I’ve been mulling something over for awhile now and a post over on Racy Romance Reviews about Romance Fiction as Popular Culture made me bring something off the back burner and get it ready to post.
I first ran across the placeholder heroine concept back in the late 1990s when I read about it in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, which is a group of essays by romance authors edited by Jayne Ann Krentz and originally published in 1992. The placeholder heroine or “heroine as placeholder” was simply confusing when I first read about it. It was nonsensical psycho-babble all tangled up in reader identification to me unlike how I reacted to other concepts presented in the book such as alpha heroes, which I’m either for or against depending on its use, or even say the “by women, for women” mantra which I hate with a passion and argue against any time I have the opportunity.
Anyway, I read third essay in the book, “The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance” by Laura Kinsale, and thought that, okay, this is supposed to make sense? Right? How come it doesn’t? How come it doesn’t apply to what I’m reading? How come all I get from it is the impression that someone thinks we romance readers have split personalities when we read? I still have that essay bookmarked in the book. I’m not the only one, trust me. I distinctly remember the first time I ran across a discussion on the topic online after reading the book and asked what placeholder meant. No one could explain it. Not to my satisfaction anyway. And many tried.
It almost got kind of fun to try to see how many different ways people would try to explain it to me. And just how tangled up they’d get.
So, basically, I just decided to ignore it as nonsense and move on.
That was then.
Recently, like just a couple of months ago, I ran across a discussion on the use of the first person point of view that made my reader’s antennae go up big time. It wasn’t even about romances per se, either. In the process of the discussion someone mentioned Sherlock Holmes and Watson. How Watson had narrated many of the books in first person… as the sidekick… but the point made was that Holmes was the hero, Watson was the sidekick.
The narrator sidekick. Watson was our eyes into the story.
My brain kicked into overdrive because this was a placeholder I could understand – and it wasn’t all tangled up in all the gender issues of The Mantra, alpha hero objectification or even romances being subversive, escapist women’s fantasy or fiction. It was simply the literary expediency of writing in a certain POV. Namely a very limited point-of-view.
Here’s a quote directly from the essay by Kinsale about the placeholder heroine:
In the romance it is the hero who carries the book. Within the dynamics of reading a romance, the female reader is the hero, and also the heroine-as-object-of-the-hero’s-interest (the placeholder heroine). The reader very seldom is the heroine in the sense meant by the term “reader identification.” There is always an element of analytical distance.
Now, here I’ve reworded it for Holmes and Watson’s benefit and for comparison:
In the mystery it is the detective who carries the book. Within the dynamics of reading a mystery, the reader is the detective, and also the sidekick-as-object-of-the-detective’s-focus (the placeholder sidekick). The reader very seldom is the sidekick in the sense meant by the term “reader identification.” There is always an element analytical distance.
Change genres, use appropriate terms if necessary, apply to any limited point of view story, wash, rinse and repeat and tell me, is this a valid comparison or am I nuts? Now, can someone explain this one to me without the gender crap coloring the picture? I dare them. ;p
Of course, none of this is saying that I agree with the premise within the paragraph in the first place, just that I disagree that limiting this concept to romances works because these gender issues will defeat us every time if we let them. But, you know what, when the two characters share the stage as equal partners then why in the world would one of the characters be a placeholder for the other to begin with? Forget the gender and even the point of view, this is about who’s the focus of the story being told.
Which really brings up an interesting question about what some people are trying to say about what some romances are all about… but then again I’m not an academic and I’ll let them figure that one out.
Of course realizing all this did make me ask why it I didn’t catch onto any of it back when I first read DM,AW. It’s simple really. At the time, I’d moved well beyond reading 1st person romances to enjoying the dual perspectives that so many romances have nowadays. So had quite a few of the romance readers who were also scratching their heads in befuddlement over the descriptions and arguments for the concept of heroine as placeholder. So, I knew I wasn’t alone even then which only lead to more confusion.
What I didn’t know or realize, as simply a reader of the books, was just how tied the “truth” of the entire romance placeholder heroine concept was to the POV issue combined with the gender issue. Take one or both away and it falls apart. It simply is a house of cards based upon a limited perspective, quite literally all the way around.
Looking back now, I also realized I’d started to get a glimmer of light when I started reading first person again with books like Linnea Sinclair’s Gabriel’s Ghost. The thing is, the hero Sully isn’t the focus or even the “detective” of that book. He’s the puzzle to be solved, almost in the nature of old Gothic romances even though it’s science fiction romance. Chaz, the heroine, is the true focus – even though she’s the narrator. She is the protagonist on the journey and is the detective as well. Sully/Gabriel is the mystery she’s solving and also her love interest. We never see his thoughts but we do learn much about him. This story contradicts everything the placeholder heroine premise claims and does it with a bang.
Now, one could possibly argue that it’s part of new wave of stories that are different and therefore don’t apply to the premise but how exactly does that work? Academically, I mean? Because, either the older stories were about the heroines telling their stories or they weren’t. They were either the protagonists of their own journeys or they were the sidekicks in the first place. And it had nothing to do with how we readers perceived them in our fantasy life. Which is why I don’t agree with the premise of the concept as argued in the essays or other books. It’s flawed. Even in limited POV it doesn’t apply. I’m not sure it ever applied.
I guess what I’m saying is that in many ways I still see the heroine placeholder as pretty much nonsensical but I’ve finally found a way to argue against it that isn’t based on gender. Just look at other genres like we should’ve been doing all along.