Sexism in Romance (or Romance Heroines are Mad as Hell and Not Gonna Take it Anymore)

***Caution: Blunt speech ahead. (But you knew that from the title, right?)***

During the past month the resident authors of the Contemporary Romance Café and our guests have talked about our favorite literary characters from Elizabeth Bennet to Bridget Jones. From Sherlock Holmes to Rhett Butler.

Fiona-somerights-philippe-leroyerOne particular type of character was much discussed–the flawed character. This is a favorite type of character for many readers. I am no exception. I have a deep and abiding love for flawed characters. The hero who is slightly broken. A heroine who is working to get past wounds inflicted during a not-to-rosy childhood. However, I have noticed a trend in our discussions here and throughout the reading community. Our toleration for deeply-flawed characters whose behavior borders (if not delves in with both feet and a self-assured grin) Assholeville is skewed in the favor of male characters. With female characters…not so much.

When a heroine displays characteristics that venture into such territory she isn’t given cutesy names like Alphahole. She’s a bitch. A shrew. Or branded “too independent.” When we do accept a very flawed heroine it is usually because she is funny and adorable–like Bridget Jones and Stephanie Plum. Male characters don’t need to be funny to be accepted with all their warts. (But it helps if they have tight pecs and an ass you could bounce a quarter off of.)

Let’s step out of Romancelandia for a moment.

Women CEOs, executives, politicians, and other professionals are branded with some of the same names when they succeed in male-dominated fields by adopting behavior similar to that of successful men in their culture. Women all over the world demand equality and are rightly outraged by this. We champion these women and fight for their cause.

So why do we resent similar behavior in romance heroines?

Making the First Move by Reese RyanIt’s a question that has long vexed me. Not throwing stones here. (People who live in glass houses should never take on such a risky venture.) But I’m dying to gain some insight on this. In recent years I’ve come to really like a well-developed, flawed heroine. The more warts, the better. I love watching the character’s growth over the course of the story. Not to a perfect Stepford wife, but to a better, happier version of herself. This love compelled me to write a character who is severely broken with lots of thorns.

Jamie Charles is a secondary, but important, character in my upcoming debut novel, Making the First Move. When we meet her in this book she is brash and says what others are thinking, but afraid to say. Yet she is softer and has grown up a bit due to events that happened prior to the start of the book. But I couldn’t let it go or be satisfied with just knowing the general reasons for her change. I wanted to experience her story with all its grittiness. The good, the bad, and the ugly. So I wrote it.

It was a challenge writing a heroine who is tough, deeply-flawed, and has little regard for anyone outside her immediate circle of family and friends. My editor often pointed out moments when the character seemed arrogant, callous, unaffected. But those scenes gave me an opportunity to delve deeper into the character, to make her more sympathetic. And yes, sometimes the scene or dialogue just needed to be cut because it felt like too much of a risk. Would readers like her? Be able to connect with her?

I hope so. Because I absolutely love the character and her story. I guess we’ll have to wait until December when Love Me Not (tentative title) comes out to find out. In the meantime, an excerpt from the moment we get to meet Jamie in Making the First Move is in the box below.

[spoiler title=”Meet Jamie Charles in Making the First Move“]I look for Jamie’s beat-up Ford Explorer. It isn’t here. I flip open my cell phone and call her.

“You curbside yet?” she asks.

“I just walked through the doors,” I say, looking around.

“Okay, I see you.”

“I don’t see you.”

“I’m right here.” Jamie pulls up and grins at me.

Walking up to the black BMW 535i, I peer inside. “Should I expect a police chase on the ride home?” I ask my starving artist friend, who is clearly not the owner of this car.

“Shut up and get in already.” Jamie pops the trunk.

I lift the trunk, checking for the tied-up vehicle owner. All clear. I put my bag in the trunk and get in the car. “You look fantastic, James.” I examine a few strands of her coal-black hair, accented with light and dark shades of auburn. “I love the highlights.”

She smiles. “Thanks.”

Jamie’s perpetual smoky eye shadow is replaced by a subtler framing of her shimmering green eyes with delicate shades of fawn, mocha and copper. A barely there shade of pink is on her lips.

“Oh my God! Jamie, you look incredible! What happened to the woman who insisted goth is forever?”

Jamie shrugs. “People change. I just wanted to try something a little different. You really like it? You’re not just saying that to be nice?”

