Thursday, January 4, 2018

Talkin' 'Bout Bad Girls

I had a brief flirtation with romance in my teens, but didn't become a "serious" reader of the genre until I was in my early twenties.  1999 to be precise.  I was fresh out of library school and had landed a job with a collection development component to it - specifically, adult fiction.  Having spent the past six years buried in academia, reading for pleasure was not my poison of choice for unwinding.  I watched an inordinate amount of soap operas instead.  It was after landing this job that I realized I was going to be expected to select romance and outside of knowing who Jude Deveraux was, I was epically clueless.  So I started reading it and got hooked.

This was 1999 which doesn't seem that long ago, but trust me on this - it was almost 20 years ago.  I read a lot of books back then that I enjoyed, but the genre was still stuffed to the gills with virginal heroines who never had an orgasm until the hero came along.  If you were lucky enough to find a book with an "experienced" heroine as the lead, she had to be screwed up in some way.  Daddy didn't love her so that's why she had sex with other guys before meeting the hero and naturally the sex she had before the hero wasn't all that good.  It was like there had to be a self-loathing component to the heroine in order for her to NOT be a virgin.  I read these (and even enjoyed some) because I was, literally, that desperate.

Having lived away from home, having had the "college experience," and a wide swath of male and female friends - this sort of thing never rang true for me.  Even some of the earliest (marketed as) erotic romances still featured virginal heroines who designed sex toys for a living.  I think that's why I found Black Lace books so revolutionary at the time I discovered them.  The heroines had healthy sex lives, multiple partners, weren't written as villains, and weren't punished for it.  But Black Lace wasn't necessarily romance, although you could find books that featured what we now call HFN (Happy For Now) endings. Also, since they were published in the UK, they were pretty hard to find in the United States until the evil monolith that is Amazon came along (Black Lace is why I became an Amazon customer and no I'm not joking. At all.)

For readers who have just come to romance in, say, the last five years or so, the idea that 95% of all heroines being virgins is a foreign concept to them.  These days, at least the books I'm reading, I would say the norm is that most heroines aren't virgins - especially in contemporary romance.  But you know what?  They're all still predominantly "good girls."  Even in erotic romance where taboo is a teeny bit more acceptable.

For "reasons," I've spent the last several months sampling and listening to a lot of erotic romance on audio.  Call it professional development.  I like to expose myself (ha!) to authors I've never read before, check out books my library patrons are interested in, even if I don't finish everything I pick up - I at least have gotten a small plate tasting to give myself a good idea.  It's a way to keep my reader's advisory skills fresh.

I've just gone through, roughly, 25 different erotic romance audio books.  Some by authors I've heard of, some I haven't, pretty much all authors I've never read before.  And you know what?  If they weren't "good girls" they were "bad girls" who were looking to repent and/or be rescued.  Good Lord above, if I hit upon one Rescue Fantasy, I must have hit upon 20.  The hero swooping in to save the heroine.  The heroine being the "emotional salve" to "heal" the hero's damaged psyche.  The Alphahole Hero felled by the love of a good woman after he teaches her to be kinky in bed.

Honestly it's amazing I didn't give myself alcohol poisoning.

I hear what you're thinking.  Wendy, you're yucking on someone else's yum.  And you know what?  Yes.  Yes, I am.  You wanna know why?  Because I just slogged through 25+ audio books and 90% of them featured some variation on this.

It took me a while to figure this out, but slogging through those audio books, it was like the proverbial light bulb going off.  I glommed on to erotic romance the minute Kensington Brava was launched in 1999.  I was all in baby!  So why now is the sub genre failing to spark with me.  Have I changed?  Or has the sub genre changed?  And here's the answer: it's a little of both.

The Bodice Ripper Era gets a fair amount of grief from those who don't understand genre history because of how rape-y it was.  What naysayers don't take into account is the era in which those books were written.  "Good girls" weren't allowed to talk or think about sex, much less like it.  The concept that women could actually have sexual desires, needs and fantasies is something society still wrestles with today, never mind the 1970s and 1980s.  Authors were responding to society and addressing female sexuality with the means at their disposal.  There was a lot of cloak and dagger tap-dancing these authors were doing because that's what they had to do.  People talk about the 1960s as the "sexual revolution," but I have news for you - that revolution missed wide swaths of the population.

