Tag Archives: ruthie knox

the unlikeable heroine ; the unanswerable question

Liz posted last week about why she stopped reading Jo Manning’s Seducing Mr Heyward. She points out how frustrating it is that the heroine is reacquainted with her sons and immediately becomes motherly, and loved.

This description fired up my writing brain. I particularly love tense, hurtful scenes in which family members misunderstand each other. I could imagine a different version of that scene, in which the mother was all nerves and defiance and insecurity, the boys all studied indifference, if not downright cruelty. That’s a world in which the characters would have to fight for their right to be – and let their feelings teach them to be humble.

When I ranted this at Liz, she said, “My feeling about the maternal thing was that a bad mother is seen as too unsympathetic for romance readers. I wondered if the author or editor was afraid to go there.”

This is pretty standard fare in Romancelandia – the discussion of what makes a likeable heroine, what’s acceptable, which lines can’t be crossed. Rosario made the excellent point that when Seducing Mr Heyward was published the character did push the boundaries – it’s just that we have so much more variety these days, we forget how far we’ve come.

Writers see a boundary, and something in the back of their brain goes, “What would it take to cross that?”

But then I started to wonder – what makes a heroine unlikeable? I’m sure every romance writer has asked herself this question hundreds of times, and gone about acquiring the techniques that’ll help her stretch those boundaries till they snap.

That’s not the question I’m asking, though.

I’m asking – what does that even mean, that a heroine’s unlikeable? What yardstick is she failing to measure up to? Is it a moral standard we hold her to – and if so, whose moral standard? Are there ideals of womanhood that can’t be contravened? Why? And whose ideals are they anyway? When writers and editors self-censor in anticipation of their market, does their caution actually meet reader expectations? How conservative is the romance readership?

Which all seems to point to: What do reader expectations of a heroine say about reader expectations of women?

Last week I read Jenny Crusie’s Crazy for you for the first time. Jenny Crusie’s vocal about the fact that she writes the kind of angry heroines she thought were missing from the romance genre – and that she sees romance as a powerful feminist instrument to show women what’s possible. What they can fight for, what they have a right to.

That they don’t have to be so impassive they fall into hundred-year comas.

But Crusie’s women – in this book – made me uncomfortable. They’re selfish and pushy and aggressive. I really don’t know whether I should leave it at “they crossed a line for me personally”, or whether it’s important for me to feel the discomfort of watching women act out “unfeminine” qualities.

When I strip out the generalizations, this is what I’m asking: What do my expectations of a heroine say about my expectations of myself?

I mentioned my interest in what makes a heroine unlikeable to Ruthie Knox, because everything that made me want to punch a particular heroine in the face endeared her to Ruthie. We both came to the conclusion that it’s a relationship to ourselves – not some vague moral value – that determines our reaction. Ruthie can’t bear heroines who she would envy in real life, or feel inadequate next to, or who have the kinds of obsessions that annoy her in real women. I can’t bear heroines whose flaws shine light on all the ways I convince myself I’m not – but know I am.

Of course, a relationship to myself doesn’t exclude “a vague moral value”. As Kyra Kramer says in her essay ‘Getting laid, getting old, and getting fed: the cultural resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s romance heroines’, “Since the body exists concurrently as both a natural and a cultural object, it is nearly impossible to examine the individual body independently of the social and political bodies. A person has a certain amount of autonomy, or agency, in regards to their individual body. However, the individual body is so closely intermeshed with the social/political body that it cannot help but represent cultural assumptions.”

It’s a huge question, “What does it mean when a heroine’s unlikeable?” and unanswerable in that annoying, artsy way, where everything’s subjective.

Here are some things I think about it:

Heroines aren’t heroic when they meet a moral expectation of good or bad. They’re heroic when they take on the whole world because they trust that internal definition of right.

And because that really told you nothing at all, here’s my definition of heroic in specific terms: Dan Savage, raised in the Catholic church, realised at fourteen that he was gay. He didn’t think, “There’s something wrong with me.” He knew what the church thought of homosexuality, and he thought, “That can’t be right.”

Can you imagine that? A fourteen-year-old boy with enough self-belief to declare one of the most powerful churches in the world wrong, because it disagreed with how he knew himself.

(You can listen to ‘Our man of perpetual sorrow’ here – it’s a moving piece of radio!)

Of course, if that had been a story about a fourteen-year-old boy believing absolutely in his right to own a gun, I probably wouldn’t see it as heroic. Remember the part about annoying artsy subjectivity? Yep.

However, it’s not always as simple as: What I agree with = good, what I disagree with = bad.

My favourite version of Draco in Harry Potter fanfic is the aristocratic boy who still believes in the racist notions his father drilled into him. The boy who believes in all the wrong things even when he’s coming to understand he’s fighting on the wrong side. He’s not ever going to be fully “reformed”, but there’s this quick mind that understands how his notions are received, and questions them, and believes in them anyway.

the shameless orgasm

This has been my year for scrutinising the way gender plays out in romance. Mostly that process consists of discovering how very little I know – which makes me think I’m somewhat on the right track; hopefully an always interesting track that might never lead to any kind of truth, but will lead me to new and exciting and challenging places my whole life long.

After reading good reviews for months of Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me I finally bought it the other day and had read it by dinner. It’s a truly gorgeous read, about a man and woman who undertake the trans America cycle tour together. Her hero Tom is delicious (she made licking an inner tube to test for punctures a ridiculously hot thing to do) and her heroine Lexie was a breath of fresh air: uncynical and optimistic without those traits turning her into a bimbo any more than they would in a real person.

I questioned some of the sex in the book – for example when Lexie’s expression of her desire and acquiescence is, “I want for you to have me.”

The observation that, above all others, awoke my curiosity about gender: Women are taught that their pleasure comes from being the object that is desired, not the person who desires. Lexie’s expression of her desire in that line smacks of this is sexy because you want me. Her own desire felt curiously erased. And later when Tom puts himself at her mercy – tells her she can do anything she likes with him – she chooses to pleasure him. In a way, I get it – she’s indulging her own desire, and I certainly wouldn’t want to say that pleasuring a guy isn’t sexy! That would be dumb. But though Lexie realised the power she had, she didn’t feel powerful to me in that scene.


There was one scene in the book that instantly makes this my number one feminist romance read. Lexie is all hot and bothered in her tent one afternoon, and she starts masturbating while thinking about Tom.

For those of you who don’t read romance: masturbation isn’t mentioned that often, and the masturbation scene is much rarer still. Off the top of my head I can think of The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt and Delicious by Sherry Thomas.

And if you do get one, there is always – ALWAYS – some sense of shame involved. Whether it’s the fear of being found out, the fear that it’s somehow wrong despite the pleasure of it, or the belief (ah, romance heroes) that it’s “making do”, something to resort to if one’s heroine isn’t available. Some heroes don’t even allow themselves that much – I was so confused when I started reading romance that heroes were constantly off taking cold showers and baths. Surely they had a better, more effective option?

I understand with historical romance that it’s period appropriate to have shame attached to masturbation. But I don’t think that’s why it’s written that way. Give the amount of shameless sex historical heroines are having.

Lexie doesn’t feel one second of shame. She lets herself imagine Tom, she lets herself go to it, she revels in the delicious feeling of her body afterwards. She’s actively enjoying herself. She feels embarrassed when she thinks Tom might know what she was doing, but as a reader that came across as very different to shame.

And that’s why this book rates as a feminist read for me – because it engaged me in a discussion about my own sexuality in a way that surprised and delighted me. It challenged a shame that is so ingrained it’s invisible – and it gave me permission in a way that few face-to-face conversations ever could.