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Posts Tagged ‘heroines’

The Spoiled Darling

Spoiled DarlingYou can always spot a heroine who’s a spoiled darling. If it’s a regency, she stamps her foot a lot. If it’s a contemporary, she pouts. In both time periods she tosses her head quite a bit. Her family indulges the hell out of her, of course, because she’s a spoiled darling. She’s always gotten her way, which means she’s accustomed to running roughshod over everybody in her path, but her parents and siblings are convinced that she’s adorable so she gets away with murder.

Until, of course, she meets the hero, who is unaccountably intrigued by her. The two bump up against each other repeatedly, the heroine trying to bend him to her will (because everybody always bends to her will, you see) and the hero resisting. Eventually, the heroine becomes someone less bitchy under the hero’s influence and we move on to HEA.

You’ve probably gathered by now that this isn’t one of my favorite characters. I’ll put up with her as long as there’s some indication she’ll snap out of it soon. But the longer it takes her to start behaving decently, the more likely I am to move on to another book. I’m reading a historical now with a spoiled darling in the lead. She’s being beastly to the hero because he doesn’t meet her expectations for an attractive guy. He, rather than suggesting the heroine go find herself somebody who fits her exacting standards, is trying to break down her defenses. At the moment, I’m going along with it because the heroine is showing some signs of interest in the hero. But she flounces a lot, and I really wish somebody would give her a good shake.

I don’t have a problem with a heroine who defends herself against unjust social rules. Kasey Michaels’ recent The Taming Of the Rake is a great example of this type of heroine, a woman who takes charge of a situation rather than submit to unjust social mores. What I object to is a heroine who’s a bitch because she enjoys it and a hero who seems to feel that’s okay.

The spoiled darling’s origins as a character are pretty clear to me—she’s Scarlett O’Hara in modern dress. And as I’ve said before, I find Scarlett herself insufferable as a heroine. The idea that there’s something attractive about bitchiness strikes me as questionable at best. Moreover, there’s a sense in which these heroines confuse bitchiness with strength, which goes beyond questionable to dangerous. Strong women are admirable and make for enjoyable heroines. Just check out Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scandals or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Dream a Little Dream or just about anything Jennifer Crusie has ever written. On the other hand, the idea that strength is equivalent to arrogance and insensitivity is both perverse and faintly misogynistic.

I have no real hope that the spoiled darling will disappear as a heroine. Considering how frequently she shows up, I’m guessing she must be popular with somebody somewhere After all, people still read Gone With the Wind too, so not everybody finds Scarlett as annoying as I do. I just hope that future iterations have her mending her ways sooner rather than later. After all, once that bitchiness is converted to self knowledge, she could be an interesting woman to know.

 

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The Badass

Unhappy girlSo I’m reading this urban fantasy, and the heroine’s a real mess. Total badass. Given to leather pants and attitude. She gives the hero nothing but grief even though he’s clearly nuts about her. But she’s even harder on herself because she had this really awful childhood. Her mother neglected her. The kids made fun of her because she was “different”. Then her best friend was killed and it was her fault. So now she has her defensive shields up and nobody’s going to get close to her ever again, particularly not the hero, even though she’s secretly desperately in love with him.

Right now you may be saying, “Yeah, I read that one.” If you’ve read much urban fantasy, you probably have. Because I just gave you a composite of the majority of urban fantasy heroines I’ve run into over the past few months. You can almost check off the characteristics as you read the book. Bad attitude, check. Hostility to the hero, check. Ability to kick ass, check. Rotten childhood, check.

At this point I find myself wondering—why can’t I come across any urban fantasies where the heroines aren’t totally screwed up? I know they’re supposed to be dark, with inhuman villains and profound threats to humanity. I get that. But can’t the heroine just occasionally be somebody who isn’t a candidate for psychotherapy? Look at thrillers and romantic suspense. The threats the characters face are usually immediate and nasty. The heroines are frequently law enforcement types, occasionally with bad past experiences to overcome. But they’re usually functioning and competent. And they usually have no particular difficulties in hooking up with the hunky hero, even if he does have some problems of his own.

Look, I know every genre has its conventional characters. In regencies you’ve got the virginal bluestocking and the devil-may-care beauty, for example. In contemporary you’ve got the hard-luck heroine who’s coming back from some kind of social or economic disaster. But there’s a point at which convention becomes cliché. When the conventional character is the only type currently on offer, you may start feeling like the genre itself is running into a dead end.

So can anybody recommend an urban fantasy where the heroine isn’t a paranormal version of Lisbeth Salander? Anybody? Anybody?

There are some wonderful writers working in urban fantasy these days, and the genre itself offers a wealth of story possibilities. I’d just like to read something where I didn’t spend the entire novel wishing the heroine would pull herself together.

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Happy Birthday, Mae

Mae WestMae West’s birthday is August 17, and those of us in the romance business need to wish her a happy one. She was born 118 years ago. So you might ask, why should we appreciate Mae? Because she was one of those women who paved the way—she wrote plays about sex and about gay men that got her thrown in the clink. She wrote movies about strong, sexual women who didn’t take any crap and who got the guy in the end even though they didn’t take any crap. And she had a wicked way with a quip.

