ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

February 6, 2010

Ugly Stepsisters: Desperate Women are Evil

I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of secondary female characters in romance novels. Why is it that so often that all women in romance novels, besides the heroine herself, are so evil?

This is definitely not a sweeping statement. I mean, look at Jenny Crusie’s books. She writes some brilliant female friendships – Maddie and Treva in Tell Me Lies, for example, or Min, Bonnie and Liza in Bet Me. In her books, the female friendships that her heroines have are almost as important as, if not just as important as, the relationships with the hero. I think I demonstrated this point with Tell Me Lies once. It is as much about Maddie and Treva as Maddie and C.L. I contend that Anyone But You is as much about Nina and Charity as Nina and Alex (though Nina and Fred is obviously the starring relationship of the book!) Welcome to Temptation features Sophie and her sister Amy and a whole host of issues there… and I could go on and on with examples from the Crusie canon about the way she portrays women other than the heroine – as, quite simply, People Too, and people that you care about.

But then I dived back into the world of category, given as that really is what I’m going to write my thesis on in the long run (it has a title now! which is more than it had before) and the contrast is very, very striking. You might get the odd wacky sidekick BFF character, but otherwise, the majority of the women are sad desperados or evil exes and basically Teh Ebil.

For example, I just read If the Slipper Fits, a category by Elizabeth Harbison. It’s sort of a Cinderella thing – the heroine, Lily, works as a concierge at a posh hotel and ends up posing as the girlfriend of one of the guests, Prince Conrad of FakekingdomohyesIamaprincelandia. I think it’s the second book of two as her sister Rose is married to someone very rich and there is whole subplot about how she and Lily have a longlost sister that they’re trying to find which doesn’t really sit too well with the rest of the book, to be honest – it seems to have nothing to do with anything.

But I digress.

Rose would probably fulfil the token role of nicegirl!BFF but we see so little of her it’s very easy to forget her existence. Her entire function in the novel (outside of the random subplot) is to tell Lily that it would TOTALLY be a good idea for her to pretend to be the Prince’s girlfriend, because seriously, what could go wrong with that? (I realise that came out sarcastic, but Rose is totally not sarcastic at all). The same goes for all the other staff at the hotel – I just put the book down and they’ve already blurred into one conglomerate hybrid in my mind, but I have the vague notion there was one called Karen who served pretty much the same function as Rose. Suffice to say that neither of these women were given enough screentime for their relationships with Lily to be truly meaningful. Liza and Bonnie they ain’t.

The women that are given screentime, however, are all OMGBADNEWS. There is Prince Conrad’s mother or stepmother or otherwise disapproving older female relative Princess Drucille, who seems to spend all her time trying to get Conrad to date someone she deems suitable – in particular, her friend Lady Penelope. The author goes to explicit lengths to suggest that Penelope is sooooo ugly – I believe the word ‘bovine’ is used a lot. Because if she’s single and has vague notions of marrying a prince she must be such an ugly desperado, right? Drucille also locks Lily in a closet one time to keep her away from Conrad. She is obviously a sparkling example of… sanity.

Then there is Baroness Kiki, who seems to be a professional prince-hunter (aka. professional desperado) who, at one point in the book, tries to pick the lock on Conrad’s room with a credit card because she is just so desperate/crazy. And then there is Brittany Oliver, fading starlet, who calls paparazzi to take photos of her and Conrad in what she hopes will be a compromising position in order to breathe some life into her career. Another desperado.

