Heroines, Heroes, Failure and Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand map with pinThis blog doesn’t normally touch politics but today (Friday) I learned that Jacinda Ardern is resigning as Prime Minister of New Zealand. She has decided to leave the job after more than five years because, she said, she “no longer has enough in the tank to do it justice.” It’s a frank and honest statement. Possibly even heroic? But is it failure?

Can heroes admit to failure?

handsome dark-haired young man with beard and faraway gazeAnd then I started thinking about the heroes we write and wondering whether any of them would get away with making a statement like Ardern’s. Does an alpha hero (say) ever admit that he’s no longer up to whatever it is he does? That he’s a failure? Or that he would be if he continued?

Can’t say I’ve met many in the fiction I read, especially not in contemporary romances. Romantic heroes may occasionally fail at some task, sure. But don’t they usually learn from their failure and go on to bigger and better things?

And, even when they do fail, do they confess it to the world at large? Or do they keep that chiselled jaw suitably clamped and say nothing?

The key question, I suppose, is this:
is a hero a failure—unheroic—if he admits he is no longer up to the job?

Is failure OK for heroines but not for heroes?

Now, there’s a loaded question, wouldn’t you say? But is it a fair question?

Female climber clinging to the edge.

Is this what “being up to the job” means?

I can remember only one other politician who resigned on grounds of not being able to keep doing the job.

Yes, it was a woman. Are you surprised?
Estelle Morris was the Secretary of State for Education for England back in 2002. She resigned because she felt she was “not up to the job”.
A heroine? Or a failure?
Or perhaps both?

Woman chained to her working desk

Maybe this is “being up to the job” for a heroine?

Somehow, I can’t see many (any?) real-life male politicians doing what Morris or Ardern have done. But maybe I’ve missed some?

Cartoon brain lifting dumbbellsThe Guardian article I’ve linked to at the top of the blog reminds us that Nelson Mandela insisted on stepping down after only one term as President of South Africa. Because, they write, “even successful leaders need to know when it’s time to go.” But President Mandela’s refusal wasn’t because he was a failure. He did it for a higher purpose: in order to ensure a democratic transition. In my book, that qualifies him as a hero. But there aren’t many like him about, are there? Not in real life, sadly.

And possibly not many heroic failures in romantic fiction either? Can you think of any?

Romance is fantasy land…and can’t include failure?

happy young womanWe read about alpha heroes in romantic fiction and we’re often carried away by the love story. Especially as we know that the heroine—whoever she is and however lowly—will end up with the alpha male in the end. HEA. Happy sighs. But…

Ask yourself a question, just once in a while. Could you stand having a man like that in your own life? Your real life? Do you love the love story only because it’s set in a fantasy land with a fantasy hero?

I find myself wondering, subversively, whether the alpha hero would remember to take out the bins.
Yes, OK. I know the alpha male hero has money coming out of his ears so he probably has a minion to see to the bins. But it’s still a fair point, to my mind.

No doubt he could defend the heroine if they were beset by hostiles but, sometimes, it’s not heroics the heroine needs. Sometimes, she needs help with practical, down-and-dirty chores. Like smelly bins.

And I will admit to having a reminder on my computer about the need to remind my own personal hero that Wednesday is the day for him to put out the bins. If I forget to remind him, then the failure is my fault, of course, not his. (And no, it is NOT nagging. No way.)
So that’s all right, isn’t it?

sunrise over rubbish dump with birds

NOT what the Maitland rubbish bin looks like…

Stories with acknowledged failure in them?

I’m sure I’m a failure here, but just at the moment, I can’t think of romantic failure stories where the hero fesses up and changes course completely. I’m sure that’s just brain failure 😉 on my part. Can you help me out here? I really do want to be proved wrong.

Joanna Maitland author

Joanna, failed bin nagger?

10 thoughts on “Heroines, Heroes, Failure and Jacinda Ardern

  1. MaryK

    I think Jaynes Anne Krentz has written a couple. DEEP WATERS maybe, and I seem to remember another one where a corporate hero leaves it all to be a charter boat captain.

  2. Pam Eldridge

    I’m a huge admirer of Jacinda Ardern. And no, I don’t see her resignation as a failure at all. If we’re going to view this in fictional terms perhaps we need to be looking at an earlier stage of The Hero’s Journey? The Change of Path? She’s been doing one thing but she is now accepting that it’s the righ time to do something else. That takes courage. She hasn’t framed it in those terms though. Possibly because her ego isn’t bound up in it. What has horrified me is what we are now hearing about the credible and unbelievably ugly threats levelled at not just her, but at her daughter.
    That. Is. Disgusting.
    And, let’s be honest, it’s because she’s a woman. She will now face even more catcalling because she’s walking away. But why not put a bloke in that situation? His child is being threatened because of his political position. So he walks away to protect the child.
    He’d be called a hero.
    Sorry for the rant but I’ve been fuming about this since the announcement. Longer, really. I’ve been fuming about it since Australia’s first and only PM copped very similar treatment. Grrrrr.
    If I think of anything literary that applies I’ll comment again.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m with you all the way, Pam. I don’t see it as failure either (and I apologise if the wording of my blog suggested I do). I think it’s immensely brave to resign in the way she did, and say what she did. I also agree that the treatment she’s had is, and will be, disgusting and intolerable. You are right to rant, in my book.

  3. Louise Allen

    I can’t agree that it is failure – just an honest admission, requiring courage, that they aren’t the right person for the job at that point. Such as the hero admitting he’s not the best person to rescue the heroine because he’s just had a severe blow to the head and is seeing double.

    1. Joanna Post author

      If I seemed to imply I thought Ardern was a failure, I apologise. I don’t think that at all. I think it shows great courage and self-awareness — a huge difference from some narcissistic male politicians I could name. Don’t think your male example is in the same league, though, since he wouldn’t be giving up the essence of what he is. And his is a very temporary stepping back. But feel free to disagree 😉

  4. sarahmromance

    Interesting post, Joanna. I don’t see Ahern’s admission as failure so much as an honest admission, which I think is heroic. I am sure there are many fictional heroes who admit failure, although not in so many words. Was Rhett Butler admitting defeat when he left Scarlett O’Hara? Didn’t do him any harm (or maybe that had more to do with Clark Gable in the film version). Alpha males in romance novels often have to climb down a bit to win the heroine, even if its not complete failure(at least, they do in my books).

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think I’d say that “climbing down a bit”, as you put it, is not the same as admitting that you can no longer do what you used to do and so are stepping back from it. It’s the public admission, as much as anything else. I think it takes real guts, and self-knowledge, to do that and I’m not convinced that alpha males (in fiction or in real life) are prepared to do that. Others may disagree, of course 😉

  5. henriettegyland

    Just read a lovely book by Linda Corbett, “Love You From A to Z”. In it the hero lets down the heroine at one point, and when I read that I was cross with him, but felt he must have had his reasons. He does, and at the same time he still makes for a romantic hero. But I agree: this is rare in contemporary romantic fiction 🙂

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