Dagger-Star and Alpha Females

Last week I reviewed Elizabeth Vaughan’s Dagger-Star, a fantasy-romance. The lead character, Red Gloves, is a female mercenary, and her love interest is basically a farmer. I enjoyed the book on a great number of levels: it possessed wit and humor; the characters had depth and dimension; the plot executed some unusual twists on the typical fantasy prophecy plot.

I also loved the somewhat unusual Alpha female to Beta male relationship.

This morning I read through the Amazon reviews, which were all over the map. Coming on the heels of skimming a discussion in a popular blog last week about men vs. women in which it quickly became obvious that some very outdated views of women still hold sway when folks think they’re talking anonymously, it left me with a few thoughts I had to put onto virtual paper.

First, a simple correction of perception. One of the opinions I saw on the book railed about the fact that Red enjoys and engages in one-night stands, and is casually sexual. To engage in a mild spoiler about her background, she was abused as a child. The reviewer thought it ridiculous that after such trauma, Red would be willing to sleep with a man at all, much less so casually. In truth, it’s not unusual for people who’ve been molested to become ‘hyper-sexual’ instead of the opposite—either can happen. From my knowledge of the subject (I’ve known multiple people from that situation and I was working on a psych degree from Harvard before we left Massachusetts, in addition to my own subsequent readings and research), I’d say the depiction was entirely believable.

Next, another reviewer said the book read as though the author had simply made her female character into a male and vice versa. I didn’t get that impression, although I can see how one might come to that conclusion. This makes the assumption that certain traits are exclusively female or male. If you have any kind of in-depth experience with the wide array of people out there in the world, I can’t see how you could seriously believe this, but as that blog discussion I mentioned proved, there are still plenty of people who do. While I’ll agree that there are traits that are more commonly female or male (or at least stereotypically female or male), I believe that’s a different issue that doesn’t preclude the depiction of, say, a strong, martial-minded female lead.

As an example of what I mean, one reviewer said that women simply don’t engage in emotionless sex—that this is strictly a male trait. I had to re-read that several times to be sure I was reading it correctly, because I was amazed someone could think that. It may be more common for men to do so, but it’s hardly an act that’s exclusive to them.

Finally, there are ways to make a character recognizably female or feminine without her having to wear pink or lace, cry at every opportunity, or get tied up in emotional knots at the drop of a hat. To my mind, Elizabeth Vaughan accomplishes this. Perhaps those who equate femininity with pink, lace, crying, etc. didn’t see it, but it seemed quite clear to me. Red had her softer side; it just wasn’t a stereotypically feminine thing, and to my mind that’s great. Many of the ways in which she was feminine or noticeably female were a part of her strong, Alpha personality, not in conflict with it. That’s only a problem if you think that females inherently can’t be strong, can’t be leaders, etc.

But then, I remember seeing a comment in that blog discussion that stated outright that men were suited to be leaders and women weren’t, so perhaps that’s what’s at issue. I wouldn’t have thought Dagger-Star to be so far ahead of its time in terms of gender depictions, but it seems that I was wrong. I hate it when I get a hard reminder that at the end of the day, a lot of men—and yes, some women—still believe all that crap about women being weaker, more foolish, unable to lead, etc.

The funny part is, romance novels often get accused of setting us back in this department, of perpetuating harmful stereotypes of weak women who need to be rescued by men. Instead, enough of today’s romances are being written by independent, strong-willed women that the opposite is coming to pass—many romance novels are now ahead of society in terms of promoting a strong, independent female image.

