It’s not often that I get ranty in public (though my brain is one big ol’ rant these days – looking at you, SCOTUS), but I have THOUGHTS about – you guessed, it – books. And the patriarchy, naturally.
Long ago, when I’d moved on from horse books to my parents’ shelf of The Classics, leatherbound and clearly just for show on the shelf – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, and more – I discovered Pride and Prejudice. It scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. I devoured Jane Austen’s sadly tiny backlist, including Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, but there was one I just couldn’t get into: Emma.
Who, young-me wondered, could like Emma? She was bossy and, let’s face it, bitchy. She gaslighted her friend, and she led on Mr. Elton, who seemed like a nice guy, nothing like P&P’s Mr. Collins. And she was a bitch to poor Jane Fairfax, who seemed much more like a Jane Austen heroine than Emma herself. I put down the book.
A few years later, after another handful of rereads of Pride and Prejudice, I picked up Emma again. This time, I saw the nuance in Austen’s portrayal of Emma. She winked at me (almost two hundred years in her future) and said, Look, I know Emma’s not perfect. She needs to grow. Watch how she does it.
I was a fan. I’ve reread Emma almost as often as Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve loved its various film adaptations (special shoutout to the 2009 miniseries and my personal favorite, Clueless). And I think I figured out what changed. Spoiler alert: it was me.
Speaking of spoilers, when I read Olivia Dade’s All the Feels, the second book in her Spoiler Alert celebrity romance series, her dedication spoke to me: “To all the little girls who learned to stay quiet and not take up space in the world. May you find your inner harpies and demand your due, at long last.”
Yes, I was one of those little girls, raised Catholic and Southern, who did what she was told. Quietly. I got good grades, I behaved myself, I slouched in the back row of the class photo so I wouldn’t be as tall as the boys. How would a young girl like that identify with Emma, who brashly took the head of household role from her father? Who spoke to the much older Mr. Knightley as an equal? Who demanded her due from others in her social circle?
Many, many years later, I read Angelina M. Lopez’s Lush Money. I saw others' criticisms that the billionaire heroine was too bitchy, too bold. It gave me pause when I saw her take and manipulate and control. But I recognized that as my internalized patriarchy trying to have its say. I shoved it back down where it belonged – sadly, I’ll never get rid of it completely – and later read After Hours on Milagro Street. Another heroine who knew what she wanted, another set of complainers saying, “But did she have to be such a bitch?”, another 5-star rating from me. By the way, you should read Angelina's post on unlikeable heroines. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Last week, I listened to the You’re Wrong About podcast episode about Martha Stewart. Like many, I remembered Martha Stewart as a villain, someone who tried to make me add domestic shit onto my already overflowing plate, and who got her just deserts by going to prison for insider trading. Man, was that podcast eye-opening. Martha was a scrapper – still is – who leveraged her talents and pursued her interests. I’m paraphrasing here, but Sarah Archer noted that Martha just did what she enjoyed and had help for the rest – a lot like a man.
Dammit, patriarchy, get out of my head.
Back to books. Recently, I released the latest in my workplace rom-com series, Forget Me. I knew Mimi was prickly as I wrote her. She’s part of my journey to explore and eradicate my internalized patriarchy. I wrote her as a wounded, flawed person who sometimes takes out her troubles on others – though not nearly as often as she does it to herself. Who has her own inner voice telling her she’s not good enough. Who lashes out. Who apologizes. Who finally discovers her own worth. Who finds her voice.
I made Mimi like a lot of alpha male heroes being written today. Driven. Focused. Not interested in making nice unless it advances her agenda.
To make it interesting, I paired her with Mateo, the softest golden retriever/cinnamon roll ever. Who shows a more feminine side. He cooks. He helps his aunt and his cousin. He adopts a kitten.
And I expected – and received – some reviews like this: “Mimi gets one star, Mateo gets five.”
I’m no Jane Austen. Maybe I was clumsy in showing Mimi’s growth. Maybe I didn’t get everything I intended onto the page. That’s on me.
But as you read a prickly heroine and she makes you uncomfortable, maybe consider your relationship with your own internalized patriarchy.
I’m going to keep writing flawed heroines. Sometimes they’ll be a palatable kind of flawed, and sometimes you’re going to want to slap them. I promise, they’ll always grow. Maybe they’ll never be the sweet, quiet women you want them to be, but by the end of the book, they’ll be rock-solid in the recognition of their worth and their rights as human beings.
I hope you will, too.
Me, I’m still growing.