As a kid I loved Wonder Woman, and as an adult I’ve already shown my girls that original series as well (and they loved it too). Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, Princess Tiana, Mulan, and now Merida too. There’s a lot of awesome fictional females that rule in this house and for good reason – who wants a helpless heroine?
Personally, I will take emotionally stunted, physically disabled, vulnerable, unpredictable, crazy, killer, badass, potty mouthed, super nice, or even insecure heroines but do not give me a helpless leading lady.
Recently I read a book and I was horrified at how everything that is strong about the heroine is literally tied into the chain inside of her that is her bond to the male lead. Oh yes, when he left to go do something (with every intention of returning) she came close to falling apart. LITERALLY.
Then I read a historical romance where the heroine does everything asked of her by people above her station (husband, aunt, etc) and desires to be well behaved and proper above all else. Really? Seriously? I mean I get this is historic fiction but it is being written in 2011/2012 by a woman who I assume did not time travel from the 1800s to write this now.
This inspired me to stop for a moment and question myself, as well as writing out my thoughts here to share with you. Was I being too hard on these ladies? Have I become predictable and narrow in my view of what makes a good heroine?
After some reflection and a few books with strong heroines leading the way I had my answer. I am intolerant of a heroine that needs a man in the picture to become interesting or worthwhile. Totally helpless heroines can stay out of my way.
I do not mean that I want a perfect heroine or a heroine without flaws – because that wouldn’t be believable at all, and it would make the character flat and boring as well. I also don’t expect a heroine to have no interest in love or sex, or have no interest in finding Mr. Right. Not at all! What I demand is that at her core, the book’s heroine has her own independent strength and worth that is not tied to anyone else.
Yes, life is better when you’re in love with someone that enhances your world. Sure, it’s easier to smile and do your best when things are going your way in general. But what happens if that isn’t a part of your life? What happens when you’re alone and it is just you?
If the answer is to cry in your room for months and then sort of try to end your life (I’m looking at you, Bella and Edward) then color me disgusted.
If the answer is to keep doing the right thing and fight through the pain (you go Gin Blanco – high five girl) then consider me interested.
What it all comes down to is that I myself am interested in heroines that I can root for, that inspire me, or that I genuinely like in some way. I don’t have to agree with all of their choices or wish they were real so we could be best friends, but I need them to be strong on their own.
I think that in this day and age it is a great disservice to women to write a female lead who looks to her man to fulfill her every need. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be capable and help his lady love out now and then – but she shouldn’t require his help for all things. While it might be nice to imagine a world where I could sit and eat chocolate and read books all day and a man would make everything happen for me – in reality I do not want that.
What I really love in a fictional heroine is when she has a balance. When vulnerabilities and strengths, weaknesses and skills come into play and we are really shown how she grows, adapts, changes, and stands up to the challenges thrown her way. I love nothing more than the strong independent woman who needs nothing finds herself hopelessly smitten over the guy who just walked in. When the shy girl gets the chance to save the day – and does so with style. I adore a heroine that is physically strong and can show some emotional vulnerability.
Bottom line, I’m a woman who strives to stand on her own two feet and do her best most (hey- I’m not perfect either!) of the time. As such, I like to read about women who are learning to stand, who never stand still because they’re too busy kicking ass, or who otherwise are strong, wonderful, fabulous ladies to be celebrated. From the debutante to the assassin, the teacher to the detective – I root for them all. In celebration of strength in heroines, I will share some examples of all-time favorite (book) heroines of mine:
Jessica Trent (Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase)
Agnes (Agnes & the Hitman by Crusie & Mayer)
Penelope Featherington (Romancing Mr Bridgerton by Julia Quinn)
Kate Daniels (Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews – in fact ALL of Andrews’ heroines are great ones)
Olivia Joules (Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding)
Phillipa Benning (Revealed by Kate Noble)
Gin Blanco (Elemental Assassin series by Jennifer Estep)
Kate Taylor (Lady by Midnight by Tessa Dare)
Mercy Thompson (Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs)
Sophia Smythe (Lord and Lady Spy by Shana Galen)
I could actually go on and on – because one thing I’ve noticed is that for the most part my favorite books all feature great heroines. Some are physically strong, some are very fit, some chose a much less physical route but all are women I can admire in some way, women I wouldn’t mind my own daughters reading about.
