Feb 8, 2012

No woman had ever affected him like this...

by Michelle Douglas

Reading: The Penguin Book of Sewing

Watching: The local currawong parent trying to keep the food up to its very demanding baby

Listening to: the rhythm of the pouring rain

Making me smile: the fact the possums haven't eaten my chilli plant (yet)

I love reading romances and I love writing romances—given what I do that’s probably pretty self-evident. :-)

I also believe romance novels, as a general rule, are examples of feminist writing—not just because they’re stories primarily written by women for women (although they are), but because in a romance novel the heroine ends up with everything she wants. Go girl!

Another thing I love is reading academic books that discuss my genre and, as is my want, towards the end of last year I read a book of essays titled Romantic Conventions.* I want to quote a piece from one of the essays, because it made my head spin, and because I would love other people’s takes and thoughts on it.

The essay is titled “Lead us into Temptation” by Rosemary Johnson-Kurek.** She discusses the language used in romances to describe or denote a whole host of things, but I’m just going to focus on one tiny part of the essay—two lines that are often used to describe the heroine’s specialness. Both of these lines occur from the male point of view.

Line 1: No other woman had affected him like this before.

Line 2: He’d had other women, but none special.

And then Johnson-Kurek points out her problem with the second line. “It certainly casts aspersions on the female gender when negative stereotypes involve all women a hero has had because by presenting the heroine in opposition to these women, she is viewed as exceptional to the gender.” (p. 130)

And that was when my head started to spin because I may in fact be guilty of using these lines myself, and I would never knowingly do anything to denigrate my gender. TBH, I don’t have a problem with the first line. I love for the hero and heroine to have a unique connection. There’s nothing in that line that to my mind casts aspersions on the rest of the female population. It’s not saying that the hero hasn’t loved other women, that he hasn’t felt affection and connection with other women. What it is saying is that the heroine affects him in a unique and strong way.

But when Line 1 is used in conjunction with that second line… Cue much shuddering, because, quite frankly, that second line has really started to get my back up and it’s that “none special” that’s making me grit my teeth.

He’d had other women but none special.

Whoa, hold on there, buster! All women are special.

On further reflection, I’m not big on that “had” either. If I could rewrite the line I’d want something like: “He’d been with other women—lovely women, beautiful women, funny women, clever women—but no one had affected him like this before.” (That could just be me wanting my cake and eating it too, but hey…isn’t that what romances are about? :-))

So I’m interested to know if anyone else finds this offensive. Or are there other lines out there that you loathe and find derogatory to women?

And in the interests of promoting free and frank discussion ;-) I’ll give away a copy of one of my backlist titles to one lucky commenter.

*Kaler, Anne K., and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

**Johnson-Kurek, Rosemary. “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green: University of Wisconsin
Press, 2006.


  1. Guess this may get me in trouble but you asked so here's my answer...If I stopped to even think seriously about that line ~ and I probably wouldn't ~ it wouldn't bother me because I would "read" it like he was just saying he found this woman to appeal to him in a way he could really love.

  2. You're not in trouble at all Ellen! The reason that essay made me sit up and scratch my head was because I've not blinked at the "none-special" line before. It was only as I thought harder about it, that I came to have problems with it. And, frankly, it is possible that I demand too much from my romances. :-)

    I'm glad you didn't have a problem with the line. My gut feeling is that it isn't meant to be negative to other women. That said, I won't be using it in the future.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Hi Michelle,
    It's an interesting post and an interesting sentence! I'm with EllenToo. I didn't read anything into it until you explained.

    In my mind, romance is all about finding that "one" person who makes you feel special, who makes everything wonderful. So I read it in that context. Taken out of context I can see how it could be said to be derogatory to other women.

    Gosh, words...they say different things to different people, don't they?

    Interesting post. Thanks, Michelle!


  4. Hey Michelle! What a great post!
    Essays are meant to make us think, delve deeper into meanings and messages, positive or negative. You always have to ask, who wrote the essay and what are their objectives/audience? When you think about it more, that line might be implying women, in general, aren't special.
    But then I think if that were in a woman's pov and she was thinking she'd been with men before but none of them had been special, we'd probably get a different feeling for those words, because I think most of us women can identify with that feeling...having found that special someone to fall in love with.
    Maybe he's thinking this women is "special to me"? Maybe the "had" is simply more in-keeping with how a man thinks?
    But, yeah, I'd go with your version every time! =)

  5. Hi, Cath!

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one who didn't initially blink at Line 2. :-)

    I agree that romances are about heroes and heroines finding their soul mate, so I have a tendency to read everything in a romance through that particular lens too.

    It's certainly given me something to think about. :-)

  6. Oh, Robbie, I definitely agree that one needs to take into consideration the aims and affiliations of the writer of an essay. There was such a lot of shockingly negative criticism about romances in the 70s and 80s, but the volume I quoted is, generally, a positive criticism of the genre.

    Robbie said: "Maybe he's thinking this women is "special to me"? Maybe the "had" is simply more in-keeping with how a man thinks?"

