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NaNo Tip No. 18: Breaking with Stereotypes »
Recently, the brilliant Sarah Rees Brennan talked about her love of romance and reviewed a few in her inimitable style.1 She mentioned in passing her least favourite kind of heroine:
I truly hate the Blank Page Heroine. She is in a lot of books—I don’t mean to pick on romance, because sadly I have seen her in every genre, including my own—and sometimes she seems to be there as a match for the hero who won’t bother him with things like ‘hobbies’ and ‘opinions.’ Sometimes she is carefully featureless (still missing those pesky hobbies and opinions) so that, apparently, the reader can identify with her and slot their own personalities onto a blank page. As I don’t identify with blank pages, I find the whole business disturbing.
I had always thought of this as The Girlfriend. She is in many many many Hollywood movies and is absolutely interchangeable in them. Because it’s the male characters who are important in movies like . . . Nah. I won’t name them so the comments don’t become an argument about how I am wrong and So & So movie is not like that and blah blah blah. The girl, if she’s there at all, is merely decoration and a reward for the hero. She is entirely without personality. And thus completely without interest for me, which is why I do not like such movies.
I was quite shocked to find the same character in books written by women. I’d become convinced that she was a straight male fantasy. Surely women know that we women have opinions and hobbies and an internal life? Why would they write a female character without dimensions? It’s still a mystery. I adore Sarah Rees Brennan’s name for them: Blank Page Heroine. That’s exactly it. There’s no there there. Just a blankness. A very sad making blankness. Bad enough that we women are all too often told to shut up and not take up space in real life, but for it to happen in our escapist literature too? Aaargh!
And what kind of a lesson does Blank Page Heroine Love teach? If the love between two people involves one of them giving up everything for the other one including their personality, their own likes and desires and needs, then that love is not going to last long or end well. Trust me, I have seen it happen. If you have to suppress who you are in order for your relationship to last2 then that relationship does not deserve to last. It’s not good for you or the person you love.
But thankfully, as SRB points out, there have been many wonderful romances of late.3 Heroines who exist for many reasons other than to find the love of that one true hero.4 My favourite recent romance writer is Sherry Thomas, who not only writes wonderfully believable men and women but some of them are even older than 25! Bless! Go check out SRB’s post for more romance recommendations.
Posted by Justine at 20:19, 17 November 2009 under Feminism, Reading | 67 Comments »
She mentions Eloisa James, who I give props to, along with Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jenny Crusie, because all three of them have not just identifiable and fun heroines, but because the heroines also come from a network of friends and family who ALSO are distinguishable as characters. This really does change the dynamic of the romances a lot–for the better usually, since it means the man isn’t swooping down and coercing the woman into marriage or rescuing her from a horrible situation or all the other romancey tropes that sound epic the first time but upon closer examination, devolve into gender-power issues.
Jenny Crusie’s characters quote from movies like Grosse Point Blank or Support Your Local Sheriff. They often have complications with family, but not unmixed with both positive and negative emotions. They worry about real things and have hobbies.
SEP often has a secondary set of leads, usually older folks, who have their own romance, and complications.
I also wanna mention Meg Cabot who writes some geeky heroines in her adult romances. (My favourite is a short redhead who reads gossip columns, watches the weather channel and has a Princess Xen action figure.) I compare that to another writer who I will refrain from naming who claimed to write about geeks but only wrote Hollywood geeks–ie. beautiful people who just needed to take their glasses off to find love. Whereas Meg Cabot’s geeks are geeks to the bone. Her character wasn’t going to stop watching the Weather Channel or ditch the Xena figure just to get a guy.
November 17th, 2009 at 8:38 PM
Should point out that Crusie, SEP, and Cabot are all primarily modern, while Eloise James is historical. But the unifying factor is the characterisation being very round and full of the kickass.
November 17th, 2009 at 8:49 PM
Not to nitpick (she says as she begins to nitpick), but I think you’ve placed the second comma in the second footnote after the wrong word (“Unless, like, Dexter…” vs. “Unless, like Dexter,…”).
November 17th, 2009 at 9:02 PM
4. Justine Says:
Pixelfish: Meg Cabot is a genius. That is all. (SRB keeps telling me to read Crusie. I must get on to it.)
Ruth: Fixed. Never apologise for pointing out typos etc. I am always most grateful.
November 17th, 2009 at 9:17 PM
This is exactly what I can’t stand about Bella from Twilight, and why I find Twilight creepy, horrible, frightening, skeezy, promoting of cringe-inducing borderline-abusive relationships, and basically the root of all evil. So glad I have a name for it now!
November 17th, 2009 at 9:22 PM
Sarah Rees Brennan Says:
I beam to have been inspirational!
