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Stupidity Is the Great Unfavorable

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“There’s an infantilising of women in these programmes – they fall off their high heels or are still obsessed with handbags in their thirties,” agrees Geraghty. “And there’s an acceptance of a completely feminine persona, while many women do not see themselves as pink and fluffy.

“If you go back to the 1930s screwball comedies, the women never stopped talking and they never gave into the men – they had that femininity and glamour but without the infantilisation.”

The likes of Carole Lombard or Bette Davis wouldn’t have stood for the vacillations of Mr Big, it’s true: they’d have socked him in the jaw.

Source: The Scotsman

Readers talk about the likeability of a character but I think that term is misnomer. I think what we are talking about is the favorability rating because you can dislike a heroine or her ethics and still find the character intriguing; still view her character in a favorable light. What happens in our romances far too often is what the article refers to as the “infantilising of women” or the dumbing down of female characters in order to achieve a certain effect.

Too often heroines place themselves in danger to ratchet up the tension and/or to give the hero a chance to look, well, heroic. The heroine might go to a dangerous part of the neighborhood to constantly look for clues without having the first ability to defend herself.   This places the heroine in peril.   Cue the creepy music soundtrack.   Then the hero is able to rush to her side; sometimes he is wounded, but this also gives the author the opportunity for the hero to chastise the heroine like a little girl and then they can kiss passionately.   This might even lead to a hot sex scene as the hero is so wound up by his fear and anger that he must take it out on the heroine’s delicate body.

In the scenario above, the heroine acts to advance the plot.   If the heroine’s character arc was that she acted stupid and immature but learned that her behavior was destructive and dangerous to herself and those around her thus she stopped acting stupidly, that would be one thing.   Then the plot works to advance the character arc.     In this example (and so many books), the heroine argues with the hero that she had to be there; that she was searching for the truth; that she was saving small children and their pets from danger and the peril was unavoidable.

Another example is when authors give heroine’s a smart mouth. Sometimes the heroine will be captured or put in a place needing leadership and instead of showing leadership, she’ll smart off in such as way that she should know will infuriate her captors or the enemy and place herself in grave danger. This allows two plot developments.   Either it places the heroine in danger, needing to be saved by the hero or it makes her unbearably sexy to the audience such that the audience is wound up by anger and excitement that they/he must take it out on the heroine’s delicate body.

Or how about the heroine who has sex repeatedly with some guy without condoms and then is given the October surprise of pregnancy. Plot development alert.   Major conflict around the corner.   I always laugh at how some authors skip over the pesky condom part of the story with the obligatory “I’m clean” speech like any guy who was seconds away from the pearly gates wouldn’t lie his ass off in order to get some action.   Any heroine that buys the “I’m clean” speech deserves to be given a VD rather than a night of ten orgasms that no one and no battery operated hand held equipment had ever provided before.

Then there is the Mary Sue martyr who acts to save someone in her family or her circle who is the least worthy of people. Oftentimes it’s that rapscallion of a brother but the martyrdom allows the heroine to have artificial barriers for falling in love with the hero thus prolonging the story and providing false tension. And speaking of artificiality, there are the heroines that completely lack physical self awareness. This allows the heroine to be absolutely knock down, traffic stopping gorgeous but still a good person because we all know that being aware one is knock down, traffic stopping gorgeous is one of the seven deadly sins (pride) and that brings down a character’s favorables in faster than a lightweight down the Super Slide. Another favorite is when the character believes information against the hero that she has no reason to believe because of the unreliable source: the ex-girlfriend, the bad guy, the mother of the hero who would rather eat her poodle than see her precious son married to the heroine.

Authors provide a lot of lip service about how strong, smart, independent that a heroine is but if she displays the aforementioned behaviors, I’m going to think that the heroine is an idiot regardless of how many characters are in alt over her savvy ways. Oftentimes, no one in the book calls the heroine on her foolish actions.   Instead, the book goes on without a blip.   Just because the characters inside the novel don’t acknowledge the crazy, it doesn’t mean that the readers do not.   Instead we just think that the rest of the characters are also stupid for not recognizing how awful the heroine is and then it’s just a downward spiral of hate from there.

Simply saying that a heroine is smart doesn’t mean that she isn’t dumb as a stump. We readers have to be SHOWN through her actions and behavior that she actually has an IQ higher than a lumberjack’s leavings. If she makes a boneheaded mistake, she has to acknowledge it, not ignore it, deny it or, god forbid, be praised for it. If she owns her bad behavior, it actually raises her favorables. So lead her into the dark alley, allow her to be saved and then have her acknowledge its a stupid thing and then agree to stay home the next time that some type of combat is taking place or until she learns how to wield a gun or sword or lightsaber.

I’m never sure if the author inserts those scenes because she thinks its cute and sexy for the heroine to constantly jeopardize the safety of her person and those around her or whether it is authorial laziness.   It’s easier to make the character act a certain way to achieve the desired plot effect rather than the other way around.   I would much rather have the plot be integrated with the character arc of the story rather than the character to arc in accordance with the plot. It seems to me that when the character acts simply to advance the plot, the favorability rating starts its downward slide and sometimes* the book never recovers.

So many of these actions described above make the heroine look weak and in need of rescuing. She’s at least feeble in the mind, if not feeble spirited, and spineless. What’s heroic about those qualities? Just once, I would like to see the heroine give the hero a big old facer when he’s an asshole much like Jessica Trent did to Lord Dain in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. Or how about the heroine, who is placed in a precarious situation in order to obtain much needed information, say to the hero “You dickwad, I’m in peril because you were too hard headed to listen to me and the only reason you had to save my ass is because you refused to listen to my suspicions earlier. You deserved to get grazed by a bullet and no I’m not going to kiss and make it better. I’m going home and will work off my excess energy with the Bullet which gives me satisfaction without back chat.”

So I ask you readers (authors, readers, editors, you know the drill), what do you think of the “favorability factor”? Is there an increasing trend toward the infantilising of heroines? Am I just reading the wrong books?

*Caveat, sometimes the unfavorables are offset by something brilliant in the book so I’m talking generalities here and there are always exceptions.

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

64 Comments

  1. Corrine
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 05:37:31

    Great post, and I agree wholeheartedly. It seems to me that most of the authors who write heroines in this style probably (a) want someone to take care of them, (b) have daddy issues, or (c) really have no idea how a smart, independent, strong woman would react in times of great need because they don’t identify themselves by these adjectives. For those of us who do identify with these adjectives, it’s a lesson in frustration, so I guess the old axiom “write what you know” should be applied to this situation as well.

    One of my favorite Linda Howard scenes is from Open Season where Jack is trying desperately to contact Daisy because Bad Shit has gone down, and when he finally does, he begins the usual dominating male chastisement, only to be firmly put in his place when he finds out she was just taking the dog out, not placing herself in Mortal Danger.

