Strong Heroines

on March 11, 2010

Rocki’s post on Tuesday asking if there was a double-standard in romance elicited a groundswell of responses from MSW readers. Some of the comments were particularly noteworthy, so I’d suggest if you haven’t read the blog you do so.

The primary theme of the blog was whether readers had a double standard in romance vis-a-vis the hero and heroine. That heroines are held to a higher standard than heroes. We forgive heroes for sleeping around, playing the field, having oodles of sexual experience–but if the heroine has more than one or two lovers (and they should be steady lovers, perhaps even a fiance thrown in there, because that would make having sex more acceptable for our heroines) then readers turn on her. That slut.

Heroines can be brave, but they can’t be proactive in a dangerous situation otherwise they are deemed TSTL. A hero, on the other hand, who runs into a burning building to save a child is, well, a hero.

The comments to Rocki’s post were also interesting, highlighting how women treat women. The cattiness. The backstabbing. The backhanded compliments (that Lori discussed yesterday.) I did remember a slight that had been irritating me–but it was directed at my oldest daughter. Katie is an athlete. She has a great body, is physically fit, has defined muscles, and has practice or works out daily. One of her closest friends is always making comments about Katie’s weight, either implying or outright stating that she’s “fat” or “chunky.” WTF? Fortunately, my daughter is far too confident and grounded to believe it, but it irritates her.

And I can’t help wonder why this non-violent aggression by women to women exists. I could cite examples, but we all have them, don’t we? Times where we’ve given, times where we’ve received. There were several comments that struck home to me:

AMALIA: I would suggest that it is perhaps instinctive for women to appreciate the Alpha male. Also, by that same logic, perhaps the problem we have with strong Heroines is that they are Competition for the best protection/food supply. If they simper, we know we can elbow them out of the way and take over!

ALY: I can only echo what so many have already said about women being the worst critics of other women. Think about the constant argument of Working vs. SAH moms. These arguments get so vicious! And instead of just agreeing to disagree or finding some common ground, the women have to beat each other down. Unfortunately, I think because women have had to fight for so much for so long, that we no longer see other women as comrades in our fight but as enemies that are in our way. And in my opinion, this fracture has helped perpetuate the double standard.

LORI: Women. NEVER men. Let me repeat that. I’ve NEVER had a man approach me and say, “Gee, I really liked the book, but I wish your character wouldn’t swear so much. Or drink so much. Or pistol whip people so much.”

I also found it interesting that Rocki, and most of the commenters who write, have a harder time with their heroine than their heroes (those who write romances.) I don’t. My heroines are so much easier for me. So I started thinking about why that was.

Sophie and Lori both write a series with a strong female lead. These aren’t romances, though there may be a romantic interest. And even they are getting flak for their straight-shooting, foul-mouthed, violent females. But probably not as much as a romance writer. I haven’t gotten much flak, either–and I finally figured out why. My heroines are in professions the average reader already equates as a “male profession” (I say this very loosely!) like cops, FBI agents, private investigators. A heroine who is a cop can get away with more than a heroine who is, for example, a museum curator.

My heroes and heroines are a TEAM. From day one. Men and women have strengths and weaknesses, and they can compliment each other when they work as a TEAM. That became so clear to me writing my Seven Deadly Sins series because Rafe and Moira must work together to defeat the demon–neither is stronger than the other. I use “stronger” to mean all-around stronger, not just brute strength. The average man has a greater capacity to gain physical strength than the average woman–but in the brain department, we all have the same potential.

My big pet peeve is alpha heroes. I know, I’m going to be kicked out of the romance community! It’s not the cops or military guys, but the brutes. I’ve skimmed some message boards that have me scratching my head at readers who forgive a hero for manhandling the heroine, or think the heroine is an idiot because she’s not caving to the hero’s will. I don’t get it. I just don’t get the allure of assholes. (Yes, I know that one woman’s asshole is another woman’s alpha . . . )

The hardest heroines for me to write are those NOT in law enforcement or a similar profession. Though Julia Chandler in SEE NO EVIL was my first “other” heroine, she was still a prosecutor who is still connected. It was really Robin McKenna in KILLING FEAR who was the biggest challenge for me. A former stripper who now owns a nightclub. How could I make her a strong heroine? I struggled with her greatly.

Female cops aren’t generally in the TSTL category because they are trained to face hostile situations. Strippers, on the other hand, have a much higher threshold. And now I realize why–I am as guilty as everyone else. I struggle to create a strong, believable heroine who doesn’t have the automatic authority to BE a strong heroine. Because I know that if she steps off the reservation and is too bold or too independent or too strong-willed, readers will hate her.

This is why I write romantic suspense with a strong emphasis on law enforcement. Maybe it’s just a little bit easier because I can create a strong heroine who isn’t going to be called a bitch by readers. And ultimately, that’s where we are. Reader expectations, which are drawn on reader lives and values–which mirror ours because writers are readers too. We’re all guilty of double-standards. And I don’t know how to fix it, no matter how unfair it is. It starts young. Drama in school starts the day the kids cross into the classroom–and it doesn’t end when we graduate.

What do you think? Are law enforcement heroines cut more slack? Who is one of your favorite non-law enforcement (i.e. “regular, everyday profession) heroine? Why?