West was on Broadway for around twenty years before she headed to Hollywood. During that time she wrote several plays, including a notorious one called Sex that got her thrown in the slammer for ten days in 1927 for corrupting minors (who apparently wouldn’t have learned about sex on their own). While she served out her sentence (eight days with two days off for good behavior), she wore her own silk underwear, took her meals with the warden and his wife, and gave lots of interviews. Eat your heart out, Lindsey Lohan!

Her next play after that was called The Drag, a tragi-comic portrait of gay life. That one didn’t even make it to Broadway since it was closed down by the Society For the Prevention of Vice.

West headed to Hollywood in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. She was 40 years old and, as they say, “well-nourished.” It didn’t matter. She became one of the most popular stars of the Depression Era, and the kind of sex symbol who sent people like Mary Pickford and other guardians of morality into a tizzy.

But what’s been lost in the picture of West as a sort of early version of Marilyn Monroe is how really revolutionary her female characters are. Where Marilyn’s characters tended to be childlike, Mae’s were always very much adults and very capable of taking care of themselves. Where Monroe traded on innocence, West’s characters gloried in knowing the score. Mae never chased men in her movies: they chased her. And when she finally gave in to their pleas, it was always on her own terms. Even in My Little Chickadee (which she hated because of her battles with W.C. Fields), West comes out on top in the end, after playing the most knowing schoolmarm of all time. When she sees a blackboard with the sentences “I am a good boy I am a good man I am a good girl” she mutters “What is this, propaganda?”

In fact, it’s the nature of Mae’s characters that got her in trouble with the censors. It wasn’t just that her characters had sex, it was that they were in charge of that sex. Female characters who played around in the movies of the thirties and forties generally were punished for it—with babies, bad reputations, and broken relationships. But Mae’s characters behaved like men, taking responsibility for their own pleasure and reveling in it. Scandal! Mae being Mae, she got away with it.

And, of course, there are the quotes. Mae is undoubtedly one of the most quotable figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood. So here goes—most of these are from her movies and most of them were written by Mae herself.

“When I’m good, I’m good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

“When choosing between two evils, I always choose the one I’ve never tried before.”

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime—when I’ve got nothing on but the radio?”

“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.”

“Are you showing contempt for this court?” “No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

“Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.”

“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”

“Can I hold your hand?” “It ain’t heavy. I can hold it myself.”

And the most famous, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me,” supposedly delivered off the cuff to an LA cop.

Happy birthday, Mae. And thanks.

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The (Phony) Strong Heroine

Everybody loves a strong heroine these days. Nobody wants to write about a wimp who needs to be rescued by the big, strong hero. In fact, in most books that are being written now, the heroine stands up and at least attempts to rescue herself when she gets into difficulties. Only if she’s tried to untie herself from the railroad tracks and failed is the hero allowed to come in and get her loose. And in a lot of books, the hero is only allowed to show up when the heroine is already off the tracks and planning her revenge.

I have no problem with this at all. In fact, I’m absolutely in favor of it. But along with these strong heroines, I’ve begun to see heroines who seem to be strong but who are, in fact, phony. The present a counterfeit version of strength that actually allows the hero to go back to being a good ol’ alpha who takes care of the silly little woman and saves the day. Plus, of course, they’re really annoying.

You can spot this heroine pretty quickly because she’s almost always what the Old Folks used to call a “career girl.” She does something high-powered that provides a fat salary and fancy clothes. Consequently, she’s also a bitch on wheels (apparently high-powered women can be nothing else). She also spouts a sort of pop culture version of feminism, accusing the hero of belittling her or not valuing her skills because of her gender while showing that those skills are in fact pretty worthless in a pinch.

The phony strong heroine gets her comeuppance when she’s up against the villain. She gets into some kind of difficulty from which only the hero can extricate her. She is, of course, not grateful for being extricated. In fact, she frequently bitches at the hero again for his Neanderthal attitudes. The hero responds by becoming even more Troglodytic, but when push comes to shove, he once again extricates her from some other difficulty. This goes on until the hero finally vanquishes the villain. Eventually, the heroine, worn out and defeated, acknowledges that the hero’s version of femininity is actually the correct one.

This annoys me on a whole lot of different levels. First of all, as a feminist (yeah, sister!), I resent seeing an honorable philosophy reduced to a cartoon. And let me tell you—the Neanderthals I’ve run into in real life haven’t been all that endearing. Considering women to be basically inferior really doesn’t constitute much of a turn-on for most of us. But more than that, when you consider the strong heroines popping up all around us who really can at least make a stab at taking care of themselves (see anything recent from Nora Roberts or Linda Howard or Elizabeth Lowell), it’s doubly annoying to see what is basically an eighties heroine showing up at this late date and being held up as some kind of ideal.

So rah, rah for strong heroines. And boo, hiss for the phony kind. When it comes to female strength, let’s accept no substitutes.

 

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I just finished Nancy Taylor Rosenburg’s thriller The Cheater. It’s part of a series, although I didn’t realize that when I picked it up. The heroine is a former DA who’s now a judge in Ventura, CA.

