The old “placeholder heroine” myth

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. :-D

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.

Duh.

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. ;-)

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  • http://www.laurakinsale.com Laura Kinsale

    Ok. I have to take a very deep breath whenever this topic comes up, because the way people talk about it just makes me want to bang my head against the screen.

    First, yes, you are very correct in that my original essay, which I frankly regret ever writing because it has been so vastly misinterpreted, is about POINT OF VIEW. It’s very much from a writer’s technical angle, about the power of POINT OF VIEW as a technique to create emotion in the reader. Your example of Sherlock Holmes is excellent. We can “be” Sherlock solving a crime at the same time we can admire him from the outside while he does it. This is a simple, commonplace act for a reader, to “be” more than one character (and even more than one character at the same time,) to be inside a character, sharing emotions, and outside that character at the same time, judging them, and yet it was entirely overlooked by analysts of romance.

    Note that at the time I wrote, the ONLY academic studies of romance, Modleski and Radway, both accepted as written-in-stone that the reader of a romance only “identified” with the heroine.

    This was such a basic concept that they built their entire arguments around it. They pointed to the fact that romances of the time were written from either first or third POV of the heroine, and the writers did not commonly go into the hero’s thoughts. They thought this must mean the reader only “felt” along with the heroine.

    They didn’t understand that just because the writer doesn’t describe the thoughts of a character directly, the reader’s imagination can still provide those thoughts.

    They could not, apparently, conceive of the idea that a reader could “identify,” that is, imagine the thoughts and experience the feelings of, not only the heroine, but the hero too.

    There was, and still is, no question in my mind that this assumption that the female reader only identifies with the heroine was totally and absolutely wrong. And I wrote my essay about its wrongness.

    Perhaps the obviousness of that wrongness is so clear now that the essay and the concept seem more confusing than they actually are.

    If you assume, as Radway et al did, that the reader can only ID with the heroine, this leads very easily to the misconception that the reader would like to be just like the heroine, in all her “spunky” long-haired submissive glory. I wanted to knock down that misconception, because I thought and still do that it is wrong.

    I don’t understand what you are saying in your final paragraphs of this post. It seems to me you are also claiming, like Radway, that the reader can only ID with the “protagonist.” This just isn’t true, as you yourself demonstrated with Holmes and Watson. The reader is entirely able to identify with any character right down to the dog. The vividness of that identification is up to the skill of the writer, and what the reader brings to the individual book. It varies. But women are very very good at identifying with male characters. (Here’s a question, how good are male readers at identifying with a female character?)

    I’m not sure which concept you are saying is flawed or didn’t ever apply.

    You’ll note that in my essay I used the term placeholder to describe a FAILED heroine in a romance–ie, a heroine that the reader did NOT find admirable or interesting, who was Too Stupid To Live, and yet the reader keeps reading and even enjoys the book. My question there was WHY, and my answer was the sense that the reader could ride along with that character and think about how she herself would act in the failed heroine’s place.

    I said in my essay that in a successful romance the reader will strongly identify with BOTH the hero and heroine.

    LOL, it’s a very slippery concept, because imagination and the experience of reading is not something that’s simple to describe. I don’t think you are much more successful than I was in trying to argue whatever it is you are trying to say here.

    Basically, the word “placeholder” turned out to be a hot button in and of itself. Ppl have claimed that I was arguing FOR placeholder heroines. Or that they identify with the heroine and therefore I must be wrong. Most of them never read my essay, but clearly you did, which I appreciate.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t explain clearly what I mean, but it’s not really a “premise,” it’s a fact, and it’s only political and gender-related in the sense of the original claims that romance readers are/were different from normal readers in that they could ONLY identify with the heroine, therefore they were buying into escapist paternalistic fantasies that smarter women could see through.

  • AQ

    If you assume, as Radway et al did, that the reader can only ID with the heroine, this leads very easily to the misconception that the reader would like to be just like the heroine, in all her “spunky” long-haired submissive glory. I wanted to knock down that misconception, because I thought and still do that it is wrong.

    Okay, I get the concept now, although it never would’ve occurred to me that the “identification” argument was one that took place because that kind of presumes that romance should be read differently than any other type of fiction. Seriously, never occurred to me.

