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I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with an Iconic Romantic Heroine for the 20th century. Soliciting advice from others, more often than not, I received the suggestion of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She’s an iconic character no doubt, but of the Anti-Heroine variety. While Scarlett’s embedded in our cultural psyche, ultimately she’s a tragic figure. The ending to Gone with the Wind was intentionally vague and certainly not in the “happy” category. So, I quickly dismissed Scarlett and continued my search.
Next I considered Lucy Honeycutt from Room with a View by E.M. Forster. This was an early 1900’s novel published during the narrow era of the Edwardian age. She was a heroine who exemplified the transition for women coming out of the rigors of Victorianism but before the full effect of the 20th century took hold. She was more transitional than iconic, so I moved on.
Finally, I had to realize that the suffrage movement, which culminated in the USA with the passage of the 19th amendment, was a distinct pivot point that changed the way women viewed their place in society. A new perspective challenged the notion of dependency on men for a woman’s sense of happiness and fulfillment. Not surprisingly, within ten years of women getting the right to vote, there was a new heroine on the block – Nancy Drew. Ostensibly written by a female author, Carolyn Keene, the books were actually written by a collection of ghostwriters, both male and female, working under the tight strictures of a single editor. Nancy Drew became the strongest female role model for young girls in that large swath of the middle to late twentieth century. Her original persona was a spunky, independent young woman with a boyfriend comfortably in the background. She was updated in the fifties to offer a less threatening, more submissive role model. Her character make-over is a prime example of the pendulum that swings with the conflicting desires of the female audience. Ultimately, Nancy Drew is a heroine but with no romance, so she too fails the test for the iconic romantic heroine.
In the seventies a new subgenre emerged in the historical romance trade. The realities of the sexual revolution with reliable, female controlled pregnancy prevention and the opening up of higher education to woman produced a new need to fill – how to romance a woman who wasn’t supposed to rely on a man to fulfill her destiny. The answer was one of the biggest ironies of feminism – the glorification of rape fantasies and unwanted pregnancy. The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of the first in describing sex with intimate detail. Soft porn became the essential ingredient for a successful historic romance novel in the ‘70’s. The modern romantic heroine now needed to be skillful between the sheets and willing to tell all about it.
In the nineties there was Bridget Jones as the bumbling, ditzy, slightly slutty heroine. She may endure as an iconic heroine but more than likely she’ll be one of the countless characters that sparkle for a few years and then pass into oblivion when the next new swing of the pendulum comes round.
There was another heroine that came close – Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone. She was pure and modest, and had the perfect job for a modern woman – romance writer. It was an entertaining story, but it too falls into the transient category.
I finally came to the conclusion that the Iconic Romantic Heroine may have met her demise in the 20th century, or at the very least she’s still Missing in Action. If there is a 20th century iconic heroine out there, who gets her man and a happy ending, I’d love to know. Please tell me if you think of one.