For the past two weeks, Lee Allen Hill has discussed literary Heroes and Villains. Now let me inject a word about heroines.
Middle aged heroines are showing up more and more in popular fiction. Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, Iris Johansen’s Eve Duncan, and now C. Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade are a few of my personal favorites. They’re strong, competent women with real flaws, real fears, and real supporting characters.
Writers, let me give you a word of advice. If your next heroine is a middle-aged powerhouse who looks like she’s just stepped out of a Sandals ad, you won’t find a female reader out there who is going to care if her marriage has imploded and she’s reduced to rebuilding her shattered love life with a suspected international jewel thief while juggling self-doubt and a career as CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
And here’s why. Women, even very young women, react to the role models they’re offered, and not always in a positive way. A recent University of Michigan study published as “My Fair Scientist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls” reports girls aged 11-13 years old who heard about successful female scientists wearing dark clothing had higher expectations of taking college math (5.57 on a 1-7 scale) than when hearing about scientists who wore makeup and pink clothes (4.04). The study concludes that unattainable role models aren’t inspiring, they’re threatening.
How does that uniquely female response translate to real life? Personally, I’ve ruled out ever going on a cruise or vacationing at a tropical resort. Television and print ads make it clear in their visuals the female guests spend six hours a day in the gym, are blessed with the facial features of a beauty queen and have endured more body work than a restored ‘57 Chevy.
I’m assured I’m completely wrong; the advertisers are simply idealizing the experience. Nope. That’s not what my female brain tells me. Oh, they want my average money, but all the while they proclaim average looking women are not up to their standards. I know that because there isn’t an average looking woman in any one of their ads. Pay attention, Madison Avenue. You might lure bored husbands with the promise of a poolside floorshow, but their wives know they can’t compete. Remember: Unattainable role models aren’t inspiring, they’re threatening.
Now, if that’s the reaction they evoke in me, someone who writes fiction everywhere but in the Page & Spine check register, how can we expect the mature, grounded, female reader to identify with a plagued paragon of perfection? I’m not saying her teenage daughter has to be pregnant, her twelve year old son has to be in drug rehab and she has to have some devastating disease to battle. I’m suggesting that her waistband might be getting a trifle tight, the crows’ feet aren’t responding to that extra dab of moisturizer, and the lady, however bright and competent, knows she’s forever stuck in middle management and is not real happy about it. Sort of like the readers you’re trying to reach.
Once your readers have made that emotional connection – she’s just like me – then it’s time to spin the fantasy. But first, keep it real.