On Heroines with Agency
Earlier this month I—like most of the women I know—saw Wonder Woman. I came out of the theater babbling gleefully about bits that made my night. I’d like to see it again on the big screen, which I don’t often say, and my husband and I will add it to our collection when it becomes available. (I mention my husband here I think it’s significant that he, a long time superhero fan who introduced me to the joys of Marvel and DC, also thought the movie was terrific.)
I’m almost afraid, though, to say I didn’t find Wonder Woman the life-changing experience some fans found it. It’s a terrific superhero movie and I love that neither Diana nor Steve becomes a lust object for the camera. The filming is done in such a way that the fact that both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are exceptionally good-looking people isn’t a focus of who their characters are. Competent? Check. Smart? Check. Able to kick serious ass? Check. Reasonably calm while coming to terms with being in an entirely new version of reality? Check. That they’re easy on the eyes is almost a bonus feature. (Compare to the focus on Black Widow’s ass in black leather in the Avengers movies...or for that matter, any time Thor is shirtless in the same movies. The camera lingers to make sure you have time to ogle.) But I think it seemed less astonishing to me to see a heroine not depicted through the “male gaze”, a heroine who’s doing her own thing but is glad that someone competent (who also happens to be hot) has her back, than it was for a lot of people.
You see, I write science fiction romance and paranormal romance. I read romance and urban fantasy, obsessively.
I’m used to heroines with agency.
While the romance genre used to be famous for heroines in need of rescue, it’s no longer true. While the genre still has its share of capture romances and women who need rescuing by tough guys (who in turn need emotional rescue), there are plenty of women doing the rescuing. Better yet, couples bond while battling aliens, or dealing with demons—or dancing through challenging reality together. Sometimes she’ll get in over her head and need some help, sometimes he will. But they’re both strong and competent and they find each other’s abilities just as sexy as their bodies. Granted, our heroes are always hot, and they always find the heroines compellingly beautiful. It’s part of the fun. But at its best, romance shows women in a central role and celebrates true partnership between women and men (and men and men, and women and women, but in this point I’m talking more about relationships between women and men.) In my opinion, the subgenres that deal with the out-of-this-world and the otherworldly do it particularly well.
But whether you’re enjoying an interracial pair of Civil War spies (Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union); a pair of cyber operatives infiltrating the headquarters of alien terrorists (Cara Bristol’s Trapped with the Cyborg); or two powerful supernatural beings from opposing factions who can’t decide if they want to shack up or murder each other (basically anything in Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series), you can find plenty of women with agency and men who love them that way, even though they occasionally want to wrap them in something soft and protect them. And even in old-school “bodice rippers”, you’ll find heroines such as sea captain Skye O’Malley in the book of that name by Bertrice Small. Definitely some rapey moments that’ll make most modern readers uncomfortable, but she’s an Elizabethan pirate...or is that privateer...who matches wits with Queen Elizabeth and wins. What’s not to like?
I’m not saying romances with tough, fierce heroines undermine the importance—or the fun—of Wonder Woman. Just saying that comics and movies, often created with a male audience in mind, are finally catching up with the heroines, and the dynamics a genre written mostly by and for women has featured for a long time.
Author Bio: Teresa Noelle Roberts is the author of a science fiction romance series The Chronicles of the Malcolm, which is full of tough, smart heroines working with and sometimes rescuing their heroes, and several kinky romances featuring submissive heroines who are anything but outside the bedroom.
Teresa is a geeky granola girl who enjoys belly dance, superheroes, yoga, cooking, hiking, playing in the ocean, and growing more vegetables than she and her husband can possibly eat. She’d enjoy sleeping too. She thinks. But it takes so much time!
She shares her home in southern Massachusetts with her husband, a Leo in law enforcement, and three cats. She and her husband often plan vacations around food, history, and/or proximity to water.
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