Or, “Just Because She Comes Doesn’t Mean She’s Empowered”
So, one of the things flavoring this blog’s instalment is the five millionth debate with someone who posted some ridiculous homophobic and racist crap on social media. Since I haven’t yet learned to get over “someone’s wrong on the internet,” especially when I’m related to them, I decided one last time to try the “teachable moment” approach with a “Hey, this is a really problematic way to look at issues of race and gender. Have you considered ___” Which means that said relative went “Gosh, I never thought about that way-”
Just kidding. Said person exploded with “I’m not racist! How dare you accuse me of being homophobic? I am a good and loving person, and you can’t judge me, because you don’t know what’s in my heart!”*
No, I don’t “know what’s in your heart.” You can tell me, but what I have to go on is how you act, what you demonstrate. So when you post things snarking about how transgender citizens are self-centered drama-queens just trying to get away with something because they want attention and it’s no different than that lady in Seattle who thinks she’s black because she feels black, then, sorry, you aren’t acting like a “good and loving person.” You are acting like an ignorant idiot who lacks empathy. And, yes, others can and will judge you on that.
You can tell me ___ all you want. But if you act in ways that are in opposition to that, I have to believe what I see with my own eyes.
[*Note: if a person says that something you’ve said is racist/sexist/homo- or transphobic/whatever, the appropriate response is “Okay, I’ll think that over,” and then think it over. Not “How dare you say I’m a racist!” Because 1) no one said you were a racist and 2) it’s not about your hurt feelings. It’s about thinking about systems of oppression and how others are hurt by them, and how we might be participating in them, no matter how unintentionally. Yes, this applies to our fiction as well.]
Obviously, this means when a character says or does things, we can’t just take for granted that we “know what’s in his/her heart!” A character saying ___, then doing the exact opposite, demonstrates any number of troubling things, anything from bad writing to an inadvertent sign that our characters might be severely messed up, hypocritical, dangerous, or untrustworthy. And if that’s not what we’re going for, we need to make sure we aren’t doing it accidentally.
Now, where did we leave off with those strong, smart, kick-ass, active heroines and scrutinizing the ways in which women are portrayed and perform in a text…?
From Richardson’s Pamela on down the line, the history of the Western novel is centered on the ways in which women, fictional heroines, negotiate, navigate, subvert, confront, destroy, or are destroyed by the patriarchal social system. In Romance as well as mainstream fiction, one of the primary themes is the link between getting/keeping male sexual attention with female social, economic, even political power. There are lots of different ways to play with these dynamics.
But in the contemporary romance-story market, too often women in texts perform womanhood as increasingly disempowered, jealous, possessive, and catty, centered entirely on her sexual relationship with, and, more recently, her emphatic and complete submission to her man. Almost fifty years ago, Virginia Slims launched its famous “You’ve come a long way, baby!” ad campaign supposedly celebrating women’s social freedom and power (by smoking, so, erm), and yet… here we still are. Authors and publishers and reviews and back-of-the-book blurbs still keep saying that these are “strong, smart, independent, spirited women who get what they want!” and yet many of these FMCs look less empowered than ever. They’re just well-fucked.
So to speak.
How do we actually portray “smart, strong, tough, empowered” women, or even just women with actual agency, in our texts? How do we recognize them in others’ fiction?
For example, does your FMC say one thing, then do something else? If your character is doing this on purpose, know it, and know why. Use it, explore it, interrogate it. It’s a great element of development. But IRL as well as in fiction, if someone says “I’d never hurt you, baby” and then cheats or lies or manipulates? Hello. THAT HURTS. And that’s shitty and awful, and shouldn’t be ignored. Does your FMC do it? Does she ignore it or explain it as something else if it happens to her, especially if it’s the MMC doing it?
It’s more nuanced, too. Like, if a character in your story says “I want you to be happy” or “I want him/her to feel comfortable with me” then the actions are in direct contrast to that, what kind of story does that tell? What kind of characters are being presented? What are we meant to think and believe about them? How does your FMC handle it? Does she even recognize it?
We can’t just “know what’s in the heart” of the characters and/or the author and excuse it because it’s just a book and it’s fantasy and if you don’t like it then don’t read it quack quack quack quack.
(It’s a good, healthy habit, too, being able to examine actions and words, and notice when there are troubling discrepancies.)
