“One broken girl” reads the first line of a Romance novel teaser I recently came across. Beneath it appears “Two hearts, which one will she choose?” Sadly, taglines like this are all too common. In fact, scroll through Twitter or Facebook on Teaser Tuesday, the day on which Romance authors and their street teams post teasers all over social media, and you will see numerous taglines like the one above or even worse, ones like “She doesn’t know what pain is,” or “A woman who’s been living half a life. And the only man capable of bringing her back from the edge,” or my absolute favorite of late, “One kiss can ruin a girl or make her whole again.” Such teasers and the Romance stories they are promoting deeply trouble me because they continue to portray women as broken, weak and in need of rescuing by some guy. And what’s worse, nearly all of the writers serving up these story lines are women.
These teasers serve as constant reminders of how women are continually being fed the notion that we are broken, that we need to be perfect and that the only path toward redemption is the love of someone other than ourselves.
It has become so ingrained in us women to see ourselves as inherently imperfect that we spend a good portion of our lives and money addressing perceived flaws, whether through make-up, Spanx, or even surgery. Imagine how much more productive we could be if we stopped wasting so much time, effort, and money trying to fix something that is not actually broken — if we made the world suit our needs instead of sacrificing ourselves and changing those parts of our bodies or personalities deemed unworthy, all in an effort to try to fit into it?
When I see these teasers or even articles that critique appearances or tell me how to better apply my eyeliner or why I should justify spending $50 on the “perfect” mascara, I want to scream. Why have we allowed ourselves to be reduced to this? I want to be angry with the women writing these stories and the female editors for selecting them and putting them into the marketplace, but then I remind myself that I too grew up in this patriarchal society and, for a long time, did not find my voice to confront it.
Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally wear make-up, and I firmly believe our external beauty should reflect our internal. However, I don’t believe that external beauty should be defined by anyone else. I used to read Cosmowhen I was a teenager. I digested all the articles about getting toned abs and arms and how to give a blowjob (treat it like an ice cream cone! Where was the article for guys on how to give cunnilingus?), as well as all of the images of skinny actresses on T.V. and in print before the Internet and social media ever existed. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to be a girl in this world today with all the commentaries and images being served up on a constant basis. The cycle continues with so few women standing up and saying “Enough!”
I call this the Snow White syndrome. In the Disney version, the beautiful, yet wicked queen is told by the brutally honest mirror that Snow White, her stepdaughter, is the fairest in all the kingdom. Snow is a naturally beautiful, kind and caring figure in the story. The queen banishes Snow and sends a huntsman to kill her, but he finds himself too taken with her charms and beauty to hurt her, so he hides her in the forest. There, she resides with seven dwarves (hello, patriarchy!) who tolerate her and eventually come to love her because she cooks and cleans for them and becomes a de factomother and wife. When the evil queen realizes Snow White is still alive, she dresses as an old hag and feeds the fair Snow a poisoned apple, sending her into a deep slumber from which she can only be awakened by a true love’s kiss. And so sets the stage for the predictable Happily-Ever-After (or HEA) ending where the prince discovers Snow, thinking she’s dead, kisses her and awakens her. (Don’t get me started on why he felt compelled to kiss a presumably dead woman’s lips).
Like Snow White, many of the female characters in Romance are blissfully ignorant of the world around them. They’ve been hurt and treated badly, but that’s inconsequential because they will push on and be someone’s doormat. Also like Snow White, these characters are not agents in their own destinies. Instead, each is like a pinball, trying to find safe harbor by merely bouncing off different and often painful experiences and men until she finally finds the “One”. It’s that happily-ever-after that becomes the endgame for her because little else in her life matters after that. No one asks what happens to Snow White after she meets her Prince because we’re supposed to assume that being with him ensures a life of contentment. She ceases to exist as an individual because she’s with a Prince, and we can only assume that means getting married and having children. Maybe she starts up a non-profit for little angry men, or supports free healthcare for miners, but we can’t know that because the HEA negates her individuality.