Part of why the blank page heroine disturbs me so much is that men are never asked to identify with blankness. Stereotypes yes, but I can’t think of a case where there’s no there there, as you put it so well.
It makes me worry that some girls are so conditioned to regard other girls as the enemy or at least less worthwhile than men, that there has to be literally *no* there there – no hobbies, no opinions, no deep friendships formed in the Lifetime Before Hero. They don’t want another girl there – they don’t like girls – they want the blank page.
Clearly the only way to combat this is to spread the word of and love of awesome heroines about everywhere like unto a sacred mission. I mean: Elizabeth Bennet. There was a whole lot of there there. And it was awesome. (Also – yay Jennifer Crusie recommendation! And I just really enjoyed Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Natural Born Charmer.)
November 17th, 2009 at 9:31 PM
7. Justine Says:
Sarah: Exactly! I keep reading posts from teen readers saying that they hated all the female characters and it fills me with despair. Why?! Waaah! Do they not realise they seem to be saying that they hate themselves?
November 17th, 2009 at 9:36 PM
“Blank Page Heroines” (or so you call them) are not at all interesting to read. For instance, one of my favorite characters in a book (not saying that I do not love yours) has the absolute worst temper imaginable. Now, this makes it so much more interesting for the reader because every so often someone says the wrong thing and a shouting match is to ensue. This could become tiring after a while, but the author of these books does not use the temper to a point of exhaustion. (oh, by the way, the character is Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s first series of books, Song of the Lioness)
Also, characters (not just females, though they are usually the ones dubbed with this personality) do not do anything if they are there solely for the purpose of “reward for the hero”. Nobody wants to read about a princess (so to speak) who sits and does nothing. That plot has died with the Brothers Grimm, who I just realized weren’t all that great of writers, though I cannot argue that their ideas were un-original.
November 17th, 2009 at 9:37 PM
Stephanie Leary Says:
I love Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran! And I have something of Eloisa James’s here, and Meg Cabot’s I think. I will get on to them.
Justine, I can’t believe you haven’t tried Crusie yet. I think you would love Faking It especially.
November 17th, 2009 at 9:44 PM
Anonymous :) Says:
Laura you are so right! I never realized but that is EXACTLY what Bella is, and why I hated her so much with Edward. Whatever smidge of personality she had fell away and she was just all “I love you, please don’t leave me, omigod *creepy stalkerness*.”
November 17th, 2009 at 9:48 PM
11. Justine Says:
Lauren & Anonymous: I’d really prefer you not bag living writers or their characters. Thanks.
November 17th, 2009 at 9:49 PM
And yes, Elizabeth Bennet = <3
November 17th, 2009 at 9:50 PM
Brilliant. I love when something bugs me and I can’t figure out why, and then someone smart comes along and clarifies why I was bugged. So thank you for helping me figure out why I have been bugged by the Blank Page Heroine.
I know it’s not quite the same thing, but this reminds me of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG) of movies as first described by Nathan Rabin in the Onion A.V. Club and further railed against by Jezebel. (http://jezebel.com/5033744/manic-pixie-dream-girls-are-the-scourge-of-modern-cinema) What’s especially grating about the MPDG is that we are supposed to accept that she is amazing because a) the hero says so and b) she does quirky things for the sake of being quirky.
November 17th, 2009 at 10:05 PM
You could include this as a Nanowrimo tip, since I found myself doing that with my main female character. She was not completely blank, but I definitely need to do more work at rounding her out.
If the heroine has no personality, why do I care to read about her?
November 17th, 2009 at 10:24 PM
The Rejectionist recently railed about the same thing in her post about the “enfeebled herione”…
November 17th, 2009 at 10:33 PM
16. Justine Says:
Kilks: Good idea! I think I might.
CKHB: Link, please?
November 17th, 2009 at 10:42 PM
I don’t happen to like Blank Page Heroine’s, but I don’t think they are automatically bad or ant-feminist. And I do think that guys are presented with Non-threatening Placeholders. Look at all the rom-com’s with losers as main characters.
November 17th, 2009 at 11:27 PM
Karen Healey Says:
I’d argue that they don’t *have* to be anti-feminist, but usually are. You could probably do a decent Blank Page Heroine as an allegorical example of awfulness, but I haven’t seen that – usually, the BPH’s happy ending is supposed to be genuine, despite her essential emptiness.
Blank Page Heroines aren’t fully realised human beings, which is the opposite of one of the things feminism seeks to establish about women. Fictional characters obviously don’t have agency, but I think that if they don’t have the *appearance* of agency, that’s a problem.
And those rom-coms aren’t aimed at men. In those cases the message isn’t “non-threatening placeholders for you guys to ID with” it’s “Hey, girls, loosen up and accept stalking losers!”
