Woman In Jeopardy, I Can’t Quit You

I am dodging my blog and my housework presently in an effort to FINISH REVISIONS.  So I bring to you a guest post from my dear CP, Susan Bischoff, in response to a long conversation we had this weekend.

~*~

I’m not a fan of the term “guilty pleasure,” because I don’t think we should feel embarrassed and apologetic about the things that make us happy. And yet it exists, that feeling that you shouldn’t really love this thing, but you do. And you shouldn’t admit to loving it.

But I am.

Which puts me in a very apologist, let me explain! frame of mind. But I feel like some of you [Kait] need and want explanation.

One has to start off by understanding that not all women in jeopardy are created equal. Lots of them suck. As with every subgenre and every trope, there are always scads of examples of work not done well. Keep that in mind.

I think the seventies (plus or minus some years) were hard on a lot of women. I don’t want to start fights about what it was or wasn’t about, but want simply to say that the effect of the feminism of that era on some women was experienced as intolerant. This is what women can be, and damn it, this is what you should be. And if you make another choice then you’re backward, you’re holding the whole sisterhood back, whatever.

I’m not sure post seventies generations can see this as clearly as some of us older folk. They didn’t know the time when unisex was all the rage in baby clothes and you could hardly buy a frilly dress. But you can see its effect in all the grown women who talk about being a tomboy, wanting to play sports, and not liking dolls–not in the facts related, but in the tone they use. In the pride when they say “tomboy” and the disdain when they say “dolls.”

Eventually, this hit women’s fiction, making the Romance genre “trashy” novels you should be ashamed to enjoy. Not because of lurid content–Lord knows you can get that in the classics–but because they’re stupid and demeaning. You must be very empty-headed to want to read them, and your liking them demeans the entire sisterhood. Was there a lot of lousy, badly written pulp in the genre then? Yep. There is now and there probably always will be. To me it just seemed like more of the same effort to get everyone on the same page.

Today, thankfully, women really do have choices in what they can do and be. While some don’t understand how their sisters can stay home with children or in other ways live out roles in what’s considered to be a more traditional way, they’re not tearing a sister down for it anymore. We’re able to find strength to admire in women in many types of roles.

Still, I think we hold on to a bit of that intolerance when it comes to our fictions. There’s a measure of disdain for a women portrayed in that old-fashioned, “backward” way. Some of us need our heroines to be sheroes–all the time, to be completely kickass, to be doing the saving and never to need it. A shero should be this, and never this. As though our fictional women don’t yet have the right to choices and the kind of tolerance we enjoy.

Those I’ve talked to who are on auto-reject for the Woman in Jeopardy will tell me, “I detest weak heroines.”

Sister, so do I.

Yet I grew up on “new gothic” romances, both historical and contemporary, featuring women who were in need of rescuing. Did I read some crappy ones in which the woman got herself into the mess by being an empty-headed idiot? Yes. Did I read some crappy ones in which the woman could have rescued herself but she was an idiot? Yes. (Do I still run into these today? Yes.) Did I let this ruin Romance for me forever? No.

So, for those of you who just can’t wrap your brains around the appeal, let me explain what I saw in the best of them.

The women in these stories didn’t have what we have. Their choices were limited in an almost inconceivable number of ways, down to having limited movement because they weren’t allowed pants (and let’s not even get into breathing and corsets). They were women so strong in character that, even though they were handicapped by society beyond anything a villain could to them, they still managed to save themselves.

Wait, they saved themselves? No they didn’t. They had to wait for the hero to do that.

And why would a man–sometimes a strong, wealthy, good-looking guy who could get lots of girls free–risk his future, fortune, life, etc. to rescue this particular female? I mean, if they’re all just alike and all, seems like it would be easier to just pick out another one.

It was because of what was inside her. And no, not her glittering, magical hoo-ha. I meant that whole strength of character thing. It was because he realized that she was the one woman awesome enough, and strong enough, to rescue him right back.

“…and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.”