  2. LizA
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 06:07:15

    Great post! I think this is a wider issue. I have seen this kind of thing in movies too… I think it is related to the “Women as objects” issue – in a way, the woman is the “reward” which has to be “earned” by the hero, and how does he “earn” her? By slaying the dragon…. the other side of this coin is the over-effective hero who never steps wrong and always saves the day. HE never does anything stupid. That setup annoys me no end, needless to say! Writers need to take a really close look at their gender issues and the way they view/describe gender roles, imo.

    “And there's an acceptance of a completely feminine persona, while many women do not see themselves as pink and fluffy”.

    Exactly. I always feel uncomfortable with all those extremely fluffy, frilly, pink… super feminine heroines. Esp. as it seems to go together with being an airhead a lot of times (there are exceptions). It ties back to gender roles – many romance novels seem to be set on reinforcing conventional gender roles. I much prefer reading about well rounded characters – so she might like heels and bags, but why not also enjoy the outdoors? And it’s the same with men – unlike we are let to believe in romancelandia, testosterone does not lead to colour-blindness or sports addiction!

  3. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 06:15:19

    As I read your post, Jane, several bits jumped out at me:

    “what the article refers to as the “infantilising of women” or the dumbing down of female characters in order to achieve a certain effect.”

    “this also gives the author the opportunity for the hero to chastise the heroine like a little girl and then they can kiss passionately. This might even lead to a hot sex scene as the hero is so wound up by his fear and anger that he must take it out on the heroine's delicate body.”

    “it makes her unbearably sexy to the audience such that the audience is wound up by anger and excitement that they/he must take it out on the heroine's delicate body.”

    “I'm never sure if the author inserts those scenes because she thinks its cute and sexy”

    “It's easier to make the character act a certain way to achieve the desired plot effect rather than the other way around.”

    I may have misunderstood you, but when I put together what you wrote in those bits I just quoted, it seemed to me that what you were describing were novels in which the characterisation is less important than the plot effect of creating sexual excitement. Ann Snitow, albeit writing in 1979 when romances were rather different, wrote something that might possibly also be applicable to the books you’re describing: “Independence is always presented as a mere counter in the sexual game, like a hairdo or any other flirtatious gesture; sexual feeling utterly defeats its early stirrings” (253) and “Looking at them as pornography obviously offers a number of alternative explanations for these same traits: the heroine’s passivity becomes sexual receptivity and, though I complained earlier about her vapidity, in pornography no one need have a personality” (257). Snitow stated that she was using “the word pornographic as neutrally as possible here, not as an automatic pejorative” (255) and I’m raising the question in a similarly neutral way. Can a text be considered pornographic if the characterisation is secondary to the plot, and the plot is carefully arranged in order to produce sexy situations?

  4. Anion
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:08:22

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m extremely tired of seeing heroines behave stupidly and everyone still thinks of her, or the reader is expected to still think of her, as “smart”. How is it smart to refuse protection you know you need because the hero made a rude comment about your shoes? How do women who behave in this fashion manage to live as long as they do, without walking into the path of a speeding car or something? At least if they’re going to take a terrible risk and wander through a ghetto in the middle of the night, have them acknowledge it’s a risk. Have them take a knife or something, have them prefial 911 on their cellphones, just something. Instead of “I’m sure it’s not that dangerous, la la la!”

    My solution is to read lots of Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters novels. The heroines are always real, intelligent people, and when they occasionally do something stupid they realize it was stupid, apologize, and vow not to do it again.

    I model my heroines on those ladies, as well (and as well as myself and my friends with brains too), and have been lucky enough to have quite a few reviewers comment that at least my heroines actually do behave as though they’ve got brains and common sense. That makes me prouder than anything else. Even Mrs. Giggles acknowledged that my heroines aren’t stupid. I think I’m going to have that carved on my gravestone.

  5. Anion
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:09:16

    Oh, I just wrote a big old comment and it didn’t show up. So here’s the gist:

    Hate dumb heroines, they bug me and bother me because I do feel like I’m supposed to laugh and find them charming. I like Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth peters heroines because they’re smart. I model my heroines on them as well as on myself and my friends and have been lucky enough to have reviewers comment on how my heroines behave like sensible adults (even Mrs. Giggles. I will have that put on my gravestone, I think: Mrs. Giggles liked my heroines.)

    I don’t want to spend time in real life with dumb women; why would I want to spend my valuable reading time with them? It may be a little harder coming up with ways to put sensible people in danger, but it can be done and is much more satsfying for the reader.

  6. Nadia
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:12:02

    Some writers use clumsy heroines because they think it’s funny / humorous.

  7. Jayne
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:13:39

    Nah, Anion. Our spam blocker caught your comment. I retrieved it.

  8. msaggie
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:28:56

    I really enjoyed your post, Jane. I am so choosy nowadays that if I come across such a heroine when flipping through a book at the bookstore, I drop it immediately, so I don’t knowingly, consciously, read books with such heroines anymore as they annoy me to no end. However, the fact that such heroines exist means that there must be a substantial proportion of readers who like to read about them, and authors write such to cater to these readers. One man’s meat, another man’s poison. But isn’t the trend nowadays moving towards more empowered heroines, rather than those that are dumb airheads, etc? Or do you think dumb heroines are making a comeback? Or do you think more authors are trying to sell dumb heroines as “pretend empowered”?

  9. Kristen
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:32:56

    Great post. And I have to say that I try to write heroines who are like me – they can be pink and fluffy, but they have no problem throwing the first punch if the sitch demands it.

  10. Mireya
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:39:43

    I agree with you. Interestingly enough, a perfect example of this is the book “Dark Fire” by Christine Feehan. To me, that book would have been a complete wallbanger had it not been for the hero. Why? the heroine completely destroyed any enjoyment of it that I may have had. She was, in my book, TSTL. The second I started wishing a slow and painful death for her I knew it was time for me to skip to the ending, and toss the book into the trash… I wouldn’t even dare giving it away… that’s how poor my opinion is about that book. Then I go to Amazon and read Christine Feehan’s forums and guess what… it’s probably the most mentioned book referred to as a “favorite” in that forum. Ironically, Feehan also wrote one of my favorite heroines in paranormal romance: Jax (Jaxon), from the book “Dark Guardian”. Strong, this one is actually trained by Special Forces, yet you don’t see her going around into danger just because she feels like taking a walk alone into the woods knowing full well that there was extreme danger there (which is how Tempest seemed to end up in trouble most of the time *snort*). Christine Feehan is one of those authors that writes her heroines like Forest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates… you never know what you are going to get. However, to her credit, the latest four heroines in her books have been to my liking.

    Either way, if a heroine is like what you described in a book I am reading, the book ends up in the “can’t be bothered to finish” pile and given away or tossed in the trash.

    Are there more heroines written that way now? I can’t say I’ve noticed. I have only been reading romance over the past 6 years so I don’t have the extensive experience with romance that most people here seem to have.

  11. Wendy
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:45:38

    Boy did this post set me to sifting my catalogue of characters. I’m always worried that I’m guilty of telling about smarts rather than showing them. …that I’m not smart enough as a writer to create truly clever characters because, quite simply, my intelligence is so incredibly book-based and not very practical, useful. This is such a constant struggle.
    I’d like to think I’m not revolving my characters around my plot, but I do think that sometimes I’m quite guilty of “Men follow the hero and hardly know why” because I don’t know why. Gods, does he actually HAVE leadership ability or are they also just nancing after his pretty face because they’re all secretly in love with him. (One of them is, but that’s beside the point.)

