My Problem with the Clumsy Girl Trope

Yes, this is a leftover Christmas pic, but I just dug it out of my camera and loved it. I was out taking sunset pics and noticed Jackson watching me from the window. I didn’t realize at the time how I caught the reflected sunset, along with my own. So much of what I love about my home in this one photo.

I’ve been mulling lately about the trope of the Clumsy Heroine. For the most part, I don’t want to call out specific books (though I’m sure you can think up several offhand), but I will cite Twilight as a well-known example. For the record, I’m a fan of Twilight. In fact, I blogged just last week about my reasons why

Bella, the heroine of the series, begins the first book as ridiculously clumsy. To the point that this is one of the most frequently leveled criticisms of the book. Even those of us who love the book and series roll our eyes over that. She’s so clumsy that she staggers into life-threatening danger at every turn – requiring the hero, Edward, to repeatedly save her. It gets so bad that you begin to wonder why she didn’t get killed playing in traffic before the age of five.

Now, Bella is irritating to many readers for a number of reasons, most of which have to do with her not feeling like a fully formed human being. She’s subject to the vicissitudes of fate, not an assertive person, seems like a puppet at times. There are arguments that she’s “empty” because she’s essentially an avatar for the reader. The reader inserts herself – and her own personality – into the glove that is the protagonist. Arguably this is part of what makes the book and series so compelling. But what about the clumsiness – what purpose does that serve?

I’m going to suggest that making a heroine clumsy is shorthand for creating a character who has not yet come into her evolved state. She hearkens back to the stage that most of us go through, that awkward adolescence where we seem to be able to do nothing right, whether we’re blessed with physical coordination or not. Even in the naturally athletic types, the growth spurts of our teen years can create situations where our limbs out pace the nervous system, creating dissonance in movement.

Another way of saying clumsy!

However, this stage doesn’t last into adulthood (if all is well) and we rarely see male protagonists with this syndrome, if ever. I did a quick survey in the SFWA chatroom – thanks all! – and the only exceptions we came up with are ones like Thomas Covenant, who has an actual chronic illness (leprosy); ones like Daniel Bruks in Peter Watts’ Echopraxia, who’s arguably only socially awkward; ones where the effect is intended to be humorous like Dirk Gently; or with the pervasive bumbling sidekick. The latter exists mainly to contrast with the ultra-competent hero.

I’d submit that readers wouldn’t tolerate a clumsy hero. So, why the clumsy heroine?

I don’t like the trope because I do think it’s shorthand for that raw emotional state of feeling inadequate. The clumsy heroine has not yet grown into graceful womanhood – despite her age – and requires (sometimes repeated) rescuing by the hero. It feels like lazy writing to me.

Does anyone LOVE the clumsy heroine thing? Clearly it’s been a successful trope, especially in romance. Arguments in favor?

Winners! And Do Movies Fail at Showing Romantic Love?

book giveawayOkay, here are the books available for the giveaway! (The three stacks of horizontal ones.) You should be able to click on the pic to enlarge, if you can’t read it here. If you still can’t read the author names and book titles, ping me and I’ll tell you. The winners from yesterday’s author photo contest – and thanks so much to everyone who helped make such a tough decision! – selected via random number generator are:

Angela E. Taylor
Misty Evans
Keena Kincaid

 Yay! Each of you gets to pick a book and I’ll mail it to you! If any of these three pass, I’ll move on to the next random number. For the rest of you, there are 17 books there and I’ll be doing giveaways of them over the next several weeks until they’re all gone. First come, first served.

In fact, I’ll select one commenter on today’s blog to win the book of their choice!

So, we watched The Host last night. This is the movie made from Stephenie Meyer’s book of the same name, totally apart from her Twilight series. I haven’t read the book, though I heard many people liked it, some more than Twilight. It was a good story – about aliens that are sort of parasitic, that implant themselves into human bodies and take over their consciousness. In many cases the resident human spirit dies. In others, they’re shoved so far down that they can’t communicate. In one case, with a Louisiana bayou girl named Melanie, she can communicate with the alien, the Wanderer – or Wanda as they come to call her – and eventually influence her choices.

I don’t think the rest is spoilery, but stop reading if you don’t want to know what comes next.

Melanie/Wanda flees to the hiding place of Melanie’s small resistance group. Melanie’s lover is there. There’s interesting conflict because he believes Melanie’s spirit is dead and Wanda is just tricking them. Eventually he comes to see that Melanie really is still in there and Wanda herself falls in love with another guy.

The story pivots on this idea – that Wanda falls in love with Earth, with humans and with this particular man. The outcome of the story hinges on it.

But I’m not sure it’s convincing.

Knowing how well Meyer creates a completely believable love-affair between wildly different people/beings, without the useful assistance of sexual interaction, I suspect the book pulled this off. I’m tempted to read, just to see. If anyone here has read it, I’d be interested to know. The movie didn’t convince me, however.

I’m wondering if this isn’t why so many romantic movies don’t work. For all that writers are frequently chastised that a picture is worth a thousand words and that movies can convey so much more with one sweep of the lens, movies fall down on portraying the subtler emotions. Especially love.

Falling in love is such an internal change, complex and difficult to chart. The best romance novelists manage to do this without us realizing it. We fall in love right along with the characters, until it’s so obvious to us that they belong together that we can’t see it any other way.

I think A Room with a View managed to do this – where we knew they loved each other before the characters did. I’m not sure many other movies do.

Thoughts?