Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 5 August 2017

THE END OF THE STUPID HEROINE? by Gill Stewart



I hope, I really hope, that we will soon, finally, see the end of the stupid heroine. You know the one I mean, the one who is Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) and needs rescuing at every turn. Usually she is rescued by the hero, occasionally by a good friend or relative. And the hero is attractive and capable, but if it’s a female friend/relative then she’s not nearly as attractive as the heroine because apparently being TSTL makes you sexy and desirable. Personally I think it makes her Too Stupid To Be Loved and I find it difficult to understand why the hero is attracted to her.

TSTL heroines were especially prominent in times past. Although Georgette Heyer has some excellent feisty heroines (the eponymous Venetia and Sophy) she also has some quite foolish ones (Horatia in The Convenient Marriage, Nell in April Lady). And I haven’t read any Barbara Cartland for decades, but as far as I can remember all her heroines were TSTL. In fact, some of them were too stupid to speak in complete sentences, but that’s a topic for another day. Almost all Mills and Boon heroines I read in my teens were TSTL – in fact the first time I came across a book with a female doctor as a heroine my teenage mind couldn’t compute it: if she was a doctor she must be bright, so how could she be the heroine??

I would like to think we have moved on from this mindset and that we don’t ever meet TSTL heroines these days. However, there is evidence to the contrary. Bella in the Twilight series is often TSTL and yet she is adored by the vampire hero, and by thousands of teenage readers. Why? Really? I haven’t managed to read any of E L James’ books to the end, but Anastasia strikes me as another TSTL heroine. Just by way of example, in the first chapter of Fifty Shades Of Grey she: is pushed into doing an interview she doesn’t want to do, dresses inappropriately, doesn’t know what Christian Grey looks like or his age despite him being a famous local, falls over her own feet, can’t work the recording device and just generally hasn’t done even the most basic preparation for the task at hand. So TSTLs are clearly (and unfortunately) not yet dead and gone.

But there is hope! Mills and Boon heroines these days occasionally do something silly, or make mistakes, but they are not unbelievably stupid. The heroines of all the women’s fiction books I have read in the last ten years have been either reasonably or exceptionally capable. As well as appearing in much crime fiction as the corpse (where she obviously was TSTL, but was not the heroine), women also often feature as the detective or sleuth. Erotica also often features a strong heroine, so E L James is not typical of the genre.

I don’t read much literary fiction, but I think in general there have been fewer TSTL heroines here, although there are often unattractive ones (and I don’t mean in appearance).

I would like to say to my fellow female writers: if you are a writer, you are probably not stupid. So please don’t portray women in your books as stupid. And to male writers: a stupid heroine is not a realistic heroine, so don’t go down that route. I’m pleased to say that having scanned the list of current best-selling romances (the genre that interests me most) I can’t see a stupid heroine among them. From Jill Mansell to Katie Fforde, from Trisha Ashley to Veronica Henry – the heroines may be wacky, they may be quirky, but they are not stupid! Progress has indeed been made. Compare this to the 1970s when books by Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann dominated the best-seller lists.

I’d be fascinated to know if anyone has adored a book with a stupid heroine – and, if so, why?

9 comments:

  1. Oh this is an interesting one, Gill, as I'm not sure I agree that Bella from the Twilight series was Too Stupid To Learn. I think she made some decisions that, viewed through adult eyes, perhaps weren't the smartest - but she was a teen. Lots of teenagers, both male and female, act impulsively, make mistakes (sometimes repeatedly) but hopefully, in the end, they figure out a better way of solving their problems. Perhaps it was this quality that made Bella appeal to so many teens - she made dumb choices sometimes, she was human. I agree wholeheartedly that the time for the heroine passively waiting for a hero to come along and fix all her problems has hopefully gone, but I also believe there's a lot of pressure, particularly on younger girls, to be the best at everything - to achieve A grades, to be sporty, to be popular, to be pretty - and to do it all themselves. Perhaps it's nice to read of a heroine who also isn't scared to accept a helping hand when it's offered. A thought provoking post. : )

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    1. What you say about Bella is really interesting Rae, I think possibly my view of her was clouded by other things I didn't like about the books (e.g. sex being equated with pain and suffering). And yes, I agree, both heroes and heroines should be able to make mistakes and learn from them - in fact that's often what makes a book interesting. What I dislike is when female characters are portrayed as somehow 'less' than the male: less able, less clever, less sensible. I have written elsewhere about what I perceive as too many clever heroines, and I agree that is neither realistic nor desirable.

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  2. Too Stupid To Live. Oh this has got me thinking! Although I agree with you, Gill, that there is nothing more annoying than a stupid heroine, I would hate for the heroines to become superhuman and kick ass, solve everything and never put a foot wrong. Life is about making blunders, wrong choices and getting into scrapes. Bridget Jones is a prime example of a heroine that suffers from TSTL but without her daft choices there would be no story.

    Also the heroine needs to reflect the era the story is set in. In the last century, women were not brought up to believe they could refuse certain expectations placed upon them, protest, swear, kick ass or solve a crime. They were taught to refer to the man in the family. She had no female role models who showed them there was another way. Was she stupid? No, she was shackled by the era she was born into.

    As for contemporary fiction, I am all for strong heroines, but they should reflect normal women, who might be clever and brave, but also do stupid things. How many of us have walked down a dimly lit street at the end of a night out, in high heels, and thought to ourselves ... this is a really stupid thing to be doing, I should have rung for a taxi. I hold up my hand. I know, I know ... I have every right to walk where I want and wear what I like, but I also know that there was a wiser route to take home. So basically I hate TSTL heroines, but we all do/behave/act and feel stupid at times and fiction should reflect that. :)

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    1. A very considered response to this thought-provoking post, Victoria.

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    2. Yes, I agree completely - making mistakes is normal for all of us, and very useful in moving a story forward. I don't count that as 'stupid'. Some heroines I love (e.g. some of Alexandra Raife's) are quite fragile, so I don't think strength is essential. I just obviously have a very low tolerance level for (what I consider to be) TSTL heroines!

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  3. I'm not entirely comfortable with the views in this post to be honest. To me it seems the writer is being derided here for her choice of heroine. Readers read for all sorts of reasons and books are for all intellects, not just - perhaps - the more highly-educated. I know what I like to read and what I don't and I make my choices - but choices there have to be.

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    1. Interesting points Linda, thanks for commenting.

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  4. I'm a fan of clever heroines. Thinking about it, though, it's because I read so many TSTL heroines when I was younger. I do agree that intelligent people can make stupid choices. I know some very clever people who have no common sense. :-)
    Excellent thought provoking post. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Rhoda. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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