    Such a learning process.

    This post also opens up a HUGE can of worms about gender issues which are CRAZY personal for me. That whole heroine as a reward concept just burns my cookies. It’s in the culture, if we’re conscious of it or not. It just turns me into a great big, snarling, crusading, man-hating nut (which I’m not fond of). I can’t stand to be vicariously diminished. …and I will stop here because this could get out of hand. (and I have to go to work. blah.)

  12. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 07:52:32

    I can handle if the h/h do stupid things, then learn from the stupid things and improve.

    I hate it when one stupid thing begets another, and another, and another, and nobody ever learns anything.

  13. Kimber An
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 08:22:52

    I think the key is the character must be supported by her actions. I think clumsy, impulsive heroines are funny. I also like kick-butt heroines. Actually, I’m very flexible, so long as it makes sense and they’re not in every single novel I pick up. Variety please! Don’t call a heroine smart if she walks down a dark alley without a pistol or a blackbelt in TaeKwonDo. Call her a dingbat and show me how she grows over the course of the story. But, don’t call her smart. Be honest and realize that readers are smart.

  14. (Jān)
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 08:25:04

    I’ve not read many new romances in the past few years, but I had the impression that a large number of the urban fantasy-type romances that have glutted the market had a lot more kick-ass heroines than we used to see. Is it that typical contemporaries contain more SITC-type airheads and strength has to be found elsewhere? Or do I have the wrong idea of what’s out there entirely?

    The heroines described in the article just remind me of old school romance. In other words, we should have grown out of them by now. I have nothing against feminine heroines, and like them to be honest. But femininity’s main trait is not stupidity.

  15. vanessa jaye
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 08:50:25

    Great post. I don’t mind if the heroine does something stupid, as long as she does any one of, or combination of, the following:

    a) she’s properly motivated. (life in danger, etc)

    b) the character trait that causes her act like a dumb ass is fully fleshed-out, and not just convenient for the plot. (she’s impetuous, or believes no-one cares for her or what she does anyway, etc)

    c) in the aftermath she fully realizes her stupidity. (d’oh! ::headdesk::)

    d) she makes some attempt not to do so again. (I say ‘some attempt’ because if it is a personality impulse– ie recklessness– she’s not going to be miraculously cured of that trait after one bad experience. And if she were, then it would have obviously been a plot ploy to begin with.)

    Btw, the one trope that absolutely sets my teeth on edge is the historical impoverished orphan/widow heroine who refuses to marry the wealthy lusting-like-crazy-after-her hero because he doesn't wub her just a widdle bit. *sob!* Puhleeze.

  16. Marsha
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 08:50:48

    Those female characters in the 1930s screwball comedies? I wonder if they were perceived as realistic portrayals of “smart” at the time. I’ll have to talk to my grandmother to be sure, but my guess is that they were thought to be just as unattractive and counter to real life as the infantalized characters are today and that they weren’t thought of as ideal models of feminine behavior. Do those heroines just seem better to us now because they reflect our current thinking about women?

  17. Jane
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 08:55:11

    Can a text be considered pornographic if the characterisation is secondary to the plot, and the plot is carefully arranged in order to produce sexy situations?

    I’m not quite sure what you are saying. Is it that those books where the characters act in a way that appears to be inconsistent with what the author tells us that the character is in order to advance the plot is pornographic?

    I think I phrased that badly. Is it that the author is trying to tell us something different – something sexual – by having the character acting secondary to the plot?

  18. Keishon
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:12:11

    I prefer the character to act in accordance to the plot and not the other way around. I also agree with (Jān). I don’t mind feminine characters either but in no way does that mean that they are pushovers and can’t think or protect themselves within reason.

    Bottom line for me is to open a book and be entertained. If everything is put together right and I’m not thrown for a loop, we’re good.

  19. Chicklet
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:14:24

    Goodness, YES. To all of this, but especially:

    In the scenario above, the heroine acts to advance the plot. If the heroine's character arc was that she acted stupid and immature but learned that her behavior was destructive and dangerous to herself and those around her thus she stopped acting stupidly, that would be one thing. Then the plot works to advance the character arc. In this example (and so many books), the heroine argues with the hero that she had to be there; that she was searching for the truth; that she was saving small children and their pets from danger and the peril was unavoidable.

    Precisely. When character grows out of the plot, oftentimes the resulting characters behave inconsistently because their actions/thoughts are driven by the author’s plot needs, not what would drive the character if s/he actually existed.

    And then Shiloh Walker said:

    I can handle if the h/h do stupid things, then learn from the stupid things and improve.

    I hate it when one stupid thing begets another, and another, and another, and nobody ever learns anything.

    …and I looked askance at Stephanie Plum, because that’s exactly why I gave up on that series: Stephanie has been a bounty hunter for years and still leaves her apartment without her gun OR a charged-up taser OR a charged-up cellphone. Sweet baby Jesus on a unicorn, girl: Grow a brain.

  20. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:23:46

    Don't call a heroine smart if she walks down a dark alley without a pistol or a blackbelt in TaeKwonDo

    Actually, unless I understood the heroine’s motivation, I’d probably call her a dingbat even if she was a black belt. I’ll be testing for my student black in less than a year and in all the years I’ve taken TKD, one thing instructors pound into the head is that you’re learning self-defense but that doesn’t mean you put yourself into a position where you’ll probably need it, at least not without good reason.

    Part of self-defense is self-awareness. And a heroine that’s self-aware and smart isn’t going to mosey down a dark alley just for the hell of it.

  21. muñeca
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:30:32

    For a long time I gave up reading romances because of all the above plots I couldn’t sit back and enjoy the book with out being frustrated by the heroine for doing and acting this stupid it wasn’t until I found reviews sites like this one that finally allowed myself to get back to reading romances.

    “You dickwad, I'm in peril because you were too hard headed to listen to me and the only reason you had to save my ass is because you refused to listen to my suspicions earlier. You deserved to get grazed by a bullet and no I'm not going to kiss and make it better. I'm going home and will work off my excess energy with the Bullet which gives me satisfaction without back chat.”

    I just had to quote that LOL what I wouldn’t give to read the above scene. But read her actually follow through and do it man that would be an awsome book.

  22. Ciar Cullen
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:35:00

    What Shiloh said. We’ve all done stupid things because we were young and thought we were invincible, thought bad things would never happen to us, didn’t understand that you can turn a corner in Manhattan and be in a really crummy neighborhood in an instant, didn’t know that you don’t have to spend your life trying to rescue your lamo family members, didn’t have to marry a drunk… It’s how one learns and responds, and those character journeys are what makes a great book for me.

    The Sex in the City gals are the wallbangers for me. Handbags, shoes, hair and make-up–we’re barraged at every turn. Don’t want to read it or watch it on TV or in the movies. I think it’s why I like the fantasy genre so much.

