Dear Author asks, “Why are we so hard on other women?” Jane Litte thinks two major factors are at play: over-identifying with a female character and familiarity breeding contempt. When we over-identify with a character of the same gender, Jane says, we tend to judge her more harshly because we hope that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes in her position:
When it comes to romance books, if some female character does something that nets a bad result, we are impatient with her because we hope that in her circumstances, we would have made other choices to effectuate a different outcome.
As for familiarity breeding contempt:
Women start out “knowing” women intimately. Men are far more ambiguous and therefore are still mysterious wondrous creatures. Women, because most of us are women, view the female characters with a jaundiced eye, perhaps already pre-judging them before the book is even opened.
We assume we have an intuitive grasp of how female characters think and feel, and our expectations of them are much higher, because our expectations for ourselves are quite high. As the commenters on Jane’s post point out: there is some serious internalized sexism in effect here. Women are more critical of other women because everyone is more critical of women, period. We’re socially conditioned to judge ourselves harshly, to never be satisfied, to always want to be prettier, thinner, nicer, more pleasing, etc.
A male character can be cold or angry and readers will excuse it because he had a tragic past; a female character who’s cold or angry, however, tends to get labeled a bitch. A male character who’s arrogant and cocky is lauded for his confidence; a female character who’s arrogant and cocky is branded uppity, snobby, and the ubiquitous bitchy.
Moral of the story: we sure do like to find ways to label other women bitches.
On the topic of bitchiness and unlikable heroines, the excellent Heroine Week at Romance Around the Corner contains this gem: Flawed Heroines and the Likability Standard. Author Rebecca Rogers Maher points out the huge divide in reader expectations along genre lines:
In a recent interview about her novel, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud was asked whether anyone would want to be friends with her angry heroine, Nora. Messud responded with an outraged, “What kind of question is that?” She suggested that it would never be asked of a male author, about a male character, and that it was not necessary to be friends with a character in order to be moved by her.
Rebecca makes a compelling argument for seeing more “unlikable” or, simply, more realistic heroines in romance. An unlikable, even reprehensible character can still be worthwhile to read about—witness the enduring popularity of Lolita. Obviously Lolita is not a romance, but romance can take a cue from literary fiction here: realism is good. Sometimes, realism is what romance readers want. This is a huge reason why I love New Adult: genre conventions are much less strict in NA romance compared to traditional romance. NA is rife with seriously flawed, fucked-up characters in dark and gritty situations. Psychological damage is the trait du jour.
But it’s tragic if, as one commenter suggests, romance readers only read for heroes, not for heroines. Do we really want our heroines to be blank slates and vacuous paper dolls? I sure as hell don’t. I read romance—and all types of fiction—for realistic people, period. Only flawed characters are capable of growth and change. A flawless character is stagnant; they may be easy to like in a bland, inoffensive way, but they inspire no great passion or compassion from me. Give me your flawed heroines, your cocky ladies, your selfish bitches, yearning to be themselves.
What do you think? Are women too hard on other women? Do you want to see flawed, unlikable characters in romance?