Why Does the Billionaire Romance Hero (Still) Exist?

No one needs a billion dollars, no one person needs that much money, starts the viral TikTok song by Chaz Cardigan. It’s a fairly straightforward thesis, and even though the original video has since been taken down, the sound persists and has been used by countless other users, with videos like the one I linked to collectively garnering millions of views. Backing up that initial point, the lyrics continue:

A billion is a thousand million,
That’s twenty-one thousand years of work
At minimum wage to make that money
To hoard like you deserve it.
No one makes a billion dollars
Without exploiting workers.

Although this earworm acts as evidence that a platform predominantly skewed toward Gen Z is cool with vilifying the ultrawealthy, the sobering truth remains that as a culture we worship billionaires. It’s not just people who go far out of their way to simp for Elon Musk, either-

-it’s the constant media attention paid to those who make more in a single day than most of us are able to in an entire year. To be absurdly rich, at least in North America, is to achieve celebrity status, and the news cycle reacts accordingly. While the lavish praise heaped at the feet of such icons as Warren Buffett can often feel like it borders on infatuation, things truly cross that line when we consider the literary genre of billionaire romance. The name really says it all: the category exists to portray fictional billionaires as the desirable objects of our affections.

To be clear, a “romance hero” is markedly different from a “romantic hero”, with the latter referring to an archetypal character that rejects norms and has in turn been rejected by society. It doesn’t have any significant relationship with our modern conceptions of heroes in general, warped as they are by comic book blockbusters dominating the box office. Simply put, in romance literature “hero” is parlance for the male love interest. And when those male love interests have net worths of ten digits or more, well, readers are interested.

billionaireromanceamazon

At the time of this writing One Bossy Proposal, as seen above, is #8 in the Kindle store. Brutal Vows and Baby for the Bosshole are #12 and #14, respectively. Their presence shouldn’t be terribly surprising given that, according to Glamor, the billion dollar romance industry’s novels “consistently out-perform all other genres.” Even with that in mind, it’s notable that billionaire romance appears so high on the list, even beating out other books underneath the larger romance umbrella.

Perusing the top sellers under the category reveals a brief glimpse at who some of these men are: “A coldhearted grump,” “An Irish mobster with a brutal grudge,” “A grump supreme.” Setting aside the amusing similarity to one of Snow White’s diminutive friends, what the book descriptions also underscore is the sheer amount of financial power billionaire romance heroes command. Each and every one is the head of their own company, if not an entire empire of businesses. Their alpha male qualities (more romance terminology I don’t have time to unpack) are certainly part of the hook, but most important is what gives the genre its name. Alison Doherty over at BookRiot plainly states the real draw in these titles:

We live in a capitalist society. And money—especially the idea of being so rich that you don’t even have to think about money—is sexy. There, I said it.

A romantic partner who has never once blinked at a price tag has its appeal, but so is the idea that their unshakable financial stability also secures your own.

Earlier this month Lydia Kiesling of The New York Times wrote an excellent piece covering the dangers of the rags-to-riches narrative, especially as it pertains to billionaires. She traces the origins of the trope all the way back to Ragged Dick, an 1868 bildungsroman by Horatio Alger that follows the rise of a young teenage bootblack. Drawing a line from that seminal work to more recent memoirs written by the uberwealthy, she eventually connects the two genres to the subject of this post, noting that: “The only kind of book for which ‘billionaire’ is an explicit category is the romance novel.”

books

At first glance the parallels between Ragged Dick and, say, Beauty and the Billionaire by Lauren Landish might seem fairly innocuous. In the former the titular character shines shoes on the streets of New York for a living, and it’s his brushes with wealthy men such as James Rockwell that allow him to escape poverty. In the latter data analyst Mia toils away in her basement office, only for a fling with CEO Thomas Goldstone to lead to her literal and figurative ascent out her old life.

In her conclusion Kiesling spotlights the honesty present in both Alger’s work and billionaire romance. In addressing the 19th century author’s sordid past as a disgraced pastor accused of molesting young teen boys, she’s able to point out that neither are predicated on the ability of their leads to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but more their a) being pretty and b) happening to be in the right place at the right time.

The narrative is rags-to-riches by means of rescue, which is why I was disappointed to see that Google had so little to offer regarding the billionaire romance’s relationship with its distant ancestor, the fairy tale. After all, what kind of Prince Charming can’t afford the Lamborghini he drives in on? What better analogue to the 1% than literal royalty? In these tales women are mistreated and marginalized until they’re noticed by a dashing heir to the throne; the easiest way to go from nobody to somebody is for a man of means to take you along for the ride.

