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The other day, I was sent an ARC of a book coming out later this year, and the author asked me what I thought about a specific character in the story.

Apparently, this character had been getting a lot of hate from reviewers and such like.

Anyway, I read the book, and I must say, I totally loved the character. She was bold and brassy, she could be abrasive, and had a bit of a foul mouth, she was forthright, she loved sex and wasn’t afraid to say so, and she knew what she wanted and had no qualms about going after the object of her desires.

In short, my kind of heroine. The anti-Mary Sue.

However, I suspect that even whilst we’re collectively screaming blue-murder about vanilla Mary Sues polluting the Romance landscape, some of us secretly hate sexually assertive women.

I recall a few years ago, an author who always wrote fragile, timid heroines finally decided to bite the bullet and write about a kick-ass, strong woman. Jesus, talk about backlash. There was a huge outcry from her regular readers, who hated this character, and she spent about two weeks explaining the character’s motivations to her fans.

I don’t think it’s an accident that authors like Shannon Mckenna, and JR Ward, who historically write some of the biggest Mary Sue heroines this side of romance, sell so well. It would be interesting to measure the sales of Mckenna’s latest book, featuring a kick-ass heroine, against the sales figures of her previous books featuring her weak-assed, too-stupid-to-live female leads.

As an aside, everybody loved Samantha in Sex and The City, but would we have felt the same way, if we’d met her in real life?

I honestly don’t think we would have. The fantasy of Samantha is all well and good, but let’s face it, people who act like her in real life, are usually labelled whores, or bitches. And usually by other women.

Does anybody remember the girl who decided to audition in a bikini on American Idol? Do you recall the female judges’ reaction to her? They hated her on sight.
I bet if she’d been a guy who’d come in wearing just his speedos, he wouldn’t have gotten as much heat. The double standards make my teeth hurt.

I wonder when we’ll get to a point, where we don’t automatically/sub-consciously negatively label sexually assertive women?

I also wonder when we’ll see more of these sexually assertive heroines who go after their men, rather than waiting for the man to chase after them. Yeah, there’s a few out there, but definitely not enough to counter-balance the overwhelming majority of heroines who sit and wait for Prince Charming to arrive in his white Bentley.

I guess the real question is though, would these types of heroines, sell as well as the Mary Sue heroines do?

What say you?

27 Comments »

  • I love assertive heroines in books. Ones that are truly assertive and not just back-and-forth bitches that verbally rip the hero’s nuts off but then are the picture of meekness when it comes to anything sexual. (Those? Drive me NUTS.)

    My heroines tend to be assertive. The one in my forthcoming novella from LSB certainly is, although she’s hesitant because life has taught her that emotional involvement is a quick way to get hurt, particularly in her field. She’s very up front about her past sexual experiences and use of vibrators, though. 🙂

    I’ve written stories where the heroine wasn’t as assertive, but usually they have a good reason in backstory for it.

    I suspect that books with “plain” heroines sell better in Romance because they are easier for the average reader to — not identify with, but put in their place. I’ve heard women say they like to imagine themselves as the heroine in the book, and that it is harder to get into that state if the heroine is especially strong/assertive/etc. I’m not sure why that is, because I certainly can’t put myself in the place of a woman that’s weak-willed… but it is what I’ve heard.

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  • MichelleR
    February 9
    11:36 am

    The new judge hated on bikini girl the most and was clearly intimidated. I agree the outfit was tacky, but she could sing and what’s-her-face refused to cop to it.

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  • I see some readers apply the too-stupid-to-live label a lot these days on the timid heroine. But from a male reader’s perspective: any “Prince Charming” too timid to step out of his white Bentley to chase the gal is probably too-big-a-pussy-to-use-the-tool-efficiently anyway. Just my two cents, lol.

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  • I’m weird, I’m more interested in the male POV, so I don’t have the issue of putting myself into the place of the heroine.

    I can see, however, why that might be an issue for the majority of readers who do insert themselves, if they aren’t sexually assertive themselves. It kind of takes you out of the fantasy if it’s too far out of your comfort zone, which doesn’t mean they won’t like a more assertive heroine, just not one that is so far away from what they even dream they themselves could be.

    I dislike kick-ass heroines, but I like sexually-assertive ones. I’m not too into ones that think sex for the sake of sex is cool, just as I don’t like heroes who think sex for the animal pleasure is all there is.

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  • I don’t have a problem with assertive heroines, sexually or otherwise, but I don’t usually enjoy a heroine OR hero who has been around the block a lot, so to speak. That isn’t to say I want to read virgins but it can be harder to get behind the true love of characters whose lives have been all about partner hopping. But it’s all in how an author handles it. A very experienced or assertive heroine certainly wouldn’t make me put a book down or even be a strike against it unless she was an asshole (and even then–if improving her rude personality seemed to be part of her journey, I’d be interested.)

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  • Lori
    February 9
    2:24 pm

    I lurve the assertive heroine. Heck, I lurved Bikini Girl and I adored Samantha on SATC. What book was/is it Karen because a feisty, sexually aware, smart heroine is one I want to read.

