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Guest Opinion on Shame and the Heroine with Molly O’Keefe and...

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I asked Molly O’Keefe and Caitlin Crews if they would share some thoughts on shame and the romance heroine.  The two were obvious choices for me because Crews and O’Keefe both write about the topics in their books.  In the Disgraced Playboy, the heroine’s entire life is shaped by some modeling photos she had done as a teen.  She was made to feel that these photographs were shameful rather than a beautiful exhibition of her body.  Later in the book, the heroine learns to embrace her past and reclaim her self esteem.  In Molly O’Keefe’s upcoming Can’t Buy Me Love, the heroine had a rather disgraceful past and she attempted to earn her redemption through hard work and loyalty.   In Can’t Buy Me Love, the concept of a woman’s worthiness is played out in three women at different stages of self acceptance.  

Let us know your thoughts about shame and the romance heroine and we’ll enter you in a contest to win one of ten sets of books which will include one ARC of Can’t Buy Me Love and The Disgraced Playboy from Caitlin Crews.

From the desk of Molly O’Keefe:

I cut my romance reading teeth in the early 1990′ when the seductions were forced, the misunderstandings lasted the whole book and the heroines carried deep-seated sexual shame

In the historicals I loved, the shame manifested itself in the shameful past or secret. This usually involved terrible physical or sexual abuse, or rape (sometimes by the hero) which resulted in our heroine obviously being terrified of men and intimacy, but often she lost her virginity before it’s proper use as a commodity.  (Catherine Coulter, Katherine Sutcliffe, early Jude Devereaux.)  A twist on this, the hero would think that the heroine wasn’t a virgin, thanks to her shameful past, only to realize his error when they finally had sex. (Judith McNaught, Elizabeth Lowell).

In the contemporaries,  the heroine was shamed by her lack of sexuality. Having been convinced by some former lover that she was frigid, or “not woman enough” to satisfy a man. Again, Elizabeth Lowell was the master of this. The heroines in these books were just waiting for the right man to show her what a woman she was.

This device worked on several levels. First, the sex in these books was conflicted. It was epic. The plot advanced through sex and it was all emotionally-charged and angsty.  Those love scenes had plot lines of their own, and dialogue. Hot, heady stuff.

Second, the heroine had to work her way past the shame. She had to deal with it. It gave the heroine something to “do.” The heroines in these books never had jobs, or work. I can’t remember them having children. They were basically foils to the alpha heroes who needed to be redeemed.  And what better way to redeem a hero then having him fix the heroine? He wasn’t just the catalyst for her to get over her past, or forgive herself (for things that were clearly not her fault) he erased her shame with his touch.

He healed her past. Completed her. Oh! The power of fourteen page love scenes and expert cunnilingus.

With all this exciting growth and change romance authors couldn’t give heroines sexual shame anymore and romance readers no longer bought that form of conflict (for the most part—they’re still out there), it didn’t work.

But authors and readers still want her to feel shame. The emotional arc is just too powerful – from guilt to forgiveness, from self-loathing to self-acceptance. We’re seeing more and more heroines make some bad choices, suffer the consequences and drive the plot.

While heroes could do terrible things in the past and feel great remorse and shame, they handled it by being darker, more anti-hero. The worse his shame, the worse he behaved, but then the more powerful his redemption  (JR Ward’s Lover Awakened).

But our heroines with shame (Sugar Beth from Ain’t She Sweet) they’re plucky. They’re earnest. They do their best, running constantly into the glass ceiling of their own sense of self-worth. They know they don’t deserve happiness or love or to let all their skeletons out of their closets (Victoria Dahl’s impressive Lead Me On), they don’t get to be the people they really want to be because of what they’ve done.

For me and many romance readers, this is utterly endearing. It’s sympathetic and heart-breaking. The hero, who can no longer save her with oral sex, now has figure out how to get past all the land mines of her self-hatred and secret keeping, and then has to figure out how to make the heroine see the woman he sees. Our hero has to enable the heroine to break through that glass ceiling – and when this happens it’s magic.

