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.