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Why Does the Romance Genre Have a Double Standard

As I read the opinion piece by Robin last week and all the smart comments, it struck me that the question is very simple even if the answer is not. It seems clear to me that heroes can get away with and be redeemed from far worse deeds than heroines. There is a double standard for how readers view heroes and heroines. The question is why?

What is your answer?

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


  1. Sandy James
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 04:54:20

    I think it just reflects the long-held cultural double standard, sad though it is. I do see some heroines allowed to be truly “bad,” though. Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love has a prostitute heroine and she pulls off the redemption quite nicely. Perhaps it’s because romance is a female genre, and women like to believe we’re all “pure” of heart in the long run, so we want our heroines to always be the same.


  2. Ardee-ann
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 05:23:00

    As Sandy stated it is merely a reflection of the longstanding cultural and societal double standard that we have all be inculcated with. “Boys will be boys” while “women better watch it” for fear of being labeled as trashy or worse.

    Men are expected to break the rules while women are expected to meekly follow them. I know that a lot of people will say that all that has changed but really it hasn’t because for one thing if it had, you wouldn’t be asking this question on your blog.

    We just keep letting the “same old, same old” slide. Time to wake up and smell the coffee. I am a poorly behaved woman. I do things my own way. I have paid the price but it has been so worth it.

    Hopefully some romance writers will help us to have more heroines who are willing to take such chances.



  3. LVLM
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 05:35:35

    I don’t know why. Probably for the same reason that when a guy cheats on his girl or wife, the girl or wife blames the other woman as if she was the sole reason he cheated, while acting like the poor guy had no say in it. Ugh.

    I never understood that.

    Personally, I hold both the hero and heroine accountable. Although, I’m more forgiving of a woman who screws up since, uh, I can put myself in her shoes. The hero doesn’t get as easy a pass from me if he’s been a turd.


  4. Jessie
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 05:46:59

    First time commenter, long time lurker.

    I never comment, but I wanted to on this one because I really hate reading about women who have acted immorally. I’ll buy into the double standard and let the hero do whatever he wants as long as the heroine hasn’t sunk to the same depths of depravity (she can be somewhat morally ambiguous, but I draw the line a lot earlier than I do for the hero).

    I wondered why this is, because in real life, I don’t believe this at all. Who am I to say anything about how some other woman behaves? As long as I’m ok with my choices, I’m not worried about anyone else.

    I think in romance novels I don’t like it because, apart from society drilling it into my head, the morally ambiguous heroine in the romance novel has lost the power that comes with being the redeemer. I really enjoy that trope. If she’s just as depraved as the hero or worse, she is at a disadvantage. She is in the position of asking the hero, or others, for forgiveness. She has to explain and account for her possibly hurtful actions. I identify with the heroine and somewhat put myself in her place, and I definitely don’t want to be in a place like that.

    For me, that might be another reason that this double standard occurs in romance novels, other than the culture/society thing.


  5. Larissa
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 06:09:14

    The absolute reality of this double-standard hit me in the head a few weeks ago when I got a series of incredibly abusive, harassing letters from a reader who was REALLY upset about the heroine in my latest book. The reader had only read one of my novels before that, in which the heroine was a virgin…so she expected all my heroines to be virgins.

    When she read, in the current book, that two thousand years ago my heroine had *gasp* had sex, the reader sent me letters saying that she thought it was sexy if the hero is promiscuous, but the heroine should be pure. She believed that women should save themselves for that one special guy, should wait for marriage. Any woman who has sex before marriage is a slut.

    But men can screw anything that moves.

    Okay then.

    As for why the double-standard exists? I agree…society/culture probably plays a big role. Jessie has a good point too. I think a lot of the double-standard could come from readers putting themselves in the heroine’s shoes, so if the READER wouldn’t react or behave in the same way, it could create harsher judgement of the heroine than the hero. (Sorry, I had to go feed my son before I could finish my thought, and the commenter below said basically the same thing before I got this edited!)


  6. meoskop
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 06:16:03

    I think a lot of it has to do with identification. I am not a reader who identifies with the characters I’m reading about, but I know many are. So they ask themselves in regards to the hero – “Would I forgive him for that” and in regards to the heroine “Would I DO that” and we’d always like to think our forgiveness outweighs our failings.

    I’ve had too many conversations with women about a book that become circular “Well I would not do that.” Yes, but would SHE, the heroine in this situation, as she’s been depicted… “I would not.” Right. Not about you. sigh.


  7. Lexie
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 06:31:48

    Mass Murder, nymphomania, murdering kittens…these tend to be the lines I draw for male or female characters. With only one exception (and the story was about villains to begin with) authors can’t redeem a character for me if they commit any of the above sins.

    Seriously its rather hard to explain why Lady A had to wipe out a couple hundred people or why Lord D thought drowning a bag of kittens was the right way to go and was for the greater good.

    Nymphomania…its one thing to have experiences in the past. Depending on the age, and time setting, I can be pretty lenient. Sleeping with anything that moves? Male or female there’s no hope of redemption in my eyes.


  8. LVLM
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 06:34:38

    Probably it’s the same reason why… when a guy cheats, the woman blames the other woman as if the guy has no culpability. Ugh,I don’t get this.

    Personally, I hold the hero to higher standards. I can put myself in a woman’s (heroine’s) place and be more forgiving unless the author makes her completely irredeemable.

    Whereas if the hero is a turd, he better grovel really hard to get me on his side. And even then, I will not be OK with him unless the author really makes me believe this guy has changed.

    And I hate when an author has a heroine thinking a hero is cute and falls against her will for a jerk. No.

    I guess I’m not a typical female reader in this way. For me the hero has to be more flawless then the heroine. He has to be someone I can look up to, or I’m totally on the heroine’s side if he’s been a turd.


  9. DS
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 06:35:31

    No matter how many statistics RWA posts about how educated and successful romance readers are, I think most publishers (in the US) see their readers as evangelical christians who live in fly over country and who indulge in the fantasy of snagging a rich, handsome guy which would allow them to get out of the labor market. It doesn’t matter how true or false that is as long the publishers think it’s true.

    I’m beginning to ponder if maybe the fantasy of romance isn’t as much financial security as true love.

    As for the self sacrificing virtuous heroine– she has been around so long– Homer’s Penelope, Patient Griselda, both examples to women of proper cultural behavior– that she seems to be embedded in romantic fiction.

    Give me the Wife of Bath as a heroine any time.


  10. Jade
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 06:39:16

    Why is ok for a man to cheat on his wife in real life, but not ok for a woman to cheat on her husband? Why does society have that double-standard?

    But beyond that, and to the question to asked, I think a lot of the time your romance readers are women, and are unable to see themselves doing some of the things the male lead does.

    I think women often place themselves in the role of the heroine and the story wouldn’t be believable if the female lead were to act in a way that the male lead is allowed to.

    I think this is why, in part, the Twilight books are so popular. Bella is a BLANK character, and critics rip the stories apart because of it. But that’s part of what makes the stories so popular: most girls or young women can just implant themselves into Bella’s character that way, making the story something they can believe in.

    Besides…who doesn’t enjoy a bad-boy turned good? ;)


  11. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:22:00

    I have a harder time identifying with a morally ambiguous heroine, but I can definitely enjoy characters that are nothing like me. When either character (hero or heroine) is truly without a conscience, I stop reading.

    I’m reminded of Elle from Megan Hart’s Dirty. I hated the blurb, hated the opening scene, hated HER. She slept with her married boss, ugh. But–Hart is a masterful storyteller, and she sucked me in. I ended up feeling very sympathetic towards Elle, and liking Dirty very much.

    On the flip side, I recall a sociopath-type hero from a Lydia Joyce book that I couldn’t stomach. He wasn’t overly cruel, IIRC, but he seemed to have no feelings, no personality. Who could fall in love with a man like that? Not my cup.

    Here’s the thing about the heroine who sleeps with a married man–I will identify with the WIFE. When a hero cuckolds a husband, I don’t feel the same way. Double standard, yes. I acknowledge it.


  12. Kathleen Dienne
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:28:09

    I’ve been lurking at a lot of reader forums, and it’s interesting.

    At a place like Dear Author, you find a mix of readers like… the ones in this thread, actually :)

    But at some of the places where I’ve been reading threads, there is a lot more of a consensus. The heroine must be A Good Girl.


  13. Bethanya
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:29:35

    I’ve thought a little about this. I confess I enjoy stories more when I can idenify with the heroine–under 30, single, never been married, bookish. Unless highly recommended by the esteemed DA reviewers, I avoid books with 40+ heroines, prostitutes, heroines with kids (the hero can have as many kids as he wants, though).

    I cut my teeth on books by Johanna Lindsey,Julie Garwood, LaVryle Spencer, Amanda Quick. Revenge was always a theme–the heroes had huge anger-management issues.

    I even dated one of these disturbed heroes myself. I know now that I wanted to be enough to save him from himself. I wanted my humor, my body, my compassion, my love to be the transforming, end-all. When nothing else could help, I wanted to be his salvation.