What romance has always told women is that it's OK for them to have sexual desires and fantasies - to own them.  Good girls can like sex and good girls can desire sex.  It's what makes the genre inherently subversive.  Where the genre needs to do more work is with "bad girls."

Human behavior, god bless, is predictable.  I don't care when or where you grew up, but we all knew who the "bad girls" were.  The ones who "got in trouble."  The ones who "let" boys go "all the way."  These were the girls we gossiped about, snubbed, and talked trash about.  Never mind that we knew nothing about their lives or, you know, the actual truth.  Never let the truth get in the way of "good gossip" no matter how appalling and misogynistic it is.

We've all done it.  We all need to own it.

But here's the thing: romance is still doing it.  Maybe not as blatantly as it used to - where the villainess was always The Other Woman who enjoys kinky sex - although yes, those still exist in today's genre.  But it's still a rare thing to have a bad girl heroine in the genre.  A true bad girl.  The one who has made mistakes, has a dubious moral and ethical code, and stays a bit bad even at the end of the book.  If I'm to believe in a "bad girl" I don't want her morphed into a pod person and joining the PTA at the end of the book.  Unless, of course, she's going to burn the PTA down to the ground.  Then I'm all in.

As romance readers we swallow a lot of over-the-top (secret babies, amnesia, evil twins) and ethically squishy (boss/secretary, criminal heroes) plot devices.  The hurdle we can't seem to cross is the ethically squishy heroine.  We'll buy it for the gander but it sure as heck is not good for the goose.  The goose needs to be above reproach.  And frankly?  That's SO boring.  I want a heroine who is allowed to be just as "bad" as the hero and is celebrated for it.  That's what I want.  And frankly, given that romance authors are predominantly female, I should be able to find more of it.  Yet, here I am, nattering away on my blog.  Is it the desire to be more marketable? (Probably).  Is it internalized misogyny? (Not out of the realm of possibilities).  All I know is I want more of it.  I truly want the girls to be on the same playing field as the boys because you know what?  Women don't get that in Real Life.  I'm not saying that all romance needs to be wish fulfillment but it should serve as a response to the social history around us.  If you love "bad boy" heroes - guess what?  It's time to let the "bad girl" heroines have their day in the sun.

17 comments:

Lori said...

Yes to all of this. I've lost count of the number of times that my notes about a book that didn't work for me included some variation of "The lengths to which the story goes to make the heroine seem totally wonderful and perfect and/or put upon were ridiculous." The fact that so many of those books featured an alphole "hero" just makes it so much worse.

I've definitely become a book Goldilocks. I have zero interest in a**holes in my fiction because real life is providing more than enough of them, and frankly I want them to die miserable and alone, not get an HEA. At the same time I'm also totally over Patty Perfect and her even more annoying cousin, Mary Sue. I just want to read about people who feel real. I'm fine with ridiculous situations, in fact I really love certain flavors of ridiculous, but I want the characters to feel like actual human beings.

Also, can we take a very, very long break from books that push the notion that deep down all women want to be "mastered"? I'm A-OK with kink, but I'm not OK with the implication that D/s (man the D, of course, and the little lady the s) is not a kink, but instead the deep truth of human nature. If it's the deep truth of your nature that's cool, but own your dang kink.

Wendy said...

Lori: Oh Lord yes, the "mastering" thing. I ran into A LOT of that. There was one audio I had to DNF straight away because it was an M/F/M "thing" and there was this whole "protect the little lady" vibe running through it and I basically wanted to throat bunch everybody.

It's a fine line. I can see the M/F/M where the heroine is all protected and cherished as being a type of wish fulfillment for some readers. There's also this "thing" in romance where the heroine serves as a placeholder for the female reader - which....is totally not my thing. Reading romance has served as an "escape" for me at times, but it's always been in the "tell me a good story so I can forget the Real World for a while" not "I want to imagine myself as the protected and cosetted heroine."

I think what I want is more anti-heroines. The genre has embraced anti-heroes to the point where I listened to a book about a damn mob boss "hero" - but the heroines are still stuck in being the "emotional ideal to awaken the damaged Beast hero." Which...blah. I don't want to read about jerks, but heroines with some depth and a lack of self-loathing would be great.