Special comment note: Look, the argument over men vs. women is already going on over at that other blog. If that’s what you want to talk about, go do it over there. If you want to talk about gender depictions in these kinds of books, great—as long as it stays reasonably calm and on-topic. I have neither the time nor the tolerance for yelling and name-calling, so if it happens, I’ll delete the comments and, if necessary, close comments on the post. (Go ahead, call it censoring—I don’t care.) I’m hoping my readership is small enough—and enough made up of all those cool, thoughtful book-bloggers instead of ye general internet audience—that I won’t have to worry about it. 😉

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5 comments on “Dagger-Star and Alpha Females
  1. Susan says:

    I can’t believe people think women can’t be leaders! What about Elizabeth Moon’s series – it’s Science fiction, but no one has accused the character of being a man in disguise. Do you think the readers/reviewers for Dagger-Star were upset that the traditional depiction of the female heroine being chaste was being changed? I think it’s good that we can let women evolve into a more realistic portrayal – not that we have meaningless sex, or lots of one night stands! But I think it happens more frequently now with this new generation. It’s good to see a romance book that says a damaged/hurt/abused woman can find happiness, can eventually learn to love after hideous scaring like abuse. I still think we have to evolve further, to recognizing that some women like meaningless sex, and choose it. Normally they play the bad female role in the romance novels, the experienced temptress. Very interesting that she is the heroine in this book. I haven’t read romances in a very long time, so your review was interesting to me in how the field could change.
    I also know from experience, both through friends and my own, that often abuse does lead to meaningless sex because it’s safer than engaging in intimacy, which is the real emotional trauma.

  2. heather says:

    I know and agree, Susan—that kind of ignorance about gender just… well, it makes me think these people are deliberately blind. There’s really no way you can look around at the modern world and not see that this isn’t true. I do think the fact that the female heroine was unashamedly fond of a good ‘roll in the hay’ just got on people’s nerves, and that’s a shame. I thought it was a fantastic change of pace, and well, I still think it’s ridiculous that society can’t seem to shake off the whole ‘guys who sleep around are studs while women who do it are sluts’ crud. At least apply one of those across the board, you know? I don’t care which, as long as a person is consistent about it. I also loved Dagger-Star’s portrayal of a woman having to come to terms with the fact that she was coming to care for someone she’d thought of only as a bed-partner. That was so fresh and enjoyable.

  3. Cian says:

    Shocking though you may find it, I agree. 😉 I am regularly appalled by the remarkable provincialism, racism, and sexism portrayed daily in the web/blogosphere. Fortunately we are here to talk about books. I applaud Susan’s selection of Elizabeth Moon’s books as samples of a powerful female characters. I especially enjoyed the Paksenarrion stories. I also got into the Heris Serrano series, but it appears I have fallen behind. I think at least some of the realism those characters possess come from the author’s time in the Corps.

    It should be the choice of the character, male or female, to engage in sexual practices consistent with their view of the world. I find it perfectly acceptable that a female character should approach sex from a casual, hedonistic perspective or be essentially celibate. The determining factor should be the character’s view of the world and any judging criteria I would apply would be in how accurately they match their own ideals. For me, the expression of sexuality is not as much of an issue as the congruity of their beliefs and actions.

  4. Cian says:

    It was the mysterious disappearing comment. I thought I posted this last week, or something much like it.

    approximation of last week’s post:
    I find myself regularly appalled by the provincialism, self-centrism, racism, sexism and all kinds of other isms that permeate the web/blogosphere. Fortunately there are also islands of rationality and we are here to talk about books, not that other stuff. 😉 I especially like Susan’s choice of Elizabeth Moon’s characters as examples of strong women. The Deed of Paksennarion is one of my favorite fantasy series, and I enjoyed the Heris Serrano ones as well. I think much of the realism comes from Elizabeth’s time in the Corps.

    Heather also strikes a good point when she talks about consistency. I think it is perfectly OK for someone to be either celibate, wildly promiscuous, or anywhere along the continuum as long as it matches with what they profess to believe about the world. I am much more interested in the congruence a person displays with their ideals. That is why I am a 4th century Irishman (ask me about it sometime if you are interested). All people should be able to pick their own path as they travel their road.


  5. heather says:

    Hi Cian—sorry your comment got caught by the spam filter and thus you ended up with two of them. Thanks for emailing me or I probably never would have noticed! I am, in fact, absolutely shocked that you agree. 😉 Clearly I must pick up some of Elizabeth Moon’s books (gack! so much to read!).

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