November 17th, 2009 at 11:58 PM
19. Justine Says:
Karen: Exactly! Thanks for putting it so clearly.
November 17th, 2009 at 11:59 PM
I would argue that the Blank Page Hero does indeed exist as well. Though I agree with Sarah that men aren’t asked to identify with them the way that women so often are asked to identify with BPHeroines (because they only seem to show up in fiction aimed at women), I have seen a ridiculous number of movies in which the romantic interest asks in no way like any human I have ever met. He tends to be a pretty face that spews whatever a woman would like to hear.
And while there are some days (dark, evil, post-awful-date days) on which I think that would almost be ideal, it sickens me the same way the BPHeroine does. Because it’s all the same problem, really. And because until we start preferring real characters — male OR female — to Blank Pages onto which we can throw any characteristics we want, we’ll never really be teaching ourselves/our daughters/our friends to aspire to be anything other than Blank.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:37 AM
Karen, it’s hard for me to argue with you, because I don’t like the BPH myself. But I do disagree. I think the rom-com’s ARE aimed at men just as much as at women. How do you get men into the rom-space– Why you tell them how wonderful they are, even though they have no redeeming features. That doesn’t mean rom-coms aren’t *also* telling the women they should lower their expectations. But I think that what is more important is this weird fetishization of the ordinary. It’s true that people resent the awesome Girl much more than they resent the Awesome Boy. But I am seeing more and more resentment of the Awesome Boy, too. Readers seem to have an inferiority complex and they are offended by characters who are more awesome than they are. I wonder if it is a product of the economic times.
Instead of getting few BPH, we may get more NTPHH. Which sounds very much as if I think BP’s are all bad. I don’t. I just think they are over-used and really not to my taste. I just don’t see anything inherently pejorative in the message–”You are totally ordinary, but something amazing could happen to YOU!” Which is what I see in the BPH and also the Non-threatening Place Holder for Hero.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:39 AM
Sarah Allen Says:
Can you say *ahem* [Blog Overlord says no pointing to particular characters or living writers. Thanks.] *ahem*? Sorry, didn’t mean to point fingers, but, there you go. But I definitely agree that BPHs can be very annoying. Give your characters flaws! It makes them human. And I also love Jane Austen’s heroines, if thats what you were referring to in endnote 4
November 18th, 2009 at 1:16 AM
Aha, I think we have a disagreement on terms. I *love* ordinary heroines. Elizabeth Bennet is an ordinary woman. She is a gentleman’s daughter, educated to the degree that she engineered herself, neither excessively accomplished nor devoid of skill. She isn’t extraordinarily gifted in any way. But she has personality in abundance.
To me, the BPH isn’t ordinary, she’s blank. She doesn’t have any particular goals or personality – she’s a (usually pretty) shell for the reader to inhabit. I adore “you are ordinary, and something amazing could happen to YOU!” I get intensely irritated with “Here, you can identify with this one, because she’s the heroine, but I haven’t demonstrated her personhood.”
Ordinary people aren’t blank. They have goals, regrets, dreams, skills, and desires.
November 18th, 2009 at 1:21 AM
I dislike the term heroine. Mainly because it’s original use was of the the blank page variety. I tend to see the continued use of the term heroine to promote the same viewpoint, especially when we have female protagonists, like Buffy, who are heroes in everything but their gender. It seems archaic to me to use gender to determine archetype.
The only place the BPH has a role is in satire.
November 18th, 2009 at 2:21 AM
I read the link to Sarah Rees’s article, and… I just don’t get it. I’ve read widely – good books, bad books, fiction, non-fiction, and I’ve never come across a character who was blank. Stereotypical, maybe, but not empty. A couple of people have commented on Stephenie Meyer’s Bella and I’m wondering if they’ve even read the books. Bella is a girl who wants to have sex with her vampire boyfriend, but isn’t interested in getting married to him – despite his own objections to this. How is that a Blank Heroine?
I wonder if the ability to see Blank Heroines is more a reflection of the reader in question than the writer. It’s just a politically correct way of running down female characters.
November 18th, 2009 at 5:04 AM
Awesome post! And all of it’s so, so true. I hate the idea that we “have” to give up everything that makes us “us” in order to attract someone. I just read Julie Halpern’s Into the Wild Blue Yonder which had both disheartening examples of girls changing everything to attract a boy (don’t worry; we’re supposed to realize they’re being extreme), and how you can stay true to who you are while attracting someone (perhaps someone unexpected!).