Wendy said...

Crud! Jazz Let, I am SO SORRY!! My stupid fat finger hit the wrong button and I accidentally deleted your comment out of moderation! Luckily it was e-mailed to me and I'm copying/pasting below:

"And if the heroine does have a mob connection she has been sheltered from the family business by all her male relatives, urgh.

I'm not going to get into the heroines who are touted as bad girls but turn out to have been set up (way to tease author), the whole lack of female friends (for heroine and certainly not for hero) with the associated dissing of all other females in the story, the suppossedly competant heroines who clearly aren't, etc etc etc

I may be feeling a bit pissy."

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

>>>>>>but I'm not OK with the implication that D/s (man the D, of course, and the little lady the s) is not a kink, but instead the deep truth of human nature.

Another vote for YES THIS!

Mrs Giggles said...

I can still count with two hands over all these years how many romance novels I've come across that have really bad girls. Like you said, there are more bad girls that are actually just messed up in the head.

One reason why I enjoy gay romances is because, without the vagina tax (you know, being a woman means you more often than not have to be less capable, less intelligent, less financially secure, have less agency), it is easier to find main characters that just simply let loose and be as bad as they want to be.

M/F/M works for as an erotic episode for me. As a romance, the very idea of having to sexually satisfy two or more sex-mad, insatiable guys non-stop makes me feel like I need to lie down and curl up into a ball. There is one story I came across which has the heroine marrying four or five ranchers. That means doing cooking, cleaning, etc for five men in addition to sleeping with all of them? The poor dear will be worn out and haggard in a year.

Kris Kennedy said...

This is really good. I get everything you’re saying. Asking ‘who gets to be an asshole’ and ‘how much of an asshole can they be’ are great questions.
As a reader...I’d love to read some funky, fun, you-bet-I-did-that-sh*t women too, but here’s what I’ve noticed: when I read books w/ ‘bad’ heroines, unrepentant ones, they’re often rather unappealing as people. Closed-in, often suspicious, almost bitter. Like they’re always massaging wounds. *disclaimer: I have not read every romance with a ‘bad’ heroine, so I’m not saying this is true for all.* But, to the extent the ones I have read are like that...it’s a little twist on the question. Like, why can’t they be fun, exciting heroines? It’s almost as if, when a heroine has A History, even if she's still 'claiming' it, she has to suffer for it.
It seems that when heroes are assholes, they’re often *entertaining* assholes. *disclaimer: not all!* Their dialogue is engaging, their inner thoughts are often more interesting, they can banter.
I don’t know if it’s just that I haven’t read enough (quite likely).
I’d LOVE a book where she burns the PTA to the ground at the end! (for a good reason :) )
Also...I think a lot of readers want things to be obvious and clear. A strong heroine can make a lot of readers feel that de facto, this means the hero has to take a back seat. huge disclaimer: I do not believe this at all, as a reader or a writer! But I think it can be easier to write a clear power dichotomy, and maybe easier to read. Or simpler.
For some reason, I’m thinking of the Stephanie Plum books, although they’re not actually romances. But Stephanie was who she was, and was engaging, fun. And Morelli was still a strong, powerful male figure. I’m not sure why there's less of that in romance.
Speaking as an author...on the ‘save the heroine,’ ‘kink releases the doves’ romantic conflicts....I think for erotic romance, where the sex is at the core of the story, there (generally) needs to be a conflict that also relates to the sexytimes, and ‘rescue’ or ‘kinky sex’ is an easy one to make work, conflict-wise. Not saying that doesn't get boring as hell (it does), just maybe why it is the way it is.
So, long-story-long...I agree with your lament!

azteclady said...

First, I agree with every single word of Lori's comment; sometimes those kinky romances feel like the new face of the old "and of course she quit her career/moved to another country/changed religion and political affiliation...to be a good wife" that were implied (if not spelled out) in romances in the 70s/80s.

