Who's Really Being Difficult Here?
It's no secret among Romance writers that our heroines are judged far more harshly than our heroes.
How about that for an opening sentence? This is a topic that kinda makes me salty, so I'm not sure where to start. I already see the problems with that first statement, seeing as how it places all blame on the readers. We writers are not blameless, though, because so many of us perpetuate this stuff by writing psycho ex-girlfriends and evil stepmothers and backstabbing bitchy frenemies and countless other little boxes we force characters into. Let's just all, whether we read or write or arithmetic, take global responsibility for the labels that get slapped on women and the general screwed up perception of How Females Should (Not) Act. Because make no mistake, here: every last person on this planet seems to believe there's a way females, in fiction and in life, should act and feel and be.
For that matter, we all believe that way about men, too. It's just there seem to be fewer versions of The Right Way To Be A Guy and even though you'd think that would mean we'd be less forgiving when they screw up something with such clear rules? Nah. Everybody seems to be way more ready to forgive (most) deviations from the guy norm. Again, as in fiction, so in life. But more in fiction, and way way way way wayyyyyyy more in Romance fiction. (In my opinion. This is all opinion, here.)
Also to be clear: I'm talking very traditional, straight gender roles. And though I suspect it's like this in most (hetero) romance, I really only know my own historical subgenre. I mean I'd like to think readers will cut more slack to a badass female - and less slack to a male, badass or not - in a dystopian universe, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised if they don’t. "I know everyone's been forced into cannibalism in this world," I can imagine readers saying, "and it makes sense that the whole population, including the hero, partakes of the flesh of babies. But the heroine just seems to not be bothered by it enough..."
(Also as a side note: yes, Not All Readers. But there are a lot more readers than just those who are active online. And by "a lot" I mean “a ton." Furthermore? You might think you're never judgey like this, but probably you are a little bit, sometimes. If you believe you're not, just think back to the heroines about whom you've said/thought "I don't know why, I just don't like her." Once you figure out the why - because you really should - ask yourself if it would've kept you from liking the hero. And if so, would it have been a forever hate, or just fruitfly hate? Be honest. It's okay, we all do it. We've been programmed.)
Some of this is just a matter of choosing the right words so as not to unwittingly disadvantage your heroine with the reader. And they parallel real life double standards pretty closely. So, like:
Heroes can be ambitious (money and/or power implied), but not heroines. Heroines are allowed to "have a dream" so go with that term if you don't wanna rock the boat.
Heroes can be forceful and aggressive. These words get translated into "pushy" and "bossy" for a heroine, so it's better to have her tactfully assert her opinions and/or take action only when there's no other choice and ONLY if it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings.
Heroes can see an opening and take it, and be lauded for their acumen. The same thing in a female is very often considered manipulative, “taking advantage”, and even deceitful.
There are probably a billion more examples, but an exhaustive listing would be, obviously, exhausting. You get the idea. And let’s just go ahead now and say that one area where Romance is ahead of the double standards game is in sexual attraction. Hurray for one of the few places where women are generally allowed to be as horny (hornier?) than men, and show it. Caveat: probably not in inspirationals.
Other vocabulary-related thoughts that come to mind on this topic are:
Difficult: Did you notice that we talk about difficult heroines and difficult women, yet we never hear the term “difficult hero”? That’s because he’s tortured or haunted or has been burned before, etc. He’s complicated. She’s difficult. (Ladies, stop being so difficult! We like you simple!)
Patience: He’s so great, look at the patience he shows with her! She’s so difficult and he’s so patient, waiting for her to fall in love with him/in line with the program. I mean, when he has commitment issues or is a jealous shitbag or [INSERT DIFFICULTY I MEAN COMPLICATION OF YOUR CHOICE], the heroine is not called “patient.” She’s just a good girlfriend who helps to heal his wounded soul, which is what she’s there for in the first place, am I right?
(Un)likeable: Heaven forfend, that someone not be “able” to like her. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard “he’s so unlikeable.” He’s either a total jerk, or he’s being a jerk – that’s the crime, not his likeability factor. (Yes there are likeable jerks, a.k.a. lovable rogues and charming bastards and beautiful sonofabitches. Find me a female equivalent?) The closest I’ve heard is when a book/movie/whatever is described as not having any likeable people in it. “No one is very likeable,” you’ll hear about a group of characters - but not about a single isolated male. And now do me a favor and write the word “likeable” a few times and realize how it always looks wrong no matter how you spell it.
So obviously this bugs me especially because I have written (and will continue to write) Allegedly Difficult Women, and sometimes hearing the way readers talk about them makes me yell at them in my head (or sometimes to my BFF.) I somehow seem convinced that in some fantasy world, I can force a re-frame of the discussion that will make them reconsider their preconceived notions – or at least make them see that they HAVE preconceived notions that have colored their reading of a woman. Of course, the idea that I can do that makes me a fool. (A brilliant, maddening fool.) I suspect I relate to characters – whether I’m writing them or reading them – differently than a lot of romance readers, because instead of wanting to like/love/fall for the hero at all, I come into it as seeing the heroine as a potential friend who I get to watch fall in love. And so when a heroine does something that I don’t like, I react as I would to a real-life girlfriend – that is, with a predisposition to validate her side of the story, to care about her safety and happiness before anything else, and to help her get laid by a deserving dude. Also: skin care discussions and lipstick counseling.
