Today we're thrilled to welcome Kilby Blades (Snapdragon) to Heroes and Heartbreakers. The landscape of female desire, gender politics, and societal expectations of women have changed a lot over the decades since the romance genre as we know it took shape. However, that change is not always reflected in the books we read. Kilby is here to unpack a little of the psychology and history between the “traditional” heroine and the changing values of our society. Thanks, Kilby!
It’s everywhere in contemporary romance—the first comes love, then comes marriage happily ever after. Even heroines who seem supremely independent tend to end up pushing baby carriages by the end. The modern heroine has achieved much compared to her fictional predecessors—gainful employment, sexual liberation, and the freedom to choose her own mate. Yet, the she remains afflicted by a puzzling characterization: a want for traditional things.
At least 19th and 20th century leading ladies had a good excuse. The scandal of unsanctioned courtship and the threat of financial instability justified a suitable marriage as a fitting goal. Parallel themes, such as overcoming bad matches (as in Gone with the Wind, The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights), fittingly portray disenfranchised heroines who suffer the circumstances that keep them from freedom or love.
These themes may have been appropriate to earlier times, but have become anachronistic. In 2014, Time Magazine reported that 25% of Millennials will never get married. In 2015, The Washington Post cited a prediction that the marriage rate would drop to 6.7% the following year. The Pew Research center has shown a clear narrowing in the pay gap between women and men since 1980. Yet, somehow, contemporary romance authors haven’t gotten the memo.
A scan through the less flattering reviews of some of the most iconic romances of the past decade shows patterns. The Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight series’ come to mind. The intention to show empowered women falls flat when heroines vacillate between demonstrating a sense of agency and shrinking in the presence of questionable men.
And about those men…male characterizations are another source of heartburn for readers sensitive to gender roles. Male leads are almost always richer, better-educated, more highly-employed, and more socially powerful than their female counterparts. Indeed, the millionaire/billionaire and alpha male romances are currently among the most popular tropes.
While many readers abandon these kinds of series and flame them in reviews, hundreds of millions of others find enough redeeming qualities to forge ahead. Among those who finish these series are two subsets: those who truly loved the books and others who saw clear opportunities for authors to have made different character choices. Overall, most readers seem willing to commit to books in spite of problematic gender characterizations, a fact that presents a quandary for publishers and authors alike. Because, no matter what the reviews might say, these traditional happily ever afters sell.
This might be a good time to tell you that I am not immune to their appeal and I’m not advocating for books like this to go away. I myself have chosen a traditional path (marriage and children) and part of what I get from books who show people unlike me is the opportunity to escape. Most alpha heroes I’ve encountered in romance novels would be insufferable in real life, but their glorified appeal can’t be denied in a well-crafted book. The bad boy, the handsome prince, and the cowboy all have a place on my bookshelf. But there is also space for heroines who flaunt the hard-earned power modern times would credibly allow them to claim.
So, where are these women and why aren’t more authors writing them? As a powerful woman, I take issue with not seeing myself reflected in contemporary books. I am equally as educated as my husband (both of us have graduate degrees), I was born into a higher social class than him, and I out-earned him by between $10,000 and $60,000 annually for five of the past ten years. I am the one who flies off on week-long business trips while he stays home and manages his job and our kids. I read what is available, but my true wish is to find more books that feature people like me.
But it’s not just about me—there’s a darker side to this. We need to come to terms with what we’re feeding into when we celebrate weaker heroines. When we surrender to fictional worlds in which the women are “less than” the men in all aspects of their lives, we are feeding ourselves a damaging lie with each conforming romance we read.
So, here’s what I came to tell you: strong women don’t diminish strong men. A more equitable power balance in contemporary romance novels won’t threaten strong stories. And the power blindly given to men in otherwise formidable books is often superfluous to the potential of the plot.
These power imbalances reduce not only the women to a place that is beneath their ability—it reduces the men, too. When we show men who are incapable of strong emotions other than in anger and sex, we are failing the men we love—our fathers, our boyfriends, our husbands and partners, who are vulnerable at times, and who advocate for and nurture us.
So, let’s crack this thing open. Let’s commit to greater modernism and diversity in contemporary romance—and by diversity, I mean diversity of experience. Let’s hold publishers and media outlets accountable for promoting these kinds of books. Let’s show men and women in abroad spectrum of roles and, in doing so, let’s create even more space around the kinds of stories these characterizations invite us to tell.
Learn more about or order a copy of Snapdragon by Kilby Blades, available now:
Kilby Blades is a business executive by day, a writer of smart contemporary fiction by night, a lover of words and an admirer of the artists who arrange them cleverly. These days, most of what she reads is on audiobook (because, whose hands are free long enough to turn pages?) She's a mother of two, an oenophile, a cinephile, and above all else, a hopeless fic fiend.
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