When Strong is a Stereotype

THE OUTLAW  Poster for 1943 film with Jane Russell directed by Howard HughesI recently came across this wonderful piece by Sophia McDougall called “I hate Strong Female Characters.” McDougall is not referring to female characters with physical and emotional strength (for instance, she likes Buffy and Jane Eyre). Rather, she means the archetypal Strong Female Character, who establishes her “tough” cred through arbitrary rudeness, punching, slapping, kung fu, gunshots, etc. (McDougall calls it “behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous)”). Men are more powerful in Hollywood, on which McDougall focuses, but the female-centric world of romance has its share of SFCs, most famously in Lord of Scoundrels but also in some of my recent review books, such as Jo Beverley’s Seduction in Silk and Lilith Saintcrow’s The Red Plague Affair. But what about our heroes? Do we do the same token oversimplification of the other gender that male writers do? Are they strong, or are they Strong?

Some Romance heroes are Strong in McDougall’s terms, having violence or aggression as the dominant character trait (bearing in mind that this is a relative term, and that one reader’s “abusive” is another reader’s “alpha”). Such Strong heroes go back to the days of The Flame and the Flower, through the 80s in the works of Elizabeth Lowell, Judith McNaught and category authors like Diana Palmer, and can be found in the present in Kristen Ashley. They are also key components of sheikh/Greek/Sicilian etc. fantasies. In The Arabian Love-Child by Michelle Reid, the hero says things like “I have the right to throttle the life from you for what you have done to me.” Which in turn makes me wonder if there are men who dislike Strong Female Characters as much as I dislike Strong Male Heroes.

Authors may also show Strength by having their characters endure physical, mental, emotional, or sexual torture. This is starting to happen to females as well as males (see the AAR blog post on rape survivor heroines in New Adult, but it is the rare woman who suffers like the men of paranormals. In Marjorie Liu’s Tiger Eye, the hero is a shapeshifter tiger who’s been trapped like a genie for two thousand years, forced to kill, torture, or prostitute for whoever controls the box which contains him. Ever-lengthening chains of sequels can lead authors to make each hero Stronger than the last, sometimes to the point that we no longer believe that such a scarred hero could have an HEA. I haven’t read far into their series, but I’ve heard this complaint about J.R. Ward and Christine Feehan.

But maybe Strength isn’t the analogous trait in men. The Strength of Strong Female Characters is lip service to breaking stereotypes (she may know kung fu, but she still needs to be rescued). Maybe the stereotypical male character is already strong. In that case, what would be his token trait? Weakness!

I do think I’ve seen this Vulnerable Male Character. He’s Strong for four hundred pages, then justifies his jerkitude by explaining that his parents had an unhappy marriage, or his ex-wife never loved him, or his girlfriend left him, or all three. This are common in historical settings to humanize stoic and untouchable Dukes, but one that leaps to mind for me was the hero of the contemporary All That I Need by Francis Ray. He was standoffish and commitment-phobic, but we were supposed to forgive that because both his high school and college girlfriends broke up with him. Well! Glad to know I have a license to be rude to everybody forever, because that totally happened to me! (Yes, his ex-girlfriend also had an abortion – which some readers would find unforgivable and others would say is her business, but I think we can all agree that it isn’t a license to treat the heroine badly).

Have you seen any Strong Female Characters, Strong Male Characters, or the Vulnerable Male Characters that I missed? Do you like them, hate them, or does it depend on the author? Do you disagree with these types altogether?

Caroline AAR

38 thoughts on “When Strong is a Stereotype

  1. I think when people consider your character any type of stereotype you have already hit epic fail mode. When I like the character, when I see depths to them and think of them as an actual person – they can be tortured, they can be weak, they can be the (to me) deeply dreaded feisty and because they are fully fleshed out I understand and appreciate whatever character trait the author is pushing. It works when you create an actual person to root for :-)

    A good example of this is Eve Dallas. Eve is tough as nails heroine with an abusive back story. She is also a law enforcement officer whose clearly drawn to those who cross lines with cheer (Mavis) and those who cross dark lines into dark places (Roarke). I find Eve fully fleshed because she continues to grow. Yes, she’s still mostly about the job and of course she loves tackling some 300 lb. strong man and showing him whose boss but she is a lot more than just a Strong Female Character. Even in book one Eve showed a lot of nuance and that to me makes her work. Eve also has all the tools she needs to back up her strength – she’s trained to take down strong men, she thinks her way through cases, she’s detail oriented and she uses her tools. When she needs an expert she gets Feeny, McNab, whoever who current favorite is in forensics, she leans on Roarke – she knows how to be a part of a team and how to do her job so she isn’t just some kickboxing bimbo.