Let’s take for instance Helen, the first heroine I ever wrote (in A Fallen Lady). She’s the one where I first heard this “patience” bullshit. And I’d absolutely agree that the hero had to show patience with her at the end, because her trust issues were really controlling things far past the point where it was reasonable or healthy (which, fyi, was the whole point of the story, but anyway.) But when readers criticize her, it’s very often at the beginning of the story when, in my view, she has every right – and reason – to be standoffish. She has every reason to stay standoffish until they actually form a romantic relationship about halfway through, imo.
So the two girlfriend scenarios here are:
Helen: “OMG this guy showed up at my door and he’s a total stranger, totally prying and asking questions about my past even when I told him I’m not talking about it. I might have been a little rude, but he knows that was the worst time in my life and it totally devastated me. Should I open up to him anyway? PS: He’s rich and super hot and also charming sometimes.”
Me: “Girlfriend, fuck that intrusive jazz. You don’t owe him jack. I mean, don’t be an outright asshole unless you gotta be, but there’s no law saying you have to tell him anything, I don’t care how nice he’s being. Plus, this power dynamic is WAY skewed in his favor, in every way. You set your boundaries and he can like it or fuck off.”
Me: “OMG don’t be a bitch! You did say hot, and he wasn’t outright abusive or anything, right? And he’s nice and he seems to like you (!!!) so what’s the problem, why aren’t you in love with him yet? Just make out already, god!”
Note: I’ve put another example below, from a different book, in case you’re interested. Just didn’t wanna bog things down too much more here with all my wordy words.
I contend that Option 1 above is the better girlfriend response and, frankly, the response of a better human being. In fact, it is the response of her actual girlfriend in the book, who tells her that the guy seems well-intentioned and hopefully wouldn’t ever hurt her, but that her stories are hers to tell, when and wherever she chooses to tell them. But plenty of readers seem to disagree with that take. Even the readers who don’t disagree seem to have their patience severely tried by the heroine’s behavior. And I just cannot imagine that, if the roles were reversed, anyone would be irritated with the hero being like “I don’t care how pretty you are and how you think it might benefit me, I ain’t telling you nuttin, lady.” Even later in the story, I think readers would be far from exasperated by a hero's continued reticence. He’s allowed to be reticent. Because he’s a he.
OBSERVATION: This is a bigger issue if you write a non-alpha hero. (I hate the alpha/beta terminology, just as I hate labeling anyone as “difficult” because I have this whole radical notion of wanting even fictional people to just be allowed to be full-alphabet humans. But I’m writing in this genre that adores talking in tropes, so here we are.) If he’s an obvious asshole, she’d damn well better be the right kind of difficult in response, in just exactly the right amount, at exactly the right times, and such behavior shall cease and desist at an indefinable magic moment, terms and conditions may apply. But if he’s obviously not an asshole, then many readers seem to think any withholding of affections (or snappishness or whatever) on her part is cruel and unusual punishment.
And this applies to virtually every book (Romance or not, frankly) where a heroine is “unlikeable” – she’s nearly always unlikeable because she’s female. Put her exact behavior in the hero, and he’d be haunted, or tough, Understandably Wary Of Love. I guess women aren’t supposed to be wary of love. That’s what I’m getting. Because I always think about Leigh, the heroine in Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight, who is extremely cold toward the hero and impatient with his attempts at wooing her, not only because she Has Issues but because he basically declares undying love for her within like 2 days of meeting her. Because she’s pretty. Because he can see she’s emotionally damaged and just wants a chance to make it all better with his love. (I know there’s some accepted terminology for this concept, like Magical Wang or something, but I’ve always called it Herr Geldenpenis Syndrome.) And Leigh pushes him away and is a bit mean about his precious feeeeeelings, and she’s hated by SO many readers for it. It never made sense to me. She always seemed right, to me. He was trying to use her situation to prove to himself that he’s a big romantic hero and not a washed-up buffoon, and she’s supposed to be nice about calling him out on that? Because why?
AND HEY IMPORTANT SIDEBAR HERE: So what if she IS a bitch to him? Leigh and Helen and any other of these delightfully “difficult” heroines? Do bitches not deserve love? If you prick us do we not bleed? WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE BITCHES, PLEASE.
I know it sounds like I'm whining about how difficult it is to please readers, blah blah blah, but really I'm not. It's more bitching about how hard it is for women to move through the real world. How complicit we are in making it easier for men and harder for other women. How I wish we could work harder and more consciously at being a little more forgiving of ourselves and accommodating to each other.