We want our heroine to suffer for love, to be lifted free of something by love. Shame happens to fit the bill perfectly when it’s done right. That’s why we read romance. Well, that and expert cunnilingus.

Find out more about Molly O’Keefe at http://www.molly-okeefe.com/ and look for her back to back releases beginning the end June of 2012 with Can’t Buy Me Love or you can try out a couple of my favorite Harlequin Superromances from Molly now such as His Wife for One Night and Baby Makes Three.

From the desk of Caitlin Crews:

I don’t know that my own thoughts are as linear as Molly’s, sadly.  I’m going to throw them out here and hope for some clarity…

I’m interested in the ways in which shame informs and shapes women (and thus my heroines), and while it seems there is always a link to something sexual in there (a sad commentary on our society, I’d say, and the experiences that too many girls have on their way to womanhood and then through it) I wonder if what I’m most interested in has more to do with my heroines’ sense of their own essential worthlessness.

I think the women I write about have forged their identities in response to, or in revolt against, various feelings of powerlessness (and subjugation, and an often imposed-upon-them or self-imposed notion of some kind of “dirtiness,” and whatever else lurks in that dark little cocktail they carry around inside) and those that made them feel that way.  Often, they have turned on themselves, beating themselves up with their own sense of shame.  Often the hero is specially crafted to really push the boundaries of that shame, forcing the heroine to examine it and eventually move through it.

But shame is so versatile, and so hardy, and sneaks into so many aspects of their lives.  Dark pasts, desperate secrets, consuming horror at old choices or others’ responses to them.  Suspecting that deep down they are, in fact, worthless, and that if the hero (or anyone) knew “the truth” about them, he (they) would agree and be forced to act accordingly.  When things blow up, there is usually some sick sense on the heroine’s part that she should have expected this—that it was always going to come to this and it was, in the end, inevitable.  It’s always my hope that what she does next is move forward anyway, that much stronger for facing her deepest fear.

Many of the women I know are incredibly strong, and yet are also involved in complicated daily vigils, keeping watch for the other shoe, which, they are certain, is going to drop because it always does.  It always will, sooner or later.  There’s a fatalism in this (and perhaps a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy?), but there’s also that feeling of inevitability.  We don’t deserve [insert good thing].  It will be taken from us.  It’s only a question of when.

It’s that worthlessness, isn’t it?  That suspicion the truth will come out and everyone will see the ugly, shameful truth.  And we’ll be left alone.

I set out to write Larissa, the heroine of my book Heiress Behind the Headlines, by accident.  I’d originally intended to kill her off in the book where she first appeared as more of a plot device, but saved her at the last minute because I thought it might be a lot of fun to write a “bad girl” heroine en route to her own redemption.  Larissa is filled with shame over the things she’s done, but she also realizes that there’s no possible way to apologize for them; she can only live, survive, change, and pay the price for her earlier choices.  The price is pretty steep.  I’m fascinated by the way our press (our culture) demonizes celebrities, forcing them into harsh narratives and roles in the media that have very little to do with the real people behind the famous names.

I’m also fascinated by how much harder we are on the women we believe have toppled from great heights.  Charlie Sheen, for example, received a national tour and the most amount of Twitter followers in the least amount of time while Lindsay Lohan, who appears to share similar substance abuse and addiction issues, is crucified.  Why is that?  What about pretty girls with problems brings out the mob mentality in us?  And why, to bring it back to romance novels and to echo a point Molly made, do we forgive a Dark and Shameful Past in a hero so much more readily?

I wonder, are we all complicit in that sense of shame, of worthlessness, so many women feel—even if they don’t happen to be scandalous heiresses chased hither and yon by the devouring, vicious press, like my Larissa?

In books, we use love to light up those dark places, to chase away worthlessness, to bring heroines the kind of joy they never previously imagined they could ever feel, much less be worthy of feeling.  This is what romance novels do, as Molly said.  What heroes do for their heroines (and vice versa).  This is what love does, or should do, in my opinion.  And what romances do so well.  Take away the shame.  Make us new.  Make it all okay.  Or so we hope.

