Archetypes. . . or Sexual Stereotypes?

(August 18, 1999)

by Beverly Medos

I read the latest issue of Laurie's News & Views #78, which features the article The Women We Want to Be: The Eight Female Archetypes, with a great deal of interest. Then I immediately did something I've been thinking about doing ever since the first article, We Need a Hero: A Look at the Eight Hero Archetypes was posted on All About Romance earlier this year. I sat down and tested out just how much the eight separate male and female types suggested in the two articles would line up to the four interconnected character types I brought to you in the December 1st issue of LN&V (and further enumerated on my own site, Beverly's Book Sanctuary. The results were very interesting.

As well as unexpectedly thought provoking.

You see, when I read the original article on hero types, I couldn't help but immediately notice the similarities the eight types in it had to the ones that I fondly call The Four. That's what I call them on-site, but they have existed in some form for millennia as ways to describe the directly opposing but eternally bonded facets of humanity - the heart, mind, body and soul. I love the polarity of the concept, feel comfortable with it and that's why I enjoy using it to describe characters. It's not infallible, but it does work most of the time because it allows for extremes in all directions and gradations in between those same extremes. No character will ever be purely one or the other and real people would hopefully be balanced enough to fall close to the center but our literary characters are usually amazing skewed towards the outer edges that it keeps things fun. Besides, I only have to remember four types this way.

The similarities to the definitions presented in the first article were striking because not only are there the main four types in the system I prefer, but also four distinct secondary combinations of the main ones. I wasn't completely sure, though, until I saw the list and definitions for the female types. I have to admit even then I was amazed at how well they all fell into line with the four plus combos. It does appear to confirm that there are commonalties in the definitions. Just to make sure everyone understands what I'm getting at here, let's look at the resulting comparison.

The Four Male types Female Types
Ruler The Chief The Boss
Ruler-Lover The Swashbuckler The Spunky Kid
Lover The Best Friend The Nurturer
Loner-Lover The Charmer The Free Spirit
Loner The Lost Soul The Survivor
Loner-Thinker The Bad Boy The Crusader
Thinker The Professor The Librarian
Ruler-Thinker The Warrior **The Waif**

The only one from the entire group of male and female types that I don't feel comfortable placing on the list is the female type of The Waif, which is why I've starred it as being out of place. It just doesn't fit anywhere and it certainly doesn't fit where I put it, but that was the only remaining opening on the chart. Besides I wanted to make the point of just how out of place it was compared to the rest. (Can you tell I don't like that name or definition much at all?) The rest are almost perfect fits. So much so, that as I sat back and considered the comparison, some questions came to mind.

It occurs to me that one of the most difficult issues to deal with when discussing romance novels is being able to view the sexes as separate . . . but equal . . . because they are and they are not both of the above.

At least, in a romance novel.

For that matter, that's true in anything else, but in romance, it truly does take two protagonists to tango - a hero and heroine. Not only that, but they have to be different enough from one another to strike sparks whenever they're in close proximity. Romances certainly aren't about the pair being the same, but rather just how different they can be and still survive the resulting explosion of opposites. The pair is presented as quite literally two opposite sides of a single whole, i.e. soul mates. And yet, not simply soul mates, because that mythical state implies eternal harmony of heart and mind. That is an end goal, not the main event worth considering as a story to tell. Instead, the pair in a romance novel would probably be more properly compared to "potential" soul mates because it's the eternal struggle to reach that harmonic state that the genre is all about. It is the same struggle that takes place repeatedly between yin and yang, light and dark, life and death, or good and evil in all great myths. All of those are forever in conflict and yet meaningless alone, the same as male and female.

One of romances' perpetual dilemmas has been that very struggle to level the playing field between the sexes. Over and over, we see in these stories that power struggle for sexual equality, without losing what it is that makes those opposites distinctly different at the same time. Looked at another way, at the very least, the romance genre can be seen as the storytelling form that portrays the struggle against those very double standards that separate the sexes in our minds, on a very personal one-on-one basis if not a global one.