    I really do think that most women have felt an inkling of this at one time or another. The desire to be needed, not necessarily loved, but needed, is very powerful and that is what makes it so easy to forgive what would ordinarily be unforgiveable from an objective viewpoint.

    Obviously, attaining salvation through a mate is impossible and unrealistic, but nevertheless, that need still simmers somewhere inside me. And…I’m not really sure what to do about it.


  14. Jane
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:31:06

    @Kathleen Dienne Any suppositions as to why the heroine must be a good girl for those other readers?


  15. Jane
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:32:48

    @Jessie Thank you for commenting and coming out of lurkdom. I think that your point is really interesting, that the self identification process doesn’t just occur at the fantasy moment (winning the love of an alpha male and taming him) but in all the uncomfortable moments as well. A lot of food for thought here.


  16. Jane
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:34:39

    @DS I agree with the fantasy of financial security. I can’t think of one book right now where the hero/heroine live in poverty or even struggle on a day to day basis. Linda Howard always makes clear that even her law enforcement heroes are comfortably off whether it be through a life of savings (Dane) or inheritance (Chastain).


  17. eva_baby
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:41:17

    I think there are a lot of factors that play into this phenomena.

    First, I think women largely buy into the whore/Madonna dichotomy as much as men do. Not everyone does, but a large enough population of people do so that in order for a woman to be deemed ‘decent’ (even or especially by other women) she has to ascribe to certain qualities. She doesn’t have to be a virgin, but she has to be ‘moral’ or at least not indiscriminately bed-hoppy.

    Second, from fairy-tales to early harlequins we have been programmed to accept that only a ‘princess’ will get her rich, handsome prince. Little girls right now are in the process of being indoctrinated thanks to Disney and their relentless Princess marketing campaign. Many current readers of romances remember being introduced to romances by harlequin where the virginal 18 y.o secretary get the rich, worldly magnate. I think that unconsciously set a template for future romance reading expectations amongst a lot of people.

    Even a supposedly freewheeling, sexually adventurous show like Sex and the City plays into the trope. Carrie is the heroine, who although she goes out with lots of guys, is actually quite moral (she is a serial monogamist after all) and in ends up with Mr. Big, who in the body of Chris Noth, is a harlequin romance hero come to life. Samantha the most sexually promiscuous of all the women is the only one who ends up alone (and with cancer!)

    And third, I think romance novels as a whole are very conservative. Despite the fact that there are probably tons of stories that could be told and sold, there is a comfortable, profitable niche that the big pubs don’t like to disturb. It is very telling that the explosion of erotica didn’t come from big pubs but from online upstarts.

    IMO, romance is always about the woman. To me, it is the hero who is less complex than the woman. He can be almost anything as long as he is rich, handsome and/or heroic. His actions and motivations don’t bear the scrutiny that hers does. Linda Howard’s Death Angel comes immediately to mind. So many in Romancelandia were outraged that Drea was the mistress (WHOOOORE!) of a mobster that Simon being an Asssasin barely registered. I LOVED that book on so many levels, especially because it was subversive and pissed off so many people. At least in the beginning.

    On a personal level I call bullshit. I hate that princess stuff and really don’t care if my heroine is a little worldly and can take care of herself. As a matter fact, I get squicked out if all I hear about is how many women the man has had. All I can think about are STDs and the fact that women get infected in much more alarming rates than men.


  18. phemie
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:43:43

    I tend to identify more with the heroine than with the hero. As I am much stricter with myself than with others, I am also much stricter with the heroine than with the hero in terms of redeemable deeds. There is also this vague idea that men need more time to grow up and in general do stupid things when young. Maybe the double standard is just one of those outdated conventions that should be overcome, in fiction and in real life.
    Why not have more dark brooding heroines with deep secrets in their scandalous past?


  19. Anon
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 07:59:18

    Phemie’s on the right track, I think. Until marriage, men are still “players,” almost programmed by their lower flash-points, greater aggressiveness, a brain bathed in testosterone to spread themselves around. Perhaps the double standard is determined by nature herself. Who knows?


  20. Camille
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 08:35:28

    I think it’s more genre and subgenre than anything. Redemption has long been a theme of “women’s fiction” so those books don’t get shelved as category “romance.”

    I suspect a lot of women read both, but they want to relax with a book, so they like it to fit with the expectations going in. So a “romance” with the wrong theme doesn’t sit as well as when it’s “women’s fiction.”


  21. rosecolette
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 08:49:47

    Promiscuity on the part of the hero or the heroine is a huge turnoff for me in historicals. I keep wondering if the newly reformed rake ever gave his virginal wifey a ticking time bomb of syphilis, or just how the reformed courtesan kept herself clean all those years.

    That said, there is a huge double-standard in and outside books. It’s okay for male basketball players to rough each other up on the court but the minute the females let loose with the aggression it’s a bunch pearl clutching and cries of “look what sports is doing to our delicate wimmins!” Society still holds grown women to a standard of being polite, sweet, innocent (seeming), preferably virginal or not knowing many men, willing to give it all up for her man, deferential to men, the daddy’s girl… I’ll leave it at that. This in turn is reflected in literature with, imo, the exceptions being paranormal, science fiction, and urban fantasy.

    It’s okay for the male hero to be worldly but the minute the heroine has a few notches on the belt it seems like the writer has to find a way to rescue her. As a reader I do not want my heroine to be rescued from her libido. If it’s healthy and she’s not hurting anyone (see the above regarding infidelity and sleeping with married folks) then good on her for taking charge of her sexuality — and hopefully she insists on condoms if it’s a contemporary.

    Yes, there’s a double-standard. Yes it re-enforces stereotypes. And no there’s not much anyone can do about it because the double-standard sells and sells well.


  22. Cara McKenna
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 09:23:26

    I suspect another reason heroines have a tougher time getting away with stuff is simple POV. In most romances the heroine is the character whose noggin we spend the most time inhabiting. We want that noggin to be pleasant and logical if we’re trapped in there for 400 pages. Many romances now feature the male POV as well, but in most cases it’s still primarily the heroine’s story, and I think many readers hold the story’s owner to a higher standard than they do the other characters. And perhaps we also believe that only a superior sort of person deserves to have their story told. I’m not sure, just tossing the idea out there…some of my heroines are borderline despicable so it’s certainly a question that’s got me biting my nails.


  23. Rhi
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 09:25:06

    I think it is a reflection of how society views women and therefore, how we interpret women. I was recently reading a discussion about a growing level of misogyny by women writers when it comes to their female characters. This had to do with fanfic to a great extent and there was a side discussion about the popularity of m/m pairings within many fandoms, but it did bring up some interesting points, even if I don’t agree with some of the arguments.

    Women do tend to hold their sex to higher standards: part of this has to be from our cultural mores. Men are still allowed to act like idiots and if they reform – or even if they don’t – it is shrugged off as they being a man. On the other hand, a woman is not allowed to be bad – and if she is, then she must show remorse or show that it was for a man or for some high moral purpose. And it’s not just in romance. When you think about it, what is the prevailing idea of a woman? Someone who has a successful and meaningful job, a successful and meaningful relationship, and of course, a family. In fact, if a woman doesn’t want children, something is wrong with her. And forget about the possibility of getting an abortion! Oh no! A female character can wrestle with the decision but then it will be found out that (a) she wasn’t pregnant to begin with or (b) she miscarries.

    I think it is amazing that in the last decade we’ve seen movement within the romance novel industry for a woman to even have an active sex life without being seen as a whore. Of course, there is still a bias for purity but it is a fantasy. And maybe that is the rub: if the reader is meant to identify with the heroine, than said reader wants to believe that the heroine’s purity and goodness is enough to reform a man who lives a less than pure life.


  24. Diane V
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 09:32:07

    So I know I’m going to sound sexist, but Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Jesse James and Bill Clinton are just some of the men who’ve proven they can behave badly just because they can and is why there is a double standard in romance.

    I think that frankly women expect men to behave badly so it doesn’t bother them when they read it in a romance. Men can be married to the most beautiful or likeable women in the world and still they will cheat (i.e. Halle Berry or Sandra Bullock) — and if they’re rich or famous enough they will use the “sex addict” or “it wasn’t really sex” excuse vs the “I am a sociopathic scumbag excuse” (i.e. Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton.)

    On the other hand, I think we expect women to behave 1000% better than men. I know that in my real life I don’t tolerate my women friends behaving badly — in fact, I’ve ended two friendships of more than 20 years because they chose to cheat on their husbands vs. behaving honorably (adultery is just not acceptable in real life or in a book.)

    I also don’t tolerate stupidity which is why I don’t read books with heroines that are TSTL (Stella Cameron’s heroines are always TSTL which is why I remain convinced she is a man.) I expect men to act stupidly because they often think with their penis instead of their brain, but women are the smarter sex and most of us prove it all the time in real life (but unfortunately less frequently in romances.)

    I don’t care if my heroines are sexually forward, but I expect them to not be so promiscuous that they would screw a board with a hole in it like some of the male heroes in romances.

