Those Strong Women & Their Stronger Lovers

The following post has spoilers for RAMPANT. If you haven’t read RAMPANT, consider yourself warned.

Yesterday, I discovered a review of Rampant online. Which pretty much makes it a day ending in -y, but this one had me on the verge of hysterics. I love reviews that make me look at my own work in a new way, and this one made me look at it in a way that was simultaneously off the wall and yet, made a lot of sense.

Here’s the whole review. (Bonus: the reader loved the book.)

Here’s the part that had me and Sailor Boy laughing our butts off:

And oh yes, the tall mysterious stranger who regularly saves Astrid’s life, spouts meaningful broody comments about her destiny and is possibly flirting with her? The if-this-was-Buffy-he-would-be-Angel character? It’s a unicorn.

Now, my pal Sarah Rees Brennan has long advocated for an Astrid-hearts-Bucephalus love story, and I have long advocated that she should seek professional counseling on this matter, but I never put together the reason that she feels this is so right and true — and now I do. It’s because, in the story, Bucephalus’s role is the one usually filled by the wiser/more cynical/world-weary/advisor dude who totally has the hots (or vice versa, or mutual) for our naive heroine. Think Han Solo and the virginal, white-clad Leia. Think the Goblin King Jared and all the advantage he tries to take of the nubile Jennifer Connolly (man, that movie is disturbing. The more I think about it, the more disturbing it gets.) Aragorn and Eowyn. Buffy and Angel. Angel’s a few hundred years old and he spends the entirety of the first season ridiculing, reluctantly saving/assisting, advising, and blowing off Buffy (my favorite line of the series might be when Xander, by far a more noble character, is basically like, WTF, really?), and, also, he wants to get in her pants.

You see, boy heroes in fantasy get elderly wizard-types who are conveniently killed by the enemy. Girl heroes get sardonic older-but-sexy types who want to sleep with them.

So that’s interesting.

Ways that Bucephalus is like Angel:

  • Knows more about heroine’s powers than she does
  • Knows more about heroine’s enemies than she does
  • Has been secretly watching over heroine
  • Is older and more experienced than the heroine (bonus points for WAY older)
  • Possesses more than a little cynicism and world-weariness
  • Is not entirely trustworthy to heroine, not least because
  • Is someone that the heroine should, by rights, be killing.

Ways in which Bucephalus is nothing like Angel:

  • Does not want to have sex with the heroine.
  • Is not seeking redemption in any way.

And the redemption, to be honest, is pretty Angel-specific (or, hell, let’s say vampire specific, as another dozen examples pop into my head). Lord knows David Bowie’s not looking for any of that nonsense, and Han Solo is pretty much dragged kicking and screaming into the whole rebellion thing. So, aside from the sex, we’ve got ourselves a character type. A type that does not actually map to “large venomous bovid species” so much as “hot dude in tight pants.”

Sarah, everything makes so much more SENSE now!

And yet… no. There will be no hot hot hot Astrid/Bucephalus action in Ascendant.

Dmitri and Rose. Bill and Sookie. Eric and Sookie. Poor Sookie!

But I wonder how much our reactions as an audience are mapped out for us by these stock character roles. I remember watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (really hate that I have to specify lately) and waiting and waiting and waiting for the episode where Iroh dies. You know, because he’s the elderly wizard-like advisor who is coaxing Zuko back toward the side of good. And then, when he doesn’t (ironically, the actor voicing him did), being really shocked. Not really knowing what to make of it. You see, I’d had him written off as Merlin/Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore. And he wasn’t.

So maybe Sarah’s theories about Bucephalus as tortured romantic hero weren’t — as I always accused her — a product of her unique and uncanny ability to latch on the most unlikely romantic pairing in any work of literature to great comic effect, but rather a reflection of our indoctrination into this trope of fantasy fiction — the sardonic older protector who takes the pretty young thing under his wing (or hoof, as the case may be) and is hella sexy to boot.

Poe and Amy. Yowza. And that’s not even fantasy.

And there’s a lot to be said here on the topic of why a (primarily female readership) is interested in this paradigm. Even if the women are strong, the men must be stronger? Does the girl have a special power? The men’s power has got to be bigger and better? He has to know more about it than she does? Is that true? I remember the guidelines for the old Silhouette Bombshell line of action-adventure romances. They were looking for strong heroines and heroes who were their match.