    What doesn’t work for me is when an author confuses mouthy/opinionated with Strong. Stating your opinion on every issue isn’t strong – it’s annoying. Also, someone who wears their victimization like a badge isn’t strong.One skank was mean to me a long time ago and now I must hate all women I meet and assume they are lying whores is not strong. It’s idiotic. But as always it comes down to what the author chooses to do – write a character or write a caricature.

  2. I believe, even if the majority of people won’t admit it, fighting females are seen as a turnoff. Oh sure, in a man’s eyes it’s exciting for a bit, but that has to be two “feminine” women battling, doesn’t it? It’s tough to break through the stereotypes in every way, whether it’s a man or a woman. And in Romance, isn’t the female’s secret desire to be “taken?” I’m not saying it’s right, or wrong, it’s just what’s typical and what sells. There’s always a following, however, for everything, it’s keying in on those folks. Fighting female ninjas might be a niche, if targeted properly, would do well.

  3. Interesting that this has come up now. I just finished Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man, and despite usually liking the alpha-male “strong man” hero, I couldn’t stand the hero in this particular book. For me, it was the repeated disavowal of the heroine’s preferences (she keeps saying no, he keeps at it until she gives in, etc) along with his rough handling of her that turned me off. I can’t really count how many times he uses his physicality to force her into doing something that she, only moments ago, had expressly stated she didn’t want to do. When he pushes her up against a wall by her throat and then, when she’s justifiably outraged, explains his actions by giving some BS about his sister dying in front of him and he checked for her pulse like that but it wasn’t there so see, honey…I was just checking to make sure you were alive…at that point I almost threw my e-reader across the room. Also, the whole extreme alpha persona may just be wearing thin with me, but characters like this, who act like this towards the women they purport to love, run a little too close to abusive for my comfort.

    Much of this may go to what we view as “strong men” and “strong women” as is pointed out above. I would dearly love to see more diversity on this point. “strength” does not necessarily have to mean having some dark past, like past sexual abuse or trauma or what-have-you, that you’ve overcome. Lately, however, it seems that many, if not most, of the romances I’ve been finding have been some variation on this theme.

    • I would argue that not all people who have a bad thing in the past have overcome it or become stronger from it. Heroes mentally trapped by the behavior of exes, heroines unable to have close relationships- they are still on their journeys. It takes more than a lightning bolt moment to forgive or to come to terms. Using past issues can result in strong character (I like Carla Kelly’s Liria Valencia from One Good Turn) but using it as shorthand is Strong and shallow.

  4. I find violence problematic in American culture and cultural forms of entertainment when it’s linked to images of sexiness, power, and success and thus glorified. When violence is interrogated and critiqued as an acceptable resolution, it serves a functional purpose (for me). I “read” violence in both male and female characterization therefore with a careful and critical eye because it is a topic I’m interested in interpreting. In Chase’s_Lord of Scoundrels_, Dane is heavily marked as a violent man and he inhabits a violent world of boxing, fistfighting, and dueling from the very first page, and for Jessica to enter that world, she ends up taking on the mantle of violence on his terms, and quite successfully too. By the end of the novel, I see a turnaround and Dane becomes domesticated. I suppose one could argue that Jessica has succeeded in reforming him and I view their future in more peaceful terms. Novels that endorse violence as the way to succeed and carry on are much more dangerous.

    • Blackjack1: You nailed it. Here we are struggling with the archetype of the fighting female when it’s the fighting itself that’s at fault. Male or female, there’s something very wrong with hurting someone to prove your strength. Show me strength of character instead — making a sacrifice to help a friend, picking yourself up after your dreams are shattered. Those are the types of characters that stay with me long after the last page is turned.

