ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

January 5, 2010

Your Heroine Is Not Your Barbie – Quick Shots

I’m slogging my way through Pride and Pregnancy and I made it a whole two paragraphs further before I found something that completely rubbed me up the wrong way. I hate, hate, HATE when people insist on describing their character’s clothes in unnecessary detail. I realise this has nothing to do with the Proper Grown Up Academic Study of Romance Novels ™ but it drives me absolutely NUTS.

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to read the first chapter, and every time the author makes an unnecessary note of some facet of a character’s clothing, I’m going to write it down. Because I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books and THIS TREND MUST STOP.

– gardening gloves, covering press-on nails (p.8)

– beaded slides (p.8)

– eighties retro hair (p.11)

– stretchy pants (p.11)

– “the top rode high” (p.11)

– “the bellybutton sparkled like the North Star” (p.11)

– “a delicate gold chain hugged her ankle” (p.12)

– “assortment of fake gemstone rings” (p.12)

– “tugging a straw coloured hair out of her lipstick” (p.13)

– “her cheeks pinked way beyond the makeup” (p.14)

– “he also didn’t miss the lack of panty lines underneath all that soft, snuggly fabric” (p.15)

– “umbrella sized straw hat” (p.17)

– entire conversation about authenticity of Karleen’s boobs (p.19)

– not exactly clothing, but could be considered an accessory – “trusty Swiss Army knife” (p. 22)

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon]

Obviously, there are situations when a little description is a good thing. But YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT YOUR BARBIES. Clothes are not the window to the soul. I really, really don’t care what they are wearing. Am I alone here? Maybe. But this is why (well, one of the many reasons) I had to stop reading those cracktastic Anita Blake books. Round about Book #8, they started degenerating into sex scenes and descriptions of what people were wearing linked together by something to do with vampires and werewolves and… was there more plot? It was dressed up so much I missed it, obscured by the trappings.

Less is more. This is a lesson I could use in all aspects of my own writing, but when it comes to clothing your characters, this really, really irritates me. If your heroine’s beaded slides are magical and will be used to save the world, tell me all about them! But don’t tell me about her umbrella-sized straw hat, unless it is the nemesis of the beaded slides and turns whoever wears it evil. And if every single article of clothing your characters are wearing are magical and vital to the plot, you know what you need to do?

Write a goddamn better book.



  1. One of my pet theories is that the descriptions of clothing in romances can be rather more important than they’re given credit for. That’s not always the case, of course, and I’m definitely not a follower of fashion, so often I’d prefer to have rather less of this kind of detail. However, as Alison Lurie observes in considerable detail in her The Language of Clothes, clothing can communicate quite a lot about the person wearing it. There’s something she’s written on this topic here, although I can’t work out if it’s an extract from her book or if it’s a separate essay on the same topic.

    Anyway, this and the fact that I’m a medievalist by training, and colour symbolism as revealed by clothing can be very important in many medieval texts and images, means that I tend to give fashion descriptions in romance rather more of the benefit of the doubt than I might otherwise have done if I were judging them solely by my own (lack of) interest in fashion. And so, although when I read this novel I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about quite so many of these descriptions of the heroine’s clothing, my impression of this book (having read others by Karen Templeton) is that the abundance of fashion details in this book is deliberate. This heroine is particularly interested in her appearance and it reflects her class background, which in turn is what creates the central conflict in the novel. In some ways, the annoyance you’re feeling about the heroine and her appearance perhaps parallels some of the negative feelings the hero initially has towards her.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — January 5, 2010 @ 11:45 am | Reply

    • I think my feelings about clothes in fiction are very much a matter of personal taste, more than anything else. It’s something I’ve found incredibly irritating all my life – it seems to me like the micromanagement of the literary world, and I think it shows distrust of the reader, not having faith in their ability to imagine the created world in their head. Of course, that might then suggest the author not having enough faith in their ability to create that world, but that could go round in circles for ages… but anyway, it’s more a pet peeve than a giant sweeping criticism.

      However, your suggestion that Templeton is using it to reflect the class preoccupation in the book is definitely interesting! I don’t know if it necessarily works, because it makes the heroine seem self-absorbed more than anything else, and it means you can’t really see the character for the trimming, but if we were to go all Schleiermacher on it, I can certainly see how she’d come to that line of reasoning.

      Comment by Jodi — January 5, 2010 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

  2. it makes the heroine seem self-absorbed more than anything else

    I know it’s often said that romance readers are less tolerant of character flaws in heroines than they are of equivalent or worse flaws in heroes. I’m not sure if that’s true (I hope it isn’t, because it wouldn’t seem very fair), but every time the point is made it makes me wonder which qualities readers are willing to accept in the protagonists as the beginning of a romance. After all, we know that some of their flaws will be removed as a consequence of the emotional character arc across the whole novel. But on the other hand, even at the start we may get a sense of which characteristics are not going to change, and perhaps those can put a reader off. I once got into quite a debate about a heroine who was presented as “normal” but who made me want to put the book down. There was obviously a big culture gap that I just couldn’t cross in order to feel any interest in, or sympathy for her.

    it seems to me like the micromanagement of the literary world, and I think it shows distrust of the reader, not having faith in their ability to imagine the created world in their head.”

    As far as the setting is concerned I don’t imagine anything in my head at all, so if an author doesn’t mention something, it’s not “there” for me. I think this is because I don’t visualise anything as I read.

    Somehow I seem to have ended up arguing the case in defence of Karen Templeton. So I suppose I’d better make the point that it could be said that this kind of thing only really seems like “micro” management if you think that these particular details are of relatively little importance.

    Getting out of the debating mode I seem to have fallen into, though, I can see how one’s responses to this kind of thing could be very much influenced by personal preferences and individual mental abilities.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — January 5, 2010 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

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