Is there a place in fantasy fiction for physical beauty? For old-fashioned romance? Or have we reached an age when even in the most escapist of literary genres the beautiful heroine who falls in love is deemed passé in the best-case scenario, and in the worst case downright misogynist with a “trigger warning” slapped on the cover?
Debut author Erika Johansen, who made headlines in 2013 for landing a seven-figure advance from HarperCollins to publish her first book called The Queen of the Tearling, would like us to question the very place where beauty and romance abound. Her book, out this month, has been billed by her publisher as a “female-version of Game of Thrones” and is being made into a major motion picture starring Emma Watson. In a piece at Buzzfeed entitled “Why We Need Ugly Heroines,” Johansen argues that “the predominance of romance in women’s literature is stunningly unrealistic.”
She takes issue with two main themes in fantasy fiction: first, their heroines are just too darn pretty; and second, they have plot lines overly reliant on romance, and therefore men. In conclusion, Johansen urges audiences to demand more from their books and for heroines to reflect “real women with their priorities in order, to whom both male and female readers can relate.”
That last point, who can argue with that? Wouldn’t books where women demonstrate they get how the real world works and with whom readers can relate be a success? Yes, and they are. So why are we acting like these books are few and far between? These books in the fantasy genre, and even in “chick lit,” are a dime a dozen. Paula Brackston, Diana Gabaldon, Cassandra Clare, and Richelle Mead are just some of the bestselling authors who portray women as more than their sexual urges. Their commercial success and literary merit has very little to do with the physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) of the central female figures or if they have a main love. They are successful because the authors tell a compelling story.
The fact is, books with pretty heroines and love lives reflect aspirations that we don’t need to be ashamed of or reject in books. And when they are coupled with a captivating story, we should celebrate those books, not shun them as outdated and oppressive tools of some secret plot in the literary world to advance a patriarchal agenda.
Consider Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett
When I think of fiction with strong female heroines I automatically go to Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. I love these books, and they are often held up as paragons of literary success. Additionally, the central female figures are not pretty. Let’s do a quick breakdown of the heroines, shall we?
Jane Eyre: 18, plain, independent, quiet, rejected by her family, school teacher/governess, refuses marriage to a man she doesn’t love, ultimately marries Edward Rochester (after abandoning him when she finds out the truth about his first wife). Jane marries Rochester after his wife dies, he is badly burned, and she realizes she cannot live without him.
Elizabeth Bennett: 20, plain, independent, outspoken, essential to the fabric of her family’s life, bucks social convention, refuses marriage to a man she doesn’t love, accepts marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy (after an initial rejection) once she realizes that he would put her family’s interests above his own and that her love is paramount to his pride.
There are some parallels between these two heroines, but let’s currently focus on the obvious. They are not exceptional beauties (true, they are not disfigured, either) and they initially reject the men they love to uphold the principles they hold dear, such as loyalty and honesty. These are real women, not cookie-cutter females who need to fall in love to justify their own self-worth. A question to ask, though, is: Would these books today be lauded any less if Austen and Brontё had made the heroines a little bit prettier? I doubt it.
You could argue that these characters are so insightful and interesting to read about because they are not pretty and they’ve compensated for their lack of appearance through wit and understanding of human emotion. But I call bullshit. Austen and Brontё were exceptional writers, and their books succeed because of the depth of character they convey, which could be achieved if the women were plain or even labeled “pretty.”
Beauty Is Interesting, Too
Pretty girls or—dare I say it?—beautiful girls can be interesting too. Katniss Everdeen, Daenerys Targaryen, Susan Pevensie, Dominique Francon, Anna Karenina, and Scarlett O’Hara are just a few of the popular heroines we love not because of their beauty but because they are interesting and exquisitely rendered as complex characters with emotions that seem all too familiar to the rest of us.
While romance is essential to the plot lines of both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, does it define these women’s personalities? Absolutely not. They are both independent and prepared to face the challenges of their lives without a man. At the time when both of these books were written, most of the critics thought they were garbage, equating them to what we call “chick lit” today. But lo and behold, they are now some of the most frequently taught books in high school, resonating with male and female audiences and reflecting nuanced messages about character and morals of real women. They may not fall in the genre of contemporary “fantasy” like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, but when they were written in the early to mid 1800s they might as well have been—as they shattered the predominantly male mold of fiction at the time.
Now that we’ve established what could be considered acclaimed literature with realistic heroines—how do modern-day fantasy books with pretty heroines who fall in love compare? Well, they can’t, because the comparison isn’t possible. How can we understand how books of today will be viewed 150 years from now, when novels such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were initially brushed off as smut?
The most fundamental human expectations and dreams remain what they’ve always been. We are attracted to beauty. We believe in love. We think romance is something to be cherished if we have it; something we want if we don’t. This is the “happily ever after.” All of this comprises what it means to be a human being. So naturally these themes find their way into our books. Is it really escapism to want to read books that revel in love and romance and beauty? Maybe, but it feels more like human nature to me, and not so far from reality.
Love and Beauty Are Human
I didn’t get a seven-figure book deal like Johansen, but I’m a fantasy writer, too. My first book, Tentyrian Legacy, has romance and attractive heroines, most notably the main protagonist Arianna Parker. It’s a story about a young adult’s path of self-discovery. Among her more unsettling revelations is that she’s the prophesied descendent of an ancient Egyptian vampire race. From childhood to adulthood we follow Arianna’s struggle with mental illness, college, and being a successful finance executive. She is headstrong, smart, and certainly not reliant on a man.
She’s also beautiful. Why? Because I wanted her to be.
I’d like to think her strength of character tells a compelling enough story without me having to get mired in discussing physical insecurities to make her feel “real” or constantly making banal observations about body weight and image issues.
Arianna also falls in love, but I’d also like to think it doesn’t define her or make her seem less in touch with the challenges before her—like having to save the world from an apocalyptic disaster.
I’m certainly no supermodel, and most of the time I have food on my shirt that my seven-month-old son threw at me. But you know what, when it comes time to pull myself together, I put in an effort because I want to feel pretty and not like the disaster I sometimes am. I want my husband to say, “You look beautiful” just as much as he says, “Honey, you are smart.” Because no matter how you slice it, appearance is a defining characteristic of who we are—and so, for that matter, is romantic attachment and being in love. It’s an emotion that is distinctly human; if we only went through life worrying about paying the mortgage and getting the next raise, well, that’s a pathetic, miserable existence.
Let’s face it: there are a lot of terrible things in life. However, there is also a lot of beauty and romance. I refuse to think beautiful heroines and romantic plots send bad messages to women. In fact I think it says the opposite.
My book is not the next Pride and Prejudice and it sure won’t sell as many copies as The Queen of the Tearling. It’s not like Tentyrian Legacy is becoming a movie like Johansen’s starring Emma Watson…
But, last time I checked—Emma Watson was gorgeous.
Elise Walters is a fiction writer based in Pound Ridge, New York. Her debut book, Tentyrian Legacy, is out this week.