      • I agree that I’d like to see less violence and more consequences for the violence we do see. However, I feel (unscientifically) that we’ve seen a reduction in male violence over the last 30 years, while female violence has risen. Rapist heroes used to be common; now heroines are supposed to “kick ass.”

        • I think that there is a trend to try to have women act on masculine-defined terms of what is considered powerful and sexy as defined by a patriarchal society. I don’t think this trend is helpful or respectable, nor do I see it reducing male violence in our society at large. I think violence as a form of legitimate conflict resolution needs to be interrogated, whether it manifests in male or female form. I don’t see pitting men and women against each other in these debates as particularly helpful. There’s plenty of male violence in our society that still needs to be addressed, in public and private spheres.

          • Perhaps I was unclear. I am talking about in novels. I don’t have data for society.

          • No, I understood you were discussing novels, and I include novels in critique of representing violence as a questionable form of entertainment.

          • I also looked back at a few of the most recent novels I’ve read and noted that two of them in particular stood out for me as representing some questionable and even dangerous depictions of male violence that I see quite frequently in romance writing, and in our larger culture. The first is from Elizabeth Hoyt’s _Duke of Midnight_ which features an attractive and lonely aristocrat who spends his nights haunting the London slums seeking vengeance on the men that killed his family. Maximus’s thirst for violence and vigilantism is presented as sexy and powerful and there’s very little critique of his behavior or why modern audiences find the vigilant so attractive, including the heroine in the book.

            The second novel I just finished two days ago is Carolyn Crane’s _Off the Edge_, which is largely about a man seeking vengeance for the death of his family. He’s extraordinarily violent and spends some part of the novel as a rogue assassin until he’s picked up by a larger organization of men who are organized assassin in a mostly male organization. So, the point of all of this is that violence is presented as attractive, sexy and powerful and we as readers/consumers should question why this is the case. While it’s true that in both of these novels, neither men slapped their female love interest, the women in the novel are captivated by the danger these men represent. Is it any wonder some women find violence sexy and powerful then and emulate it? There needs to be a wider examination of violence and “strength” in romance novels as these representations are troubling when they present violence as acceptable forms of resolving conflict – in fiction or in reality!

  5. I found this post fascinating for a number of reasons. I write ‘gay’ or M/M romances primarily because I couldn’t tolerate most of the relationships I saw depicted in traditional romance stories. I don’t equate being abusive with being powerful or attractive in either men or women. I dislike seeing women characters that we are *told* are intelligent and independent suddenly become Too Stupid to Live as soon as they fall in love. I cringe at seeing a story where the heroine, in an attempt to prove her toughness, accosts the hero in his bedroom, where he is sleeping (conveniently naked) and there is this dance about whether or not she has put herself in a criminally stupid position.

    Most of all, I loathe the Fake-Tough Heroine, the one who, as you said, is a kung-fu master that still needs rescuing. One of the reasons I prefer writing in the M/M romance genre is because, aside from exploring parts of my personality and sexuality that I otherwise could not, my characters meet as equals. They take turns at being rescued and doing the rescuing. :-)

    But recently I’ve been considering trying my hand at writing traditional romances, provided I could create a heroine that I didn’t want to slap silly 20 pages or so into the story. Sadly, I grew up on the 80s style of romances, which is why I stopped reading them. I like what maggie b says here about confusing mouthy and opinionated with strong. I’m taking notes here on the characters that people here have posted as *good* examples of well developed heroes and heroines. Generate me a reading list, guys! :-)

    • Maybe you could plan an m/m romance and then switch the gender of one character?

      One of my Top Ten reads was Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command. The hero is technologically augmented, so he’s exceptionally strong, but in terms of emotions he’s awkward and shy. The major story arc involves him growing emotional strength to match his physical strength. The heroine is sassy but competent – imagine a female Han Solo. So that might be one to start with.

    • Yes, it’s amazing how some heroines can spend 9/10ths of the book being competent… then stroll into the villain’s trap at the last minute just so the hero can come in and save her (screaming, quivering, terrified – but defiant) butt in the last pages of the book.