Second, I almost commented on twitter that it's infuriating to see that even Dexter (tv) gets to have a romantic arch, despite being a freaking murdering sociopath, but if a female character happens to be...o, a mercenary scam artist, or kept woman, she's automatically 'not worthy' of her HEA (right now, for reasons, I'm thinking of LH's Death Angel--when that book came out, the character was torn to pieces from all fronts)

To Ms Kennedy's point, about sympathetic scoundrel heroes...why aren't there more heroines just like them? Charming, witty, wily, and unrepentant? Why are we (the larger romance reading audience as a whole, not any smaller 'we') so unwilling to consider ANY woman worthy of happiness, so long as the chemistry between the characters is convincing, while forgiving male characters pretty much everything AND cold blooded murder for profit?

Wendy said...

Mrs. Giggles: OMG - thank you! That's exactly how I feel about M/F/M. As a "scene" in a erotic novel, fine. But the idea of morphing that into a full time romance just leaves me feeling exhausted. The one I tried listening to felt like that. When the heroine wasn't all protected/cosetted/completely lacking ANY agency WHATSOEVER - she was having sex. I'm all for great sex but, you know, having your OWN life is kind of aces in my book. But what do I know?

Kris: It's funny you mention Stephanie Plum because one of my most popular posts ever on this blog is one where I call Stephanie a "ho bag." I can't recall what book it was now - but I had gotten to the point where in MY mind her and Joe were "a couple" and she falls back into bed with Ranger. So it felt like infidelity to me. Which bothered me. But not as much as the fact that Stephanie refused to OWN the fact that she "cheated" on Joe (again, in my mind"). She blamed the fact that she kept having sex with Ranger on the fact that Joe's weirdo grandma put a "curse" on her. Which annoyed me more than the perceived "cheating." Girl, ain't no shame in sleeping with someone as hot as Ranger. OWN IT! And to use such a lame excuse? Needless to say I finally broke up with the series after that because Stephanie turned into a hypocrite. Joe had to be faithful to her, but she wasn't to him - and when she WAS unfaithful, she tried to play it off on a "curse."

Which means that yes, even despite my rambling blog post I can be judgey of heroines with the best of 'em.

Wendy said...

AL: It's exhausting - truly. I've seen romance readers fall all over themselves for heroes who are basically sociopaths, but the heroine will get flayed alive for much lesser "infractions." Internalized misogyny is totally a thing, yo. Also, I think the idea of the heroine being a placeholder is one we don't discuss enough in the genre. I do think there's a lot of readers out there who like to "imagine" themselves as the heroine. Even if they don't think they're doing that - a little piece of them probably is. Who doesn't get excited by a book that features a "relateable" heroine to their own experiences? I know I have.

Kris Kennedy said...

Wendy: I'd agree with you 100% about the triangle of Stephanie/Ranger/Morelli thing...had I got that far in the series. :) After I left the comment, I realized I should have mentioned I only made it to book #6, then bailed b/c I was bored. Like, real bored. By the never-arcing protagonist and the non-arcing romance. So yes, what you mentioned would have ruined it for me too, had it not already been ruined. If you're going to do something, dammit, do it, then own it, at least inside your own head, whatever you show to the outside world.

Aztec said "about sympathetic scoundrel heroes...why aren't there more heroines just like them? Charming, witty, wily, and unrepentant?"

Exactly! That's what I want to know. Even when there *is* a 'bad girl' heroine, she's weighted down by the guilt or the...whatever of her 'badness.' Or, if she 'claims' it, she's so often still...unpleasant. Can't she be charming or funny or somehow fascinating or fun to read about, AND have major foibles?

I don't even care if over the course of the story, she arcs to view her 'badness' as not okay, or changes it somehow. Just...be someone who's compelling and fun to read about. Not bleak and unrelentingly angry or bitter or...whatever other unpleasant things often show up in 'bad' heroines.

Aztec also said: "Why are we (the larger romance reading audience as a whole, not any smaller 'we') so unwilling to consider ANY woman worthy of happiness...while forgiving male characters pretty much everything AND cold blooded murder for profit?"

Right?? Honestly, I think a lot of it is the protection thing Wendy mentioned. Maybe not so much rescue, but...we want to be safe, and the man who can be brutal and awful to a hard world, but protect the heroine is like a stand-in for a castle wall (and I don't say that b/c I write castle walls. :))

Or who knows...maybe we're just projecting our collective female id onto the heroes. (wider 'we') We don't want to be that bad ourselves, so we make the heroes to do for us, then we get to forgive (and judge) them, then reform them.