Last time, I mentioned the utterances that don’t change anything real, like when the FMC engages in internalized-misogynistic name calling and confrontations with a supposed rival. We’re meant to see a “Fuck you!” or “You’re just a whore!” as the FMC’s strength, intelligence, and empowerment. Instead, all it demonstrates is the same old systems, that her so-called “strength” is just that she’s in a relationship with the MMC, that the MMC thinks she’s more fuckable than other women. Yay. Woo.
This time, let’s look at the version of “standing up for herself” when she does it to the MMC specifically. It happens a lot in the Alpha MMC romances, and the with the “slap-slap-kiss” trope, contemporary or historical. It’s meant to show us that she’s just as tough as he is. She can face him down. They’re equals, no matter how dominant and forceful, even cruel, he is with others. But what almost always ends up happening is that they have a big, explosive power-struggle disagreement about something. (“This is my life, not yours, Gavin, and I’ll make my own decisions! Never speak to my parents/boss/co-workers/neighbors on my behalf without my permission again!” “I said no, my lady, you will not go riding alone, especially not in your condition!” “Dammit, Paul, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times: I made a commitment to the company, and I’m going to honor it.”) The MMC does something consciously or unconsciously manipulative in response: he withholds affection, or sulks and gives her the icy-cold silent treatment. He goes over the FMC’s head and does ___ anyway, or does something worse. Or he storms out and goes to a former lover, even if “nothing happened!” Or he has a psychological breakdown, or a panic, gazing at the FMC in stunned hurt and disbelief, because “You don’t need me. I knew it all along, I knew you’d leave me,” or “This is just how she used to act, too.”
And, in the face of such emotionally devastating and/or infuriating behavior, the FMC then has some deep revelation and goes, “If it means that much to you…” or “I can do this for him. I need to do this for him. It’s such a small thing, really, all things considered,” or “Fine, then, I’ll just cancel my trip and all those meetings with the other CEO you think wants my body! Are you happy now? Are you?!”
It’s a power struggle, and he’ll push, she’ll resist, he’ll push, and she’ll finally snap “Fine! Be that way! I’ll just go ahead and do that thing you’ve been demanding I do even though I said I wouldn’t do it, so there!” Which… isn’t strength. When the smart, tough-talking FMC announces “I won’t do anything I don’t want to do”…but then shown doing things she doesn’t want to do, doing whatever the MMC wants, that isn’t empowerment. It’s actually the opposite of strength and empowerment and winning and equality.
Not to mention it’s reinforcing some really fucked up shit.
The FMC stands up for herself, only to immediately back down or capitulate, which is often framed as “a compromise.” Readers/fans will even insist that this is a great thing, because “He really respects her!” and relationships are built on communication and compromise, and yay, look at how he communicated with her about something he was concerned about-
But what does he compromise? What concessions does he make? She sacrifices something important to her, usually something related to her own independence, autonomy, or accomplishments. She gives up and gives in, and he… what?
He’s shown us that he doesn’t listen, and cares more about his own feelings than hers, which isn’t him respecting her at all. She’s given him exactly what he wanted and demanded from her, and she’s gotten what in return? His temporary pleasure and approval? Him not being mad at her or beating her? His cock? A mind-blowing orgasm?
That. Is. Not. Empowerment.
This is the counterpoint to the “Say it and it’s so” misrepresentation of empowerment. If the FMC says “Don’t do that,” “I want to do this instead,” “I won’t tolerate that,” and then she is shown tolerating that and not doing this, that’s not her being strong. If she says ___ but the MMC’s behavior never changes, the fact that she said ___ is not some major indication of feminist power that puts them on equal footing.
We-the-readers are meant to believe that the articulation was some big peak of power, but since nothing changes and she ends up capitulating, it’s actually less empowering than not saying anything.
That’s actually emotional abuse.
If this happens, even if he claims to love her more than anyone, or that he totally respects her, or that she’s the most beautiful woman he knows, it is still abuse. If the back of the book, or the MMC, or the author in interviews tells us that the FMC is a smart, independent, empowered woman who gets what she wants and the MMC respects and loves her, it’s still abuse. If the FMC is dripping wet and moans “That’s so hot and sexy” as he forces her to bend to his demands or her heart flutters and she sighs “He really does love me! I can tell!” it’s still abuse.
The power dynamics between the MC show us everything, and if her life is defined by him, her happiness is defined by him, and, especially, her sexuality is defined by him, she is not a strong, active, independent, empowered woman in control of herself and her life.
