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.
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.
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.