In a previous post I mentioned how, in 2011 and 2012, female authors topped the bestseller lists by writing the books everyone wanted to read. In comparison to ten years earlier, they were not only far more prominent on the list, but outselling male authors for the first time. It was all very promising.
However, no look at bestselling book trends from the past 2 years would be complete without looking at bestseller heroines, and I don’t mean the authors here. It’s who they’re writing. Who is the modern day narrative heroine? And more to the point, what the hell is wrong with her?
The bestseller genre of 2012 – Romance – featured dominant, domineering male heroes with an abundance of both types of power available, i.e. physical and fiscal. Heroines were inexperienced and bland. The standalone powerhouse, Katniss Everdeen from the The Hunger Games, was a product of a brutal dystopian wasteland; hardly grounds for commonality of experience, no matter how much negative equity you think you’re in.
So, if the literary Everywoman is insipid and unremarkable, is that how the female reader sees herself?
Would the real Everywoman please stand up?
Couldn’t a female character be special because she’s an amazing driver and can take off any accent west of the Volga, and not merely because she has specific body measurements, she’s up for it at any time of the day or night and some man really fancies her? And why are women – of all people – writing these insipid drips with the depth of a saucer?
A worrying majority of what I’ve read in the fantasy, romance or crime genres (particularly in the self-published universe, sadly) containing any semblance of a feisty heroine has involved the same back-story of hardship and loss with a mix – sometimes even all – of the following:
Persistent and total lack of awareness of own beauty or sexual power despite constant attention and compliments from absolutely everyone around them
Badly treated by at least one man (relative or ex-partner)
Lack of sexual experience: either since forever, or in recent years following somehow unacceptable behaviour at a younger age
Suppresses her emotions, or is seemingly unaware of them, with regular upsetting meltdowns involving panic attacks/nightmares/superficial “depression” which can only be soothed by the masterful male hero
Total helplessness in physical proximity to the hero
It seems that our heroines must be damaged in order to create narrative conflict. You’d think there was enough conflict in our experience without throwing a pile of baggage into the mix.
Will the 50 Shades film make things better or worse? We’ll see. A number of undervalued actresses can manage to make disturbingly stupid or neurotic characters quite charming (take a bow, Isla Fisher, Amy Adams and Renee Zellweger). On film at least, Bridget Jones became endearing, and Bella Swann became tolerable.
Is female fantasy really about what women want…?
But we should be curious about our responses to the stereotype involving the powerful male hero and the submissive, bland woman. I want equality of the sexes in life, and yet a very strong part of me does not want my heroes emasculated in what I’m reading.
But what is emasculation? Does it just mean that the hero doesn’t have all of the power?
Deep down I know that’s ridiculous. But when lost in the universe of the story, I don’t seem to care. I can acknowledge this whilst admitting how much it disturbs in the cold light of day when that glorious and fantastical fog, which accompanies the sort of atmospheric book which takes me out of my life entirely for a spell, leaves me to get on with things.