The Princess/Nerd Syndrome

There is a trope that I see a lot in reading urban fantasy books. A trope that is supposed to be a female empowerment fantasy. When in reality, it is anything but. These female characters are supposed to be independent, tough and with their own agency. When in reality, they aren’t. I like to call this trend for female protagonists the princess/nerd syndrome.

On the outside our female protagonist is a nerd and no one wants to date her, but on the inside, she really is a princess waiting for the right man to come along to see her for who she really is. There are often other reasons given for why the main character can’t get a date. She’s socially awkward. She has a power that makes her a pariah to the community. She’s rather passive and ‘helpless.’ She doesn’t fit the standard definition of beauty. (She’s not a super model.) And over the course of the story it isn’t just one right man that comes along. Lucky for her it is four or five “right men” who come along all at the same time and now she has the horrible dilemma of choosing. So much for no one wanting to date our helpless, socially awkward, powers pariah, nerdy female.

This is a female empowerment fantasy. And usually it is solved through something that’s not under the female character’s control. She has a makeover and her true looks are revealed. She is the ‘only one’ of her kind so all of her kind want her. Someone doesn’t really mind her different power and thinks it’s great. Her power allows her to do great things really. She can bear someone’s children when other women can’t. Her blood might be magical in taste, smell or just she comes from really special fairy bloodlines. Maybe, she’s the “Chosen one” of a great prophecy. In the female empowerment fantasy, without doing anything, one day a woman will get her true love “prince.” This is passive. They are the object of the action rather than causing the action themselves.

The female empowerment fantasy is just as passive as the male empowerment fantasy is active. The man takes control of a situation. He fights a good fight. He does something and because of doing this something, he gets a girl. The female is the reward in the male empowerment fantasy. Where she is once again a passive part of the narrative, the love interest, the kidnapped victim, very rarely is she the soldier that fights by his side.

A lot of times in these princess/nerd syndrome books, I can’t even tell why the males like the main female character. Part of it, I’m sure, is because what they are attracted to isn’t the woman herself, but a passive part of her that she has no control over which includes her looks, powers, tasty blood or prophesied one status. And a lot of times, these love triangles/rectangles/pentagrams are narrowed down to the fact that there are several males who are “safe” choices and there are several males who are “bad” choices and it’s so unfortunate that the female is more attracted to a “bad” choice rather than a “safe” choice and it’s never shown if either of these choices really actually respect her as a person, are interested in her personally and really care about her life and life course. Most of the time, the males really only care about themselves and what they think is best for the main female character without taking into account what the female character actually wants. (And then on the other hand to some extent they want the main female character to take care of them as well, as if she’s their mother and not their girlfriend.)

And these princess/nerd heroines are the types of books that get recced on every “kick ass” urban fantasy book list. These are romance novel tropes. They aren’t feminist. They aren’t empowering. They’re just another form of the patriarchy hurting both men and women by making them objects and not important.

Yes, women want to be special. They want to have many men chasing after them. Well, some women do. I’d rather have one man courting me that truly respects me than half a dozen who have their own agendas that have nothing to do with me. I get the whole aspect of wanting the female protagonist be special. My God, at least make her special over something she has control over.

The sad thing is, that most of these females (written by female writers no less) who profess not to feel beautiful never have an inner journey where they conquer their insecurities one way or the other (either by confidence that the outside doesn’t matter or a bedrock belief that they are beautiful inside and out no matter what) and rely consistently on an outside judge, usually a male, to determine whether or not they’re beautiful. Female insecurity about our looks is a real thing. We are hounded everyday with images in media and ads about how a female is “supposed” to look like. (That only dates back to Twiggy in the 60s.) Men are beginning to feel the bite of this particular beast too. This journey is real. It’s acceptable. I get it. But only if it is shown to us in the story.

I have nothing against female empowerment fantasy. I just want it to be active. A female character that doesn’t wait around and isn’t super special and goes after what she wants. A female character with vision and drive and a man doesn’t have to be part of that and just ends up happening.

I would rather see a story where the woman realizes that men are nice but she sure as hell doesn’t need them. It is detrimental to everyone is the genders are co-dependent on each other for validation. I’d rather see a story where there is one consistent love interest that isn’t after the woman because of her looks or her tasty blood or because she’s got fairy charisma or can survive having his children. I’d rather see them building a relationship of mutual trust and respect and over shared interests with yes, mutual attraction and eventual sexy good times. I want to see more books where the woman takes an active role in her own love life and is loved because of what she does, not because of something she has no control over.

And this seems to be a tough thing for writers to do. I understand why it is tough. It goes against conventional patriarchal thinking and gender norms. Things can’t change without challenging the status quo, which a lot of books I’ve read just aren’t willing to do, even if their main female character is supposed to be some sort of feminist.

So, it’s a damn good thing I can write my own books.


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