â€˜Can't Buy Me Love,' or how the independent heroine challenges Romance
Over the past couple of months I have read a handful of books in which the heroine resists a relationship with the hero. I’m not talking about the "Oh, I really shouldn’t’ women, or the "no means yes’ girls, the females who are just playing coy so as not to appear desperate, or even the heroines who are shy of love from some past trauma. I’m referring to heroines who truly don’t want to make a romantic commitment because of a desire to be independent or from a strong career focus. These are women who seem to be resisting the very structure of Romance, because they resist the narrative path to True Love, marriage, and children. The anti-Romance heroine, I have begun to call them.
Take Tessa Hart from Kathleen O’Reilly’s Shaken and Stirred, for example. She was the first heroine who really started me thinking along these lines, because I was moved by both admiration and frustration for her struggle. A woman who had been terribly hurt by a man she had given up a college education for, Tessa is not going to make the same mistake twice, no matter how wonderful Gabe O’Sullivan is. And he is wonderful; we know this because we see from his POV how much he wants to be with Tessa FOREVER, and how decent and admiring he is. Tessa knows this, too, but she’s afraid that if she jumps into a committed relationship with Gabe she will lose herself and fall right back into entropic passivity:
“I’ve known you for four years. You’re the first person I met in New York. The first person who offered me a job, the first person who made sure I understood the difference between a local and an express train, the first person who explained to me how to cross against the light in order to not be run over by the eight thousand people crossing against the light from the opposite direction. There’s no one that I’ve ever depended on more, Gabe. Nobody. Not even Denny. I can’t depend on you like that.”
Gabe, who had taken care of himself for his entire life, shrugged easily. “Yes, you can.” . . .
“I have to learn to depend on myself first.”
“Tessa you can do anything you want.” . . .
“You’re right. I can do anything I want. But I have to actually do it. I can’t just want to do it. There’s a difference.”
Tessa understands that there is a difference between being an independent personality and being an independent person, and she is determined to be both, frustrating readers like the AAR reviewer who said that despite the book’s believability,
We know that a relationship with Gabe is inevitable, not only because it’s a romance with the requisite HEA, but because they are great friends who clearly have a steamy more-than-friends sex life. Not only is Gabe hot, he’s kind and understanding. Would Tessa really let a guy like this get away? Of course not, but she does her level best to do that before she finally gives in. It’s a short book, and I still lost patience with her endless hand-wringing.
SB Sarah had a similarly irritated reaction to Tessa, noting that
. . . Tessa needed to build her own pedestal of accomplishment and then place that pedestal next to someone else’s for equal protection and balance, and not erect a leaning structure that rested entirely on the strength of someone else’s foundation. Problem was, she hadn’t recognized that she had already established her own foundation by moving to Manhattan on her own, getting a job, paying her way through college (even if she was in the wrong major for her skill set) and working at a bar making a huge and solid circle of friends. She never fully gave herself credit for the accomplishments of her backstory.
However, every moment that Tessa bugged the shit out of me was underscored by the fact that, though her habits and hand-wringing moments of self-doubt were irritating to me personally, they were each and every goddam one exceptionally well written. They. Were. Real.
And so I wondered: is it the believability that makes Tessa’s character so frustrating, the fact that O’Reilly makes it all so compelling? Had Gabe not been the ideal guy, would Tessa have been less frustrating of a character? And just because Gabe is such a great guy, should we really be discouraging something that will make her feel more confident and complete as a person? In contrast to AAR’s Blythe, I believe that a real woman would let a guy like Gabe go, because we real women do all sorts of illogical things in relationships, in large part because we don’t have the guy’s true POV to factor into our decision making. And hey, love is emotional, and emotions often have a logic all their own. But in terms of the Romance, what makes a woman like Tessa so believably frustrating?
I think it’s that she refuses to cooperate with what the genre and its readers expect of her. Part of the fantasy of Romance, we are told, is that of being “swept away by love.” But Tessa refuses to be swept away; she refuses to proceed through the steps of a romantic relationship, from desire to commitment, maintaining a sense of distance from Gabe until the very end of the book. So in a sense, it’s not just that she’s fighting her feelings; she’s fighting the structure of the Romance novel to some degree, as well, because she’s fighting a hero we know would be perfect for her. And isn’t the purpose of genre Romance to bring the hero and heroine who are perfect together into romantic harmony, into the fantasy HEA? So when the heroine refuses to cooperate with that in a timely manner, she appears – for a time, at least – to be resisting the very purpose of the genre in which she has been created. And when her reasoning stems from an authentic desire to remain autonomous, she has the potential to subvert the entire genre.
