I am a millennial. As such, I have a strong affinity for the grumpy sunshine trope. In my day, grumps were often called “serious” or “brooding” heroes (also “sensitive,” at times “bookish”) and the heroines… manic pixie dream girls. Kid you not. Zoe Dashenel in (500) Days of Summer epitomized the manic pixie. Natalie Portman too in Garden State was spot on with the sunshine (my preferred term) to what’s-his-name grumpy. It was a thing. In fact, it was a problematic thing. Let’s explore.
The grumpy sunshine trope requires a romantic pairing where one of the characters (typically the hero) is sullen, moody, and well… grumpy. Maybe he is brooding over a loss. Maybe he is preoccupied with his studies. Maybe he is legit grieving. He feels deeply. He listens carefully. His mind is a thing of beauty. I always think of this painting when I think of grumpy heroes… It’s been a longstanding favorite of mine, and if you ever get a chance to visit the Getty Center, it is worth tracking down and seeing in person.
So then along comes the sunshine character who is vivacious, optimistic about the future, happy, cheerful, and generally… well sunny. The sunshine character is usually a beautiful young woman who often falls hard and fast for the grump. The opposites attract notion plays out long and strong in this trope. Through the course of the story, the heroine pulls the hero away from his books, out of his shell, and has the job of teaching him what it means to be alive. Unfortunately, this job of imparting important life lessons to the hero while also being wholesomely charming, beautiful, and caring can lead to sunshine characters—specifically heroines—who are two dimensional.
Crafting a character to be the free-spirited fantasy of a grumpy hero rarely makes for interesting characters. Relegating women into infantilized objects who only ever get to be charming and care-free, maybe smitten, is no good. I feel like when stories are told from the POV of the grump, the danger of this happening is very high. However, when a story is told from the POV of the sunshine character, and we see her depth, wit, and choices to be sunny in the face of obstacles, I think the grumpy sunshine trope really shines.
In many ways I feel like the classic fairy tale of Beauty and Beast is the original example of the grumpy sunshine trope. The themes of Beauty and the Beast are compelling: love transforms us. Love makes us selfless and brave. Would these same themes be as compelling if the story were told from the point of view of the beast? Is sticking with Beauty’s POV part of the universal appeal of the story? I think it might be.
Some of my favorite reads in the past few years have been grumpy sunshine—usually from the sunshine’s POV. We’ve got Ali Hazelwood’s Love Hypothesis that features a spunky, vivacious heroine and a dishy, grumpy hero. Ditto Well Met by Jen DeLuca. Sarah Hogle’s Just Like Magic features a grumpy heroine and a sunshine hero that I thoroughly enjoyed—yay for gender bends—but I must admit, it took me some effort to get into the story—grumps aren’t the most compelling narrators in the beginning.
Either way, it is a lot of fun to see characters act as grumpy as I feel sometimes and then seeing those characters loved unconditionally in spite of their bad case of the grumps is a lot of soothing. And if by the power of true love, grumpy is transformed into someone a little less grumpy, that’s a story to cherish. Because love transforms us.
My latest fairy tale is a retelling of Kate Crackernuts, and when I first came across Kate’s story I was a twenty-two-year-old college student and steeped in millennial manic-pixie-dream-girl culture. I couldn’t help but see the grumpy sunshine possibilities in Kate’s story. But even more compelling was the fact that Kate through her wits and heart saves not only her prince-in-distress but her stepsister BFF. This was a fairy tale with a heroine that was worthy of notice—a sunshine that was full of grit, humor, and depth that rivaled any hero I was aware of. I dreamed of passing a winter break with a fat stack of Kate Crackernuts retellings. But alas… There were none to be found so many (many) years ago.
I am so pleased to have Clever, Cursed, & Storied out in the wild, ready for whomever might need to celebrate a milestone by consuming a large stack of fairy tale retellings. And I hope that if anyone needs to satisfy a grumpy sunshine craving, they will consider adding Kate and Henry to their pile.