    Oh, I agree. But, heavens, this essay was a timely reminder to me of the power of words. :-)

  7. Hi Michelle --
    Very thought-provoking blog post! I know I use variations of Line 1 a lot and I could have used variations of Line 2 as well...

    I don't think I entirely agree that Line 2 casts asperions on the female gender. I think it says more about the man who said it (and his issues) than all the woman he's had (been with, dated, loved, slept with etc). Or that's how I read it.

  8. I'm sure I've probably read both those lines and not even noticed. When I'm reading a romance novel I'd likely assume a this one's special to me meaning from both lines.

  9. Hi Michelle - call me simplistic, but I truly think this is a case of 'Seek and you shall find'.

    Yes, the written word is powerful, I can't argue with that, but as it's always open to individual interpretation, then the might of that power becomes relative to whomever is reading and the mood they happen to be in. I mean, something as innocent as 'I hate beans' could be inflamatory to 'someone' who's reading it the right (or wrong?) mind-frame.

    On analysis of the quotes in your blog, I can see how they could be open to negative interpretation. But romance readers come to a story with an expectation of two people finding that other, most-special person - the one who by the sheer force of their impact causes everything and everyone else to pale - and who will, in that person, find their 'happy-ever-after'. Thus, I doubt those lines would be viewed in the same light by that reader as, perhaps, by someone who is studying the genre for academic purpose.

    Back to my intital comment: I think if you're looking for something, you'll find it. And please don't think I'm criticising the essayist - just that she came to the works with a different perspective than perhaps the dedicated reader, who reads for enjoyment and with an expectation that they know will be satisfied.

    All that said, I don't blame you for not wating to use those particular lines again, but I wouldn't be stressed over imparting views that could be interpreted as negative to the female gender.

    Anyone who writes with such beauty and sincerity as you, Michelle, could never be accused. Keep up the great work.

    Great post. Great mental gymnastics... And I need those almost as desperately as I need physical gymnastics. Well, perhaps gymnastics is a bit too strong. Basic exercise would be good...

  10. Hi Anna,

    I agree that Line 2 says more about the man who thinks it than the past women in his life. It's just...

    ...the more I think about it the less heroic that guy seems to me. Is he a misogynist? Or just severely misguided?

    LOL. The essay has certainly given me much to ponder!

  11. Fabulous post! When I read the line about no one else being special, my first thought is there is an implied "to him" at the end, but I see others have said that before me. I think perhaps "special" in romances is shorthand for "having a special connection" and we read it that way?

    So I agree the authors wouldn't have meant that the other women weren't special, but it's good to have thoughts like these in mind as we write - being careful about subliminal messages is never a bad thing.

  12. Aww shucks, thanks for your kind words, Kerri-- you're making me blush!

    I agree with everything you said, but now that I'm aware of a negative impact these words carry I won't be able to use them again. I agree that the majority of readers wouldn't take them badly, but I should hate for a reader who might have been constantly told that she's nothing special to wince at that "none special" line. I want the fantasy of the romance to take her away from all that, even if it is only for a hour or two

    Oh, and I'm with you -- definitely need the gymnastics! :-)

  13. Rach, it's obvious that the majority of us interpret that line in the same vein. I'm kinda happy about that because I would hate for readers to go away with such a negative message/impression from reading a romance.

    I'm hearing you on the subliminal messages, though. I mean to be extra vigilant from here on. :-)

  14. Hi Michelle,

    What a thoughtful post. Thanks for this. Personally I have no problem with the first line. The second makes me pause, but I'd have to read it in context. I like your alternative and would relate more to the hero who thought that way. However, it maybe that the author is making a point having the hero express himself this way.

    Above all, I think romance readers understand and accept the premise that there is someone 'special' for the hero and for that matter, for the heroine. However that's expressed it's at the core of our books and our beliefs. For 'special' I'd prefer to read 'more special than all the rest' but, on the other hand, there may have been some who it transpired, weren't that special to him. Presumably this man has made some mistakes along the way.

    Hm, I'm not trying to sit on the fence, but I'd much prefer to read the whole context of the text than read too much meaning into a single sentence. Thanks for raising this one. It's got me thinking.

  15. Such care needs to be taken. I would probably just gloss over the line if I were reading it in a story, but having it pointed out, I think they could have thought it through more.

  16. Hi Michelle. I'm just a reader (as in not capable of writing a book heheh) and I dont have a problem with either line. The second one I would take to mean special "to him", not that women themselves aren't special... special as in he would like to spend the rest of his life with as apposed to "casual" dating. I dont analyse the books like I've read some reviews over at Goodreads or Amazon... I just know I either like it or I dont - not because of what the author has written - just based on my own personal taste. I guess what I'm trying to say is tht I'm not one of those reviewers you see over at Goodreads or Amazon who absolutely anihalate a book because the hero is too "this" and too "that" :)))

  17. Annie, you're right -- context is everything. It's more than possible for a writer to write a misogynistic hero who is redeemed - and Line 2 would be a perfect way for a hero like that to express himself. That said, I'd want him to grovel mightily at the end of the story and acknowledge the error of his ways. :-)

  18. Marybelle, as a reader I do that exact same glossing over that you just described. If I find anything irritating or disturbing about a hero or heroine, I just rewrite them (or the offending line) in my mind in a way that makes them (or it) acceptable.

