A dialogue on the “Common kickass heroine”

Author Teresa Frohock

Recently my friend, author Teresa Frohock, brought to my attention a review of a current urban fantasy/paranormal romance title in which the reviewer referred to the main character as “the common kickass heroine.”  We were both struck by the implications: that what was once a fresh symbol of female empowerment in the male-heavy world of fantasy had become, through repetition and erosion, a cliche.

Since my most recent novel, The Hum and the Shiver, features a heroine I consider “strong,” and Teresa’s novel Miserere: An Autumn Tale has both a vivid warrior-priestess heroine and a terrific female villain, we discussed what the “common kickass heroine” might be, and what it means for writers and readers. Teresa, what’s your background with strong heroines?

Teresa Frohock: In spite of all the novels I’ve read over the years, two strong heroines that have always remained me are Vonda McIntyre’s Snake from her novel Dreamsnake and Anne McCaffrey’s Killashandra from her novel The Crystal Singer. Both characters are portrayed as intelligent and emotionally strong young women who meet their obstacles with resourcefulness and determination. Those were the qualities I wanted for both Rachael and Catarina in Miserere.

This emotional strength was one of the aspects of Bronwyn that I admired so much in The Hum and the Shiver. She is a young woman who took chances and stepped outside the traditional paradigm to become someone with an inner depth that can’t be camouflaged with flash and glitter.

What was your basis for Bronwyn’s strength in The Hum and the Shiver?

Brownyn is a reaction to all those “Casablanca” endings, where the hero/ine makes some noble sacrifice in the service of some “greater good.” I wanted her to decide that yes, I’ll accept these responsibilities you’ve been pressing on me all my life, but on *my* terms.  It’s the kind of strength that you don’t see very often, and has little to do with mundane things like “ass kicking.” It’s strength of *character.*  Rachael in Miserere has that, despite a betrayal that would send most of us to the bottom.

I still feel the template is Ellen Ripley in Aliens. She has no super powers or lethal skills, just a steely determination that exceeds even that of the professional soldiers around her. Alas, once “Buffy” came along, the idea that tiny women must demonstrate their strength by destroying large men/supernatural creatures overwhelmed the concept of strength being a non-physical attribute.  Now the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Ass-kicking Version, is the standard.

Do you think that’s because perhaps deep down, both readers and writers can’t reconcile the idea of strength with attractiveness?

Teresa's terrific first novel

Yes, and I think part of it is a backlash to earlier tropes. Let’s face it: Daphne and Thelma in Scooby-Doo always perpetuated the trope that you can’t be both beautiful and intelligent. In high school, I read The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales by Forrest Carter and the character Laura Lee is described as plain. Her hands were too large to hold teacups but perfect for holding a rifle. I related to Laura Lee based on that description, because I knew how she felt. A woman couldn’t be strong and beautiful. Now all the female characters are dainty with hands perfect for holding both teacups and assault rifles.

This is obviously how women want to see themselves. Everyone wants to relate to the characters in a story, but there is also a need to see grander pictures of ourselves. These “strong” women want to be seen as sexually attractive/aggressive, but the assault rifle (or Ninja sword or whatever) says: I don’t need a man. I can take care of myself.

I’m curious about what guys see in characters like this. Do you see them as empowered women or caricatures?

It’s hard to say, because I think I’ve aged out of the target audience. Certainly younger men, gamers and serious comic book fans, respond to these images.  The entire anime industry probably wouldn’t exist without them. But for me, yes, they feel like caricatures.  The only possible justification for them is that they have supernatural powers, which I think gets us closer to the cliché we began with.  All these women shown from the neck down on book covers, displaying their tramp-stamp tattoos as they carry some bladed weapon loosely in their fingers, are the result of trying to “realistically” have it both ways: heroines who are conventionally attractive, yet capable of battling the bad guys.

But what makes this so interesting, to me, is that this stereotype is promulgated by women, for women in the paranormal romance genre.  Which leads into the question of, is emulating male sexuality really a sign of liberation, or just more cliché?

I don’t think emulating male sexuality is a sign of liberation at all. I find it demeaning to women that we have taken the very aspects of male behavior that women disdain and flipped those male defects into virtues for women. Men who use sex as a weapon are animals, but women who use sex as a weapon are empowered? How did we hit that point? The sexual liberation I remember being discussed by feminists was all about being in control of our bodies and fates in a society that demeaned us all as brainless sluts.

I digress.

From an authorial viewpoint, any character that suffers a lack of emotional growth in the course of the story is in danger of becoming a cliché. I think the “common kick-ass heroine” will eventually go the way of the “Sam Spades”. There will always be some novels with those kinds of characters, but they won’t be as prevalent. Which makes me wonder what might be the next big thing?