I get that the author is using this women as shorthand – and, in keeping with the Cinderella motif – ugly stepsisters, so that Lily looks that much better. I might be able to make an argument that by making these single women desperate that the author is demonising single women, but I don’t know if I want to be quite that bold yet… still, when you consider that the entire point of romance fiction and the plot of every single romance novel ever written is to make single women un-single, I think there is something in this portrayal of the single woman as sad and desperate. She is a laughable creature, the single woman – the conniving Brittany, the ugly Penelope, the flailing Kiki – and serves no purposes other than making the heroine look better. She is that rare thing, a single woman who is not sad and desperate, and thus worthy of graduating to the privileged role of coupled, which is eminently superior. Because even if she is completely self-sufficient, all she really wants is a man. (This makes me think of Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy, where Karleen tries to do everything for herself but then her sister ends up saying that all she’s ever wanted is a man to boss her around or something to that effect). And the thing is, the heroine might well be sad and desperate – at least people are kind of telling her she should be. Why else do the few good women, like Rose in this book, push her into situations where Holy Coupledom could result?

I think I need to think this through more, but I think that category romance – and a lot of single title romance – definitely does have a tendency to set up other single women as ugly stepsisters to the heroine’s Cinderella. In category, I can see how this functions as a sort of shorthand, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful if there were good alternatives to the heroine for the hero, and he picked her because he still liked her best? If the Slipper Fits read to me like Conrad fell in love with Lily because everyone else was crazy. Where’s the joy in coming out on top if everyone else is a loser?

This raises some interesting gender politics in itself, the idea of the man ‘choosing’ the woman… but I think it could work both ways, like if the heroine had good alternatives to the hero and still chose him. Now that would be a real relationship of desire and not just a sort of best of the rest mentality.



  1. ‘I think that category romance – and a lot of single title romance – definitely does have a tendency to set up other single women as ugly stepsisters to the heroine’s Cinderella’

    There are also fairy godmother types. The mothers and/or older women and/or best female friend who sort things out for the heroine and give her support and encouragement. Mary Burchell had quite a lot of those and I have a feeling that Betty Neels quite often had the hero’s mother or housekeeper functioning in that kind of way. Essie Summers, I think, quite often gave the heroine a best female friend, who sometimes crossed over into the ‘fairy godmother’ type. I also recall one by her where the evil other woman’s husband got good advice from the heroine and was able to save his marriage (it turns out that the ‘evil’ woman does love her husband, and had only been chasing after the hero in order to try to get her husband’s attention). That’s Bachelors Galore, and the heroine has a strong friendship with the woman she’s working for. And of course, Crusie’s Anyone But You is a category romance, as is Manhunting, which also has strong female friendships, and many of her other categories.

    ‘wouldn’t it be more meaningful if there were good alternatives to the heroine for the hero, and he picked her because he still liked her best? […] I think it could work both ways, like if the heroine had good alternatives to the hero and still chose him.’

    It does happen, but you’re getting into follow-ups/series territory here because otherwise the readers may feel so sorry for the rejected man or woman that they won’t enjoy the ending of the book. Certainly I really dislike finding a love triangle in a romance, because my sympathies are often engaged by the party who will end up discarded. So what authors sometimes do is give the rejected man or woman his/her own book. Mary Balogh mentions doing that on her page describing her series. I know Edith Layton, Jo Beverley and Carla Kelly have written at least one character who’s rejected in one book and becomes the hero/heroine of another.

    Also, thinking about heroines and their female friends/family, it may be that those relationships are also developed over the course of a series. Sometimes one author writes the whole series (Nora Roberts has written series based around female friends/sisters, for example her latest series is ‘the Bride Quartet—following the lives and loves of four friends who run Vows, a wedding-planning company’) or you can have authors collaborating. For example, Liz Fielding wrote the first in the Secrets We Keep trilogy:

    ‘In the breathtaking peaks of the Himalayas three women, on the most challenging journey of their lives, share the secrets of their hearts and make a pact that will change everything.’

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — February 6, 2010 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

  2. Another point about the alternatives to the hero/heroine is that they’re usually implicit in the text. Very, very few romances have both a virgin hero and heroine, and that tends to mean that in most romances at least one of the protagonists has had romantic relationships of some sort in the past. Sometimes the reader is informed that a previous partner was evil in a stereotyped way, but sometimes they were just nice-but-not-as-exciting or just not a good match for some other reason.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — February 7, 2010 @ 12:04 am | Reply

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