Romance first points out the extreme differences between the sexes, many times through exaggeration, then shows their struggle towards becoming one - equal but separate - entity. Strangely enough, this very approach is usually what the uninitiated mistakenly perceive as the greatest flaw in the genre . . . instead of its greatest strength. For those uninformed, it's perfectly acceptable to over-exaggerate a villain's evil to make the necessary contrast to the protagonist's good, but quite unacceptable to euphemistically compare a romance hero's masculinity to the heroine's femininity in any sense, whether emotionally or sexually, but especially sexually.

In one sense, therefore, to discuss what makes a romance novel what it is, we have to be able to literally describe the differences between the sexes, if only to be able to deal with evaluating that very over-exaggeration if nothing else. The comparison and contrast of the hero's bulging . . . muscles against the heroine's silky . . . curves are as much a part of the language of the genre as anything else. In that case, the question becomes did the exaggeration work to make the story better or worse?

This comparison of opposites only becomes a problem when we attempt to discuss how this over-exaggeration is used in the books and talk about universal character motivations, or archetypes, at the same time. It's one thing to separate hard muscles from soft curves in our minds while recognizing that's the mood-setting language of romance speaking. It's quite another to always equate male with evil and female with good . . . or vice versa. Those aren't archetypes; they're stereotypes. And those are the easy ones to see. There are many even more subtly damaging images that are perpetually used to describe one or the other of the pair that are just as polarizing in nature. Should we knowingly perpetuate the very double standards that the novels themselves argue against so frequently by ourselves stereotyping the separation of sexual roles in our own discussions? Or should we treat them with exactly the same respect by using more gender-neutral terms when referring to both in an effort to point out their similarities rather than their differences?

I'm not saying that I have definite answers to those last two questions. If anything, I've only realized myself how much I now question some of the terms and phrases used to describe romance protagonists, so I admit I'm still searching for the answers. What I do know and can share is what brought me to this point and precisely why I'm ranting about it now after doing the above comparison. This personal epiphany all began with the ever present, always recurring, never-ending discussion over what is an alpha. Notice two things here. When that term is used, we are invariably implying male protagonists. The fact that there even has to be a discussion to decide whether heroines can be an alpha shows that. Then, the term is either seen as positive - a leader - or negative - a jerk - by most and there doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

Those opposing viewpoints were understandable and maybe even acceptable to me until just recently. A few weeks ago while working on the renovation of my website, I was reading through Mine to Take by Dara Joy and ran across a quote that stuck with me. The hero, Gian, is telling the heroine, Jenise, that he'd always find her. She asks in return what if she didn't want to be found? For some reason, his response jumped out at me that time. He says, "Tell me, in what way do you believe that will affect my actions?"

I immediately thought that now that's territorial . . . but not necessarily possessive. Which made absolutely no sense and yet it did at the time. I was so intrigued with the concept that it sent me off on a mental tangent wondering if maybe "alphas" should in reality be divided into the two groups - territorial ones vs. possessive one. I became so caught up in the idea that I asked for feedback regarding it on both the AARlist and RRA-L.

In turn, the responses I got blew me away all over again. Not because they weren't enlightening, but because of the focus apparently wasn't what I'd expected. Whenever one asks for feedback of this nature, one expects several things. Others will agree or they will disagree. Many times they will expand on the original issue in truly informative ways. And there will be those that will miss the point entirely and go off on tangents of their own, which can be just as informative. All of those are part of the nature of discussion. The problem I ran into with this one is that everyone responded to exactly what I'd asked for, but not what I thought I'd asked for.

What I asked for was help finding better terms than territorial and possessive to describe dominant heroes who were responsive to threats from outside the relationship as opposed to dominant heroes who were determined to contain the heroine within their control. Almost to a person, those that either didn't agree with the idea at all or liked it but agreed that it needed better terms wanted to change territorial to protective. This truly blew me away. My confusion comes from the fact that I'm positive that territorial describes exactly what I'm looking for, but just as positive that possessive doesn't quite do the job. For that reason, I expected everyone to accept territorial and reject possessive. When the total reverse happened and I couldn't disagree with their arguments for protective, I had to wonder what in the world was going on. I was absolutely baffled both by what they were missing and by what I was missing.

