Unlikable Heroines in Romance: Too Much Like Men?
By Mary Elizabeth Howard (2021)
Introduction to Unlikable Women in Romance
Unlikable is a moniker often given to disagreeable women in romance novels, but it is rarely used to describe men. Yet, the romance novel industry is riddled with bad boys, anti-heroes, and disagreeable men. The qualities these bad boys possess are desirable in a romance novel and are some of the biggest selling points for books (e.g. Bad Boy Trope and Alpha Heroes). However, the same courtesy is not extended to unlikable women in romance. The unlikable heroines in romance are not even offered the same title of an anti-heroine as the men are. The women described as unlikable often share qualities with the popular anti-heroes, bad boys, and cold men in romance. Unlikable women sharing characteristics with desirable men is not unique to romance but a facet of a larger problem in the nation and in the world. I will support these claims by grounding unlikable women in romance into a broader context, defining some unlikable traits of romance heroines, comparing unlikable heroines to romance heroes, showcasing attempts to reclaim unlikability and push against the trope, and highlight the challenges of pushing back against the status quo.
Unlikable Women in Real and Fictional Worlds
The unlikable woman trope present in romance novels is often reflected in the broader historical and cultural aspects of twenty-first century America. When women on the screen, paper, or on the news are deemed unlikable, they often are being judged through a patriarchal viewpoint that expects women to be a certain way. For example, Captain Marvel was the first female superhero to have her own movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and critics of the teaser for her movie said she should smile more. The phrase smile more is often said to women by men and even other women, but is rarely said to men (Alexander). Superheroes are meant to be strong and no one expects male superheroes to smile more in their trailers. In fact, the male superheroes in the MCU have been praised for their stoic portrayal of the heroes (Alexander). Captain Marvel was criticized and told to smile more, even though she smiled in her teaser video more than any other male superhero in the MCU has in their teaser video (Dyce). This situation and the public emphasis on Captain Marvel’s perceived lack of warmth emphasizes one of many double standards that exist in the real world and are reflected in people’s judgments of fictional worlds. This hypocrisy does not exist solely in romance novels or in fictional film worlds but also in real life. A famous case of this sexist comparison is the success of female politicians in running for president or other offices of high standing. Hilary Clinton was deemed unlikable in 2016 and some people said they would vote for a woman such as Elizabeth Warren, who was seen as more likable, but just wouldn’t vote for Hilary Clinton. However, when Warren announced she was running for the 2020 presidential election, people once again called the female candidate unlikable even though she had been considered a good choice just two years before. Both women were criticized for not being nurturing or warm enough and having too much ambition and power-seeking behaviors (Pittman). Similarly to romance novels, these undesirable traits in females are often praised or expected in men, especially in politics.
Traits of Unlikable Heroines in Genre Romance
The traits that qualify women as unlikable in genre romance are varied and widespread. Aarya Marsden of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books mentions many traits that people often deem as the reason they find protagonists unlikable in her defense of unlikable heroines. She focuses on three characters in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Series who are often considered unlikable: Talin McKade, Adria Morgan, and Zaira Neve. Some of the reasons she mentions that Talin in Mine to Possess (2008) is disliked are: she is sexually experienced or slutty, selfish, mean and rude to the hero and his friends, and manipulative. Adria in Tangle of Need (2012) is icy, emotionally guarded, introspective, and not outwardly affectionate. Zaira in Shards of Hope (2015) is criticized for being icy, emotionally guarded, and having a traumatic past and tortured backstory (Marsden). These “unlikable” traits Marsden mentions are only from one series. Authors Tessa Dare and Louisa Edwards mention even more traits that readers find unlikable in their books. The two authors mentioned that the women they wrote who were deemed unlikable are real, make mistakes, and evoke strong emotions. Both of the authors emphasized that their heroines were flawed and not perfect (Litte).
Traits of Unlikable Women and Desirable Men
From the ideas of Marsden, Dare, and Edwards, the unlikable heroine is many things including: flawed, cold, emotionally guarded, sexually experienced, selfish, and manipulative. These unlikable traits in heroines surprisingly align with some of the most popular traits for romance heroes. Aarya Marsden points out these shared traits in her investigation of Talin, Adria, and Zaira. Aarya mentions that Talin is judged for her sexual experience and rude behavior. She also says that the novel Mine to Possess in which Talin is the female lead is a good case study of readers allowing these same behaviors from heroes that they will not allow heroines to display because it strays from the ideal, nice heroine. Aarya further emphasizes how Adria fits the bill for heroes even more so than Talin because heroes are often grumpy, icy or gruff and women often ask her for recommendations of books with heroes who have those traits. Furthermore, within the same book series there are multiple heroes who are cold, emotionally guarded, or physically combative and Aarya lists at least five who coincidentally are some of the most popular and universally loved heroes in the series. Again, she is criticized for having the same qualities as a typical male hero, even within the series itself. Aarya also mentions how disproportionately women who have these same qualities are mentioned as unlikable in romance book reviews when compared to men who have the same qualities (Marsden). All three of the “unlikable heroines” that Aarya focuses on have stereotypically male qualities and people who read about them cannot forgive them for it, but they can forgive the men. Heroes are often sexually promiscuous until they settle down with their lady love and they are often icy, but women love and often seek them out when choosing their preferred book reads. This double standard indicates that readers of romance, who are mostly female, see something wrong with women having stereotypically male qualities. Furthermore, Dare and Edwards reasoning for their character’s unlikability points to another double standard within romance. The two women believe that their character’s flaws and realness contribute to their unlikability (Litte). Their comments and ideas about what makes their characters unlikable to other people are interesting because they are not directly connected to traditional male qualities like those of Nalini Singh’s characters. Though the characteristics of being “real” and making mistakes are not just related to men, they do bring up an interesting concept that acceptable or likable women are generally seen as perfect, flawless, and uncontroversial. Men in romance novels are often flawed and the heroine is meant to help them atone for their sins or work around their flaws. She is supposed to save him. There are rarely romance novels where men save the women from their own character flaws.
Reclaiming Unlikable Traits in Women
Both authors who were interviewed about their unlikable heroines, Tessa Dare and Louisa Edwards, said they never tried to write a character who was unlikable; they just wanted to write a character who was real. Dare was actually ecstatic that her character had caused so many strong emotions in people. Edwards thought that by making her character real she would become likable because readers would be able to understand her and see themselves in her. Dare and Edwards came up with different reasons for their heroines’ unlikability. Tessa Dare pointed out the obvious fact that unlikable was ambiguous and proposed that being unlikable just meant not being universally liked. Both authors also mentioned that some people really loved the characters others deemed unlikable and that people either really loved the character or really hated them. They admit they cannot please everyone with their characters. Dare even says that some authors can make perfect heroines who are still interesting, but that she is not one of them (Litte). Both women seem completely at peace with the idea that some readers dislike their characters. They also see nothing wrong with their characters flaws because their characters learn from them and their flaws make them real. These two authors seem to reclaim this unlikability as something to be proud of because it makes the characters real and memorable.
Challenges of Pushing Back Against the Status Quo
Many women have attempted to push back against the unlikable women trope within the romance community. Some do so by accepting and rejoicing in the unlikability of their characters and not changing their writing to appease the masses like Tessa Dare. Others attempt to push back against these ideal female behaviors by changing the connotation and meaning of the negative words people might call women in the real and fictional worlds. For instance, Sarah Wendell writes about reclaiming the word “bitch” and defines qualities generally associated with being a bitch as firm, assertive, aggressive, outspoken, cursing, opinionated, and not always nice. She also discusses comments on a thread on her romance criticism website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books regarding a situation at the 2007 RWA Literacy Signing event. In the comment thread, some commenters, including Nora Roberts, thought the young female authors who called themselves “The Rebels of Romance” and dressed as their characters by wearing corsets, short skirts, and brightly colored jewelry were inappropriate. The same was said of another author who wore a three-foot swan hat. Nora Roberts called the women who dressed as their characters young, silly women who were unprofessional and should have just been themselves to promote their material rather than dressing up. Another commentator Maude Clare agreed with Nora Roberts and thought that paying attention to tone was necessary and that being a tart or frumpy was not necessary. Wendell also mentions that sometimes tone must be taken into consideration so actions and tone do not undermine the message (Wendell, 178-186). This situation as well as the comment thread displays how even in female-dominated industry women undermine other women and express the same sexist judgements about speaking out and being subversive. Nora Roberts felt that they were misrepresenting the romance industry and making it harder for her to present romance as a professional industry. Other comments were similarly concerned with image and the way it would look to other people (Wendell,178-186). They did not want them to be different or controversial in any way. This push to censor the women’s behavior is very similar to the way women are asked to not curse, not complain, and follow the status quo in order to be accepted. Nora Roberts main concern was that the lack of professionalism made it harder for romance to be accepted as a professional genre and by thinking that and calling for censoring she was following the status quo in order to gain acceptance. Furthermore, these attitudes of resistance to change present in the romance community are reflected in the reception of romance writing. Heroines in romance novels who curse, complain, or who aren’t the perfect version of a woman are often considered unlikeable and this concept starts first with the society the books are born out of. Though many authors in the romance community attempt to reclaim unlikable traits, the pressure of fitting in and being accepted by the masses often prevents them from pushing back against a damaging trope.
The unlikable women in romance are often considered unlikable for the same traits that make men in romance so desirable. The women who are flawed, cold, and difficult are deemed unlikable in both real life and in fictional worlds because the world is highly patriarchal. Authors and reviewers in the romance community have attempted to reclaim these unlikeable traits for their own and have been met with some success, but the pressures of the status quo and expectation of women have kept the unlikable heroine trope alive and well in the romance genre. Therefore, continuing to push back against the patriarchy and the way women should be in both romance and in the rest of women’s lives is essential in order to stop the damaging sentiments of the perfect, ideal woman to live on and harm even more women in the future.
Alexander, Julia. “Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson Reimagines Superheroes to Expose Gendered Criticism: Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Polygon, September 23, 2018. https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/23/17892512/captain-marvel-brie-larson-smile-iron-man-doctor-strange-captain-america-poster-instagram
Dyce, Andrew. “Captain Marvel Smiles More Than Literally Any Other MCU Hero.” Screenrant, 2018. https://screenrant.com/captain-marvel-smiles-more-mcu-sexism/
Litte, Jane. “The Case of the Unlikeable Heroine.” Dear Author, 2009. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/the-case-of-the-unlikeable-heroine/.
Marsden, Aarya. “In Defense of ‘Unlikable’ Heroines: A Case Study of Three Heroines from Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling Series | Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, April 9, 2019. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2019/04/in-defense-of-unlikable-heroines-a-case-study-of-three-heroines-from-nalini-singhs-psy-changeling-series/.
Pittman, Ashton. “Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and the Sexist Hypocrisy of the ‘Likability’ Media Narrative.” NBC News, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/elizabeth-warren-hillary-clinton-sexist-hypocrisy-likability-media-narrative-here-ncna955021
Wendell, Sarah. “‘You Call Me a Bitch Like That’s a Bad Thing’: Romance Criticism and Redefining the Word ‘Bitch’.” In New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger, 178-194. Jefferson, N.C. :McFarland & Co, 2012.