There was a post on Pandagon recently that I think also ties into this idea. It focuses mainly on Twilight, but I think can be expanded to this sort of heroine in general (and in fact, I made that argument on my blog here, drawing from the Pandagon post as well as yours and Sarah’s). Pandagon’s post calls books with these totally unobjectionable heroines “pornography of non-rejection” – the characters are so bland that of course each and every man they come across is going to be in love with them – there’s nothing to say “no” to!
November 18th, 2009 at 8:52 AM
27. Justine Says:
Okay, I’ve asked nicely that no one point out particular examples of this. As several of you are noting, BPHs are in the eye of the beholder. From now on I delete those references. They add nothing to the conversation.
Moonspinner: Obviously, I don’t agree with you. The BPH absolutely exists. Though I agree that Bella is not a good example. However, I think you’re dead right that readerly expectations absolutely shape how we read.
I’ve also seen a lot of what you’re talking about. Just yesterday I read a review of a wonderful book by a teen reader who said that she loved the male characters in it but hated the main female one. She then said she hated all female characters in a way that was very reminiscent of what I was talking about in my post on hating female characters. The female character in this book was the very opposite of a BPH. She was not there as anyone’s reward and she had personality and hopes up the wazoo. She was my fave character in that book. And yet that book’s author has told me that character is getting a lot of hate.
So why was she being so vehemently hated? Why was that reader so insistent that she hated all female characters? What’s going on?
There was a thread of “female characters are lame” in her comments. Which could read as a rejection of the BPH. But these complaints also often claim they hated the female character because the girl was too capable and they didn’t believe it. While at the same time praising the equally capable hero to the skys.
It does sometimes feel that when you write female characters you can’t win.
The internalised misogyny runs deep.
November 18th, 2009 at 9:37 AM
I love this post! (Still not a romance fan, though.)
November 18th, 2009 at 10:03 AM
That plot has died with the Brothers Grimm, who I just realized weren’t all that great of writers, though I cannot argue that their ideas were un-original.
……What? Huh? People: the brothers Grim did not make up fairy tales. They copied them down and made them suitable for children. They are not ‘original’.(Trust me,the stories were MUCH more dark and gruesome before.)
November 18th, 2009 at 10:08 AM
Thank you for this post. As well as the one about hating female characters. Misogyny runs deep indeed — something that makes me sadder every day.
November 18th, 2009 at 10:52 AM
Karen, I’d love to say yes it was just a mistaken use of terms, but I can’t. It’s more that I am inarticulate and haven’t thought this through yet. I hope you don’t mind, because this is one of the things I like best about blogging.
I think BPH is a device or a trope. I think it’s common to the romance genre. I don’t think it is entirely in the eye of the beholder as moonspinner does. But I think the way we feel about the BPH is up to us. It isn’t automatically misogynistic.
Bagging on the BPH is a little like disparaging high heels, maybe? For some people they are oppression and others find them to be empowering. What you feel when you are storming down the street in your spikes isn’t for me to say.
I am concerned that bagging on the BPH is not too far removed from bagging on the whole genre– and goodness knows I’ve seen women shamed for reading that “trash.”
It isn’t ordinary heroes that I mean. It really is the heroine-shaped hole in the book that we are talking about. Suddenly I wonder– Girls read more than boys. Maybe the desire for a blank spot in the book is something universal, not sex-linked. Do you think more boys would if there were more BPHeroes for them?
November 18th, 2009 at 11:15 AM
I agree that I have a problem with BPH. The girl who has no personality and is “rescued” by a capable man. This is probably why I love rewritten fairy tales where the princess solves the problem. I also think it’s discouraging when changing the sex of a character might result in less love. I Love the Harry Potter comment in the ‘Hating Female Characters’ post.
But something that also bugs me, which no one has addressed here, is the bumbling adult male figure. He is just as irritating as the BPH. He is prominently in commercials and sitcoms right now. He shows up in books. He is a foil for his ultra competent girlfriend or wife and/or child or children. He is dumb at everything. The other members of his family are amazing, or at least competent at everything they do. He always seems to get the short end of the stick.
I think this may make lots of women feel good, but I wonder how these men ever hold down a job or help support a family. I’m getting a little sick of bumbling men. OK, every man isn’t Father Knows Best, but could we at least get a few actual intelligent grown up men?
November 18th, 2009 at 11:44 AM
33. Justine Says:
Angharad and Kate: Absolutely there are poorly written male characters as well. But what disturbs me is that every time there is conversation about stereotyping of female characters and about feminism and women in general there’s always someone who comes along and says, “What about the mens!” And I wonder why we can’t have a conversation about women without someone wanting to change the subject.
Yes, there is a conversation to be had about male stereotypes but this is not the place for it. I wrote that post to talk about women and the way they’re written, not to talk about men.
So could we please stay on topic now? Thanks.
