Feb 8 2012 9:30am

Why Can’t It Be Snakes?: Flawed Heroines

Ana Farris in What’s Your Number?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.

Katherine Heigl in One for the MoneyShe’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.

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Darlene Marshall
1. DarleneMarshall
Preach it, sister! I've suspected this trend is a way of making women less threatening to male audiences, even at points infantilizing them--klutzy, messy, sloppy = uncoordinated childlike behavior.

One of the things I loved about the movie Legally Blonde was how the character was constantly undervalued and misunderstood for the opposite reason--she looked pink and fluffy, but had amazing strength and sense of self-worth, knew who she was and reveled in it.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
What great food for thought. This has definitely bothered me before in literature and in movies, though I've never worked through it like this. You and @darlenemarshall make excellent points, and all I can really think to add is...I totally agree!

@darlenemarshall --
she looked pink and fluffy, but had amazing strength and sense of self-worth, knew who she was and reveled in it.
YES. And that's the type of heroine I like to see, no matter how she looks. Well said.
Anna Bowling
3. AnnaBowling
I haven't seen Legally Blonde, but now I may have to hunt it down. I love to see a heroine who is capable and creative and strong and hey, why can't she like pretty dresses, too?
Vanessa Ouadi
4. Lafka
Wonderful post, kudos! I agree with darlenemarshall, I think it has probably something to do with not making the heroine too threatening for a male's virility. Given that most romance readers are probably women though, mh let's just say that it gives more credibility to the story (on top of course of adding some spice to the plot, whether suspense or sexual tension).
After all, do you know many men who, phsyical attraction put aside, would consider spending their life with a woman who just doesn't need them ? When I say "need" here, I refer to all those things that are traditionnally associated with men such as bringing home money or fixing broken things. Emotional need is not at stake here. Pretty much the same way that the hero, not matter how cold and bad ass he can be, must show at least a weakness and/or soft spot for the heroine to reconsider her previous bad opinion on him ; the strong heroine must show, from time to time, one or more flaws, like clumsiness, for the hero to feel comforted in the fact that yes she's a female after all, so she needs a man to support her.

I'm clumsy (given that I wear quite exclusively Converse and never run after werewolves or jump from buildings, I can only assume this is linked to some genetical flaw more than ill-adapted equipment) and quite messy myself (so many things, I don't have enough spare space to order them, lol), so I won't throw the stone at those kick-ass heroines. That actually doesn't bother me much in novels _ except if it is so blindingly obvious that the heroine will fall and the hero will step in because that would be soooo convenient, it actually kills all the suspense and trepidation.
Christopher Morgan
5. cmorgan
Though I don't agree on the whole Katniss as a strong character point, she kinda falls a part at the end, but that is another discussion for another day. I do REALLY like your points and the senntiment on Legally Blonde.

One of the reasons Joss Whedon is as celebrated as he is is becasue of Buffy being kick-ass AND a cheerleader, I guess her downfall was poor judgment in guys maybe?

It's kinda sad that the character that kind of sparked UF and PNR heroines, not counting Ripley or Sarah Conner, is very rarely recreated.
Heather Waters
6. HeatherWaters
I'm loving this conversation!

Something else just occurred to me:

I'm currently re-reading Kristin Cashore's Graceling, in which the heroine, Katsa, is insanely kick-ass. Just an awesome character (IMO). The hero, Po, is a little beta compared to her but holds his own and could definitely be an alpha if he so chose (for instance, as he tells Katsa at one point, she's the better hunter, and that's cool--he doesn't feel the need to prove himself capable as well). Anyway, so I adore these two because I see them as well matched in every way.

But. But it got me thinking about how often, in my experience at least, a kick-ass heroine is paired up with a really beta hero. In The Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss saves Peeta numerous times, and I never got the impression that he was really her equal (though I am pretty biased, since I was Team Gale when I read). And in the end, Katniss explains that she chose Peeta because "what I need to survive is not Gale's fire...I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring."

So I guess I'm wondering why too why there aren't more pairings in Romance with kick-ass heroines AND heroes (both with flaws but not demeaning flaws). Is it the opposites attract idea, or something else?
Heather Waters
7. HeatherWaters
@cmorgan -- Hmm, maybe I shouldn't have used Katniss as my example either. She did fall apart in the end, so her reasons for picking Peeta in the end might not have much to do with the way she was in the beginning/in her first Games. Also, rock on with your Buffy example! ITA.
Tori Benson
What a great article. I just recently finished a book where the author attempted (I'm assuming here) to endear the heroine to us mere mortals by having her belittle herself every time someone complemented her. By the end of the book I was literally screaming for her to just once say, "Thank you," and leave it at that. When the hero interially summerizes that not only is his love good at everything but also humble-I admit I gagged alittle.