  23. Victoria Dahl
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:38:09

    Well, you already know how I feel about this. *g*


    My heroines are sometimes not heroic.

    I do my very best to give every heroine power, even if it’s just the power to have her own good time. I hope to God I pull it off.

  24. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:46:07

    I'm not quite sure what you are saying. Is it that those books where the characters act in a way that appears to be inconsistent with what the author tells us that the character is in order to advance the plot is pornographic?

    If the characters seem stupid and fluffy, that could just be a preference on the part of the author. Maybe she likes fluffy heroines.

    If the characters act in ways which are inconsistent with what the author tells us about them, that could indicate either that (a) the author isn’t aware that the characters’ actions are inconsistent with the description of them. Maybe the author really does think that the heroine’s behaviour is very smart or (b) it may indicate that the author isn’t very good at creating consistent, believable characters.

    If, however, there seems to be some underlying purpose behind the inconsistency, and that purpose is to create sexy scenes, then one might begin to wonder if (a) the author doesn’t really care about the characterisation, and if (b) the plot is set up to lead to sexy scenes and if (c) the author’s main aim is to write something which will arouse the readers. If a, b and c are true, then it would appear that the work is heading towards being pornography, which AgTigress recently defined as being “episodic and lacks the true story arc and distinctive characters that we expect to find in a fully evolved novel. It is aimed only at arousing physical sexual response in the reader.” It may be that these texts still have enough of a story arc and characterisation to avoid actually being pornography, but perhaps they’re heading in that direction.

  25. Anion
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:46:31

    Thanks, Jayne. Sorry for the double post everyone.

  26. Jane
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 09:53:32

    Okay, I think I’m tracking with you. When the story’s characterization suffers in advancement of the plot and the plot is to place the characters in sexual situations then under some definitions, this could be pornography; whether it be intentional and subconscious on the part of the author, the focus is more on the sexualized nature of the pairing rather than the sexuality being part of the character arc.

    Am I understanding this?

  27. Jessa Slade
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 10:17:25

    Stephanie has been a bounty hunter for years and still leaves her apartment without her gun

    I hear what you all are saying about TSTL and I agree up to a point. The point is that I am still entertained.

    Maybe some of what you call infantilising is more comic booking. Which might not be to everyone’s taste, or not for every book, but I like bigger than life. I guess I don’t read for “idealistically realistic” heroines who are plain but smart, overweight but fit, cognizant of their shortcomings, not too nice, not too talented, etc. I like more guts & more glory. I root for plot as much as character, and I LOVE a snappy line of dialogue in moments of extreme danger or orgasm.

    So every Jenny Cruise story with a psycho ex is still on my permanent rotation shelf even though a saavy woman should know better because I am always entertained.

  28. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 10:43:26

    When the story's characterization suffers in advancement of the plot and the plot is to place the characters in sexual situations then under some definitions, this could be pornography; whether it be intentional and subconscious on the part of the author, the focus is more on the sexualized nature of the pairing rather than the sexuality being part of the character arc.

    Am I understanding this?

    Yes, that’s right, although in cases like these I think it might be difficult to know what the author was thinking and whether the effects produced were intentional or subconscious. I’m still thinking this through myself.

    I think pornography would lack both a character arc and in-depth characterisation, because porn is focussed on sexual acts, not on the characters as individuals, or any non-physical aspects of their relationship. Porn (as defined by AgTigress) also “lacks the true story arc.” I don’t know whether these novels had one or not, but if they had a lot of sexy scenes in them which didn’t seem to do much to advance the non-sexual part of the plot and didn’t spring from the characterisation, that would probably be an indication that the focus, as in porn, was on creating sexy, titillating scenes.

  29. Keishon
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 10:45:04

    I hear what you all are saying about TSTL and I agree up to a point. The point is that I am still entertained

    Part of this statement is true for me in that in the end, if I am entertained then all is well.

    Re Stephanie Plum her character is written to be forever clueless because many find her funny for it. I did, at the start but then it got tiring and I wanted more. But ever since the author asserted that her character would not grow in any meaningful way, I quit expecting it and just decided not to read the series any longer. I was no longer entertained by Stephanie and her antics while some readers still find them funny.

  30. Jia
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 10:47:08

    I had the impression that a large number of the urban fantasy-type romances that have glutted the market had a lot more kick-ass heroines than we used to see.

    Unfortunately, being a kickass urban fantasy heroine doesn’t save you from the fictional stupidity gene. I can think of a couple right off the top of my head whose decisions and actions routinely make me question their intelligence, and one in particular who acknowledges her stupidity but revels in it and does nothing to change it.

  31. HelenKay Dimon
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 11:02:27

    I get being frustrated with a TSTL heroine, but I think we throw the term around and use it any time a heroine does something not-so-bright. To me that’s not TSTL. Fact is, people do stupid things all the time. If the hero and heroine in a book are brilliant all the time, how are the growing? Let them do dumb human things that are not always in their self-interest – relatable things we can all see happening – and then let them grow. Seems to me that makes a better character arc than the all-smart-all-the-time chick.

  32. Sparky
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 11:23:22

    It’s depressing that the writers feel a need to make the hero look so extra manly and heroic only through the woman beings os utterly clueless. It’s even more depressing when you realise that the target readership are women – and they STILL bring out the “helpless/clueless/just plain idiotic woman who needs saaaaaving” card over and over.

    And there’s nothing worse than that in a book – where they describe a character as X Y Z but that character is NOTHING LIKE THAT. She’s independent and intelligent and tough? Then why is she so utterly stupid and needs constant rescuing?

    These women aren’t characters. They’re plot devices. They exist to showcase the HERO in an impressive manner. A simpering princess who needs rescuing from the dragon usually has the same depth of character and purpose in the story as the dragon itself – it exists to make the hero look good

    I’m not saying heroines all have to be martial artist, gun toting ladies with Einstein like IQs (yes, Mary Sue, I’m talking to you) but it’s not too much to ask for them to be reasonable, sensible ADULTS and not dumb as a sack of rocks

  33. Hortense Powdermaker
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 11:38:00

    Here's an example of a faux-independent, faux-strong TSTL heroine: Honoria (Devil's Bride). On page 47, she's got plans: she's going to explore the Ivory Coast. On page 79 she has “no intention of marrying at all.” On page 109 she has “no intention to wed – not you, not any man.” On page 124 she again declares “I won't be marrying, you or anyone.” Oh, but he loves “her stubbornness, her defiance, her unquenchable pride.” On page 162 she insists that they must “discuss the ton's likely reaction when it learns I'm not marrying you.”

    They kiss.

    He pays her bills, she throws a cute hissy fit. On page 179 she's still planning to go to Africa.

    They kiss some more.

    Well, maybe she'll marry him, but only if he promises never to pay her bills again. (WTF? This is regency England. Once she marries him everything she owns is his.)

    She's TSTM (too stupid to masturbate) so she gets her first evah orgasm from his magical hands. That's on page 212. On page 233: “I want to marry you. I want to be your wife, your duchess…I want to bear your children.”

    Whoa! What happened to her plans to go to Africa?