There is, sometimes, a fine line between a heroine like Tessa and the novels in which the heroine is actively and aggressively pursued by the hero. At first, these heroines can look subversive, as well, because they resist the hero’s many charms. You know the type of heroine I’m talking about here: the one who doubts the hero’s feelings, or has a shameful secret she’s trying to protect, or thinks the hero is the wrong guy, or is technically promised to another, etc. etc. These heroines might not, at first, want to marry, but it’s not so much that they’re committed to independence, per se, and once their secret it revealed or the hero’s true feelings become clear, or their pride gives way to True Love, they fall right into love’s arms, swept away into a traditional HEA. The anti-Romance heroine is not so easily won over by love; in its complicated calculus, she is not convinced that giving in to True Love would be all that different from giving up other, equally important, things.
I don’t know how many heroines there are in the genre who are as adamant about not committing as Tessa is (in fact, it takes her three books and, as Jayne calls it, a “Care Bear epilogue” for her to finally be convinced into marriage). I have seen more heroines like Yvonne, from Seressia Glass’s No Commitment Required, a woman who, despite her strong feelings for Michael, is quite adamant that she does not want a serious commitment with him. Her resistance comes partly from trust issues and partly from a serious need to remain financially and professionally independent, as well as emotionally autonomous. She seems somewhat of an intermediate anti-heroine, shy of love because of her past, but sincerely protective of her independence, as well. I don’t think her autonomy is stronger than her trust issues, but they play a significant role in the way Yvonne had avoided a traditional romantic ending. For a large portion of the book, in fact, she actively fights against a committed relationship with Michael, especially when he becomes more insistent on claiming one. The part of Yvonne that is dedicated to maintaining her independence represents a small rebellion against the romantic formula, I think, in the way of her refusal to be swiftly swept away by love. She’s not simply the heroine who thought she was so independent and ambitious until she meets the irresistible hero; she is independent, and even after she finds happiness with Michael, I expect her to stay that way.
Although this type of heroine seems more suited to contemporary (or paranormal) Romance, I have found some prototypes in historical Romance. Francesca Bonnard, from Loretta Chase’s new release Your Scandalous Ways, for example, is one of the strongest anti-Romance heroines I have ever read, in part because of the clever way Chase manages to secure a romantic happy ending for Francesca without compromising her hard-won sexual and economic independence (the terms of their agreement are quite provocative). I wonder if readers will find Francesca over the top because of the active resistance she mounts to emotional commitment and then marriage. There is not a character I believe more when she said she really didn’t want to be trapped by a man ever again, no matter how wonderful that man might be, and no matter how much she loves him. Some of her reasons may come from a past betrayal, but her position remains affirmative; she is determined not to follow the conventional rules for Romance heroines. She is not, in other words, the naturally nurturing female who secretly wants seven babies and a nice little nesting place for her and the man of her dreams.
What I haven’t decided yet is whether this anti-Romance heroine is a relatively recent genre innovation, or whether she’s simply an updated version of the famously plucky heroines of 80s and 90s Romance – the heroines who did the most dumb ass things in the name of personal independence. Are these heroines just smarter and more economically liberated? Are they merely being tamed by the genre the way those alpha heroes are — potentially subversive but ultimately conforming? Or are they different, somehow, are they introducing even a slight challenge to the traditional Romance HEA by insisting that no matter how great a guy is, no matter how much she might love him, that her life is primary, even to love?
Jane had a very insightful comment after reading my first draft of this piece:
So I think a true anti-heroine comes when there is some position of power equality so that the heroine’s choice to remain free is real (instead of illusory). That ultimately makes the relationship more wonderful because it is the meeting of two equals.
This is a very appealing idea to me, because I have so often felt that the heroine’s freedom is illusory, that she only pretends to enjoy her independence until the perfect mate comes along. And once he does come along, the heroine becomes that woman who tells you how complete she is on her own and then goes loony with pheromone-fueled wedding plans. No, these anti-Romance heroines convince me that they’re serious about remaining independent even within a committed romantic relationship, that no guy is worth giving that up.
What I wonder, though, is how easily the genre can accommodate these women, what with the abundance of Care Bear epilogues and miracle babies. It’s not that a heroine (or a real life woman) can’t remain independent and still be a wife and mother, but that doesn’t seem to be how those endings play to me (the freedom seems illusory, as Jane puts it). So how free can a heroine be and still fit within genre Romance?