Right up until I tried to apply protective to both heroes and heroines.

That's when it hit me. I'd asked a gender-specific question and I'd gotten exactly what I'd asked for in return. For instance, I'd specifically used "heroes" and "heroines" in my question. So why did it come as a surprise that the responses used the same kinds of references to heroes protecting their heroines? The problem is that I tend to prefer universal labels instead of gender specific ones. That's part of the reason why I like the concept behind the four facets of mankind. It is gender neutral from start to finish. So, almost out of habit, I immediately tested the suggested "protective" label on both heroes and heroines anyway. Which lead me to a gigantic roadblock, because when I think "protective heroine" the image that immediately comes to mind is "mother" which is not at all the appropriate sexual focus I was looking for.

The exercise did open my own eyes to what I was doing, however unintentionally. Without consciously realizing it, I'd recognized that territorial was, or at least could be see as, gender-neutral. It could be universally applied to either male or female protagonists in a romance novel . . . or anything else . . . without losing anything in the transition. So, I wanted an appropriately neutral term for the opposite side of the argument and wasn't satisfied that I'd found one in possessive. Then I compounded my problem by asking for help using phrases that weren't gender-neutral either. I still haven't decided what exact terms to use for that concept, but the entire incident has made me a great deal more aware of how I describe protagonists in these stories.

Which brings me back to the comparison between the eight hero and heroine types. I can't argue that the meanings given for them are not very valid, (well, except for The Waif - I'm still chewing on that one) because, heck, I appear to be using them myself. However, I find I don't like the separation of the sexes at all. It truly bothers me and bothers me even more when I honestly look at the names and definitions and see a couple of distinctly positive and negative differences between the male and female columns. Let's look at some examples of what I mean. For the most part, the names in both male and female lists are very gender neutral but a couple of the female names, like The Spunky Kid, appear to be extremely watered down versions of their male counterparts, which in that case was The Swashbuckler. Or take the female name The Nurturer, that has a very maternal focus, and apply it to a hero. What is going to be the most universal immediate reaction? A wimp comes to mind. Yet on the other side, the same kind of male character is called The Best Friend, which implies equal sexual status. Then here's a reverse example, why is a female rebel with a cause The Crusader but a male is The Bad Boy? One sounds so very positive but the other has all kinds of negative implications. Don't even get me started on the images behind The Professor and The Librarian . . .

I know, I know, we could easily claim that the differences are perfectly natural, particularly since the authors of the article weren't attempting to make them counterparts in the first place. At least, I don't think they were. Anyway, I understand that and I could even buy that argument to some extent, yet when I look at the list in totality, it still makes me grit my teeth. The comparison between the meanings behind all the terms is too obvious not to. Except for The Waif, that is. I just about lost it when I first read that definition. It is so very, very out of place. If anything that one was probably the deciding factor in writing this because of how it stuck out as being so inconsistent with the rest. It is just so very negatively female only. What was a nebulous idea simmering on the back burner promptly became an argumentative opinion that almost exploded onto the page.

Please understand I'm not in any way advocating the use of the four way system that I prefer by everyone, or anyone. If you like it, use it. If you don't, so be it. If you like it but not the names I've arbitrarily chosen, chose your own. If you prefer the names presented in the Hero and Heroine articles, go for it. For that matter, create your own list from scratch, but please, let's be honest with each other about what we're doing in using these kinds of "type" labels. It seems to me that by separating the sexes and using cute "gender" based names for obvious things that both hold in common, we're creating, condoning, or even worse, confirming sexual stereotypes, not acknowledging classic archetypes. Archetypes are archetypes because they've existed for millennia and can be universally applied to any character, whether male, female . . . or animated rabbit . . . with very few exceptions. How can we in good conscious rant about the stereotypical "image" of the romance genre and use stereotypes ourselves to define the very characters that give the genre its unique identity?

It occurs to me that I could've been a lot more direct and entitled this entire rant . . .

Why Not The Bitch and The Bastard, Too?

But I wasn't tempted to. Not much anyway. I honestly tried to be a good girl.

Just some food for thought.

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