I would love to hear your thoughts on what you consider deal breakers in your fictional leading ladies, and who your favorites are as well.
Avery Flynn says
Yes. Yes. And even more yes.
A heroine deal breaker for me is one who is a whiner. I hate that. Sure, things go wrong, but give me a gal who pushes forward anyway and I’m in reader heaven. To your list I’d add:
Sookie Stackhouse (book version)
Hell Cat says
Scarlett was mentioned at the heroine panel at Dragon*Con. I haven’t read the book, but the film version never gave up. Did what was necessary to survive. As the panelist said, the rest of her sphere crumbled but she took the reins at all costs because she was more than chattel. Something I think most women have gone through in our lives, it’s an empathetic connection and creates a bond.
Avery Flynn says
Love Gone With the Wind. It features two remarkably strong women (Scarlett and Melly) who have completely different ways of being strong but both do it damn well.
Hell Cat says
They’re almost the two “typical” sides of women – knowing which audience must be reached. Melanie is very maternal, soft spoken, while Scarlett is the brazen woman in charge of her sex appeal (the female Rhett).
Yes, ‘book Sookie’ much better than TV Sookie for sure.
Hell Cat says
I love you. Seriously. LOVE. YOU. This is why I love to read my alpha heroines. Not necessarily shifters, but strong women who control their destiny by being self-aware, embracing who they are outside of everyone else’s determinations. You mentioned several of my favorites.
Blanco is one of the BEST females that I love. She’s not a good person, not really, but she’s not a bad one either. She walks the balance of grey because her world is grey. When her lover left, she was broken but she didn’t shatter. Much like Kate Taylor, too. Different setting, but she was ferociously independent when life got tough. She was more than a single expectation. She didn’t break or shatter, instead choosing to find her own destiny.
Maryse Robicheaux from DeLeon’s Trouble in Mudbug was a great go getting female. She didn’t sit helplessly by when her husband left. She tried to track him down, continued her scientific work towards a greater goal. Yeah, a hot man is attracted her and yay, but her world wasn’t revolving around that simple fact. She had stuff she needed to get done.
Mercy is completely broken at some point. Shattered even. Needs help getting beyond but she never once loses her core. And that is so very important. I compared her to Beth (J.R. Ward) in a paper for that very reason. And to me, Lily Yu from Wilks is strong, too. Like Mercy, she’s an unexpected element because she fit into typical boxes.
I’d discuss Moira Rogers, but that’s actually it’s own post at my blog sometime next week.
I grew up watching Sami Brady on TV, back when she was sneaky and the teen villain. I loved her independence, her inventiveness. Yes, she was gaga over Austin, but she also had no problem solving a problem herself. She didn’t wait for help, which landed her in problems, too. But she was still who she was, made no apologizes unless beaten down to it. She never ran from who she was. My fictional favorites follow suit.
ooh – I hope to catch the Moira Rogers post! I’ve not read her – apparently I need to?!
Now I know I have (but never read) trouble in mudbug… sounds like I need to dig that out of my TBR!!!
Hell Cat says
You definitely will like the post I think. I have the review of Impulse up, but Bree and Donna do one heck of a job creating strong women. They’re both believe in the power of women, not just girl power, but the absolute self power. Which is so nice. I’m gonna be posting on the various styles of female empowerment and how they relate to other women (note: the women aren’t catty, even when jealous). I love that because I think it makes the women stronger as a whole.
Oh, man. You’d LOVE Mudbug. I got it for free on Amazon and haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Between Maryse and the mother-in-law, strength against adversity isn’t unheard of. I need to write up my review. I thought I had but apparently not. Maybe this weekend (what’s another item on my list?).
