Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Reflection: Thoughts on the Socially Awkward Heroine

A few days ago, I finished Addition by Toni Jordan, in which the protagonist, Grace, compulsively counts everything she comes across.  It got me thinking about other chick-lit or romance novels where the heroine is socially awkward, has OCD and/or displays an obsession with numbers or useless trivia.  I could name 8 or 9 off the top of my head and, when I brought it up with a friend, she added several more to the list.  Which begs the question: why is this trope so popular and what does it say about us as a society?

First of all, I’m yet to read a romance or chick-lit novel where the central male character exhibits these tendencies.  This could simply be put down to the fact that few of us would argue that neuroticism is a desirable trait in a man, and that these genres are usually trying make the male lead attractive to the reader.  

But, on a deeper level, I think it can also been seen as a result of the way Western societies have constructed gender.  The characterisation of women as inherently neurotic goes back over two thousand years, when Hippocrates declared hysteria to be a feminine malady that had its source in a woman’s womb.  In fact, the English word hysteria derives from the Greek hysterikos, meaning ‘of the womb’, the same root as hysterectomy and other modern medical procedures of the uterus.  One only has to look at the madwomen of Gothic novels to see that the association has remained.  The literature on hysteria as a Victorian illness is legion, as is that on Freud.  And while the clinical association between the two was abandoned in the twentieth century, it still lives on in popular thinking.  Women are still widely portrayed as being biologically programmed to be more emotional than men, even though studies have proved there is no significant difference. 

However, literature itself is highly gendered, and this too might play a role into the extent to which socially awkward heroine trope appears in so-called ‘chick-lit’ novels.  The feminist academic and writer Joanna Russ argued that stories centring on male characters were presented as universal to the human condition, while those about with female protagonists were not.  She also classified a number of strategies used to belittle books written by women, including its denigration as ‘populist’.  Although she was writing in the 1970s, her observations are still relevant today.  For the most part, novels with female authors and protagonists are marketed as lightweight reads, with gendered covers. Author Kate Hart highlighted the extent of this when she counted and classified the covers of all the YA novels published in a year:

Right now, you’re probably going “What about Gone Girl?  Or [insert other serious and well-regarded female-based novel here]?” but this is one of Russ’ points: that a novel written by a woman and featuring a female protagonist may well-received by critics and gain prominence accordingly, but these are exceptions, and are vetted by a series of literary gatekeepers before they are allowed into the realm of ‘serious’ fiction.  Novels such as Gone Girl can also be seen to be a backlash against the chick-lit-isation (that's totally a word) of women’s writing.  In order to be taken seriously and avoid the death knell of a gendered cover and blurb, female authors purposely write ‘misery lit’.  For an excellent deconstruction of this - and the gendered nature of literature in general - have a look at 'The Way We Talk About "Women's Lit" is Sexist' by Courtney Young.

There are undoubtedly many books out there featuring male protagonists with the traits I’ve mentioned, but they’re marketed according to their content, so I’d never read them.  

(EDIT: 1/8/17I have since read some neurodivergent heroes, mainly in m/m, and I could speculate on the reasons for that until the cows come home, but I won't. For good examples of neurodivergent heroes, see K J Charles' The Unseen Attraction or Cat Sebastian's The Lawrence Browne Affair. It is interesting to note that male characters are much more commonly labelled neurodivergent than female ones, who remain 'quirky'. As a further aside, this post, which was one of my earliest, is very heteronormative and uses different language than I would choose if I wrote it today, but I am leaving it as-is for posterity's sake.)

Had Addition, the book I’ve just finished, had a synopsis that mentioned the character’s “internal struggle” instead of focussing on her relationship with her boyfriend, I probably wouldn’t have read it either.  Don’t get me wrong, it was good, but a little too poignant for me.  And, in researching this post, I found a book entitled OCD Love Story on goodreads, which had several reviews to the tune of “Don’t believe the title and pink hearts on the cover, this is some serious stuff”.  If I'm not alone in this, then perhaps the incidence of the socially awkward heroine in chick-lit and romance could simply be a result of marketing that assumes that a book about a woman has its sole market in women. 

Just like anything, the socially awkward heroine can be seen in different ways.  Although I've focused on her as a potential vehicle of oppression, she can also be seen in a feminist light. Perhaps her quirks prove that women are as human as the 'universal' represented by a male character.  Maybe she proves that women don't have to be perfect, or live up to societal expectations that expect both too much and too little of them. 

Overall, I don't think we can place parameters on the socially awkward heroine in as being one thing or other - each writer, and each reader will construct her differently.  And hopefully, one day, the marketing surrounding her will reflect this as well.  In the meanwhile, here are some of my favourite examples of the trope:

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