From G. I. Jane to Feminist Romance with Fangs

After being a guest on three other terrific blogs, I’m finally kicking off Romance for a Reason on my own blog, by introducing a topic I’ll be writing about here and on host sites all month: strong fictional females. Before jumping into that, though, here’s a little insight into how I, of all people, landed here.

Romance for a Reason. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until rather recently that I believed there were any good reasons to be reading, let alone writing, romance. This had little to do with the quality of romance books on the market or their portrayal of females. After all, I hadn’t read any romances. Nope, my baseless contempt for the genre was more to do with where I was as a reader and writer, and as a woman, a journey that started long before I was old enough to read E.L. James.

Reading wise, I’m an oddball among authors. Every writers’ conference I’ve ever attended the teachers and students love to
reminisce about childhoods spent lost in the world of literature. Now I’m not saying I didn’t read as a kid; I loved reading. But reading was a rainy day activity, or something to occupy the time between sunset and when dinner was served. I enjoyed plenty of trips to the town library, but it was not my primary playground. Short of a hurricane, the neighborhood kids and I all
played outside. My early love of story telling came from hours role-playing scenes from Star Wars, building forts, and, yes, even playing war with toy guns.

I’m even odder in the world of romance writers. As you’ve probably deduced by now, I was a tomboy growing up. I wanted little to do with princesses and even less to do with anything pink. (Unless the princess was Princess Lea, who was kick-ass and fulfills nearly all of my requirements for fabulous fictional females. Yes, I still am getting to that.) My camouflage nightshirt didn’t show dirt or chocolate ice cream drips the way the pink frilly gowns my grandmother gave me did. And with their perpetually
pointed toes, my Barbies couldn’t even stand on their own, let alone hold an AK-47 like my brother’s G.I. Joes. It seemed to this little girl growing up in the early 80s that being lady-like was no fun at all. I was too young to know what a feminist was, but I knew all about ‘fairness.’ And having to wear a dress or skirt on the first day of school, which greatly inhibited my already short stumpy legs from running around at recess, seemed grossly unfair.

Little girls grow up, but I still never would have guessed that wearing a skirt, by choice, some ten years later would be the catalyst to writing and discussing feminist romance. But here I am, thanks in part to Skanky Thursdays. Yes, you read that right. Sometime during my junior year in high school my small group of friends and I decided to stop being wallflowers and embrace our sexuality. Okay, I think we actually all just happened to try out the new trend of wearing short skirts to school on the same
fateful Thursday. The result, though, was the same. We liked it, we named it, and we made it a weekly tradition, appreciating even then the irony behind the fact that we were the four least skanky girls in our high school.

I’m not sure it was such a big deal for the other girls, who seemed more comfortable in feminine attire than I was, but for me, bearing three inches of thigh (which I realize is comparable to a nun’s habit by today’s standards) was uncomfortably, yet wonderfully liberating. Looking back, I realize I had reached an age where I was relatively comfortable in my own skin, confident in my talents (or at least somewhat assured that I actually had some talents), and willing to speak my mind. The scandalous skirt with the slit up the side was just an outward manifestation of my coming-of-age. And seeing the second glances it derived from a few male classmates entirely made up for the impracticality of not being able to get the books off the bottom shelf of my locker. I was starting to like this being a woman thing.

If I were to fast-forward a decade (okay, almost two, but who’s counting?), you’d see the flashes of life experiences and important people who’ve helped me continue to appreciate being female, and who’ve helped me grow into a stronger woman. My mother’s first battle with breast cancer came just a year after Skanky Thursdays, followed by college where I played women’s rugby, then moved home and earned my black belt in Karate. After B.U. I became a teacher, moved out, earned a Masters, bought a condo and a car, and published three books, all on my own. You should be hearing “All the single ladies” playing in the background by now.

Except, I didn’t do any of this all on my own. I had the advice, support, and encouragement of scores of wonderful, beautiful, courageous women—friends, family, and coworkers. I’ve also been blessed with men in my life who’ve made me feel pretty, which with society’s over-emphasis on it might seem trivial, but is still important, and who more importantly made me feel intelligent, responsible, and worthy—of being loved, of being respected, or of just being. That’s all anyone, male or female, can really ask of one’s self.

Why then do we not ask it of our characters?

“It’s fiction, Dad!” was the exasperated response I gave to my father growing up when he couldn’t suspend his disbelief long enough to enjoy a one hour episode of the X-files. But aliens aside, our fictional characters ought to reflect the best and worst of humanity. Where heroes and heroines are concerned, you’d expect less worst and more best. Flaws make for fun reading, but at some point the character must prove that his flaws sum up to something admirable. I say his, because the flawed but heroic roles too often go to the guys—usually the ones with sweet six-packs, which could be why women forget to complain that they’re the ones always being saved by these hotties. Love of washboard abs and tight buns, notwithstanding, I’m here to
register my complaint.

I now have three gorgeous nieces (the daughters of two close friends) and one handsome nephew, my brother’s new baby. I don’t want my nieces growing up in a world where it seems cooler to be a boy. And I don’t want my nephew to think all females are in need of saving—that’s not to say he shouldn’t help a woman in need if and when the opportunity arises. I just want to be sure he’s doing it because that’s what good people do, regardless of gender. Clearly, since almost all my babes are still in diapers, it’ll be long a time before they’re reading romance novels. And I can’t do much about the myriad of media they’ll be exposed to, some of which will surely still employ stereotypes about both genders. But I can be sure that what I add to that growing world of influences depicts women as accurately and positively as possible.

So my plea to the writers of the world, be it of books, movies, television scripts, or internet content, is that we consider whether the heroines of our tales are worthy—of being loved, of being respected, or of just being. And if they’re not, scrap ‘em. To the consumers of these works, please consider the same and hold your heroines and their creators to higher standards.

My standards include the following top ten things more fictional (and real-life) females ought to do:

1. Save themselves (and everyone else) whenever they can.

2. Accept when they can’t.

3. Know themselves.

4. Be willing to change.

5. Embrace their sexuality.

6. Champion their femininity.

7. Appreciate chivalry.

8. Celebrate girl power.

9. Eliminate cattiness.

10. Cry a little & laugh a lot.

Okay, so technically that’s eleven. That’s why I don’t teach math.

Over the course of the month, I’ll be expanding on each of these in a full blog post (see the calendar for dates and links). In
the meantime, I’d love some help compiling a list of such characters and the books they grace. My attempt to do this on my Facebook author page seemed a sad confirmation of how few strong fictional females are out there, at least in
romance. Prove me wrong…please!

I’ll start with one that did come up and which I wholeheartedly agree with: Claire Fraser from the Outlander series by Diana



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