Well I don’t read m/f but I agree with you, and I don’t much care for that trait in non-fictional women either. I used to belong to a parenting board and some of the women said if their husband was out of town they would put on all the lights at night, try to sleep on the couch, phone on speed dial, absolutely terrified to be alone. Many would refuse to leave thehouse without their man. Surely they lived in the ghetto full of drive-by shootings though? No. Usually small Canadian towns of less than 5000 people. It made me nuts. How would they function if he left them? They wouldn’t I guess.
I suppose many of us want to identify with the heroine and admire her, or we wish we were smart and brave like her and still won the overly well-endowed highland lord (or is that just me?) But no one wants to imagine being a wet dishrag or someone we don’t respect.
BAHAHA! overly endowed highland lord… who is also a shifter and a vampire and an angel perhaps?!
Anyhow – Interesting – and yes! I am reminded of military wives who have to be on their own for months, a year even often with very limited contact as well. They have to just put on those big girl panties and take care of living life at home solo… and that takes a special kind of strength all its own. It isn’t always a grand gesture…
Totally agree. I also hate TSTL heroines.
Why is it, that the first book you described sounds familiar?
The first book I mentioned (heroine’s power/strength all tied into her lover) was Discovery of Witches… a book I thought had such potential but the weakness of the heroine was too awful – I didn’t continue series. People that I know that still read the series say it continues like that – she is nothing without her man at her side…
Is it wrong that I just want to write ‘ditto’ in big, fat, bolded, italised, underlined caps? Because I do. If the heroine is a pale sylph who is only a reflection of those around her, I have no interest in her. If she has a background and interests, or grows a background, I am firmly in her court. If she is out there kicking butts and taking on the world, especially if she is an unconventional woman, I am ready to marry the book myself.
And by ‘background’ I mean ‘backbone’ *facepalm*
Awesome post! I can’t stand helpless, whiny females. I don’t demand that every heroine be a badass, I just want her to do her best and stand on her own two feet. I actually like it more if she can get hurt, but keeps on keeping on (like Gin Blanco!)
Romancing Mr. Bridgerton is one of my favorite books of all time and Penelope is awesome. Julia Quinn does a strong female lead well. I’ll have to check out the others on your list
I think one of the most disturbing things I have seen recently is the trend in YA fiction to present these superficially strong but ultimately oppressed heroines for our young girls. Bella, of course, is the classic example of an outdated concept of femininity, intelligent but not self-sufficient, self-sacrificing and selfish both from the moment we meet her. But I found the portrayal of Katniss in the Hunger Games even more disturbing because she STARTS OUT self-sufficient, brave, rebellious when necessary, intuitive and inventive and compassionate and dogged and all of the things we’d like to see our girls become as they grow into womanhood. And yet, in the end, we are left with a woman who chooses not to continue on in her leadership, who chooses the easy route and in the end she is slotted back into an absolutely traditional female role. This girl who assassinated a president in front of the whole world to bring justice and to protect the world from another dictator… ends up barefoot and pregnant back home with the man who has consistently been a pale substitute for the man she really loves. Even my 9 YO knew that was a crappy ending! WHY would we serve this up to our girls? Where are the Wonderwomen of today’s YA lit? Any ideas? I have 4 daughters who are VORACIOUS readers and would like to feed their strong women souls!
Hell Cat says
I was so disturbed and annoyed by Katniss that I couldn’t read the last two books. Seriously. She started out as strong, but it became quite evident that she was going to be relying on men pretty heavily. I want a strong female YA character like Ash from Wicked Lovely, which is far too old for a 9-year-old, but who has internal struggles with males but still marches to her own beat and makes her world fit her within all her power. I never got that from Katniss.
I’ve noticed this trend inYAa as well: the woman who choses a man who treats her like crap, places her in danger, is mean to her, and she loves him for no reason other than that he’s irresistable and she just feels a pull towards him
this bothers me so much that it seems to be happening a lot in YA. it shouldn’t!!
I do read (and love) Jennifer Estep’s YA series, but other than that I really don’t read the genre so I don’t have rec’s – but hoping perhaps some others have GOOD examples to share!
A series with a great heroine in the SF genre is Sirantha Jax in the novels by Ann Aguirre.