What Makes a Good Heroine?

I'm a big fan of the classic romance. Chivalry is not dead! However, I do demand that the heroine of the equation meet certain criteria (I likely have a similar list for heroes, but it is far more subconscious and visceral; however, I'll think about it and come up with a list for heroes at some later date). I consider heroines that don't meet this criteria to be very dull.

My list follows with examples from four television shows.

1. The heroine needs to have a job, interest, or hobby.

Boring heroines don't do anything.

For example, Bones (from Bones) is an anthropologist, crime fighter, and writer.
Scully (from X-Files) is a doctor and FBI agent.
Major Carter (from Stargate) is a physicist and engineer.*
Lois (from Lois & Clark) is a reporter.

2. The heroine takes positions on issues without getting defensive.

In other words, the heroine assumes that she has the right to state her mind. It isn't about telling off the big, bad, patriarchal man. Boring heroines either react or spend all their time marking their territory.

Bones has opinions about people, religion, and events even when she admits to a lack of expert knowledge. She has supreme confidence in her expert knowledge.
Scully has definite rational opinions about Mulder's theories. She also trusts her own experiences/senses and backs her own judgment.
Major Carter takes judicious stances on all issues.*
Lois has passionate and personally felt opinions about EVERYTHING.

3. The heroine takes action when there is a conflict and often saves the hero's life.

Boring heroines waffle, question themselves, and wait around for some action to be taken to which they can react. They rarely save anyone's life except sometimes small children and pets.

Bones shoots people. She also convinces Booth to take certain actions (such as going into the hospital).
Scully shoots people and often takes actions that put her in conflict with either Mulder or the bureau. She will step out of line to help Mulder, such as when she tracks him down on the ghost ship.
Major Carter shoots people. She also comes up with ingenuous scientific solutions that end up saving people's lives.*
Lois follows up dangerous leads and helps Superman, such as when he is blind (she rarely shoots people).

4. The heroine does not wait around to be rescued (no matter how often that happens).

The boring heroine is always being protected/rushed after. The boring heroine also needs constant reassurance from friends/family/the narrator that nothing is her fault (she is protected from emotional as well as physical ramifications).

Bones always fights back and struggles. For example, she blows up the car she is trapped in, alerting Booth to her presence. She often admits to being wrong about people and takes Booth's suggestions.
Scully uses her best judgment to save herself. For example, she decides to leave cancer treatment for her own reasons, not due to Mulder's paranoia. She struggles with personal issues on her own. (Admittedly, this may not always be the best approach, but it sure beats having people create a cozy, consequence-free zone around the heroine.)
Major Carter rarely needs to be rescued. In fact, she saves the spaceship and crew trapped in the gas nebula thingy (despite suffering from a concussion). She goes through totally ordinary ups and downs. She always fixes her mistakes.*
Lois is always being rescued. But she picks herself up and re-enters the fray again! She will admit, reluctantly, when she is wrong. She opens herself to Clark, radically changing her life. She faces up to whatever comes next.

5. The heroine defends the hero's right to be a hero.

This may seem like an odd attribute, but I think it explains the success of many romance novels. So he's an alpha male? So, what?! Get over it!! Too many modern romances create a struggle in which the heroine either beats the poor male into submission or, without making any real choice, collapses beneath the literal and metaphorical weight of his alpha-ness.

Bones consistently defends Booth's status as an alpha male. She tells off Sweets when he tries to cast Booth in the "strong but silent/can't talk about his feelings" mold.
SWEETS: Must be a challenge for you to access those feelings.
BRENNAN: Okay, stop. You don't know Booth. You don't know me; you have a limited view of us based on superficial data you've accumulated on a standardized questionnaire, and a subjective analysis from talking to us that is not at all scientific, so BACK OFF.
SWEETS: Just trying to help.
BRENNAN: By questioning his humanity?
Rather than undermining Mulder (as the evil minions hoped), Scully's support takes him out of crackpot status and gives his idealism a certain credibility.
Major Carter does not need to defend Colonel O'Neill. She supports him by being on his team and following orders like a good military officer.*
Lois defends Superman's role in society and later Clark's right to fulfill that role.

6. Last but not least, heroines have a sense of humor.

Boring heroines care about their figures, their attractiveness, their clothing, their relationships, and not much else. They never see the humor in the wackiness of life (which ages people, changes trends, and creates absurd, often silly human beings). They liked to be teased affectionately, and they will be delighted by children's antics. They do not make jokes, especially not about the serious, overwhelming world around them.

