I’m old enough to remember when Pop Warner cheerleading was the only sport girls could play, when female doctors and lawyers were rare as hen’s teeth, and “you’ve come a long way baby” was an ad campaign designed to get women to smoke more cigarettes.
When it came to heroines in popular fiction, girls were faced with a choice between the sickly sweet Nancy Drew and passive sidekicks like Maid Marion, who never got to wield a sword or shoot an arrow. Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub holds a special place in my heart because it was the first novel I read with a strong, proactive heroine; when threatened with rape, Mary Challoner pulls a gun and shoots the hero. (Just think how short Barbara Cartland novels would have been if her heroines did that every time the heroes threatened them with rape.)
I love that this generation of girls is growing up with the strong heroines created by great writers like Tamora Pierce and Suzanne Collins. I couldn’t be more thrilled by the emergence of the kick-butt heroine.
(There always has to be a but, doesn’t there?)
I understand that heroes and heroines must have flaws (otherwise they’d be too perfect to identify with and too irritating to live). Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, kryptonite makes Superman sick, and Achilles has his heel (am I the only one who wonders why didn’t his mother double dip him?). Still, I can’t help noticing that all too often today’s kick-ass heroines are given flaws that are…well…demeaning.
She’s smart, she’s beautiful, she can fight—she may even have supernatural powers, but…(drum roll please)… she’s a klutz! Yes, despite our heroine’s ability to leap and/or scale tall buildings, somehow she’s always tripping and falling at critical moments (usually when the villain or the hero appears). If it’s the hero, she can also be counted on to a) fall first into his crotch b) expose some part of her anatomy or lingerie or c) spill lingerie or sex toys out of her purse. The hero usually waggles his eyebrows knowingly or tosses out a sexual innuendo worthy of a horny middle schooler and the heroine flounces off in an aroused huff.
She’s sexy; she’s got an incredible body that causes entire police forces/flocks of vampires/packs of werewolves to stare opened mouthed when she passes by. And yet, she has the eating habits of a guy in a beer commercial—pizza, donuts, tacos, and wings. And of course, she never gains weight.
She’s a slob. (Not a hoarder-type slob, just a run of the mill slob.) I’ve got nothing against slobs, I live with teenage boys. And I get that being a kick-ass heroine is hard work and time consuming. Who has time to clean? But if I read one more romance where the heroine worries about what the hero will think when he sees the lace camisole and handcuffs thrown over a chair in her bedroom or a red lace bra/black lace bra/thong on the floor, I might scream.
I suspect that such character flaws are meant to signal that the modern-day kick-ass heroine will not be defined by traditional stereotypes. She doesn’t care about clothes or fashion; her falls are often caused by trying to walk in an unfamiliar tight mini-skirt or run in stilettos. She eats junk food because she’s unconcerned with body image. Domestic skills are unimportant to her, because her goal in life isn’t to become a homemaker.
And yet, I can’t help wondering, whatever happened to the woman in the 1970s Enjoli commercial who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man? Perhaps it’s because ensuing generations of women discovered that while you may want it all, it’s pretty damn hard to do it all. Still, why must the modern day heroine get a pie in the face for trying?
To paraphrase Indiana Jones, why can’t it be snakes?
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.