Find out more about USA Today Bestselling author Caitlin Crews at http://www.caitlincrews.com/Caitlin_Crews.  Caitlin writes some of my favorite Harlequin Presents. I really love her voice and facility with words not to mention the intense emotion she brings to her books.  I’ve reviewed several Crews’ books here.

Don’t forget that by participating in the conversation, you will be entered to win one of ten sets of books which will include one ARC of Can’t Buy Me Love by Molly O’Keefe and The Disgraced Playboy from Caitlin Crews.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

45 Comments

  1. Laura Vivanco
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:29:27

    This is what love does, or should do, in my opinion. And what romances do so well. Take away the shame. Make us new. Make it all okay. Or so we hope.

    It strikes me that the effects on readers of the fictional removing of shame could vary. In some cases, I can see how scenarios like these make the reader feel “new.” In others, though, I wonder if it might actually exacerbate the reader’s sense of shame/worthlessness. For example, in the cases Molly writes about, in which the heroine loses her virginity through rape, feels shame about the loss of her virginity, and then the shame is taken away because she comes to understand that the rape wasn’t her fault, that may lift the heroine’s shame, but what does it do for a reader who feels similar shame but either wasn’t raped or blames herself in some way for her own rape?

    And in the scenario Caitlin mentions, in which “The price is pretty steep” for losing shame, couldn’t a reader who has done similar things but hasn’t been/isn’t able to pay a similar price feel confirmed in her feelings of shame/worthlessness?

  2. Jane
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:36:49

    @Laura Vivanco So for every positive reaction one reader feels, there is a correlating negative reader response? Does that mean that romances are always negatively affecting at least one reader and no message in romance can be universally uplifting? And does the possibility that one book can’t be all things to all readers necessarily mean that the net effect of that book is negative?

  3. Linda Hilton
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:46:58

    That must be why I never became a best-selling household name author — my heroines (with one exception) never felt shame, and certainly never about sex. In fact, all of them initiated their own “deflowering.” The one heroine who did have to work her way back to self-worth was more a victim of psychological abuse, but even she (or I, using her as a surrogate!) embraced her sexuality without shame.

  4. MarieC
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:48:03

    Wonderful post. thank you for this. Two things stuck out for me:

    “He healed her past. Completed her. Oh! The power of fourteen page love scenes and expert cunnilingus.”

    “It’s that worthlessness, isn’t it? That suspicion the truth will come out and everyone will see the ugly, shameful truth. And we’ll be left alone.”

    So true. Many of my favorite stories are the ones where the heroine carries the burden of shame for an act she has had no control over, but perseveres with grace, humor, and nerves of steel.

  5. Laura Vivanco
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:49:54

    Does that mean that romances are always negatively affecting at least one reader and no message in romance can be universally uplifting?

    Well, yes. I can think of plenty of scenarios in which it might not feel at all uplifting to read about other people’s happiness.

    And does the possibility that one book can’t be all things to all readers necessarily mean that the net effect of that book is negative?

    I’ve no idea how one would go about assessing that accurately. You’d presumably have to measure the net effect of a particular book on each reader and then calculate whether, overall, more readers were positively than negatively affected. I think it would probably be impossible to do that, given how subtle or indirect the effects could be.

  6. Linda Hilton
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:51:48

    @Jane: “Universal” implies that all books reach all readers, and we know that doesn’t happen. Some readers are going to seek certain books – via cover copy, reviews, word of mouth — and avoid others that don’t speak to their needs. Some readers will have a positive reaction to one book, others have a negative reaction, but those reactions may be based on entirely different factors that have nothing to do with sexual shame at all. But overall, given the popularity of romance fiction in all its many forms, wouldn’t you agree that its essential message to virtually all readers is positive?

  7. Jane
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 07:52:47

    @Laura Vivanco If there is no universally uplifting message in romance (and I agree with that), is it somehow impolitic to mention that story lines do have a positive effect?

