Mar 14 2013 3:30pm

Men are from Mars: The Art of Writing Misogynists

Until You by Judith McNaughtBack 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?

Loretta Chase indicates this isn’t the case. Take Lord of Scoundrels; its hero, Dain, restricts his feminine company to whores because he believes all women are ultimately sluts but at least prostitutes are upfront about it. Vere, from Chase’s The Last Hellion, becomes obsessed with besting a crusading female journalist in order to punish her for daring to believe herself the equal of a man.

And yet neither Lord of Scoundrels nor The Last Hellion have sparked the level of debate and controversy that McNaught’s novels have. What separates Chase’s woman-hating heroes from McNaught’s woman-hating heroes?

First, You Need a Strong Heroine:

In a previous article of mine, “How Alpha Is Too Alpha,” I hypothesized how a hero’s aggression and forcefulness are easier to tolerate in romances where there is an equal power balance between the hero and heroine. An aggressive hero paired with a fierce heroine creates an entertaining battle. An aggressive hero paired with a weak, submissive heroine results in an exploitative bloodbath.

McNaught’s heroines tend to be sheltered innocents who exist within limited, often rustic social spheres. The agency of McNaught’s heroines lies in their ability to submit, forgive, and endure. A mere forty pages after being kidnapped, assaulted, and raped by Clayton, Whitney travels to his country house and begs him to take her back. Something Wonderful’s Alexandra is physically assaulted by Jordan—and a few pages later, takes a bullet to the head for him. Within the contexts of the novels, these actions are indicators of their bravery and selflessness.To readers less enamoured with McNaught’s oeuvre, these novels appear to reward rapists and wife batterers.

With Loretta Chase’s novels, after The Last Hellion’s Vere steals a kiss from Lydia Grenville, she responds by knocking him flat on his ass with a single punch. In Lord of Scoundrels, Jessica uses her cunning to turn Dain’s seduction attempt into a public display of affection. These heroines do not submit; instead, they fight back. In Chase’s novels, both the hero and the heroine are fighting for equal stakes since they both risk losing face when they do battle, resulting in a more balanced power dynamic.

Secondly, The Narrative Should Not Support the Misogynist:

TThe Last Hellion by Loretta Chasehis is the kicker. Well-developed characters need to have flaws—their own particular prejudices, hang-ups, and misconceptions about the world around them that arise from their upbringing and personal development.

You can have a racist character, for instance, without your novel being racist. As long as the larger narrative indicates that it does not support the character’s racism, by using non-racist points of view, for instance, then a particular character’s prejudices are dissociated from the book’s overall morals and themes.

The easiest way to accomplish this in a novel with a misogynist hero is to write a bunch of strong female characters who, by their mere presence, disprove the hero’s beliefs. With The Last Hellion, we not only have Lydia (who is a force unto herself), but also her staunch ally Tamsin Prideaux and the clever courtesan Helena Martin. Secondly, the novel further dissociates itself from Vere’s initially sexist views by demonstrating how much of an emotional screw-up he is—even his closest friends (like Lord of Scoundrels’ Dain) acknowledge how far he’s fallen.

Unfortunately, in McNaught’s novels, the use of the female characters tends to reinforce the righteousness of the hero’s misogyny. Women are frequently villains in McNaught’s novels—like Jordan’s promiscuous mother and murderous aunt from Something Wonderful, or Stephen’s ex in Until You who tried to manipulate him into murdering her husband. In Until You, Whitney, and Something Wonderful all together, there is only one male villain—Jordan’s cousin who conspires with his aunt to try and murder him.

This may not be intentional; McNaught’s novels thrive on high emotional drama (secrets, intrigue, and lies) rather than physical drama (swords, guns, and explosions). Most of the obstacles come from Big Misunderstandings that are fueled or instigated by jealousy, greed, or bitterness—which makes it just as easy for women as it is for men to provide obstacles to our protagonists’ happiness. However, to an outsider’s perspective, when the vast majority of life-ruiners in McNaught’s novels are women, it legitimizes the hero’s views that all women (except for a precious few) really are slutty, scheming, emotionally shallow creatures.

Thirdly, He Can’t Be a Misogynist by the End of the Novel:

This, ultimately, is what the controversy around McNaught’s novels comes down to. Her standard hero falls in love with the heroine after spending the novel discovering just how unlike every other woman the heroine is—wow! She doesn’t care about status? Wow! She’s hasn’t slept with a barn full of stable hands? Wow, she isn’t vain and petty and jealous like all my ex-mistresses?

The hero doesn’t learn to love women from loving the heroine—the hero learns to love the heroine because she is unlike other women. She serves as the exception that proves his personal, misogynistic rule.