    So I guess I’m saying the double-standard in romance works because we expect men to act like the immature penis-controlled idiots they are but we expect women to behave like the smart kick-ass heroines we know we are inside.


  25. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 09:47:21

    Society’s sexual double standard comes from the unwritten contract of marriage from way back when, the implied exchange of goods and services within monogamy: The man provides his wife with his protection and earning potential; the woman provides her husband the exclusive rights to her uterus. A man fails his part when he fails to protect his family and provide for his children. A woman fails hers when she fails to ensure her husband’s children are actually his.

    Exclusive reproductive rights were kind of a necessary perk offered to men ages ago, because for the longest time, 80% of women reproduced with some 20% of men–the vast majority of men had no real chance of getting their genes in the pool, and therefore no real motivation to do much else but survive and subsist. Why build something or earn a ton of money if you have no kids to leave it to? Easier to just lie around acting like a bum.

    And in the days before DNA testing, a man’s only reassurance that his kids were really his was the chastity of his wife before marriage, and her sexual exclusivity within the marriage.

    Add to that the age-old mating strategies of men and women: women, sow carefully, men, sow widely. A a woman’s physical and practical investment in her offspring are simply greater than a man’s needs to be–he can walk away, but she’s stuck with a kid–so a woman sleeping with lots of men, regardless of their suitability or worthiness, just seems, well….stupid. And it’s hard to forgive stupidity. A man sticking it in anything that moves? The consequences are a little less extreme, so it doesn’t reflect the same level of idiocy.

    So when a woman is indiscriminately promiscuous, she’s not only acting stupidly, she’s violating entrenched expectations of behavior that have simply never applied to men.

    Those mating strategies have been ingrained in our biology, and the expectations of behavior within monogamous marriage have been drilled into us (perhaps not explicitly, but implicitly) for millennia. Deprogramming may not just be difficult. It may be essentially impossible.

    That said, as far as sexual behavior goes, I’m much more male than female. I do what I want, always have (although I’ve never cheated), and have never felt like–or been considered by others–a slut.

    I don’t have a problem reading about sexually adventurous or promiscuous heroines, but the psychology underlying their behavior can be off-putting. There’s a huge difference between a woman simply embracing her desires and doing what she wants (or because it’s her job, heh), and a woman who fucks random guys out of a need for self-validation or because she feels deep down that she doesn’t deserve anything better than to be the community bicycle.

    I think because of the societal double standard that’s been with us for so long, promiscuity among women can be complicated in ways it just isn’t in men. You look at how a promiscuous woman is seen as “giving it away to everyone”, while a man is not seen as losing anything of value–in fact, he gains a certain status among his peers–by sleeping around. Women who act that way despite the entrenched idea that they’re devaluing themselves by doing so, well, it’s just hard to see that as psychologically healthy.

    Assholish behavior, violence and bad deeds? Also easier to forgive in a man, I think. But I think that maybe also plays into gender roles that have been with us since the cave. Men are supposed to be violent–fighting sabre-toothed tigers, hunting mastodons, battling neighboring tribes. Women are supposed to be nurturing–raising babies, gathering berries and nuts and keeping the cave nice and clean. The male role involves a lot of frowning, yelling, hitting, and bloodshed. The female role, not so much.

    All that said, I love to read (and write) fiction that sets those gender roles on their heads. It’s just not always easy to do it effectively or believably.


  26. kaigou
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 10:09:22

    Why is it that the “far worse deeds” from which the hero/ine needs redeeming are all sexual in nature? That can’t be the only source of bad behavior out there: what about a history of killing (for govt, profit, other), or being a con artist, or abandoning one’s lover in wartime, or lying to get a promotion, or any of a number of other things we might consider “pretty bad deeds”?

    Because from the replies here, the impression I’m getting is that a heroine’s “far worse deeds” are automatically sexual by definition — and that in turn begs the question: can a heroine be redeemed from just about anything except a history of promiscuity? Double standard aside, that’s potentially some serious hating-on-female-sexual-empowerment hiding in there.


  27. evie byrne
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 10:24:52

    Okay, here’s a theory. Romance is about ordinary women snagging extraordinary mates, whether the hero is a duke, a vampire or a navy SEAL. Heroines are rarely extraordinary by any external measure (except beauty, perhaps), meaning they’re usually not spies, filthy rich, combat trained, undead, etc. If they are, the book is probably edging into another genre.

    The romance heroine is a placeholder for the reader. As such, she really can’t get in the way of the reading experience. She has to be ordinary. Like us. She has to be fitted up with a basic set of virtues: modesty, loyalty, integrity, honesty, so we know that, like us, she’s deserving of her HEA. Character identification is one of the defining traits of the romance genre. No other genre is so demanding in that way.

    Morally ambiguous heroines are extraordinary heroines–they come with skill sets, baggage, history. They take up more stage room, they’re unpredictable. They make the reader step back and say, “Wha–? OMG! I would never do that!”

    At that point, the heroine can no longer be a placeholder. The reading experience changes. The bitch heroine has shoved the reader out of the story, and the reader has to approach it from a different angle–asking themselves whether they can find merit and interest in the story even though they can’t identify with her at all.

    I’d hasten to add that this happens in badly written books, too. If the characters’ actions become inexplicable or stupid, we can’t identify with them and enjoy the story either. It’s just that a morally ambiguous heroine isn’t (necessarily) a sign of bad writing, but it is a sign that the book is rubbing the genre the wrong way.

    This, IMO, is why romance heroines must be good girls. Why romance heroes are so often “bad” is whole ‘nother kettle of fish.


  28. Darlynne
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 10:50:14

    Lots of great insights here.

    All I have to add is that it seems the “bad girl” is typically portrayed in a very limited way: no one likes her, she’s hard, unscrupulous, evil, cruel and there’s no inner conflict because she is simply evil. There is no nuance for the bad girl in most romantic fiction.

    BTW, I don’t include sexual activity in my use of “bad.” That is not a yardstick by which I evaluate a female or male character.

    The bad boy, OTOH, is the same, but there’s always something slightly positive about him: he’s kind to dogs, may have friends, shows great business acumen. There is a chink in his badness that allows the heroine, us or even his own actions to redeem him.

    I’d like to read a complicated bad girl–and please, NOT a prostitute–redeemed by the love of a good man.


  29. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 10:55:27


    You’re right. I think sexual promiscuity IS seen as the worst sin a heroine can commit. Aggressive behavior in women is also really hard for readers to forgive. Sexual aggressiveness is kind of the double-whammy in that regard.

    Violence, too. But I think it’s telling that readers in general are far more accepting of kick-ass heroines than they are of heroines who sleep around. Look at Anita Blake–most of the criticism I’ve seen of that character has come from an “OMG, slut!” POV than a “She’s so violent! *shudder*” POV.

    But I don’t necessarily think it’s a hatred of female sexual empowerment. I came across a female reader once who had to put a book down because it was creeping into f/f territory, and her negative reaction to it was very unsettling to her. She angsted about why it bothered her so much, acknowledged that it was maybe a reflection of her own hang-ups that she simply could not read on knowing there might be a girl-girl kiss on the next page.

    You can’t necessarily help how you respond to something you read, but you can think about why you have the reactions you do, and try to get around or past it, right?

    Look at behaviors that are seen as natural (perhaps unattractive, but natural) in men, but are seen as completely off-putting in women–posturing, chest-beating, braggadocio, trash-talking are age-old strategies employed by males to “scare off” competitors or attackers without having things escalate to actual violence and risk of death. Those behaviors just don’t seem quite right in women.

    I did an experiment a while ago–took a m/f seduction scene with an over the top alpha male, and I rewrote it as an f/f scene. The resulting alpha female ended up completely squicking me out, and I’m all about female sexual agency and empowerment.

    Abandonment of any kind is likewise probably harder for readers to forgive in a heroine than a hero, because we’re supposed to put others before ourselves, and because the mother/child bond makes it seem like women are supposed to be loyal in ways that men are not.

    Understanding and acknowledging the “why” of it is the first step in changing it, isn’t it?

    I would love to see more stories out there that subvert all this crap, but it’s hard to write them effectively if you don’t understand or acknowledge why those double-standards exist, or why upending them is not going to be well-received by all. Understanding the underlying causes–even if you think they’re bullshit, because I don’t think everyone is a slave to evolutionary psychology or buys into society’s standards–can help you avoid the pitfalls that lead readers in general to think your heroine is an obnoxious slut or an irredeemable bitch or a selfish, emotional black hole.


  30. K. Z. Snow
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:05:23

    This is one of the many reasons I gravitated to m/m fiction. It has a more level playing field, which makes the main characters more maneuverable, so to speak, in terms of psycho-emotional makeup, personal behavior, and interaction. (I don’t mean to sound clinical — my feelings for the genre run deep — but I’m trying to make a point.) Readers still have certain gender-specific expectations, because readers will always have expectations, but there are fewer of them and they’re far less odious.