  8. Dabney
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:00:43

    I think shame is as much product of one’s internal makeup as it is one’s external context. Growing up in the low-key Episcopal Church with parents who weren’t at all into shaming the kids or using guilt as a motivator, I was astonished to talk with friends, often from far more religious homes, who had shame and guilt as part of their daily regimes. Our culture tends to punish women who don’t feel shame and/or guilt about all sorts of things–Mommy wars, anyone?–and we don’t do the same to men. (I realize this is a gross generalization, so please take it as such.)

    Jane, from the fabulous Lead Me On has shame of the internal type. I always thought it was interesting that what healed her is loving someone who seems pretty shame and guilt free. It’s as if Chase shows her another way to be. Many heroines in historicals must overcome externally induced shame–whether over how a man has treated them (Rachel in To Have and To Hold or by something a family member has done (Alexia in The Rules of Seduction. In those books it is usually the way a man treats the heroine that heals her.

    This is an interesting topic. Thanks for posting about it!

  9. Jane
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:06:40

    @Dabney One of the reasons I liked Molly O’Keefe’s upcoming book so much was because the heroine’s overcoming of shame isn’t driven by external factors like the love of the good man and I kind of feel that way about Caitlin Crews’ books because the heroine overcomes her shame after she feels like her relationship with the hero is over. While I don’t mind the idea that the love of someone can help you, my preference is that the shame is overcome internally rather than by external forces.

  10. Laura Vivanco
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:09:18

    is it somehow impolitic to mention that story lines do have a positive effect?

    I’m not sure what you mean by “impolitic.” Certainly in the context of a post at DA, I don’t think it’s imprudent for someone “to mention that story lines do have a positive effect.”

  11. Darlene Marshall
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:19:54

    I enjoyed this thoughtful article, and it’s given me much to think about as a reader and an author. Thanks for sharing!

  12. DM
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:22:25

    “We want our heroine to suffer for love, to be lifted free of something by love. Shame happens to fit the bill perfectly when it’s done right. That’s why we read romance.”

    This, I think, is the appeal of shame in romance. It doesn’t have to be linked to the heroine’s sexuality to function this way. I’d go further to say that in complex stories, shame is an essential part of character. I agree that there is no universally uplifting message in romance (or any genre for that matter–readers are too diverse for any one story to fit all) but I do believe that there are universal emotional experiences we read to empathize with, and shame is one of them.

  13. Dabney
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:32:49

    @Jane: I’m with you. I think that’s true about Jane in Lead Me On. In seeing Chase’s freedom with who he is, she decides she wants that for herself.

  14. joanne
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 08:38:20

    I’m never quite sure when a storyline will work for me but I’m positive it will not work if shame is something the hero uses to excuse his lack of respect for the heroine.

    Any time a hero starts to talk/think that the heroine (or hero in m/m) is ‘spoiled goods’ or not worthy of decent treatment then the book will smash against a wall. He can grovel all he wants but I won’t be there to read the ending.

  15. Molly O'Keefe
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 09:00:05

    Our culture tends to punish women who don’t feel shame and/or guilt about all sorts of things

    I agree with this Dabney – terribly played out right now in the birth control wars.

  16. Dabney
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 09:33:57

    @Molly O’Keefe: I think the oddest time in my life was when I had to constantly field questions about why on earth someone like me–whatever the hell that is–would quit working and stay at home to raise kids. It was odd because different people thought I should feel shame about different things: abandoning the cause of my generation, risking my financial safety, enabling the patriarchy, and–this was my favorite–given that I hate to cook, was I sure I was cut out for the mom job. I am lucky–I do live pretty shamefree thanks to sane parents–and most of it I just ignored. But, really, what was that about? Even now, at fifty, I’m amazed at the crap women get for all sorts of choices.

    One of the reasons I’m so passionate about romance is that I see it as a genre that, in general, celebrates the choices women make. Romances are so varied–the heroines can be virgins, courtesans, mothers, widows, childless, CEO’s, gorgeous, average, believers in hair color and Botox, or going gray with pride. They can choose to have committed sex, casual sex, no sex, vanilla sex, crazy sex and, in most books, we cheer for whatever choice those women make. So many books on the best seller list are often violent and misogynistic. (Stuart Woods makes me want to throw up.) And yet, our culture never shames anyone for reading that tripe. I love how romance celebrates women and I give thanks that I never feel a whit of shame about my reading choices.