This differs widely from Loretta Chase’s heroes Vere and Dain. Their prejudices are not portrayed as aspects of their characters or as indicators of their Alpha Masculinity, but as personal flaws to overcome with the help of their heroines. In Scoundrels, Dain does everything he can to push Jessica away, because he’s convinced that all women are bound to leave him the same way his mother did. Jessica not only doesn’t leave, she fights back, smashing Dain’s misogyny to bits in the process. At the end of the novel, he even comes to understand and forgive his mother for abandoning him.

With Vere, he despises having been bested by a woman, only to learn that the constant challenge of keeping up with Lydia makes him a better man than he’s ever been.

This does not mean that McNaught’s novels are intended as misogynist, merely that they are easier to interpret as misogynist. All her heroes love their heroines (sometimes to the point of madness), and all of them eventually realize how special their heroines are, how badly they’ve misjudged them, and they make genuine attempts to grovel and apologize.

However, using Loretta Chase’s novels as examples, there are more effective ways to present a flawed protagonist within a sympathetic context, using a more balanced distribution of power, stronger female characters, and deeper character development.


Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.

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1. pamelia
Yes! All of what you said.
I would also add that no one is harder on women than other women, so maybe (possibly) McNaught has something like that going in her books. Nothing makes some women feel more at ease with their own lives than tearing down other women who live differently -- so, maybe some of us enjoy reading about and identifying with that "special flower" of femininity who can make even the most misogynistic "hero" love her.
I think also that McNaught seems to me to write from the gut and her books ooze strife and emotion, but I think Chase is a much more cerebral writer who is very cognizant of the subtext of her work. This isn't to put McNaught down -- as much as I loathed "Whitney My Love" I would put "Paradise" and "Perfect" in my top 25 romance novels of all time --- just to say they have very different approaches and talents.
Jena Briars
2. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
@Elizabeth Vail (Brilliant post!) and @pamelia have you read McNaught's Perfect? I have it (but haven't read it yet) and now I'm worried it's going to be a frightening Stockholm Syndrome abduction romance...

Along the three main points you brought up, another author who (very recently) made me think, "Misogyny - you're doing it right" was Jayne Fresina. While reading The Wicked Wedding of Miss Ellie Vyne - I first thought the hero was a massive prick, but then - I realized it was all folding together very neatly - and it has everything this article points out: strong heroine not taking crap, non-mysoginist narrator, and a reformed hero in the HEA.
3. Mary Jean Adams
For me, the worst pairing is a misogynist hero with a heroine in search of a father figure. (Actually, maybe those two deserve each other now that I think about it.) I can't stand it when writers try to create feisty characters who simly come across as petulant and immature.
4. Ainsley
Great post and excellent points. I grew up reading Judith McNaught and adore her books. But I haven't returned to them in a long time, probably because of the reasons you have laid out. The heroes' redemptions are more in the form of them realizing how special/awesome each heroine is, and possibly being less jaded about the world in general too. Still, I think context is important and McNaught's handling of misogynist themes was not unusual for romance during the 1980s. And, at the very least, her writing was fabulous. Again, great post.
Darlene Marshall
5. DarleneMarshall
This is a great essay! Thank you, Ms. Vail, for encapsulating much of what makes these themes work, or not work. The contrast of Chase and McNaught is perfect, and helped me understand as a reader why I responded so strongly to both authors in such a different fashion.
6. Sabrina Jeffries
Fabulous blog! I cut my teeth on Judith McNaught and still have all those books, but I also adore Loretta Chase, and lately I prefer her heroines. I've often wondered why Lord of Scoundrels feels different even though it has the classic alpha hero, and I'd gone as far as to figure out that it was the strong heroine, but you articulated it all much more eloquently.

I do think there's something of a generation gap between those two types of books--we tolerated some things in the older age of romance that we wouldn't tolerate now--but judging from how well Judith McNaught's books STILL sell, some women will always gravitate to that dynamic. That bothers me a bit.

Personally, I prefer strong heroines who butt heads with strong heroes. I also have long despised the "I hate women because some woman did me wrong," and try to avoid it in my own books.

You hit on something else with regard to Judith McNaught that I think is very important--her love of drama. It's hard to have sweeping drama without severely flawed people. She was coming out of a gothic tradition where melodrama and beastly heroes were the trope.

Also, I don't see her heroines as quite the weak-willed women that some do. They fight more aggressively than some give them credit for (often having the courage to leave or defy their husbands in a time when that was frowned upon).

But I do prefer the newer heroines. I like a woman who will call a man on his misogyny! More importantly, I prefer heroes who aren't misogynists. It makes for less drama sometimes, but it's also less irksome to read.
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