In the month marking International Day Of The Girl, we discuss how romance heroines have changed with the times, inspiring courage and strength and promoting equality.
Rhoda Baxter ~ Romance & Feminism
I was once asked ‘how can you be a feminist and still write romance?’. This was a genuine question from someone whom I liked. I stared at her for a minute, baffled by the question.
Because we’re friends, we took the time to talk about it over a drink. First we established she had, you guessed it, not read a romance since the 80s, so she was still in the rapey trope territory. So the thing she was thought she was talking about isn’t what she was actually talking about.
Romance has changed.
Next we moved on to talking about the Bechdel test. Most romance novels would fail the Bechdel test (the test involves having at least once scene, with only female characters in it where no male character is discussed - kinda hard, when the main conflict is about how the hero and heroine get together…). Despite it’s amazingly kickass female heroines, the Harry Potter movies fail the Bechdel test because the characters are always discussing Harry or Voldermort (or Dumbledore). Everyone knows this isn’t a ‘test’ so much as a way to show how badly skewed films are. It’s not a fair ‘test’ to apply in this context. A fairer test would be to ask whether the heroine has agency. Does she have a choice in what happens to her?
Romance novels put the heroine front and centre of the story. It is about her. She chooses the hero. She grows and changes (and he should too) so she earns her happy ever after. The ending is never foisted on her (at least, it shouldn’t be!). She has to work for it, sure, but she works for it by making her own choices. She may choose wrong and have a few false starts, but the important thing is she chooses and her choices matter.
There are a lot more strong, vocal, outgoing heroines in romance than there used to be. We like strong heroines, partly because we see ourselves as strong women and we like to see that reflected in a story. Many women have checked out of the narrative of being the second sex. We work, we bring up kids, we run businesses. We are superheroes every day. We want to see a woman like that get her happy ever after with someone who deserves her.
But what of the weaker heroine? The one who has been kicked a little too hard by life? Or who has lost their main support? You know what, that’s fine too. Seeing a quieter heroine blossom through a book is brilliant. Life is exhausting and we know exactly how it feels to be beaten down by it and vulnerable. It’s nice to see it isn’t the end of the world.
The only limitation to the romance heroine is she has to be believable. She doesn’t even have to be likable, although likable helps. The reader needs to believe they are reading about a real person (even if the character is non-human). If at any point the heroine does something so colossally idiotic the reader stops to roll their eyes, or worse, does something ‘out of character’, the spell is broken. Make the character true to herself. So long as the reader believes in your character, they will live the story vicariously (there’s actual science to show to people’s brains ‘mirror’ emotions they’re reading about).
People love romance for a great many reasons, but mostly it’s because they promise everything will be okay. This heroine, no matter how badly life appears to be treating her right now, will overcome these problems and get her happy ending. By extension, it gives hope for the reader too. This is why romance is so comforting. They say to the reader ‘Things will work out in the end. Have hope’.
So let’s write romances about all the heroines - the strong ones, the weak ones, the prim ones, the sweary ones, the thin ones, the fat ones, the ones who love kids, the ones who don’t, the ones who do fancy jobs, the ones who do regular jobs, the ones who make homes, the ones who design them. Let’s write about all kinds of women and empower them to find their Happy Endings. They deserve to find happiness. We all do.
I can’t think of anything more feminist than that, can you?
Cass Lennox - Then & Now
Heroines! God, yes, let’s absolutely talk about heroines in romance.
Allow me to sketch a basic, high-level, very much lacking in nuance view of the romance heroine and her history. I’m going to ignore Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the like to focus purely on the genre heroine, since she’s the figure who’s changed the most.
Mills and Boon The 90's until now has seen our heroine expand in terms of portrayals: different ethnicities, jobs, body types, values, abilities, vices, and orientations. She’s come a long way from the stereotype of sweet, innocent virgin ready to be forcefully manhandled into the nearest bed. See her back in the 30's, swooning between brown covers while epitomizing charm and sweetness; then watch her work as the innocent governess/nurse/secretary, winning her lover/boss through faithfulness and good character over the 40's and 50's. Let her enjoy willful, graphic premarital sex and take up more varied career options through the 60's and 70's, then erupt into business battles in power suits and better portrayals of consensual sex in the 80's.
Sure, not all early heroines fell into the rather two-dimensional stereotype outlined above, but there’s a reason the stereotype is there and lingers in the general public’s understanding of romance novels.
Progress and development is all for the better. While romance novels tread a wide gamut between realism and escapism, the heroine tends to be the focal point – if not outright stand-in – for the reader. She has to be relatable and ‘good’, for lack of a better word, to defeat the bad conflict and earn her happy ending. Romance has been written largely by women for women, and it follows that trends of ‘good’ character traits and relationship dynamics in romance novels have followed the cultural tastes and values of women (and the gradual relaxation of censorship laws) throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century.