  17. dick
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 09:34:40

    I find it difficult to interpret what a “universally uplifting message” means when applied to romance fiction. But, since the reason most often given for reading it is that it ends happily rather than unhappily, wouldn’t the HEA fulfill it? And how can an HEA occur–in a romance based on the heroine’s “shame”–if the shame isn’t lifted in some way? So perhaps “redemption, of whatever kind is needed, is always possible” is the “universally uplifting message”?

  18. Isobel Carr
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 09:43:22

    I am not someone who is really interested in shame, especially not shame of a sexual nature. Perhaps this is why I wasn’t a romance reader during the 80s and early 90s? The books I tried utterly turned me off the genre and sent me fleeing back to SFF and historical fiction where the response to something that would have shamed in romance was rage and revenge. I certainly have no interest in writing heroines who feel shame of the kind described above, though I’ll have to give some thought to writing a hero who feels that way over some past action.

  19. ClaudiaGC
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 09:48:34

    I love your post! It made me realise that I enjoy reading romances where the heroine feels shame for whatever reason. I think it’s quite an everyday problem. Maybe it’s because we (as women) feel ashamed to break free of our traditional roles as mothers and housewives? I don’t know.
    I love the moment when the hero makes the heroine see that there is nothing to be ashamed of, certainly not for him. Makes me swoon. :) I just finished Animal Attraction by Jill Shalvis where the heroine was attacked and even moved away from her family because she thought the whole time it was her fault she was attacked and it absolutely wasn’t. (Not saying more, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.) I think the shame thing is handled really well in this book.

  20. Molly O'Keefe
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 09:50:21

    I love the idea of romance novels as feminist documents but I’ve always thought the idea of being not just accepted, but respected despite and because of our flaws is universal and without gender.

    Judd Apatow makes romance novels for men complete with fart and dick jokes but the HEA is the same – “I choose you, meet me halfway and we can make this work.”

  21. Angela
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 10:00:09

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. I’ve been thinking about this all morning trying to clarify my thoughts on it.

    And to think of some novels that I’ve loved that involve shame – especially of the sexual variety.

  22. Molly O'Keefe
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 10:00:15

    @Isobel Carr I’ve been thinking a lot about same and heroines since Jane asked me to contribute and I think sexual shame is the low lying fruit. It’s easier to absolve. If our heroines did something really awful – something that wasn’t a misunderstanding or excessive guilt talking – would we be able to forgive them? Would we be interested in that story? We don’t give our heroines much leeway…

    If someone can think of a book where a heroine has done something really bad that isn’t sex related, I’d love to read it – please share

  23. Sofia Harper
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 10:10:20

    Dick said, “So perhaps “redemption, of whatever kind is needed, is always possible” is the “universally uplifting message”?”

    I too think that’s the universal “uplifting” message. It’s not how the heroine overcame, it’s the fact she did.

    Jane said, “While I don’t mind the idea that the love of someone can help you, my preference is that the shame is overcome internally rather than by external forces.”

    Now this I’ve always had problems with. It’s more accepting in our genre that the love of the heroine cures the hero. He’s dark, angsty and she’s the “light”. But when it’s the love of the hero that cures the heroine things slid into a gray area. At least for me. Maybe it’s that ingrained(wrong, wrong, wrong) message that all a woman needs is a man. The man comes along tells heroine she’s beautiful, worthy and ta-da! She’s fixed. Sometimes that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    But, if love is the powerful motivator, life-changer then that’s what really “fixes” the heroine. What teaches the heroine self-love? The circumstances she faces? It’s wrapped in the hero being there too? I don’t know. Interesting topic, making me think this early. Need more coffee.

