opinionated rant

Envy and the It-Couple

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INT. FAMILY ROOM – EVENING

DESIRABLE MALE is dating EVIL HARRIDAN. They are the it-couple of their social circle. NOBLE HEROINE waits in the wings, longing.

READER quietly gags into a barf bag.

The above lines are actual stage directions from the scene that occurs every time I encounter this trope.

Reason #1

For me, “dating an evil harridan” immediately disqualifies a male from being desirable. I don’t care if he’s the nicest, sweetest, best-looking-est dreamboat ever to sail the seven seas. If his girlfriend is truly as awful as all get-out, he’s lost all sympathy from me. He’s choosing that sort of person to spend his time and affection upon, which brings into question his value system and his ability to judge good or bad character in others.

And you can give me a song-and-dance about “But she pretends to be nice when she’s around him, so he’s being completely deceived,” but I will call BS. There are red flags, always. A selfish person can’t pretend to be selfless 100% of the time, and the more selfish, the more likely those little cues will leak out.

Unfortunately, when people are in lurrrrrve, they often choose to brush off the red flags because lurrrrrve makes people twitter-pated and foolish.

But twitter-pated, foolish people are not desirable. So again, I have no sympathy for the guy.

Reason #2

This trope pits women against each other. “He would be better off with me. She’s not good enough for him.” Feelings of envy and discontent are bad enough, but when directed from one woman against another, it tears down all women collectively. I realize that’s a broad statement to make, but we have enough messages pitting us against one another already. Can we drop the competition in this one instance, please?

“But I’m better than her. I deserve that relationship more than her.”

No. No you don’t. No one is better than anyone else. Stop with the envy, stop wishing other people the misery of breaking up, stop being an all-around bitter shrew. If the relationship really is doomed, it doesn’t need your help, and there are probably a lot of lessons both parties need to learn in the process.

(Yes, this is the dialogue I have with fictional characters embroiled in Pining from a Distance. Also called Stalking in some states.)

Candid Time with Kate

I had the very unpleasant experience a few years back of having successive encounters with a woman who wanted me to date her son. She talked this guy up to me every chance she got, and every time, some new detail would surface.

He had a girlfriend. Of several years. Who lived in another country. And who was 12-15 years younger than him. And very beautiful. And belonged to a different faith. And was the one who had pursued him, not the other way around.

I tried to be discouraging. I told her point-blank, as soon as the detail of his having a girlfriend came up, that as far as I was concerned, he might as well be married. He wasn’t available and I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be trying to set me up with him.

Would that that had been the end of it.

The next time she brought him up, I asked, “Is he still together with his girlfriend?” in a “Why are you still talking to me about this guy?” tone of voice.

“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t think it will last for much longer.” Then, with a secretive smile of camaraderie, she added, “Keep praying.”

To channel Cher from Clueless: “As if!”

As if I would pray for the demise of a relationship. As if I would play the role of the Other Woman. As if I was even remotely interested!

The setting in which we met prevented me from saying, “Lady! I would never in a million years want to date someone who would willingly choose the type of relationship you’re describing!” Far from thinking this younger, exotic woman was an evil succubus (as the doting mama intended), I felt sorry for her. The guy was leading her on, keeping her dangling in a “relationship” for years because she was enamored of him. It was easy work on his part.

And I was supposed to be pining for this bloke?

Hahaha. No.

And yet, if his mother’s repeated attempts were any indication, she was convinced I would be just that desperate. Thanks bunches.

For me, if the pattern doesn’t fly in real life, it doesn’t fly in fiction. There’s no hope I’ll sympathize with a character who pines for a man already in a relationship. And I certainly won’t be rooting for her to end up with the dreamboat, no matter how dreamboat-y he is.

If it’s literary fiction where everyone is supposed to be flawed and miserable, that’s one thing. But when this is portrayed as a normal behavioral baseline, I’m out.

Sorry, not sorry.

How It Should Have Ended

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This is the very first Average Everygirl comic I drew. In fact, it’s where her name originated. I had taken to doodling plot points that annoyed me, and really, what’s more annoying than the Wealthy Sociopath as a Love Interest scenario?

Sadly, this premise goes all the way back to the dawn of the English novel. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published Pamela. Its plot? A chamber maid evades her noble employer’s repeated sexual assaults by fleeing or fainting (or both); when he finds he cannot have his way with her as he pleases, he marries her instead.

My favorite part of the book is its subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.

“Congratulations, Pamela! You’ve successfully escaped several traumatic attacks on your person! Now you get to marry your would-be rapist! Hooray!”