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  7. I despise Strong female Types when their actions towards the Hero are violent which I see a lot in romances. It really disgusted me that a heroine slapping the Hero was put on the back of a Harlequin in the blurb.

    Heroes in traditionally published romances are not allowed to slap a heroine to show their strength why the opposit is allowed is a turnoff.

    In retaliation towards this I have developed a high tolerance towards badly behaving even violent heroes.

    • Well, I can think of a few “heroes” who I would love to see get a shot of pepper spray in the face… but then, they’re the guys I want to see LOSE the heroine.

      • Where are these heroes in traditional published romances? I’m not seeing them. The heroes I see are nice good and saintly.

  8. I don’t know why everything has to be reduced to “type”. One of my favorite romance heroines, Jessica from “Lord Of Scoundrels” would be a despised “strong heroine” going by your post.

    Personally I prefer a “strong” heroine to a timid doormat or martyr heroine.

    • Actually I have that book in my keeper shelves. I conventiently block out Jessica’s abuse because I like the hero.

      Romances which have timid, doormat or matyr heroines are quite interesting I think. One can see them grow or not which I like reading about instead of the heroine who is perfect with her feistiness & strength.

    • I would have to say that too that the timid doormat heroine is my least favorite character and far too common in romance writing. Also, those who despise Jessica’s violence in LOS conveniently overlook Dane’s violent tendencies and the fact that the entire story is framed from page 1 by the Dane’s inability to live without violence. Jessica enters his world and takes on the mantle of violence to interact with him on his terms, not the other way around. And the novel ends with her “taming” or reforming Dane so that they can live peacefully. It’s such an interesting novel to examine closely on this issue.

      • Whatever Dane’s “violent tendencies” might be, he is never violent towards Jessica – or any other woman, for that matter. The simple test of reversibility is entirely appropriate. Switch the genders and imagine the uproar if he had shot Jessica. Instead that scene is viewed as comedy, or people rush to defend Jessica’s actions. The precept that violence is wrong should apply equally to both men and women.

        • Good points, Chris Booklover.

          Its unfortunate authors don’t show a heroine’s strength without her slapping the hero or constantly challenging him(a trope I see often in Harlequin Presents)

          And can’t there be another word for feisty? For me its so overused.

          • It’s unfortunate authors in general represent violence as an acceptable solution, period, much less a socially powerful and attractive one!

          • I have no problem with authors writing about violence. Spy thrillers, Mystery & suspense would be boring I think without it.
            Die Hard without the violence….nooo it wouldn’t be so interesting.

            I would love to see a heroine face criminal punishment for slapping a hero…if I had the talent to write a book I would include that scenerio in it.

          • Erika. “I have no problem with authors writing about violence. Spy thrillers, Mystery & suspense would be boring I think without it.
            Die Hard without the violence….nooo it wouldn’t be so interesting.”

            @Erika -The issue though is distinguishing between entertainment that glorifies and exalts violence and entertainment that critiques and interrogates violence. The difference is vast.

          • Blackjack1: Erika. “I have no problem with authors writing about violence. Spy thrillers, Mystery & suspense would be boring I think without it.
            Die Hard without the violence….nooo it wouldn’t be so interesting.”@Erika -The issue though is distinguishing between entertainment that glorifies and exalts violence and entertainment that critiques and interrogates violence. The difference is vast.

            I wouldn’t want to limit an author when it comes to violence or how they depict heroines. All I want is to be informed before I buy something I may have issues with.

        • Violence in any form is problematic if it is represented as sexy, interesting, powerful, etc. Too many male characters slash and fight their way through romances and not only should that not be considered acceptable, it should be highly questioned. Why are women readers so enamored with violent heroes or vigilantees? Do some authors want to create what the Original Poster here called “Kick Ass” heroines out of a lamentable belief that violence is the way for a woman to succeed and be powerful? Alas, yes! Where is the critique of Dane’s violence in the novel? I’m quite suspicious of the myopic focus on Jessica by the same few people when there is near total silence about the male character and the violent world he inhabits. Women are doing themselves no favors by assuming the mantle of violence as a way to have equal opportunities. But ignoring the wider culture of violence in our society and in our entertainment is a huge oversight and needs much more attention.