Bones plays the straight man to Booth's antics, but she goes into fits of laughter over obscure medical issues. Bones and Booth together create great patter.
BOOTH: Um, maybe he was rolled up in a carpet.
BONES: Where's the carpet?
BOOTH: Well, it rotted away with, you know, the meaty parts.
(Bones bends over, laughing hysterically.)
MISS JULIAN: Dr. Brennan is suspended from all crime-related duties.
BOOTH: What?
BRENNAN: For laughing at Booth?
BOOTH: That really doesn't bother me.
Scully also plays straight "woman" to Mulder's antics, and she is absolutely fabulous at rolling her eyes.
MULDER: He just wants some dating advice.
SCULLY: From whom?
MULDER: Yours truly.
SCULLY: [Long silence while she stares blankly into space.]
MULDER: Hello? Scully?
SCULLY: Mulder, when was the last time you went on a date?
MULDER: I will talk to you later. [Hangs up.]
SCULLY: The blind leading the blind.
Major Carter isn't particular jokey, but she finds Jack amusing.
SAMANTHA CARTER: Normally neutrinos pass right through ordinary matter, no matter how dense. I mean, something like five hundred million billion just passed through you.
JACK: No matter how dense.
(Carter smiles to herself and shakes her head.)
And Lois IS the person with all the antics. Although I usually get bugged by female heroines who talk incessantly about their personal problems, Lois is so funny and charming and self-aware, she doesn't bug me.

So, there they are: the six criteria that make for a good heroine. *Major Carter receives an asterisk because in many ways, she falls into her own category of awesomeness. She never has to prove anything. She just is smart and amazing, and that's enough.

But then again, Stargate really doesn't focus so much on romance.

Note to producers and writers: If you are making a romance, make sure the heroine is somebody worth rooting for!

The Mike-Kate Video Club began last Friday. Since the first video under discussion is Buffy, I thought I would mention here that Buffy meets all of the above criteria. She has a job (she slays vampires); she takes positions on issues (even if that position is having a politically incorrect Thanksgiving dinner); she takes action and saves all kinds of people's lives (Jonathan: "We're proud to say that the class of '99 has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history, and we know at least part of that is because of you."); she doesn't wait around to be rescued, and she's doesn't get all dopey until that horrible season, yes, you know which one I mean; she defends Angel but also kills him: ain't love grand! and she has a sense of humor.

Join us for a discussion of the Buffy pilot and more!


Jennifer said...

Samantha Carter - beyond awesome, absolutely. Reasonable, intelligent, absolutely essential to her team - not just an accessory. She's great.

Lois Lane, though... Hmmm. Can't really agree with that one. She's always been my personal example of the Too Stupid To Live heroine. She just doesn't think before she gets into dangerous situations. "Oh, look, it's something dangerous! I have no adequate preparation, no idea what I'm doing, but that's OK, I'll charge right in anyway! Besides, Superman will save me!" Of course, I will concede it depends on which version of her you're dealing with. Usually, though, she's thinking with her emotions, which is a quality that just drives me crazy.

I don't mind a heroine responding emotionally - flaws and quirks make for an interesting character - but I find a heroine whose primary reasoning is emotional, very annoying. My favorite heroines are more logical (Bones, Sam, Scully).

(Your reviews of Bones, BTW, got me interested in watching and now I'm hooked.)

Kate Woodbury said...

I admit, including Lois is rather like saying, "Which of these characters is not like the others?"

I also admit, I dislike the Margot Kidder fawning Lois (from Christopher Reeves' Superman) although I like her voice, and I despise Smallville's petulant Lois.

Teri Hatcher's Lois (Lois & Clark), however, completely amuses me. She ought to annoy me, so I've tried to figure out why she doesn't.

I think it's because she is so honest and so willing to face whatever comes next: kind of like a less snarky Cordelia.

Also, this Lois Lane, unlike the other two, always encourages Superman to put his superhero role first. On several occasions, she buoys up Clark when he has doubts about the good Superman does (she puts his role in context), and on at least one occasion (time traveling episode), she makes sure that Clark becomes Superman. She puts the needs of the many over her own needs.

This is refreshing change from the whiny "Clark, why do you have secrets from me? Why can't you just be there for me? Why can't you be my boyfriend?" blah blah blah.

And she stills gets her workaholic man! This is not terribly realistic, but, hey, Lois & Clark is a VERY 90's show!

Isn't Bones great! I'm rewatching Season 1 and liking it as much as I ever have.

Eugene said...

I would add to 5: The heroine defends the hero's right to be himself. She will not win by "taming" him. She savors the tension between them that arises from their differences. While that tension will pull their personalities toward each other, to lose it would be to lose their own individuality.

Pride and Prejudice starts off with Elizabeth wondering why Darcy can't be like Wickham, and ends with her realizing that the last thing she wants is for Darcy to be like Wickham. As Kate points out, Darcy is an introvert, and though that trait might shift a bit, it's never going to change.

Mike Cherniske said...

So, this article tickled me to no end, as with two added sentences, this would be a perfect argument against categorizing Bella from twilight as a heroine, or rather,it's perfect for pointing out why she's so awful as a heroine!