It was if she could only be such a fantastic person as long as she didn't acknowlege it.
Marian DeVol
9. ladyengineer
Joanna, unfortunately I am also old enough to remember those Virginia Slims commercials. ;-p

Heyer's The Devil's Cub has long been a favorite of mine.

I was introduced to Georgette Heyer as a freshman in high school by a classmate who was later in one of Yale's first classes to admit women (her older sister went to MIT - BOTH of them got perfect SAT scores but my friend was more well rounded being on the school's tennis team, LOL). Talk about your alpha females.

To my shame, I succumbed to the brief insanity of reading Barbara Cartland's romances until I just got so bored with her cookie-cutter, milk toast heroines.

I agree, heroines shouldn't have to be klutzy or otherwise juvenile (sloppy, etc.) in order to have interesting, believable flaws. Fear of snakes would be good, but not really necessary.

@cmorgan's Buffy example is a case in point. Her flaws/vulnerabilities stem IMO from normal teenager angst and the natural physical/emotional isolation brought about by her extraordinary abilities.

One recent UF/PNR example of a successful alpha male/alpha female hookup is Lauren Dane's Heart of Darkness.

My observation of real life (friends, colleagues, etc.) has shown that two strong, alpha types can form a strong bond, a lasting partnership and have a romantic HEA if they're willing to negotiate life's areas of control. Or are willing to trade-off! ;->
Vanessa Ouadi
10. Lafka
@Torifl : that's such a MarySue behaviour, acting as if you were humble when the simple fact that you want to prove humble means that you're not. Of course it will depend on how the author writes that down, but I definitely can understand that it'll become annoying at some point!

@redline_ : hum, from what I've witnessed in "real life", many couples are built with one strong personnality and a more easy-going one. The few couples around me where both partners have a strong personnality can literally spark fire.
In fiction, I would love to see such a couple but it will probably be difficult to make it plausible that they don't kill each other at some point. A couple comes to my mind though, where the heroine is probably not a kick-ass per se, but she's a rather strong-tempered character ; and the hero is definitely an alpha male : Kate and Anthony in Julia Quinn's Bridgertons. I loved them, the way they just throw cutting remarks at each other again and again, until they finally came to respect the other in some twisted way (too bad Kate kinda softened her temper after they actually got married, the end of the book was thusly less intersting, IMHO).

@cmorgan : Buffy is a really great example! I loved that character, really, but what bothered me was that there was a real contrast between the "usual Buffy" (how she interacts with her friends, how she kicks demonic asses, how she saves the world) and the "in a relashionship Buffy" (I've always thought that Buffy kind of lost her wits when she was with a guy _ Angel or Riley mostly _ I don't know how to explain it but that was weird).
Marian DeVol
11. ladyengineer
@Lafka - Thank you for your clarification of @cmorgan's comment on "relationship Buffy" vs. her "normal" behavior. I agree with both of you that Buffy in love did not have the best judgement, nor was she very rational.
Christopher Morgan
12. cmorgan
But really, a weakness to fall into poisioness relationships, be it an emotionally distant partner (Angel), one who feels that you immasculate him with your success (Riley), or...well.. *cough* rapist *cough* (spike) is a REAL world problem facing a lot of folks. Being Clumsy or messy seems like a lazy cop-out in comparison.
Nancy Herkness
13. Nancy Herkness
Fabulous post, Joanna! I agree with oh-so-many of your points. And Mary Challoner is my all-time favorite Heyer heroine. I re-read the scene where she shoots Vidal whenever I need a pick-me-up. Just spectacular!
Joanna Novins
14. JoannaNovins
Thanks Nancy! (And the rest of you guys.) Love Devil's Cub, one of the few books I reread. Alas, reread These Old Shades and it didn't quite hold up :(.

Have to re-examine Legally Blonde. I like it. Enjoy how the heroine proves she's smart and capable beneath the pink and fluff, but there are still stereotypes that rub me the wrong way. Why are smart girls so often portrayed as humorless and/or mean (smacks of the stereotype that portrays feminists as humorless...)
Vanessa Ouadi
15. Lafka
When it comes to Legally Blonde, I'm afraid I don't share your opinion, ladies. Don't get me wrong, I loved the movie (the first one, that is), but I've always felt like the character, yes, was smarter than what she lets on, but at the end of the day, every "smart" thing she does or finds out is not because she's clever but because it is somehow related to her way of life.
I found it rather counterproductive for example that Elle revealed a witness lied because of a pair of shoes, or exposed the murderer because of a perm. Of course those were elements that nobody else in the team could have found, because fashion is definitely not what they occupy themselves with, but I didn't think that it helped much to prove that Elle was a brilliant lawyer. It kind of disappointed me, given precisely that I loved how determined to prove herself she was all along the movie.
Marian DeVol
16. ladyengineer
@cmorgan - I agree Buffy's tendency for poisonous relationships exhibits better, more three dimensional (& more "real world") writing than the laziness of mere heroine clumsiness. It adds depth and satisfying complexity to Buffy's character and took some effort to make believable which simple heroine sloth doesn't.