Romances are supposedly about a woman taking charge of her own sexuality. That’s the rationalization I’ve heard in response to even the most rapey of romance novels… that it’s okay, because she wants it, she wants him. Because ultimately, the FMC is taking charge of her own sexuality.
However, if her sexuality is defined, controlled, and negotiated by the MMC, then she’s not in charge of anything.
What do the power dynamics with the Main Couple in a text demonstrate?
Just saying “she’s really the one in charge” or having her fuck him cowgirl-style isn’t enough. Horniness is not the same thing as empowered sexuality. Just because she’s wet and riled up at the sight of the MMC’s sculpted body and wants to fuck him does not make her sexually empowered… especially not if that’s something he manipulates. Furthermore, if she’s saying “I’m scared of this, I don’t like it, I’m not sure I want it,” then it doesn’t matter if she’s dripping wet… she is articulating “I don’t want this” and it is not “empowering” to have it forced on her or coerced from her.
Just because she fucks the hot guy doesn’t make her strong and smart. Just because she comes doesn’t mean she’s empowered.
Does she have power, genuine power?
What is it? Where is it? How is it demonstrated?
Does the text, do the actions of the characters, undermine it?
How do we see the FMC from MMC’s POV?
There are quite a few popular MMC types: the billionaire boss, the aristocrat/tycoon, the celebrity. The wounded soldier home from violent combat, the brooding rebel recovering from past wrongs. The bad boy, the cad, the guy who really fucked up. The supernatural/paranormal hero on the margins of human society. These are the ones that we keep being told are marketable, the ones that keep showing up in thousands and thousands of romance stories over decades, even centuries.
If the MMC is rich and the FMC is not, he automatically has a great deal of power over her. If he outranks her in the aristocracy/social order, he automatically has a great deal of power over her. Even if she is beautiful or sexually beguiling to him, because we live in a patriarchy and these books are usually set in the same patriarchy, the MMC will almost always have great deal of physical, social, economic power over her.
So when a romance portrays the sexy laird falling for the spirited lass he meets on the grounds of his estate, they do not have a balanced dynamic. When the action-movie hero falls for the stunt double on the set of his latest blockbuster, they are not equals. When the towering, muscular, rock-hard soldier meets a princess or a PR specialist, he at the very least has physical advantage over her. As a writer, you will have to go further to demonstrate that she has any power or autonomy in the relationship that is not her vagina. Or, if not, you will have to engage with the unfair power dynamic and how a woman might have to use sex/her body/the patriarchal system to survive, even thrive. And he will have to love and respect her for it, and try to understand, and grow as a result.
Furthermore, if the MMC falls for the FMC because of her positive traits, she has to actually display them. It’s not enough for the MMC to quirk a brooding eyebrow and contemplate how “unusual” and “enigmatic” the uptight local schoolteacher is. She has to actually be what that word means. We have to find her as “beguiling,” “exciting,” and “compelling” as the MMC does.
If the MMC is marveling at her extraordinary behavior, then extraordinary behavior needs to actually be extraordinary. Tossing hair, swaying hips, laughing, or even giving the best oral he’s ever had are not extraordinary acts. Thinking she is “delectable,” “savory” “toothsome” is also not extraordinary; she has to have more positive qualities than him wanting to fuck her.
Furthermore, “I want to fuck her” does not make the FMC enigmatic or unusual, even if the MMC can’t figure out why he wants to fuck her. Saying she’s a “challenge” to him doesn’t cut it, either. All it tells us is that he wants to fuck her and she won’t let him. And, nope. That’s not what it means to be a strong and challenging woman, much less “unusual.”
Believe it or not, women can be challenging and unique in ways other than wanting or not wanting to fuck a guy.
MMCs also tend to complain about the FMCs’ negative traits that aren’t actually negative. In fact, many of them are actually traits confirming a woman’s sense of self-preservation, autonomy, maturity. So when he complains about her “defiance,” he’s not actually complaining about something that is worth complaining about unless, say, he is her commanding officer in a military unit, in which case they wouldn’t and shouldn’t be in a relationship in the first place.
- “She was the most stubborn, willful, frustrating woman that the caliph had ever encountered. Damn her!”
- “Why do you have to argue everything with me, Lacey? Why are you so angry?”
- “Michael ran his fingers through his hair in a fury. Why does she keep fighting me on this? He was growing irritated. What was wrong with her? Why was she hesitating? He knew she wanted this as much as he did.”
