I have all these theories about why readers want romance heroines to be such good people. My most recent is this:
A writer friend told me recently that all romances are hero-centered stories—we read them because we want to follow the evolution of the hero from wounded and incapable of love to healed and fulfilled. If that’s true—and the more I think about it, the more I believe it—then the heroine, although she has some arc of her own—functions more as the hero’s prize for self-actualization than anything else. And okay, if someone is going to be our prize for doing the hardest things in life, they’d better be good. Or, you know, perfect.
There’s this thing people say about romance, that you’re meant to fall in love with the hero and be best friends with the heroine. Makes sense to me. But let’s just stop for a second and think about the dynamics there. If you’re in love with your best friend’s man—which is what I just said—then she’d better treat him well, right? Because the instant—the very first second—she slacks off, you’re going to feel really angry at her. In order for that feeling not to kick in, she has to be better than you. Every time she acts, you have to feel like she’s doing what you would love to believe you’d do in that situation. And not just what you-you would do. What you—your better self—would do, on your very best day.
So we don’t only hold heroines to high standards—we hold them to the way-too-high standards that we hold ourselves to (but rarely actually meet).
And about that. I have this wonderful new friend. I once asked my husband what traits all my friends have in common, and he said that I am drawn to women who (like me) deliver their the contents of their heads in unfiltered fashion. This was a way nicer way of saying what he meant than “All your friends have diarrhea of the mouth” but I got the picture. Anyway, my friend and I get along splendidly because we tell each other all the goopy pointless stuff that no one else wants to hear and help each other make sense of it so we can exorcise it from our overfull brains.
One of the things she has told me is that she has really bad self-esteem. And while she was talking, I pretty much just nodded and said, “Yeah,” a lot, because I knew exactly she meant. You can’t see it by looking at either of us. We hold our heads up high, smile a lot, make friends easily. On paper we both know we’re doing okay—haven’t killed the kids yet, put food on the table an average of three times a day, work hard at something important to us and, by most measures, kick occasional butt, have families who love us. And yet we spend a weirdly disproportionate amount of time picking on ourselves. Like, Oh, GOD did I really say that? And, Shoulda…wish I’d…why do I always…?
I know not all women do this, but I also know many who do. And so I’ve started to suspect that maybe we are only subjecting our heroines to the same scrutiny, holding them to the same unmeetable standards, as we do ourselves.
This post isn’t a call to us as romance writers to write bigger, wilder, pricklier, nastier, ornerier, more damaged heroines, although I love those heroines and I do always welcome them. It’s a call to us as women to notice how must we expect from ourselves and from the other people we judge against those same standards. Just notice. How many times a day you notice what’s still on your to-do list instead of what you’ve already accomplished, how many times a day you pick on the one thing you said wrong instead of marveling at all the things you said right, how many times a day you compare yourself to someone who’s done it better instead of to the way you used to do it, before you got as good as you are.
If you notice enough times, you might find that it finally starts to get old. And then you’ll notice yourself starting to dismiss the self-criticism as just noise.
Because it’s a good thing to want to be a better human being, but it’s a great thing to know you’re lovable, in all your warty splendor—no matter what plopped out of your mouth, what you shoulda or shouldn’ta done, or what wish you’d thought of at the moment.
And you don’t need a romance hero to tell you you’re already a heroine. You can be your own.