Friday, September 25, 2015

What Makes for a Strong Woman in Romance?

Last weekend, I visited the Maine Chapter of New England Romance Writers, to give a workshop on using the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator to construct character and conflict in romance novels. The Maine chapter spends the first hour of their meeting on business, and the third on guest speakers, but the second hour is devoted to a brown bag luncheon, where members (and the guest speaker) get to chat. During that time, I was really struck by a comment one author made after I mentioned that I also reviewed and wrote about romance from a feminist perspective on this blog. I explained that I had started RNFF in part because I thought that the romance genre had changed so much since most of the major academic theoretical work had been done on it, and that conventional wisdom about romance had not caught up with these changes. "Oh, yes," the writer said. "Women in romance are so different now. Almost every book I read has a strong woman in it."

I had to move on to get ready for my presentation, so I didn't have a chance to get into a longer discussion about this assertion. But it's been hanging out in my head for days now, making me wonder: are all female characters in romance strong now? What does it mean for a heroine of a romance to be labeled "strong"? Does what it means to be "strong" vary, depending on the subgenre of romance in which a heroine appears? How does being strong carry relate to a character's arc, which is often all about confronting and/or overcoming a weakness?

I have some initial thoughts about all of the above questions, but I'm curious to hear yours. When someone says "strong romance heroine," what comes to your mind?





















Illustration credits:
Raised by a strong black woman: Feed Art Network
Girl Power (Wonder Woman): Aaronlopresti, Deviant Art
Pamper me: Radical Latina


18 comments:

  1. A very interesting question.
    At first, I though about kick-ass heroines. Women elbowing -more literally that figuratively- their way through the book.
    But then I thought a little bit more about this issue and I realised that I tend to consider a heroine 'strong' when she has her own agenda and pursues it relentlessly, and resists the hero's -or other characters'- advances to distract her from her aim. I tend to use it, therefore, with women with her own purposes in life.

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    1. I like this idea of a heroine pursuing her own agenda. Often romance novels present finding a mate/true love/boyfriend as the "agenda," though. So I'd propose modifying your definition with the idea that the heroine has to have an agenda separate from that of falling in love.

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  3. I think a strong heroine has goals in her life and pursues them. She’s aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and deals with the latter in a mature way. She most certainly won’t endure abuse from the hero “for love.” There’s a recurring pattern that goes like this: the heroine endures the hero's dominance and sometimes unspeakable things, and at one point she can’t take it anymore, breaks up with the hero so he realizes he’s madly in love with the heroine and goes after her, and then there’s the happy ending. I see readers commenting that such type of heroine “has a backbone.” I’m not so sure. Just because a heroine gets fed up with abusive behavior, it doesn’t mean she has a backbone. It only means she has reached her limit. It means she didn’t have enough backbone, self-esteem and emotional clarity for starters, or she would never have endured abuse.

    I just started blogging and my first post was exactly about that, with a different approach: why many female writers subject their heroines to abuse? Verbal abuse, physical violence and objectification: think about a hero offering his heroine as a plaything to other men, for example. There’s a social conditioning behind that, which needs to be dispelled for the good of both writers and readers. Here’s my post if you want to read further: http://nicolecollet.com/category/romance/

    I applaud your blog, Jackie. Feminism is a word that unfortunately is attached to a stigma, but it shouldn’t be that way, and you have the guts to use it. Have a great one :)

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    1. Thanks, Nicole, for adding your thoughts. And congrats on starting your career as a blogger! I'm looking forward to reading it.

      Your definition echoes Bona's (above): a strong heroine has a goal or an agenda of her own. And you add the additional criterion: she doesn't put up with abuse for love. This addition made me think of a character in Stephen Sondheim show A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which I saw for the first time last night. The character is married to a wealthy comte whom she loves. But he's openly contemptuous of her, talks to her about his mistress, etc. She sings a song "Every Day a Little Death," about how disgusting love is, when it makes you accept being abused by the one you love. But I don't think romance novel heroines who endure abuse for love are as self-aware as this character was about the cost of such a life.

      Do you see the "recurring pattern" in specific subgenres of romance? Or do you think it is prevalent through the entire genre?

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    2. I'm somewhat troubled by the idea that only "weak" women are ever abused, because I think that ties into the larger cultural trend of victim-blaming directed at abuse survivors, which is a huge problem. While it's certainly true that people who have been conditioned to believe they deserve it (especially child abuse survivors) are more vulnerable, what I've read on abuse has indicated that it can happen to anyone, particularly because it often begins quite subtly. Abusers are good at what they do.

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    3. Thanks, Anonymous, for calling attention to the ways that discussion of women's "weakness" can too easily and problematically slide into labeling people who have been abused as weak, as causing their own abuse.

      Are some romance novels part of the "conditioning" that makes women some women more accepting of abusive behavior? I think that is the question I was trying to get at in my comments above. Not to imply that actual abused women and children are weak for not protesting, but that romance novels that hold abusive behavior up to readers as find and dandy are part of the problem.

