What’s With All the Female Victims?

Clock at Ravenswood by Lou Marchetti A few years ago, one of my Literature professors asked me, “Aren’t romance novels just about a woman finding a man to take care of her?” I had to explain to her what we all know, that modern romance novels are about partnership and mutual love and support – not finding a “protector.” It’s a misconception I often come across.

Unfortunately, there are some circumstances in which it is uncomfortably close to the truth. Romantic Suspense novels are particularly and oddly contradictory in this. So many heroines are strong women and strong characters – who then find themselves made victims by the author and put in the role of a damsel in distress.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If I were being stalked or were a target of a serial killer, and the man in my life dropped me off at home at night, gave me a kiss, and said, “All right, honey, good luck,” I’d be pretty peeved. My issue is not with how the characters behave in these novels – it is that so many of these novels exist.

The premise of many RS novels is usually pretty archetypal: woman becomes victim of crime (take your pick: assault, harassment, breaking and entering, stalking, etc.). Man tries to protect her. Something happens, and they live Happily Ever After. What I want to know is, why are the women the victims?

Bear in mind, I am in no way implying weakness or fault on the part of the victims. Many of these characters are strong women despite (and sometimes in spite) of their victimhood. But even Lt. Eve Dallas, star of J. D. Robb’s In Death series and perennial favorite “kick-ass” heroine, is shaped largely by being a victim of a horrific crime. Sure, it adds complexity and depth to her character, but can we ever have a heroine who is not a victim in some way? I cannot think of any RS heroine who is not victimized, and yet the heroes frequently escape that marker. If he does become a victim, it is usually as a result of helping a woman who has already been the victim of a crime. Is it because we don’t want to see a hero appear weak? Is it because we like women to be damsels in distress? Can it be ascribed to simple gender roles?

Personally, I’d like to see more authors challenge those gender roles. Let’s see more female cops investigating crimes against men instead of the other way around. What are your thoughts? Can you think of any good novels that challenge the norm?

– Jane Granville

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17 Responses to “What’s With All the Female Victims?”

  1. Leigh AAR says:

    You must have come across some bad books, because for the most part I have never considered the women victims but survivors. Sure they are victims of circumstances, and maybe poor choices, but in the end the come out as winners.

    Most of the books that I read – and granted I don’t read a lot of romantic suspense anymore, the hero assists the heroine. Sure, some writers, pull that TSTL trick of having the heroine go out to meet the bad guy all by herself, and then the hero comes running in to save the day, but I wouldn’t say that plot device is prevalent.

    I am not a big fan of the In Death franchise – because to me that what it has become a franchise but does Roarke really save Eve’s bacon all the time? Eve was victimized as a child, and yes it has impacted her life – but I would definitely call her a survivor.

    The last RS that I read by Sharon Sala, Don’t Cry for Me did have the heroine saving the hero.

  2. Carrie says:

    I think the impression of women always needing to be saved in RS comes in part from old school romances, and part from the newer flood of Navy SEAL books. The military books tend to have uber-alpha males and even if the heroine isn’t helpless, the male is all about “taking care of his woman.” So there really are a lot of men running around protecting and saving women in RS. But there are plenty of RS novels out there that have competent heroines who at the very least help in the process and sometimes even lead the way. Books like The Witness, High Noon, and The Search by Nora Roberts both feature leading ladies instead of knights coming to the rescue.

    Also for consideration are the Cleo North books by Merline Lovelace (The First Mistake), several books by Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz and books by Linda Howard, such as Dying to Please.

    However, since men still outnumber women in law enforcement and the military, stories of men being the “saver” and women being the “savee” are going to be the norm. That doesn’t make the heroines weak, just not as as skilled in the field of saving as many men.

    • Laurie says:

      The Search by Nora Roberts is a great example. I very much enjoyed that one.

      It seems to me most of the RS books I’ve read recently have the heroine doing quite a bit to save her own bacon…and sometimes the hero’s as well.

  3. Jane AAR says:

    The victim/survivor distinction is a good one, that I don’t think I quite articulated in the blog. My point, however, is not so much HOW they deal with it (and I agree, most heroines do overcome their hardship), but that they are frequently put in the “Damsel in Distress” role to begin with. When an author sets up a RS plot, why is the instinct to make the woman a victim of a crime?

    • Laurie says:

      In RS SOMEONE has to be somehow related to a suspense element. It’s likely either going to be the hero or the heroine. Without the suspense element you don’t have a RS. I think having SOMEONE a victim of the crime is part of the makeup of the genre. If the heroine is investigating a crime that isn’t close and personal to her then you might have a mystery but not a suspense. Part of the makeup of a suspense is to have the hero or heroine or both in personal physical danger.

  4. LeeB. says:

    I agree Jane. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that set up the heroine as this supers-mart, super-tough, best at her job character and the minute she meets the “hero,” she fumbles and bumbles and falls in lust. That totally annoys me.

  5. farmwifetwo says:

    One of the reason’s JAK is still a fav is that her characters are strong, independant and if they like someone, then they fall in love and have sex. Yes, they are very fluffy, sometimes the plots go round and round… but… not a victim anywhere.

    I too am tired of the unending “victim” stories.

  6. dick says:

    In Dianne Day’s mysteries, set in the 1880′s, the heroine Fremont Jones rescues herself as often as not. And doesn’t Eve Dallas save Roarke’s life in one of the In Death books?

