A few months ago our house was battling multiple head colds, strep throat, stomach viruses, basically we were The House of Sick. Being rather incapacitated we vegged out in front of the TV. We cut the cord on broadcast a while back so it was binge-watching series on Netflix and Hulu. The kids stuck with Phineas & Ferb and the like while the husband and I watched everything from Supernatural to about a dozen police procedurals – we numbed our brains for days.
Something struck me as we watched. It was the same thing that nags me any time I jump headlong into media of all sorts. Strong female character kicking butt? She has to be hot. Intelligent female character? She has to wear glasses and be a geek. Strong, intelligent female character kicking butt? She has to have a weakness for bad men, be smoking hot, and like to get naked – a lot. Is there no chance for an average-looking woman to be awesome? Not on the small screen it appears.
Women get the ‘hot babe’ treatment in visual media on a regular basis and it stinks because tween and teen girls have their eyes glued to that screen and the message being pumped into their heads is that there is almost no place for the plain girl. If you want to be awesome, you’ve got to be considered hot. This message that your worth, your awesomeness, is directly related to how attractive you are to others is rampant, no question, but what about media created specifically by women? Do we do a better job? Sadly no.
Hey now – you’re just about to click away, convinced I’m about to go on a tear and this is going to get all preachy. No worries, no lectures here. I’m more interested in starting a conversation about the media we as women create and consume.
I think most would agree that women, young women particularly, tend to measure their worth by whether or not a man approves of them, finds them attractive, wants them. For all feminism has done for the cause of female empowerment and equality, it hasn’t put a dent in this. Far too many of us base our self-worth on our exterior attractiveness the way men tend to base their worth on their level of success in business, in sports, in sleeping with women… you get the idea.
We’ve got to cut that out and help the generation coming up never start it. And we can’t do it by repeating the same old message of “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” since media and popular culture counter that message again and again. The content we consume overpowers our best efforts and encouraging both young women and men to see their value in the things that matter, not in outward appearances or arbitrary measures of success.
I write romance novels and our genre is full of mixed messages. For all we emphasize inner beauty, we extol the outer. Show me the book with an unattractive hero and heroine? Jane Eyre. That’s about the last time we did that. Actually, hyperbole aside, there are novels out there who have unattractive heroines, but all too often they are paired with some hot, Greek-god of a hero and it’s his notice that changes everything. The world doesn’t see her worth until the hot guy falls in love with her and proves it. Or, worse yet, she doesn’t see her worth until his love proves it to her.
It makes for a satisfying story, but I hate the message it unintentionally sends; you’re nothing unless a hot guy sees you as valuable. And the excuse that Romance is escapism and therefore gets a pass – uh…no. Romance is a wide and varied genre and contemporary romance in particular deals with heavy stuff on a regular basis, cancer, child-abuse, addiction, being just a few topics. If we as authors can tackle real-world subjects like these, why can’t our heroes and heroines reflect the real world as well?
And how about what we do to the guys? They have to be tall, Adonis-like, and usually rich or at least powerful in some way – an artist or musician or a biker. Short heroes? There are a few, but usually the heroine is shorter than they are. And they’ve gotta be built with great abs. There are precious few that don’t fit this mold. And hair – long or short he’s either got to have it or he’s got to intentionally shave it because his skull is just that gorgeous. Dang, we’re hard on the guys.
I know Romance is the place we go for a fantasy, but if we can tackle the tough stuff, why can’t we have believable heroes? Not a ton, just a few here and there. Nice guys who get the girl. And how about a few plain Janes who know that they are all that and don’t need a guy to validate them? I’m not trying to be a crusader for realistic characters in Romance. I love our genre and it’s cute, pretty, and gorgeous girls, it’s alpha bikers, and billionaire businessmen. I’m just concerned about the message we send when it’s always two incredibly attractive people hooking up. I’m concerned when the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful always discovers her worth through the love of the gorgeous alpha male.
I’m working on a novel for NaNoWriMo and my heroine is pretty, if in an unconventional way, and my hero might not be attractive, but he’s tall. Ooops. Seems I can’t break out of that mold either.
I’d like to think that romance, a genre already so diverse, can handle some ugly heroes and heroines. I think when we create only the fantasy we reinforce the expectations of the reader. Maybe we can turn a few of those on their head. Might be fun.