25 May 2015 - 3:11 pm

Weak-kneed Women

Does it always have to be this way? (Picture by Frank Kovalchek)

Does it always have to be this way?
(Picture by Frank Kovalchek)

It’s a standard trope in romance (and its raunchy cousin, erotica) that the lead female character will go all weak-kneed and silly at the mere sight of the male lead. (Quite often, it happens vice versa, too.) The character is utterly helpless and unable to think of anything but swooning into his arms, or smooching him, or both, plus nakedness. In erotica, she gets wet just at the thought of him and just about drools all over him whenever he’s present.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the situation is, whether the characters like each other, or whether it would be natural to think of something like that. Man pretty, must lick appears to be the sum of the thoughts available to her while he’s in the room, unless she exerts particular will.

I understand that it’s a pretty standard trope in romance. I understand how it’s romantic and exciting. I get it, I do, and I enjoy romance stories.

But outside of the romance genre, these tropes have quite different impacts, like when it creeps into other genres. It’s particularly noticeable when the character is otherwise not like this.

For example, in Jane Austen, it fits to have a woman be all overcome by the presence of a man and rendered speechless or stupid. When that same reaction happens to a hard-nosed detective with a gun on her hip who is quite capable of punching men in the face, it comes off somewhere between eye-roll-worthy and ridiculous.

I’m talking about ‘strong’ female characters. I put ‘strong’ in quotes because the term has come to encompass many things. I don’t just mean three-dimensional characters (any lead should have this, in my opinion). What I mean in this case is female characters who are proactive, act with agency and confidence, and don’t rely on men to fix their problems. They’re self-reliant, skilled, and capable. They’re often presented in a professional context and are good at what they do.

Until the male lead walks into the room. Then, abruptly, her strength flies out of the window and all she can think about is the fluttery effect he’s having on her. Insert something even remotely bone-able into the scene and she goes all weak. It’s often described with words like ‘undone’ or ‘disarmed’, or a reference to losing all conscious control of herself. Usually, this is the only time she shows this kind of character weakness.

It jars for me. It throws me out of the story. It feels like a trope from another genre that has been shoe-horned in to tick a box: romance subplot, check! It feels clumsy to me, like the author doesn’t know how else to have two people experience being attracted to each other.

It just doesn’t feel natural for these characters. I’ve read several examples of this in crime and science fiction stories, and it bewilders me every time. It sticks out like a giant, throbbing sore thumb. It undercuts the character and her characterisation.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that strong characters can only be strong or that they can’t have weaknesses. I believe quite the opposite: characters should be balanced, have a healthy dose of both, and I have a great fondness for flawed characters. But they have to be strong in ways that make sense for them, and they have to be weak in ways that make sense, too. You can’t just grab six from column A and six from column B and call it balanced. Most of the time, this particular presentation doesn’t make sense.

Why would a ‘strong’ woman have to go all weak and silly at the sight of a man she’s attracted to? Quite often she loses all consciousness of where she is and what she’s doing, completely distracted by the ‘effect he’s having on her’ and often winding up standing there like an open-mouthed guppy. Why is it never given context that might explain why she would have such an extreme and debilitating reaction? Who does this? Seriously?

Why can’t she have a more mature reaction, something that doesn’t make her seem like a silly teenager who has no idea what a relationship is like? How has she not learned how to deal with this? We’re never told; we’re expected to just accept this particular weirdness as if it fits.

Why? Because she’s female and we all react that way? Please.

This has frustrated me for some time (you can probably tell), and I still can’t figure out why it keeps happening. I feel like I’m missing something.

Part of why it annoys me is that it undercuts a woman’s independence so much. The reaction is usually completely involuntary, and many times unwanted (because she despises the man at that point in the story). She’s a victim to these feelings, helpless to do anything about them, helpless to fight them. She is, quite often, completely unable to fight them and loses.

In a time when we’re fighting to have women presented in positive, progressive ways in the media and entertainment, this is particularly worrying. That the mere sight of a particular man can completely undo a woman we’re supposed to view as ‘strong’ and ‘capable’ and maybe even ‘modern’ is not a good pattern to my eyes.

It’s also worth pointing out that the times I’ve noticed this pattern (because I’ve been thrown out of a story by it) have all been written by women. This isn’t a case of men being unable to write women (an accusation that I’ve often heard and don’t agree with as a generalisation).

There are so many ways to be attracted to another human being; going all weak-kneed and wet at their presence is just one of them. A character can notice a physical attraction without being overcome by it. A character might not be self-aware enough for that! A character can have some self-control and some connection with his or her own emotions and desires.

