I had been thinking about it a long time before Dear Author published a piece about female relatives and friends (or, rather, the lack of them) in romance fiction.
I was actually dismayed by the responses to the article, because many people – and most of them authors – defended this huge gaping hole in the genre. In fact, it made me quite mad. The general consensus seems to be that it’s too much of a hassle for a romance heroine to have a mother, or a female friend. “But then we’d have to devote pages of our books to other female characters!” seems to be the general argument against it.
Sure – but how come dozens of pages are already devoted to the hero’s gang of sexy duke spy/navy SEAL/biker stud man friends? How come there’s all sorts of page time being made for male character after male character after male character? How come we always get to see the men messing around and having a few beers to relax, and to see the honourable hero doing everything he can to rescue his troubled/abducted/depressed little brother?
How come secondary male characters are constantly added to make the heroes look noble, but having more than one decent woman in a story is too much of a hassle?
One of the worst offenders!
I’m tired of authors giving their heroes and heroines now-dead mothers who abused them in their childhoods. I’m tired of other women the heroine’s age only turning up in books in order to be a romantic rival (and of course she’s always both beautiful and a horrible person!).
Including women in your characters’ lives is perfectly normal, and it doesn’t have to derail a story.
For example, after the heroine was rescued in Kaylea Cross’ Hunted, the comment is made that:
“Celida’s gonna want to see you again, and your parents too.”
They’d all come to the hospital to check on her.
There. We learn she has a mother and that she gets on with her mother. And that she has a female friend who is worried about her. Putting other women in the heroine’s life didn’t ruin the book, and it didn’t mean they needed twenty chapters devoted to them! With only a few words we were told that the heroine has healthy female relationships.
In Robyn Carr’s Virgin River, our widowed heroine is moving to a new town in the middle of nowhere. But she has a sister she is best friends with. A couple of phone calls and a brief visit on the sister’s part just made our heroine seem like a normal human being with normal, healthy relationships. The sister didn’t ruin the romance!
One of my favourite things about Madeline Hunter’s Fairbourne Quartet is that her heroines depend on each other for various things. They are capable of achieving things on their own or together, without the heroes having to sweep in and do everything for them. For example, the sister who is depressed and has become a recluse, but she gradually develops a friendship with the book’s heroine. The heroine who runs a small printing business to help aristocratic women escaping from Revolutionary France. The socially isolated heroine who shares stories of her marriage in letters to another of the series’ heroines.
Too often in series, the heroines fade into oblivion after their own book. They’ve become a wife (and often also a mother) and therefore their importance to the world is apparently over. Series where the women continue to be active in the world the author created are so much richer for the experience.
Dear Author is known for tackling all sorts of issues, but while they often call people out on issues of race, I’ve been astonished at their lack of interest in issues of gender. That they could review what is possibly the most misogynistic series ever written and not once mention all the sexism told me they’re not all that interested in tackling anti-feminist attitudes in romance. An odd thing, seeing as the genre they focus on is mainly targeted at women.
I found the piece an interesting read, but I found the reactions to it really disheartening. It seems we’ve a long way to go before we can ditch the misogynistic attitudes that have been ingrained in us. Secondary female characters can – and should – be more than the nasty romantic rival. We’re better than that.