    So now she's the Duchess of the powerful and wealthy Cynsters. She has no internal strength of character, but she doesn't need any: she's married to a Duke. She puts herself in a dangerous situation and spends the whole time threatening the lower classes with her noble clan's power: “my husband and his cousins are coming for you, there's six of them, they're taller than you, they're coming for revenge, they're going to wreck this tavern and everyone in it, etc etc. Oh, and did I mention my husband's a Duke?” Since poor people understand, indeed, that a Duke and a Duchess are Above The Law, they are properly cowed. Then the noble men show up to rescue her.

    This is admirable? In this and subsequent books she's presented as the “strong” matriarch of the Cynster clan.

    But if she were the Duke's bit on the side – a poor chambermaid bearing his illegitimate children – she could be the exact same person and her influence in the family would be nil. All her power comes from her position (as the wife of a Duke) and the circumstances of her birth (born into the privileged classes).

    So if Laura Vivanco’s a+b+c=pornography, then yes, this book is teh pr0n.

  34. MCHalliday
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 12:08:26

    The hero is not the reason I read and write romance and genre w/romantic elements; the heroine’s journey is the most interesting aspect. If she’s a complete twit, doesn’t quickly learn from her mistakes, or doesn’t contemplate an outcome when making a difficult decision, I won’t enjoy reading about her. Nor do I wish to watch programmes about frivolous, silly women in their forties unless it’s parody.

  35. Kathleen O'Reilly
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 12:14:53

    I agree with HelenKay. People do stupid things, but they do them for very good reasons, and the reader should know what those reasons are. Doing something stupid for no reason is stupid, but give them a logic, a rationale, a reason that is true to who they are, then voila, it’s actually human. I think what frustrates me is actually unmotivated stupid behavior.

  36. Jessa Slade
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 12:16:25

    TSTM (too stupid to masturbate)

    Bwa-ha! Can I please use this in my next critique group meeting? Love it.

  37. Jaci Burton
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:00:48

    Doing something stupid as a means for the hero to come rescue the heroine? Yeah, I’m not at all interested in that.

    Doing something stupid as a means for character growth? If it makes sense, then yes, I can see it. And I don’t mean sending her upstairs when she hears a noise and she’s alone and untrained and unarmed when any sensible person would get the hell out of the house.

    Perfection bores me. I like imperfect characters that make mistakes, male and female. I like when they learn from those mistakes and grow, or when those mistakes are a way to learn about each other or show growth in the relationshp. As long as the author gives me a valid reason for the mistake and shows that growth, I’m fine with it.

  38. LizA
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:03:06

    Hortense, I totally agree with you on Devil’s Bride! I generally hated the attitude in the few Cynster books I have read. They always “indulge” their ladies. That word alone makes me gag. You indulge your pet or your children, not your wife. Bleh.

    I get being frustrated with a TSTL heroine, but I think we throw the term around and use it any time a heroine does something not-so-bright. To me that's not TSTL. Fact is, people do stupid things all the time. If the hero and heroine in a book are brilliant all the time, how are the growing?

    I do not mind “people” being stupid, but I mind as hell if only the heroine is being shown as incompetent and not intelligent. And in 9 out of 10 cases, it is only the heroine who is stupid… next to never the hero.

  39. Jane
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:05:57

    I do not mind “people” being stupid, but I mind as hell if only the heroine is being shown as incompetent and not intelligent. And in 9 out of 10 cases, it is only the heroine who is stupid… next to never the hero.

    Heh, my corresponding piece next week is about the perfection of the male and how authors tear down the heroines to make the hero’s more manly. We must really have high standards for men!

    But in regards to perfection of characters, that’s not what I argued for at all. In fact, I said explicitly that if the heroine was going to make stupid choices, that would be fine as long as it was part of the character arc and that she owned the stupidity and then tried to move forward. But all too often the heroine is acting stupidly in order to advance the plot – provide suspense, but, I think, more often than not, to provide a foil for the hero’s masculinity and heroicness.

  40. Emmy
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:16:42

    I stopped reading romances almost entirely in the 90′s because of authors like Janelle Taylor and Johanna Lindsey, who were pumping out books full of stupid twits and men who basically patted women on the head and convinced the little lady to let a real man take over. Don’t worry your pretty little head, just get nekkid and let’s boink.

    Christine Feehan’s books also made me wanna scream, although I admittedly didn’t read past the first few. I got completely disgusted when the women had no choice in their futures. Savannah even ran away to have her own life, and got forced to join with a guy anyways because hey, he’s her lifemate and wanted to see in pretty, sparkly COLORS *gags*.

    It also runs me nuts when women who are supposedly top notch spies for their country do stupid shit and have to be rescued by an even better, male spy. Meh.

  41. Pepper E
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:20:03

    # Marsha on September 23rd, 2008 at 8:50 am:

    Those female characters in the 1930s screwball comedies? I wonder if they were perceived as realistic portrayals of “smart” at the time. I'll have to talk to my grandmother to be sure, but my guess is that they were thought to be just as unattractive and counter to real life as the infantalized characters are today and that they weren't thought of as ideal models of feminine behavior. Do those heroines just seem better to us now because they reflect our current thinking about women?

    Last year when I was finishing up my MA, I took a film theory class. As a result, I had to write a theory paper. We watched His Girl Friday and I discovered my love for screwball comedies in general and Cary Grant in particular (the perfect romantic hero for my money). So when it came time to write a theory paper, I chose to write about screwball comedies in general and Cary Grant in particular. In all the reading that I did about them, and research of the stars in them, I never came across anything to indicate that the women were viewed as unattractive or undesirable. Indeed, the movies themselves undermine the idea that there is something wrong with them. By the end of the films, the women are not changed. In fact, they are not asked to change. Susan in Bringing up Baby and Lucy in The Awful Truth and Tracy in The Philadelphia Story and Hildy in His Girl Friday (to name a few) are presented as intelligent, sometimes scheming, sometimes playful, sometimes clumsy, but always self-possessing and attractive women. They don’t need to make any major character adjustments to win their men.

    In fact, the men who don’t recognize how awesome they are are the men who lose out. In His Girl Friday, Bruce wants Hildy to settle down, have children, and never work in the newspaper again. Walter (Cary Grant) is the hero precisely because he knows that’s ridiculous, and he’s going to help her out of that situation so she can marry him and continue to be his best “newspaper man.” (Interestingly, in the original play, Hildy was a man and the editor’s partner. I haven’t ready the original play, but from what I understand, Hildy in the movie didn’t change much.) Or at the end of The Philadelphia Story when he says “Be whatever you like, you’re my Red.”

    Um…I’m getting rambling here. Sorry. The point is, movie studios have always existed for one thing. To make money. If a genre, style, or actress is not paying the bills, then they don’t stick it out for years. And Screwball comedies span nearly 2 decades. Kate Hepburn had some problems in Hollywood, but it was a screwball comedy (The Philadelphia Story) that brought her back to the screen. So, in other words, the public wanted and enjoyed screwball comedies. The movies themselves never (or rarely, I haven’t seen every film) punished the women. And the leading men had to prove themselves to be worthy of these strong women in order to win them away from “unworthy” men. If the standard characterizations and themes weren’t popular, the studios would not have backed the films.

