Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Romance's Impossible Standard

I was swirling around The Toilet Bowl (aka, Mrs. Giggles' blog) today, and found a post there about romance heroines that really resonated with me. For those of you with clickthruaphobia, the gist of it was: Why do we demand effortless perfection in our heroines? Why must a romance heroine be (naturally) large-busted, (naturally) slim yet curvy, and (naturally, effortlessly) gorgeous? Why is a heroine villified if she (god forbid!) gets breast implants to have that large bust, or (heaven forefend!) diets to achieve that perfect body, or (gasp!) wears make up to enhance her beauty?

Well, the indoctrination starts early, my friends. You can see it in Disney movies like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella: there's the heroine, perfect and pristine in her natural beauty and purity (even when she's dressed like a shlump), while the villainess is a heavily made-up, corset-wearing, updo-sporting nasty. And the villainess--even the fat, ugly Sea Witch, Ursula--comes off as more clever, overtly powerul, even sexual, than the sweet, innocent, gullible heroine, who triumphs not by wit or fortitude, but a combination of luck, blind faith and deus ex machina. It's no wonder that the villainess usually seems (to me, anyway) more complex, meaty and interesting as a character, while the heroine often has all the dynamic flavor and compelling texture of a Twinkie.

We're bombarded all through our childhood with the idea that for females, innocence and simplicity (even to the point of stupidity--I mean, the apple is freaking poisoned, duh) is good. Whereas a woman comfortable in her sexuality is evil. A woman who cares about how she looks is evil. A smart woman who knows what she wants and sets out to get it is--you guessed it--evil. A little lipstick, a push-up bra and a take-charge attitude can take a potential heroine from virtue to vice in less than 60 seconds.

But the times, they are a-changing. In romance novels these days, we increasingly demand a heroine who is smart, beautiful, sexy and competent, yet the moment the heroine appears to be aware of the fact that she's smart, beautiful, sexy and competent, she loses her lustre in the eyes of many readers. We're mired in that uneasy null-space between a woman's traditional role and women's liberation. Torn between the madonna and the whore.

One author's comment on Mrs. Giggles' post indicated that for her, the answer lies in m/m romance. That men are simply more dynamic, more powerful, more interesting (and hotter) romantic protagonists than women. Which leads me to ask: Why must we turn to men for characters that engage us? If it's possible to write a strong, complex and intiguing male, why is it so much less possible to write those same qualities into a female character?

I've written many heroines in my twenty-odd years of writing:

The six-foot-tall warrior/slave who lives for vengeance.
The coltish, breech-clad tomboy bastard.
The tavern girl who's lost count of the number of men she's been with.
The whore with the red-painted lips, who loves everything to do with sex.
The cross-dressing, unabashedly bisexual killer for hire with a death wish.
The daughter of a goddess who isn't afraid to use sex to get what she wants.
The traumatized rape victim who learns to love her body again.
The high-class rent girl with a financial plan that will get her off her back.
The queen who marries a man half her age and enjoys every second in their marriage bed.
The courtesan who sleeps her way to a chance at revenge.
The bisexual metallurgist who uses her psychic gifts for voyeurism.
Her lesbian companion who isn't past inviting a man into their bed to please her lover.
The child sexual abuse survivor and freedom fighter who is willing to die for her cause.
And four guilt-ridden immortals who ambush one poor sap into a polyamorous marriage.

These women are all beautiful, though not always (or even usually) traditionally so. Some are aware of their beauty, some aren't, and some don't much care one way or the other. Only two are virgins at the beginning of their stories (and none by the end, heh). They are all sexy, honorable, flawed, strong, intelligent, vulnerable, determined, complex women who are every bit as dynamic as any man.

There is beauty to be found in simplicity--if you're talking about a lamp or a vase or a china pattern. Sweetness is all very nice, but too much of it makes my teeth hurt. I'm not interested in Snow White. She bores the everloving crap out of me. Cinderella's passivity and martyrdom doesn't impress me--it makes me want to smack her upside the head. But the answer, for me, is not to stop writing women altogether. It's to write the kind of women I'd like to know, the kind of women I can respect.

Even if they wear lipstick.


MB (Leah) said...