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  • I think you make a good point. I don’t think most of us would hang out with Samantha because unless we were just as strong a personality we wouldn’t know her long enough to see beneath the surface. Likewise for book heroines.

    The toughest heroine (that I totally dig) is Jax in the Ann Aguirre books. Part of the reason I like her is that her internal dialogue knows she says things and does things that are off putting, but really can’t stop herself and remain true to herself. At the end of the day she believes that’s all she has.

    I should live so long to be that well adjusted. I think most of us would find a woman like that tedious and high maintenance in real life.

    The upside to all of this is that we get to try these things on in books and absorb them into our psyche. Personally I think that’s how change happens.

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  • Indida
    February 9
    3:24 pm

    I think there is a Madonna-whore complex type of thing going on. You know, respectable in the public eye but the secret want to be a “whore”. When they are confronted by a character or real person who is a “whore” in public, they can’t handle it.

    For me, there is a huge difference between sexually asservtive and “whore”. I say hoes or sluts because I give the real whores props for getting paid for it at least.

    Sexually assertive women have self confidence. They know what they want, what they are worth, and other people’s opinions don’t hold much water in their lives. Other people’s opinions are none of their business.

    The hoes/sluts put all their self worth in the cooch. They think giving it up will make a guy like them and want to stay with them.

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  • dew
    February 9
    4:06 pm

    Me and a few of my coworkers were sexually assertive — with our partners, in private. We didn’t dress brazenly, didn’t bed-hop, and chose to be soft-spoken unless a situation required a more assertive tone. Most strangers probably wouldn’t have known we were sexually aggressive; we didn’t even know about each other until we worked together long enough to discuss it among ourselves during slower days. But we were careful not to discuss sex around other coworkers that didn’t seem comfortable about it.

    I don’t care for anyone, male or female, being overtly sexual in public most of the time. I’m reminded of Jordan/Katie Price, and she seems more desperate than sexy.

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  • Karen, I have to disagree with you regarding Bikini Girl on AI. I thought she was tacky because the bikini thing didn’t even feel like she was trying to get ahead with more than her talent. She was a prop.

    I didn’t feel, as MichelleR did, that the New Judge felt threatened, rather [fake] annoyed. AI needed a gimmick to keep the auditions lively. Cue BG.

    Just like the people who dress up weirdly/have alter egos, the tone deaf Asian Guy singing “She bangs” or Sanjay. End of story.

    So I don’t think she’s a valid example of sexually aggressive woman.

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  • I am confused. What is a Mary Sue? I have always used it in terms of fanfiction, which would mean a character that would be just like the author. Basically the author putting herself in the story.

    How are you using it here or am I just totally misunderstanding (which is possible).

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  • I love a sexually aggressive heroine. In my second book, the heroine is a (former) whore who loves sex and has a huge appetite for it. The man she sets out to seduce is one of those buttoned down, reserved men who denies his own desires because he thinks he’s undeserving. The story is pretty much one long seduction, and the hero really has no chance in hell of resisting her. It was enormous fun to write.

    Can’t say I’m fond of the stereotypical kick-ass heroine, which might surprise some people who’ve read my stuff. That is to say, a heroine who is sexually aggressive, an amazingly good fighter, strong and honorable had better have a modicum of humility and vulnerability to temper her, or I’ll find her just unbearable. That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having sex purely for enjoyment, whether you’re a man or a woman–even if it isn’t an expression of twue wuv. I have no problem reading about a heroine who has lots of sex even with many partners as long as she does so because she wants to–not out of some desperate need for self-validation by screwing any man (or woman) who’ll give her the time of day.

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  • I’ve encountered this with my latest book because there are folk who can’t get past the fact that the character is a stripper. I think it’s one of the best characters I’ve ever written, but there you go. I knew I would get blowback, and boy have I ever. I think it’s really strange that people have such beef with that profession, especially since most of the strippers I know do far more damage to themselves than they do to other people. It’s a bit annoying, but Lola is who she is, and I refuse to apologize for it, or water her down to make her more palatable.

    I’ve never been one who puts myself into a story, so I really don’t get the concept. I know that there are people who do that, but it strikes me as more than a bit weird.

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  • Las
    February 9
    7:28 pm

    The lack of well-written sexually assertive heroines is why I went two years without reading any new romances. And it’s not like I have anything against shy/virgins at all–historicals are still a favorite of mine–but when every single female character has to be convinced and/or seduced to have sex, even though she’s supposedly hot for the guy, it gets old. I like a variety of personalities.

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  • AReader
    February 9
    9:47 pm

    I think there is a market for the sexual assertive heroine in romance but I don’t think it is as large as the market for the “Mary Sue Heroine”*. If so Harlequin’s Blaze line would be outselling its Presents line.

    *all heroines are Mary Sue’s to one extent or another, even the sexually assertive heroine.

    Erotica is a different story.

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  • Mousie One
    February 9
    10:27 pm

    I think you make a good point. I don’t think most of us would hang out with Samantha because unless we were just as strong a personality we wouldn’t know her long enough to see beneath the surface. Likewise for book heroines.

