The Emergence of the
Lesbian Romantic Hero
and the Plot She Thrives In

DC Bardfest October 2004

Remarks from a Panel by Authors:
Jane Fletcher, Jean Stewart,
Radclyffe, and Lori L. Lake

The Hero and The Lady
by Radclyffe


The Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary defines hero as 1 a : a mythological or legendary figure endowed with great strength, courage, or ability, favored by the gods, and often believed to be of divine or partly divine descent b : a man of courage and nobility famed for his military achievements : an illustrious warrior c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities and considered a model or ideal d : the principal male character in a drama, novel, story, or narrative poem

The fact that every one of those definitions refers to a man says a great deal about how the attributes of heroism have been traditionally assigned. I don't disagree with the fundamentals of those definitions - a hero needs to demonstrate bravery, honesty, nobility, and a strong sense of duty.

On the other hand, as an author primarily of romance fiction, my interest is in a particular kind of hero, namely the romantic hero. According to an English professor I queried as to the definition of a "romantic hero," I was advised that

"(T)he 'literary definition' of a Romance (capital 'R' here) is a story about a hero - generally a knight or someone otherwise Noble (or, later, noble of spirit) who has a series of adventures, often in the quest for the love of a Lady. Basically, it's the genre where warfare (or some kind of struggle) and love are intertwined. Extended periods of misery are not uncommon."

I had to stop and laugh at that, since today we have transformed that misery into physical pain or emotional angst, and it's still a very popular ingredient of romance fiction and a common characteristic of a romantic hero. As if they aren't suffering enough due to their own internal conflicts(guilt over a perceived failure, despairing over a lost love, agonizingly lonely) we beat them up, shoot them, or give them some horrific disease - at least, I do.

My image of the romantic hero didn't come from English class or from the dictionary, but rather from reading romances my entire life. I read everything I could get my hands on, but the books I read over and over featured the kinds of characters I write about today. To illustrate, I brought Vanna White to handle the boards. Ask me to define a hero --


-- tall, dark, handsome, brooding, mysterious and misunderstood, a dark past and a bad reputation - and wildly, passionately in love with a woman. It doesn't matter that there have been other women - there must be ONE woman.



One woman who changes our hero's life - one woman who captures our hero's heart and banishes loneliness and despair. One woman - the only woman . . .

. . . who sees beyond the anger and ruthlessness to the true and noble nature of our hero. One woman whose love enables our hero to overcome her demons. That's what lies the heart of every romance I write.

Therefore, the characteristics of the romantic hero goes beyond the lofty and somewhat impersonal attributes of Arthurian knighthood and add emotional elements that to my way of thinking are much more compelling. The romantic hero has been described as brooding, dark, tormented, or tortured as well as passionate, committed, and dedicated. What I find most fascinating is that the essence of the romantic hero lies in her contradictions - her strength and independence versus her need to be loved for herself alone, her valor versus her doubts and uncertainty, and her basic goodness versus her dark secrets and weaknesses. At the heart of the romantic hero's quest, whether she knows it or not, lies the love of a Lady.

Traditional lesbian romance fiction, like its heterosexual counterpart, re-creates this dynamic - the Hero and the Lady - by making use of butch-femme archetypes. These archetypes were particularly obvious in many of the early works, but persist to the present day in a modified form in many works. The most famous lesbian work of all, The Well of Loneliness by Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, published in 1928, depicted a butch hero, Stephen Gordon, who was raised by her father to be a son. It's doubtful there is a hero much more tortured than Stephen. Despite having no support or social recognition for her sexuality, when she falls in love, she loves with a pure and noble heart. She says to the woman she loves, "For your sake I'm ready to give up my home. But I can't go on lying about you - I want the whole world to know how I adore you. I'm done with these lies. I shall tell him the truth and so will you Angela; and after we've told him we'll go away, and we'll live quite openly together, you and I, which is what we owe to ourselves and our love." Unfortunately, the woman that Stephen chose to sacrifice everything for was not willing to make that sacrifice in return, fearing social ostracism and reprisal. The book does not end happily, but Stephen Gordon's passion and devotion can never be questioned. She and the author who created her are nothing short of heroic. It would be another 25 years before a lesbian romance, The Price of Salt, published in 1952 by Patricia Highsmith under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, would have an ending where the two female lovers are together.