I’ve read romance novels from the 50's and 60's and enjoyed them. But my god, the heroines’ decision-making and reactions sometimes (often) had me rolling my eyes so much I lost my place on the page. (In fairness, I also did this with the heroes.) I particularly remember muttering “Just tell him to fuck off” when a supposedly desirable hero was telling a very meek heroine what to do, and I was endlessly annoyed by the following: fainting; the appearance of mountains out of truly miniscule molehills; rapey sex; physical clinging; jumping to absurd conclusions; and her persistent demurral in favour of the hero’s needs. Actual stupidity – see also Too Stupid to Live – was enraging. Yes, absolutely head into that rock cave/forest/desert, alone, no provisions, without telling anyone where you’re going, what could possibly go wrong? Imagine my delight reading novels written in the last twenty years where the heroine stands up for herself and her needs – or better yet, doesn’t have to because the hero isn’t a boorish, unreasonable asshole. Marvellous!
My initial readings of those earlier heroines had naiveté as a flaw, but I’ve changed my mind on that – after all, we’ve all been there, and they still got their man. This idea of the sweet, naïve, innocent heroine isn’t something to be thrown away in favor of strong, cynical, streetwise women. The two can coexist; this is the beauty of a plethora of portrayals. Just as women embody multiple types of strengths, flaws, and experiences, so can and should fictional heroines. Bring on stories of powerful women and naïve women – really, bring on stories of well-rounded, multi-faceted women. Innocence and naivety look different today than they did in the 50's, for obvious reasons, but neither have to look like the flimsy stupidity or helplessness often found in those earlier novels.
There’s strength and joy in innocence, both in its actual state and the potential for exploration and discovery that comes with it. There’s strength in any kind of openness of emotion and expression. The key thing we want to read is the heroine falling for someone worthy of her, and her love interest falling for her – the real her, warts and all. It doesn’t matter if she’s fierce, loud, soft, naïve, jaded, quiet, or guarded; in that place where she’s real about who she is and how she is, she’s vulnerable.
We’re all familiar with Brené Brown by now, yes? Being vulnerable is showing deep strength, and vulnerability is so important in romance. Where our heroine is vulnerable, so are we. And she’s lovable in her vulnerability, her strength – so are we.
This is where the magic happens. Give that magic to all kinds of heroines.
Susan Meier - Strong, Smart Girls Next Door
I have the happy distinction of having written many, many novels about women who are broke, women who are in unexpectedly difficult circumstances and women who aren’t educated. Why is that happy?
Because I get to show you real grit, real determination, raw courage. Though my heroines frequently end up with the rich guy at the end of the story, that’s not what they set out to achieve. My women want more.
And so do today’s readers.
Decades ago, when I was a reader, not a writer, I would read a book or two a day and truth be told I liked the heroines who were in trouble better than the perfect women who believed they were falling in love with the wrong man. Sure, that’s a problem. But when your hair is always perfect, you can eat anything you want and still be willow thin, you have a good job or an education that will get you a good job, your eyes sparkle, your breasts are perk personified…I can’t relate.
I’ve always been a little overweight, with hair that has no respect for me, and eyes that are sometimes amber, sometimes green. They don’t even really have a color. I hate confrontation. Despise conflict. And the few times I’ve tried to push to get my own way have ended in disaster.
Yet readers love strong, smart, sassy heroines. Giving writers a two-fold problem. They want the fantasy…but they also want to relate to the star of the story, to read about someone they know and understand.
What’s a writer to do?
1. Give her a problem readers can identify with.
As I mentioned, my heroines are always in trouble. Sometimes for the first time in their lives. In Falling For The Pregnant Heiress, I took perfect Sabrina McCallan, daughter of a high society mother and a tycoon dad and got her pregnant by a loser. I upended her life with the kind of problem that forced her to see the world differently, but also to come out of her comfort zone and handle things. As she raced around Europe looking for her baby’s father to tell him he was going to be a dad, she faced situations she’d never been in. She realized Pierre had lied to her. She realized she’d been paying his way when he had tons of his own money. She realized she was ready to be a mom, but he sure as heck wasn’t ready to be a dad. By the end of the story, she was stronger than ever…and I’m going to guess readers felt like they’d grown a bit too.
2. Give her a flaw.
Especially if it’s something readers can relate to.In my seventy books, I’ve done a lot of heroines who worked to keep their world safe, secure, consistent. So, as with Sabrina McCallan, a problem throws them for a loop. It’s isn’t that they like perfection. It’s more that it’s easier to keep your world the same than to change it. Nice as that sounds, it’s a flaw. But I’ve also written heroines who ate too much, always fell for the wrong guy, couldn’t keep a clean house, couldn’t drive well, and a million other things (or at least seventy) because that was a point of intersection between readers and the heroine. As beautiful and spunky as the heroine was, she wasn’t perfect. Readers could identify with her even if their flat was different.
3. Get to the heart of the matter.
Or more simply put, use your conflict. If there’s one thing readers and heroines have in common, it’s that – no matter how good they look on the outside or how perfect their personality – they have that “something” inside them that puts them at odds with the hero. If the heroine was hurt by her ex-husband and doesn’t ever want another relationship, get that out in the open. Show readers how she was hurt and show her determined never to be hurt again. Again, that’s something most women have been through. If not a bad marriage, then a boyfriend who dumped them, or fiancé who ran off with a barmaid. When readers make a click with your heroine’s problem or flaw or conflict, they can then relax with her. They can see themselves in the role and enjoy the fantasy of having courage, spunk, beauty and sometimes even talent.
