Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Grumpy Sunshine

Hello and welcome to Scrooge week. Ingrid wanted to talk about the Grumpy/Sunshine trope this year, and what better time to do it than during the week between Christmas and New Year when everything just seems to lapse into torpor until January 2nd?

Sad puppy with grumpy/sunshine.

Book covers of:
Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin
Promising Love by Sara Ohlin
At Attention by Annabeth Albert
Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Reviews coming this week!

Bottom line: Do you like the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: What’s not to like?

Ingrid: It’s my favorite.

Holly: It can be fun, but I don’t go out of my way to look for them. 

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: When I think grumpy/sunshine, I think of the sunshine character as being really sunny and optimistic, and I feel like often that’s more limited than others use the tag. Grumps are pretty easy to find, but a really sunny protagonist is not so common. More often it seems like grumpy/well adjusted. 

Ingrid: Someone is grumpy and finds themselves being inconveniently drawn to a **GASP** sunny person!!!! Fight it! Fight the urge!! (I melt! I swoon!) (Hello, Sound of Music)

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s such a gentle way to do opposites attract. The grumpy one gets to be themself but can also be soft for the sunshine one, and the sunshine one, who is probably more socially likable in general, can see the beauty in the probably less socially likable grump. HOW DOES THAT NOT INSPIRE HEART EYES?

Ingrid: There are SO many ways to do this. My favorite is romantic comedy, but you can cross all moods and tones, really. It’s flexible, it’s fun, and I adore that it showcases different people falling for each other the way they are. (Hello, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Holly: Oh hey, Ingrid’s example makes me realize that Pride and Prejudice is the original grumpy-sunshine book, and I do love me some Pride and Prejudice retellings, so maybe I have to readjust my thoughts about this trope. The P&P connection just highlights how flexible the trope really is—it works in any romance subgenre, and combines well with other tropes.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: NOTHING. IT IS AN EXCELLENT TROPE!

Ingrid: That there are not more of them?

Erin: I suppose… There is an argument to be made, depending on the characterization, that the grumpy character doesn’t treat the sunshine character well and the sunshine character just puts up with it. Or maybe sometimes the sunshine character doesn’t respect the grumpy character’s boundaries. But generally this doesn’t seem to be a trope fraught with a baseline that should cause concern.

Holly: Ok guys, I’m gonna say it. The gender dynamics of this trope kind of rub me the wrong way.

Before I get started, obviously, #NotAllGrumpySunshineBooks. But the vast majority of grumpy-sunshine pairings are grumpy hero, sunshine heroine. And I just wonder what this says about our collective socialization that we (readers) love to see women who are just perky and happy and bring joy to everyone around them. 

Maybe I’m irked because the only book I’ve read that was specifically marketed as a grumpy heroine / sunshine hero didn’t actually have a sunshine hero who was a ball of optimism and joy, but rather a sad, lonely hero who put on a socially acceptable front.

Erin: This is a good point. Grumpy heroines seem to be very popular right now, though. Readers who are Very Much Online certainly get excited about them.

That said, what Holly’s saying about the sunshine hero’s characterization also speaks to my earlier point that often grumpy/sunshine isn’t really always grumpy/sunshine but is maybe wounded/sunshine or grumpy/sociable or grumpy/well adjusted or anti-social/social and grumpy/sunshine has simply become a catch-all for a certain kind of opposites attract dynamic. For example, people often cite Managed as a great Grumpy/Sunshine book and while I could see Scottie as maybe being grumpy (more uptight than grumpy though, tbh), I didn’t find Sophie to be particularly sunshiney. 

Also I’ve been reading a ton of M/M romance, so the gender dynamics of this trope haven’t been so apparent to me. Highly recommend.

Let’s talk more about the gender dynamics and how characterizations impact the trope. 

Erin: I was very much struck by Holly’s point re: heroines being the vast majority of sunshiney protagonists. I am fully in the camp of “give me emotionally constipated (and preferably also pining) hero,” so it’s not a characterization I’m bothered by when reading for fun, but I can see that it does tap into the Unlikeable Heroine problem. We’re more likely to be critical of a heroine’s reason for being grumpy or prickly or otherwise Unlikeable. I’m totally prepared to argue that it’s probably better for there not to be an underlying reason for a character to be grumpy because then the reader can’t be critical of that, it’s simply the way that character is. 

