Ever have one of those months in which several disparate threads from different aspects of your life all suddenly seem to be part of the same cloth? I’m having one right now. The recent truly excellent articles by carol and alex combined with the current interwebs-fueled firestorm over ‘fake geek girls’ and the collective cognitive failure of the Texas legislature have combined to give me some deeper insight into why I so dislike the ever-growing trend of the ‘kick-ass’ Romance heroine. More specifically, the way ‘kick-ass’ has become the default instead of ‘strong’.
The kick-ass heroine possesses at least moderate physical skill, often carries a weapon, and tends towards snark. She’s usually in leather clothing and/or stompy boots (and probably has a tattoo or two). To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with any of those attributes, taken singly or even together. But the combination is now so prevalent that it’s become the standard of ‘strong heroine’ when it is only one example of what is truly an infinite variety -and not the most interesting at that. The clothes, the one-liners, the boots: those are just accessories. A character isn’t strong because of how tough she looks, or talks, or even how many punches she takes: she is strong because of what she does.
Strong is a huge and diverse descriptor. Strong is telling your colleagues they’re complete jackwagons (even if they cheat their way to ‘victory’ in the end). It’s a funny video decrying the idea of having to defend your geek cred. Strong is challenging your family and culture in order to claim the future, not just for yourself but also for others. Strong is getting up again. And again, as long as it takes.
Strong has many faces. When we move past the limitations of ‘kick-ass’ we find acts of strength everywhere: in public acts and in private; in large feats and in small gestures. Romance heroines come in all kinds of strong… because they’re about all kinds of women. Here are just a few examples of just how different strong can look and act.
During my tenure at the Gutter I’ve said several times that the central point of modern Romance novels is not that women want to be rescued but that men are capable of change. Usually at the hands of the heroine, or at least through the results of their interaction. That’s why the alpha male trope is so popular: he has the longest, toughest journey to enlightenment*. The ability to provoke evolution of that most stubborn of substances, the adult human male: what is that if not strength?
I’m not talking about tricking people into better behaviour: that never lasts. But to be the kind of person who inspires other people to change their behaviours of their own accord. Mentors do that for us at work, should we be lucky enough to have them. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is the epitome of that kind of education. Jessica is capable, competent and self-possessed. Dain is infinitely wealthy, powerful and used to getting his own way in all things, and he is fascinated with her. He has never had a problem he did not knock down or buy off. But since neither of those are options when it comes to Jessica, he has to learn new ways of coping. And learn he does, in a process that takes him through past pain into healing and wholeness.
Generosity of spirit is one of those strengths that doesn’t look like it from the outside. It comes from those heroines who always have more to give. By which I definitely do NOT mean martyrs, but rather women who constantly raise the mood of those around them. If you think that doesn’t sound like strength, try cheering up an invalid for weeks at a time. Or keeping a team of intelligent-but-occasionally-erratic programmers on task and on budget. Or coming home from work frayed to the bone and weary beyond belief and never taking that out on your kids.
Maggie’s Man, by Alicia Scott, illustrates that kind of strength. When Maggie reports for jury duty, she is kidnapped by Cain, a convicted felon with one last chance to clear his name. His childhood and recent past have made Cain a man who trusts no one, but the more time he spends with Maggie the more he realizes that his future can be different. Because Maggie, who is terrified, physically fearful and easily made to cry, is also boundlessly generous to everyone around her. Her warmth, caring, and ability to forgive and move on undaunted by past betrayals brings spring back into a soul Cain had long thought lost to winter.
I’m big on characters growing and changing. In fact, I demand it. I don’t mind if a character is emotionally isolated and prickly at the beginning of a book or series but if she doesn’t evolve along the way the fault is with her, not with those around her. Growth involves knowing who you are and who you want to be, and then starting that journey from the former to the latter. And it is hard – anyone who has tried to change a habit can attest to that. But so, so worth it.
Cassie Connor, the heroine of The Heart of Devin McKade by Nora Roberts, demonstrates an amazing rate of growth. We actually meet Cassie, a small town woman with two kids and an abusive husband, as a minor character in two earlier books in the ‘McKade Brothers’ series. By the beginning of Heart, third in the series, Cassie is divorced, shell-shocked, and putting her life back together. Devin McKade is the town sheriff, and has loved Cassie for years. Watching them come together is pulse-pounding stuff.
What makes is so exciting is seeing just how much Cassie changes over the course of the series and her book. She leaves her marriage to protect her children, but once out she begins to realize that she’s allowed to protect herself as well. She gets a job, makes new friends, and cuts ties to a poisonous family member. Then to cap it off, she develops the courage to fall in love with another man. It’s an extraordinary journey, the kind only the truly strong can make.
Sometimes strength is another word for endurance. We all know that one: those fraught periods at work that we just have to get through; the long days of February when we begin to wonder if the sun will ever shine again; the way we survive loss and sorrow and just keep going until it doesn’t hurt as much.
Eve Dallas, from the ‘In Death’ books by J.D. Robb, is one of my favourite examples of endurance as strength. She survived a monstrous childhood and a bleak adolescence to become a champion of justice. That can of strength can become rigid and brittle: Eve learns to unbend enough to let people in. She turns a horrible past into a strong foundation onto which she builds a magnificent life.
But it is in Magic Flutes, by Eva Ibbotson, that I found what still remains for me the best example of the innate strength of endurance. Tessa, the wardrobe mistress of a small Viennese opera company, is really a princess and the owner of Castle Pfaffenstein. Guy is the fabulously wealthy Englishman sent to help Austria with the League of Nations. He buys Pfaffenstein and hires Tessa’s opera company. Zaniness ensues, in inimitable post-WWI Austrian style.
Towards the end there is a scene in which Guy and Tessa, deeply in love but unable to be together, see one another for what each thinks is the last time. They meet not in any of the splendid theatres or salons the city has to offer but in a simple cemetery, in front of the grave of a Frau Richter who died almost decades before. Tessa shows Guy the inscription, which contains the names of the family members who predeceased Frau Richter: her husband and all five of her children.
And Tessa, who thinks love is lost, says: “When things get bad… I think of Frau Richter who just went on living and living after all those children had died. Look, she lived to be seventy-five! Think of all the Bertha Richters in here… you can feel their courage, somehow, coming up through the ground.”
Yes. All those Bertha Richters. All those women who wake up every day in a world that wants them to think their lives and choices are subject to inspection and ridicule, and who still manage to do what needs to be done. That’s strong.
The leather jacket is entirely optional.
*Another thread that came together for me was a recent tumblr post I happened across in which a Romance reader talks about her annoyance with men who dismiss the books and women who read them as “mincing girl(s) that want to be dominated”. Her reponse was priceless:
“If you ever read the second half… you’d realize that being attracted to powerful men is just the first part of a two-step plan. The second step is to completely fucking annihilate him.” (The full quote can be found here)
Chris Szego thinks you’re all strong. Stronger than you think.