What’s really hard to stomach is how much women end up perpetuating this. Like the evil stepmother, many have bought into this idea that ensuring a happy story for us means pursuing the dream of the HEA to the point where we burden younger generations with our issues. We have been made to think that we’re broken and imperfect, and we feed that poisoned apple to the younger generation who are lead to believe the same thing. As women, I firmly believe we have an obligation to not only support one other, but to elevate each other to more meaningful values and goals than the ones we’ve allowed ourselves for generations. It’s time to stop selling young women on the notion that there is one ideal body image and on the fantasy of the HEA. It’s time to stop making them feel they are not whole. We can no longer allow their minds to be poisoned into believing that they are not good enough and that they need to be saved and fixed. Not only does this limit the woman’s role in relationships, it does the same for men because they are forced to occupy the role of the savior, thereby leading to an unbalanced and unharmonious relationship. This is not an HEA, but rather a recipe for misery.
Once we are able to overcome the Snow White syndrome and accept that life isn’t about pursuing perfection or an HEA, but rather living the fullest life possible, then we can finally embrace the essence of ourselves as women.
We are not creatures to be rescued, or Princesses waiting for our Prince Charmings, or bungling idiots who need to be saved from our own stupidity. Rather we are whole individuals who have tolerated misogyny and fear far too long. We no longer have to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, or for love. We know that true love can only be attained when we love ourselves, and showing that love means creating new stories where women are equal to the men that honor them. Now how’s that for a storyline?
 See my article To Hell With Happily-Ever-After’s
As I approach my two-year anniversary as a romance author, I thought I'd share the best piece of writing advice I've ever been given. Before taking that leap and self-publishing Gilded Lily in May 2014, I had been focused on my spiritual healing practice while working on a commercial women's fiction manuscript. Ironically, it was a former client, who has now become an empowering figure through her own coaching practice, that gave me a piece of advice which I’ll never forget: You are what you do.
When I first started out writing romance, I was self-conscious about the potential stigma of being a romance writer, not to mention an erotic romance writer who writes extremely hot scenes like the ones in my latest novel, Forbidden Rose. Her advice made me realize that not being open about my work was in effect negating my identity and purpose. This was a huge realization. In fact, for all the lessons I’d learned spiritually and professionally, this was one of the biggest. I understood then that so long as I couldn’t really be open about writing romance or continued to fear that my books (featuring diverse female-driven stories as opposed to the misogynistic male-driven stories that dominate the market) would be judged for being too different, my books would languish. If I couldn’t fully embrace my purpose, it wouldn’t be completely reflected in my work.
This is also reinforced for me that I had to stay true to the key themes that I believe need to be addressed in women’s stories: female empowerment, education, balanced love relationships, diversity, and integrity. The advice, you are what you do, made me ask myself, are the themes in the books in line with my goals to honor women as well as men? And, most of all, is love at the core of each story? By love, I don’t mean the clingy, desperate infatuation that’s passed off as love in most contemporary romance books out there. Rather, by love, I mean the profound connection between two individuals that allows them to recognize something larger than themselves.1
Even after I had followed her advice and embraced my work, it took some deep soul-searching to understand why I feared potential judgment so much that I felt a need to not talk about it openly, except with my closest friends. If it weren’t for my husband and friends prodding me, I probably wouldn’t have put myself out there as much as I had. It made me understand how I had hidden that sexual side of myself because of my conservative Asian mother. That’s right, it was my hard-core, God-fearing Filipina mother that made me afraid of owning the fact that I write about sex. My mother had always been the face of judgment in my mind, and it was time to let it go. And upon hearing, You are what you do, I knew it was time to release the fear that was holding me back. Accepting my work was, in essence, accepting the part of myself that’s reflected in it. To my surprise, when I came out to my mother about my books, she couldn’t have been prouder.
You are what you do contains indelible truth. It tells us that how we live, the choices we make, and the relationships we have are reflections of our deepest desires and knowing. To embrace You are what you do means examining whether you’re living your purpose. Is it fear that’s holding you back, much like it was for me? If it is, then it’s time to understand why and let it go. There is no reason to live a life that isn’t a reflection of your whole self. This doesn’t mean quitting your day job if it means keeping a roof over your family’s head and food on the table. Rather, it means looking at the core of how you live your life and asking yourself is everything that I do and engage in a reflection of how I love myself? If you can answer yes, then you’re living your dream.
I’m truly grateful to my former client for teaching me such an incredible lesson and for reminding me that sometimes the best advice we receive doesn’t come from professionals in our own fields but from the most unexpected places.
1 See my article, Romance Must Die