I think I’m developing a problem, but I’m actually not at all sorry for it.
My problem? That I’m becoming more and more – and more – aware of misogyny. Particularly in romance fiction.
Recently there was an article in RT Magazine about wallflowers in historical romance. It’s a hugely popular trope for obvious reasons. We’ve all felt overlooked at some point, and the idea of the wallflower rising up and “stealing” the hero for herself is a heady one.
However, the article referenced multiple people – both authors and readers – and their reasons for their love of this particular trope.
And this was where my problem began.
For example, the article quotes one reader as saying (about wallflowers):
“They are observant, keen, perceptive. That usually make(sic) them smarter than those hollow airheads with only good looks to recommend them.”
The term “mean girls” is used multiple times throughout the article.
May I point out that the standard operating procedure in romance is for every attractive woman to be horrific, but the male villains are almost 100% of the time the ugly ones with the bad teeth, the balding head, the tubby figure. And short…
Here are some actual 19th century aristocratic men for you:
The article references a brilliant book: The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas. It talks of shy Evie with her unfashionable red hair and her stutter. Evie is one of historical romance’s most memorable characters.
However, what the article (deliberately?) fails to mention is that one of the other “wallflowers” in the series is Annabelle Peyton, who Kleypas describes as the most beautiful woman in England. Because beautiful women can also have major problems, and Annabelle’s are enormous. Being beautiful doesn’t make her a bad or stupid person, and being beautiful doesn’t prevent her from being very, very good friends with Evie.
Growing up, I was a slim thing with waist-length blonde hair (I make no claims on being beautiful, but I fitted the criteria most romance authors use for their villainesses). According to the entire romance genre, I was the stupid bitch the wallflower is taunted by.
I was also so shy I had a lot of trouble even speaking to people I didn’t know extremely well. My ballet teacher actually took me aside for lessons in how to look at someone while you spoke to them! After our Year Ten formal (basically the prom for Americans) we had a sleepover at a friend’s house and I didn’t speak the entire night. People started having a conversation about me because they thought I’d gone home – they didn’t even know I was in the room!
My point is: girls and women are far more nuanced than most romance writers give them credit for. Blonde and thin does not equal “stupid bitch”. Brown-haired and clumsy does not equal “kind genius”. If you feel the need to insult someone else to feel good about yourself, well…
I can remember only one truly awful girl growing up, and as I went to primary school and high school in different districts (not to mention my ballet school) I came into contact with a bigger range of people than most. Yes, there were popular girls, but most of them weren’t the school’s “beauties”. Most didn’t fit the stereotype authors like Stephenie Meyer stirred up in the Twilight series – nastiness that continues in Young Adult and New Adult fiction today. A couple were in the accelerated classes. Yes, sometimes they were mean, but other times they were as friendly as anybody else.
Nobody is black and white.
Why do we have to mock women who are not the heroine of the book? Why does there need to be a gang of evil bitches in so many books? Why do we have to portray attractive and/or well-dressed women as nasty and shallow and stupid? Why does taking pride in your appearance make you an awful person? Why does the term “airhead” ever have to appear (and where in the holy hell is the male equivalent?!?!)? Why does the historical romance hero always have to go out of his way to express how much he hates the society women and explain that the heroine is the only woman he can stand to be around (why romanticise a misogynist??!!)?
Why do we never do the same thing for the men…?
Why is it the hero of the book is always dashing, gorgeous, popular and rich? How come he’s allowed to have these things in his life and be considered desirable, but a woman having even one of these traits is considered a crime?