Men, especially insecure men, have a charming habit of painting women’s perfectly reasonable behavior as something so outrageous, or so difficult. Gosh, aren’t we irrational and angry, wanting all those equal rights and pay and abilities to make our own reproductive decisions and not be raped and even just be something more than fucktoys for men? Golly. So in fiction, it’s doubly annoying to see it portrayed as something he thinks he has a right to be offended by. She won’t just shut up and agree to spend the night/accept his proposal to become his mistress/work at his company/have anal/leave right now on an impromptu trip with him to Jamaica with no return ticket? Jeez, she’s just so bold and willful and stubborn! What a silly little girl she is, defying his manly maleness that way!
Know what? THOSE ARE QUALITIES OF A STRONG WOMAN.
If the MMC disparages them, then what does that say about your strong, smart FMC who is in total control? If he breaks her of those qualities, or she compromises them, then what does that say about your strong, smart, independent FMC who is in total control?
How many MMCs are shown in a text saying to the FMC “I love that you are a strong, free-spirited woman,” only to turn around and get furious when she makes a decision, or questions his judgement? If your MMC truly loves that the FMC is a strong, smart woman, then he doesn’t undermine her strengths, or get angry about them, or punish her for them. Or, if he does at first, this is something that has to change, really change. Aiden SuperRich, oil baron and CEO, cannot tell Sophie Newbie that he admires how talented and dedicated to her work she is, and then continue to insist she should quit her job, or interfere with her career, or disrupt her at the office. (For that matter, Sophie has to actually do real work at some point, too.) Lord Chiseled cannot praise Lady Daring for her resilience and her stubbornness… only to get pissed when she decides to take part in a raid to rescue her brother from the Duke of Bad Stuff, or avenge her family by taking a public political stand.
A related “strong, independent woman” element is the FMC who is either poor, or just not into fancy things or shopping (sometimes in a disparaging internalized-misogyny framing of “I’m not into girly stuff” or “I don’t wear a lot of makeup like superficial women do”) paired with the MMC who who does the whole “I love that she is so casual and down-to-earth and not into my money” schtick. But he often immediately starts buying the FMC expensive jewelry or a whole new designer wardrobe or sexy tight dresses and name-brand shoes, which she accepts and wears with the fewest of qualms. She may throw in a few token “Oh, gosh, I don’t feel right about this” and “I don’t like conspicuous consumer culture” and “This isn’t me, I’m no fashionista!” And yet give it a chapter or two (or a socially challenging situation, like meeting his ex) and she’s struttin’ her stuff in all the name-dropped couture and diamonds that the MMC has showered upon her as a sign of love. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada, but without the actual central plot point. Or awareness.
Add to that the fact that the FMC, garbed in her new Wittelsbach tiara and king’s ransom of emeralds from the MMC’s family, or the Junya Watanabe outfit he bought on their Tokyo shopping spree, ends up feeling even more confidence and pride. She thinks things like “For the first time, I feel truly beautiful,” or “In this beaded McQueen gown and killer heels, I feel strong enough and powerful enough to face anything! I feel James’s hand slide over my backside, and I can tell from his heavy-lidded look that he appreciates how I look in it, too.” Again, if these trappings are provided by the MMC and are in direct conflict to the FMC’s Everygirl personality, then Cinderella makeover fantasies be damned, because it undermines the whole “strong, smart, empowered woman who takes care of herself!” thing.
If the MMC is the sole cause of her confidence, that is not empowerment. And if he continually undermines her strengths and neither of them question it or even seem aware of it, that isn’t empowerment, either.
But the major question to ask about the FMC is…
What qualities are linked with “strength”?
Does the FMC display real bravery under a certain circumstance? What are the results of her courageous actions?
Or do her big, brave, empowered actions instead bring on the problems/make more trouble/don’t change the plot/leave her in need of another rescue? Is what she does superfluous? Does the MMC shows up to fix everything? Is it ever flipped?
Is her “strength” or “bravery” always framed through sex? Is she only strong or courageous because she enters into a sexual relationship with the MMC, or tries a sex act she initially refused? Does she only achieve/gain/triumph with her sexuality/beauty?
If she says no to the MMC, whether it’s re: sex or something else, how does he react?
To quote my queen and general, Carrie Fisher, youth and beauty are not accomplishments. I will add, nor are they strengths.