    You’ll note that in my essay I used the term placeholder to describe a FAILED heroine in a romance–ie, a heroine that the reader did NOT find admirable or interesting, who was Too Stupid To Live, and yet the reader keeps reading and even enjoys the book. My question there was WHY…

    My mini-stab at the question off the top of my head. Because the story’s plot focuses on the protag, who is normally male. The ally job (usually the female) is to help the plot turn so that the male gets his objective/story goal which quite frequently requires defeating the villain. Therefore, when the heroine does something TSTL, she doing 2 things: making the hero rescue her from the situation (proving that he loves her above any other consideration because according to Darwin’s theories she deserves to die) and allowing the hero to either defeat the villain or getting them one step closer to the final confrontation. I think that subconsciously we, readers, realize that without some of the TSTL moments the story would need to be more complex or that it’s an easy way out of a hole the author’s written.

    The other thing is that I believe readers identify most strongly with the protagonist of any piece of fiction so the actions of the ally are secondary to how well the story “works” for the reader.

    A Sherlock Holmes story lies and dies based on what Holmes does/thinks not Watson. Watson could have TSTL moments and that wouldn’t diminish our love of Holmes, assuming we have the love to begin with.

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  • AQ

    One more thing about the TSTL ally character found in romance is that the ally character’s role in other types of fiction is the same. That being that they can be used to prompt the villain / protag confrontation. The big difference I see between the romance genre ally character (generally the heroine) and any other type of fiction is that the romance ally character has so much screen type and typically is one of the primary narrators. I think normally we expect one of the narrators who is not the protagonist to have a little more emotional distance and vs. vice versa.

    Also the non-romance genre ally character TSTL moments that I recall seem to have been conscious decisions made for honor or from a belief that what they’re doing is logical. I hate to say it but TSTL romance heroines come off as not thinking at all and given that many times I personally don’t feel that the heroine is a multi-dimensional character to begin…well it’s easy to forget that similar techniques are used in all fiction with varying success.

    And finally since the protag is more typically a multi-dimensional character it’s much easier to let the story live and die based on that character and the story than the ally character’s actions.

    Again only in the most general of senses.

  • http://bevsbooks.com Bev(BB)

    Just a quick note that I didn’t drop off the planet but that a family birthday commitment kept me busy yesterday and I’m just now getting caught up on all the great responses. Hope to start responding back sometime this afternoon. ;-)

  • http://bevsbooks.com Bev(BB)

    You’ll note that in my essay I used the term placeholder to describe a FAILED heroine in a romance–ie, a heroine that the reader did NOT find admirable or interesting, who was Too Stupid To Live, and yet the reader keeps reading and even enjoys the book. My question there was WHY, and my answer was the sense that the reader could ride along with that character and think about how she herself would act in the failed heroine’s place.

    You know, to be perfectly fair, I believe that you did say all this and more in the essay, Ms. Kinsale, which is part of what confused me to no end when I got online and realized that what I got out of the essay wasn’t what everyone else appeared to have gotten out of it. When I’m talking about confusing psychobabble, I am talking about the research that you were trying to refute, not the points you were necessarily making. Because I get your point and did see the placeholder heroine as a “bad thing” or at least something to be avoided, so to speak. If I could’ve ever figured out precisely what most people thought it was later at any rate. And there was the rub. ;-)

    When I call the placeholder heroine a myth, a large part of the “myth” I see is that no one seemed to be able to agree on what it meant. Or more precisely, before now, I myself couldn’t have explained with any clarity what the heck it was supposed to be.

    That was no fault of yours. A lot of what I understand now about the dual perspective and The Relationship in romances stems from reading that particular essay. It’s why I have it bookmarked. Controversial, yeah, but also thought-provoking. There are truths there. And maybe that’s why it’s stayed in people’s minds for so long. It usually take awhile for real truths to find bubble their way to to the surface. :D

    Have you ever considered publishing it online so people could reference it directly?

  • http://bevsbooks.com Bev(BB)

    well it’s easy to forget that similar techniques are used in all fiction with varying success.

    Yes, exactly. Not to belabor the point, but we have to stop letting ourselves be blinded by the sex. Hehehe. ;-)

  • AQ

    Well, not to be blinded by the sex (love that) but in any other piece of fiction, I’d expect the TSTL to, you know, actually die.

  • http://bevsbooks.com Bev(BB)

    Well, not to be blinded by the sex (love that) but in any other piece of fiction, I’d expect the TSTL to, you know, actually die.

    Yeah, but that’s just it, how many times do they actually do it? This is popular fiction we’re talking about right? Not regular fiction. Because to me, that’s where the distinction lies.

    I mean whether we’re talking about sidekicks of detectives, superheroes or simply buddy stories – the TSTL abound all over the place in popular fiction. They’re not all female and someone usually rescues them from their idiocy. Usually, I said. ;-) It’s just romance that gets the bad rap when they all do the same thing, too.

  • AQ

    But how many MODERN popular fiction stories outside of romance are told from the sidekick’s pov?