I survey my friend. She’s wearing a pair of jeans with no rips, holes or tears and a simple green blouse. “You look amazing. I mean it.”

“Thanks!” Jamie hugs me tightly. I’m taken aback. Jamie has never been big on displays of affection. She tolerates them but rarely initiates them. Her birth parents showed her little affection. It’s one of the reasons she’s such a hard ass. She wears her tough-girl exterior like an exoskeleton. Moments like this are rare.

“I’m so glad you’re coming home. You know I’m a complete mess without you.”

I smile. “I miss you, too.”

An officer taps the window. “Keep it moving, ladies!”

“Alright! Alright!” Jamie huffs before throwing the car into gear and pulling off.

“This is really nice.” I survey the beige leather interior and light wood trim. “Who’s the owner, and how much of a head start do we have on him?”

Jamie once dated a guy who boosted cars to pay his college tuition. Maybe she got more than just mono from the guy.

“Give me a little credit, Mel. I haven’t knowingly been in a stolen car in years.”

I cringe. “So what’s the story on this one?” I settle back against the seat, my arms folded.

Jamie looks straight ahead, concentrating on the road. Not her usual sightseeing-while-driving style. She clears her throat. “First I’d better tell you what’s been going on with me.”

I contort in my seat so my body faces hers. “What do you mean? It’s not like we don’t talk regularly. You’ve been holding out on me?”

She frowns as she glances over her shoulder and merges into the right lane. “Maybe I was afraid I’d jinx it.”

“Jinx what? What’s going on?”

My heart beats a little faster. Jamie’s surprises are rarely good. The more low-key she is about them, the worse they are. She’s been known to say things like: “Oh, by the way I’m going to be evicted this week,” or “I stabbed a guy who tried to mug me the other day. He might die,” in the same nonchalant manner someone else might say, “It’s raining outside” or “The mail is here.”

“Nothing bad,” Jamie says immediately, sensing my fear.

“So it’s something good then. What is it? Spit it out!”

“First, I’ve been working part-time in a local gallery in addition to my bartending gig. The owner is this cool artist. Her name is Nazirah Jiménez. She’s amazing. She’s been teaching me about the business side of art and how to run a gallery. She encouraged me to take some classes to help me become a better artist and a real businesswoman.”

“You’re taking classes?” It took our entire family to will Jamie through high school and across that stage to get her diploma. We haven’t been able to talk her into so much as a cooking class since.

She smiles proudly. “Yep. I started off with a three-week Artist as an Entrepreneur course. I learned a lot about raising capital, pricing and how to protect my rights as an artist. It changed my attitude about my work. I’ve taken courses offered by local multimedia artists to learn new techniques and expand my skills. My last two classes were taught by local art legends. It’s been surreal.”

“Jamie, that’s wonderful. Why would you keep that from me? You know I’d be thrilled for you.”

“Maybe I wanted to see your reaction in person, to see you proud of me.”

It breaks my heart when she says this. I think of all the certificates and awards crowding the mantle when we were growing up. Only a couple of art certificates were for her. I swallow hard and force a smile. It couldn’t have been easy for her, always feeling like the odd kid out. Not because she was a different race, or from a different family. But because she’d always seemed so broken. It affected every aspect of her life. “I’ve always been proud of you.”

Jamie’s life has been filled with drama and pain. My family and I have been there through most of it. Jamie followed me home after school one day when we were eight years old. She’d just moved to the area and didn’t want to go home because her parents were always fighting. My mother made her call home to ask if she could stay for dinner. Her mother didn’t much care. Jamie’s spent most nights at our dinner table since then.

When she was ten, her parents split. She hasn’t heard from her father since. She threatened to run away from home at thirteen—though it was more of a promise than a threat. She was fully prepared to live on the streets, rather than with her junkie mother and her mother’s boyfriend-of-the-week. She made me promise not to tell. It’s a promise I’m glad I broke.

I went to my parents in tears and begged them to let Jamie come and live with us. My parents loved Jamie and worried about her constantly. They took her in and became her legal guardians.

High school was a difficult period for her. We weathered the years that she experimented with sex, drinking and drugs. My parents never gave up on her. Eventually she settled down a bit.