The next big thing is always impossible to predict.  I’ve heard it would zombies, but while they’re popular, I can’t see a single zombie character becoming a romantic symbol.  I’ve also heard angels would be next, but again, while they’re often used, I don’t see any becoming the romantic symbol that vampires and werewolves have become.

What do you think?

I’d like to think the next big thing would be … normal men and women. I’m not counting on it though. I’m still trying to get the zombie thing. I’d throw my money on fallen angels. Not because I write them—nobody is going to be flinging themselves on my version of the fallen—but I have seen a lot of bare male chests on cover art along with fallen angel references. Someone is just going to have to come up with the right combination that clicks with the fans, I suppose.

Teresa’s novel Miserere: an Autumn Tale is published by Night Shade Books, who also did the hardcover edition of my novel The Sword-Edged Blonde.  You can read my review of her book here, and find out more about Miserere, including a free read of the first four chapters, here.

Posted on by Alex in Hum and the Shiver, novel, Teresa Frohock, writers, writing, writing advice

13 Responses to A dialogue on the “Common kickass heroine”

  1. Kelly Bryson

    I think there will be as many different types of heroines as there are different types of women, because we all identify with different types. I identified much more with Katniss in THG than the tramp-stamped demon huntresses I’ve read in paranormal romance, but I can’t shoot a bow or arrow and I’m not emotionally illiterate. Also, I’m not sure I could successfully defend myself against homicidal opponents (althought I’d try *really* hard.)

    It’s about getting to try on different people’s lives, about pretending you’re bigger, better, more than you are. I think if you get too realistic, ie hands that can only hold a teacup OR a rifle, readers won’t find it as fun. Which is the main point of paranormal romance. It’s not meant to be a serious role model. At least, that’s not how I see it.

    Is culture modeling society or is society dictating what cultural templates it wants to see encouraged? Or is it just about selling what sells? Who determines what is “bigger, better, more than you are?” I think the next big thing will be from an author who can show us a different heroine, one that reinvents the ideal.

    Bella, Katniss, Hermione, Nora Grey, etc. could all be seen as representing different portions of feminine ideal. There’s a lot of reactionary creation. Would Katniss be such a star if she didn’t have Bella to contrast against? I don’t think so.

    Sorry that got so long. You get two of my fav author people talking about something that I like to think about too, and I can’t shut up:)

  2. Paul (@princejvstin)

    An interesting discussion to be sure.

    I do think Ripley is the Ur-Heroine, at least as seen in the first two Aliens movies.

    The subsequent ones–do you two think that the power of her “normal” heroism is diluted?

    Oh, and I have gotten intimations [Fallen] Angels are possibly the Next Big Thing in Urban Fantasy. I’ve also heard that UF is played out. We’ll see.

  3. Suzanne Johnson

    Fascinating conversation, and the “common kickass heroine” is definitely getting old. One note about covers with the female torso, tramp stamp, and gun: authors don’t have a lot of say in what goes on their covers. Question, then, becomes: why in books by women marketed for women, do the publishers feel that type of cover is needed? I’ve always said the difference between the cover of an urban fantasy and the cover of a paranormal romance is the UF had a half-naked female and the PNR had a half-naked male. And about 90 percent of the time, that’s true.

  4. Jen Greyson

    I second everything Kelly said…it’s a story, and not a handbook on how to be a woman. I think everyone could use a little more Bad Ass in most situations, especially when it comes to getting what we want–in the workplace, in our paychecks, in our marriages. Courage is the underlying theme – the new heroine doesn’t need a man, but it’s not because of the weapon in her hand, it’s because of the one in her heart.

    I also don’t think these heroines are emulating men, and take a bit of offense to the suggestion. Greek Goddesses have been touting weapons since the beginning of time — proving long ago women could be smart, beautiful, and kick some serious booty.

    I love the new heroine – I have one in my current book – but I also love the old heroine, one who falls for the hero who saves the day.

    Maybe the real question is “Where have all the heroes gone….where are all the Gods?” *GRIN*

    (Very thought provoking post–thanks for the forum.)
    Jen

  5. Mazarkis Williams

    I am torn on the female sexuality/liberation thing. On the one hand, yeah, it does seem like a male fantasy, that some beautiful woman is “sexually liberated” i.e. available.

    But on the other hand, women who have had sex with more than a few men and worse, enjoyed it, have often been deemed “sluts” and made to feel ashamed in the past. So in that sense, it is liberating to see a natural process (sex) presented without (presumably) judgment. *note, I have not read much UF or PNR

    I am also torn on the tiny woman kickass-heroine thing. On the one hand, who can complain about more female heroines? But on the other, are they realistic? Can anyone emulate them? No, but then, there are plenty of heroes men cannot emulate.