If those heroines used beauty, wiles, and charm, if they batted their eyes a few times, well, damn it, they used what they had available to them. But that doesn’t mean that’s all they used to inspire that man to face what he had to face to save her. And just because their petticoats kept them from kicking anyone in the face, doesn’t mean they didn’t have guts.

One of the lessons I took from old fictions, for which I’m the most grateful: sometimes the thing that takes the most guts is the decision to love.

I see us backlashing again. I see articles and blog posts about “strong female characters.” Women are questioning what it means and saying, hey, this whole kick-ass thing, maybe it’s not being done right. It’s not enough to put a sword in her hand. There’s more and better ways to show strength than through effective slayage.

I agree. It seems to me it’s as it ever was. The best female characters are strong in the way they always have been. At their core. (No, not that core. Geez.) They have more weapons available than beauty, wiles, and charm, so there’s often little excuse for them not making good choices and arming themselves a bit better. But the stories I want to read are the ones where, in and around all the ass-kicking carnage, the author chooses to explore the strength and bravery it takes to be vulnerable and to love.

Sometimes it seems almost like we feel she should be ashamed of herself for needing to be saved. For not always and at all times being the self-rescuing princess. Is that really how we want to be to our characters and ourselves? Do we need to be superhuman and invulnerable to be worthy of respect?

I say all this because I think deeply about it. Because I struggle in my writing to find the balance. I want to make my sheroes good role models for strong women, while also being true to something inside myself.

At the end of the day, I think there’s something inside me that wants to be saved. That longs for that ultimate proof of devotion, and to know that I inspired that–just because of who I am. That thing is always going to burst into feels when a hero, heart in his throat and sword in his hand, comes rushing in to rescue me.

And that’s why, Woman in Jeopardy, I can’t quit you.

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5 comments

  1. Here’s kind of how I feel. I want to be strong and be able to save myself, but because I have a hero, I don’t have to. Because I want HIM to save me. Is that so wrong? :) I’m a girly-girl, but I think I’m a pretty strong one.

    Boy do I remember the “bra-burning” days. I was afraid feminists were going to ruin things for all of us, even though I was pretty young when this was all going on. But the women who consider themselves feminists today aren’t as radical as they used to be. There were so many things I could agree with. But I’m NOT a man, nor do I want to be one.

  2. I hadn’t thought of it in quite this way before – because for me, when I think of the “weak” characters I despise, it could be a man or a woman, and it’s not so much about whether they save or are saved but whether they know what they want and go after it. This is probably why I couldn’t stand Wuthering Heights and never finished it. Just get out of that room, lady!

  3. Sometimes I think that whole “shemale” thing is just an excuse to impart strength to a character where it’s the least threatening. I mean, it’s pretty easy to stick a sword-gun-laser beam eyesight on a character, and have them be sexually objectified and/or infantile in personality otherwise. Then you get to cry foul when someone calls your characters problematic. I used to jokingly call this the Keira Knightly syndrome. Meaning strong women = foot stomping brat who juts her chin and makes scathing comments to “powerful men” when she doesn’t get what she wants…no matter how stupid that would be to do in real life, or how likely to get her killed. If she looks hot and picks up a sword at least once in the story, then all’s forgiven. The hero will fall in love with her regardless of her horrendous personality, because, well, yeah…she’s hawt. :) The other aspect of this that drives me nuts is the “tough chick with trust issues.” Umm, yeah. How is that strength? Like you, I think strength can have a component of emotional bravery, not just the ability to punch someone in the face. As an ex-ring fighter, I know of what I speak…the emotional bravery is a lot harder! In general though, I find a lot of the time I crave characters who HAVE character…and some aspect of maturity and thoughtfulness to them, whether male or female. A lot of the books I read these days seem mired in the petty, with strength depicted as the ability to hurt and/or outsmart others on a base level, rarely to make the decision to play in a different playground, i.e., one that isn’t about “winning” in that shallow sense. But maybe I’m craving more of that in real life, too, lol…meaning out of the real people we see in the news and so forth.

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