The fact that others in the story, especially the MMC, think the FMC is beautiful has no bearing on her internal strength, unless you deliberately make that connection and draw it out skilfully. If the FMC is a former model who is disfigured and has to reconstruct her identity with new points of reference? If she’s dealt with being marginalized in her career because she’s a size 18, or because men don’t take her seriously because she has huge tits, and she has battled this shit? Sure, then maybe you can link ideas of beauty and inner strength. But the fact that the FMC has a tumble of red-gold hair that she tosses in a fit of pique, or huge sapphire-blue eyes that she blinks to disarm a bad guy has nothing to do with real strength of character. If she’s the most beautiful woman in the room, that does not make her genuinely empowered, unless you are willing to tackle the real issues of women, power, and beauty.
If everyone wants the FMC, that doesn’t make her strong or brave, either. Plus, “Everyone wants to rape her/hates him for having her” is the Mary Sue-est plot twist ever: rape, kidnapping, revenge… everything bad stems from the fact that the heroine is so beautiful and loveable and desirable that everyone either wants her, or wants to kill the man who has her.
Men stare. His friends comment on how gorgeous she is. Now that the MMC has the love of this woman, he is ten times more enviable than he was before, and the jealous haters will come out of the woodwork.
She is an object.
Objects are rarely strong and empowered.
Beauty doesn’t last, not even in fiction. How are we supposed to believe the MMC is always going to love the FMC if what he’s most invested in is her physical attractiveness to him? What about in ten or twenty years, when there are younger, prettier women? What about if the FMC is in an accident and her beautiful face is scarred? What if she gets breast cancer? Gains weight? Cuts her hair? Her body will change with time, and her waist may not always be span-able by his huge hands, her vagina will not always be the tightest he’s ever fucked, her breasts will not always be piquant and high. Unless we’ve seen more from the MMC than him marveling at how beautiful and slender and fuckable the FMC is, there’s only superficial reasons for him to love and want her, not to mention admire her. We need to be shown more.
Not only that, but certain “beautiful” qualities have unfortunate overtones that have nothing to do with being a strong, powerful woman. They have been used too much, so not only does the FMC not sound empowered or strong or independent, it ends up reinforcing racist, sexist, and/or classist stereotypes. If the FMC is presented as a strong, powerful, beautiful, tough, enviable woman because of her flawless, pale skin, or her fawnlike eyes that remind lookers-on of an innocent forest creature, or because she is slim (or its corollary, “curves in all the right places”), that sends troubling messages. If her power or admirable qualities are, even in part, expressed through her physical attractiveness, via the body parts checklist that genre fiction loves, it suggests that women who are not beautiful, who do not have waist-length curls or translucent skin, who are not long-legged and slender are not admirable, are not strong, are not worthy.
With that in mind, the thing about “He’s so gorgeous, and I’m so plain. What does he see in me?” is an oft-seen element of Romance plots that should be flagged, since not being physically beautiful does not mean you are not strong, and are not worthy of love. Insecurity as vulnerability can be done well, but if the character is insecure and then becomes confident because of her relationship with the MMC, that’s disempowering… and the “I’m so plain” “No, no, you’re drop-dead beautiful” crap also runs the risk of making the character look clueless, stupid, and/or like an unreliable narrator.
And that leads us to the supposedly-strong, empowered FMC via non-MMC characters.
Gaslighting the reader via other characters
Another common sloppy shorthand to attempt to convince your readers about ___ is when you have the secondary characters doing “tell instead of show” for us: “But he never acts this way!” “I’ve never seen you like this!” “He’s such a good man, and you’re so lucky, you’re good for him.” “It’s obvious he’s in love with her!” “You’re so smart! Someone as smart as you would never___.” Secondary characters often function to help direct the MC as well as the reader: “Can’t you see Griffin is crazy about you? And why wouldn’t he be? You’re beautiful and smart, and he’d be a fool not to see it, too!” “Oh, Bianca, you are a lady of great strengths as well as great passion. You will be the belle of the Season, mark my words!” “Patty is my best friend, and is nothing if not loyal. So when she hugs me and squeals, ‘He’d do anything for you, it’s written all over his face!” I know not to take her too seriously.” But has the FMC demonstrated the virtues and values the people around her praise her for? Because if she doesn’t, it throws everything into question.
If we haven’t seen these things happening in the text, this is merely the characters within a text doing the gaslighting for us, telling us what we’re supposed to think and feel about the characters, the romance, despite what we might see on the page in direct conflict.
