heterosexual marriage looked like throughout.

Jack Harbon: Yes.

Andrea Martucci: Parts of history, I guess, the woman would be basically be property.

Jack Harbon: Yeah. You were just a captive, but not called a captive. You were called a wife a bride.

Andrea Martucci: I'm just sitting here. I'm like, Oh my God. Wow. Yeah. I I feel like that is really at play in a lot of romance, but yeah, it's not called that, but like she's literally trapped in the house.

She is completely under the control of her husband who buys pretty things for her and takes care of her and provides all this luxury and possibly saves her maybe kicking and screaming from a situation that was not as nice. Lots to think about here.

Jack Harbon: Something to dig into later.

Andrea Martucci: So yeah, something to dig into at 2:00 AM, when my mind is just working on that.

I did also read something in preparation for this, about the Persephone, Hades myth about how the root of the folklore of that, marriage for women would be seen as like a leaving of the maternal arms, almost like a death, like their previous self dies. And like now they're being taken off -

Jack Harbon: Yeah. To be a mom, you have to be a wife, you have to be everything other than what you were before you met this person.

Andrea Martucci: Right. And so your identity is sort of like [00:22:30] reborn in a way in  this relationship. So, Yeah, I think this was a really interesting, thank you for bringing  this problematic trope now to the forefront of my mind, because it really feels like it's just a spectrum, right?

Like how literal are we going to get with the captivity,  but it's there all along.

So I normally say, I think we cracked this nut wide open. I think we cracked this cage wide open.

Jack Harbon: Yes. Now you can get out and wander around and go outside.

Andrea Martucci: Exactly. Now that you have fallen in love with your captor.

Prince Jack Harbon, where can people find you and connect with you online slash what are you writing now? What's coming next?

Jack Harbon: So you can find me on Twitter and Instagram being the worst person @JackHarbon. And what I'm working on next is two projects and they couldn't be more different.

One of them is, it's a small town returned to home. I describe it as like cottage core with Black characters. And the other is a rich elite human auction erotica. Like I said, varying ends of the spectrum, which I'm excited for, because like I said, I don't like to be put in either cage, not unlike Colin from the book.

And so those are my two projects.

Andrea Martucci: Pause for a second.  The second book you described say more.

Jack Harbon: I wanted to get a little bit closer to dark romance, but I couldn't actually commit to like human trafficking because that's a little too scary for me.

And so  this is more of like, Hey, I'm following you in the store. Do you want to be part of this auction that these really rich people put on and you get 50% of it. And the heroine is somebody who's in a pretty bad situation with her fiance. And so there is cheating. So I was like, this has to be an erotica because it'll upset the girls if I don't put it as erotica. And so she eventually agrees to go and do this auction. And the guy that she's with is really into like power dynamics because of course, and he asks like, Hey, I'll pay the rest of your debt if you are mine until you earn that money out. And so she's like, Oh, I guess that's the thing that I'm going to do now.

Andrea Martucci: Okay. I love that. So I should also mention Jodie Slaughter's To Be Alone With You, which is like a sugar baby ish situation, but like in the most beautiful way.  it's so interesting because when you say sugar baby, it feels so transactional and it's not like that at all. And not that there's anything wrong with being transactional, it's literally a transaction.  going to be interesting to see these themes play out in multiple people's [00:25:00] work.

I feel like To Be Alone With You can also be categorized as a captive romance because she's stuck there because of COVID.

Jack Harbon: Exactly.

Andrea Martucci: Oh my God. Yeah. It's everywhere.

Jack Harbon: It's in all the different romances you least expected, it's either super power dynamic or captive to a degree.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And one thing we didn't touch on, but I feel like we should mention, because you actually did touch on it, is so there's like the history of enslavement of African people in the U S and other places.

Jack Harbon: I don't know if you've heard of it.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think just, since this is called the problematic favorite tropes series, I feel like it is important to mention that there are places you could go with that that could get real icky real fast, depending on the identity of the characters. There could be lots of overtones of really harmful racial dynamics.

Jack Harbon: Yes. That's why in a lot of my books, I'm like these characters they're not going to have a history of being enslaved in any way, shape or form, because it, like you said, it can lead into an area that I'm not comfortable even exploring. And I don't want to make it seem like I'm not paying attention to that.

Andrea Martucci: Right. Right.

Jack. Thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate you exploring this trope with me. I do think that we cracked this cage wide open. I think that like now that our captive is free, there's even more to explore that we did not even touch on here totally. But I appreciate you sharing this special moment with me.

Jack Harbon: Thank you for having me. It was a lot of fun to explore things that even I wasn't prepared for.

Andrea Martucci: I mean, look, can you really prepare for alien abduction?

Jack Harbon: No.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah.

So thanks for listening to episode 84 of Shelf Love and thank you to Jack Harbon for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on ShelfLovePodcast.Com.

Thanks for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to [email protected].

This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L. Harrison.

That's all for this week. Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad and keep reading romance