It really is that bad. The guy paws and pursues her. He intercepts her letters to her parents. He yanks her onto his lap, kisses her against her will, rips her clothes, hides out in her bedroom closet, and gets into bed with her—once with a female accomplice holding her in place while he cozies up on the other side. Pamela’s faints and fits are the only things that save her, though the astute reader will discern that we don’t actually know what happens to her in those blackout periods. We only have her attacker’s assertion that he didn’t do anything, and he lies about that to other servants, so why would he tell the whole truth to Pamela?

Later in the story, after they’re married, it comes to light that he previously seduced another working girl, who then had his baby and is off living in another town with the child. So it wasn’t just Pamela ur so hott i need u now. It was I’m so rich I can do whatever I please with whomever I want and have no lasting consequences. What a gem.

In a perfect world, the novel would have consisted of one letter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

My employer tried to molest me, so I punched him in the face. Am packing my things and will be home shortly.

Your devoted daughter,
Pamela

Instead, we have two volumes of Pamela gushing about dozens of contrived situations. Mr. B, despite his repeated assaults, never gets charged with anything. He never even suffers from a tarnished reputation. He’s young and rich and hot, and all his “foibles” stem from his youth and wealth and hotness. He displays red flags like the feathers in a peacock’s tail, but his servants dismiss them because he’s their employer. Meanwhile, we are supposed to dismiss them because everything turns out “happy” in the end.

Haha… ha…

Yeah.

The public at the time ate the story up. It was preached from pulpits as an ideal of virtuous, womanly behavior. And while I can agree that, yes, we should run from our attackers, Pamela is hardly a role model. For one thing, she continues working for the squire despite his repeated, often violent attempts to seduce her. She also doesn’t reject his offer of marriage when it finally comes around. She hems and haws over whether he’s sincere or trying to trick her, but ultimately she gives in.

He’s reformed, you see. The right woman has that effect upon a man. It’s the Power of Romance™.

And it’s utterly, utterly false.

The great shame of Pamela, and of the many other novels of its ilk that have followed since, is that it neutralizes fundamentally repulsive behavior with something as shallow as money and a handsome face. Even worse, it sends the message that when a man inflicts violence upon a woman, she secretly wants it and she’ll eventually accept it if the conditions are right. In other words, she likes the repulsive behavior; she just doesn’t know it yet. The man and the audience both do, however, and we revel in her journey of enlightenment. Or at least, we’re expected to.

I don’t. Of all the subversively destructive literary tropes, this one really chaps my hide.

But Pamela at least has an excuse: it was written by a man. Richardson was a product of his era, when women were property and marrying well ensured them a comfortable life. He did break boundaries with a working-class heroine who entered the ranks of nobility, but the mess of a story undermines that message. In the end, the sole triumph of Pamela is that it spurred Henry Fielding to write Shamela and Joseph Andrews, both parodies of this literary atrocity.

A literary atrocity, I remind you, that reincarnates every time an impossibly rich, impeccably hot, implicitly abusive hero swaggers onto the page.

Stuck in a Delusional Rut

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Yes, I added little fangs and animal ears to my heroes. Yes, I possibly have too much time on my hands. (Lol, no I don’t. I’m just persnickety about minuscule details and end up using my precious time poorly.)

TVTropes.org lists 13 different types of Triangle relationships. The possibilities, when those relationships get used in tandem with additional characters and sub-triangles, are seemingly endless.

Why, then—seriously, why—is there such a rampant literary run on the basic “Character A must choose between Character B and Character C” scenario? Relationships are not items on a menu.

“I’ll have a steak, medium rare.”
“And what type of Love Interest would you like to go with that?”
“Ooh, I think something rich and robust, with a hint of humor. What do you recommend?”
“We have an excellent selection of Alpha Males.”
“Yes, I’ll take one of those. Surprise me.”

Characters B and C are never ordinary. They’re, like, the state-championship-winning quarterback vs. the hottest guy in school. Never someone from marching band, or that one guy who’s nice but has absolutely no ambition in life. They’re always valedictorian-team-captain-youngest-CEO-rock-star heroes. Because that’s realistic, two of the most desired and eligible men fawning over the same Average Everygirl character, as though no other available women exist in that particular universe. (Maybe it’s an ego thing…? The two studs are rivals in everything else, so why not vie for the same girl?)

The whole supernatural angle jacks this trope up all the more, if that’s even possible. Look, Average Everygirl! You’re loved by a fairy prince and a warlock! In a world where both are rare! Because of course!

I love a good fantasy. You know what’s not good fantasy? When two non-standard (“elite”) characters hone in on the same target love interest, whose sole appeal is that he or she is the protagonist of the story.

Let me repeat: whose sole appeal is that he or she is the protagonist of the story.

Houston, we have a problem. This is not storytelling. This is pre-teen girlish dreaming about what if I’m secretly beautiful and ALL THE BOYS can see my inner awesomeness that I don’t even know I have and then they’re all so into me and I have to decide which one is my soulmate for reals and forever??!?!?!?!!

