Victimizing Our Heroines

Angel or Succubus? Prostitute or Heroine? Both?
Angel or Succubus? Prostitute or Heroine? Both?
Two years ago, I wrote a blog called What the F**K is Ladylike, and posted it to In it, I posited that our culture finds it more acceptable for writers to create damaged heroines than to have strong, self-assured women as main characters.

Reactions were, as would be expected, mixed.




A snippet:

Sarah Weinman did a Dark Passages column for the LA Times a couple of weeks ago about female characters with dark histories. She cited some great examples of authors who use their female protagonists to tread into the traditionally male territory of overwhelming violence: Karin Slaughter, Mo Hayder, Gillian Flynn.

There is a common denominator in all of these fabulous authors’ characters: the woman has a tortured past. They are damaged goods. Abused, debased, yet, like the phoenix from the ashes, rising above their beginnings to become strong, compassionate female leads who step in where even males fear to tread.

But here’s my question.

Why does a strong female lead have to have a tortured background? Can a female protagonist make it in the fiction world if she’s not been broken first?

I daresay the answer is no. Because it just wouldn’t be ladylike for the female lead to have an unrequited bloodlust, now would it?

To me, this ultimately harkens back to the archetypal female mythos – the soul eater, the strong woman who devours men because of our magical abilities – we bleed and don’t die. Therefore, we must have some inherent evil and that evil must be contained. Generations have tried to tamp down the Lilith that resides in all of us, just waiting to be freed.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lisbeth Salander
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lisbeth Salander dresses for revenge
Yes, I know, that last was a bit over the top. But think about it. By victimizing our heroines, we assure ourselves of the audience’s sympathies. They will root for the heroine in ways not entirely explainable. Instead of seeing abused women as weak, we see them as heroic – and rightly so. Look at one of most famous heroines right now – Lisbeth Salander. Now that’s a girl with a troubled past, but her bloodlust speaks to both men and women. We all understand why she is the way she is.

She is us.

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, there is a new victim of sexual assault every two minutes. In 2007 alone, there were 248,300 reported rapes in the US, and that number excludes children 12 and younger. As anyone who is remotely familiar with crime knows, those numbers are vastly, vastly underreported. Woman, and men, who are raped are still demonized. They are often treated not as victims, but as succubi. They “asked for it” because of clothing, actions, poor decisions.

Add in emotional and physical abuse, incest and the like, and the numbers are staggering. I think we all know someone who’s been raped or abused.

I’ll kill whoever hurts my family. Still from The Transporter.
Transporter: You took my sister, I’ll take your life!
So are we reading these books to see ourselves, or to escape ourselves? To take ourselves, our friends, sisters and brothers, and fantasize what it would be like to kill the abuser? To rise up and become a strong, fiery ball of vengeance?

Well no wonder so many heroines come from damaged pasts.

A phenomenon I wasn’t prepared for when I began writing crime fiction was the tendency for readers to personalize my stories, and then turn to me to share their own. These heartbreaking tales made me look twice at my earlier statements about writing flawed, damaged heroines. Two years ago, I was too flip. I didn’t fully realize what I was saying. It wasn’t until I was misquoted in an article – I had spoken to a crowd about how it was bad to victimize heroines, but the crowd heard something different, that you must write a damaged heroine – that I started to think about what that really meant.

Heroes and heroines are damaged in different ways. Male characters usually suffer a loss, whereas female characters have a crime committed against them or someone close to them.

Just like in real life.

I still balk at the idea that to be interesting, a female character must have a troubled past. But I am seeing how that these female leads reflect the state of our readership, and that in and of itself is an attraction. Heroes have flaws. It’s an important part of the journey for them to rise up against their flaws and still excel. And heroines must undertake that same journey in order to resolve their pasts.

And let’s face it, “pasts”, those skeletons in the closet, do make us interesting, don’t they?

Image via xlordashx.

JT Ellison is the bestselling author of the Taylor Jackson series. Published in 22 countries, she lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she’s hard at work on her next book. Follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick.


  1. Tammy Cravit

    The present media buzz around Jaycee Dugard is another illustration of this, I think. Millions of people tuned in to see her chat with Diane Sawyer, and hundreds of thousands are buying her memoir, because our culture views her ability to survive what happened to her as heroic. (In interviews, on the other hand, she said things like “I did what I had to do” and “I survived because I didn’t have a choice.”) We see men as heroes for what they do, and women as heroes for how they respond to what others – usually men – do to them.

  2. Christopher Morgan

    I suppose you could look at it as a kind of female hero’s journey. I mean our more memorable male heroes have little to no past. They aren’t family men, they resist being “tied down”, often times they have been orphaned or astranged from their families. All things that are the antithisis to expected female gender roles. So maybe, as I think you’re proposing, women have to suffer some injustice to justify their unnatrual “bloodlust” just as a man is expected to sever his ties to the nuclear family.

    Though I did like where you where going in the original article, I can’t help but remember Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, or trying to picture Lisbeth hold a gun while reciting Samuel L. Jackson’s lines from Pulp Fiction.

  3. NancyM

    I find this topic fascinating. In order for any character to be engaging, s/he needs a “hole in the heart”–some troubling, damaged part that the reader hopes the character can overcome. For male characters, we don’t seem to mind if the hole is something they’ve done to themselves. (Drink, drugs, violence, even murder.) But female characters need to have that hole imposed upon them. It can’t be their fault, or readers are turned off. Yes, we want to read about Jaycee Dugard, who overcame something truly horrifying and is a noble person worth our attention, regard and respect. But Casey Anthony? Maybe not so much.

  4. Suzanne Adair

    Circulating in cyberspace right now is a fantastical “news” article that purports to recount a crime set in Russia. It bears elements of urban myth and is stirring up tremendous controversy.

    According to the article, a fellow named Viktor got caught in the act of burgling a beauty salon by the salon’s owner, Olga, who had a black belt in karate. Olga immobilized Viktor with one kick, dragged him to a back room, and chained him to a radiator. For three days, Olga fed Viktor Viagra and made him her sex slave. Olga then bought Viktor a pair of designer jeans and set him free. Viktor reported the incident to the police, and the police arrested both parties.

    Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the number of women and men who have taken Olga’s side is incredible. Apparently, what people want is female gladiators.

    Suzanne Adair

  5. Clare 2e

    @NancyM That is an interesting point about having it “done to” versus doing it to themselves.

    That is a strange and fascinating story, @Suzanne Adair! Even if the story’s bunk (and now you’ve got me wanting to track it down to find out) its popularity, as you note, says something about us, doesn’t it?

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