The Heroines We Hate

mona-lisaI’ve often felt that romance readers are unduly harsh on heroines.  If my literature professor could talk about hero complexes and hubris and approach their ginormous issues rationally and analytically, why can’t we do the same with heroines?  The answer is obvious, of course, (no grand insight here), and refers to what I call the body-snatching part of reading.  This is where the reader drops their invisibility cloak, stops wandering around the people looking at them, and invades the heroine’s body to be her.  Because body-snatching occurs every time we read a romance novel, there’s little chance we’d wish to inhabit a body and spirit that we like.  And so we body-snatch with the governesses who get the rakes, the family-oriented defence attorneys in Washington D.C., the jaded bad girl who comes home – whatever hits the spot.

But I’ve never body-snatched a heroine when I wanted to shove her head in a toilet bowl, and I’ll wager you never have and never will either.  She’s 35 years old and speaks like a Valley Girl.  She’s a spineless hearthrug to overbearing parents.  If she were a man, she’d be a mean ol’ sonofagun.  She’s that one archetype who, for whatever reason under our sun, pushes all your buttons.  She is the Heroine We Hate.

A straw poll two weeks ago amongst AAR staff yielded a lovely variety of Heroines We Hate (as well as plenty of terms begging for acronyms).  Some heroines were disliked on situational grounds – there was just something about that character type that our staff couldn’t stand.   The Courtesan.  The Cowgirl.  The Poor Misunderstood Trophy Wife.  (Especially the ex-Playboy Bunnies.  Thank you, Sandy.)  I, for instance, am not a religious person, and am, therefore, uncomfortable with any hint of overt religious piety in the heroine – Flowers from the Storm included.  And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  The relationship between book and reader is such that a certain measure of the reader’s personality is always reflected in the book; that’s the way it is and always shall be.

But the majority of our leading ladies were loathed for behavioural reasons.  It was fascinating to see the variety of misbehaviour that didn’t jive with us, and I’m sure you’ll recognise the following members of the Sisterhood of Detestable Dames:

Honey – “The doormat heroine who lovingly sacrifices everything for her family, preferably her younger siblings.” (Rike)

  • Sweetie (identical twin of Honey) – The faultless do-gooder.  “How she’s not walking with bluebirds twittering around her is a mystery to me.”  (CindyS)
  • The Ball-Buster – “This isn’t a heroine who’s an ice queen, but then thaws as time goes on; this is the one whose attitude is supposed to be a tribute to women, but their “strength” seems to entitle them to steamroll over everyone.” (Andi)
  • The Naturally Sensuous Regency Miss – “The heroine who has entirely 20th century ideas about sex and absolutely zero self-protective instincts. “ (Rachel)
  • The Nutter – TSTL.  ‘Nuf said.

What was even more interesting though was to read why my fellow AAR staff find these heroines unbearable, and it all comes down to one thing: Consequences. These heroines never discover the costs of their actions, inactions, and stupidities.  Several of the AAR staff find the blatant aggressiveness of the Ball-Buster not only unsympathetic but illogical.  Lea wonders at the reality of such a woman’s behaviour, and also what would happen if genders were reversed: “Even if the hero is aggravating in some manner, I often stop and think how I would perceive a woman I observed today with such hateful words …. Is the hero just supposed to forget these things or laugh them off?  Not done in real life for a lasting relationship.  How would readers react if this same sort of nasty comment came from the hero?”  The line between assertiveness and aggressiveness is thin.  Too often when circumstances demand heroines to wear the pants (so to speak), they acquire unattractive traits that only they deem indicative of strength and power but instead reflect truculence, aggression, and even cruelty.

Some also wondered at the realistic consequences of being a spineless Honey or a relentlessly flawless Sweetie.  Rike pointed out that in one book, a heroine’s unending “caring” for her family churned out a passel of molly-coddled brats, yet this was never addressed.  Katie noted that heroines who turn the other cheek too often get slapped in the face again, yet never seem to “get a reality check and grow a spine – some people are assholes.”  Blythe found that these heroines only work “if she has a wake-up call later on” – in other words, if reality catches up with her actions, no matter how well-meaning they are.  In real life, would such women garner our admiration or annoyance?  (Especially if they’re paired with Pepe LePew-style overbearing alpha heroes, which sends Bessie’s blood pressure skyrocketing.)  And more to the point, would they earn our respect?

The TSTL Nutter has been well-documented and equally well-vilified, but suffice it to say that not only do her misdeeds and rashness usually demonstrate supreme self-centredness and arrogance, they also put others in danger.  LinnieGayl makes the interesting distinction between intelligence and knowledge: LinnieGayl says that heroine doesn’t “have to have a high level of education, but acting like an idiot just turns me off.”  For Heather, this idiocy is exemplified by the scores of tomboy historical heroines who fight “as well as a man in hand to hand combat (right!) …  do exactly what the hero asks her not to and cause the hero to get hurt, when he has to ride in and fix the mess she’s made.”  If the TSTL Nutter ever demonstrates repentance or understands the consequences of her idiocy, it often comes too late for the reader to forgive her.