  31. MB
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:09:29

    In anything I read (not just romances) I tend to hold the women characters to personal standard. I expect them to use their brains and behave with a certain integrity. If they fail along the way, I expect them to have a reason for it, and I expect them to have learned from their mistakes. I don’t like reading about the uncaring brainless silly types much.

    Male characters, especially in romances tend to be ciphers. They are more wish-fulfillment than 3-dimensional. There are few authors I have found in romancelandia who write male characters that ‘feel real’ to me. I am one of the few romance readers out there that care less about the tall, dark, handsome, disturbed, conflicted, oh-so-sexy, and do care about ‘real’. I hate the stereotypes.

    So that’s me as a reader and my personal quirks. I make no apologies for my preferences.


  32. faye
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:10:16

    “I think because of the societal double standard that's been with us for so long, promiscuity among women can be complicated in ways it just isn't in men. You look at how a promiscuous woman is seen as “giving it away to everyone”, while a man is not seen as losing anything of value-in fact, he gains a certain status among his peers-by sleeping around. Women who act that way despite the entrenched idea that they're devaluing themselves by doing so, well, it's just hard to see that as psychologically healthy.”

    I’m going to second Kirsten here. The double standard arises from a disparity in consequences for so-called bad behavior. When the heroine has a sexual history I need a reason why. It requires far more background, justification, etc. in order to fit the context of the story (especially for historicals, which is mostly what I read). Promiscuity, even with birth control and protection, is still riskier for women than for men. Not just on a society/reputation level (where we are still held to that double-standard) but also on a biological level- the only sure way not to get preggers is to not have sex. That said, a heroine’s promiscuity (defined by her historical and cultural context) can still work for me, but I need to know her reasons. It’s far less risky for men, so simple pleasure is justification enough.


  33. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:14:12

    @evie byrne: This, IMO, is why romance heroines must be good girls. Why romance heroes are so often “bad” is whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

    “Bad” heroes can be sexy as long as they’re powerful. I mean, there’s nothing attractive about the scrawny, evil henchman who bows and scrapes, but make a male character physically appealing AND powerful, and there’s enough there to make him sexually attractive to a woman, even if he’s a selfish turd-ass. Protector/providor/caveman stuff, really. Ain’t no one gonna mess with this dude (and by extension, ain’t no one gonna mess with his woman, either).

    I’m a little different as a reader, because I want to fall for the heroine, as well, not just use her as a place-holder. I like my heroines to be a little extraordinary, and can often imagine myself in a relationship with an extraordinary heroine in the same way I would with the hero, heh.

    Straight female readers? Not so much. I’ve noticed in romance, the character development of heroines is usually lacking compared to that of the hero, as well. Because yes, the reader has to “fall in love” with the hero, or at least be able to imagine the possibility of doing so.

    Those typical female virtues are shortcuts as well as ways of making heroines relatable. Why waste a bunch of energy making the heroine extraordinary if half your readers won’t care, and most of the rest won’t like her for it?


  34. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:32:07

    @faye: That said, a heroine's promiscuity (defined by her historical and cultural context) can still work for me, but I need to know her reasons. It's far less risky for men, so simple pleasure is justification enough.

    Not just “less risky” for men. I mean, when you look at it from an anthropological/evolutionary standpoint, the man who impregnates a hundred women has pretty much won the reproductive lottery (especially if he’s not stuck looking after any of the kids).

    Setting aside the matter of STDs, the biological consequences for him are nil (he doesn’t have to risk death in childbirth or have a baby hanging off his boob for a year or two). Looking at it as a return on investment, well, he’s getting a lot of reproductive bang for his buck. Win!

    Which is why it’s a measure of “success” in some circles for a man to score with lots of women, while a woman “giving it away” to a lot of men is seen as risky, stupid, and dehumanizing.


  35. Moriah Jovan
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:32:23

    @kirsten saell:

    Why waste a bunch of energy making the heroine extraordinary if half your readers won't care, and most of the rest won't like her for it?

    Scarlett O’Hara.

    When I was 15, she fascinated and repelled me. I bet you now, almost 30 years later, I’d understand her A LOT better.

    OTOH, I may have hated her since I was 15, but I’ve never forgotten her, and there’ve been thousands of romance novels between Scarlett and now, whose heroines were gone from my memory the minute I closed the book and threw it in the UBS pile.

    Oh, and as per usual, I pretty much agree with everything Kirsten said.


  36. LVLM
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:38:47

    The more I read these comments, the more this double standard pisses me off. I’m remembering now why I always thought romance as a genre was lame before I started reading it. It never represented who I was as a woman or what I wanted in relationships with men.

    I feel rather shocked at how many women like the status quo. But I guess that’s how deeply ingrained this is in society that we don’t even want to imagine it any differently.

    Maybe this is why I’m getting more and more dissatisfied with reading romance. Too many goody two shoe Mary Sues, which I hate and too many heroes getting away with acting like a jerks cause they can with those Mary Sues thinking it’s alright. Ugh.


  37. Ridley
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:42:25

    I wonder if this double standard is as evident outside the US. It’s pretty much accepted that the US is the most conservative and Christian of the developed nations, so I wonder if it’s a matter of Right politics.

    It might explain why the deep blue Northeast has the lowest percentage of regular romance readers.

    It would match my own tastes, if that were so. I’m a fairly liberal MA denizen and I love complicated, flawed, borderline promiscuous or otherwise “bad” heroines.

    If heroines are a case of reader avatar, then these are the women I identify with. I’ve been in street fights (one time in a skirt and pearls after some tart spit in my face, great story), I’ve thrown beer at sporting events, I’ve had more sexual partners than my husband did, I love fighting in hockey, I lead the conference in red cards in high school soccer, the list goes on. I am no lady, but these tits confirm that I’m clearly a woman. And what’s worse, my girlfriends are just like me. I’m no anomaly, really.

    It’s a great question. I wish we had the teacher’s edition so we’d know what the answer was.


  38. LVLM
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:46:23

    Oh and I’m like Kirsten. I identify with and want to like the heroine just as much in that, if she’s TSTL, or not the kind of woman I can respect, I don’t care how great or wonderful or hot the hero is, that story is shot for me. It would mean, how can I respect that hero that he goes for someone who’s not worthy? He drops in my eyes right there as well.


  39. Camille
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 11:51:09

    @Darlynne: I'd like to read a complicated bad girl-and please, NOT a prostitute-redeemed by the love of a good man. :

    I’m going to be publishing something to Kindle and Smashwords in a couple of weeks that I hope will fit your desire for a complicated “bad” heroine. (Its part of why I a fascinated by this discussion.)

    She’s not bad in the classic sense, she’s unconventional but has made the mistake of trying to conform too much, and then launches herself into the wrong situation as an over-correction. She has integrity, though, and she takes the responsibility to redeem herself. (The “love of a good man” is involved, but not in the conventional sense.)


  40. evie byrne
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 12:03:03

    @Kirsten: I’m with you–I like a heroine I can crush on, but I’m more likely to find her over in the fantasy aisle. I don’t want to bag on romance heroines. Some of them are excellent characters, very deftly drawn (tipping my hat esp. to Mss. Kinsale and Ivory here) but any romance heroine is kept on a fairly short string by the conventions of the genre. I’m trying to think of a romance heroine with the sort of moral complexity of say, Phedre from the Kushiel books (who I do have a crush on) and am coming up blank.

    And I’d like to echo K.Z.’s remark –as a writer, I’m thinking about writing a m/m relationship precisely so I can have more latitude with the characters.


  41. Janine
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 12:21:55

    I’d like to agree that the double standard exists in the genre solely as a reflection of the double standard in the culture, or of evolutionary psychology. But in fact, it seems to me that the double standard is even more pronounced in the genre than it is in society.

    My conclusion is that the HEA has something to do with it as well. I think in genres where there is no HEA, characters are allowed a wider range of behavior. Because in romance they get a happy ending, I think there is a feeling that characters must be worthy of that happy ending.

    Therefore the men must be extra “manly,” by society’s standards — more powerful, wealthier, more handsome, more physically big and strong, then in real life. And the women must be more “womanly,” by society’s standards — and to some people that means more virtuous and more “pure.” The couple must earn the HEA, and be one another’s prize or reward, as well as worthy of the other one and of future happiness.

    Personally I think there are other ways to write a good romance, as well –I enjoy both traditional and non-traditional stories. But this is my theory about why things are as they are.


  42. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 12:25:59

    @evie byrne: I'm trying to think of a romance heroine with the sort of moral complexity of say, Phedre from the Kushiel books (who I do have a crush on) and am coming up blank.

    I adored Sherry Thomas’ books (especially Delicious) because I totally fell for the heroines. They might not have been morally complex, per se, but they were flawed, prickly, self-protective, unforgiving, difficult women.

    But you’re right. I do find my girl-crushes more in fantasy or sci fi–Sirantha Jax? There’s a woman I’d like to seduce. Phedre, too. Danaerys from Martin’s SOIAF? OMG, I would be nothing but a puddle of drool on the floor.