“Thanks.” She seems genuinely happy. “For the first time in a long time, I’m proud of myself, too.”[/spoiler]

So here are my questions to you: Why can a male character be a complete dick and be celebrated as an douche nozzle that we love to hate? Yet a female character whose behavior pales in comparison is seen as “unlikeable” and often makes us close the book? Which characters/books defy this unspoken rule? Do you think we’ll see a trend of deeply-flawed heroines being more acceptable in future romance novels?

Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Photo above courtesy of Philippe Leroyer. Some rights reserved.


Sexism in Romance (or Romance Heroines are Mad as Hell and Not Gonna Take it Anymore) — 33 Comments

  1. Awesome post Reese!

    When Alphahole-type men are described, it’s often with words that imply the possession of power – dominant, aggressive, forceful – whereas women get descriptors like opinionated, bitchy, feisty (dear God I hate feisty), or pushy, all of which are dismissive, negative, and usually patronizing.

    But for me it’s not even about seeing more ‘opinionated’/’bitchy’/’feisty’ heroines, it’s about seeing more that are complex, nuanced, and imperfect, full stop. I want to see heroines who don’t necessarily understand themselves or their own actions.

    I realize romance tends to be escapist, but it’s also supposed to be fulfilling, and I’m never more satisfied than when I see an intricately drawn, compelling heroine truly grow as an individual and not just as half of a relationship. I think a great beta hero can go a long way to illuminate the deeper facets of a well-drawn heroine, and I sure hope I read more of them in the future.

    • Thanks Rebecca! So many great thoughts in your comment. My favorite: “it’s about seeing more that are complex, nuanced, and imperfect, full stop. I want to see heroines who don’t necessarily understand themselves or their own actions.” ~ I especially loved the part about them not understanding themselves.

      Also loved this comment: “I’m never more satisfied than when I see an intricately drawn, compelling heroine truly grow as an individual and not just as half of a relationship.” ~ Beautifully stated. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I really think this is a generational thing that’s starting to break apart. Those of us who are romance readers who are now in our 30s and 40s, grew up with a different world-view than our mothers and grandmothers. We were promised equality and that we could do or be anything and we got much less of a dose of the “be nice” thing. We still carry some of it, but not nearly so much. I think a lot of that knee-jerk reaction to the “difficult” heroine comes from that older mindset – and will continue to fade away.

    • I agree that it is generational, Jeffe! This is particularly evident from New Adult where the heroine is much more likely to have serious flaws. The heroine in Kendall Ryan’s book Make Me Yours–a book I absolutely love–is a good example of this. I hope we will see this type of heroine migrate to contemporary romance as well.

  3. In my more cynical moments, I have thrown my hands up in the air when it comes to writing interesting female characters. In romance, we fall in love with the hero, and the success or failure of the book seems to ride on that. Meanwhile, we’re all looking to hate the heroine! I don’t know if it’s because we’re putting ourselves in her shoes and see any of her flaws as reflections of our own, or if we’re subconsciously envious that she gets the guy we’re falling in love with, or if it is just good old-fashioned sexism. Regardless, it frustrates me to no end.

    In my cynical moments, I think I should just write the least offensive heroine I can manage.

    Then I take a deep breath and remember that I’m here to write real stories about real people — strong, flawed female characters and all.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jeanette! There can definitely be a frustrating pressure to make the heroine likeable–rather than portraying the character in the way the seems most authentic for her. It’s an amazing feeling when we can find a satisfying (for us and readers) balance between the two.

  4. Reese, I’m struggling right now to write a not-so-loveable heroine–an alpha male in a woman’s body. My hope is that by the end of the story, the reader will love her as much as I do.

    • Good luck with your heroine, Samantha! It’s funny but it seems the characters that are most difficult to pull off are the ones we hold dearest. Hopefully readers feel this, too.

  5. YYYEEESSS to all of this. I think the first step is for us to just write the ballsy-yet-flawed women. If you build it, they will come. (Um, no romance pun intended. Ahem.) I think it will have to do with the presses, too. I got pushback from one major press about my heroine in “Ragnar and Juliet,” and it was, frankly, anti-woman in a way that I know it wouldn’t have been had the genders been reversed. Luckily, I found a different publisher who had no problem with her. The big problem? She expressed a view that not all men were awesome all the time. Le sigh.

    I think the US especially right now is experiencing a blowback against equality, but also a hopefully-louder push against racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, etc. Things will change for the better. They always do. And I hope romance will become more and more inclusive and equal as time goes on. We just have to keep writing the better world (and heroes and heroines) we want to see.