Can we trust these characters and what they’re telling us? If the story contains monologues or assertions without proof, what is the effect?
Like that thing about how our smart, strong FMC spends most of her time sighing about how she’s not as pretty as Co-Worker or Friend or Rival or Celebrity or Marchioness. Does she seem like a normal woman dealing with human insecurities? What about if that same FMC, who has spent the first two chapters of the text telling us that she’s not attractive, or that guys don’t like her because they’re put off by her bookishness or shyness or business acumen, is then suddenly the object of several noblemen at a state function or has a hunky Hollywood star gazing at her and asking her out? Is that just her sweet “aw, shucks” humbleness? Add to that several secondary characters who tell us about the FMC: Her best friend, who is always gushing about how stunningly beautiful FMC is and all the guys who’re crazy about FMC but she’s oblivious. Several men who try to pick her up, citing positive physical attributes about her. The sneering bad guy or rival, who make all sorts of “Your big brown eyes won’t save you now!” or “What are you going to do about that, my beauty?” remarks.
If the other characters in the text keep reacting to the supposedly-plain, ordinary FMC like she is the most beautiful, attractive woman on the planet, what is the effect?
This is six steps beyond tee-hee endearing “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” cuteness, which is already overdone and troubling. It’s starting to feel increasingly like the FMC isn’t just sweet and humble (and smart and strong!), but is either untrustworthy, insincere, and/or ridiculously oblivious.
Then, as the story continues, if the same mousy, sweet, humble, smart, strong FMC is engaged in verbal battles with the gorgeous MMC who she finds herself frighteningly attracted to, does this read as confidence in her strength and intelligence… or as a complete lack of character consistency? Is she neurotic? Did she finally snap? What on earth is going on?! Well, really bad writing, for one.
It’s not only not effective to claim that your character is ___ without demonstrating it, it’s even less effective when your secondary characters get in on the act. If we don’t entirely trust what the FMC tells us and/or shows us, how can we trust her POV in romantic situations?
It also affects how we see the MMC. I’ve read multiple versions of that Cinderella fantasy where the ordinary, everyday FMC is suddenly discovered by the gorgeous, rich (sometimes even royal) MMC, who falls madly in love with her. But if all we’ve heard from the FMC is “I’m just a frumpy mom, twenty pounds overweight, hair that needs a cut,” etc., why are we supposed to believe that she has caught the eye of this amazing Adonis? When she tells us “He’s asking me out? Why? He could have any woman he wanted!” we can’t help agreeing. What is it that’s brought the two of them together…? It’s usually that she’s nice, kind, and has a quick sense of humor, is a “smart, strong woman” that he admires.
I get the fantasy aspect of it and why it’s appealing to readers. But it takes a lot more for a man of extreme wealth and social privilege, one who has been with models and princesses, to look at Everymom or Ordinary Girl and go “Yeah, her!” So when he does, after she’s spent most of the time telling us how ordinary and commonplace she is, I actually don’t trust HIM, either. Why else would a man of his station want her? Why would the son of the earl want the village seamstress? Why would the Montana cowboy-millionaire or London CEO want the kindergarten teacher or shabby bookshop-owner with kids of her own?
Why is Mark-Mason Moneybags attracted to someone insecure and vulnerable and in a weaker social and financial position? Why would he want someone who has low/no self-esteem but keeps insisting she is “strong and independent”? What game is he up to, manipulating her like this?
Most of the possibilities are not romantic ones. She might as well have a target on her forehead.
It’s going to take more than her being sweet and smart and slinging a few verbal volleys his way for me to be convinced he has any sincere interest in her beyond an easy fuck and some ego-stroking, in a best-case scenario. (And she’s going to end up raped and dead in a pit after decades of abuse in a worst-case scenario.) He can tell us that she has “something special,” but we damned well better see it in the text as well. I can’t just “trust what’s in his heart” that he genuinely loves her, even if he says it. The text has to demonstrate explicitly how, why, and to what extent this ordinary woman can captivate a privileged man like him.
Especially because the power dynamics in such a pairing are completely unbalanced to begin with.
So this means when the FMC starts gushing about the MMC who has displayed abusive behavior that she nevertheless feels “protected and safe, like a romantic heroine” when she’s with him, we can’t trust her on that, either.
Look at how all the women in the text, not just the FMC, are depicted.