And regarding the Naturally Sensuous Regency Miss, Lynn, Rachel and I were troubled by the historical inconsistencies.  Rachel elucidated further: “Pregnancy?  The clap?  Losing any and all social status/prospects for marrying?  These things never occur to her …. She goes all dreamy and tosses out good sense, social conditioning, and religious training to have ‘one night for love.’”  Sex has been around for ages, despite every generation’s conviction that they sprang from cabbage leaves, but societal strictures have varied greatly through time and place.  However, historical romance novelists seem to ignore the very real consequences when their heroines chuck convention.  Where would we be if Elizabeth Bennett had slept with Mr. Darcy at Rosings?

It is a truth galactically acknowledged that romance novels largely inhabit a fantasy world.  But the nature of the genre means that if the book is to reap the reader’s emotional investment the core must be grounded in reality.  The heart of romance lies in the relationships, and sympathy, to say nothing of empathy, can only stem from understanding.  There can be no understanding when our heroines behave like nutters or misplaced prostitutes, and especially not when these girls never learn.  A heroine is someone to admire, a woman with qualities to aspire to.  And the day this reader aspires to any of the above qualities is the day I forsake chocolate ganache and romance novels.
-Jean Wan

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25 Responses to “The Heroines We Hate”

  1. Katie Mack says:

    This is mostly a test comment, but I also have something to add. I actually don’t normally envision myself as the heroine, although I often will identify with some personality trait or situation. Does that make me the odd duck out?

  2. Katie Mack says:

    Jean – Great article, by the way. I love the “Sisterhood of Detestable Dames.”

  3. AndreaS says:

    I’m mostly with Katie Mack, I wouldn’t say I usually envision myself as the heroine. BUT, I would say that I like heroines I can admire.

    One who’s really good at math/science when I would rather be caught dead attempting either? That’s cool, good on her. One who is good at fighting/knowing when to give up, I’d love to be like her. Someone who has the wit to be funny and sophisticated? Great to read about and good qualitites to have.
    But one who gets herself into messes that require the hero to get her out simply because she’s going stupid or irrational? Nope. Don’t want to even think I can be like her, anything I admire about her is overshadowed by the lack of sense. So I don’t like reading about her.

  4. Estella says:

    I don’t usually envision myself as the heroine either. I do have to like the heroine or I cannot finish reading the book.

  5. Nana says:

    I don’t want to BE the heroine, but I want to sympathize with her and root for her. More than that, I want her to be worthy of the hero. Romance heroes are generally so exaggeratedly perfect, and if I read a heroine who I think is not good enough for him (you know, constantly risking his life, physically or emotionally beating on him, going to produce idiot heirs, etc), then it’s not an HEA for me when they end up together.

  6. Keira says:

    Haha… loved so much about this article. The names and definitions of these heroines were funny. The ballbuster heroine annoys me. The Honey too on occasion, a well written one is fine with me as it reads more of a Cinderella complex and I like those. The too-sensual by half Regency miss and the pious one are fine. TSLS and the raped by everyone (dad, his cronies, random strangers, potentially the hero) heroine need to go.

  7. Jean Wan says:

    I emphasized the wrong thing in the article. My personal reading experiences always lead me to put myself (to whatever degree) in the heroine’s place, if the author is successful, because that’s the only way I’d be able sympathize with her. I meant to refer more to the emotional body-snatching rather than factual body-snatching (I know what you mean about the maths and sciences AndreaS). Sorry for the lack of clarity.

  8. Karla says:

    I, for one, must identify with the heroine. I have to find her sympathetic for the romance to work. But I think the TSTL heroines are in danger of extinction. A lot of the new books published today have heroines who are mature, reasonable women. I see a huge change from five years ago, or could be I’m just reading the good ones. ;

  9. JMM says:

    I’d rather read the ball-buster than the others. Especially the “sweetie”. I hate sweetie heroines with the heat of 1000 suns.

    “Rike pointed out that in one book, a heroine’s unending “caring” for her family churned out a passel of molly-coddled brats, yet this was never addressed.”

    It’s not just one book. It’s in a LOT of books. I think 90% of romances have heroines who: A) employ incompetent people and keep them on because, dear LORD, someone must think of the children! Please, someone think of the children! B) supports Mum and Dad and Brother and Sis singlehandedly even though none of THEM would piss on her if she was on fire, C) spends her rare free time saving puppies and kittens from Evil Villains, D) cries over her basic unworthiness to live in the world because she hasn’t yet solved world hunger.

    And yet, we are supposed to believe that this woman ends up happy. Right. Doormats get stepped on. In the real world, the hero would leave her for a woman who isn’t always asking him to employ her lazy bum of a brother or lend money to her sister so she can buy drugs.

  10. FD says:

    Interesting. I suspect readers who strongly identify with the heroine when they read are more likely to have problems with her when she does not fit properly into the mould that they see as ‘acceptable’.
    Originally, I believe most romances were written for the express purpose of identification / wish fulfilment of the reader, and I think one of the big changes over the last 60 years has been the inclusion of male pov. It changes the tenor (imo of course) of the story more towards character interaction. It would be neat to do a compare and contrast – do readers who self identify prefer no male pov / some / lots.