November 18th, 2009 at 11:51 AM
Me… Ten foot pole… Poke…
Nope, I think I’m going to step away from this issue. There have been some good comments already.
The only thing I will say is that I don’t think Blank Page Characters are necessarily indicative of sexism, intentional or otherwise.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:01 PM
Well, I think I can at least not continue off-topic.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:12 PM
Sorry, I think I’m just irritated by stereotypical characters that aren’t well rounded whatever the gender.
I am quite bothered by the girl who said she hated female characters.
Karen – Love your posts.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:17 PM
John H Says:
Obviously there are real-life analogs for the BPH — people (male as well as female) with the personality of a ficus tree, or so pathetic they’re willing to set their own life aside to accommodate someone else.
Of course, just because these people exist doesn’t excuse authors who consistently use them in their stories. Is it lack of writing skills, laziness — or is it intentional misogyny? I would hope that the number of writers who seek to diminish women through their stories is small, but I can’t say that for sure.
One of the things I appreciate about Stephen King is the effort he usually puts into developing his characters. Of course he then does all sorts of nasty things to them, knowing it will have more of an impact when it happens to someone the reader cares about.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:26 PM
(Apologies to our host for my “equal opportunity” comment — your admonition to focus on female characters came as I was composing my post…)
November 18th, 2009 at 12:34 PM
Alpha Lyra Says:
Love this post, and Sarah’s. I don’t have much to say except WORD. It saddens and frustrates me that so many books aimed at female readers feature the Blank Page Heroine.
November 18th, 2009 at 12:56 PM
Maureen Johnson Says:
Hooray! This is a post of MUCH JOY!
The Blank Page Heroine is an empty vessel waiting to be filled up (errr, yes, on every level). It’s like someone saying, “You will like this girl, she is just like you!” And then instead of being introduced to a girl, you are handed a paper bag with a face drawn on it. And you say, quite rightly, “This is not a girl! This is a paper bag with a face drawn on it!” And then, to scramble the words of Dorothy Parker, you do not put that book down . . . you throw it across the room with great force.
Romance takes place within the context of a life, and the more moving parts, the more interesting players, the more that matters and is at stake . . . the more interesting the romance! Because the romance must do some work in order to become viable! And I think the first person you have to love in these books is the heroine at the center of the story. That’s romance #1. Which is why we wrap our arms around the Elizabeth Bennetts of the world. Love the girl . . . love the story.
November 18th, 2009 at 1:55 PM
Julia Rios Says:
I wholeheartedly agree about the awesomeness of a) strong female characters and b) Sherry Thomas. I think Nora Roberts writes a lot of good female leads, too. I know she’s one of the biggest romance authors out there, so maybe this hasn’t been previously noted because she’s too obvious and mainstream, but she has characters with personalities, and they don’t just change their entire lives around to suit a love interest. I often wonder how much her success with that kind of heroine has influenced other romance writers over the years.
November 18th, 2009 at 1:57 PM
42. Justine Says:
Kristan & John H.: No worries. It’s just a bit frustrating because it happens every single time. It makes me wonder why so many people feel compelled to change the subject every time this topic is raised. I’m very curious to know what’s going on.
Maureen: Yes, exactly. It’s not even a matter of whether the female characters are “strong” or “weak” but whether they’re believeable fully fleshed out characters.
Julia: I confess I have not read Nora Roberts. Something else I must fix. Though I admit I look at all her books on the shelf and have no idea where to start. So many of them!
November 18th, 2009 at 2:09 PM
Hrm, are dead authors okay to bag on? Because B—– C——-, a romance writer who was famous for being prolific, has a lot of BPHs. Her characters were usually orphans with a tragic past, but that was about as far as she got with giving her chars a history. I would put her chars into the BPH category because A) they were usually helpless or passive, never actors in their own drama. B) They showed NO preferences at all. When they became swept up into a life of luxury, they were considered raw material for being turned into a lady–superior lady’s maids would help choose their clothing, tutors would teach them manners, and their future husbands would invariably decide the course of their lives. Little or no trace of who they were before becoming the object of a man’s desire shows up. C) They fell into romance rather than chose it. (There’s a theory that before female sexuality became accepted, women wanted stories where they could experience female sexuality without having to take responsibility for seeking it out. This means you have decades of tropes like the arranged marriage, the ruined woman, and so on. In a society where female sexuality is embraced, these tropes become bitterly dated and regressive.)
November 18th, 2009 at 2:23 PM
Oh, more awesome heroines: Amelia Peabody, Nefret, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby from Elizabeth Peters’ mysteries. Fully rounded characters with goals of their own.
November 18th, 2009 at 2:31 PM
45. Justine Says:
Pixelfish: You may absolutely bag on the dead. Even Barbara Cartland. Who I found completely unreadable.