*high-pitched squeeing into a faux-fur body pillow for next 3 hours*

And then, somehow, the pre-teen daydream of hidden awesomeness translates to a Character A who’s outwardly bland or off-putting, with a side of tortured inner monologue to spice things up.

Call me cynical (I do), but I have a hard enough time connecting with most protagonists already. When I encounter a churlish, emotionally unavailable harridan with a buzz cut, and she’s somehow having to fend off two Hot Guy Love Interests™ with a stick, I’m done. Reality has stopped. Verisimilitude has not engaged. My interest is aborted and if I stick around, it’s for mocking purposes only.

The focal point of the triangle has to have some genuine romantic appeal. Moodiness is not romantic (unless you’re Lord Byron). Bitterness is not romantic. Sarcastic wit is not romantic. Most people have egos that are soft and spongy and easily wounded, and trying to have a relationship with someone who is perpetually sour leads to hurt feelings and estrangement, not, “Oh, but I know your true inner goodness and love you for it.”

And yes, fiction is fantasy, but this romantic pattern of “Underwhelming Character somehow attracts not one, but two extraordinary lovers” is beyond fantasy. It’s delusion.

Delusion.

Wake up. Craft a better plot. The end.

(Not really. There’s still one more comic in this set.)

A Trope to Set a Girl’s Teeth on Edge

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Why?

Why, why, WHY?

Why is this trope so pervasive, especially in chick-lit? Do we delight in watching fictional women get reduced to babbling incoherence in the presence of attractive men? Is this a reflection of real life? Do women really lose their self-control in similar situations? Do other women enjoy observing it? Is it schadenfreude?

SO MANY QUESTIONS!

I just about lose it every time I run into this Hot Guy scenario. The heroine starts out as smart, witty, cool, together, and then in walks Mr. Perfect and she’s a mess. Take a deep breath, girlfriend. Momentary self-consciousness I can handle, but the endless gambit of physical missteps and brain-to-mouth misfires is just embarrassing.

I know, I know. “But the drama, Kate! Where would the drama be?”

Speaking of drama, my favorite Shakespearean play was the one where that hot guy showed up and the girl started rambling and falling all over herself. What was it called again? Oh, yeah. Much Ado About This Doesn’t Happen in Shakespeare. You want drama? Match your characters’ wit to a solid plot.

Ahem.

Probably my biggest issue with this trope is that it perpetuates the narrative that pretty people are better than everyone else. This is especially true when the Hot Guy gets paired with the Girl with Low Self-Esteem. Why does such a heroine become all tongue-tied and clumsy? Because she’s usually not pretty (at least in the predictable pre-makeover stage she’s not), and because his interest in her gives her value.

Except that it doesn’t because the whole narrative is rubbish and we need to chuck it into the trash bin.

On the one hand, we have female protagonists wallowing in self-pity (lamenting plain appearances, or how all they want is for someone to love them, or so forth) and on the other, we have aesthetically ideal male love interests quizzically intrigued by said wallowing females. I will not claim to understand the mind of the common Hot Guy. Maybe he’s like a bird, colorful himself but attracted to a drab little mate. Maybe my skepticism for this plot line draws too much from my own experiences. (Seriously, it bears no resemblance to any form of Real Life that I’ve ever encountered.) Maybe I’m just being fussy.

Okay, we all know I’m being fussy. That’s what I do.

For me, it all boils down to sloppy story-telling. The bumbling heroine is much easier to produce than a Beatrice or a Rosalind. It’s far more compelling to put the guy up on a pedestal like a trophy to be won, so that the reader feels that thrill of triumph when the conquest occurs. Even though it’s the guy doing the conquesting. Because the Girl with Low Self-Esteem is an object to be acted upon, so of course the guy doing the acting should be hot. The object is worth more that way.

(Cue violent retching here.)

And please don’t get me wrong. I do love a handsome hero. But handsome is as handsome does, and no description of his chiseled jawline is going to remedy a character who simply strolls smirking into every scene and ultimately gets exactly what he wants. (And oh, the smirking! When has smirking ever been attractive?) The Hot Guy is typically the total package: looks, brains, wit. If he sweats, he has a “manly musk” instead of body reek. If he’s disheveled or scarred, it’s somehow dashing. He’s not foul-tempered; he’s “brooding” or “aloof” (Translation: “better than you, so allowed to act as he pleases, even when such behavior would be socially unacceptable in others”).

There’s a psychology behind all of it—there must be—but I’ll be darned if I understand it.

Or, well, I do. Our society values pretty people. We all want to be one, and we all want to be loved by one.

At least, that’s what the Hot Guy would like us to believe.

And he’s hot, so he would know, right?