We’re in the entertainment business, but I like to think we’re also in the change-the-world biz.
Stories are a teaching tool. We show our heroines overcoming problems, dealing with flaws, growing from pain. Every time a reader sees a heroine overcome something, she grows. She processes that story and takes the lesson.
Your characters don’t have to be militant feminists to change the world. Sometimes a strong, smart girl next door can show a reader more practical ways to live and love.
Tara Taylor Quinn - A Feeling Of The Times
When I was in college, majoring in English, a professor said something that has always stuck with me;
Literature is that which gives us a feeling of the times during the writer’s lifetime.
By his definition, romance writing is the best literature out there. In our books, we depict the times in which we live one life at a time. The romance heroine shows that so clearly.
When I write, I don’t sit down to write a particular kind of heroine. I’m bringing a person to life. Just like I am a person, and everyone who reads my books are people, we’re all different. We all bring something unique to the page, in our perceptions, our understandings, our hopes and dreams.
Not all of us are badass. We don’t all speak out strongly. Some of us do. Some of us might depending on circumstances. I think the core of womanhood is a combination of strength and love that comes through our heroines into our books in many ways, through many types of people.
She can be introverted, soft spoken, and still live with a core of steel when she’s pushed, or her loved ones are being mistreated. I don’t think innocence and naiveté are bad. They are signs of a heart and mind not yet closed by harsh life lessons. It’s how those traits build the person and her story that matter. And that’s where the world around her comes into contact with her core. That’s where the book starts. Now. Yesterday. Tomorrow.
We don’t want cardboard heroines based on messages of perceived strength we’re supposed to be sending out. We want women we want to spend time with, women we feel as friends. Some of our friends are strong and outspoken. Some are timid and shy. Some are funny. Some aren’t. Some are business oriented. Some care for family members. We want us, collectively…because no matter what the world does, what matters most is still the same – Love wins.
Adite Banerjie ~ The Power Of Real Heroines
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” – Nora Ephron.
Among the myriad reasons for reading fiction, perhaps the most enduring one is readers want to read stories which are inspiring and universal. Tales where the protagonist faces and overcomes tremendous obstacles to come up triumphant. Romance novels are no different except the story is about one couple’s journey to Happy Ever After or Happy For Now.
Writing heroines with whom the modern reader can empathize is a skill every romance writer needs to master. However writing a heroine who can inspire courage, strength and equality is not as easy as it sounds. If you flip the pages of a typical romance novel written a few decades ago, the definition of a “relatable” protagonist would be quite different from the ones which find acceptance among today’s readers. Trends change, lifestyles change and while the fundamental values of truth, honesty, liberty, etc. remain constant, how these are portrayed definitely varies.
As a voracious reader of Mills & Boon romances in my growing up years, I’d root for the feisty heroines who could stand up for herself over the submissive, naïve ones. And yet, such heroines were not quite the norm in those days. Moreover, as I looked for such heroines in my own culture, there were not enough of these outspoken role models who could inspire young readers. Today, the scenario has changed vastly, kickass heroines are quite the norm even in Bollywood films, though occasionally we tend to do a regressive turn for the worse, as recent box-office trends have shown.
However, the emergence of a brave new generation of romance writers in India is definitely cause for celebration. They are writing women protagonists who grow to be strong independent women despite their vulnerabilities and flaws. Sudesna Ghosh is one such author whose offbeat take on the fake-marriage trope in ‘The Perfect Fake Boyfriend’ tells a heartwarming story of a plus-sized, 30+ woman. A feel good romance novella, Ghosh tackles the twin concerns of real women in her novella, being over-the-marriageable-age and plus-size, with wit and empathy. She also gives the ‘big fat wedding’ a trendy twist in her ‘My Small Thin Indian Wedding’.
Ruchi Singh whose stories are a combination of drama and romance has grabbed readers’ eyeballs. Her novel, ‘Jugnu’ (Firefly), features a heroine whose husband is a soldier who’s missing in action. Ruchi brings out the dilemma of a woman with a young child who is torn between attraction for another man and her guilt for harboring such feelings when her husband is away fighting a war. The inherent drama of the situation along with the portrayal of a woman who is vulnerable and yet strong makes this title a gripping read.
In my own novels – be it Wedding Shenanigans or Bombay Heights – which mimic popular and entertaining tropes of fake fiances and attraction for the hot neighbor, I have sought to create protagonists with real life, relatable issues and problems even though the overall setting, mood and style is light and fluffy. Moreover, what inspires me in my storytelling are the real life stories of women who are fighting patriarchy and living life on their terms.
With the right mix a writer can not only be inspired by real life, but also hopefully inspire young readers by creating fictional role models.
How do you feel about the way romance heroines are portrayed? Are there romance heroine traits or actions you think we should aspire to in real life? Let us know in the comments or join the discussion on our social media using #GirlPower
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