I wrote a book aimed at that market, about a very strong woman who owns a security company and hires an agent who doesn’t like to play by the rules. They fall in love. In the revision letter, I was told to cut her backstory (she started the company to avenge the kidnapping and death of her younger sister), make HIM the owner of the company, and have him hire her, who was to be reassigned a generic military background. Oh, and could I set it in South America instead of Europe? And dump the plot?

Suffice to say, I did not do those revisions. I’m not sure what kind of book they were looking for, but it clearly wasn’t the one I wrote. I offered to write them a different book. And what stuck with me most out of all the things they asked me to change was the way they wanted the power dynamic of the characters to switch. They didn’t want HER owning the company and hiring HIM (even though he was incredibly knowledgeable about both the business and the case they were on. (And therefore mapped pretty well to the paradigm.) He was as smart as she was, as good an agent as she was, as well trained in martial arts and use of weaponry as she was… (actually, he was an explosives expert).

It was many years later that I began writing Rampant, and from the beginning, I knew I had a very different romantic plan for Astrid. She’s strong, physically, and she’s very brave, and she has special powers, but the man for her is not the one who teaches her how to use a sword, or knows more about her magic than she does. Because I believe that strength can be complementary as well as corresponding. Giovanni strength is his normalcy. He’s a rock in her very unstable world. Which I suppose makes him the mirror of Bucephalus.

Seriously, this is all making sense to me now. I just thought that Irish dame was spouting nonsense.

Posted in feminism, other writers, romance, story, unicorns, writing life

26 Responses to Those Strong Women & Their Stronger Lovers

  1. This is a proud day for me.

    How quickly the seed grows to a flower.

    Of course Ascendant won’t have the love connection. Oh no, oh no, you’ll make us wait.

    But in book THREE – Astrid/Bucephalus. It is the truth, man. I know you’ll see.

  2. Tiff says:

    Ok, I confess that I was much more drawn to Bucephalus than I was to Giovanni in Rampant – I think because that “wise advisor” dude always has the information that the girl needs – and for me, knowledge is always the sexiest thing. But who’s to say that a girl couldn’t be the wise advisor to a boy at some point? And who’s to say that Giovanni doesn’t have his own knowledge to impart to Astrid?

    I totally understand the Astrid/Bucephalus thing, though. I think I’m just more on the Tiff/Bucephalus wagon than anything else. =)

  3. Malinda Lo says:

    I just have to say this entire post was FASCINATING. Now I’m going to be seeing sardonic older protectors who wanna get in the heroine’s pants all over the place. Wow, George Michael’s “Father Figure” is going to be stuck in my head all day!

  4. Lisa S. says:

    Ok, I do NOT see the Astrid/Bucephalus love connection AT ALL but maybe that’s just me. I am not for the strong, older guy dominating the young, sometimes helpless girl. And I guess you could say that I am not for animal/human love connections either (except for Lady Hawke but that’s on an entirely different level).

    I don’t like Edward Cullins, Henry Higgins, Jareth the Goblin King (although I love David Bowie), Angel, or any of these types. I was Team Riley when everyone around me was Team Angel. I am Team Jacob, Team Peeta, pretty much any Team Normal Guy. I fall for the guys that are more real and ground the main character. They’re not weak but they accept that – in some cases – their girlfriend is stronger physically or mentally. Riley could train with Buffy but they both knew she took it down a few notches for him. And I have a friend that argues that Gale being stronger and older than Peeta is more of a match for Katniss. But who said Katniss needs someone physically stronger than her? And who said Peeta is weak??? Peeta is NOT weak physically or mentally. He also understands Katniss and helps to ground her.

    Please someone explain to me the whole hot-for-the-older-guy-who-makes-the-girl-feel-stupid-and-weak thing! Do you yourself really want to be with someone like that?

  5. LisaS – Well, as I am the shameless Astrid/Bucephalus girl in the audience, I’ll take it. ;)

    Not even slightly hot for anyone who makes me feel stupid or weak. And indeed I agree with you – Team Peeta forever.

    But I do like a guy who is part of the (sometimes magical!) adventure, and who can be helpful and who will be both growing with and helping the heroine to grow. As Peeta’s wily ways helped them both in the Hunger Games!

    Domination = in no way cool. (Uh, personally. I judge nobody for what they like!) But someone interesting, with their own past, who can push the heroine out of her comfort zone, that I am a fan of. (So long as she pushes him back…)

  6. Saundra says:

    I only find the crashy-crashy interesting when both characters are completely nuts (like in Wuthering Heights.) Otherwise, I like my couples to be equally strong in their own ways, and complementary. I was never a Buffy/Giles shipper, even though Giles is plainly hot stuff.