There are ways to write a romance into another genre without bringing the romance genre’s cheesier tropes with it. There are ways to write a romance that will allow a character to be strong, susceptible to love, and be seduced, all at the same time. There are ways to have her make mistakes and give in to urges without making her a victim to them.

It saddens me how few good examples of strong women in romantic plots I can think of. Zoe in Firefly is the first one that springs to mind: completely in love and happily seduced by her husband, without being undone or undermined by him. Anne McCaffrey’s books are often referred to as ‘romances’ (despite their scifi settings) because there’s often a romantic plot involved, and she has stories full of female characters who don’t go all weak-kneed and useless at the sight of their love interest.

In these examples, the romance is organic and natural. The attraction is sometimes there from the beginning, sometimes not. But there’s never a huge spotlight shining on the love interest whenever he swans into the scene. The females don’t feel the need to go fluttery. They can be adults with a lot of different stuff going on. And I like that.

In the interests of equality (which I fully believe in), I have to point out that male leads can be equally disarmed and distracted by their love interest. For them – particularly for alpha male characters – it is a chink in their armour, a weakness they fight against. But it is still weakness. Quite often, one they despise. I am not a fan of this depiction either: the woman doing this to him is bringing him down, making him less. Gee, thanks.

It’s not like I think that women shouldn’t – or can’t – have strong attractions to men (and vice versa). My main problem is that it feels so out-of-character. It can undercut so much about a character. And it’s so tired and overdone.

It feels like a step backwards, like a perception that we can’t quite shake. I think we can be better than that.

Can’t we try a little harder and show other ways for people to be attracted to one another? Can’t we work to make characters make sense?

Can’t we let women be strong and sexual without making them victims?

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  1. Kat says:

    This is a trope that drives me spare. I’ve never met a woman who has lost the ability to speak or function because someone pretty walked into the room. Maybe when we were teenagers, but even then most of us managed to bumble our way through a sentence.

    I’ve also never seen someone swoon, so maybe I’m just hanging around with the wrong people.

    What you said about the male version of this is so true- the idea that a relationship conquers or lessens a man really disgusts me. It’s weird to me that it’s seen as some form of personal evolution or completion for a woman to be in a relationship, but it’s an almost traumatic event for alpha male protags. I can’t speak to the male experience of falling in love, but I’d like to think it’s more enjoyable than being doused with pepper spray and kicked in the balls.

    May 26th, 2015 at 11:29 am

  2. Francisco says:

    I’m glad that I haven’t read those books. The romantic stories I’ve read have, for the most part, been fairly realistic.

    May 26th, 2015 at 2:14 pm

  3. Mel says:

    Kat – I’m so glad it’s not just me. When did being physically attracted to someone become a failing? Why can’t we embrace that side of ourselves, without becoming whores or sluts or ‘easy’? Why can’t becoming a couple make us more, and not less?

    There are examples in the world where the answers to the last two questions are ‘but we can’, in life and fiction. I strive to add those examples.

    Francisco – you are lucky! Keep doing that. 😉 Realistic characters are wonderful.

    May 26th, 2015 at 3:29 pm

  4. Daniel says:

    I did the weak knees thing once. I got shut down hard. Which is what my writing group should have done.

    I find it hard sometimes to *keep* female characters strong all the time, sometimes they fall through the gaps and get stupid without my intending for it. And I’m not even a romance writer, like at all, so the fact that I don’t write the genre means… I don’t know what it means. That it bleeds through all genres, isn’t just a romance thing, I guess? That it’s the mark of a less experienced writer, that we have to learn to curb that tendency and avoid using it as much as possible, and understand that it means weakness, and it can be so out of place with a strong female character (SFC).

    As for my example, I was told how to do it right and I fixed it up. The character is like “mm, he’s alright” and then doesn’t get all weak and clueless. “Do it like that, every time” was their message. I haven’t really had the opportunity since, but I have kept my female characters fairly strong to varying degrees. Okay, so two male characters save two female characters (maybe I should change one of these) and there’s different responses.

    One acts in the moment to slay a monster baring down on yon fair damsel (she sniggers at that) and she kisses him, then they’re both a bit giddy and in love a bit after that. The other guy finds out his girl’s being held captive by a Men’s Rights Activist and rushes to her rescue; she gets herself out, kicks the badguy’s ass, and he arrives just in time to see it happen.

    I don’t think either is weak, although they have moments where they’re in trouble. This being an action/adventure sort of series, you can’t really escape the tropes involved, but you can turn them on their heads, which I’m considering doing so as to present the notion that these four have each others’ backs, no questions – another’s in trouble, they’ll come running, end of story. Because friendship is a theme.