    I love Laura Kinsale, because she writes women I could see falling for, even if they don’t “do bad things”. And as much as I’ve enjoyed writing m/m (and m/m/f), I don’t feel any real need to write it as a means of having more latitude with the characters. I love women. I love them for–not in spite of–their flaws, their mistakes, their sometimes mercenary natures, their sexuality. Mix in intelligence, femininity and some realistic vulnerability, and I’m crushing big time.

    I don’t need a heroine to be “likeable”, but I do need to be able to understand and respect her. I have to see why the hero loves her–beyond her beauty–because I kind of need to fall for her too. My sexuality can make romance as a genre very hit or miss for me in that regard. A heroine who’s lacking in character (not in the moral sense, but in the development sense) just…the whole thing feels empty.


  43. mfred
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 12:38:28

    I’m with Evie and Kirsten and LVLM– I want to crush the heroine. Except that I rarely find myself doing that. Most of my romance keepers are because of the hero's storyline: his story arc and depth of character, is much more fascinating and gripping. This might be because I read straight romance almost exclusively.

    I think part of the reason paranormal and urban fantasy is so big in Romancelandia is because you find more (superficially, at least) diversity in heroines. More room for moral ambiguity, larger personalities, etc. Whether or not these heroines are actually breaking the mold or are just TSTL idiots with magical powers depends on the book.

    Oddly enough, now that I think about it, I really don't look to romance novels when I want something woman-affirming. And I rarely self-identify with these books or characters. I think a genre that is largely "by women, for women" is actually quite hard on it's female characters and much too willing to embrace stereotypes. And yet the things I love about romance novels are the emphasis on relationships and characters.


  44. SylviaSybil
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 13:18:28

    I think women worry more. We worry about being judged and if our behavior is appropriate to the situation. We’ve been taught to worry since childhood and to modify ourselves to fit society’s expectations. Men are taught to stand up for themselves and the consequences for nonconformity aren’t as dire, so I don’t think they worry as much as women do. A heroine who doesn’t fit the mold, who doesn’t stress out over other people’s judgments, is more alien to us than a hero who doesn’t worry.
    I think this is part of why male/male is so overwhelmingly popular among women. In a heterosexual romance, the reader can’t escape gender expectations completely. In the back of their head they always know “this is the woman and this is the man”. A heroine who responds politely to a rude comment is a lady/a pushover; a heroine who responds rudely to a rude comment is aggressive/assertive. But in homosexual romances, there are no gender expectations to fulfill or subvert, and the reader is free to focus on the characters without as much prior baggage.
    This is why I love Kelley Armstrong’s Nadia Stafford series. Most of the main characters are hitmen; they kill for money, including the heroine. Each character has a different, complex history and motivation for getting into that business. And yet some women who will happily fall for a ruthless assassin or a berserker Viking hero are appalled by the idea of the heroine killing a mobster in cold blood. For me, it’s one of the selling points of the series, that the heroine is neither the most idealistic nor the most cynical character, and she’s not looking to be saved from her sins.


  45. Roxie
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 13:25:46

    @kirsten saell: Yes!

    I’d like to add that as a reader, I do NOT want the heroine to just be a placeholder for me. I DO need to relate to the female, but because this is my escape into fantasyland I want the heroine to be extraordinary, special in some way. If she is TSTL, I’m not interested.

    Take Alexia and Lord Maccon from Soulless. Alexia is intelligent, able to think on her feet, witty, preternatural – but still vulnerable. All of which make her fascinating. Lord Maccon is intelligent, powerful, supernaturally strong, primal and intrigued by Alexia. His power plus her intelligence makes it more likely that their DNA will not only survive, but thrive. All of which makes Soulless a great story for my inner cavewoman.


  46. Tabby
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 14:01:17

    @evie byrne:
    “but any romance heroine is kept on a fairly short string by the conventions of the genre”

    I think it’s more about the limitations of the author instead of the genre. It’s easy to (well relatively easy I guess) to write a bland, kinda shallow romance that’s easy for people to like and enjoy. But take that same successful author and have them venture out to try and write more complex characters? Chances are it isn’t going to be well received and the reasons given always seem to be along the lines of–romance readers can’t handle it, don’t like it, won’t put up with it etc. But I think it’s more accurate to say the author just wasn’t good enough to write that more complex story. I think the proof of that is in just about any example someone can give for a heroine that doesn’t “work” there IS a book with exactly that type of heroine and it did work–in the right authors hands. There’s lots of authors I enjoy when they’re writing my favorite tropes (follow the recipe and it’s pretty hard to mess it up) but only a small number that can sell me on any story they want to write.

    I agree that genre limitations and double standards are real/prevelant but I think that’s just because it’s an easier story to write–not that readers won’t allow anything else. Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent and skill level that determines what an author can get away with more than any reader imposed limitations or double standards, imo.


  47. Amber
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 14:19:15

    I don’t think romance is any worse than other genres in terms of the double standard. It comes from society and is reflected in all kinds of literature.

    It doesn’t surprise me that women readers are harsher on female characters. They are harsher on other women in real life, too. Some of it is motivated by jealousy. Some by early cultural programming.

    I don’t mind flawed heroines. I don’t insist on purity, either. But there are certain character traits that I can’t stand in real life that I also cannot stand in my fiction.

    Most often, though, these character traits are a turn off in the hero as well.


  48. Lindsay
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 15:01:39

    I’m with LVLM in that I can forgive the heroine much easier than the hero. Most of the time she’s the one I’m identifying with, and if her issues are at all similar to mine, I can usually understand where she’s coming from, even if she’s prickly and irrational.

    I do wonder if my impatience with badly-behaved heroes is because I am largely coming from a queer context – the qualities I find attractive in a man may be very different than the qualities your average straight woman finds attractive. All I know is that it makes picking out historical romances very difficult when I have little tolerance for rakes or “dangerous” or “harsh” men.

    I have no real insight on where the double standard is coming from, though I do think it’s too simplistic to base any argument about gender difference on biology and our caveman past. For one thing, if we believe that men are programmed no better than promiscuous, primitive cavemen, then they don’t have to step up and take responsibility for their actions, and that’s just letting them off too easy.


  49. Lisa
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 15:15:33

    I’m still reading through all the comments, so please bear with me if someone has already made this point.

    @Jessie: “…the morally ambiguous heroine in the romance novel has lost the power that comes with being the redeemer. I really enjoy that trope. If she's just as depraved as the hero or worse, she is at a disadvantage.”

    This is a very good point. However, I think it’s important that heroines, and by way of them women in general, get to be both redeemer and redeemed. As Jessie pointed out if both characters need redeemed that loses some story momentum, but I don’t think it’s quite that cut and dry. Heroines and heroes can redeem each other in different ways. They can teach each other lessons.

    Having said that, I completely get that we all have conventions within the genre that we each prefer over others and will gravitate toward. I just wish there was more room for the heroine who needs to be redeemed once in a while.


  50. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 16:25:23

    @Lindsay: For one thing, if we believe that men are programmed no better than promiscuous, primitive cavemen, then they don't have to step up and take responsibility for their actions, and that's just letting them off too easy.

    Ahh, but isn’t that what pair-bonding (which is also largely biological), as well as society-enforced monogamy, does? Forces men to take responsibility instead of following their programming to sow widely?

    And of course you can’t base all of anything on one thing–whether it’s evolutionary psychology or the religious right or entrenched traditional gender roles or women’s liberation. It’s always a combination of everything.

    But at the same time, I’ve watched enough Maury and Jerry lately to wonder if in a freer society, both men and women won’t eventually end up right back in the proverbial cave. If there’s less of a stigma over women embracing their sexual freedom these days, there’s certainly less stigma out there regarding pick-up artists and deadbeat dads than there was 100 years ago, too. And without societal pressure to conform to a responsible, monogamous model, there may well be more men and women who do choose to “follow their programming” rather than do the “right thing”–the right thing being what’s best for a stable society, not necessarily the best thing for the individual.

    But that isn’t about romance, is it, lol.

    My point was that there was a double standard in romance because there’s a double standard IRL, and that the double standard IRL isn’t solely based on misogyny–there are reasons for it stretching back to the cave, as well as back to the roots of monogamy as the base model for society.

    There are other reasons, too. I think women can be envious, unforgiving and uncharitable toward other women–even fictional ones–and their reasons for that may be based more on individual self-esteem issues or the way they were raised or negative associations based on person experience. And for every handful of readers who hate the extraordinary heroine, there will be someone who adores her.

    And yes, it does also come down to being able to craft a well-balanced character with believable motivations and flaws that are–if not redeemable, because I don’t believe in total redemption of any character–at least forgivable in context. Not every writer is up to that kind of thing.


  51. Jenny Schwartz
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 18:09:52

    This is a great discussion. My mind’s buzzing with ideas–redemption, biological imperatives, social norms.

    I wonder if the hero’s allowed to be Bad, but the heroine must be Good, because the romance story is a journey, the risk/tension is trust and the pay-off is the happy ending?

    So the good heroine risks everything when she trusts the bad hero, and her leap of faith pays off with the mandatory romance HEA.