November 18th, 2009 at 2:34 PM
Argh! Why can’t I remember to put all of these notes in one post. Sorry, Justine. I meant to say that if you want to try Jenny Crusie, I’d recommend Welcome to Temptation, Faking It, or Bet Me as good places to start. (I don’t like her novels where she tag teams with a male author she knows as much. It’s like getting a Reese’s peanut butter cup that has the wrong proportions of peanut butter to chocolate, when you were expecting something else.)
I first found out about Crusie because of a series of posts on writing successful sex scenes. (Which I would link to but I can’t find it anymore.) So instead I will leave you with this blog post of Crusie’s:
November 18th, 2009 at 2:46 PM
Shveta Thakrar Says:
*clap, clap, clap*
I’ll have to go back and read Sarah’s post, too. Thanks, Justine.
November 18th, 2009 at 2:56 PM
Diana Peterfreund Says:
Okay, I want to make a distinction here between “Blank Page” characters and characters who are actually weak — if fully fleshed out — people.
Characters can be every bit as blank page if they are blankly strong, kick butt kind of girls. There’s are legions of utterly forgettable “kick butt” kind of girls — good with a sword/stake/gun but no discernable personality. The reason Hermione is such a great character is not BECAUSE she’s a powerful witch, it’s because she’s a powerful witch, she’s a stick in the mud when it comes to rules, she’s a total bookworm and utterly unashamed of it, she’s really bossy, she doesn’t fit in with girls her age, and she’s got a cool social justice streak in her. These are all PARTS of Hermione, good, bad, strong, weak, well-rounded.
It’s like that essay on Overhtinking it.
Enough with strong female characters. What you really want are strong characters, female.
And that means sometimes you get scaredy cat female characters. Sometimes you get evil female characters. Sometimes you get bossy ones, stubborn ones, cowardly ones.
Of course, the problem with these Blank Page characters is they aren’t being coded in the text as “hey, this person doesn’t have a strong enough personality to stand up to the overwhelming hero who would like to remold her in the shape of a Stepford Wife!” There is a tacit approval to not having any there there, whether “there” is kick assedness or “i’d like to go run and hide now” ed-ness.
One example (and here I’m going to talk about the movie, because that’s what most people are familiar with) is Scarlet O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes of Gone with the Wind. Now, in the film, Scarlet is an incredibly strong character — literally. She holds Tara together with her bare hands, is incredibly loyal, whips horses and people when necessary, gets s*** done. She is also cruel, selfish, vain, proud… she’s fantastically complex. And she looks down on her sister in law, Melanie, who is a much more proper Southern lady, and is also incredibly kind and generous. But over and over again, you see that Melanie’s strength, though she’s not the kind of person who can do what Scarlet does, has its own beauty. She’s brave in very quiet ways: she refuses to snub the town whore just because it’s the proper thing to do, because she knows the whore saved her husband’s life. When Rhett and other conspire to humiliate Scarlett at Ashley’s party, Melanie trust in her deep personal faith and love for Scarlett and takes her hand. They are quieter moments — the don’t involve a whip and a gun (though Melanie can also kick ass with a gun when the chips are down and Scarlet is about to get raped) but they are very interesting and show that Melanie is a complex individual with ehr own take on things.
November 18th, 2009 at 3:51 PM
49. Justine Says:
Diana: You’ve put your finger on the miscommunication happening here. I fear some have read BPH as meaning “weak” or “ordinary” but there are many wonderful characters like Melanie who are not even remotely PBH.
And, yes, there are lots of “arse kicking” heroines who are also BPH because that’s all there is to them. There’s no there there.
The problem is not “strength” or “weakness” but three-dimensionality.
I also agree with Skaldi above who says the word “heroine” is part of the problem.
November 18th, 2009 at 4:08 PM
Julie Polk Says:
That’s a great distinction. And I’m so glad you brought up Gone With The Wind. I read – devoured, more like – GWTW repeatedly from the time I was about ten. I wasn’t thinking about any of these issues consciously, but I’m sure that even as a young reader, a large part of what held my attention was the vividness and believability of Scarlett and Melanie’s relationship. I’m sure I would have demanded strongly written female characters on my own eventually if I hadn’t stumbled onto them early on, but I also know that that relationship is still incredibly vivid to me (and I haven’t read that book in 25 years). I feel pretty lucky that those were some of the first impressions I had of what female characters could be.
November 18th, 2009 at 4:30 PM
Justine, I recommend starting with Honest Illusions or The Reef if you’re looking to read Nora Roberts. They’re great standalones. And Honest Illusions was my first ever fave book (although it’s no longer my only fave book, haha, because I’m awful at picking faves).