    • I love your attitude, Lucy! “If you build it, they will come.” There are so many options open to authors right now. It gives us an opportunity to take a chance on something that doesn’t follow the beaten path. I agree that the winds are changing. I think this is especially evident in New Adult which many older readers–including me–are devouring.

  6. What a great post, Reese! Since I’m not an alpha-fan from either gender, I’m not sure I have an opinion, but you’re definitely right about sexism rearing its ugly head over the subject.

    • Like you, my general preference has been beta heroes (though now I’d say it’s more gamma). However, I’ve been reading more alpha heroes of late. If I’m reading about a stronger male character I want him to meet someone who is his match and will keep him in line.

  7. Wow, this is great – I literally just wrote a new guest blog post about this same subject! I completely agree, I tried to challenge readers to see past the so called flaws of the heroine to see if she is the right match for the hero. Some readers couldn’t identify with a few of my smart ass heroines but I’m not going to stop writing them haha! I adore a fierce angsty issue ridden heroine!

    • Hi Jennifer! Would love to read your blog post. This is a topic that deserves to be regularly revisited with a variety of author and reader voices being heard. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  8. Reese– I LOVE the look of your book and can just feel your passion for the story and your characters. To me, that’s what makes a book, when the author loves her story. Your book is going to be amazing.

    • Thanks so much, Julie! Big HUG!!! Being passionate about what we write–whether it’s fiction or no fiction–really does make a difference. That is one of the reasons your blog posts and articles always sound so authentic. Will definitely keep applying that going forward. If I’m not passionate about the story and about the characters, is the story really worth telling?

  9. Doing research on the Victorian period, I’m in the midst of reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The heroine in this book is so sweet, kind, gentle, and loving, it’s hard not to get a bit nauseous while reading in her POV. So things have changed for the better, even in tradition-bound romance novels.

  10. Thanks for this article! I agree–it’s annoying in the extreme. If I had a dime for every time someone called one of my heroines a “bitch” . . . Heroes who are obnoxious get criticized, too, but I agree that it’s not as much. I still write what I think are strong heroines, but I get tired of seeing readers say that the heroine is too “mean” to that poor, tortured hero because she doesn’t leap into his arms right away and soothe all his hurts. It really irritates me.

    I’d like to think it’s generational, but one of my young, hip readers was the one to accuse one of my favorite heroines of being a bitch because she demanded her due. So I don’t know. But it’s great of you to stand firm against it!

    • Hey Sabrina! Thanks for sharing your experience. I love strong, scrappy heroines. I think I appreciate those qualities even more in historical heroines. Oh no! You’re shattering my illusion of progressive change! And I’ve been clinging to it so tightly.

  11. Great post! It’s weird how (some – maybe many) readers expect heroines to be “nice”, but heroes can be complete jerks – rude, arrogant, nasty, chauvinistic and uncompromising, but they’re considered alpha and sexy. I don’t get it.

    I have a paranormal work-in-progress that I have entered into various contests with varying feedback about my flawed-with-reason heroine. Some judges love her but others say she’s not likeable … even though it’s patently obvious why she’s a spook with attitude!

    Love your excerpt, Reese :)

    • Thanks for your comment, Elise. I think many of us here can sympathize with your frustration. I love the phrase you’ve coined “flawed-with-reason.” I think that’s the nucleus of an appealing, flawed character. They are rough around the edges–or maybe even flat-out harsh. But as the layers of the character are peeled back we discover the reason for the flaws and hopefully watch as the character begins to grow.

  12. A post that really got me thinking, Reese. Great job!

    I’ve written a difficult heroine (and have more planned), and she *was* a witch to people. Sure she was strong and knew what she wanted, but attitude is everything, and I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman, being “ugly” for no reason is a turn off for me no matter your gender.

    Give me a reason why you’re a alphahole heroine or hero, not just because you’re woman, so hear me roar, or I’m a MA-YUN, grunt and stuff.

    But I do think it comes down to this for popularity:

    Women want the man to change for the love of a good woman ie the heroine. Who knows if that mirrors their own life and the difficulties they’re having with their partner? And if the heroine is a placeholder for them, they would want the heroine to be as nice (and no I don’t think nice is a four letter word. my momma and daddy raised me to be nice *and* strong. #southernbelle) as they perceive themselves being. Does that makes sense?