  24. b303tilly
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 10:35:32

    This topic really made me think. It is difficult to categorize, exactly, why I love certain romances and dislike others.
    I think that, in romance, the shame, whether it is deserved or not, is intrinsic to my identifying with the hero and heroine. In real life, I myself suffer from shame in many different aspects…even some shame for not feeling shame about things people think I should! I believe that this aspect, when handled deftly, helps to flesh out the characters. I do not want to read about two people who had perfectly wonderful childhoods, are surrounded by love and support on all sides, meet cute, fall in love with no misunderstandings or difficulties, and live happily ever after.(Although they would make fantastic godparents for my kids!) My interest lies in the conflicts, and these can be beautifully engendered by an internal dialogue of shame. How many of us haven’t done something damaging in a relationship as a result of our own inner issues? For me, emotional behavior resulting from shame can make even the most crazysauce werewolf plot believable.
    I do want to note that shame can be taken WAY too far, and what are typical emotional issues can(and often do) turn into whiny tediousness. I dislike getting to a point in a book where I just want to smack a character and tell them to get over it already. It is at this point that the character turns TSTL, and results in many DNFs for me.

  25. Lynn S.
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 10:49:40

    Society and self-awareness can both be devilish things. I think if there is any central uplifting message to the romance genre it is hope. My reading suggestion: Kathleen O’Reilly’s Midnight Resolutions.

    @Dabney: Or how about Phillip Roth. He actually had a purgative effect for me.

  26. [email protected]
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 10:54:47

    I like reading about a character that is dealing with shame, good or bad, I myself, had to deal with shame and it was hard for I had a hardtime letting my guard down to the guy I really liked until I told him my past and he loved me anyways, and we got closer. I like that in a book, for its more real to me, for nothing is ever perfect. I like it when the hero has to show his feelings and letting someone in his life, for thats real, he can’t be a fake, he needs to let out his emotions at one time or another if he wants to fall in love.

  27. cbackson
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 11:06:40

    I’m not a fan of sexual shame plotlines, although when I was younger and less confident in my own sexual choices, they resonated for me.

    Now it’s all career-oriented (I have a demanding career, which I like, and I feel a lot of societal pressure to someday put that aside for the family that I don’t even have yet). Unfortunately, the common trajectory in romance seems to be “hero’s charming plot moppet niece and nephew cause career woman to realize she wants to move to a quirky small town and become a stay-at-home mom”. Obviously, that’s a choice that really works for a lot of people, but I would love – LOVE – to read a romance where the hero’s magic lovin’ helped the heroine to realize that it was okay to want her high-powered career.

  28. Faye
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 11:25:14

    @Molly O’Keefe: In Carrie Lofty’s “Scoundrel’s Kiss,” the heroine is fleeing, and eventually confronting, her shameful actions in “What a Scoundrel Wants.” There is a bit of sex mixed into her bad behavior, but also a grand betrayal, pettiness, and enormous selfishness. The sex, as she later admits, was motivated less by sexual desire than by a desire to hurt someone. When Scoundrel’s Kiss starts, she’s about as low as it’s possible to be. I love this book because she doesn’t want to be saved, and while it’s the hero’s explicit mission to redeem her she does her best to derail him. The tension is delicious.

  29. Isobel Carr
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 11:34:08

    @Molly O’Keefe: I was blown away that Jo Beverly managed to redeem Damaris in A Most Unsuitable Man (she was the villainess of the previous book, Winter Fire, and I really hated her). I’m willing to forgive a lot if the writer can make me understand the original motivation and then show the character being truly sorry. And I’m willing to forgive women just as I do men, but I’m not a particularly traditional person, so what I’m willing to forgive and accept will likely not be universal (e.g. I don’t relate in any shape, way, or form to sexual shame).

  30. Julia
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 13:59:42

    @Sofia Harper:

    The man comes along tells heroine she’s beautiful, worthy and ta-da! She’s fixed. Sometimes that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    Amen to that. I was reading Molly O’Keefe’s thoughts and thinking to myself, wow I really don’t like heroine shame in my romance – but then she mentioned SEP’s Ain’t She Sweet, which I love…. So I guess there are a few that appeal to me?