There is nothing original about this post. Trust me, I know. Headline news: women aren’t allowed to be imperfect humans even in fiction. Maybe even especially in fiction, actually. It’s just disheartening when you write Romance because the vast majority of your readers are also women. (In fact, the few male readers I’ve heard from almost invariably like the “difficult” heroines precisely because of their alleged difficultness. Or so they say, anyway, I’m not sure we should believe them. Or maybe it makes sense that men would like the “difficult” females in fiction. In fiction.) It all leaves me with the persistent feeling that women - maybe not as a whole but I do think in the majority - want other women to be soft and forgiving and accommodating and other words that would describe a door mat - oh, but don’t dare make her a door mat! I mean surely you can find the exact line where door mat ends and uppity bitch begins, right? It’s about 4mm wide – and lest you complain, let’s give a shout-out to our forebears of the Old School Romance era: it used to only be 0.5mm wide. (Also Old School heroines weren't allowed to enjoy sex unless it was a little rapey at least once, so...progress!)
It’s not the difficulty of threading this needle that gets to me, because quite honestly I am not here to thread anyone’s goddamn needles.* I’m here to tell stories the way I want to tell them, and I’m thoroughly aware and gladly accept that I’m not going to please everyone or even many ones. I don't angst about the likeability factor of my characters as I write them, I only consider how best to show who they are and why they're that way, without apologizing for them. And yay hurrah for the many of my fellow writers who joyously bestow the genre with prickly, complicated, flawed females who fuck up and fall over and are still allowed to get the love of their life in the end. Romance novels are, broadly, the stories women tell each other - so thank god not everyone is telling us stories of how to be likeable.
No, what gets to me is that this seems to be our default position, as a gender. When it hit me that this attitude is so widespread among women, I had a conversation with a young niece (okay, it was a lecture) that went a little like this: “You know that just because a guy likes you and is attracted to you, you don’t have to like him back, right? Even if he’s really really nice – hell, even if he says he’s desperately in love with you, aside from basic human decency you have no obligation to him at all. Not even an obligation to give him a chance, okay? He doesn’t have to do anything shitty, even, you can just not want to be around him or not want to be more than friends and it is TOTALLY not mean of you. You get that, right? How about I make up some t-shirts for you, or we can tattoo it on your forearm maybe, it seems like it’s really easy to forget.”
I guess I should go ahead and have that conversation with her about how it’s okay for a guy to be a criminal or a murderer or have occasional rapey thoughts. That’s totally redeemable, don’t let that get in the way of a relationship.
A Difficult Woman
*Yes, that means if you find “difficult women” just too “unlikeable”, then please consider my entire body of work to be a big ole Fuck Y’all I Repeat Fuck All Y’all Don't @ Me. (Which incidentally is also my response if you don’t like my cursing, so don’t even. No one made you click on this shit.)
Here’s another girlfriend scenario, based on my more recent novel (which is titled Fair, Bright, and Terrible but may as well be called Yeah But If A Guy Did It):
Eluned: “Hi, I’m 40 and my old college boyfriend just turned up in my life again and he’s still a great guy but also maybe a little immature? Because he’s all like Hey how about we pick up where we left off EIGHTEEN FUCKING YEARS AGO, nothing’s changed, right? You know I’ve got a lot going on right now and I’m trying not to be a bitch about this, but maybe I’m not succeeding in that? God, I’m so tired. They haven’t invented antidepressants yet.”
Me: “He is SO ADORABLE and he’s still in love with you! This is your chance to conveniently forget the entire formation of your identity and all the experiences of your adult life! I mean okay, I know that since last we talked – like what, not even 6 months ago? – you’ve gone through the death of your beloved father figure, your cousin, your brother, and the majority of your loved ones. And I know there’s that whole thing about your country being conquered by a ruthless regime and the death of all your dreams and the destruction of everything you ever worked towards in terms of preventing the slaughter of your people and their culture, total bummer. And fine, your daughter totes abandoned you, and you had a front row seat at the first state-sanctioned drawing and quartering (btw, eww!), and basically you just got forcibly retired from your job. It’s been a rough few months, I'm not saying otherwise. Plus now you have that whole revenge plan (let's put a pin in that, 'k?) and keeping your distance would probably be in this guy’s better interest anyway, I get it! But Ellie, he’s still so in love with you. He's a heart-eyed emoji, I can't take it. Just pretend you’re still who you were 18 years ago, what’s the big deal? Swooniness is just what the doctor ordered. Come on, I bet the sex will be great!”
Me: “Holy shit, let me get you a blanket and a Red Cross hot chocolate while I go smack him upside the head and tell him to grow the fuck up and give you a minute to recover ffs. Eighteen years, is he kidding me right now? PS: that hot chocolate is 40% ABV, you’re welcome and bottoms up.”
Author’s note: Being a fictional friend is way easier than being a real-life one because you can plan your own plot twists.