Kirsten, I read that yesterday and frankly, for me, except for that the heroine is nice looking, I really haven't read that in the contemps I've been reading. I don't doubt that it's true, but I wanted to ask which books she's reading.

I've read many contemps with "small breasted" heroines who are smart and competent. I notice that cause being the direct opposite as you in that department, I like it when a heroine is small busted. And believe me as far as the hero bitching about how much she's eating and such, I've not read it.

I certainly have other issues but if the contemps I've been reading had a hero getting on a heroine's case for how much she eats, or how she looks or what she's done, ie. slept around and such, then I'm done and that just hasn't come up for me.

I do totally agree with you that the innocent helpless lamb is looked favorably over the evil self confident woman, which frankly surprises me because that's totally a male fantasy. So I don't know why women would want to read that. It's probably why I never got into romance until recently. Heaving helpless bosoms where not my reality nor the reality of the woman I hung out with. We were all those wicked women I suppose.

But whose fault is it really? It seems to be women who keep perpetuating that kind of thing by writing it and reading it. And I see that reading/writing m/m only to be a major easy excuse over writing better scenarios for women or "healthier" more normal heroines.

It's kind of like, well men are more dynamic so I'll just skip over reading about women altogether, which I just don't get. But I'm not here to judge what people want to read.

As far as men being more dynamic, well I hate that attitude as well. I don't see why a man has to me more interesting than me frankly.
I've always found female characters to be just as dynamic. Maybe that's because I grew up with Erica Jong and such writers.

But to be truthful, it's always been that when I go to a party or am in a large group, my attention gravitates towards the men. Just a fact. And I'm not so sure it's because they are more dynamic than women as much as that there's an instinctual (sexual) attraction to men over women. Not that I wouldn't be checking out the women as well, but that'd usually be more instinctually as who is my competition and who I can align myself with. That's just biology. And why maybe, this whole men are more dynamic will take a while to go away if it ever does.

I'm not counting in here women who are bisexual or lesbian because the major reader of romance is the het woman.

And I have read one or two contemps with a very sexually aggressive heroine, which did turn me off a bit. But that's not because she's the nasty biatch, but because I don't like sexual aggressiveness in a male or female.

I do wish there were more well rounded heroines though. Normal girls.

kirsten saell said...

I think if you read mostly erotic romance, the picture is going to be a bit less one-sided, actually. Erotic is already going to be largely non-traditional, and other envelopes, not just sexual, can be pushed.

But as far as traditional romance goes, think of how flawed we allow our heroes to be (other than, as one commentor mentioned, that they must be able to perform five times a night, heh). Men are generally allowed to be angry, bitter, insecure, jealous, scarred (both physically and emotionally), and unabashedly slutty. It's much harder to write a likeable/attractive female who has those traits. Men are also allowed to know they're the best at something, not just good enough to compete, but the best. The only thing they're universally not allowed to be is stupid.

I don't think, either, that it's the hero who insists the heroine not diet or think about her looks, so much as the reader. Because if romances were written for men, all the heroines would look like porno actresses, with teased hair and boobs as big as their heads. I think the fantasy for many women is still that the man will reject such vain women in favor of "deeper" things, like fresh faced sweetness and innocence. But I think it's unfair to men (and readers) to assume them incapable of seeing past a layer of make-up, a tight top and a short skirt to see a good personality. So we almost automatically put those vain women in the villainess' role.

And I think it's more subtle than Mrs. G's post suggests, too. The hero isn't going to chide the heroine for dieting--but fairly often, he rejects the woman concerned about her looks and falls for the one who is effortlessly beautiful and totally unaware of it.

And I've seen the "choosing the naif over the heavily painted slut" trope in lesbian romance, too, lol.

I do see your point about the "eye gravitating toward the men in the room" thing, which may not be so much a sexual phenomenon, but rather an evolutionary survival mechanism. I mean, we're still animals who once lived in caves and threw spears at mastadons, right? Man or woman, when you enter a room, your eye first goes to the potential threats (the men), and when you ascertain they're not a threat, you see them as the person you want to be standing next to in case of a mastadon attack, lol.

As for sexual aggressiveness, I'm okay with it to a point. I do like sexual assertiveness in a heroine--that can be anything from Viera's mission to seduce Aru, to a woman walking up to a stranger in the bar and whispering, "meet me in the alley" in his ear.

