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.



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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.