Recently there were discussions on Romancing the Blog and on Smart Bitches (you can visit those sites just by clicking on the sidebar—but you know that) about whether romance readers like strong heroines or weak ones and whether romance novels should carry labels describing their content. This inevitably fanned out to include discussion of whether readers like bitch heroines or Too Stupid to Live (TSTL) heroines.
It got me thinking about stock romance characters and what has changed in our culture. It’s pretty easy to know what is meant by TSTL. A heroine who minces along in a story, proving her vulnerable femininity by making incredibly foolish choices over and over, who thereupon has to be repeatedly rescued by the hero—well, she’s TSTL. She’s the prototype for the horror movie spoofs, who goes down into the scary basement when she knows there’s an intruder. Bad idea! Or whose inane chatter alerts the secret villain that she knows too much and must be killed. Just shut up! Or who hops in the car when the wrong guy offers a ride. Too compliant! She’s also the heroine who can be easily faked out by a phony call from a hospital saying a loved one is in Emergency. In your entire life, have you ever heard of a hospital calling to tell you something urgent? No. Hospitals call about the bill, or a recording reminds you of an appointment. But the TSTL heroine actually believes a hospital is calling when the evil villain calls to lure her out of her safe house. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
But what about the bitch? This is harder to define because in our culture, aside from “female dog,” bitch means different things to different people. Here I have to go off on a tangent and recall that when I was a little girl playing in the neighborhood and listening to the older boys talk, I came to the erroneous conclusion that “bitch” and “bastard” were the male and female of dog. Well, they aren’t. And technically, they are both insults to a woman. It used to be that calling a man a bastard was the ultimate insult because being born illegitimate (born of parents not married to each other) meant he could not inherit from his father, and his mother presumably was a slut. And since men owned the land and had all the money, being a bastard was being born with the odds against him. But this unfortunate life situation created the bastard personality, that of a man who does not approach the world with an easy, optimistic attitude, or even a set of ethics. Since he has no place in line, he doesn’t wait his turn. Instead, he grasps for what he wants. He creates his own good fortune, often by taking from others. Not a nice guy. And that’s the modern definition of a bastard, too: not a nice guy. Simple.
As for a bitch, well, thinking of dogs, she defends her children to the death, as any mother would. This could mean that if possible danger gets too close for her peace of mind, she will attack unprovoked. Honorable behavior. When translated into human female behavior, though, the definition gets twisted in many ways. A bitch is any woman who will not do whatever a man wants. Yet another definition of a bitch is a woman in a pimp’s stable of prostitutes, that is, a woman who in fact will do exactly what any man wants. Moving up from such degradation, we have the bitch who guards her family’s lives, and who might kill to help them. Thus, Lady Macbeth, who talks her husband into committing murder to gain the throne. Is it to satisfy her ambitions or his? Whichever, Lady Macbeth goes mad from the moral consequences.
And then there are the bitches of romance novels. Several major kinds. One is an almost entirely passé character, the bitchy “other woman,” the glamorpuss who threatens to take the hero from the (usually TSTL) heroine, through her expert use of makeup, hair dye, sex, and mean comments. And lying about being pregnant. And an entire repertoire of emotionally manipulative tricks. As romance heroines have themselves become more empowered and self-confident, the bitchy other woman’s powers have tended to range more in the manipulative area than in the beauty pageant competitiveness arena. Modern women in our culture are not automatically competing with other women the way the wannabes of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders do. (But by the way, may I admit to a guilty pleasure? I like to watch bits of that TV show, just to see girls with perfect bodies and lots of makeup cry. It amuses me to see the older women who are in charge—hmm…are they bitches?—pick these girls apart so ruthlessly: “Her thighs look heavy on camera.” is enough to send some girl home weeping to her small town in Texas. I love it. I wonder if that makes me bitchy? Or just the more minor “catty”?)
Back to bitches. Incidentally, I feel naughty just saying that word. Ladies were not supposed to use the word bitch when I was growing up. Only men, calling us that. Oh, well. Moving on.
The bitch heroine in the modern romance is an entirely different personage from all these previously mentioned. She can be the empowered heroine, obviously. Typically, she’s a woman with an agenda that makes other people uncomfortable. This is new territory. She wants more for herself than her mother wants for her, or her sister wants for herself. She wants more from the people with whom she works, too. Honesty, fair play, whatever. And she will fight to get what she wants. Is that where one group of bitches peel off to become bitch goddesses, women who make men crazy for them, and use them and throw them away? I’m fairly sure that Madonna has been called a bitch during her lengthy, self-motivated career. What an outrage that she uses sex to seduce audiences instead of letting sex control her! And she’s laughing all the way to the bank. But she does have to do all those body-toning exercises and keep after the apparent youthfulness of her face, not to mention update her music style constantly. She works hard for her bitch status.
But enough tangents. The cliché glamorous other woman makes a small reappearance in modern romances as the Evil Bitch Ex-Wife character. Romance heroes may be done with this woman, but she can cause trouble anyhow. But an amazing number of romance heroines just shrug off the ex-wife bitch these days. Some romance writers have indulged in catfights between the heroine and the evil bitch, but these are not popular in romances. Ladylike heroines are supposed to be above such fights. And the tough ones could make the evil bitch scream too easily, so there’s no fun in reveling in the mud. Anyway, these kinds of fights are really male fantasies.
So, what makes the modern heroine a bitch, then? There’s the type of heroine who says no to the hero when she really means yes, and she keeps it up all through the story. This happens even though she has sex with him and lets him open his heart to her. But she keeps her own heart behind a protective shield. She’s a useful character to keep a story going, because she opposes the hero. She refuses the hero’s overtures. She creates the conflict. And stories need conflict. (Otherwise, all we’d have is How Grandpa Married Grandma—a sanitized version of something that was passionate and daring and desperate at the time. Romance has to be written on the desperate edge, not as a calm memoir.) But is this character a bitch? She can be steely, icy, and irritating as hell. Why doesn’t she give in to the hero sooner? Why can’t she recognize his sincerity and his sterling qualities? But is she a bitch?
Or is the urban fantasy, kickass heroine type, the competent spy, agent, warrior, or detective the bitch? She makes waves, she has a central core of identity that is not dependent on the men around her, and she has a mission to fulfill. She knows how to use weapons and her brain, too. If she discovers she’s under some man’s control, she extricates herself. Does that make her a bitch? Have women, in fact, taken over this usually pejorative term and made it a shorthand for self-determination?
I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the web suggesting that women no longer wince away from being called a bitch, and that some in fact embrace it. But I am not sure if that ventures into the controversial n-word territory where it’s okay for me to call myself a bitch but not okay for you to do that. So I’m not going there. Because I don’t know the answers to the questions I have raised. Language and society are constantly evolving. I do know that my childhood view of the world has been modified many times and continues to change as I see the world changing. Yet it is an act of daring for the remaining child in me to use this word repeatedly: Bitch!