  7. Katie (kat) says:

    I like romances where the hero is protective of the heroine and even saves her. Romance, for me, is fantasy and I really don’t enjoy kick-ass heroines with hard edges and little or no vulnerabilities. I like flawed people. I don’t want a spineless heroine but Eve Dallas types can grate on my nerves. I could use a happy romance right now where the heroine gets rescued by the handsome, rich alpha male who adores her. LOL! Have any suggestions?

  8. mb says:

    One exception that comes to mind is Linda Howard’s ‘Cover of Night’. In that one the heroine (with the hero) rescues the town due to her skill and courage.

  9. maryskl says:

    I think the distinction in the SEAL type books is the men are TRAINED to serve and protect. If we had a m/m RS book in which one is a SEAL and the other man a civilian, would we look at it as a “dam in distress?” I am a 5’2″ female. If some psycho was after me, I would try by myself to keep from harm, but if I had a SEAL boyfriend I would certainly welcome the help. I think it depends on the characterization. If the heroine is depicted as competent in the ability to defend herself, then a partnership would be more plausible. But if she is just your average person with no weapons, stealth or tactical training, then it would be unrealistic for her to suddenly become super woman. Sometimes damsels ARE in distress and most of the time in RS, I think they rise to the occasions beyond what they are equipped to handle. I thought about Linda Howard’s romantic suspense books and while the heroes are definitely alphas, the heroines are also plucky. In Dream Man, the hero is a police detective. He actually puts her in danger so she has to protect herself and she is the one who ends up killing her stalker. I believe there are similar endings in Now You See Her and Mr. Perfect. They save themselves. I don’t see most of the heroines in RS as “poor pitiful me’s” wringing their hands while the hero saves them. I see the heroines as pushing themselves past their normal mental and physical levels in a partnership against the threat against both the hero and the heroine.

    • chris booklover says:

      I agree with this. There is no shortage of kickass heroines in either romantic suspense or paranormal romance. If anything, some plotlines strain credulity because their heroines are implausibly super-competent heroines (see, for example, Monette Michaels’s Eye of the Storm). In these genres at least I don’t read too many recent novels featuring damsels in distress.

  10. erika says:

    I’m not interested in Xena Warrior heroines but rarely do I see damsel in distress heroines even in historicals.

  11. pop tart says:

    I think there’s another factor at work here with the fem-in-jep books. I think for many woman the fear of being victimized in a physical way (assault, rape, worse) is a pretty common thing. Many of us imagine that worst case scenario and I think many of us (or at least I do) wonder how we would handle it. Would we come out of it as someone who manages to be a survivor, not a victim? Would we fight to have the perp prosecuted, etc.

    It may be that some authors want to explore the theme in that way and not just in a way to cause titillation. I know as a reader I read this type of book with that thought in mind. One series that I loved for this very reason is Charlaine Harris’ mystery series featuring Lily Bard – first book is SHAKESPEARE’S LANDLORD. In that series Lily comes onto the scene already having survived an incredibly horrific assault. She now lives quietly by herself, cleans houses, and studies the martial arts. As part of her self-created recovery process she roams the streets of Shakespeare, AR at night. Her whole existence is one of re-creating herself as a survivor. And as the series progresses you can see her succeed.

    In Charlaine’s case I know that her own past informs her writing. And that is something I appreciate.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      I can definitely see that. In terms of whether the heroine is strong or not, I think I see a mix. However, it does seem like I read a lot of books where, if the heroine is strong, it’s because she has been a victim at some point in her life. I think that can be powerful when it’s done well because it is one of those things that is such a common fear. I haven’t read the Lily Bard books, but I do think JD Robb/Nora Roberts explores the theme in the In Death books. I do wish that victimization wasn’t the explanation for so many strong women in fiction, though.

      • maryskl says:

        But our experiences CAN make us stronger, so I don’t really have a problem with a heroine overcoming weakness in the past to emerge stronger. Having said that…I just read Laura Griffin’s “Scorched.” The heroine was NOT a prior victim, but an expert in forensic anthropology/osteology. The hero is in the military and he does what he is trained in while she does what she is an expert in. Together they make a good team. I think part of the problem is the definition of weakness to begin with. We tend to associate weakness almost exclusively with physical limitations, but give people a pass on mental weakness. Most women ARE physically less capable than many men. To avoid this reality is to avoid reality altogether. I do not think it is a bad thing to acknowledge our strengths as well as our weaknesses and learn to compensate as best as we can.

  12. Laurie says:

    Black Velvet Seductions recently published ACCIDENTAL AFFAIR by debut author Leslie Wirtley. I don’t think anyone would think of Laine Wheeler, the heroine in the novel as a victim.

    The hero is actually the victim. The heroine rescues him when he tumbles down an embankment into the path of her car after being shot. He’s an undercover ATF agent whose cover has been blown.

    Jack and Laine take off across country in a bid to get incriminating evidence against the homeland terrorist group into the hands of the one man Jack trusts with his life. The bad guys do give chase, they do at one point kidnap Laine…but Laine doesn’t wait for Jack to rescue her. She rescues herself.

    I don’t think anyone would call her a victim. There ARE books out there in the romantic suspense category which do not have heroines who are victims.