Now, I am also thinking of gender in the cis M/M romance I’ve been reading voraciously. As I recall, the sunshine characters are not more femme (or at least less…burly?) than the grumpy characters, but I can acknowledge that a lumberjack-type character is more likely to be the grump in the relationship. At least, I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a M/M g/s with the lumberjack type as the sunshine. I recently listened to an Esther Perel podcast where she discussed how people perceive the world – I’m alone vs. I will always find people – so I’ve been thinking of this dynamic more in those terms. One protagonist feels completely alone while the other feels that there is a community that can be relied on, and without the other social input re differing gender of the characters, it doesn’t get so complicated. 

Holly: Building on my grump about the gendered dynamic, I feel like sometimes it can go as far as infantilizing the female/sunshine character. Like “This heroine is so naive” or “Look at this silly heroine who loves sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.” The best grumpy-sunshine books play with this dynamic in interesting ways, but there are plenty of books that…don’t.

Ingrid: I think I can grudgingly admit to this premise. It kind of goes hand in hand with my romance theory that we often like to see the scenarios that don’t often work out in real life play out on the page. In some of these books we have a truly grumpy stick-in-the-mud who is miraculously transformed by his love for the sunshine–and I think some of us do like the idea that we can love someone so perfectly they’ll be transformed by that. Which is just…so unlikely in real life. 

What happens when the grumps aren’t really grumpy and the sunshines aren’t really sunshiney?

Holly: I think that Erin’s earlier point that grumpy-sunshine has kind of become a catch-all for a certain type of opposites-attract dynamic is right. With that said, however, I am not such a stickler for the rules that I don’t think of all these books as grumpy-sunshine books. When grumps are only sort of grumpy and sunshines are only sort of sunshiney, for me it just means that the extremes between their characterization is less pronounced, but you still see the same basic beats. 

(My irritation about the grumpy heroine I mentioned before was more that I wanted some himbo action and didn’t get it, rather than that the dynamic between the characters wasn’t enough of an opposites-attract situation. The book is His Grumpy Childhood Friend by Jackie Lau.)

Erin: If I’m really hungry for a grumpy/sunshine read, what I want in that read is for the grump to be my very most favoritest emotionally inaccessible grumpy sort of hero who needs a metric ton of sunshine fiber to get over that emotional constipation. And I want that grump to be inexplicably and reluctantly gooey cinnamon roll soft for the sunshine character that is ruthlessly upending their life. And I also want the sunshiney character to not be fully moored in emotional trauma and angst and simply using an outwardly sunny personality to mask their true feelings. 

So, for me, when I see an advert for grumpy/sunshine and that dynamic is less pronounced, as Holly described, I might not disagree that it still can qualify as grumpy/sunshine; however, my enjoyment of that particular trope in that particular narrative will probably not be what I wanted it to be. At the end of the day it’s an expectations issue. Just because something might technically be categorized in this trope doesn’t mean it’s going to be a satisfying version thereof. 

Ingrid: Well, I think having this trope be a slight spectrum is fine–what is grumpy to one may be perfectly pleasant to someone else. In some of these, we almost border on enemies-to-lovers–if the first interaction is really awful and antagonistic, the reader is going to need to see some work being done by the grump in order to buy in to that romance. And honestly, I’m ok with that, too. So I just feel like I have enough love in my heart for all KINDS of grumpy sunshine books.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: Well crap. Okay. Role Model by Rachel Reid. Troy is miserable and unpleasant because his whole life has been unraveled. Harris is a walking ball of sunshine. Troy feels safe with and admires Harris, and Harris sees underneath all the noise to realize that Troy is struggling. So many warm fuzzies.

But also, like, if you haven’t read Managed by Kristen Callihan, you really should. Scottie!!!

Holly: Glitterland by Alexis Hall. I fully identified with misanthropic Ash, who went from disdaining Darian’s beautiful sunshine energy to discovering that he actually loved it. Plus the writing is just phenomenal. 

And since I am, by Smut Report Law, required to include a histrom in these let’s talk tropes recommendations lists, Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt is a solid grumpy-sunshine bodyguard romance. Phoebe is one of those rare true sunshine heroines who just radiates kindness and joy to everyone—except her extremely grouchy bodyguard, who she resents (until she doesn’t). The plot is totally bonkers, but James and Phoebe are perfect in their longing for each other.

Ingrid: I realize I’m like a broken record about this book, but By a Thread by Lucy Score is a beautifully done, very steamy example of Grumpy/Sunshine. It opens with the Grumpy hero getting the heroine fired from her job, only to discover that his mother has hired the heroine to work at the publisher they own together. He’s so grumpy and it’s just so steamy and good. 


Media we mentioned in this discussion:

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