    I’m guessing every reader knows love (trust) is a huge risk. The romance story says it’s worth it.

    If the heroine wasn’t Good–if she was an aggressive survivor–what would she risk in loving the hero?


  52. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 18:55:21

    @Jenny Schwartz: If the heroine wasn't Good-if she was an aggressive survivor-what would she risk in loving the hero?

    More than the “good” ones, maybe.

    There are three things integral to a satisfying romance genre relationship–love, longing and trust. IRL, I think many women have to settle for one or two out of three (I’ve loved men I wouldn’t trust enough to tell the time of day, let alone some of my deepest feelings, and I’ve loved men I didn’t lust after and vice versa, and trusted men I didn’t love or ever want to see naked), but we want the whole shebang in our romantic fantasies.

    Most aggressive/survivor types are extremely self-protective and trust–allowing themselves to be vulnerable–would be the key issue for them, I’d think. They’ve been damaged, their trust (if they’ve ever given it to someone) has been abused. They’re like an oyster–it seems like they’re all hard shell, but when you remove the shell, the tissue underneath is all squooshy and soft because it’s been so well protected and never really been exposed.

    I’d guess that those heroines–the ones who are tough as nails on the outside, are all the more vulnerable when the armor comes off.

    And a heroine who’s like that–who doesn’t just have to take a leap of faith to get what she wants, but has to overcome huge internal barriers to even ALLOW herself to want something that bad, to acknowledge that another human being could be that important to her–I just love those heroines to little itty-bitty bits.

    But you just don’t find them that often in romance. Usually, it’s the hero who has those issues, and the heroine is there to help him work through them.

    I’d imagine the BDSM subgenre could be a logical place to explore that kind of thing–the damaged, untrusting, tough as nails heroine. Too bad I don’t write in that subgenre…


  53. Jessie
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 18:56:06

    If anyone’s looking for a (not sexually) morally ambiguous heroine of a historical romance novel, I recommend Tessa Dare’s Surrender of a Siren. Both the hero and heroine in there make some not nice choices.

    Like I said in my first comment, I don’t generally like heroine’s like that. And Sophia Hathaway makes me uncomfortable a lot of the time. But man, she is interesting. And Dare’s writing is exquisite, I think.


  54. Jenny Schwartz
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 19:04:30

    @kisten saell
    I was thinking the same thing about aggressive survivor heroines risking more to trust/love even as I typed the opposite. I guess I’m a cowardly reader. This sort of story is darker and deeper than I usually read. Worth telling though if a good writer could hook me in.


  55. Heather Massey
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 19:09:19

    And maybe that is the rub: if the reader is meant to identify with the heroine

    That statement made me wonder: Is that because the story dictates the identification or because publishers encourage it with the stories they release?

    My feeling is that if a heroine is so flat/TSTL that I'm placing myself in her shoes, then that placeholder heroine is a “failed heroine,” to quote Laura Kinsale (see her comment at The Old “Placeholder Heroine” Myth).

    I'm a little different as a reader, because I want to fall for the heroine, as well, not just use her as a place-holder. I like my heroines to be a little extraordinary, and can often imagine myself in a relationship with an extraordinary heroine in the same way I would with the hero, heh.

    Well then I'm different as a reader, too, because I adore extraordinary heroines. Would love to encounter more of them.

    Why waste a bunch of energy making the heroine extraordinary if half your readers won't care, and most of the rest won't like her for it?

    I think this would depend on the subgenre. In science fiction romance, most stories take place in a futuristic setting. There is a general expectation that the (fictional) future is more progressive. Therefore, it bothers me to see double standards at play in these stories, especially when technology can level the playing field for heroines in many ways. In the future, I don't buy that heroines can't fight in the military or be space pirates or run intergalactic corporations.

    I would love to see subgenres like SFR/fantasy romance/paranormal romance exploit the niche of the extraordinary heroine.


  56. kirsten saell
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 21:49:09

    Well, I adore them and would want to go to bed with them, hehe. And when I’m writing, I write both heroes and heroines I would be able to fall in love with–perhaps at the same time…

    I don’t know whether it’s a placeholder phenomenon, or just the fact that the majority of romance readers are straight women who just need a relatable, understandable heroine, not one they feel romantically/sexually attracted to. For myself, I need to feel that attraction–sexual and emotional–for the heroine as well as the hero for the story to really suck me in and get me emotionally invested.

    In a few special cases, I’m actually hotter for the heroine–in Sherry Thomas’ Delicious, I would have chosen Verity Durant over Stuart Somerset any day of the week. Damn that woman did if for me…


  57. Bella F.
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 22:25:45

    whoa. It’s crazy how double-standards still persist so strongly in this new millennium, but they do.
    And judging women harsher than men on their sexual behavior or their prior “sins” in general is commonplace because I think there are a lot of people that feel comfortable keeping old “moral standards” and gender roles in place.
    But I also think things are still in flux as we change generation to generation, and that as we keep defining and re-defining ourselves and our roles as women and men that romance novels and other books/media will begin to reflect it as well.


  58. Anion
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 00:47:55

    @kirsten saell:

    Totally ditto on the aggressive/tough heroines being weaker and softer inside. Those are the heroines I write, and the stories I write.

    This thread is making me both glad and horribly depressed. :) My books all have romantic subplots, of course, but those plots tend to be about the idea that people can love and be worthy of love without having to be “redeemed” in some other fashion, that love doesn’t judge, but accepts.

    Of course everyone is entitled to their own tastes and opinions, but I have a hard time finding romances I like because I’m tired of reading about Good Girls.

    (Incidentally, has anyone read Marian Keyes’s “Anybody Out There?” Was anyone else disappointed not just because, boy, SAD, I wasn’t expecting that!, but because instead of flaky, hippie, pot-smoking Anna we suddenly had this upright, normal, career-girl Anna? I was really looking forward to Anna’s book because I was so looking forward to a more unconventional love story, with a HEA that was perhaps less traditional [not that I dislike traditional HEAs], but instead got…sort of a just-another-good-girl character? Sorry to derail, but I’ve been curious about that for a while.)


  59. Silvia
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 01:47:06

    Yeah, I’d have to say that it’s 1 part gross cultural gender issues and 1 part self-insertion.

    I do believe that ‘self-insertion’ affects how many readers react to the characters in this genre. I affects me too, though I think I approach romance novels a bit differently than many other women, due to being queer. I enjoy love stories with a happy ending, and am quite happy to read hetro or queer romance. However, I’ve found that I end up most enjoying the books where I’d want to hang out with the hero and could easily imagine myself falling for the heroine if I were in his place. In this way, I’m much more sensitive to a heroine’s personality that I find grating, hypocritical, or obnoxious. And I’m completely unimpressed by a hero whose redeeming quality is that he’s sexually attractive. Behaving like an ass to the female character I’ve been fictionally crushing on, and then not having a hilarious and/or otherwise awesome personality to make up for it, is a no-win scenario with me. I really don’t care how manly his muscles are or how ~feminine~ he makes the ladies feel.

    But then I’d totally forgive some shallowness, flighty qualities, and bitchiness in my heroine if she’s coldly calculating & fierce, or vibrant & bubbly & and lovely.

    I think society in general is a harsher judge for women, but then in romance we have this added element that “swings” things — the tendency to forgive away negative qualities in people we are attracted to.

    Because of all this baggage, m/m fiction is just an easier read for me, as the good stuff doesn’t have the problematic gender issues and power dynamics (the bad stuff just recreates all those problems in bad m/f fiction and makes someone “the girl”). And then f/f is the hardest for me because I want it to match all my ideals and it has to depict a relationship I’d personally want to be in. (I find I can suspend disbelief the least the more “familiar” the material. The more women, the more judge-y I’ll be. Not entirely unlike like how a doctor would be a harsher critic of realism on ER compared to Law & Order.) So it’s not surprising that no m/f romantic movie has topped the m/m romance Shelter for me. (and then #2 Big Eden and #3 All Over The Guy)


  60. Holly
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 02:31:42

    I am so sick of double standards, of condescending heros, of heroines not being able to live. Why did the Grand Sophy marry Charles? Georgette Heyer’s heroines often got the worst of it.

    Tried to read “Something About You” after it was reviewed here. But couldn’t finish much past Jack Pallas’ thoughts about Cameron Lynde having an expensive house. Some old. Same old. She probably earns more than you, Jack. Get over it!

    Recently I started reading m/m romance with Adrien English and ZA Maxfield. Breath of fresh air. Just leave all the boring sexism behind and have fun.


  61. Denise
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 07:28:10

    I can appreciate the morally ambiguous heroine if the writer can present me with a solid reason for that ambiguity. Most often, what I’ve read is poorly handled, and I’m left reading about a woman with a lot of empty bad attitude, poor judgment and a huge, unreasonable chip on her shoulder. Many of them seem like users as well.