    I don’t like books where the love of one character magically saves the other from the shame of their past. I can see how this would appeal to many people, but I personally prefer books where the characters have the sense to stand up for themselves and realize they aren’t to blame for whatever happened (unless it was actually their fault). And if they were at fault I prefer reading about characters that really go out of their way to make their own amends instead of relying on a lover to put everything to rights. This is much more inspiring to me. I get tired of reading about poor, abused heroines who keep beating themselves up over things – I want to hit them over the head with the book and scream “it’s not your fault, get over it already!”

    Ain’t She Sweet is really the only example I can think of at the moment that I liked. I’ll definitely have to spend some time going through my books to see if I’ve read any others.

  31. jenreads
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 14:48:51

    Thanks for the great article. It’s giving me more things to think about regarding my current read, A Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel.

  32. Lucy Francis
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 15:25:28

    This is a great article, very thought provoking. The shame thing in books, sexual and otherwise, is something I really relate to. My mother wielded the shame stick with pinpoint accuracy, and it took many, many years as an adult to shed off all the crazy things that left me ashamed and wondering when the shoe would drop in my life. So I appreciate seeing heroines let go of their baggage, especially if they do so without the magic cure of a mighty wang.

    I read a new novella last week that fits with this topic, Exceeding Boundaries by Mia Downing. I picked it up thinking I was just getting some hot erotic romance fun. The heroine was determined to get past the shame she’d been bottling up since she was a teenager. The love of a good man helped, but she faced her issues head on and laid them on the table. It was pretty satisfying to read.

  33. Sofia Harper
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 16:15:29

    @Julia:

    I too adored Ain’t She Sweet. I think I was able to tolerate that shame because the heroine had done several crappy, crappy things. There was also sympathetic reasoning for why she acted the way she did. Maybe that’s the key, for me at least. I need to understand the shame. I need to believe yup that’s something you can’t easily get over. (And it must not cross the line into martyrdom, which is a totally different rant.)

    It also helps if the hero is someone I’d totally fall for. Him saying You’re a HOAR!does not get my goat going for an HEA.

  34. Darlynne
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 17:25:06

    We want our heroine to suffer for love …

    No, I really don’t. The plot device of shame only works, for me, if a character has truly done bad things, e.g. Sugar Beth in Ain’t She Sweet, and tries to make amends. Shame heaped upon, and then assumed by, a character for no valid internal reason makes me nuts. Correction: makes me completely nuts.

    If I hadn’t just now read yet another article about all the ways the behavior of women is coming under fire these days, perhaps I wouldn’t feel so strongly. Correction: yes, I would. There is no possible reason I would choose to read a book where undeserved shame–or its ugly offspring, ostracism—is laid on any character. Does it happen IRL? Of course, but that’s not why I read romance.

  35. cleo
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 17:37:17

    @Molly O’Keefe: kitten-tiger and the monk by carolyn crane in wild and steamy is a short story with a heroine who’s done bad stuff that isn’t sexual. She betrayed the hero when they were younger. And then became a not very nice person.

  36. Molly O'Keefe
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 17:56:45

    Darlynne – this whole conversation has taken on a different life for me in the last few weeks. With government working so hard on shaming anyone with a vagina, I honestly as a writer and a reader (who does like this trope when it’s done well) am wondering…

    I’ve sat here for about five minutes trying to think of the right words to encapsulate how I feel, how confused and horrified and worried I am and all I can come up with is – WTF?!

    thanks for the suggestions guys – on to my ereader they go!

  37. Darlynne
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 21:15:18

    @Molly O’Keefe: I agree. Although I have always had a problem with the idea of shame in the context I mentioned above, today? I can’t get anywhere near it and remain objective. The discussion here is nonetheless an interesting one and I appreciate the insights you’ve shared.

  38. LVLMLeah
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 22:04:32

    I am not someone who is really interested in shame, especially not shame of a sexual nature. Perhaps this is why I wasn’t a romance reader during the 80s and early 90s?

    Me too. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home where I was made to feel shame for just having normal feelings, desires and being who I was inherently. I was very rebellious and I’ve never felt any shame for anything from my teen years on except if I’ve hurt someone or done something against my being. So I really don’t relate at all to a heroine who feels shame. Particularly for sexual desires or acting on them.