@Joanna - I first read Devil's Cub (and its prequel These Old Shades) more than 30 years ago and continue to reread both of them every few years or so. They are two of my favorites. With my most recent reread, I finally saw echoes of Léonie's touchy temper in how Vidal loses his with Mary C. when she "reveals" the trick that she and her sister supposedly played on him. Since he also inherited (or learned) a bit of his father's ruthlessness, I better understand his mindset in forcing Mary aboard his yacht.
Marian DeVol
17. ladyengineer
@Joanna - I meant to ask - are any of your own historical romances in print or am I going to have to haunt or my local used book store? ;->
Joanna Novins
18. JoannaNovins
Ladyengineer, aren't you a love to ask. Both my books, French Revolution historicals (The Souvenir Countess and Souvenir of Love) are out of print. You can find them on Amazon, ebay, etc. I am working on epublishing them, but am also editing a prequel to the series (American Revolution ). Should be done...soon.
19. wsl0612
What about Kresley Cole's series? I think there are plenty of Alpha/Alpha couples (at least as far as I think of them). I also think we need a Barbara Cartland discussion day ;-) I don't recall the book title but I clearly recall the one scene where the "hero" tells the "heroine" that if she ever reddens her lips he'll beat her, and of course she breathlessly agrees, ggrrr!!
Joanna Novins
20. JoannaNovins
Oh dear, to write a Cartland blog I'd have to a) find one and b) reread it. Read them in middle school (a friend and I would get together and read romance, and yes, we were uber nerds). I have a great memory for plots, but as I recall they all kind of blended together, usually featuring a wide-eyed clueless but plucky virgin, an arrogant rake, and threats of rape. Covers featured weirdly pinched face heroines in white, back featured the aging Cartland in pink with dogs (little white ones as I recall).
Marian DeVol
21. ladyengineer
I either threw out or gave away the many Cartland romances I had years ago. For me, plot details blurred after awhile - they were much of a sameness. Pretty much all of her heroines were identical - a naive/innocent virgin, sweet, tearily brave in the face of the threats of rape, and totally in love with the arrogant rake (usually the source of the rape threats) - i.e. TSFW, too silly for words or TSTL, too stupid/silly to live.

There was one I vaguely remember where either the heroine's name or assumed alias was Desirée where she seduced her husband with the aid of a courtesan. The book's title was a play on that name. In overall plot it was similar to Mary Balogh's debut novel, A Masked Deception (1985), published later, but Balogh did it much better and more believably.
Nancy Herkness
22. Mo
Well, I am a total klutz - to the point where it used to be the running joke that my SO beat me because I had bruises popping up everywhere and never knew how I got them. I also hate housekeeping of any sort and therefore and terribly messy! Now if I just had a superpower, I'd be all set. lol

But seriously, unless it is used as a way to make the man rescue her, who cares, imo? So, she has the "traditional" worry at the last minute, but generally doesn't care about whether the house looks clean. Sounds pretty familiar to me.

As for Cartland, I glommed her for years (high school mostly) but today only one book stands out and that was one in which the female protag runs away from her stepmother back to England by dying her skin dark. Her father was a military man of some sort and her grandparents have to wait for a while before letting her out in society because whatever she used to dye her skin seemed to take a long time to come back off. She seemed pretty capable to me. :) I can't for the life of me remember the title now, just the basics. Go figure!
Joanna Novins
23. JoannaNovins
Trust me me Mo, if you could see my house, or any of my attempts at athleticism (see above bio about SEALs and training equipment), you'd know I have nothing against slobs or klutzes. But I am annoyed by heroines who trip and fall into the hero's arms, or villains (and so need to be rescued) or who happen to leave out lacy lingerie and handcuffs. (Would have to think about whether I'd find grannypanties and a gun as obviously contrived .)
Nancy Herkness
24. JMH
Very clever and lucid review.
Reagrding the attempted rape scene, oh dear, yuk, yuk, yuk! I haven't read any of these Heyer novels for years, but I remember being disgusted at fourteen that a man who is a potential rapist is portrayed as romantic. OK, Heyer wrote that stuff sometime in the thirties when the attitude was that 'it's just men's nature' but nobody who has ever been threatened by rape in real life by any man however attractive, is going to find this anything but horrible...
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