    I like reading about tough, edgy heroines in the context that they stick up for themselves, protect those they love (even if the means to do so may require them to be ruthless and/or violent)and follow a personal moral code that makes sense to me as a reader, even if I don’t agree with that code personally. Unfortunately, most of the heroines I’ve read that their creators have tried to portray as morally ambiguous have only come across to me as morally corrupt or just plain obnoxious. I don’t like that in either the heroine or the hero for that matter.

    I’m not fond of the Mary Sue at all. Perfection is dull, and that character type makes no more logical sense than the cardboard villain. But I do like a heroine with integrity and one who doesn’t feel there’s a natural entitlement bestowed on her (this applies for heroes in my book too) to act like an asshole. I think it’s perfectly doable to write a nice character who isn’t a Mary Sue.

    I see too much assholish behavior in day to day living. I read to escape, so I really don’t want to read it in a fictional character whose role is supposed to be that of the heroic protagonist. When it comes down to it, I prefer the quiet, capable heroine because it’s a personality type I strive to emulate.

    Favorite heroines for me are a mixed bag from books, movies and T.V. From books, I loved Cyllan from the fantasy trilogy The Time Master Trilogy by Louise Cooper. Gael Baudino’s heroine from Gossamer Axe was wonderful as well as was Groa, wife of Macbeth, in Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter. Strong, internally powerful women.

    From T.V., I love Fiona from Burn Notice, Juliet from LOST and Gemma Teller Morrow from Sons of Anarchy.


  62. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 07:34:49


    I haven’t read that one but I’m a big fan of Keyes, and recognize the character from the other sister books. Rachel’s Holiday features a drug addict heroine–and I loved it. Sorry to hear that Anna got a personality transplant!

    This thread also depresses me a little, at least the comments that suggest good-girl heroines are all there is. That is simply not true. It makes me sad when readers get fed up with power imbalances and abandon the genre, rather than seeking out books with strong or unusual heroines.

    And I totally agree with those who don’t want a bland, placeholder heroine. I want to fall in love with her, too.


  63. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 07:56:58

    @evie byrne: “Romance is about ordinary women snagging extraordinary mates… Heroines are rarely extraordinary by any external measure (except beauty, perhaps), meaning they're usually not spies, filthy rich, combat trained, undead, etc. If they are, the book is probably edging into another genre.

    The romance heroine is a placeholder for the reader. As such, she really can't get in the way of the reading experience. She has to be ordinary. Like us.”

    I think you’re theory is an interesting one, but I find this idea kind of depressing because it means the heroine doesn’t really have a character arc. It means the story really isn’t about her.

    I read for escapism, so bring on the heroine spies, filthy rich, combat trained, undead.


  64. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 08:02:21

    @Darlynne: “I'd like to read a complicated bad girl-and please, NOT a prostitute-redeemed by the love of a good man.”

    Absolutely! The idea of a placeholder heroine seems so flat to me. She’s the same virtuous character over and over again. The same is true for the real bad girl/boy who has not a single redeeming quality. I’m with you on this, I’d like to see both heroines and heroes with baggage and a mix of some good and not so good traits.


  65. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 08:10:59

    @kirsten sael: “Those behaviors just don't seem quite right in women.

    I did an experiment a while ago-took a m/f seduction scene with an over the top alpha male, and I rewrote it as an f/f scene. The resulting alpha female ended up completely squicking me out, and I'm all about female sexual agency and empowerment.”

    Women aren’t allowed to behave like that and the best way to reinforce that prohibition is to stigmatize that behavior — to say it’s unnatural. I just don’t agree with the idea that women are somehow less aggressive biologically. Women are less aggressive because acting like that way got us further interacting with another sex that is physically more powerful. I think it’s more behavioral conditioning than biology.

    I can see how that would be an enlightening exercise, but I also wonder if it seemed “off” because essentially that male character just switched genitals not gender.


  66. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 08:19:34

    @Ridley: “If heroines are a case of reader avatar, then these are the women I identify with. I've been in street fights…”

    I’ve never been in a street fight, but I prefer flawed and not necessarily nice heroines because, especially as a reader avatar, I need to know that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved. This is what bothers me about the oh-so-virtuous heroine. If she falls even just a little off the straight and narrow she’s considered worthless.


  67. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 08:32:48

    @kirsten saell: “And a heroine who's like that-who doesn't just have to take a leap of faith to get what she wants, but has to overcome huge internal barriers to even ALLOW herself to want something that bad, to acknowledge that another human being could be that important to her-I just love those heroines to little itty-bitty bits.”

    Oh, so well said! Couldn’t agree more. A HEA for that kind of character could be rock-solid. If that sort of character found someone she could trust, she’d be very loyal.


  68. khan
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 08:47:50

    Long time lurker..first time commenting though!

    Its an interesting discussion. Any one with interest in the romance genre can identify this long standing tradition of “bad boy” heroes or even worse the whole “reformed rake” plot line. It does show the double standards however given that most of the romance readers (going on a limb here with not stats to back up this statement) are women, it should not be simply dismissed as yet another hangover from the past. What might be interesting is to get the opinion of people who continue to buy such books.

    Why is it that a genre so dominated by women, is unable to break such taboo’s as a not-so-virtuous heroine? Might it be a good idea to compare it with the Urban Fantasy/Romance genre which seems to be going the other way with harems of men following each heroine?


  69. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 08:56:01

    @khan: “Why is it that a genre so dominated by women, is unable to break such taboo’s as a not-so-virtuous heroine?”

    I think we are breaking them or we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.


  70. kirsten saell
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 09:35:48

    @Anion: Totally ditto on the aggressive/tough heroines being weaker and softer inside. Those are the heroines I write, and the stories I write.

    This thread is making me both glad and horribly depressed. :) My books all have romantic subplots, of course, but those plots tend to be about the idea that people can love and be worthy of love without having to be “redeemed” in some other fashion, that love doesn't judge, but accepts.

    I like to write them, too. Not just heroines who are tough-yet-squishy, but heroines who see sex as uncomplicated fun (and don’t deny themselves that fun because why should they? And they don’t freaking apologize about it, either) until falling in love shows them it can be a deeper, more meaningful experience than that.

    I’ve written assassin heroines who leave the life–not because they’re redeemed, but because they’re ready. I’ve written prostitute heroines (not courtesans, honest to goodness street-walkers) who leave the life not because they’re redeemed, but because they’re ready.

    I don’t believe a heroine requires redemption just because she made her living by selling her body (and enjoyed doing it). Or because she killed people for a living and was good at it. Or because when she was young and angry and disillusioned, she put a curse on an innocent and ruined her life.

    People change, they make choices in their lives–sometimes between something they want and something they don’t, but more often between something they want and something else they want more. But those “I’ve seen the light, I want to get well” moments that treat a character’s past like it’s worthy of an intervention on cable TV? No thanks.

    When you fall in love with someone, you’re falling in love with who they are, not the ways they’re willing to change and the lengths they’re willing to go to to do it, in order to please you. I always wonder how soon after the HEA the heroine is going to fall out of love with that reformed rake or whatever, because suddenly he’s no longer the man she fell for–he’s someone else now.

    @Lisa: I can see how that would be an enlightening exercise, but I also wonder if it seemed “off” because essentially that male character just switched genitals not gender.

    I’ve read enough f/f (and written enough f/f) to know how difficult is is to write an aggressive, alpha female and not have her come off as pushy, selfish and obnoxious. A lot of the female characters I read in f/f seem off because their alphaness has to be subtle or it overwhelmes the character’s femininity.

    As far as the nature vs nurture argument, I don’t see any reason to discount either. Behavioral conditioning according to gender roles is real, but so are the physiological differences between men and women–and those differences exist in brain structure and hormones (which also affect behavior) as well as genital configuration. In most cases, I think behavioral conditioning reflects biological differences that already exist.

    And that’s fine with me. I’d hate to live in a world without those distinct gender differences. I like my men manly (their “feminine” side well and truly submerged under a sea of testosterone) and am mostly attracted to women who are very feminine, even girly. If all men and women gravitated more toward the center line between the genders (like I do), well, it would be a very boring world for me.


  71. Anion
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 10:21:59

    @Jill Sorenson:

    Yeah, but Rachel in Rachel’s Holiday is an addict in recovery; her drug use gets way out-of-control before we even appear on the scene, as it were, and is dealt with through flashbacks. So to me it doesn’t really “count,” although I love, love, love that book.

    This is why I write fantasy instead of romance now, at least one of the reasons, and it makes me sad too. But I just don’t agree with the idea that someone requires redemption to be worthy of love, or that redemption is a necessary component of love. They don’t, and it isn’t, and I’d much rather have someone love me for me, exactly as I am, and accept me for who I am, than someone who expects me to change and “improve” myself before they can be with me. I know that’s an oversimplification, but still. My heroes tend to have that one thing above all others in common: they love the heroine unconditionally and do not expect or ask her to change, and I’ve never had a problem writing them as happily connected people in future, you know? (Of course, my heroines feel the same way about the heroes, so…)

    I agree it’s all in the writing, but when I talk about the sorts of characters/stories I want to see, I assume excellent writing. :-)


  72. evie byrne
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 11:38:34

    @Lisa: I think you're theory is an interesting one, but I find this idea kind of depressing because it means the heroine doesn't really have a character arc. It means the story really isn't about her.