I touched on this before, but I want to revisit and re-emphasize the role of women in a romantic piece of fiction in the context of empowerment and agency. I don’t just mean the typical secondary character tropes, either. It’s the question I asked before: what does being a woman look like in the universe of this fiction? What ideology is suggested, what values are promoted, by how and what the female characters do, by how the FMC responds or acts to other women?
Is that showing strength? Power? Smarts and savvy?
Link: Slut-Shaming in Romance
It’s not just about just slut-shaming, either, but rather, about creating whole hostile attitude around being a woman. It’s internalized misogyny.
Are multiple other women always described in (patriarchally-laden) anti-feminist terms? Are they “shrill” “bitchy” “a harpy” “good girl, good woman” “catty” “squeaking,” “bleating,” “purring”? Are women’s assertive or positive traits described in negative or patronizing ways? Is she “feisty” or “fiery” or “bold” instead of strong and competent? Are all of the women except for the FMC portrayed negatively? Do all of the other women depicted fit flat stereotypes, as loving moms, jealous rivals, party-girl besties? Obviously every character can’t be fully fleshed out and developed, but are there at least elements of diversity or something nontraditional, even if your MC is a heteronormative romantic relationship? Are there other women in positions of power, depicted positively?
(PS: Sorry, Melania and Ivanka Trump, but just because you’re a woman in power doesn’t mean you’re empowering women. If you work for and defend someone whose policies undermine women’s access to healthcare or set them back in the workplace, you’re not exactly helping the cause.)
The key to assessing a FMC’s agency is looking at what she ACTS in the text/with the other characters/with the MMC (beyond sex/romance), not how she is ACTED UPON by everyone and everything.
Does she act on her own behalf about something other than fucking or verbally one-upping the MMC?
More than once, I’ve had a reader/fan of a text with a disempowered FMC insist that said FMC is actually strong, intelligent, and feminist because she “is totally going for what she wants!”: him. But even beyond the “other people can’t be your objective goal” plot issue, let’s take a look at one of the ways that action actually disenfranchises the FMC more than ever.
Going after what she wants
I remember first noticing this when I was a teen, reading YA romances that were popular at the time. The FMCs would set their sights on something, and go for it.
It was a relatively new thing to think that a girl could ask a boy out, could be active instead of just waiting around for a boy to notice her. We were different than the Malt Shop Girls of previous generations. We could go for what we wanted, whether it was a part-time job, a spot on the cheerleading team, the role of student body president, or that dreamy guy we’d had a crush on all year. That’s empowering, isn’t it?
Well, until I noticed a couple of things.
First, many of the important things that the FMC was going for—the cheerleading squad, the lead in the school play, a job at a certain place, a makeover, a spot in a summer program—was sometimes part of a larger scheme to get the attention of the boy she liked, or get into his inner circle. (Not always, I’d like to emphasize. There were quite a few FMCs who pursued interests of their own interests first and foremost, which was awesome.)
Especially, I started to see that quite a few of the plots involved a nice, sometimes-mousy or newly-made-over Everygirl FMC winning the boy away from his current girlfriend, a snotty, mean, often-rich bitch. Or a variation, the Everygirl FMC keeping her current boyfriend from the attentions of the beautiful, popular cheerleader. The boy was always portrayed as “too nice” for the bitchy romantic rival, and often was only with her because of social pressures (she’s popular, their parents are friends, they’ve been paired up for years, he was mistakenly swayed by her fatal charm) or because he’s just so darned nice he never saw “that side” of her until she is challenged by the FMC and her sweet mask dissolves and her bitchiness is revealed unto him. And the reader is meant to celebrate, because the nice, sweet, FMC “went for what she wanted,” the guy she liked/loved, and got/kept him! She’s strong, smart, active-
Is boyfriend-stealing, breaking up a couple, a sign of strength and intelligence? Is not respecting the boundaries of a relationship, whether you agree with it or not, a thing to celebrate without question? Instead of focusing on the issues in a couple’s relationship, is pitting women against each other, yet again, where strength and power for women are located?
Obviously, because the opponent is a bitchy, mean, rich girl, we’re meant to read the situation in a certain way. But what about the the rich, bitchy girl? Isn’t she just “going for what she wants” by trying to snag the FMC’s boyfriend, and thus meant to be celebrated as a strong woman? What if the FMC is the sexually liberated woman who wants to fuck the hot guy because she’s in charge of her own sexuality… and goes for what she wants despite the fact that the MMC is already sort of in a relationship? What about when it’s not a bitchy mean girl, but just another Everygirl FMC, or woman with a crush on your man, who’s going for what she wants, fighting for a chance with the guy she’s liked, even loved, for ages? Where is the “strength” and “intelligence” and “power” we’re meant to be seeing and celebrating if it means hurting others?
