Monday, September 20, 2010

Bad Girls?

Stephanie Draven posted today asking why there aren't more bad girls in romance. She said, "This may be because women make up the vast majority of romance readers and we can be a bit hard on our own gender."

Umm, yeah. [wry smile]

It seems to me that women are often the hardest on other women. It might well be the patriarchal culture that created the rules, but women are often the most enthusiastic and bloodthirsty enforcers of those rules. (Mainstream, het) romance as a genre reflects the traditional gender roles and limitations more than any other genre, as demonstrated in the invisible (but very solid, penetrable by only a tiny percentage of writers) rules about female protags' sexual behavior, for example. Once the guy and girl meet, they're not allowed to have (real) feelings for anyone else, and certainly not have sex with anyone else, no matter how long -- in terms of page-count or actual months or years in the storyline -- it takes for the main characters to get together. Guys are allowed to break this rule more often than girls, and the occasional girls who do are much more likely to draw howls of "Slut!" from infuriated readers.

And it's kind of entertaining to compare the proportion of 25- and 30-year-old virgins in romance novels with the actual population. [eyeroll] To say nothing of the complex and painful contortions the writers will bend their characters into in order to justify it. And of the ones who aren't virgins, the vast majority had blah or downright horrific sex. Because god forbid the girl ever have a great sexual experience with anyone other than her destined mate. Only if she's pure and chaste and innocent for a truly ludicrous amount of time does she eventually deserve the Awesome Orgasm of True Love.

Moving away from sex to other horrible, unfeminine sins, Stacia Kane was recently evicerated by a mob of readers who were outraged that her Chess Putnam was a [gasp!] drug addict! And wasn't grovelling with shame and repentance by the end of the first book!! Unholy Ghosts isn't even a romance -- it's urban fantasy, published by a SF/F house -- but it has a female protag and sort of feels romance-ish in tone. Apparently that's enough for the Pitchfork-Bearing Mob of Romancelandia to claim Unholy Ghosts for romance, and then punish the author for not following romance rules. Wow.

This kind of nonsense is one of the reasons I wandered away from het romance and went over to m/m. Aside from the fact that two hot guys is always better than one :) the genre is newer, and because of that there aren't as many rules and expectations about acceptable character behavior. A guy can have a fight with his lover, go out angry to a bar and get laid with some stranger, then go home and make up -- that is, behave like a perfectly valid type of real person -- and the vast majority of readers don't have a cardiac. (What a concept.)

So yeah. [cough] I would like to see more "bad" girls in romance. For that matter, I'd like to see fewer character types labelled as "bad." Slut-shaming is one of the major tools of that patriarchal culture we're supposedly trying to move past, so can we dump it now plskthnx? And why is it that a woman who can kick butt with the guys -- a fighter and survivor -- is labelled a bad girl?

It'd also be nice if characters were allowed to have real, serious flaws, like Chess's drug addiction. And I'd like to see female characters who can be grumpy or arrogant or focused on their work or unconcerned with domestic matters or excessive grooming/preening (you know, like any number of male characters?) and who are not presented as just not having grown up into Real Women yet. There are a few around the genre, but again, not nearly as many as there are in realspace, proportionately.

As it is, though, one of the primary messages of mainstream romance is that only women who conform to a particular, narrow definition of a Good Woman deserve romance. True love and great sex come (eventually) to the good girls, or maybe to the occasional character who was a bad girl but then learned better, and changed, and did an appropriate amount of grovelling.

It's seriously amazing how creative the really good romance writers can be within this limited range -- it takes an incredible talent to write a memorable character, especially a female, within the narrow walls of genre romance characterization. I think it'd benefit the genre as a whole if the walls came down, though, and the genre were thrown open to a wider variety of character types. Giving authors more latitude encourages creativity and exploration beyond the trodden (paved, regulated, monitored by radar) path. Not all readers would care for the new character types, but that's all right. There are still plenty of readers who prefer basic contemporary romances, but that hasn't stopped the newer subgenres (fantasy, futuristic, paranormal frex.) from doing well and finding large audiences. Variety is always better than uniformity.

Stephanie again: But I hope that society has evolved enough that we can enjoy other fantasies too. That we can enjoy stories about women in search of their own redemption. About women who don’t coax men into conforming to social rules, but who help men break them.




Charles Gramlich said...

Definitely the criticism seems misplaced when directed toward an urban fantasy. I think the term "bad girl" has become a virtual advertisement and is quite probably meant to attract men more than women.

Angie said...

Charles -- probably true, about the "bad girl" thing being an advertisement aimed at men. In the mainstream romance genre, though, ninety-some percent of the readers are female, so.... [sigh]

The publishers are responsible for a lot of this, in what they acquire and how they market it. But when someone does manage to get into print with a rules violation, it's the (mostly female) readers who do most of the howling and snarking. Very depressing, for the 21st century.


Kate Thornton said...

Excellent post, Angie - my "bad girl" in current WIP is past 50. Ya think a grown up woman with some experiemce can get past the labels? Me neither, I guess...!
Kate Thornton

Angie said...

Kate -- thanks. :)

Is your WIP a romance? If so, just the fact that your protag is over 50 is boggling in and of itself. Everyone knows old people can't fall in love and don't deserve romance or relationships. [cough]


Steve Malley said...

That was one well-aimed barrage at the Boundary Walls of Genre.

Well-aimed indeed...

Suzan Harden said...

*sigh* I really wish I could argue with your points, but I've been on the receiving end of the very criticism you mentioned because my female characters aren't "traditional."

*grin* Ironically, the only female lead UF series my husband will read is Saintcrow's Jill Kismet. Saul and Jill's relationship is "the closest thing to a real marriage" he's seen in fiction.

Angie said...

Steve -- thanks. Hopefully I at least knocked a rock or two loose. [crossed fingers]

Suzan -- my commiserations. :/ You know, I think this is one of the reasons there are so many romance offshoots springing up, like women's fiction and chick lit and the female-protag end of urban fantasy. There seem to be a lot of people who want to read female-centric stories which are romantic to a greater or lesser degree, but who want something more than what genre romance gives them. It's frustrating, and so unnecessary. :/