Marguerite Kaye said...

This post really got me thinking - especially since I'm in the throes of working on a new series idea. I love the idea of bad girls, and like lots of the other commentators, I don't get why readers are so unforgiving of them when they forgive heroes almost anything. Is this even more true in historicals?

The problem is that if you have a 'bad' heroine she's immediately an outcast. It's difficult to let heroines have sex in historicals, never mind let them have lots of sex with lots of men (though I'd love to have a go at that one!) so you have to work quite hard to make them 'bad' in another way that doesn't end up being unlikeable, but that isn't completely unbelievable in the historical context. Which rules out the rake-equivalent heroine, doesn't it?

I've had a heroine who took opium. I'd just finished a courtesan heroine (though her experience was only with one man) and I'm currently writing a card sharp. But they're not 'bad', they are victims of their situation. And maybe (I'm wondering, having read this post) I compromised on the impact of their experiences on their behaviour to make them more acceptable heroines. So is 'bad' ballsy, big-mouthed, confrontational, hard as nails then? But readers like these even less in historicals than in contemporary romance - I don't know why, but it's true.

So does that mean you can't have a 'bad' historical heroine? I've racked my brains, and fallen back on Georgette Heyer. Deborah, from Faro's Daughter, and Venetia. But they are so likeable, I don't know if they count. So I'd love to know, do they exist? Or have I got the whole 'bad' thing totally wrong?

PS I'm completely with you on Stephanie Plum/Ranger/Joe. I was shocked, shocked, shocked when she slept with Ranger, not because I didn't want her to but because she was, as far as I was concerned at that point, committed to Joe. Or not committed, as it turned out.

Wendy said...

Kris: I think you bring up a really good point about "protection." I think if you peel back the layers of the female id, as a gender we're quite concerned with "safety" and "security." For good reason! And a hero who will do everything in his power, whether it's brutal or awful or whatever, to ensure the heroine's safety - I get it. I mentioned this M/F/M story I listened to in my comment to Mrs. Giggles and while it made my eyes cross, I totally get how it would appeal to some readers. I think it speaks to a deeper part of the female experience. I rail against Rescue Fantasies (a lot) - but I willing recognize that they do have appeal. I mean, I totally get it. What woman, at some point in her Real Life, doesn't look around and just wish that someone, anyone, would show up and just take care of everything for a change so she didn't have to?

Wendy said...

Marguerite: Oh historicals are a COMPLETELY different kettle of fish. Even to this opinionated reader :)

There are some story lines and plot devices that are an automatic NOPE in contemporary for me, but that I'll swallow whole in historicals. The most immediate example I can think of is the Miracle Baby Epilogue. Or the heroine whose infertility has her bemoaning that she can't give the hero "his own babies." That gets on my last hot nerve in contemporaries, but in historicals? When you factor in women's history for the time period you're reading about? I can roll with it because I *understand* it.

You know what I LOVE in historicals? The heroine who is slyly bad. She has to be sneaky about it because of the social mores and societal restrictions placed on her sex at that time. Women who have to use their wits and wiles to get what they want, tweak the villain's nose etc. What I tend to loathe in historicals are heroines who don't think at all about society - especially heroines of a certain class. I DNF'ed a well-reviewed historical last year (?) featuring a heroine who was SHOCKED that her brother expected her to get married to the hero after he catches them in a compromising position in a private dining room. Really?! And she was a blue-blood. She got out in society, she had female friends, and she still wonders why her brother is forcing her to get married?!?! Ugh. I was done after that.

(PS: And I loved the opium smoking heroine book - that's my favorite Armstrong sister!)

Kris Kennedy said...

Marguerite~ I agree with Wendy, that historicals are different! Your 'bad girl' heroines sound great, and I don't think them being 'forced' into situations by circumstances, and seizing the opportunities they *do* have with both hands, dilutes their 'villainy' or makes them watered-down at all. But I too love the ways women get power in historicals, like Wendy was saying. It might be less in-your-face, but still potent.