    May 26th, 2015 at 4:50 pm

  5. eltimbalino says:

    After meeting my (female) partner, I frequently lost my ability to string words together, found myself unable to sustain a train of thought and felt foggy and stupid in her presence. Not just for a blinding moment, this went on for months and I was very concerned that she must think I was an idiot.

    I’m a capable, confident, 46 year old male who finds it hard not to jump into leadership. So it happens. Does it happen often enough to justify the cliche? No, I doubt it. Have I ever had that effect on a woman? Never.

    I do agree the weak-knee reaction should be heavily scrutinised before it passes edit, but I don’t know if strong people are less susceptible to it than others. I would much more likely doubt it in an emotionally shallow, overly logical or self centered character, than a strong one.

    May 26th, 2015 at 8:24 pm

  6. Mel says:

    Daniel – it’s not that romance stories can’t/don’t have strong characters; it’s this particular trope that tends to crop up in romance stories (and can make perfect sense there) sneaks into other genres where it doesn’t fit so well. That you don’t write romance means that it’s probably stemming from more social influences and possibly reflecting stereotypes. It’s great that you fixed it up. Thank goodness for constructive feedback!

    I’m not saying that female characters have to be strong all the time, either – they should be strong (and weak) in ways that make sense, in the scope of the character and story. I like that your group supports each other. They should all be strong and weak in their own ways, and what that means depends on what’s happening in the story around them.

    eltimbalino – thank you so much for sharing that! I completely accept that it can happen in real life.

    I’m more looking at it through the lens of characters and characterisation. I think the main problem for me is that it’s such a departure from the character I’ve come to know, and it’s very seldom explained or given any kind of context. Because it is something of a departure from that person’s norm (as it was for you!), it bears some explanation and possibly examination. Otherwise, why include it in the story? I think it would be hard to pull this type of reaction off without it taking over the whole story – at which point, you’re probably writing romance, not the crime or scifi book I have in my hand. At the very least, it would become the focus for a portion of the story, which is likely to impact the pace and flow.

    For me, tossing this type of swooning reaction into a non-romance story comes off as laziness, falling back on a trope to shoe-horn a romance sub-plot into an otherwise hectic story, rather than taking the time and effort to make it make sense. Or it’s used as the character’s ‘one fatal flaw’, which again smacks of laziness. People are more complicated than that, and this type of reaction is pretty rare. Part of the problem is that it’s not rare in fiction.

    I completely agree that this type of reaction would look even weirder on an otherwise aloof, disconnected, overly-logical, or self-involved character. I’m not sure it would have the same effect, though. On them, would it come off more as a ‘humanising’ trait, connecting them to another person in an obvious way? Personally, I have only seen it used badly on ‘strong’ characters (female leads and alpha-type males), usually in a way that weakens them and usually to enable a romantic sub-plot.

    I’d love to see a reaction like this used or explained in a way that illuminates something in a character without weakening them or taking over the story. Are there any examples out there?

    May 27th, 2015 at 3:49 pm

  7. Daniel says:

    I think it’s best to lead with strongness and then go into weakness, because you have to make characters likable right-up. Also if the first trait readers see is weakness, that can put a female reader off, probably. My group seem like they can’t stand any weakness though. I might be wrong, they may tolerate it but I’ve done it wrong, or something else entirely. I think it was just that one time, when I wrote that one character as a swooning damsel when she’s a gun-toting airship captain and should be the one rescuing handsome princes. I think they had the right reaction.

    May 27th, 2015 at 5:19 pm

  8. alexander hollins says:

    Late to the party on this one, but I second the looking at anne mcaffery as the way to look at it. In the second crystal singer book, she appreciates the guy’s facility with his hands with making something and playing an instrument, discovers that he has perfect pitch, something already important to the story, is getting a little riled up, and then. He SINGS. Well. And as a singer herself, NOW she’s having a hard time thinking about anything other than banging him like a screen door in a hurricane. Its a progression.

    June 4th, 2015 at 2:04 am

  9. Mel says:

    (Sorry for the delay; catching up on stuff today!)

    Daniel – I don’t think that weaknesses necessarily make a character unlikable. It’s all about how you use it, context, etc. Strength doesn’t mean likable, either; plenty of great villains are strong, but that doesn’t mean you sympathise or like them much.

    I hope it was just that one reaction to a specific instance of a weakness that your group was reacting to. If they remove all weaknesses from characters, that would be a warning sign for me, because it makes them very 2-dimensional.

    Alexander – so true. I love the Crystal Singer books. It’s probably the most on-the-nose of McCaffrey’s romances, but it grows naturally and deepens the character without weakening her /as/ a character.

    June 9th, 2015 at 12:57 pm