Monday, February 22, 2010

Bad Girls

This particular musing has its origin in a couple of blog posts here a while ago. First, M.J. Fredrick blogged here about her love of bad boys, and judging from the comments that followed, she wasn’t alone. Then my fellow Niner Kinsey Holley blogged about her discomfort with heroines who are promiscuous, and I’m with her on that too. So my question is this: Do we feel the same about bad girl heroines as we do about bad boy heroes? I don’t think so, or at least not exactly.

In my case, I’m willing to accept bad behavior in a hero (provided it doesn’t last very long), but I’m less likely to be understanding with a heroine. I don’t think this is the result of sexism. It’s more because I can’t identify with that kind of heroine so readily. It’s one thing, for example, if the heroine has been forced into a situation where she has to be promiscuous (like the occasional courtesan heroines in regencies, who are almost always victims), but it’s different for me if the heroine sleeps around because she doesn’t feel she deserves anything better. Maybe it’s cultural conditioning, but I want my heroines to value themselves.

This isn’t to say that sexually active heroines aren’t acceptable. Kerry Greenwood has a wonderful series of historicals set in twenties Melbourne about a detective named Phryne Fisher. Phryne has more lovers than Sam Spade, but we know she’s smart and very much in charge, and we know she has a very clear sense of who she is. She may have a long list of exotic men in her life, but she doesn’t seem damaged in the least.

I have to admit that occasionally a bad girl heroine can be appealing, provided she’s on her way to something better. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has several, although her bad girls are more spoiled than slutty and they’re usually trying to change (which makes them sort of reformed bad girls). There’s the heroine in Ain’t She Sweet, for example, who tries to make amends for having been a bitch on wheels in her youth. You know she’s been awful because Phillips shows you just how awful she was, but you can’t help rooting for her because she isn’t awful anymore.

And sometimes I find myself even liking a bad girl heroine who isn't yet ready to save herself, like Grace Hanadarko, the heroine of TNT’s Saving Grace. I have to admit, I didn’t much like Grace at first. She’s all the things I usually object to: promiscuous, alcoholic, frequently self-destructive. But she’s also brave, forthright, and a very good cop. And she’s a damaged person trying to find herself, much like some bad boys. Like the classic bad boy hero, she slips under your defenses until you end up caring about her in spite of her bad behavior.

So maybe that’s the point in the end. Bad boys and bad girls can be heroes and heroines, but only if they’re not really bad. Somewhere in that welter of bad deeds, there has to be a good person trying to worm her way out. In fact, I doubt that we love real bad boys and girls—they’re usually the villains. What we love are the bad boys and girls who have the potential to be good. And given that we’re talking romance here (with the mandatory HEA), that potential has a very good chance of being fulfilled.

So what do you think? Do bad girl heroines work for you?


sherry said...

Most of the time no they don't. I guess it could be because I was raised thinking that a girl or woman shouldn't sleep around. If I'm reading a book where the heroine is talking about how many men she's slept with I really don't like it. To me it makes them sound cheap or maybe I'm thinking she's just easy. I like the tough or a little bit mean heroine though as long as she is nicer by the end of the book. There's nothing wrong with a heroine that can take care of herself.

Kelly Jamieson said...

I am trying to think if I've read a romance with a bad girl heroine. I've read ones with a kick ass heroine, but that's not the same. One might be Ultimate Weapon by Shannon McKenna. It features Tamara who appears in all the "McCloud" stories and certainly starts off as a bad girl. I did wonder how Shannon was going to make her a sympathetic character when she got her own story and you're right Meg, she's a wounded and damaged person too trying to find herself.Tough to pull off and have readers relate to a bad girl!

PG Forte said...

It sounds like you're saying you need to relate to the heroine more than you do to the hero--which makes sense in a way.

Personally, I don't define bad boys or girls by how many lovers they've had--or have. Bad boys and girls are unreliable and dangerous, which is why they're so much more fun to deal with in fiction than in real life.

Meg Benjamin said...

But how many heroines are unreliable, as opposed to heroes. Do we let heroines be dangerous or are they supposed to be the ones we know will come through? I don't know--maybe we don't have as many bad girls as bad boys just because we've got higher standards where women are concerned.