    As a writer, though, I do mean to take more care. Thanks for dropping by!

  19. Hey, Tash, you're not *just* anything. :-) You're a reader (don't apologise!) and it was reader's opinions I was after.

    I'm glad you interpreted the line the way you did -- the "special to him" rather than "women themselves not being special." I think as readers we take the romances we read in the spirit they're meant, and that's both encouraging and satisfying.

  20. What an interesting point! Not one that had crossed my mind. When you read that sentence within the covers of a romance I think the interpretation of both sentences is the same (as others have said). To be honest, I want to read the heroine is special to the hero :)


  21. Good point, Anita! As readers we really do want to read how bowled over and knocked for a six the hero is by the heroine -- that's part of the joy and the fantasy of romance for me.

    Sigh -- a big strong hero brought to his knees by a pint-sized (or super-sized) heroine. It's the stuff that dreams are made of. :-)

  22. I am not bothered by either line. Maybe I'm shallow but I read romance for the HEA. As long as there is nothing overtly offensive in a story I usually enjoy it. I don't go looking for nuances that may bother somebody. I have that luxury as a reader. As an author you probably have to be a bit more careful.

  23. I'm coming in here very late, but I just have to join this conversation. I remember noticing lines like this in the more traditional romances - I'm not here to criticize or denigrate any author's work, but there have been some best selling romance novelists who lived in times in which social rules and morals are very different from those of today. I'm sure that you might know who I mean, but I'm not going to mention names. One author in particular springs to mind. You know the way romance novels often have princes and peers as heroes? Well, remember a particular bestselling romance novelist who actually came from that class and modelled a lot of her heroes on lords and princes she actually knew? When I was a teen, I read an interview with this author and was horrified to read her views, that a man should get lots of sexual experience with 'other' women, but his true love should be an innocent girl. When I got the opportunity to read that authors' work, I'd invariably come across a line (from the hero) in which he'd reassure the innocent and trusting heroine 'I have known many beautiful women, my darling, but you are the only one for me now.' That literally made me sick. Such double standards! And what if any of those beautiful women had really loved him and he ditched them because they were, ahem, secondhand or something while he waited for his princess to arrive? That's not a love story. I don't know what it is, some kind of romance, but love has nothing to do with it. A true hero loves the woman with all her baggage and helps her (and she helps him) to grow and move on in life. HEAs of these 'traditional' romances never moved me and never would.

    Great post, Michelle, loved it when you said all women were special. And the line about having loved other women but the connection with this heroine was different - very nice!

  24. Kaelee, you have the right to read a story any way you want to!

    Though, like you, for me a happy ending is non-negotiable. :-)

  25. Maria, one of the things I love about genre fiction is the way it reflects the attitudes and mores of its time. It's probably the main reason some people accuse it of not standing the test of time because it can date pretty quickly (not that I have a problem with that, mind you).

    It does mean, however, that when I do pick up an older book, I'm usually aware that my values are going to diverge pretty drastically from those portrayed in the book. I usually finish said books feeling pretty darn happy that I live in the here and now. :-)

    Maria said: "A true hero loves the woman with all her baggage and helps her (and she helps him) to grow and move on in life." Oh yes! Happy sighs. :-)

  26. Maria said: "A true hero loves the woman with all her baggage and helps her (and she helps him) to grow and move on in life."

    A big yes to this from me too!

  27. I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and comments -- you guys are great! :-)

    The winner of one of my backlist books is Maria from 'gaelikaa's diary'. Maria, you gave me much food for thought, and another line to mull over, ponder and mentally rewrite. Thanks!

    Send me an email at michelle (AT) michelle - douglas . com (minus the spaces) with your postal address and the name of the book you'd like, and I'll pop it in the post asap.

    Once again, thanks everyone!

  28. Wow, FAB post, Michelle! The power of words! I've also read these two lines and slid right on by without pondering the nuances! But YES, I can see that the second line does have a very dismissive quality about it and while we want our hero to find a heroine special to him, we also want him to be respectful about the specialness of others.

    I love Maria's comment too! Well said, Maria! And congratulations on winning Michelle's book!

    Sorry to be late but I'm so glad I dropped in for a read of your post, Michelle, and everyone's comments! Bravo!

  29. Thanks, Sharon! As a writer it really does make one stop and pause, doesn't it? But that's not always a bad thing, I guess. :-)

  30. Thank you Sharon. And thank you Michelle for writing this post and giving me a chance to speak out on something that's been on my mind for a long time.

    Just looked in here and saw your message. What a nice surprise. I'll certainly mail you with my choice of one of your backlist books. Thank you. It was great to be a part of this discussion.