  42. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:26:16

    Sometimes it’s because the plot leads, and the characters are forced to follow. Sometimes it’s for lack of an explanation.
    I’ve rewritten a couple of my early books for new publishers recently and the thing I was asked to do was explain the motivation. I like to take capable characters and then throw them out of the sphere they’re used to, but sometimes this can lead to overconfidence or TSTL behaviour. When you do that, you have to explain it carefully (I’ve found) so now I’m more careful to lay it out.
    Oh yes, and the heroes who treat the heroines like something under their shoe until the last chapter. I’ll put up with it for a couple of chapters, especially if she gives as good as she gets, but not the whole book, and there’d better be a good grovel along the way somewhere.
    One of my most popular books, A Griffin’s Treasure, had the heroine kicking the hero in the nadgers when he tries to do the “come here, my proud beauty” thing. I think I got more (favourable) fan letters about that scene than I ever had before!

  43. Corrine
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:40:10

    Pepper E, I love your post and the general feeling of it, but I have to disagree with part.

    If you watch The Philadelphia Story you’ll see that Tracy had to make leaps and bounds in her character all within a few days to find her HEA. She had everyone pointing out to her that she held herself to such high standards that everyone held her up on a pedestal because of it, and she condemned them all for their lowly humanity and for the fact that they saw her as “a goddess”. From the time we meet her, she goes through a number of revelations about herself, her father (which was the only part of the movie I really hated), her ex-husband, and her fiance. In the end, it all worked out, but Dexter definitely didn’t just accept her as she was and shrug off all the problems they’d have previously in their relationship.

  44. handyhunter
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:46:34

    In fact, they are not asked to change.

    I think Tracy Lord (The Philadelphia Story) does change, though. Part of why I like this movie so much is the self-discovery Tracy goes through, for herself mainly, but also for her relationships with the men in her life — her father, Dexter, even George, and Mike. Arguably, it’s Liz Imbrie who doesn’t (have to) change throughout the movie (and I love her interactions with Dexter).

    This is what Dexter says to Tracy: “That’s the gist of it; because you’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.” And it’s repeated by her father, in even less admirable terms (“if your ego wants it that way…”), and by George, who wants to lock her up in an ivory tower, to be worshipped from afar.

    It’s in Mike that she sees reflections of herself (“You’re the worst kind there is. An intellectual snob. You made up your mind awfully young, it seems to me.”) and comes to this realization: “The time to make up your mind about people – is never.” And what makes Tracy/Dexter work, even though the movie isn’t that much about their relationship, is that he’s seen her at her worst – and she at his – and they still love one another, flaws and all, and they’re both striving to be better (more considerate) people.

    The movie is smart and doesn’t talk down to the audience. Tracy doesn’t lose her dignity and her character is not sacrificed for the plot; she’s not caught up in shoes or her weight or even trying to find a guy; it just happens that this self-discovery occurs when she’s about to be remarried. It doesn’t rely on plot shenanigans to keep it moving, and it’s as much a story about class structure/perception as it is about the romance and comedy. Would that more romantic comedies were written like this.

  45. Pepper E
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 13:58:52

    Corrine, The Philadelphia Story is my favorite movie and it’s actually wrote my paper on, so I’ve viewed it many times, and I understand what you’re saying. I take a slightly different reading of the film. Tracy’s problem was that she had no forgiveness for human weakness. Dexter was not blameless in what happened to their marriage–he was an alcoholic and probably a mean drunk (that’s what I got from the opening scene). In order for the relationship to work, he had to go away and become healthy again–and you’ll notice he doesn’t drink anything alcoholic in the whole movie. Tracy, on the other hand, can’t see that he’s a better person–she couldn’t forgive him while it was happening and she couldn’t look beyond their past when he returned.

    Now, if the movie was just a triangle between Tracy, Dexter, and George, then it would very much seem like the whole point is to shape Tracy into a more acceptable woman–softer, more forgiving, not on her pedestal. In other words, knock her down to size and put her in her place. But Macaulay complicates that, because he adores her. He adores everything about her. So we’ve got 3 potential suitors–George who sees her as a Goddess, and when she falls from that pedestal, she falls hard (and it crushes Tracy that he would think the worst of her and not even forgive her, which causes her to understand what she did to Dexter). Macaulay who sees her as a woman unlike all the other women, but still just a bit out of reach because of the fire (“the holocaust”) that burns inside of her. And Dexter, who knows she has it in her to be just human, with weakness, and frailty, that needs to be forgiven. A woman who holds herself to a standard that’s far, far too high and as a result, holds everybody else to that standard. He doesn’t want her to change and bring him his slippers. He doesn’t want her to offer her “paw” in submission. He wants her to view him as an equal instead of as a priest in the service of a Goddess.

    I find that to be one of the best messages of any movie ever. A woman should not be placed on a pedestal–the inevitable fall will kill her. Tracy didn’t even do anything wrong, and George wad disgusted with her. Rather, she should be an equal, a partner in a loving relationship. Tracy didn’t need to be knocked off her pedestal–she needed to simply walk off it herself (with the help of Macaulay. Dexter couldn’t do it and neither could George. On the flip side, she helped Macaulay return to earth too, because he was a huge snob. Like he said to Dex when he was drunk, alcohol brought him down to Dexter’s level. They both needed to learn a lesson about expectations).

  46. Pepper E
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 14:04:49

    And I see now that I misread your response, Corrine and ended up making pretty much the same points. Sorry. I apparently need to work on my reading comprehension.

  47. Tara Gelsomino
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 14:12:34

    Heh. I find this column ironic, since I wrote a blog post a year or so ago on this very topic and got pretty much vilified here for my opinion that the current state of romance/chick lit is overrun with infantilized heroines (and yeah, the part that most people got up in arms about: the male writers I read did a better job creating complex and mature female characters). In fact, I considerably lessened my reading in these genres because I couldn’t handle authors (Evanovich and SEP to name a few, many many more lesser authors whom I’ve forgotten) using stock traits like “clumsy” or “fashion-obsessed” as shortcuts for actual charm and likability. I’m not sure when this sort of wounded dove/faux-strength (that is probably shown to best example in Steph Meyer’s Twilight series currently) came about. Did it come hand-in-hand with the post-feminist girl power of the ’90s? Has it circled back around? Certainly Rosalind Russell would plant a foot up your ass should you dissolve into puddles of melty bliss and want to die when your sparkly vampire boyfriend ends your creepy co-dependent relationship. (Although maybe that’s not fair as it is a YA novel.)

  48. MCHalliday
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 14:29:59

    The point is, movie studios have always existed for one thing. To make money. If a genre, style, or actress is not paying the bills, then they don't stick it out for years.

    Absolutely! When a production company reads a script, it must contain at least one of five elements to be considered for option. Genre flip-flop is on that list and with romance typically portraying women as weaklings saved by devilish heros, it can be desirable for film that a strong heroine find her own way and HEA with a wonderful, unheroic man.