    I don’t ship in Rampant at all, though. I’m like… Astrid/Power. Astrid/Destiny! :D

  7. Such a fascinating post! I think we are conditioned to expect that whole strong woman needs stronger man idea. It’s really cool that you didn’t go with the trope, and it actually makes me want to read your book:)

    I see myself as a “strong woman,” but I always butted heads with the “stronger man.” I ended up with a guy who tempers my own ambitions, who makes me slow down and enjoy life. I never really got the draw of strong (often jerky) guys.

  8. Diana says:

    Giovanni is very valuable to Astrid in this way. He has fought off his own demons and emerged on the other side with a clear idea of what he wants. . I guess you could also argue that he does have information she doesn’t, and he does save her life on two occasions, though not with weaponry.

  9. Diana says:

    Lisa, I’m not sure where Gale is depicted as being stronger than Peeta. He, um, knows how to hunt. But then Peeta starts throwing boulders around to scare the other tributes and impress folks in the training room. And they are all the same age.

    It really is just people having this odd prior preference for Gale (you know, because he and Katniss loved each other first) and trying to justify it using any fool means they can, rather than just admitting the only argument they have is that Katniss loved Gale FIRST and it’s neither of their faults that Katniss was sent out to the games.

    Which, you know, is kind of the point of the books, and I think SC made that point very well in CF, where even Katniss is like “But I love Gale! I love him because… um… well, I loved him first. And poor Gale, he’s so poor, adn was stuck here forced to watch me and Peeta snuggle to stay alive,a nd now he works in the mines, and Peeta and I live in the lap of luxury… so I *should* love Gale… I mean, right?”

    Any argument that Peeta is somehow “weaker” is on its face laughable!

  10. Diana says:

    SRB, I am very interested to see what you think of Giovanni as the story goes on.

  11. Carol B. says:

    I like my characters in any strengh dynamic but I prefer they learn something from each other, and perhaps that’s why i like the older advisor guy. Angel, Dimitri, and Giovanni all have areas of knowledge that the females don’t. Demons, how to be an excellent guardian/warrior, and art history, respectivly.
    In turn Angel & Dimitri learned that there’s no need to be quite so sulky and brooding and that friendship/loyalty are important and lasting. Giovanni got to learn about a whole new world he didn’t realize existed.

  12. Diana says:

    I have NOTHING against Gale. He’s a nice guy. They are both nice guys. No one is the loser here. But this whole bizarre “gale is dangerous” thing makes no sense to me. It’s like they are making up some other whole character that’s not in the book.

    It’s almost like what they have against Peeta is that HE LOVES HER and is willing to be forthright about it.

    I think it was well handled. My vote’s still on Peeta.

  13. Diana says:

    Sorry to kep going on and on about Peeta. ;-)

  14. Brilliant post, Diana. Hits so much EXACTLY on the head. The expectation that the boy will be “stronger” (whatever that means) than the girl keeps coming up over and over again. Even more powerful is the notion that the girl will get with a boy by the end of the book and that that’s the only happy ending. It’s so hard writing against those expectations.

    For the record, I am very fond of Giovanni.

  15. Lisa S. says:

    Sorry to get you going on the Peeta subject, Diana. I completely agree with you though. Peeta is not weak. I was just saying that my friend believes Gale to be this tall, dark, handsome, strong, mysterious guy that Katniss should be falling all over. This friend makes me ask, “Where did you get THAT Gale from?” Maybe she sees Gale that way because he hasn’t been as forward as Peeta? But I disagree. A guy who is open and forward is stronger to me than one who isn’t. Oh well, to each his (OR HER) own.

    I remembered someone else I want to add to the list of fictional guys I hate: Ranger (Stephanie Plum series). Why does Stephanie even WANT a guy she knows nothing about, who doesn’t want to commit, who puts her down and makes fun of her when she already has a guy who loves and accepts her? HUH??? Anyway, go Team Morelli!

    Wow, this is long … again … but I have to add a thanks to Sarah Reese Brennan for answering my question. I think I understand a little better where you all are coming from. :)

  16. Diana says:

    Yeah, I dont get that either. I even went back and tried to FIND that Gale in the text. It’s not there. It’s a total invention by Gale fans.

