Romance Pet Peeves: The “Other Woman”
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in romances, it’s when only the heroine gets to have a happy, fulfilling sex life and all other women are trashy sluts. That just feeds into a patriarchal view where a woman’s sex life belongs to her husband–where she’s allowed to feel desire, but only as long as it’s carefully defined and limited to a set of arbitrary circumstances that change depending on who you talk to. Women who feel desire outside of those imaginary boundaries are lesser, and deserve scorn and repudiation.
Of course not every romance writer goes to this extreme, but frequently the “other woman”–usually the hero’s ex–is portrayed as a villain. She’s manipulative, uses sex and seduction to get things from men, is catty and rude, can’t let go of the hero, and is a total slut-bitch-whore-etc.
And that’s bullshit.
You can probably tell that this subject riles me up, so let me tone it down a bit before I go full-fledged rant.
Here’s the thing about being sex-positive. I don’t degrade anyone for choosing to have sex. Or not to have sex. That includes anyone who prefers uncomplicated physical relationships that may only last as long as a single encounter–as long as they’re always honest and upfront with their partners and practice safe sex. I don’t judge you if you’ve had a thousand lovers, or none. That’s your choice, and I respect your right to do whatever you want with your body as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.
But in traditional M/F romance, there’s this tendency to want to have our cake and eat it, too. We “need” a strong, virile hero who has bedded hundreds of women and become an exquisite lover (and don’t even get me started on sexual double-standards for men). We also “need” a reason for him to stop living his wild and carefree lifestyle and settle down. And here’s the thing. Writing that resolution takes hard work. You have to carefully craft your characters and their conflict so that the lovers end up discovering truths about themselves and love by being together. You have to make them work as a couple.
This is a very, very hard thing to do. What’s easier is to make the heroine look good by making the hero’s exes look bad.
This depiction of the wanton former (sometimes current) lover/mistress is particularly pernicious and prevalent in historical romance, where, for better or worse, I have at least one foot (the other is firmly in fantasy romance). Authors in this genre sometimes take the easy route and establish said woman as a coarse, fleshy (they’re always well-endowed–as if to say that all fat women are sluts), whiny, and demanding bitch who refuses to accept that her lover has moved on and plots to get him back–usually by harming the heroine.
And of course, the blushing virgin heroines espouse what the writer believes was the prevailing belief of the day, deriding the easy/loose/whorish women that their rakish lovers bedded before finding true love between their untouched thighs. But as Lani Diane Rich says, “reality is no defense for fiction.” Even if a sheltered, well-brought-up young woman would have had a negative reaction to meeting her husband’s former lover, that doesn’t mean the author has to agree with her.
Sometimes, the writers are good enough to then slap the heroine in the face with the reality of those women. Yes, there are a few nasties, but there are just as many, if not more, mean and awful women in the “pure” upper classes. In the best books, the former mistress is played not as an object of revulsion (or pity) nor as a prospective villainess, but just as a woman, doing what she needs to do to survive in a world built to keep her at heel.
In contemporary romance, there isn’t even the excuse of history (which is a flimsy excuse anyway). Just don’t go there, writers. We call people who make themselves look good by putting other people down bullies. Don’t bully your characters for the sake of your hero and heroine. Do a better job writing the romance so your lovers don’t need a negative comparison to prop up their characterization.