  9. I find this outcry over poor defense-less romance males and the oh so violent romance females very peculiar. Considering that the real life statistics clearly state that most violent crimes and abuse committed are by males against females, not vice versa. And it’s a biological reality that the average male is physically stronger than the average female and therefore already at a disadvantage defending herself against an aggressive male. So I am not going to boo-hoo too much when some fictional female character slaps a fictional male in a romance novel. Which I have not that often come across in my reading anyways. And when I have come across it I have found it most often at the very least understandable, if not always completely justified.

    • In the real world most violent crime is committed by males against other males, not against females. Men are far more likely than women to be the victims of violent crime, irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator.

      Some months ago we discussed the issue of violence in romance novels in the main forum. Several posters identified examples of female upon male violence that were, by any plausible moral standard, objectionable. These were not obscure novels, since the authors included well-known names such as Nora Roberts, Karen Robards and Maya Banks. IMO a single, gender-neutral standard that violence should not be used in personal relationships (except in self-defense) is clearly superior to any of its alternatives.

      • I’m in full agreement that a gender-neutral standard that critiques violence is needed, and that has been my stance on this issue. We live in a violent society and should critique entertainment that exalts violence as a legitimate way to address grievances and resolve conflict.

  10. I have found myself reading dark erotica more often for Strong Hero Types. Most heroes in romances fake their alphaness. I call them lapdogs.

    In one Harlequin a heroine steals from a hero and not only does she not grovel, the hero apologizes! I guess that’s what goes for Strong Heroines these days slap, steal from the hero while he bows down in gratitude so happy she luurrves him.

  11. I think the Vulnerable Male archetype is so popular because it appeals to a kind of rescue/martyrdom fantasy. The Vulnerable Male treats all women worse than dogs–except for the heroine. Only the heroine is good and kind enough to see past his tough exterior to the scared little boy underneath, who was raised by a crack whore (Christian Grey, Fifty Shades of Grey), or lost his mother as a baby (Travis Maddox, Beautiful Disaster), or is haunted by the ghosts of war (Steve Morgan, Sweet Savage Love). Only the heroine is angelic enough to suffer his brutality and touch his heart. Her love will save him from himself, and she will be the only one in the world whom he trusts and loves in return.

    Of course what we call this in real life is “Battered Spouse Syndrome.” I hate these characters as much as you do, and maybe even more. I also hate Strong Female Characters like Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fiction, women who set their fathers on fire, sexually torture their parole officers, and steal billions of dollars are called “heroines.” In the real world, they’re called “sociopaths.” Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, but I hate it when authors celebrate blatantly immoral and abusive behavior.

  12. Erika…”I wouldn’t want to limit an author when it comes to violence or how they depict heroines. All I want is to be informed before I buy something I may have issues with.”

    Yes, but my point isn’t about *censorship. Of course artists can and should be able to represent anything they want and consumers get to consume what they want, (as long as the product is legal). My point is about critical thinking around the issue and being able to assess how an artist represents an issue/concept. In the case of “violence,” I do believe that consumers need to be more probing in their consideration about how violence is put out there for us to view or read. Is an artist representing violence as sexy and powerful and justified? Is the artist questioning violence? Obviously, I lean toward the latter and wish that more people questioned violence and looked more closely at what is being “sold” to us and what it says about us as a culture. I haven’t seen the _Die Hard_ movies in a long time and so my interpretation of them is murky here, but I might venture to say that they are not a film that is using violence in sensitive and intelligent ways. Maybe or maybe not.

    • You do make good philosophical points to consider however I think most readers don’t think in those terms when it comes to violence in entertainment.

      As for Die Hard, its a silly movie with silly violence. I watch it to escape the daily grind.

  13. I agree that Lisbeth Salander is a sociopath. I still find the character interesting and rootable. And the guy she got even with – he wasn’t her parole officer but her guardian (she is a ward of the state) – deserved what she did to him. Call me weird but I don’t think brutally raping one’s charge is okay. He made the mistake of hurting the wrong person. And at least in the movie version of the book it doesn’t look like he would dare to victimize another woman. I call that satisfying instead of wrong.

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