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    4. Hi Jackie, thanks for your reply to my reply :) Boy, this is such a vast subject that sometimes makes my head spin! I think the abuse happens a lot in erotic novels--sexual situations give margin to that, and since the abuse is not socially accepted, it conveys transgression (= hot), plus it offers the author a good gimmick to, further down the road, have the heroine fed up and rejecting the hero, who suddenly realizes he loves her, yadayadayada. Sounds familiar? I was discussing this with a great romance writer, Terry Tyler: the hardest thing about writing romance novels is coming up with a reason to keep the main characters apart so that we can have a story :) Hence recurring over-the-top reactions, etc.

      Anyway, back to the erotic novels. With its huge success, "50 Shades of Grey" set a trend, and that's what concerns me--it's not a healthy trend.

      Now, in regard of Anonymous's comment, I'm not saying only weak women submit to abuse. You have psychopaths and malignant narcissists out there: they seduce you emotionally and once you're emotionally invested, the abuse starts, with lots of gas-lighting. But that's another story. In romance novels where the abuse occurs, the abuse occurs to create conflict in order to keep the story moving, for shock value and even some sort of twisted "hotness" (which readers end up accepting as OK, and now I have a big problem with that). Authors of course don't have ill intention when they do that, they think they're just doing their thing and writing a story. What they're actually doing, in my opinion, is reproduce a model of domination they've been conditioned to. You strip many of those stories of the steam and lust, and what you find are very traditional roles for men and women.

      By a coincidence, I'm just writing a post inspired by your post here. I stopped by to get your link and stumbled across your reply! :)

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  4. I write strong heroines, which to me means that they sometimes have to go against convention to find their own happiness, instead if waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them. I love that readers today want stronger heroines and it is exciting to see our genre grow and adapt.

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    1. Interesting, Anna, that you set up "waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them" as conventional behavior. Do you think the "rescue" storyline is more common than the go out and find her own happiness pattern in the romances you read?

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  5. A very interesting question! My immediate thought was that I am always struck by a romance heroine who does not set out to make people like her: neither men/ the hero NOR THE READER. For me, in real life, women's ingrained need to please, assuage, cooperate, be liked is still a huge issue (for example in the case of workplace conflicts). I most enioy romance heroines who are "unfeminine" in that they don't care whether I, the reader, like them, That doesn't necessarily make them hard-nosed, go-getting, selfish b!tches; in fact, I particularly hate romance novels that follow the pattern of The Taming of the Shrew, where an independent woman learns to care whether the hero/people like her. But if she finds love without making being loved her prime motivation, I'm involved. And impressed with the writer, who had the guts to create a character who does not set out to be liked by the readers.

    I also wanted to say that I'm not actually sure I would say that most (even many) heroines in romance these days are "strong". Oftentimes they start out with their own agenda, but they learn to put that aside in order to privilege their relationships. Or they are loud-mouthed, "sassy" (hate that word), spoilt brats that are sold to the readers as "strong". Bah!

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    1. Dora:

      I share your liking for heroines who aren't all about making others like her. And for heroines who have realized how much this (ingrained? socially-constructed?) need/demand that women to please others, especially men, has constricted their lives and their choices.

      I think that's why I wanted to write this post—my feeling that most women in romance are NOT strong, at least in the ways that matter to me. Wanted to find out if others shared that feeling...

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  6. Catching up with your recent posts, I see that your last post was precisely about this... Should have read first, then written :-))

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  7. This is a great question...one I struggle with in my own writing...the first thing I learned, editing my first book, was to make my heroine DO things, not just REACT to the things happening around her. So a strong character is one who makes things happen. Still working on that one, LOL.
    When I first started working with the woman who is my boss, she was talking about someone else and said, "She's got that learned helplessness thing. You know, like a romance heroine."
    *headdesk*
    I suggested she read a romance that had been written in the last twenty years.
    Not sure if she's changed her opinion, but now that she knows I'm writing romance, she doesn't say that anymore!

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    1. Yes, a strong woman is an actor, rather than just a reactor. For many women, though, that learned helplessness thing is hard to overcome, not just in romance novels, but in real life, too.

      Love/hate your story about your boss. If she went into a bookstore and picked up a random book from the romance section, what do you think the chances would be that she'd find one with a heroine who doesn't fall into the "learned helplessness thing" category?

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  8. I enjoy your blog and love this question. I've been thinking about this from a slightly different angle: I've been reading some m/m, like Alexis Hall's For Real, and what I'm really loving is exploring how two characters can been strong and vulnerable and even weak in different ways and at different times, and it's not pegged to gender, just two people. Of course, that's possible in m/f romance, and in fact is what I love about Pride and Prejudice. And it's not that gender can ever be actually erased from the situations, it's just where the emphasis lies.

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  9. I disagree with the person's comment that all women are portrayed as strong in romance these days. Just look at 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight (which are not exactly romance but at least something everyone knows). I would not classify either female character as strong and they got a lot of popularity. I think there is a trend moving towards having more strong female characters but I don't think we are quite there yet. It scares me that books like Twilight get so much sales and accolades when the main female character is so badly designed. It's not the only one. It makes me sad when those who have amazing female characters don't do as well.

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