Lesbian romance fiction came into significant being and wide-spread availability in the 1950s with the work of authors such as Ann Bannon, Valerie Taylor, Ann Aldrich, Paula Christian and many others. At that time, the butch-femme dichotomy was very evident as a social and emotional construct in the lives of many if not most lesbians. Butches were viewed as displaying more masculine characteristics in both appearance and behavior - aggressiveness, independence, emotional unavailability, and overt sexuality. Femmes were seen as more stereotypically "female," being nurturing, emotionally sensitive, insightful, and sometimes in need of protection. The physical as well as social roles were naturally reflected in our fiction.

The 1955 cover of The Well of Loneliness clearly shows a butch-femme couple (see below). In fact it is one of the most blatant butch-femme images from the time. Many of the other covers also suggest this polarization, although it's not quite as obvious except for one we found from France which doesn't leave much to the imagination. It's a very cool cover.


I think it's interesting that the 1955 cover of The Well of Loneliness is one of the few times that the butch is depicted as blond as opposed to dark-haired, in keeping with the tall, dark, and handsome stereotype. Most of the covers and the stories suggested that the butch character, i.e. the Hero, was dark-haired. I almost always depict the "butch" half of my couples as dark-haired as well. The few times I haven't (Rebecca Frye in the Justice series, Drew Clark in Love's Tender Warriors, Dane in shadowland), those characters have been outwardly the most emotionally remote and "cool" as opposed to volatile and wild like Tanner Whitley or brooding and tortured like Graham Yardley. There's something about the internal turmoil being externally reflected in the dark hair and often dark eyes that just feels right.

50 years ago, the polarization of lesbian couples in literature was probably a reflection of the times. Rather than theorize about that, I took advantage of the fact that we are incredibly lucky to be able to ask our own hero's about their work. I wrote to both Ann Bannon and Katherine Forrest and posed the question, "Did you consciously or unconsciously create butch-femme couples in your work and would you write them differently today?"

Ann Bannon says of the Beebo Brinker chronicles:

"Young as I was when I was writing, and quite hopelessly inexperienced, I had to work from the prevailing cultural archetypes in the women's community. I honestly didn't know of another way for two women to relate to each other except where one was dominant and the other submissive, along the lines of couples in the heterosexual world. It's probably true that in Odd Girl Out, the first of the series, Beth and Laura were more on an equal footing. But even there, Beth is older and wiser, and Laura defers to her.

There was a lot of appeal in the old stereotypes, which probably accounts for the fact that they've been so durable and influential. A woman with real power, physical and emotional, could be a thrilling partner, even though she was also a pain in the derriere. And a beautiful, feminine woman was seductive, appealing, and often fought over."

I'm going to come back to something that Ann says here, but before I do, I'm going to skip ahead to Katherine Forrest's reply:

"The Kate Delafield series is written in real time. She was born in 1946 and is a product of her times when lesbians rigorously role-identified, and Kate identified as butch. I did explore the issue in The Beverly Malibu when Kate meets Aimee. Aimee isn't a bit interested in roles and so confuses (not to mention disassembles) Kate with her sexual aggressiveness - so much so that Kate runs for advice to her butch buddy Maggie, who further discombobulates Kate when she confesses that while she's butch on the streets she ain't necessarily so in the sheets."

Katherine goes on to say:

"My own (irrelevant) view is that we may be predominately one or the other but we're all blends of both. The strength and glory of our community is that we're a people who have invented our lives, and I'm fine with butch and femme and all the gender blendings, and opposed on principle to any aping of heterosexual society which is not a good model for anything, in my book."

Having heard from the most influential writers in our literary heritage, I'd like to repeat what Ann said and comment on how I find her observations reflected in my own work.

"A woman with real power, physical and emotional, could be a thrilling partner, even though she was also a pain in the derriere. And a beautiful, feminine woman was seductive, appealing, and often fought over."