November 18th, 2009 at 4:46 PM
Jonathan Walker Says:
This is the link referred to @15 (which I don’t think the original commenter followed up on):
N.B. The review does ‘bag’ on a living author’s new novel, so I imagine our hostess would advise to proceed with caution and not to repeat the specific criticism here.
November 18th, 2009 at 7:43 PM
53. Justine Says:
Jonathan Walker: Oh, dear. I see what you mean.
November 18th, 2009 at 7:53 PM
Thanks to Diana for that comment about Scarlett and Melanie. I am afraid that if Gone With the Wind were to be published now, too many girls would call Melanie a Blank Page Heroine and hate on Scarlett.
I am still uncomfortable with the realization that Blank Page Heroines is just an acceptable way of hating on a female character that one does not like, as evidenced by some of the comments on this and the other blogs. I still think it’s very subjective, because I honestly have never come across a blank page character. I have come across many characters that I dislike and many flat and unfortunate stereotypes for women and minorities. But BLANK? How is that even possible?
November 19th, 2009 at 3:13 AM
I wonder if we read books where the heroine is rescued by the hero because it is an escape. Wouldn’t it be nice sometimes in real life to have someone else come in and take care of everything. Because in real life – we know – women are so often the ones doing so much of the hard work at home. We clean up the messes. So escapist literature has an appeal.
At the same time, I agree with the article linked to by Johnathan that “love that is self-abnegating, all-consuming, and totally erases any kind of independence looks a lot more like domestic violence than fabulous romance.”
Such mixed messages.
November 19th, 2009 at 9:46 AM
moonspinner: I really don’t think many people having this discussion are looking for an excuse to dislike female characters: we want to love them, and do love many of them, and are talking about a trend that disturbs us. Doesn’t matter to me when Gone with the Wind was written – Scarlett and Melanie are both great characters. Melanie being sweet doesn’t make her a Blank Page heroine – her fierce love for her friend, willingness to defend her home, her affectionate sympathy for Belle and Rhett and others – all make her stand out. I will go further and name Chloe, the heroine of Kelley Armstrong’s Darkest Powers trilogy, as a modern heroine who reminds me of Melanie a little. She’s shy, sweet, and very nice: she’s also passionately into movies and defines a lot of the crazy situations she’s gets into by them, has a fraught relationship with another girl that’s an important part of the second book, and well – there’s a lot of there there.
While with regards to fiction most things are subjective, I do think that there are heroines out there who do not have inner lives and familial and friend relationships to complicate the course of true love. I agree with Justine that Bella is not a good example of a Blank Page Heroine (Plus, poor Twilight! I’m tired of seeing it bagged on), but when you described her, you described her solely in reference to her boyfriend. Which is very easy to do with lots of books! That’s one of the problems – we’re all really used to seeing men privileged, having what’s going on with them be seen as more important, so we don’t notice things like the heroine’s life being given far less weight than the hero’s when it happens – we’re conditioned to think that’s normal. Which makes it valuable, I think, to step back and say ‘This is something that disturbs me – here are some books with heroines who are chock full of personality and isn’t it awesome’ and have everyone consider the idea, and look for and write heroines with personality. Which can’t be a bad thing!
November 19th, 2009 at 10:45 AM
With regards to Twilight, it’s kind of hard to view Bella as a BPH simply because it’s a first-person narrative from her perspective. Whatever lack of personality she may have, she is still central to the story.
That said, had the stories been written from Edward’s POV she might very well have slipped into the BPH role.
November 19th, 2009 at 11:49 AM
Wow. This is a fascinating, if somewhat uncomfortable, discussion (uncomfortable because I’m starting to see–well, let’s just say there are some ways in which my writing needs to improve). Glad I read all of the comments.
@Diana, great explanation. I finally understand what people mean when they talk about “strong female characters.”
I wonder if to some extent, a character appearing to be Blank Page at the beginning of the story might help draw readers in (I feel like this happens in Harry Potter, where Harry starts out as a regular every-kid who happens to have bad things happen to him, but doesn’t show a lot of personality, and then slowly deepens out into a real character). Or should you establish a character’s personality as strongly as you can from the get-go?
November 19th, 2009 at 3:48 PM
Sean: This is just me, but I say you should establish personality from the get-go. Earlier in the month, Scott had a writing tip about the dialogue spine–and one thing I thought that was useful for was seeing if the characters could be discernible as themselves.
November 19th, 2009 at 8:08 PM
Sarah Rees Brennan: I don’t doubt your intention. I just think that there is a distinction between the character you desrcibe now as poorly written because her story is given less weight than the boy’s, and what you described earlier as a blank character, written deliberately so that the reader can “insert” her personality into the character’s. (Trying to avoid names for Justine’s sake), in the example that you used, the female lead is described solely in reference to her boyfriend; but the same applies to him. Indeed, he is her wish-fulfillment lover, not the other way around; and even though they both only exist in the context of their relationship with each other, there is enough difference in their personalities and values that there is a conflict in the romance.
