Friday, December 7, 2012

RNFF Pet Peeve: Feisty Does Not Necessarily Mean Feminist

Run a Google search for "strong female protagonists," and you'll get more than 5 million hits. If you attempt to narrow the results by adding the words "in girls' reading," you might expect the number of hits to go down. But in fact, they increase, exponentially, to more than 40 million. In the early 1990s, books and reports such as Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), Peggy Orenstein's SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (1994)  and the AAUW's How Schools Shortchange Girls (1993) argued that images of passive girls and women in popular culture were contributing to an American society of girls at risk. The AAUW (in Girls in the Middle: Working to Succeed in School [1996]) recommended that schools work to "expand the range of acceptable behaviors for girls, particularly 'nonconforming' behaviors such as argumentative and assertive actions," to combat the trend. Concerned librarians, teachers, and parents began compiling lists of books that might counter such negative images, thousands of which have proliferated on the web. And thus, the era of the "feisty" girl protagonist was born.

The feisty girl protagonist can often recognized by the way she talks. Not only does she like to argue; she speaks up for herself, and for other girls, even if her society would prefer she keep silent. She also likes to be in control, a decision-maker, actively determining her own fate. Often openly objecting to the social constructions of gender that would limit her agency and choice, the feisty girl refuses to conform, often earning opprobrium rather than praise from those around her, but forging ahead in spite of it. Above all, the feisty girl is not an object or a reward; she is not the gift given to the handsome prince who rescues her, nor does she live happily ever after, known only as his wife.

The feisty girl can be found not only in books for teens, but also in books for adults. As the kick-ass heroine of adult fantasies, the rebel of historicals, and the career woman of contemporary fiction, the feisty heroine has become a staple of the romance genre.

Yet when you look more closely at the feisty heroine of adult romance*, all too often you're likely to find that her feisty-ness is simply a reassuring cover papering over the same old disempowered heroine package. If you dare to look past her cheeky, argumentative banter, if you peek under her shiny pink superhero cape, you'll discover a girl without choice, without agency, a girl who gives it all up to gain the love of a good man.

The feisty but hardly feminist heroine is quite common in historical romances (ironically, as the word did not come into common usage until the very end of the 19th century, according to the OED). People around the heroine frequently talk about her non-conforming behavior, yet such behavior is rarely shown in the novel; she's a rebel in reputation, but not in practice. She's great at squabbling, especially with the hero of the piece; the two go at it early and often, arguing over every trifle imaginable, but rarely about anything of substance. If the heroine does protest the hero's gender-limiting assumptions, she does so only to implicitly accept them in the end by marrying him, for he certainly hasn't changed his mind. Readers get the surface features of feminism, but without any of its substance.

Feisty girl can also be met with in fantasy romance, particularly in the recent trend in books about shape-changers. Forced to transform into a vampire, werewolf, or other supernatural creature, typically against her will, feisty girl may protest her fate, but in the end has little say in the matter. Because she is "destined," not just to be transformed, but to be loved by the hero, she is given no choice, no agency over her own body, or over whom she'll share it with. Other men in the book often complain about feisty girl's mouthiness, allowing the hero to look good by comparison, because he enjoys it when she mouths off. But he rarely allows her to win a verbal or physical argument against him. One by one, her protests are cut down, or ignored. For example, at book's start, she may argue that wearing a thong is uncomfortable, stupid, done only to please a man, but by the end of the book, there she'll be, wearing said thong for her beastly lover's pleasure, the only explanation for her change of heart an implicit one: that her lust for said lover has overcome any principles she once espoused. Oh, the novel may allow her to make one or two life decisions, but in the end they are only token ones; far more decisions have been made for her, often in the face of her protest.

Interestingly, the words "aggressive, excitable, touchy" are the ones the OED chose to use in its definition of "feisty." No mention at all of "independent," "decisive," or above all "feminist." So be on the look-out for the mock-feminist feisty girl. Don't allow her to fool you; mouthing off is not the same as actively protesting gender restrictions, assuming equality between the sexes, or determining your own fate. Feisty is not always a synonym for feminist.

What books come to mind when you think of heroines whose feisty-ness is only skin-deep?

* And of purportedly strong girl romances for teens, as well, about which more in a future post...

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Feisty Girl: The Feisty Girl blog 
Love it when you're feisty: JackFreak1994 at Deviant Art 
• Feminist Fairy Godmother: Tom Gauld, Flickr

Next time on RNFF:
The "proper" woman as feminist historical heroine: Mary Balogh's A Summer to Remember

And check out my post on Feminism and Romance at the Popular Romance Project's "Talking About Romance" blog


  1. Yes, THIS! I was just talking yesterday about how Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed didn't quite live up to what I wanted from the premise. I want a heroine who is equal to the scarred, dangerous hero - but not just by being feisty at him. I want a heroine who's smart enough to be scared and smart enough to take her fear seriously.

    The worst is the feisty heroine who goes about upsetting the status quo because she's so morally righteous - and the hero has to run after her picking up all the pieces, because she isn't intelligent enough to understand the complexities of the issues she's tackling. Ugh.

  2. Or the feisty heroine who upsets the status quo because she's bound and determined to change it, but who then has to accept that her efforts have been misguided. Just read one with lawyer heroine who's biased against rich people, and of course finds out that all the rich people are really upstanding, and she's the one who's been jumping to unfounded assumptions about their motives. Hard to believe someone stupid even to make the misjudgments she did could ever have earned a law degree...

