A Romantic Subplot Won't Make Your Female Character Less Awesome

A recent piece in The Atlantic bemoans the fact that the majority of female protagonists in novels have a love interest. To which I say: so what?
Publish date:
July 12, 2013
feminism, books, geekery, classic lit, tamora pierce, the atlantic, M

When I was in high school, my friends and I would frequently discuss which of the characters in our required reading we'd like to bang/befriend/become. Naturally, because we were teenage girls with terrible taste, all the usual big-eyed tragic princes came up: Jay Gatsby, Hamlet, Sidney Carton.

(I usually picked Algernon from "The Importance of Being Earnest," because as the tide is pulled toward the moon, so pulled am I toward maybe-gay British attention-seekers.)

But time and time again, my then-girlfriend would always pick Holden Caulfield.

"Isn't he kind of a jerk?" I'd say, wrinkling my nose.

"NO," she'd insist. "He's smart, and funny, and kind, and way better than all of the rest of the losers he goes to school with." Then she'd prop her chin on her hands, sighing. "I don't know if I want to date him or just be him."

Now that I think about it, she was kind of a jerk, too. This should have maybe been a warning sign.

I was reminded of those high-minded back-and-forths when I read this Atlantic piece that's been floating around for the last few days, in which the author, Kelsey McKinney, mourns the fact that the vast majority of novels written about female characters seem to put the search for romance at the forefront of the plot.

McKinney writes:

While the male characters of literature built countries, waged wars, and traveled while smoking plenty of illicit substances, the women were utterly boring…Like many young adults, I didn't necessarily want stable. I wanted to drive On The Road and stop off in small towns and drink more than was probably appropriate. I wanted to question who I was and be my own Catcher in the Rye. There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don't take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men."

On one hand, I can see her point. The "literary girls" she's talking about are the ones that appear in those required reading lists I'd discuss with my friends -- the Jane Eyres, the Lucy Honeychurches, the Ophelias. Though they have their own inner torments and dramas, the plots of the novels they star in hinge on the movements and whims of the men in their lives.

I know those books are way more complex than girl-meets-boy, but to a certain kind of stubborn, nerdy teenage girl with her heart set on adventure, having Fucking Hester Prynne as your primary literary role model can be a drag. When my friends and I played the who'd-you-be game, we rarely picked female characters, because it seemed like the dudes were having all the adventures.

So if we're only discussing Ye Olde School-Assigned Literary Canon, I'm fully onboard with McKenney's argument. Love those books as I do, they're pretty much all about dudes doin' things. But it's where McKenney extends her analysis into the modern literary tradition that she starts to lose me:

Female protagonists like Orleanna Price of Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible or Margaret Atwood's Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, participate in political agendas, fight in wars, and generally have goals other than their love lives…These women and their goals are the main thrust of these novels, but they all include a love subplot."

To which I have to say: so what?

I mean, really. So what? Unlike the classic novels I mentioned before, even the most cloud-headed teenage girl couldn't mistake the heroines of The Poisonwood Bible or The Handmaid's Tale for only caring about their boyfriends. The fact that a romance (of sorts) exists within those books doesn't delegitimize the protagonists as characters; in fact, I think, it makes them more well-rounded. It positions them as realistic characters who struggle with building relationships as well as protecting their families or overthrowing the patriarchy.

McKenney writes that she wanted to channel Holden Caulfield or Sal Paradise because they didn't trouble themselves with the trappings of love; it was all mouth-bright roman-candle road trips or aimless, misanthropic wanderings around vaguely familiar streets. They were too busy finding themselves to find other people.

Frankly, though, I never loved Holden or Sal. I liked "Catcher in the Rye" and "On the Road" fine as books, but I always thought readers were supposed to hate their protagonists a little. Far from being these complex characters held aloof from the shallow complications of romantic subplots, Holden and Sal struck me as kind of one-dimensional. It was like their insides had been scooped out, leaving them as the perfect vessel onto which young readers could project their desires, confusion and (most often) disdain for everyone else. I mean, no wonder McKenney wanted to be them, right? Everyone wanted to be them, even though, objectively, they're kind of dicks.

Meanwhile, the female characters in the books I devoured as a kid had substance. I couldn't project myself onto them, but I could aspire to be them: Garth Nix's Sabriel, with her determination to rescue her almost-dead father; Eoin Colfer's Captain Holly Short, who had no patience with the Irish genius wunderkind who made the mistake of kidnapping her; Francesca Lia Block's Violet, whose hot-mouthed desire to become a filmmaker and willingness to claw past anyone who got in her way shocked and impressed me even as a kid. Hell, even Cassie from the Animorphs series.

Most of these characters had love interests, but they didn't reshape their lives to fit around them; instead, their love interests had to deal with the fact that they were rarely going to be their partner's number-one priority. You want to talk good role models in literature for young women, you can't get much better than that.

As far as I'm concerned, setting up this dichotomy of Love Interest vs. Legitimate Plot only reinforces the idea that women will, in their lives, be forced to sacrifice their careers or hobbies or dragon-slaying quests in order to go home and pop out some babies. It forces even the reader to hypothetically choose between novels about self-discovery and novels about love, when the reality is often somewhere in between. Removing the romantic subplot for female characters altogether just suggests, to me, that that's what women will have to do in their own lives to "get ahead." And that's neither a reasonable nor, frankly, very progressive expectation.

Obviously, I'm not saying that I think romantic subplots should be required in every novel. But immediately discounting the female protagonists as somehow less valid or admirable because of said subplots is just such a limiting thing to do.

When I was about 18, I met one of my favorite authors, Tamora Pierce. Through some strange stroke of luck, she'd come to the Ithaca Comic-Con, a tiny affair that only filled up half a room of the Women's Community Building. There was no one else there to see her besides one 11-year-old, so my friend Claire and I babbled at her for a half hour about how her characters were so strong and so fierce and so real. (The 11-year-old was deeply unimpressed with us).

Tamora was incredibly kind and didn't seem at all put off by the bug-eyed college students describing how they used to pretend to be mages all the time in middle school. She even showed us the Feminist Power tattoo on her forearm, forever cementing herself in my head as my number one brain-crush. Eventually, though, we decided we'd taken up enough of her time, and started making our awkward goodbyes.

Right before we left, though, I bit my lip and turned back to her.

"So," I said. "Um. Kel is my favorite character, and I always wondered -- who does she get with in the end? Like, she's with Cleon and Dom for a little while, and I always totally wanted her to fall in love with Neal, but in the later books she's always, like, riding horses and training people."

Tamora smiled at me, totally nicely considering that in retrospect, that question was pretty obnoxious. "Kel's busy," she said. "Maybe she gets together with someone later, but I wanted to write a book where her falling in love wasn't the happy ending. For now, she's got stuff to do."

See? Save a kingdom, train a horse, have a few boyfriends, maybe don't, maybe fall in love, maybe not, do your stuff. Whether you're talking about characters or real people, sounds like a compelling, interesting, legitimate plan to me.

Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters