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The Heroines We Hate

mona-lisaI’ve often felt that romance readers are unduly harsh on heroines.  If my literature professor could talk about hero complexes and hubris and approach their ginormous issues rationally and analytically, why can’t we do the same with heroines?  The answer is obvious, of course, (no grand insight here), and refers to what I call the body-snatching part of reading.  This is where the reader drops their invisibility cloak, stops wandering around the people looking at them, and invades the heroine’s body to be her.  Because body-snatching occurs every time we read a romance novel, there’s little chance we’d wish to inhabit a body and spirit that we like.  And so we body-snatch with the governesses who get the rakes, the family-oriented defence attorneys in Washington D.C., the jaded bad girl who comes home – whatever hits the spot.

But I’ve never body-snatched a heroine when I wanted to shove her head in a toilet bowl, and I’ll wager you never have and never will either.  She’s 35 years old and speaks like a Valley Girl.  She’s a spineless hearthrug to overbearing parents.  If she were a man, she’d be a mean ol’ sonofagun.  She’s that one archetype who, for whatever reason under our sun, pushes all your buttons.  She is the Heroine We Hate.

A straw poll two weeks ago amongst AAR staff yielded a lovely variety of Heroines We Hate (as well as plenty of terms begging for acronyms).  Some heroines were disliked on situational grounds – there was just something about that character type that our staff couldn’t stand.   The Courtesan.  The Cowgirl.  The Poor Misunderstood Trophy Wife.  (Especially the ex-Playboy Bunnies.  Thank you, Sandy.)  I, for instance, am not a religious person, and am, therefore, uncomfortable with any hint of overt religious piety in the heroine – Flowers from the Storm included.  And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  The relationship between book and reader is such that a certain measure of the reader’s personality is always reflected in the book; that’s the way it is and always shall be.

But the majority of our leading ladies were loathed for behavioural reasons.  It was fascinating to see the variety of misbehaviour that didn’t jive with us, and I’m sure you’ll recognise the following members of the Sisterhood of Detestable Dames:

Honey – “The doormat heroine who lovingly sacrifices everything for her family, preferably her younger siblings.” (Rike)

  • Sweetie (identical twin of Honey) – The faultless do-gooder.  “How she’s not walking with bluebirds twittering around her is a mystery to me.”  (CindyS)
  • The Ball-Buster – “This isn’t a heroine who’s an ice queen, but then thaws as time goes on; this is the one whose attitude is supposed to be a tribute to women, but their “strength” seems to entitle them to steamroll over everyone.” (Andi)
  • The Naturally Sensuous Regency Miss – “The heroine who has entirely 20th century ideas about sex and absolutely zero self-protective instincts. “ (Rachel)
  • The Nutter – TSTL.  ‘Nuf said.

What was even more interesting though was to read why my fellow AAR staff find these heroines unbearable, and it all comes down to one thing: Consequences. These heroines never discover the costs of their actions, inactions, and stupidities.  Several of the AAR staff find the blatant aggressiveness of the Ball-Buster not only unsympathetic but illogical.  Lea wonders at the reality of such a woman’s behaviour, and also what would happen if genders were reversed: “Even if the hero is aggravating in some manner, I often stop and think how I would perceive a woman I observed today with such hateful words …. Is the hero just supposed to forget these things or laugh them off?  Not done in real life for a lasting relationship.  How would readers react if this same sort of nasty comment came from the hero?”  The line between assertiveness and aggressiveness is thin.  Too often when circumstances demand heroines to wear the pants (so to speak), they acquire unattractive traits that only they deem indicative of strength and power but instead reflect truculence, aggression, and even cruelty.

Some also wondered at the realistic consequences of being a spineless Honey or a relentlessly flawless Sweetie.  Rike pointed out that in one book, a heroine’s unending “caring” for her family churned out a passel of molly-coddled brats, yet this was never addressed.  Katie noted that heroines who turn the other cheek too often get slapped in the face again, yet never seem to “get a reality check and grow a spine – some people are assholes.”  Blythe found that these heroines only work “if she has a wake-up call later on” – in other words, if reality catches up with her actions, no matter how well-meaning they are.  In real life, would such women garner our admiration or annoyance?  (Especially if they’re paired with Pepe LePew-style overbearing alpha heroes, which sends Bessie’s blood pressure skyrocketing.)  And more to the point, would they earn our respect?

The TSTL Nutter has been well-documented and equally well-vilified, but suffice it to say that not only do her misdeeds and rashness usually demonstrate supreme self-centredness and arrogance, they also put others in danger.  LinnieGayl makes the interesting distinction between intelligence and knowledge: LinnieGayl says that heroine doesn’t “have to have a high level of education, but acting like an idiot just turns me off.”  For Heather, this idiocy is exemplified by the scores of tomboy historical heroines who fight “as well as a man in hand to hand combat (right!) …  do exactly what the hero asks her not to and cause the hero to get hurt, when he has to ride in and fix the mess she’s made.”  If the TSTL Nutter ever demonstrates repentance or understands the consequences of her idiocy, it often comes too late for the reader to forgive her.

And regarding the Naturally Sensuous Regency Miss, Lynn, Rachel and I were troubled by the historical inconsistencies.  Rachel elucidated further: “Pregnancy?  The clap?  Losing any and all social status/prospects for marrying?  These things never occur to her …. She goes all dreamy and tosses out good sense, social conditioning, and religious training to have ‘one night for love.’”  Sex has been around for ages, despite every generation’s conviction that they sprang from cabbage leaves, but societal strictures have varied greatly through time and place.  However, historical romance novelists seem to ignore the very real consequences when their heroines chuck convention.  Where would we be if Elizabeth Bennett had slept with Mr. Darcy at Rosings?

It is a truth galactically acknowledged that romance novels largely inhabit a fantasy world.  But the nature of the genre means that if the book is to reap the reader’s emotional investment the core must be grounded in reality.  The heart of romance lies in the relationships, and sympathy, to say nothing of empathy, can only stem from understanding.  There can be no understanding when our heroines behave like nutters or misplaced prostitutes, and especially not when these girls never learn.  A heroine is someone to admire, a woman with qualities to aspire to.  And the day this reader aspires to any of the above qualities is the day I forsake chocolate ganache and romance novels.
Jean Wan

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