  3. EXACTLY. I keep getting fed allegedly "feminist" romances where it turns out the heroine is just feisty, not feminist. The two books I've read so far recommended to me specifically because friends know I'm looking for feminist romances are "The Sword" by Jean Johnson (I posted a review here: ) and "What Happens in London" by Julia Quinn.

    In "The Sword", the heroine is feisty and starts off feministy, but then falls into a pathetic Snow White "gee I love to clean up after these handsome bachelors!" trope. It really feels throughout like the author thinks that merely being tough and mouthy in the face of obvious sexism is what a strong, feminist character is all about.

    In "What Happens in London", the heroine is a typical out-of-place historical romance feisty girl who fights back against the yucky men but is happy to give in to the one she eventually realizes she loves. She's pretty much exactly what you describe above.

    I don't require my heroines to be perfect feminists. I don't want to read a polemic. But it would be nice if more authors and readers alike didn't mistake "strong heroine" for "feminist book", because they're not the same at all, and whenever I ask for feminist romance and get told about "strong heroines" I am sad because the point has been missed entirely.

    Likewise (and this is something I examine in my own recently released novel), a woman who has passive tendencies is not therefore automatically anti-feminist. A woman who is laid back or chooses not to engage in battle is not necessarily a doormat or not mistress of her own domain.

    Feminism is a nuanced mindset that can vary from woman to woman, and merely being able to swing a katana around or blurt out a fantastic string of expletives doesn't make one a feminist or not.

  4. Yes, just because a heroine is "strong" or "mouthy" doesn't mean she's actively working to examine or undermine gender roles that hold back both women and men.

    Your ideas about a woman with passive tendencies still being feminist is an intriguing one. I'm definitely going to have to get hold of a copy!

  5. I have mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand, I get where you’re coming from and have occasionally experienced the same frustration. One the other, I’m not sure that I would view certain actions or characteristics as necessarily non-feminist. And how often is all too often? I wish you would have given specific examples. I realize a few have appeared in the comments, none of which I’ve read. I say this because I’ve frequently heard ranty generalizations about the genre without any supporting facts or data. Ranting about something doesn’t necessarily make it true, nor does it make it untrue, only more difficult to refute or support.

    “Likewise (and this is something I examine in my own recently released novel), a woman who has passive tendencies is not therefore automatically anti-feminist. A woman who is laid back or chooses not to engage in battle is not necessarily a doormat or not mistress of her own domain.” Totally agree and neither is a “girl who gives it all up to gain the love of a good man”.

    1. CG:

      You're right to call me on this post, which rants without giving evidence from specific books to back up its ranting. I found myself in a sticky position -- I had read a book by an acquaintance, thinking it would suit the blog given what I know about this writer's personal beliefs and how the book was described. But when I came to read it, I found the feisty but not feminist dynamic at play. I did not want to offend my acquaintance, so I didn't quote from the acquaintance's work. In future, I'll make sure not to rant without citing evidence.

      In what situations could a "girl who gives it all up to gain the love of a good man" be a feminist? Are there specific books in which this happens that you could cite?

    2. When “giving it all up” doesn’t feel like a sacrifice because you’re gaining something that more than makes up for the loss. For example, I think one of Pamela Clare’s books had a scenario where there was an epilogue showing the heroine giving up her promising career as a journalist to be a housewife. IIRC, some readers at AAR felt Clare made it clear the heroine was experiencing job burnout and other readers felt this decision came out of left-field. I haven’t actually read the book as I’m not that into Romantic Suspense so I can’t speak to the execution, but I do remember reading the thread and thinking there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a homemaker if that’s what floats your boat.
      Link to thread -

      Or when the hero and heroine figure out they are both willing to make sacrifices to be together and it’s not just one-sided. I want to say Branded by Fire has this scenario but I’m not 100% sure because my memory is for crap and my books are all packed due to moving and renovation :( It may be something more along the lines of the heroine deciding to give it all up, but then something happens where she doesn’t actually have to. Or I could be totally confusing BbF with another book, something that occurs quite regularly to me.

      My point is that giving up a career or that internship at the Louvre or whatever isn’t inherently anti-feminist. Feminism (to me) is being able to have and make choices according to your own wants, needs and priorities.

    3. I think I would agree with your definition of feminism, but with one caveat: being able to have and make choices according to your own wants, needs, and priorities, with the recognition of the ways that your wants, needs, and priorities are shaped by institutional and social forces. Otherwise, too often an institutionally or socially-constructed decision gets recast as a completely "personal" decision -- not a feminist move.

      As Pamela Stone's book OPTING OUT? WHY WOMEN REALLY QUIT CAREERS AND HEAD HOME suggests, most women do not "opt out" but rather are pushed out of their workplaces because their jobs do not allow them to meet the needs of their families. Casting the decision to leave work to care for a child as an entirely personal decision is misleading, I think. Whenever I read a romance novel in which a heroine has to "give it all up" in order to make her romance work, I start to wonder if anything similar is going on.

  6. Just finished The Duchess War by Courtney Milan, and she tackles this head-on, in quite a funny way. The heroine has declared war on the hero, and he imagines her traipsing about making a nuisance of herself and playing at being a detective. She remains collected and quiet and calls him on his expectations while very calmly explaining that he's outmatched. A bravura moment. She did this with a lot of romance tropes, actually - tackling them head-on. Sometimes it worked (as the example I've given), sometimes it went a bit too far into satire and pulled me out.

    1. Ah, am closing my eyes in the face of your post -- am waiting for THE DUCHESS WAR to come out in a print edition before reading. Something to look forward to over the holiday break...