    On the issue of ugly/smart, pretty/smart, ugly/tough, pretty/tough, I think that is a reflection of our society. At one time, an assertive woman, or one who entered the realm of men in some way (board rooms, etc.) was considered “ugly” even if she was not in fact ugly–the behavior itself was ugly to many people. So in fiction, a female fighter might be ugly, reflecting this attitude. Now we are a bit more enlightened–now all women are expected to be pretty!

    Oh, wait . . .

  6. Fran

    Great post. I was looking at an article yesterday bemoaning the current crop of weak female ‘heroines’ in film and literature: Bella Swan, the new Hardwicke version of Red Riding Hood with Amanda Siedfried in the titular role, even Billy in the Raiders of the Lost Ark whose role is to scream all the time. My immediate thought was ‘well hang on, these are crap but isn’t the kick-ass female a little done to death?’ (buffy, lara croft, resident evil [or anything with Jovovich in]). Michelle Rodriguez, for example, always lands the tough gal who dies roles, it’s something she’s come to expect.

    Ripley is my favourite tough female character (in Aliens at least): she’s not a soldier, but she convincingly takes up arms, she’s not a mother but she channels the maternal, aggressive, urge in defence of Newt.

    I don’t think a bloke with boobs is the antedote to the useless doormat role that these girls end up in, what’s important is that they are strong in every sense of the word, and that they make stuff happen rather than have stuff happen to them.

  7. Teresa Frohock

    I’ve seen some people say that in order to write a strong female character, one should write a female character and give her male attributes. Personally, I think that advice stinks, because when we say that, then we are saying that there is something wrong/weak with being female.

    Ripley is definitely one of my favorites, along with the female characters that Alex has in THE HUM AND THE SHIVER. These women remind me of the women I grew up around. They never had to get in a fight; they could knock a man down with a stern look, and they never hesitated to do so.

    Wonderful discussion, by the way. I’m really enjoying it.

  8. Valette

    One of the original “tiny ass-kicking heroines” was Buffy. As a “Buffy” fan, what I enjoyed most was the metaphor — high school/growing up as hell. Her powers as the Chosen One made total sense in that context; it was wish fulfillment and lesson in control and growing up all at the same time. I think the show actually failed when it became “female empowering” as opposed to about being about a group of outsiders who supported each other. I read somewhere that this shift in focus to be more female-friendly was made in response to what the “viewers” wanted…many of whom were women.

    Suzanne, you made an interesting point about what’s on the covers of these books. Depending on your source, statistics say women buy about 2/3 of books in the United States. Marketers aren’t dumb. They put the covers on the books that sell.

    Think about the ads you see in magazines and on TV. How many of the products marketed at women feature beautiful women? Maybe scantily clad, genetically blessed, unnaturally thin women? Or abnormally calm, competent, happy women (yeah, I’m looking at you, lady trying to sell me detergent who doesn’t care that your kid spilled chocolate sauce on your blouse).

    I wonder if the common ass-kicking heroine is just a symptom of a bigger problem–if we like her because she has a level of control that we still don’t have in our lives…because it’s hard to be a strong woman when everything around you is telling you you’re not quite good enough.

  9. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Joel Shepherd had some thoughts on his blog on allied matters, focusing on Hollywood:

    http://joel-shepherd.blogspot.com/2012/01/death-of-female-movie-star.html

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  11. Jennifer Quail

    “All these women shown from the neck down on book covers, displaying their tramp-stamp tattoos as they carry some bladed weapon loosely in their fingers, are the result of trying to “realistically” have it both ways: heroines who are conventionally attractive, yet capable of battling the bad guys.”

    I have said over and over promoting my book, I’m more comfortable calling it “contemporary” rather than “urban” fantasy because you say urban fantasy and people think of covers with tarts with tramp stamps and the heroine’s REAL conflict is “Do I date the sexy vampire or not?” And frankly, I’m a little tired of my options for heroines being a spunky little Buffy clone or, frankly, even Ripley (who literally WAS a male in the first draft of the script) or Sarah Connor. Does the heroine HAVE to be making a feminist statement? She’s female because I am, I suppose, and I because the protagonists are a man and a woman. Will they end up together? Yes, probably, and is it predictable? Why not? Why does sorting out ‘will they or won’t they’ and the heroine’s romantic life need to be mission critical to fantasy plots? A bigger issue for her is she had a job, she can’t do it any more (physically), she’s getting offered a new ‘position’, oh, and someone’s trying to kill them. Whether the hero and heroine get together ought to be secondary to ‘do they achieve their immediate goals which hopefully are more important than getting laid?’

    Why is it that female characters have to be assumed to making some sort of statement about Women As Gender and the angel vs. whore dichotomy? Why if the protagonist is female do sexual relationships suddenly have to have a plot point (either “she’s liberated and sleep with whom/whatever she wants” or “she needs to find someone before dying alone.”) Can’t she just be like…Jack Ryan? Indiana Jones? Those are the characters I wanted to be as a kid.

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