A hard one!
In theory, I am all for suffering for heroines within reason and as far as it forwards her character arc and the plot. More often than not, though, it ends up being gratuitous and far exceeds what is needed. One of the reasons romance novels used to feature so much rape was because it was effectively a “condition” of their having sex and adventures and stories centering around them (and many earlier historical romances were effectively female takes on previously male-centric historical sagas and adventures) was that they couldn’t just SEEK OUT adventure or ACTIVELY WANT sex, both had to be forced on them, either completely or partially. The romance novel publishers may have finally been forced to back off from that due to extreme backlash in the 90s, but fiction in general still has a pervasive idea that women have to suffer to have a place in stories, and that their suffering furthers men’s tales.
A good example of gratuitous suffering that that doesn’t help further HER plot is Lan Shang, a secondary heroine in Ice Fantasy
. (Because I’m still seething over this however many weeks it’s been later, and because the actress is in another drama I’m watching now, General and I
, and thankfully not endlessly suffering.) If I step back and compare Lan Shang’s experiences to those of some other female characters, Lan Shang has it bad, but not the worst ever. However, Lan Shang’s suffering is constantly used to tear her down, humiliate, and hurt her. It doesn’t contribute to her character growth and doesn’t further the plot in her favor at any time. It does, however, further the plot for Ka Suo and Ying Kong Shi, and contribute to Ying Kong Shi’s character arc. Once she can’t contribute to those things any more, she’s set aside and only brought back for more suffering.
In contrast, over the course of 13 books, Seanan McGuire has put October Daye through every bit of torture and torment she can think of short of sexual assault, and often exceeds my own comfort level for reading in doing so. At least half the October Day books pass the point where I would normally “nope” out for gratuitous torment and pain for female characters, but I don’t nope out of the October Daye books. The reason for that is that most of those things I nope out of have pain and suffering for the sake of pain and suffering, and if it’s to actually further a character’s plot, it isn’t hers. In contrast, October’s suffering rarely feels gratuitous, and it’s about her and her story, not those of Tybalt, Quentin, Etienne, Sylvester, etc. (I mean, I’m pretty sure Sylvester thinks at least half of it is about him, but he doesn’t count.) It might AFFECT the men in her life but it isn’t ABOUT them or their stories.
Seanan McGuire actually has a really good post about the expectation of suffering for female characters from a few years back here. http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/
470626.html (It’s specifically in regards to rape due to a fan asking when she would “finally” rape one of her heroines, but can be applied in broader scope too.)
So basically: Good idea within reason and context, but usually with bad execution that negates the potential.