The whole issue with this “the FMC is strong and tough because she’s going after/trying to keep the man she loves!” plot is that it dislocates the real problems and threats.
The real problem, according to the novel, isn’t that the FMC’s self-esteem is all rooted in a romantic relationship with the MMC, it’s that her rival is SUCH a total BITCH, you guys! The real problem isn’t someone’s lack of communication with her boyfriend or husband, it’s that skanky blond bimbo, so therefore the solution to the problem is not to talk to the MMC, but, rather, to sabotage the blond bimbo make her look foolish which makes the FMC a strong, sm-
It’s possible to write stories about these kinds of situations while exploring the real emotional depths, the ethical struggles. But you can’t just position the FMC against a deliberately-antagonistic, unappealing rival-character, and claim that the FMC is a “strong, successful woman” because she gets the MMC and bests the rival in the process.
How can you recognize a FMC with real strengths and intelligence in fiction? If you want to write, or at least claim you’ve written, a FMC with actual agency, what does work?
- She has several demonstrable strengths from the beginning, even if the plot is about her gaining strength/confidence/power.
- Show her positive traits as something other than physical looks. Give her real strengths, skills, and talents for which others admire her, things that aren’t quashed by the MMC.
- She shows/develops confidence, pride, feels beautiful, feels strong because of something other than getting the MMC’s sexual attention.
- Show her at least thinking about sex or her sexuality before she meets/hooks up with the MMC. If she’s going to be exploring a “dark, erotic world” of non-traditional sexploits, she has to at least have some interest on her own of these things. Even if you still want her to be the virginiest virgin to be awakened by the masterful touch of your MMC and all that, the FMC needs to have some autonomy over her own sexuality, body, and physical self if you are going to claim that she is “in charge of” her sexuality.
- Take the typical plot elements and push them further. Interrogate and understand the FMC’s (or MMC’s) motivation for doing something, and push it into real plot points. Instead of the typical conflict about the MMC resenting the FMC’s “defiant spirit,” make it a real point of departure and show how the MMC comes to understand how and why she is that way and respect her for it, and become her supporter for it. Instead of “that bitch wants my man, so I’m going to scratch her eyes out!” the FMC can really explore her own insecurities and their origins that have nothing to do with the MMC, can make discoveries about herself and grow from them.
Or just fucking go all the way and own it.
If you think that there is true power in a woman giving up everything to her man, if you think the best thing a woman can achieve is for a dominant man to take care of her and everything so she doesn’t have to worry about it, and you don’t want all of the responsibility of having to interrogate or subvert it in historical contexts because you just want the FMC to be swept off her feet by the MMC…? Then be responsible enough to claim it outright. Show it, and show the value in it, instead of trying to bait-and-switch readers into thinking the FMC is a “strong, independent woman.”
I even get that there are women who find this an appealing fantasy, an appealing idea, an appealing approach to romance. I get that, for whatever reason, there are some women who think that pre-sexual revolution dynamics would be so much better, so much simpler. They wouldn’t have to do any work or worry about thinking. Women are helpless lil’ creatures to be cherished and protected by big, strong, manly men. Or, as one reader once told me about why she loved these kinds of stories as personal fantasy, “I want all of the perks without any of the work!” Okay. Then go ahead and write your Sultan’s Slave story, your sea captain rescue fantasy, your Mary Sue mousy heroine who is rescued from her mundane suburban life by the billionaire. Know you’re doing it. There are even valuable psychological reasons for the rape-and-captivity fantasy, which I’m sure I’ll discuss at some point.
Don’t effing give us a FMC who is passive and capitulates to all of her man’s demands, or has no power outside of her sexuality and childbearing abilities, and then try to tell us with no proof or action that she’s actually a strong, independent, no-nonsense, smart woman who is in charge.
Don’t try to convince yourself or the rest of us that complete and unquestioning passivity to get a man is a massive display of feminist strength and empowerment.
At least be honest enough to recognize what your heroine is doing, and what you’re doing as an author or reading as a reader.
I had intended to close like I sometimes do, with playing the Why Game, and exploring more ways to portray actual “smart, strong, independent” FMCs, but this article that we used in my IRL writing group does it far better than I ever could, so READ THIS!