Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Why You Don't Want to Be a Betty Neels Heroine

Okay, now, that title ought to get a few people's attention. :-)

From the get-go, let me say this is not an anti-Neels post. This woman was the bestselling author Harlequin had for YEARS, until her death in 2001. All told, she was named as the author of something like 150 books--and she didn't start writing until she was older than I am now. (!) (Yes, I say "named as author." There's a reason for that, which is a whole 'nuther subject.) I myself have several dozen of those books in my possession and have read several more than that, books which for one reason or another didn't "do it" for me. But overall, yes...I can see why this woman was a bestseller. So I'm not here to pan her style, or her stories, per se.

I have, however, come to realize that there's a danger to internalizing these books and their style as much as I found myself doing for awhile--and still have to fight against today. The fact is, a reader who sees Neels' heroines attain true love time after time will start to think, "Hmmm. It worked for this gal, and there are so many of these books written just this way that I'll bet at least some of this is true to life. Maybe that's the way a woman needs to behave in order to get what she needs in this life."

I'm here to tell you that--attractive as that notion might be to many people--that way lies danger.

Let me explain.

A typical Betty Neels heroine is young--although sometimes "not so young" (as in, she may have reached the ripe old unmarried age of 28 or 29)--and basically without much by way of family in the world. If she's not an orphan, she has relatives better forgotten: evil stepmothers, evil stepbrothers, half-sisters who are manipulative and shady, selfish parents who treat her like a slave--so when the hero steps into her life, often it's because she's at the end of a rope and needs a rescuer.

Now, again, there's nothing inherently wrong with that; it's a premise upon which many a romantic tale is based. However, where these gals start to rub many, many people the wrong way is in the aspect of their personality best described as "serene," "calm," or "placid"--even when they're being stepped upon in some of the most egregious ways imaginable. These gals can be lied about, insulted, put down to their faces, manipulated, and ordered around, and they smile and take it. While many times they do speak up for themselves in a "quiet, unassuming" fashion...still, the people around them in the story, even the heroes, are generally allowed to get away with bloody freakin' interpersonal murder on these women...and the way they deal with it is presented as the way a real lady behaves...and earns true love.

You know, of course, that in the end, this heroine's quiet, unassuming nature will prove she's a superior and more feminine character, the perfect wife for the hero to cosset, adore, protect, and provide every convenience for...so if you're a Neels fan, you chuckle and watch the heroine give as good as she gets, in her own mouselike way. But for 200 pages before she finally hits pay dirt--if you read enough of these things--sometimes, you just wanna slap her upside the head and say, "Wake up, you little idiot. Don't let these people manipulate you that way! Speak up for yourself!"

...because in real life, being sweet, unassuming, and docile--conducting your life "without fuss," as Neels is fond of putting it--won't always pay off in the handsome doctor spiriting you away to one of his many mansions to be cosseted, adored, and protected.

Sometimes, it'll just mean you keep getting beat up. And--just in case in your docile, unassuming life, you didn't realize this--that's not a good thing.

(It's a telling point of some of these romances, indeed, that one of the "endearments" a hero can say to a heroine is, "You little idiot." Followed by, "I love you." Always wondered how those two went together. But...I digress.)

Now, this also isn't meant to latch onto the common diatribe against romance novels that goes along the lines of, "These books encourage women to have unrealistic expectations of love." That opinion is just an opinion, it's debatable, and perfectly intelligent people disagree about it every day. But what this post DOES warn against is the unconscious internalization of the notion that the most desirable quality in a woman is for her to conduct her life and affairs "without fuss." That her ultimate "femininity" is defined by how placid, unruffled, practical, calm, and non-combative she is no matter what the circumstances.  

Unfortunately, some of us simply aren't wired that way.

So that even if that kind of child-woman behavior DOES pay off in some instances--and apparently, in many of them, it did, or these books wouldn't have struck the kind of chord with readers all over the globe to sell so well--it can automatically leave some of us feeling...just a little off the radar. It can make us wonder how long some of these women kept their phlegmatic calm, their serenity, and their humble self-effacement before, one day, it boiled over...and Mr. Doctor saw the "shrew" in his wife come out.

And make no mistake--the anti-heroines in these books ARE the types who are not placid. They're the ones who speak their minds, no matter how petty their thoughts might be--and their thoughts are ALWAYS petty. They're stereotypes of the other opposite, in fact: self-centered, self-absorbed, spoiled, and temperamental beyond all reasonable limits. It's as if to contrast with the quietly beautiful, serene heroine--and all the women in the book who are "nice" and who act just like her--the other side of the feminine coin is 100% "bitch." There are no in-betweens; except in extremely rare instances in a couple of the books, there are no sort-of nice girls who occasionally blow their stacks. There are only spoiled rotten little girls who throw tantrums, complete with stamping their pretty little feet, contrasted with the wise, serene heroine material, who shows up not only in the hero's love interest but in pretty much every other female in his family.

Again...the message here? The desirable--indeed, the virtuous--woman is the one who lives without "fuss." Without, apparently, peaks and valleys of emotion. And most of all, without the need to take up any space, breathe any air that might belong to anyone else, or ask for any rights beyond those of a timid child approaching a parent. In these books, the reward for such behavior is inestimable.

But in real life? Or even--shall we say it--in your novels?

I have come to the conclusion that, in many of my stories, inadvertently I've ended up writing heroines who emulate this self-effacing behavior, this milk-and-water calm; it's hard not to, when you sigh over these good fortunes and realize that this stuff sold like hotcakes all over the world. But inevitably, if you start writing people like this, you may also find yourself trying to hide the places in YOU that aren't up to this unassuming "snuff." And in the process, you'll shortchange both your fiction and your real life...for something that, in all but plaster saints, is almost unattainable--and probably isn't true either about you, where you really live, or your fictional people.

So, as the hosts say on Mythbusters..."Don't try this at home. EVER."
Betty Neels was what you call an "expert."
Her books played under a strict, circumscribed set of rules that sold well in cultures that may be alien to you.
Don't make yourself a stranger in your own skin, or in your own books, by trying to make either your own personality or, by extension, the personalities of your characters fit into that particular box--unless that's how you roll in the first place.

Or you'll spend far too much time retracing, redoing, and rethinking--and having to relearn how to write, and live, "for real."


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