It makes perfect sense that in our early literature, the butch-femme dynamic was very obvious and quite polarized. At the time, that dynamic was a reflection of the prevailing social and cultural stereotypes. That isn't as obviously true today, and yet the dynamic persists overtly or subtly in our lives as well as our romance fiction. I make no conscious effort to avoid the butch-femme dynamic in my own work, particularly in regards to the "butch-er" character. I don't think it's difficult to assign butch-femme labels to most of my couples. Taking it one step further, the butch character in most of my pairings illustrates most of the elements of the classic "romantic hero" - she is the tortured, brooding, misunderstood, and often excruciatingly lonely character.

Most of the Heroes in my books are fairly stereotypically butch - they have short hair, are often taller than their lovers, and never wear dresses. The feminine characters, on the other hand, may be but are not necessarily stereotypically "feminine" in appearance. Many are blond, their hair may be longer, and now and then, they may be found in a dress.

I don't set out with the specific intent to write my characters this way. I have found that the physical and sometimes emotional polarization inherent in the butch-femme polarization is an important element in creating the sexual tension which is so central to the romance. A character's physical attributes should be only one element of our characterizations, but I find it an important tool in constructing the romance.

Both the traditional romance and the action/romances lend themselves extraordinarily well to the concept of the romantic hero. In the action/romances, the Hero gets to unabashedly display the characteristics of bravery, self-sacrifice, nobility, and inner strength. Cameron Roberts in the Honor series, Dez Reilly in Gun Shy, Tomyris Whitaker in the Isis series, and Lieutenant Kim Ramon in The World Celaeno Chose are all tall, dark, handsome, and to some extent or another, tortured. They're all also leaders and guardians of right and wrong. They are also all lonely and in some part of there being, incomplete, without the women who eventually become their partners.

In contrast to the action/romances, I think the traditional romance focuses less obviously on the "noble" aspects of the characters, although those traits are present, and more on the passionate, emotional complexity of the characters.

Love's Melody Lost, which is the most traditional and classically "Gothic" romance that I've written, was an intentional retelling of Jane Eyre. Graham Yardley was constructed to be the lesbian counterpart of Edward Rochester. Graham is tall, dark, handsome, and relentlessly tormented. She has been nearly destroyed by the betrayal of a lover, leaving her bitter and isolated. I even made her blind, which Rochester is at the end of Jane Eyre. Anna, however, is a much more independent and aggressive femme than Jane Eyre, although Jane is no slouch herself. Graham resists Anna's love and refuses to take her as a lover because she feels she is unworthy. Nevertheless, Anna will not be deterred and ultimately is Graham's salvation. In all of my books, love is the ultimate healer.

Despite the polarization of many of my couples, there's a blending of characteristics that transforms the classic butch-femme roles into what Katherine Forrest referred to in her response to me as the blending of gender. In the beginning of the Honor series, Cameron Roberts is depicted as emotionally isolated, aggressive, and independent, but she is also in deep pain, emotionally sensitive, and in tremendous need of "saving". Blair Powell is emotionally volatile and in need of protection by virtue of her position, but she is far from a dependent or submissive character. She is physically capable, sexually very aggressive, stubborn, and at times, dangerously independent. They may appear on the surface to be a traditional butch-femme couple, but they aren't. They're very equally balanced in both the attributes of heroism as well as their emotional depth. They are truly partners.

In present-day romance fiction, the butch-femme dynamic is often most apparent in the physical attributes of the characters, occasionally displayed in the sexual differences (experienced versus just coming out, monogamous versus "adventurous" etc.), but far less in the emotional polarization than it was 50 years ago. That is not to say it's been abandoned, nor do I think it should be. Part of the intrinsic nature of the butch-femme dynamic is the polarization of physical and emotional characteristics which naturally leads to tension between the main characters. Nevertheless, I would argue that our romance fiction now has two romantic heroes. The butch hero of 50 years ago now has an equal partner in the femme.

The emergence of the femme hero in lesbian fiction is a phenomenon that Jean Stewart will be discussing next.

Next up in the presentation's order: JEAN STEWART

 
An Historical Backdrop
Lori L. Lake
The Hero and
The Lady

Radclyffe
 
The Femme Heroine Archetype
Jean Stewart
...And The Plot
She Thrives In

Jane Fletcher
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