    Just wanted to clarify that’s not what I meant. It’s hard to discuss such a complicated (and fascinating) subject in little blips and blobs like this. I wish we could all be around a table, perhaps with a few cocktails? ;)

    Anyway, certainly–definitely–yes!–the romance heroine must have a character arc, and for the book to be good, she’d better be an interesting character. And the story is does indeed center on her–it’s about her journey. Which is not to say romance is not about the hero, too. Ideally, it’s about both of them learning and growing and becoming deserving of each other and all that good stuff.

    My comments were specifically regarding the morally ambiguous heroine, aka bad girls, and why there’s so few of them in romance. And my theory is not that we want boring heroines, but we want to relate to them, so they are most often ordinary, decent women–like us. I used the word placeholder, which may have been a mistake, because somehow it invokes the image of a paper doll. Elizabeth Bennett was an ordinary woman, very relatable to the reader, but far from boring. Romance heroines as a whole continue her legacy.

    Personally, I’m fond of difficult/extraordinary/damaged heroines, and seek them out. I’ve also written one, and will certainly write more. It’s just been my experience as a reader that I find more stories with this sort of heroine outside of the genre, or in its borderlands. Is this always true? No. Is this changing? I think so.


  73. kaigou
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 11:41:50

    @kirsten saell:

    I would love to see more stories out there that subvert all this crap, but it's hard to write them effectively if you don't understand or acknowledge why those double-standards exist…

    I’d say that sums up the entire issue in a nutshell: a lot of the romance genre is a kind of automatic writing. I don’t mean “automatic” in the sense of “easy”, only in the sense of “unquestioned” beyond a certain point. Granted, that’s part of what makes a genre “genre”, in that there are certain assumptions for a given story, whether this be that vampires require blood or that romances have happy endings — if your vampires don’t drink blood, they’re something, but they’re not vampires, just as if your romance has an unhappy ending, it’s something, but it’s not genre romance.

    There are authors willing to consider the origins and ramifications of our gender constructs, and how our society informs our behaviors per masculine or feminine standards, but those authors seem to be far and few between compared to the vast majority writing on automatic.

    As for the issue of identifying with the heroine, well… the entire notion of the blank-slate or placeholder heroine strikes me as requiring an awful lot from the reader. First and foremost, that you, as the reader, are willing to impose your own personal sense of self-worth upon the heroine, such that the author need not convince you that the heroine deserves love. You already believe it of yourself, thus any protagonist who stands in for you thereby immediately assumes your worthiness. A heroine too far off your personal beaten track may not freely get that assumption, thus for the unlikelier heroines, you need to be convinced of her worth-in-love.

    That’s where, I think, the “falling in love with the heroine” is equally paramount, along with finding the hero someone you could love. The less likely the heroine (by genre standards), the more work the author must do to convince the reader that this heroine deserves love to a degree that the non-similar reader feels she (the reader) deserves love.

    That’s partly, I think, why the rare heroine who fails to be worthy via the classic “is good enough” measure — ambitious, some to very sexually experienced, possibly arrogant or at least prickly, etc — garners herself some pretty strong fans, although those fans are probably a very small percentage of the entire potential romance fanbase. It’s partly because the heroine is rare and therefore an unusual read, but also because she speaks to those of us with damaged psyches or histories, who haven’t measured up to “the good girl” by some abstract standard, and live with a pressing awareness that we just aren’t good enough in some way. An awful lot of romance seems to assume from the get-go that the heroine deserves love, but not all readers can place themselves in that must-be-nice mental spot of also assuming they are worthy, too.

    It creates a disconnect, and I suspect this is part of why we’ve seen an explosion in the paranormal/urban fantasy genres where the protagonist is incredibly sexy, but often riddled with insecurities. It seems to me this is because once you’ve had enough years not-measuring by the love-standards, many of us compensate by learning to be comfortable in the lust-standards: we can be sexy, even if love feels like it falls short (or that we do). But hey, at least we can get our socks knocked off, even if our heart remains untouched — even as we may be aware that it’s our own insecurities and social-internalization that’s keeping our heart locked away.

    The urban fantasy heroine who’s attractive and sexy but hasn’t found “the one” — we can relate to the notion that she’s had to settle for lust, and that it’s not all that bad, really… but for lust to then evolve into love, well, that’s a path many modern women can grok quite easily.

    Especially we damaged ones, for whom love is a minefield with a lot of failed expectations. That’s also the reason the hero willing to accept the supernatural (or supernaturally-affected) heroine is such an attraction, too, in urban fantasy. The supernatural is the outward manifestation of the heroine’s “not-normal” existence (that is, all those things by which she fails in re those abstract social standards), thus the hero’s acceptance of her non-normality turns her failures into a kind of triumph, something lovable not in spite of but almost because of.


  74. kaigou
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 11:44:57

    @evie byrne:

    It’s just been my experience as a reader that I find more stories with this sort of heroine outside of the genre, or in its borderlands.

    Gee, it’s a good thing I made sure I was awake before dealing with the internet this morning, because I was just about to toss out a few recommendations of who I’ve liked that’s managed urban fantasy romance with less-than-perfect heroines.

    Which would’ve been a little embarrassing had I not name-checked you first, because I was about to recommend you read these books by this author who really needs to write more… but I suspect you probably know her quite well. XD


  75. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 11:48:49

    @evie byrne: “I wish we could all be around a table, perhaps with a few cocktails? ;)”

    That would be amazing, actually. :P

    “And my theory is not that we want boring heroines, but we want to relate to them, so they are most often ordinary, decent women–like us. I used the word placeholder, which may have been a mistake, because somehow it invokes the image of a paper doll. Elizabeth Bennett was an ordinary woman, very relatable to the reader, but far from boring. Romance heroines as a whole continue her legacy.”

    I see your point and I could have better articulated my response. I don’t think a heroine has to be a “Good Girl” in order to be relatable. Yes, there has to be something relatable about her, but her (especially sexual) virtue doesn’t have to be that relatable trait. I predominantly read science fiction romance and paranormal romance/urban fantasy and I understand it’s a challenge to make a space pirate, vampire, or were-unicorn heroine relatable, but it’s possible and when it works, it works very well. Especially when in “reader avatar” mode I prefer imperfect heroines. Since I’m not perfect I find these very virtuous heroines difficult to relate to.


  76. evie byrne
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:08:52

    @Kaigou: LOL!!! Thank you! I do need to write more.

    @Lisa: I predominantly read science fiction romance and paranormal romance/urban fantasy

    Yes! These are the borderlands I spoke of, places where the genres cross, where there seems to be more room for “difficult” heroines. These sub-genres are growing fast, proving there’s an audience out there who wants to read about ruthless were-unicorn ninja assassin heroines with a taste for deflowering virgin men. (No one steal that idea! Kaigou says I have to get writing.)


  77. Lisa
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:17:18

    @evie byrne: “…ruthless were-unicorn ninja assassin heroines with a taste for deflowering virgin men.”

    Sign me up! I’ll stand in line for that one.:P


  78. kaigou
    Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:20:32

    @evie byrne:

    I am more than happy to provide whip-cracking, especially if it gets me ruthless were-unicorn ninja assassin heroines with a taste for deflowering virgin men. Woohoo!


  79. Kacie
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 15:27:17

    Jessie “…the morally ambiguous heroine in the romance novel has lost the power that comes with being the redeemer”. I absolutely agree… Morally ambiguous means so much more than sleeping around. But, let's face it; “the power that comes from being the redeemer” is tied to how many lovers she's had and whether all sex was mediocre or bad until the hero. It's too bad, really. I don't need a virgin and, frankly, only find the virgin trope believable in historical romance. Having said that, she must stop sleeping around once she meets the hero, but that applies to the hero too. If the setting is the present and the heroine is over 21, the author better give me a damn good reason for her still being a virgin.

    Regarding the hero, I need him to be redeemable, murdering all the young Jedis = unredeemable, date raping the heroine = unredeemable, leaving the heroine at the alter = redeemable, with the right motivation.

    I would say I don't normally identify with the characters, instead I look at what's presented and decide whether I feel their actions (past and present) fit with what I've learned about them from the story. I do have difficulty with heroines under 25 and heroes under 30. Is that me identifying? Not certain.

    Oh, my brain is starting to hurt.

    I think your next question should be: Could you read about and love an overweight hero?


  80. Jodi
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 10:27:04

    I’m late to the game but I read through most of the replies and I have a thought.

    I read a short while ago an article – sorry, I can’t find it – that said that in marriages that work the wife can depend on the husband and the husband admires the wife.

    So, my question is, as far as this discussion goes is. . . a man that falls from from grace and is redeemed can still be depended on but. . . can a woman who falls be admired?


  81. Jane
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 10:42:34

    @Jodi Would you say we are adopting the male point of view then in terms of wanting to admire a woman?


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