    [The Philadelphia Story] doesn’t rely on plot shenanigans to keep it moving…

    It’s interesting that no book read or film viewed, will be the same for everyone. I perceived some shenanigans in the movie but then I analyze films while refering to the scripts.

  49. Mariana
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 15:20:39

    Just wanted to second Chicklet for this

    …and I looked askance at Stephanie Plum, because that's exactly why I gave up on that series: Stephanie has been a bounty hunter for years and still leaves her apartment without her gun OR a charged-up taser OR a charged-up cellphone. Sweet baby Jesus on a unicorn, girl: Grow a brain.

    I so liked Stephanie Plum for the first 2-3 books, then had to stop after the fifth book. I just could not put myself through it any longer. Especially after reading J.D. Robb “In Death” series; it just made it more painful to read about her inept-ness.

  50. (Jān)
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 15:46:05

    Unfortunately, being a kickass urban fantasy heroine doesn't save you from the fictional stupidity gene. I can think of a couple right off the top of my head whose decisions and actions routinely make me question their intelligence, and one in particular who acknowledges her stupidity but revels in it and does nothing to change it.

    Too bad. Kick-ass and stupid is probably the worst combination.

    To me TSTL is someone who doesn’t learn from doing something dumb. I mean, that’s the whole point of the acronym, right? Darwinism in action? If a character does something then learns, that’s character growth and a good thing. If a character does something stupid over and over and over, that’s TSTL, and often is used to show she’s a feisty girl. I came to the horrified conclusion that it’s some people’s idea of feminism.

    Speaking of older movies, I would so love to see an Auntie Mame-like character as a heroine in a romance novel. Witty, big-hearted, aggressive, very people intelligent, but especially very happy with who she is. Has it ever happened? I have the feeling I’ll just have to go watch Ms Russell again.

  51. Julia Sullivan
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 15:49:25

    So, in other words, the public wanted and enjoyed screwball comedies. The movies themselves never (or rarely, I haven't seen every film) punished the women. And the leading men had to prove themselves to be worthy of these strong women in order to win them away from “unworthy” men. If the standard characterizations and themes weren't popular, the studios would not have backed the films.

    Sing it, sister!

    And men of that era did, indeed, find these women incredibly attractive. My dad, who is 80, grew up with big old crushes on Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, for instance.

  52. stp
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 16:25:33

    What I love about questions like this is that you can actually answer them using the scientific method. This is how I would do it.

    I would find the top romances of each year (like, say the ten NY Times best selling romances) going back since the time of Carole Lombard. If the NY Times wasn’t tracking best selling romances that far back in time, I’d have to modify my methodology, but it can be done. I would then create a checklist of potential infantile heroine behavior. Jane made a great start with her blog. (walking alone in dark alley, having unprotected sex in non-historical setting, whatever else was on Jane’s list, etc.) Whenever the heroine does any of the said behavior, the book gets a check. A book could have multiple checks. Then you could create a graph. On the x axis you’d have year, and on the y axis you’d have number of checks in ten best-selling romances.

    If the line went up, you’d know if heroines are acting stupider than they used to. If the line went down, you’d know they were acting smarter. If the line stayed the same, then no change. No more guessing!

    Science project anyone?

  53. Kristie(J)
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 17:30:46

    I get being frustrated with a TSTL heroine, but I think we throw the term around and use it any time a heroine does something not-so-bright. To me that's not TSTL. Fact is, people do stupid things all the time. If the hero and heroine in a book are brilliant all the time, how are the growing? Let them do dumb human things that are not always in their self-interest – relatable things we can all see happening – and then let them grow. Seems to me that makes a better character arc than the all-smart-all-the-time chick.

    I agree with HelenKay too. I don’t mind a heroine if she starts off doing something stupid, especially in historicals where the heroine tends to be younger than in contemporaries. If she grows a person, I can really admire her.
    And in the case of contemporaries, one of my favourite characters is Blair Mallory in Linda Howard’s To Die For and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve seen where a lot of readers can’t stand her and call her TSTL – but I don’t find her that way at all. To me, she’s someone who knows her own worth, but isn’t above using the ‘dumb blond’ personna to get her way. If some fall for it, that’s on them.

  54. orannia
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 17:37:09

    (((((Jane))))) What a great post!

    I try very hard to avoid TSTL heroines. On the other hand, I also try to avoid MarySue heroines, who just seems to perfect to live (TPTL?). There has to be a middle ground, doesn’t there? A heroine that is….human, who makes mistakes and learns from them. And yes, sometimes the heroine doesn’t learn from her mistakes and is either hit over the head with them or trips and falls flat on her face :) And I don’t mind if the author shows that happening to a heroine, because sometimes things are obvious to everyone but the person at the centre….

    Oh, and I have to stick my hand up and admit to helping family members. Two reasons – 1) duty and 2) there isn’t anyone else capable and stuff needs to be sorted. Probably not a suitable reason for a heroine in a book, but…

    orannia

    PS Jane – I’m looking forward to next week’s post :)

    PS

  55. Robin
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 19:39:55

    I just had to quote that LOL what I wouldn't give to read the above scene.

    Me, too!!!

    Also, does anyone think they photoshopped the color of that cat’s eyes? I can’t stop staring at that picture, lol.

    I like an imperfect heroine, but what I don’t like is a heroine who is made to seem *lesser* than the hero in order to a) advance the plot, b) make her seem vulnerable (SEP’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine being a prime offender of this, IMO), c) give the hero a chance to shine, or d) make her less intimidating to the reader.

    There are instances in which a heroine does something that makes me want to slap her, like the heroine of Victoria Dahl’s A Rake’s Guide To Pleasure when she pushes the hero away, because I know how wrongheaded her actions are. But if I believe that she is acting the only way she can within her life circumstances, and if she eventually does the smart thing, then it’s okay. In fact, the dramatic tension that can come from those instances can be very effective and smart in terms of the book’s composition.

    When I get into trouble is when I want to slap the *book* because the heroine is nothing more than a prop or a bait and switch. Where the writing itself doesn’t come across as so clever because the heroine cannot carry the weight of her own character, and where the manipulation is so visible to me that the character is upstaged by the machinations of the writing and the plotting.

    Heh. I find this column ironic, since I wrote a blog post a year or so ago on this very topic and got pretty much vilified here for my opinion that the current state of romance/chick lit is overrun with infantilized heroines (and yeah, the part that most people got up in arms about: the male writers I read did a better job creating complex and mature female characters).

    My recollection is that it was your elevation of male authors above female authors that people objected to, with the generalization about heroines simply being seen as a vehicle to forward that thesis.

  56. handyhunter
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 22:32:17

    It's interesting that no book read or film viewed, will be the same for everyone. I perceived some shenanigans in the movie but then I analyze films while refering to the scripts.

    Which parts did you think were contrived? ::curious::

  57. SonomaLass
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 00:18:08

    I said explicitly that if the heroine was going to make stupid choices, that would be fine as long as it was part of the character arc and that she owned the stupidity and then tried to move forward. But all too often the heroine is acting stupidly in order to advance the plot – provide suspense, but, I think, more often than not, to provide a foil for the hero's masculinity and heroicness.

