Feminizing the Sheroes

If your brand of femininity doesn't involves tiaras,
you may be doing it wrong.
I’ve written a bunch in the past about alpha males and how I, well, don’t quite gel with them. I mean, they’re great and all. Some of my best friends are alpha males.* But, as I might have made clear in other posts, I’m not a big fan of what sociologist R.W. Connell calls hegemonic masculinity, or the pinnacle of all things manly. As a sociologist who studies social inequalities, I just… can’t.

Contrarily, because I am nothing if not contrary, I maintain a fondness for pretty traditionally feminine women characters. I like femininity, or at least the femininity that I, a White, middle class woman, have access to. As I discussed in a recent conference presentation, I understand my brand of femininity is rooted in Whiteness, in middle classness, and in opposition to non-straight, non-cisgender, and fat and larger persons. So, yeah, the history of femme-y women shouldn’t remain unchallenged. But it’s the air I’ve breathed, the water I’ve drunk, the vocabulary I’ve wielded to express myself.

Internalized and problematic brand of femininity: Check. So here we are, celebrating a brand of historically lauded femininity. All is well, right? Well, not really. See, this type of femininity may have clothed, fed, and watered middle-class, White women for a couple of centuries, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally loved. Because, you know, it’s still set up in opposition to that hegemonic masculinity I mentioned above. Traditional femininity, or the celebration of gentle, nurturing compassion, is in fact, what defines the boundaries, what polices the boundaries, of this masculinity. It is everything “real men” (read: alphas) should not be.

Okay, so I love my femme-y women and my beta men. None of this would be a problem, except I write in the genres of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I treasure these genres without reservation, but the women who populate them aren’t really known for their emotional caretaking capabilities. In fact, characters like Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock, Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Andrews’ Kate Daniels, and Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson populate action-heavy genres with their immaculate fighting skills, their witty repartee, and their difficulties maintaining and sustaining emotional relationships. Heck, in many ways, these sheroes are downright masculine. This is, of course, why they need an ultra-mega-major masculine hero as romantic foil, because we can’t upset the heteronormative balance of power too much. But I digress. I mean, these women are thin (ridiculously thin, especially in the case of Jane Yellowrock, who is six feet tall and weighs 120. Yeeaaahhhh.), often hot, and have buried maternal instincts that conveniently emerge throughout the series. So, yeah, they’re still coded as at least partially feminine. But overall, these sheroes feel a lot like masculine action heroes, albeit hip-length-hair-sporting, little-black-dress-wearing ones.

Why is there a picture of a cat reading
a Kindle? Who cares?
While it feels amazing to read about 26-year-old, thin women who can kick everyone ever’s ass, – girl power, amiright? – I just can’t totally relate to them. I’m a 43-year-old, fat sociology professor whose superpowers include epic listening skills and a shocking ability to include gratuitous pictures of my cats in just... about... everything. I wouldn’t know a right hook if it… hooked me. Or whatever.

So, yeah, some of my women characters are tough mofos. Gray, my shero in Hunted, is as emotionally stunted, violent, and introspectively challenged as any action film starring Dwayne Johnson. After that, though, and as I accepted my right to sculpt my characters in my own image, or in images with which I can at least identify, my sheroes undergo a notable softening. By the time we reach The Tithe, my complex main character is a woman with a profound physical disability and a sharp tongue. And in my current, as yet untitled, novel, Marin, my shero, abhors violence. She literally coddles a man who attacks her with a knife. Heck, Marin even refuses to eat using forks because they require stabbing. Literally and figuratively, she embodies the feminine softness and strength I associate with my close friends, my sisters, and me.

And, you know, I adore Marin. I recognize she encompasses several hundred years of messages about White, heteronormative**, nurturing, dainty femininity, and I know this is problematic. To be fair to myself and my sociological conscience, my latest novel also includes other brands of femininity, not all of which are rooted in Whiteness or tenderness. But I love Marin. I have never identified as much with a character as I do with her. I know she isn’t a staple in paranormal romance, or at least one that is celebrated for her soft and sensitive strength. I worry readers won’t love her. But I find her luminous, refreshing, and, for me, empowering.  

Urban fantasy and paranormal romance have, in my experience, moved toward the masculine in hyping violence, gore, and situational tensions. As a result, all of the characters have scooted ever-closer toward hegemonic masculinity. This is fun and exciting, but I kinda miss seeing people like me who are presented as anything but feminine foils or damsels in need of rescuing. I like creating super feminine characters and celebrating their strengths as emotional healers, wise women, and peaceniks. I know the history behind these representations are troublesome, varied, and, as we would say in academia, multivalent, but as a reader and a writer who seeks to find herself represented, I ache to see feminine women painted in all their soft, strong, loving, flexible glory.

* I cannot lie. This is so not true.
** Although, in all honesty, she’s not straight. 


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