Knowing some of the background on billionaire romance and its heroes, the question now isn’t so much why they’ve garnered so much popularity leading up to this point, but why they continue to. Given the state of the world we live in, how much longer can we continue to frame billionaires as ethical, moral individuals, let alone acceptable romantic partners?

If you’ve been following current events to even the scantest degree you may know that Elon Musk recently put in a bid of $44 billion dollars to buy Twitter. You may also be aware of the fact that in late October of last year the SpaceX founder also promised to donate 2% of his wealth to “solve world hunger” provided that the UN World Food Programme could outline a solution-

-to which WFP director David Beasley responded with a plan to use the amount to “avert famine in 2022.” While Musk did end up donating $5.74 billion to an unnamed charity, the aforementioned organization released a statement announcing that they did not end up receiving a cheque for any amount. The offer to purchase the social media platform being over seven times the cost of helping to save countless human lives was not lost on many.

Just so that I’m not harping on the “African American” entrepreneur, it’s worth calling attention to such antics as Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos thanking employees for paying for his suborbital space flight. The same employees who were provided with a tiny booth on the warehouse floor in which to engage in “Mindful Practice” instead of, you know, better wages and mental health benefits. How about billionaire #16 Jim Walton, whose father founded Walmart, where as of 2019 the average full-time hourly worker only makes around $25K/year. These two incidences are just drops in a bucket overflowing with news stories about the gross imbalances present between those at the bottom and those at the very top. 🎵No one makes a billion dollars / Without exploiting workers.🎶

Romance author Susanna Carr was took on the task of defining what a romance hero is on her personal website, and boiled him down to someone who 1) lives by a code of honor, 2) takes care of his tribe, and 3) protects the vulnerable. It’s the latter point that Kiesling spotlights when she points out that even Christian Grey of the 50 Shades trilogy explicitly states that his goal is “to help eradicate hunger and poverty across the globe.” She posits that more than just lauding the already prosperous, billionaire romance serves to whitewash those in the highest tax bracket:

Ultimately, these books are rehabilitory projects for billionaires, laundering their exploitative politics and recasting them as mildly edgy sex — not to mention putting hot young faces on a class of men that is in reality mostly approaching or past retirement age, for an audience of women who often have far less economic power.

A Goodreads review of Beauty and the Billionaire provides just one example-

He is super gross and controlling in that he also keeps repeating how much he owns her and how much he wants to claim her but it never goes anywhere besides him growling all the time about it. Plus the dude donates money and his time to orphans but go off about being a monster I guess.

-of the countless billionaire romances that have their dashing, moneyed leading men as the heads of charitable foundations, building schools or using their wealth to clothe and feed the poor. At the end of the day, however, no matter their myriad good deeds, they remain billionaires. They continue to hold on to such a vast amount of wealth that, it would take 31,629 years, give or take a few months, to earn it with a minimum wage job. That’s after I redid the math with the current District of Columbia minimum wage of $15.20/hour. 🎶That’s thirty-one thousand years of work🎵 still fits the meter, I’m happy to say.

Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that billionaires in real life use charitable donations as a means to avoid paying the taxes that they should.

All of this is compounded by the fact that according to the Pew Research Center on the whole the US has been slowly turning their backs on the superrich. As of last year 29% of those polled thought that billionaires existing was a bad thing for the country, a number that skyrockets to 50 for the demographic of those aged 18-29. Only 11% of young people thought they were a benefit. Given that The Avengers came out in 2008, it’s interesting to consider that Tony Stark’s iconic self-description might not be as well-received today as it was back then-

stark

In a world where inequality is only ever increasing the prospect of the sexy, alluring billionaire is one that stretches the limits of imagination. I doubt that anyone would strongly object to being “rescued”, whether it be from the millstone of student debt, or feeling chained to an underpaying job, or the terror of emergency medical bills (the latter of which is a slightly different experience here in Canada). It’s not that the average person has an issue with a little financial help, but why people have been allowed to accrue such extravagant riches that so many of us feel forced to beg them for scraps.

The pandemic is but a single reason that the general public has begun to realize the truth that no one needs a billion dollars. No single individual, or even single family, needs or deserves that kind of a fortune. With perceptions changing day by day it may not be so much if billionaire romance will be seen as a relic of the past, but when. At the very least, romance publishers may need to acknowledge that a seductive billionaire romance hero being someone who is inherently good stretches the boundaries of the genre. That billionaire romance might be better defined as billionaire fantasy.


DISCLAIMER: I have been employed by Harlequin Enterprises ULC for the past four years, and for professional reasons have opted not to include any work published by my employer, or any of its subsidiaries, in this post.

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