Back in the 1980s, novels like Judith McNaught’s historicals ranked at the top of the charts. They had intrigue, they had excitement, they had heroines in gorgeous (albeit historically-suspect) gowns, as well as heaps and heaps of drama.
They also had extremely aggressive and dominating heroes who often were, for the lack of a better word, misogynists. Take some of McNaught’s most popular novels—Until You, Whitney My Love, and Something Wonderful. Stephen, Clayton, and Jordan are wealthy, handsome, and powerful; but they dismiss women as grasping chits who care only for money, status, and frivolous finery. They continually suspect the intentions of their own heroines on the basis of their femininity, resulting in Big Misunderstandings that fuel much of their novels’ drama.
No one can say that McNaught’s novels are boring—whether you are reading or hate-reading them, they are impossible to put down until the final page. But the virtues of McNaught’s heroes have been hotly contested in romance circles ever since. Hate-readers often cite the heroes’ misogyny as the novels’ main drawback. But fans assert that, despite their misogyny, McNaught’s heroes are still compelling, interesting and entertaining characters—even though some readers do add the apologetic footnote of “these books were written in a different time.”
But does that mean that heroes written in today’s “more enlightened” cultural climate cannot be misogynists? Is it impossible to have a sexist hero without a sexist novel? Or without the novel supporting sexist ideas?