    I can tell you that I’d run for the hills if I encountered any (okay, an exaggeration) of the damaged heroes from romance novels. Even if some of the guys were as damaged as the author tells us they are, I submit that many of them aren’t really that damaged because their actions & thoughts don’t match what one would expect from how they are described and their ‘salvation journey’ tends to be too easy and they are much too self-sacrificing and ‘white’ as opposed to the grays of real life. But that’s another conversation.

    I think back to when I was a teenager reading romances. Those stories really were about the woman. (Or 20-odd years later that’s how I remember it.) She was the protagonist of the story even if some of the stories were horrific by today’s standards.

    Now I look at some of the bestselling romance stories and I see the man as the protagonist. I don’t how prevelant it is or if my romance reading has become too limited lately but Karen’s post is making me wonder out loud.

    Seriously, any voracious readers want to give me some percentage guesses on whose journey it is these days out of the bestselling romances. Hero’s or the heroine’s?

    I think it does play into Karen’s original post but I’m not sure yet what part it plays. Or if it’s my imagination.

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  • think there is a market for the sexual assertive heroine in romance but I don’t think it is as large as the market for the “Mary Sue Heroine”*. If so Harlequin’s Blaze line would be outselling its Presents line.

    Great point.

    I rarely read Harlequin Presents because I generally hate the weak-assed heroines that are prevalent in them, but many romance readers obviously love them, because they sell like hotcakes.

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  • willaful
    February 9
    11:54 pm

    I confess, I disliked Samantha tremendously and I dislike most aggressive heroines in romances. I don’t get mad at authors for writing them or anything, they just don’t generally appeal to me. With some exceptions – Tracy in Brockmann’s latest worked for me.

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  • I love sexually aggressive heroines. Nothing wrong with a woman who knows what she wants, asks for it, and gets it. But I don’t mind virgin heroines, either.

    I think romance readers want to be able to relate to characters, and connect with them on an emotional level. Most women aren’t like Samantha–rich and gorgeous and wildly promiscuous. Aren’t most women more like Mary Sue? I know I am.

    I don’t see bikini girl as an emblem of female empowerment, sorry. She couldn’t sing. It had nothing to do with her appearance. The bikini was a bad gimmick that dazzled the male judges for about a second.

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  • I like confident heroines, with a sense of humor about themselves and the men they go to bed with. It’s about emotional courage more than anything, I think.

    Assertive heroines are good, too, but too often they veer off into selfishness and downright bitchery. Not my cuppa in real life or in books.

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  • Dawn
    February 10
    9:36 am

    I have no problem at all with an assertive heroine – sexually or in attitude.

    I do have a huge problem with the types who roll over so that the “hero” has a clean spot in which to kick her again.

    Roslyn – I think your book with the stripper is one that I’ve looked at several times when fantasising about buying new ebooks. The blurb was very interesting and I liked the premise, and I certainly didn’t have a problem with the woman being a stripper.

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  • I doubt seriously if any author sits around and thinks “I wonder if Jennie approves of what I’m writing”

    I don’t send hate mail if an author writes something I don’t like. I just buy something else. I mean, c’mon. It’s a BOOK. It’s not like you have to buy a new car when you don’t like the first one anymore.

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  • I don’t send hate mail if an author writes something I don’t like. I just buy something else. I mean, c’mon. It’s a BOOK. It’s not like you have to buy a new car when you don’t like the first one anymore.

    Hi Jennie, who’s this comment aimed at, because it seems a little out of left-field, and doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the actual discussion.

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  • Lorraine
    February 11
    4:51 am

    I love assertive heroines, ones who know themselves, accept who they are, and go for it. It’s not often I come across them though.

    It doesn’t matter to me either way whether or not the heroine is assertive sexually, just as long as she isn’t dumb and playing too many head games. It’s been years since I attempted to identify with a heroine. I simply either enjoy the story or not. However, I do love reading about stranger sex in books…it’s hawt!

    As an aside, everybody loved Samantha in Sex and The City, but would we have felt the same way, if we’d met her in real life?

    I have girlfriends like her and I’ve always gotten a vicarious thrill out of their confidence and adventerousness. I love hearing their stories, some of which are outrageous. While I’ve never been that free and easy, a part of me has always wished I was.

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  • Lorraine
    February 11
    4:57 am

    Damn, I messed up on the block quote work.

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  • I take each Heroine on an individual basis.

    In my observation, Kick-Butt Heroines can be Too Stupid To Live just as much as the Mary Sues. What I really want is originality and the author to make the Heroine believable. She can do that with an assertive heroine or a reserved one, makes no difference to me.

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  • My only problem is when sexual assertive characters (male or female) have no respect for limits. Yes, this is likely because of past RL experiences with a woman who commonly tried to break my husband and I up through accusations and manipulations. But in that case the sexual assertiveness wasn’t out of confidence, but covering up for a lack of confidence. Not exactly something I want to pay re-experience, even through fiction.

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