Just thinking out loud.... Marguerite said "So is 'bad' ballsy, big-mouthed, confrontational, hard as nails then?...But readers like these even less in historicals than in contemporary romance"

Part of me thinks it's in the execution, but then again, many readers want the comfort of the familiar, so a straight-up ballsy woman may not satisfy no matter what. But for me, I need the heroine to be 'likable,' as you mentioned. I think that's actually vital to making it work, and doesn't (necessarily) diminish her 'bad-ness.' B/C again, just speaking on what I've encountered, so often, 'bad' heroines are *not* likable.

But that's not any diff than what I need for a 'bad' hero. I need my heroines to be fun to be around (I don't mean lol fun, just that I want to spend time in her thoughts). If she's remarkable, and not a downer or simply unpleasant to listen in on (however justified her unpleasantness might be) I'm all-in. She can be that hard-as-nails, balls to the wall heroine, even in an historical.

Just thought about Madeleine Greenway in Julie Anne Long's Perils of Pleasure. Now, she wasn't bad-bad-bad, and she wasn't burning down the Regency equivalent of the PTA :), but she was doing exactly what she thought she needed to do, with no apologies. And I liked being w/ Madeline a lot. I think it would have been harder or impossible if she'd been unlikable.

Wendy~ Yes! Who was it (a man) who said "men fear women will reject us; women fear men will kill them." So maybe that's being played out. And maybe sometimes, in romance as a genre, men become a projection for us. What we'd *like* to do, but know we shouldn't/can't. (hmm...sorta like the societal norms of historicals...)

Meg said...

I love this post! I definitely agree with everything you said and then some. I'm bookmarking it and emailing it to all my friends..! Also - I have been thinking about this is in the past week cos I did read a book with a bit of a "bad girl" character in it - the book is called Unsticky by Sarra Manning. Although once or twice someone tells the heroine that she is "very sweet", in actual fact Grace is volatile and pouty and has a slightly sketchy moral code. At the same time, she's strong (even though the book opens with her crying at the shops) and she's got agency with a capital A. I loved her drama even though I couldn't relate to her motivations all the time. Those are always the books that stick with me down the track - the ones where the characters do things and think things that I don't always agree with or understand, but reading about them can broaden my horizons and opinions.

Marguerite Kaye said...

Wendy - I agree with what you say about not liking heroines who claim to be ignorant of the rules of the society they are in, but I think it can work where the heroine deliberately chooses to ignore the same rules for whatever reason. What's always struck me is how little this has actually changed. You don't play by the rules, you're out, whether it's being stuck in the corner in the playground and not getting picked for games or being stuck in the corner of the ballroom with no-one offering to dance with you. I have a soft spot for this kind of heroine, and I'm thinking that she could really work as a 'bad' girl if handled carefully. Because being ostracised, especially if you've broken the rules for valid reasons, would make you pretty mad, and pretty resentful, and could also make you pretty 'I'm going to be every bit as bad as they think me'.

And as long as the reader got what everyone else didn't get, then it would address Kris's point about the heroine being likeable. It's a tricky one to pull off, giving the reader enough to 'get' the heroine but letting her be on the page as her unlikeable self, especially if she's majorly touchy because she's majorly insecure underneath her tough little skin (I'm starting to feel really sorry for her already). And she's exactly the kind of heroine that could be hard as nails, you're right! Ooooh, can I have it?

Wendy said...

Kris: Your theory that, in romance, the hero serves as a projection to the female readership - this is interesting. I'm not sure I necessarily agree 100% but I also don't actively disagree. I think there's something there worth pondering....

Meg: I just looked up that book on GoodReads and one of my reading buddies really liked it! I'm not on the hunt!

Marguerite: Yeah, the heroine I was talking about was so surprised - like she didn't know she was breaking "the rules" - which, child please! Now you're just too-stupid-to-live. It's one thing, as you say, for the heroine to knowingly "break the rules" in historicals and have to live with those consequences. It's another entirely for her to say she didn't know what the rules were. Which given the tightrope women have had to walk throughout history....well, I'm not buying.

The "Misunderstood" heroine is one that I think works exceedingly well, especially in historicals and especially when authors are looking to explore this idea of a "bad girl" with all the loaded baggage that readers bring into a story. I love your hypothesizing and think you should totally run with it!