    The only time shame is OK for me in a heroine is if it was dumped on her by the outside. Like say the current situation with Fluke and Rush. He tried to shame her, she rose above that and didn’t accept that. But in a story if the heroine has to take a huge punishment for what others think she should feel ashamed about and she rises above that, then I can relate to her and it’s a appealing to me as a reader.

  39. Sharon Clare
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 11:15:49

    I’m married to a Catholic, so guilt is big in this crowd. I think for a heroine, shame is a great invalid belief that could drive all sorts of inner conflict and something most people relate to. I remember my writing professor at University of Toronto, a big, tough man with presence enough to fill the room, read a passage about the terrible shame inflicted on a son by his father. We all felt moved by the passage and then shocked to learn it was a personal account.

  40. JMM
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 15:42:17

    I agree that readers are way too hard on female characters. A “hero” can do anything short of burning down an orphanage, and he’s often redeemed by Heroine’s Magic Va-jay-jay (hymen usually included).

    Heroine doing something “wrong” (sometimes all that means is that other characters disapprove of her choices – OMG! She has a CAREER and lives in a BIG CITY!) and she’s dragged through the mud and the muck.

    Where are the books where the HERO breaks his back doing cooking and cleaning and scrubbing toilets to atone?

    I don’t want to read books where the heroine is “shamed” for having had sex/left her hometown/not loving her deadbeat daddy/etc.

    “Now it’s all career-oriented (I have a demanding career, which I like, and I feel a lot of societal pressure to someday put that aside for the family that I don’t even have yet). Unfortunately, the common trajectory in romance seems to be “hero’s charming plot moppet niece and nephew cause career woman to realize she wants to move to a quirky small town and become a stay-at-home mom”. Obviously, that’s a choice that really works for a lot of people, but I would love – LOVE – to read a romance where the hero’s magic lovin’ helped the heroine to realize that it was okay to want her high-powered career.”

    Yes, please. “Sweetheart, I can’t WAIT to sell this ranch/knitting store/bakery and move to Big City with you and travel all over the world!”

  41. Erin K.
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 22:26:55

    I feel like I can really identify and empathize with heroines who feel shame, and that’s why it is one of my favorite romance tropes. However, it is something that has to be handled carefully, because it doesn’t work (for me) when there are a lot of outside forces thrusting shame on the heroine. It seems more realistic when the heroine is the one putting shame on herself and having to overcome her own issues internally. Also, I agree with previous commenters who said it doesn’t really work when the “shame” on the heroine stems from something that is lame or seems very minor. It rings false and makes for a weak heroine who is dwelling on something big, dark, and “incredibly shameful” that, once revealed, seems like no big deal to me as a reader.

  42. Thursday News: A Bit About DA, Agency Pricing Appears Doomed, Tamara Allen Leaves DSP
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 13:33:12

    […] discussion between Molly O’Keefe and Caitlin Crews on the issue of shame and the heroine in romance. There is a giveaway attached to this.  Molly O’Keefe is offering 10 ARCs of her late June […]

  43. Julia Broadbooks
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 16:03:10

    @Erin K.: That’s it! I’ve been thinking this post over trying to put my finger on why sometimes shame is powerful and touching and other times makes me cringe. A heroine who is abused and shamed by the people surrounding her seems pitiable, most especially when the offence is fairly minor.

    But a heroine who messed up in a big way and carries that weight with her and struggles to accept her human frailty makes for a satisfying emotional read.

  44. Kaetrin
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 21:29:44

    I think that shame is such a powerful theme because most of us can relate to it – I mean, who hasn’t done something they’re ashamed of (even if only a small thing)? Especially for women who often have self esteem issues, reading stories about a heroine who overcomes that feeling of shame and ends up with success and empowerment (not to mention True Love (TM)) is something which I find encouraging in general I think. I suspect I’m not alone in that.

  45. Monday Dear Author News
    Mar 19, 2012 @ 10:01:16

    […] Crews novel.  We are giving these away in conjunction with a beautiful post by the two authors on Shame and the Romance Heroine.    Winners have been emailed and requested to please fill out the form at the […]

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