HEA Hypothesis: Feminism in Off Her Game by Zoe Forward

Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash

Hello, book buddy! This blog post is part of a series called HEA Hypothesis, in which I do close readings of romance novels to figure out what makes them work, and you can find more here: HEA Hypothesis archives. This week’s post is focused on Off Her Game by Zoe Forward. Mr. West loves video games, and I love Mr. West, so I was intrigued initially by the premise: a video game writer gets too deep into an eGaming gambling ring. The FBI wants her help busting it open, and as her cover, she has to date a hot (but socially awkward) video game CEO. I love that she’s just as much of a gamer as he is, but the book doesn’t gloss over how it might feel to be a woman in an industry that’s mostly guys. In this scene, he’s picking her up for their first fake date…

“You’re kidding, right?” Tori stared [in] disbelief at Noah.

“About what?”

“A motorcycle? I’m wearing a dress.” This is one of two that I own. “When Emma said you wanted to pick me up, to drive us yourself, this isn’t what I expected.”

“The dress is nice. Really nice.” His gaze slid to the low dip above her breasts. As a man, his DNA was programmed to look. And maybe she’d chosen this dress to make sure looking happened. “You could ride sidesaddle? Come on, sometimes you gotta live a little.”

(Forward, Chapter Three, Location 530)

There’s a few different kinds of tension that work really well in this chapter. The first is financial tension: Tori’s income is far below Noah’s, and she’s concerned about ruining or damaging 50% of her date wardrobe. Tori’s constant stress about her debt has been a major plot in the book. He, on the other hand, probably thought he was being kind by picking her up himself instead of sending a driver. Notice, too, that it’s his assistant who communicated with her; he didn’t do it himself. That’s another marker of how his status is different from hers…as is his inability to listen to her concerns.

He held out a helmet.

“You want me to mess up my hair, too? I don’t put product in my hair for anyone, but because in the normal world I’d probably be super into this date, I did.” She touched the long, dark tresses, which with product waved like she had a perm.

“Your hair should shake out without a problem.” Said like a man who didn’t have long hair or work for the past two hours to make sure the curls happened.

(Forward, Chapter Three, Location 536)

The conflict here is two-fold: this is a fake date, but it’s feeling pretty real to Tori. She needs to make it look real, at the very least. She’s more invested in all this than he is, partly because of her debts and because it’s her safety at stake, and she’s starting to resent his lack of effort to understand. We don’t get Noah’s perspective in this scene, but I also wonder how much of it is him treating her like “one of the guys.” Tori has a lot of hangups (as I think many women do) about not being taken seriously in her chosen line of work. The subtext is sort of “come on, man, be cool,” and while he’s not putting direct pressure on her to get on the bike, it’s clear that he thinks her concerns aren’t valid.

“It’s a gorgeous night. Seventy-five degrees in March is almost unheard of. I wanted to get her out of the garage, but I didn’t think… Are you scared?” His brows drew together.

Was he calling her chicken? Oh no no no. “A few tattoos and piercings and you assume I’m a bike girl?”

“Nothing like that.” He ducked his head. “All right, maybe it was like that.”

“I’ve been on a few bikes. Sidesaddle is for movies and dipshits. It’s not the bike that’s the problem.”

He rubbed a hand down his face. “I’m sorry. Totally didn’t think you might not be into it. If you want to change clothes, I can wait, but I like the dress. This was a stupid idea.” He fiddled with the helmet he’d offered her. His fluster was kind of cute.

(Forward, Chapter Three, Location 536)

So here we see Noah (finally) try to shift his perspective…but unfortunately, he’s taking the wrong tack. Tori, used to being treated like one of the guys, prickles at the implication that she’s not brave enough for the bike. This deepens the tension of how she fits into his world and their industry: does she want to be treated like one of the guys, or does she want more consideration for her needs? She doesn’t like the implication that it’s the bike itself, and sets him straight immediately. But instead of listening to what she’s saying, he’s trying to find a deeper motivation (even though there isn’t one). At least he’s admitting that he didn’t think things through, and he’s finally playing to his strength: being a sweet, beautiful nerd who doesn’t know how to date.

She nibbled on her lower lip. Might as well just throw it out there. “I have this thing about the helmets. They’re tight.”

“Tight? They’re for safety. They have to be tight.”

“I know. They kind of freak me out. I have a claustrophobia thing.”

“Forget it. I’ll park it here and call my driver to pick us up.” He pulled out his cell phone. “Damn it. I should’ve texted you before, but it was a spur of the moment decision.”

She touched his arm to stop him from sending the text. “It’s a nice night.” On a deep inhale, she pulled the helmet over her head. One, two, three… She continued counting until she reached fifteen, then opened her eyes. Her heart jackhammered against her ribs while she struggled not to feel like a cat crammed into a hamster tube.

“You okay?” His voice echoed inside the helmet. “I’m serious. We don’t have to.”

“I’m good.” Way too much stress packed itself into the words. He mounted the bike and held out his hand to help her on behind him.

Forward, Chapter Three, Location 547

Noah’s honesty prompts Tori’s, too: she is afraid, just not of the bike. By finally affirming her, they’re able to get on their way, and even get some body to body contact in the process. Tori’s motivations are still being driven by a somewhat insecure desire to be seen as brave and strong…but at least the choice was hers. Just wait until he gets a glimpse of the dragon tattoo on her thigh as she gets on the bike… (Also, I worked another dragon into my post! Are you proud? You should be, I’m three for three now.)

If you want to read the rest of the book, you can get it here: Off Her Game by Zoe Forward. There’s also two more books in the Game Lords series, which I haven’t read yet. And if you want to read about more lovely nerds, you can read an excerpt from my book, The Un-Queen right here: Meeting the Guys.

And as a reminder, Amazon does pay me if you purchase something through these links, but it doesn’t change the cost of the product for you.

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