I’ve always felt that the point of feminism was that women had more choices. Period. Not that women Had To Kick-Ass or women Had To Pawn Their Boyfriends/Lovers/Significant Others. Today’s culture of condemning women for not being a certain kick-ass type -fierce, ballsy, witty, eccentric – isn’t any different from yesteryear’s culture of condemning women for not being a certain demure type. I’d still have loved Melanie even if she hadn’t been the one to pull that gun. But for a lot of others, that is the moment that redeems her. I’m speaking as someone who has left many theatres going, “What an awesome woman/girl/female alien creature”, only to get to the message boards and see several threads with the varying theme of “Awesome Obscure (Male) Redshirt #37″ (if I’m lucky) and several others with the theme of “Who Else Hated That Mary Sue/Bitch/Whore?” (if I’m not).
In other words, I would have enjoyed the essay more if it had just focused on the things Sarah liked about the female heroines she had read. Intentions are all well and good but fandom really doesn’t need one more item to add to the list of “Why Female Characters Suck.”
November 20th, 2009 at 3:37 AM
Nor to be told what kind of books we shouldn’t write and what kind of books we shouldn’t read, as happened in the snappy, but profoundly meanspirited, rant that Jonathan Walker linked to.
November 20th, 2009 at 1:29 PM
Nora Roberts has a few different modes. There’s Romantic Suspense mode, Contemporary Non-Supernatural mode, and Contemporary Supernatural mode. I’m not the person to recommend things in the first category because, although I do read Romantic Suspense on occasion, it’s not one of my most loved things.
If you like straight Contemporary, you might try picking up Vision in White, which came out last spring, and is the first in a quartet about wedding planners in Connecticut. The second, Bed of Roses is out now, but I haven’t yet read it.
For Contemporary Supernatural, I would go with either Blue Dahlia, which is the first of a ghost story trilogy set in a nursery (plants, not babies) near Memphis, TN, or Dance Upon the Air (first of a trilogy about witches on a small New England island). Any book you pick up should be able to stand alone as well, so you can skip to other volumes if you prefer. I particularly liked that the second in the nursery ghost story trilogy featured an older (by romance standards, I mean–mid to late 40s) heroine.
I can’t say whether you’ll like any of these, but I definitely feel that Nora Roberts understands something about how to trigger comforting fantasies in a lot of people, and it’s worth exploring a bit of her work just to see how she pulls that off. Plus, like I said before about the women being strong and not blank pages.
November 22nd, 2009 at 4:25 PM
Okay, I enjoyed Twilight et sequelae a great deal, and I am surprised that so many people think Bella is a BPH, because I actually like her rather a lot. Bella is profoundly messed up, and her parents are essentially useless–to a great degree she has to take care of them, and it has shaped her. Because of this and because Bella is distrustful of normal people I actually identified with her far more than I thought I would after hearing other people say that she was blank, uninteresting, absent &c. Bella is in my opinion an amazingly strong character, just not always a likeable one. Despite the fact that Edward is rather dictatorial, she ALWAYS gets her way. IDK–my parents are divorced and they were both alcoholic, and I had to take care of things for them a lot, and I was never able to communicate well with kids whose lives were more normal than mine, so I did not trust them even when they wanted to be friends. Bella in first person describes this state of mind very, very well, and is drawn to the Cullens and to Edward because of their strangeness; the only other people she likes are the Quileutes who are also different from what she thinks of as “normal”.
I like to say I wouldn’t have put up with some of Edward’s BS, but looking back in my life I am not so sure of that if I’d met him at 17. (BTW I think Edward is exactly what a man who last dated human women in 1918 and has his brain chemistry permanently stuck in late adolescence plus weird vampire powers would be like.)
At any rate…Bella and Edward both have their moments of being toweringly unlikeable, but I do like them–and it’s important to remember that Stephenie Meyer loves Wuthering Heights. Both of them have in common with Heathcliff and Cathy that incredible force of will, and they are going to get their way no matter what. They’re far more likeable and less destructive (I did not like Wuthering Heights), in my opinion. But Bella has a personality and I admire her force of will even when I think she makes horrid decisions.
December 23rd, 2009 at 11:59 PM
64. Justine Says:
Tiferet: But Bella has a personality and I admire her force of will even when I think she makes horrid decisions.
I love your reading of Twlight. Very compelling. You’ve captured what appeals (and repels) about Bella & Edward.
December 27th, 2009 at 6:59 PM
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