    It’s cool to look at how what’s acceptable in a heroine has changed, with the most obvious example being sexual behaviour. I wonder if what presently makes a ‘bad’ heroine will be as baffling to readers in 50 years as the social mores of the Victorian era are to some reader now?

    One thing that strikes me about all the ‘bad’ heroine examples – I personally want to call a spade a spade – the reason these types throw the reader out of the story is that they’re products of BAD writing.
    A good writer can take a character with negative traits, and make you care about him / her anyway. A overpoweringly self-abnegating character is a hard sell to the modern reader, but if the author believably traces that character’s emotional arc then you can empathise and understand the behaviour that would be TSTL otherwise.

  11. Linda says:

    You should start a thread- apologies if there is one already- I barely have enough time to skip through here most days. Which heroine- detestible or not because, let’s face it, even though they’re bad we still wish we could be them sometimes, do you wish you could have traded places with? Even if it were just to do things differently?

    Wish I had more time- there is a lot of fun to be had here!

  12. Sandy C. says:

    I’ve always wondered about the “Honey” heroines. If they’re so pious and wonderful, how can they stand up to the hero, which inevitably happens, of course? A real doormat wouldn’t, and that’s the problem I have with these kinds of characters.

    I’m in full agreement about the morals and standards of many historical eras, and have major issues with heroines who are so easily seduced, even if the hero is mega-wonderful. (I won’t get into some of the sexual practices described, that I doubt would have occurred because people didn’t bathe that often in those days!)

    I like a heroine whose actions and emotions make sense, and that I can relate to. I can identify with her, but not want to necessarily be her, if that makes any sense.

    I also like that we get more of the hero’s point of view; it’s a good way to see a different portrait of the heroine sometimes.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Here’s my pet peeve — the fact that romance readers want to ‘be’ the heroine. To me, this means that the heroine is never as interesting/exciting as the hero. I don’t want someone I can identify with, I want someone I can imagine myself to be in another life, when i am better/stronger/more intelligent. Just like a hero.

    Frankly, I want to be ‘the hero.’ :) Which is why I love Eve Dallas, and a lot of traditional romance readers don’t.

    It’s also why, while I read Suzanne Brockmann, her heroines drive me crazy more often than not because they’re NOT as good as the hero. They’re a bit less…and that’s sad to me. (There are a few exceptions…but just a few)

    I love a bitchy woman. And I mean that in the best possible sense of the word. In the tradition where the woman owns the word, and the world, and bitchy is just another way of saying assertive. It’s the tone that heroes have employed forever. It’s where the bitchy is often done in humor, but you know not to mess with that person.

    I hate heroines that are boring, and normal in a world that’s not normal. (I like quiet books where both the hero and heroine are living normal lives, I just get bored quickly with books where the hero’s a spy and the heroine is some normal chick he’s ‘rescuing.’ I want her to be a spy of equal strength, but I’m okay with a teacher married to an accountant.)

    Unfortunately, I think I’m in the minority, because more women want to feel as if the heroine is them in some more tangible way.

    This is why I think we so often see the self-sacrificing heroine. The stereotype of a woman’s life is that she has to sacrifice herself for her husband and kids and parents and everyone she takes care of. So a romance novel is an opportunity for this individual to see someone who does this, and receives validation by getting an awesome amazing man to appreciate and SEE this trait.

    They exaggerate this trait in the books so that it’s apparent to one and all. But I think that self-sacrifice is something that woman have taken on over the years much more than men. (Me, I’m single in my 30s, so I’m more likely to identify with the selfish hero than I am the self-sacrificing woman.)

    Jenn

  14. Catherine says:

    I lose interest in any heroine who is too caught up in hearing “I love you”. When the hero has issues with saying it out loud, or recognizing it, but nonetheless shows it in every way day in and day out, but she’s sulking and moody as if his behavior has no value, I just don’t get it. What the heck is wrong with her?

    I don’t think any of the types listed bother me regularly so much as this one.

    Catherine

  15. Gisela says:

    My favorite heroine to hate is a mix between the “I know best”. This heroine is completely selfish, never listens to what the hero says and then expects him to sit down and listen to her. These heroines turn books into wall-bangers.

  16. RfP says:

    “Where would we be if Elizabeth Bennett had slept with Mr. Darcy at Rosings?”

    I thought she slept with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and that’s why Darcy wrote her a nasty note and stalked off. I mean, I was watching with the mute on, but that’s what I got….

    Just kidding ;)

  17. Jean Wan says:

    RfP:I thought she slept with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and that’s why Darcy wrote her a nasty note and stalked off.

    Oh that is funny. Snicker chuckle snicker.

    Jean AAR

  18. Maya M. says:

    “It is a truth galactically acknowledged…”
    Hahaha!

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    Sent you an email about the hats.

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