    So, maybe it’s not sexism, but wishful thinking…

    • Thanks for your comment, Marquita! Great points! Ugliness for no reason is also an absolute turn off for me–whether it’s the hero or heroine. I really appreciate the insight you’ve given us on why we have a greater acceptance of unlikeable qualities in the hero as opposed to the heroine. Especially these thoughts: “Women want the man to change for the love of a good woman ie the heroine.” and “[I]f the heroine is a placeholder for them, they would want the heroine to be…nice.” Both of those things make complete sense. I also think it’s wonderful that your parents raised you to be nice AND strong. Many women were raised to believe it’s either/or. Maybe therein lies the problem of why some readers find it difficult to accept a heroine is both.

  13. Fantastic post, Reese, and great comments as well. This may explain why some beta readers and critique partners have had trouble with the heroine in my women’s fiction WIP. She develops an attraction (sexual obsession?) for her sister’s ex-husband. Even though she resists those feelings, some people act like she’s a horrible person just for having them. No matter how kind she is in other areas of her life, people just can’t accept her “betraying” her sister that way.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Andrea! Everyday we have thoughts that we struggle against and ultimately choose to reject and not act upon. And sometimes we make the wrong choice. It is what defines our character. So I would find it interesting to follow a character as she fights such thoughts and chooses to do the right thing. I definitely had to make some concessions in order to soften the heroine in my current WIP, but both my editor and I are happy with the final result. I hope you are able to come to a happy medium for your character. She sounds intriguing.

  14. I love this discussion. I’m telling my age here but what the heck. When I was a senior in high school Gloria steinem was causing a major stir. I think all women/female characters are looking for equal “respect.” They don’t want to be the cute bootie call back home. I think its easier for someone who has lived through all this female transitioning to see the difference between the early 50s and 60s and the current female roles. Right now more women are working then men. There are many reason for that but one of the biggest ones is our ability to swallow pride (from experience) and see into the near future. The macho thing is … well beneath us. We see a job that needs doing and we get it done and we do so while we manage home and family. Men, bless their hearts, are used to working and then relaxing in a comfy recliners while they await their dinners. Most are not multitaskers. I think if we’re writing contemporary or future, and write anything but females who have a mind of their own, we aren’t writing realistic. Granted there are weak men and women in life and books if our female character start weak, it’s more interesting if she grows into strength. And if she’s a hellion at the work place, my bet is she has good reason and is trying to gain respect in her profession.

    Odly enough we now have women who realize how good they had it as the little woman at home but that realization hasn’t set us back. We try to it all and modern husbands are helping more at home. So I see nothing wrong with writing very strong female characters and in fact think it’s more realistic. Go for it!

    • Thanks Sharla for sharing your personal experience and reminding us of the important societal shifts that have and will continue to impact the types of heroines we write and read.

  15. It’s that way in real life too. It’s what we are taught to “like” and be like as American women.

    I have always been a strong, self-driven, brutally honest (some would say tactless) woman. And every woman in my family has advised me to “tone it down.” But that’s who I am. It’s what drives me to start companies. There are plenty of men and women who like strong women, but we are all flawed by the time we get to adulthood because we have been swimming upstream for so long. Definitely write more novels with these “selfish” female characters. You could even write them for me.

    • “[We] are all flawed by the time we get to adulthood because we have been swimming upstream for so long.” ~ So true! Thanks for sharing your experience and for your encouragement to authors who want to write about strong-willed, determined female characters.

  16. Very interesting analysis, Reese!
    I like heroes who are gruff and “AlphaHoles” only when absolutely necessary, and heroines who take no shit. I would like to think that the romance genre is moving toward more realistic portrayals of both men and women. Stephanie Plum is almost a caricature, as is Rachel Morgan from The Hollows in some ways. In both cases, their flaws enhance rather than distract. Personally, I hope to see (and maybe help usher in) an era where readers look for characters that reflect them as they are, not as they wish to be, and not as they could be if they had a good (insert appropriate gender here) to make them better people.
    Possible? I dunno. Call me an idealist.
    My compliments on a great and thought-provoking post!

    • Thanks for your kind comments about the post, J.S.! I echo your sentiments: “Personally, I hope to see (and maybe help usher in) an era where readers look for characters that reflect them as they are, not as they wish to be, and not as they could be if they had a good (insert appropriate gender here) to make them better people.” Love it!

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