She’s also a mess.

Mind you, she has every right to be. In previous novels she was raped by an intruder who also raped her twelve-year-old daughter. She then murdered the man she thought was the rapist. She divorced the father of her daughter, and he was subsequently murdered by the actual rapist. She’s now married to a serial adulterer who’s also an alcoholic. In other words, she has Personal Problems.

Not surprisingly, the heroine herself is close to a basket case. She has flashbacks to the rape that distract her when she’s holding court. She’s afraid to be by herself, particularly at night. Her relationships with her husband, her daughter, and her colleagues are shaky at best. In fact, you find yourself wondering how this woman ever ended up on the bench (and hoping that you don’t have anyone like her on the bench in your town).

Clearly, The Cheater isn’t a romance, but I found myself wondering if a romance could have a damaged heroine like this. Frankly, I doubt it, but I’d make a distinction between the flawed heroine and the damaged heroine. Damaged heroines couldn’t make it in a romance that demands people pull themselves together in the end. Flawed heroines can, and frequently do.

Flawed heroines are quirky and sometimes annoying because they’re not perfect people. Contemporary romances are full of flawed heroines. Think of Jennifer Crusie’s Agnes in Agnes and the Hitman or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s heroine in Natural Born Charmers or Kristan Higgins’s heroine in The Next Best Thing. They have their annoying idiosyncrasies, but they’re still people you can depend on, and heroines who have more admirable traits than defects.

Damaged heroines (and heroes) show up a lot more in mysteries and thrillers. Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta is damaged. So is James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux. There are times when you wonder if they’ll be able to make it to the end of the book without cracking up.

I think the basic reason romance writers (and readers) prefer flawed to damaged is that our books tend to follow a rising story arc. We want our heroines (and heroes) to get stronger as they go. To recover. To grow. Basically, we want them to be better people at the end of the book than they were at the beginning. I worked with that idea with Long Time Gone–Erik was flawed, certainly, but he was better by the end of the book. Damaged characters can’t do that—once broken, they’re not likely to be healed in any real sense.

I don’t dislike books with damaged heroines or heroes, but I don’t necessarily seek them out either. At the end of The Cheater, I didn’t have any high hopes for Lily Forrester to become a more together person. She got through one dangerous situation, and she may be able to repair some of the damage to her life, but she’s never going to be whole. Overall, I have to admit, I sort of prefer the kind of thrillers written by somebody like Elizabeth Lowell, which are basically romances in thriller mode with a more-or-less romantic endings. And that’s fine with me. I don’t want to have to worry about who’s going to pick up the pieces after the novel ends.

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I first read Gone With the Wind when I was in middle school. One of the girls in my English class recommended it, and I got a copy from the library. Like a lot of readers, I was totally engrossed—I remember not wanting to put the book down for about a week as I read it.

I liked Margaret Mitchell, and I was fascinated by her retelling of the Civil War (although even then I suspected it was a bit biased in terms of the good old days in the south). But I’ve gotta say it—I really didn’t like Scarlett O’Hara.

Now granted, I was growing up in the Midwest, where people prize level-headedness and where snotty behavior doesn’t get a lot of sympathy. And one of my grandmothers was a self-anointed Southern Belle, so I saw some eye-batting and hissy fits as I was growing up. But Scarlett didn’t strike me as fascinating. She was just annoying.

A lot of people seem to assume Gone With the Wind is a romance, and Scarlett is an archetypal romance heroine. I think they’re wrong on both counts. Gone With the Wind doesn’t count as a romance, first of all, because it doesn’t have a happy ending (although you might think it’s fairly happy for Rhett since he finally gets away from Scarlett and her campaign to make him miserable). But more importantly, I don’t think it counts because Scarlett really isn’t an archetypal heroine.

Why not? Because she doesn’t learn anything. Oh, she gets more ruthless and more rich, but she’s just as selfish and self-absorbed at the end as she was at the beginning (no, I’m sorry, that last-minute revelation that she loves Rhett is really a day late and a dollar short). Now I can think of some romance heroines who start off unlikeable. But they don’t stay that way. Even if they begin as bitches on wheels, by the end of the book they will have learned to care about someone other than themselves.

The reasons for this are, I think, twofold. First, as readers we usually want to identify with the heroine. If she’s a thoroughgoing bitch, that’s going to be hard, unless she wises up at some point in the story. Second, the hero has to care about her or there’s no romance. And, again, if she’s a thoroughgoing bitch, the hero would have to be a dunce to get involved with her. For reasons I’ve never understood, Rhett seems to think Scarlett’s ruthless character is endearing. One can only assume that she’s very good in bed.

While Scarlett isn’t a romance heroine, she does show up regularly in modern romances nonetheless. She’s the irritating younger sister, or the coworker the heroine can’t abide, or even the woman the hero thinks he loves until he gets a better idea of her true character. In other words, she’s a villainess. And, I’d argue, that’s where she really belongs. While Mitchell is willing to indulge Scarlett’s nastiness, Romance writers, in contrast, are not. And I think that’s all to the good.

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