I, too, wish there were more rounded heroines. It isn't that I'm against a heroine who is flawed (all of mine are in some way), but that I'd like to see them flawed in non-traditional ways. How many heroines have you read who were visibly scarred? How many who are possessive by nature, or have a quick temper or a past (not just sexual) that makes them ashamed? I think in erotic romance, the number will be a lot higher than in traditional. Which makes me think that women who read erotic might not actually just be choosing it for the sex, but because the heroines can be who they are without being villified for it.

MB (Leah) said...

Kirsten, I think you are right about erotic romance vs traditional romance. I'm still not attracted to traditional romance books. I guess I do judge it all by erotic romance and erotica, which is mostly what I read. Heroines and heroes in those books do go against traditional gender stereotyping and are more sexually liberated in their thinking.

I think it's a very difficult thing which is very ingrained in all of us. As a woman, yeah sure I like being independent and strong and be sexually open, going after what I want in that. And yet, as a woman, there's a strong part of me that wants to be that soft feminine woman with a strong man who'll take care of me and throw me on the bed and say "woman,you're mine." It's not how I want to live day to day, but yeah, it's a nice fantasy.

So I guess what Mrs. G was saying is true and that we as women keep scarfing it down because maybe it's how we wish it were deep down. But when it's laid out like that, like both you and Mrs. G put it, it's cringe worthy.

What you say about the flawed hero is true as well. But see that's true IRL. There's the whole male ego, which doesn't exist for women, and then there's the whole boy's will be boys excuse that women give for crappy behavior all the time. Again, if falls back on women perpetuating all of that.

Guys just go around doing their thing and it's always women who have to adjust to it. So I do wonder why in female written romance we let guys get away with crap in fantasy and we write ourselves as TSTL?

I found your take on the men in the room very interesting. For me it's more about attraction than threat when I scope out the men. It's about who can I go to and get juice from. Who's the most likely candidate to maybe have a little flirt with, and is going to validate that I'm a desirable woman. And I don't mean outright, but on a very subtle level. And ultimately it'd be who I could mate and feel good with. On that level, yeah, men are more dynamic for me because they can give me that kind of ego boost that a woman can't.

Whereas the women in the room would be the direct threat to that. What woman in the room is going to be able to take away my mate as it were? And on another level, what woman in the room could I trust and be confidants with. This is what goes on for me in room of people I don't know. But then again, we've gone a bit past the whole primal stuff at this point.

My point in that was maybe it's a reason why women feel men to be more dynamic than women as characters. And why female characters are often dissed.

And on sexual aggressiveness, for me it's not about not asking for or going for what you want sexually, it's more the bullying type of energy that some people have that keep pushing you to have sex with them even after you've said no and it's clear that you're uncomfortable with it. That's what I mean by it.

I don't find any of your characters sexually aggressive in this manor. Just women who go for what they want, which is refreshing.

Which makes me think that women who read erotic might not actually just be choosing it for the sex, but because the heroines can be who they are without being villified for it.

I think you're right on this.

laughingwolf said...

i'm with you there, k...

why do [most] guys equate tit size in women as somehow more sexually attractive?

i may be weird, but what's sexiest to me is what she has tween her ears, and is not afraid to use that gray matter... so, if it ain't happening tween the ears, it ain't happening tween the sheets :)

kirsten saell said...

Thing is, Laughingwolf, women seem to be much more hard on themselves than men are. So IRL, the guy might actually go for the heavily made-up woman with the painted nails, but in a romance, that woman is usually relegated to the antagonist's role. She's the one the guy leaves to be with the naturally beautiful heroine.

I hear you on the boobage, tho. I own a pair of 34GGs, and almost invariably find big bazooms unattractive--and that's speaking from a sexual, rather than just aesthetic, standpoint. I was at the bar one night and there was a bikini contest on the bigscreen, and I was drooling over the small-boobed women, and the guys were all rooting for the ones with obvious implants. Bluh.

The things that really attract me, though, man or woman, are brains, confidence and humor. They can be gorgeous as all get-out, but if I end up rolling my eyes every time they open their mouths, well, looks will only get a person so far.