    I agree with Jane, both times. I don’t want perfect heroines, but I want her stupid choices to make sense in character. And if she’s too stupid to see that her choices were stupid, then I’m going to lose interest. Dim secondary characters are quite amusing, but I can’t handle dim main characters.

    I also have problems with TSTL heroes, though. I get particularly irritated with the ones who don’t learn trust until it is almost too late (like the wife is dying in childbirth in some obscure locale because he sent/drove her away, not believing the child was his. Or the equivalent.)

    I do think there’s a good argument to be made about using the stupid behavior of the heroine to allow the hero a way to look good, and there are teeth-gnashing gender paradigms there, for sure. And Hortense, I LOVE “TSTM” and will now use it frequently!! Thanks for the brilliant addition to our critical vocabulary.

  58. Evangeline
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 02:01:50

    Allow me to get my “squee” out of the way over the mention of screwball comedies and my favorite actresses.

    Ahem.

    I’m generally left baffled by the aims of the romance genre when I read romances with such skewed gender biases. Is the genre “for women by women,” and if so, what precisely does that mean? I’m generally attracted to the heroine’s journey, and my romances reflect that. However, I ultimately desire to achieve a balance between my h/h–which is what I like to read.

    However, I do believe the TSTL heroine is just as “perfect” and idealized as the majority of heroes in romance. The TSTL heroine never truly makes a gaff because the she’s just so darn lovable, and there’s never a moment where she doubts the hero’s affection and (some form of [warped or not]) respect for her. In real life, that guy with whom you’ve been flirting with may look at you weird if you suddenly spilled ice cream on your shirt, or that social gaff may land you in hot water. There just aren’t any real-life consequences or bumps on the road for either the hero or the heroine in a romance novel, which is the genre’s greatest loss, IMO.

    To reference the screwball comedies, or even the great romances from Hollywood’s Golden Age, those characters were real. For all the gloss and glitter, their actions and words were consistent and realistic for the situation, and if a character like Nora Charles fell flat on her face (or, in the case of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, his back and his hat), she carried it off with aplomb–it wasn’t a ploy to make her look endearingly cute and oops-I’m-so-clumsy (twirling hair). And the men were just as tough and sensitive (check out Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire for the perfect “absent-minded professor).

  59. Jen
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 13:47:06

    Characters have to grow. Even if they start out stupid, they still have to grow. But I like to see characters make conscious choices to correct their flaws, and even if they don’t succeed in changing or growing, then at least they see the need for change in themselves.

    However I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for Mother Theresa heroines who give and give and give so much until everyone around them suddenly realizes what good people these heroines are. I hate myself for loving these kinds of stories, but I blame it on my own character flaws–I *want* to believe that if someone is “good” enough, they’ll eventually be recognized for it. Even though I know it’s twee and unrealistic and probably makes me a TSTL reader. I can’t help it.

  60. Lynn M
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 16:07:49

    I just reread Brockmann’s “Out of Control” and often had moments thinking about the TSTL heroine. In OOC, the heroine Savannah repeatedly blurts out information which ruins hero Ken Karmody’s plans to save the day. Over and over she opens her big fat mouth thinking that she is “saving” him, when in fact she always ends up making the situation worse. Her behaviour drove me nuts, and I wanted to smack her each time she did it. She bordered on TSTL.

    BUT…I had to forgive her because she wasn’t ever trained in covert ops and had no idea that honesty wasn’t necessarily the best policy in all cases. Too, Ken never took a few minutes when they were alone to explain to her that she needed to just keep quiet, that in talking to their enemies, she risked both their lives. While I as the reader knew what Ken was planning to do, Savannah the character had no idea. So I the reader thought she was acting stupid, but from her limited perspective, she was only doing what she thought was the right thing.

    So in the end, she wasn’t TSTL even though she was ignorant. I think this difference is key in whether or not I can stand a heroine. If she does something that common sense would tell the average Josephine on the street is a truly boneheaded move, I’m likely to toss the book at the wall. But if she’s just ignorant about some facet or another, I can at least excuse her. I may not like her, but I have to give her some slack.

  61. MB
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 19:12:22

    The TSTL-ishness of a heroine is what makes or breaks a book for me. If she has little or no more brains than a chicken AND is no longer a teenager, I don’t want to read any more about her! Those books become wall-bangers for me and that author has lost me as a customer.

    Plus these tropes are tired, old and BORING!

    To me it shows a lack of respect by the author for my (the reader’s) intelligence. I realize that I am probably in the minority in this, but, tough…there are lots of other and better books out there! I’m sticking with them.

  62. Hortense Powdermaker
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 21:26:04

    TSTM (too stupid to masturbate)

    Bwa-ha! Can I please use this in my next critique group meeting? Love it.

    Thanks for the brilliant addition to our critical vocabulary.

    So glad to contribute to the romance lexicon.

    I never came across anything to indicate that the women were viewed as unattractive or undesirable… [they were] intelligent, sometimes scheming, sometimes playful, sometimes clumsy, but always self-possessing and attractive women

    To reference the screwball comedies, or even the great romances from Hollywood's Golden Age, those characters were real

    I agree that these are well-written, smart, sassy women, and all those characters were created by men. Why do we get so many infantilized heroines from women writers?

    Iz wimmin geting stupider?

    What I love about questions like this is that you can actually answer them using the scientific method.

    My thesis was on women's images in American popular music and was done using a cultural materialist approach. I did a content analysis of the lyrics of the top ten songs over a 30-year period and tracked evaluative dimensions against periods of economic expansion and recession in America. Very, very long story short: women were portrayed as good and passive, or bad and strong, but never good and strong until 1967, and that's only if you assume the song Windy is about a woman (it's not – it's about a dog). During recessionary periods women were always bad and strong. (The study was an attempt to look at stereotypes and scapegoating, etc.)

    However! That didn't stop the government from pushing a strong = good image for women when they desperately needed workers for the war effort.

    Anyway, it's interesting that cinematography would give us a different picture, since a lot of the screwball comedies were made during the Great Depression.

  63. Julia Sullivan
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 18:02:27

    Georgette Heyer’s heroines are smart and funny and brave, if sometimes impetuous.

  64. Lazy Sunday Link Dump | Rebecca Allen: A Nerd at Peace
    Oct 05, 2008 @ 15:01:40

    [...] Stupidity Is the Great Unfavorable Simply saying that a heroine is smart doesn't mean that she isn't dumb as a stump. We readers have to be SHOWN through her actions and behavior that she actually has an IQ higher than a lumberjack's leavings. If she makes a boneheaded mistake, she has to acknowledge it, not ignore it, deny it or, god forbid, be praised for it. If she owns her bad behavior, it actually raises her favorables. So lead her into the dark alley, allow her to be saved and then have her acknowledge its a stupid thing and then agree to stay home the next time that some type of combat is taking place or until she learns how to wield a gun or sword or lightsaber. [...]

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