  17. Jennifer says:

    This is HILARIOUS! I had to go to TV Tropes and link it on the “Sexy Mentor” page.

  18. Lell says:

    Really gonna have to read this series about Katniss and Gale and Peetna now. I AM with Lisa S on the Morelli side of the debate, though.

    Two things stuck out to me from this excellent post:

    1) Another reason Angel and Bucephalus are alike? Strange, pointy foreheads.

    2) I would think that an Astrid/Bucephalus relationship (Ascephalus?) would work much better if, say, Astrid were descended from CATHERINE the Great rather than Alexander the Great.

    Tasteless historical jokes aside, so much WORD to this post. The worst types of romances are when the characters aren’t on even footing at all. If one character is clearly superior to the other in everything, it’s a major turn-off. It reads like a bad 80s novel with “punishing” kisses and all that tripe. Yes, one partner can be more skilled at something than the other, but as long as they’re both bringing something to the table, so to speak, by the end of the story, it’s perfectly fine. I could rave about how Poe and Amy are one of my favorite book couples because of this, but you’ve heard that one from me. So I’ll just end by saying another great example of the relationships mentioned above would be my favorite Pierce couple, Daine and Numair.

    (And just by checking Wikipedia, I found out she’s writing two Numair books. Excuse me while I go do a happy dance)

  19. Alexa says:

    Love this post and the comments! Lell you cracked me up with point 2!

    I’m a huge Giovanni fan because he is normal and I do like normal boys (of course it always helps if they are super hot and speak Italian too) and this all kind of set my mind to rest about worries I had for Giovanni in Ascendant. Yay for normal.

    And now I have to go and watch Labyrinth and David Bowie!

  20. MaryK says:

    I have to admit I’m only vaguely familiar with a lot of couples referenced. And I’ve not read Rampant yet so I can’t comment directly on the Astrid/Bucephalus question. :(

    But I can contribute my reason for usually liking the “sardonic older-but-sexy types.” For me, it’s all about the power – because power is sexy. ;D [Age is irrelevant, actually I prefer not older.]

    I’ve never seen myself as powerful or identified with powerful heroines so that’s probably a factor in my attraction to powerful (rather than normal) literary males. Readers who can identify with a powerful heroine might be less power-hungry in their choice of hero. For me at least, the attraction of “stronger” is about acquisition of power rather than subservience. If you have no power, you ally with power.

    This is an interesting topic!

    Anyway, my completely unsolicited/uninformed advice is, if you want Giovanni to trump sexy power make him clever, because clever is very sexy.

  21. Diana says:

    Interesting perspective, MaryK. Unfortunately, Sarah’s preference is just plain nuts. There is no coupling with Bucephalus. Bucephalus is an animal. And Giovanni is already a character, not one in development.

  22. MaryK says:

    LOL! But her post makes a very compelling argument!

  23. Shveta says:

    Excellent, excellent post.

    I hate that we have been conditioned to expect these things and often don’t recognize that we’re just reacting to conditioning. Personally, I find it refreshing when there isn’t a love triangle in a YA novel.

    And I’m totally with Saundra on the Astrid/destiny thing. Me, too!

    (And finally, yes, there’s no dangerous, mysterious Gale. Sorry.)

  24. Michelle says:

    Hmm, interesting theory, but aren’t we largely ignoring the fact that the big difference between the Buffy/Angel types of relationship, and the Luke/ObiWan relationships, is the fact that one is between acceptable sexual partners (ie: a member of the opposite sex), and the other one is not? I was trying to think of a relationship between a boy and a female mentor figure, but I couldn’t really think of any…unless you count the femme fatale figures, in which case the irresistible attraction seems to mirror that found in the Buffy/Angel relationship. The best I can come up with is D’Artagnan and Milady de Winter.

  25. Diana says:

    Michelle, that is PRECISELY the point. That the trope is that the female’s mentor is so often seen as a sexual one whereas the male’s mentor is so often seen as an asexual one, that people assume that whenever a male mentor appears to a female in a story that there WILL be a sexual element to it.

    That’s what makes it a trope. Why aren’t there more sexualized female mentors for male heroes? Why aren’t there more asexualized male OR female mentors for female heroes?

  26. Holly says:

    Actually, I’ve seen one case of the roles being reversed, with an attractive female mentor to the male protagonist, in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney video game. Mia Fey is Phoenix’s mentor, and is quite flirty with him.