When you read a romance novel, what are you reading it for? The romance? The heroine’s journey? The hunky hero? Or something else entirely?
The Placeholder Reader
Recently, I came upon a quote by author Laura Kinsale. Rather than add it to the Kathleen E. Woodiwiss page, I thought it would make for a good conversation piece. In her essay “The Androgynous Reader” in Jayne Ann Krentz’ book, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Kinsale cites the heroine of K.E.W.’s Shanna as proof that the average romance reader does not identify with the heroine, but rather, s/he imagines her as a placeholder for themselves to be with the hero, for:
“[A] sillier and more wrongheaded heroine than Shanna would be difficult to imagine… Feminists need not tremble for the reader–she does not identify with, admire, or internalize the characteristics of either a stupidly submissive or an irksomely independent heroine. The reader thinks about what she would have done in the heroine’s place.”
I agree and disagree with Kinsale’s assessment. As a woman, I do not internalize a foolish heroine’s poor decision-making. When it comes to reading romance, unless feminism is an explicit theme of the book, that topic doesn’t enter in how I judge the story. A stupid main character is a stupid main character regardless of their sex.
Is Kinsale claiming that a “blank slate” heroine is all readers need because they want to self-insert themselves into the story, fantasizing they are the object of the hero’s affections? That it’s easy to overlook the antics of a TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) heroine because ultimately it’s the hero who makes the book worth it?
Why Do Read I Romance?
It’s a cause for introspection. When I come upon a female MC (main character) who is “irksomely independent” or “stupidly submissive,” I hope that she changes for the better as the novel proceeds. If a love story is goofy and silly, I can accept a goofy and silly heroine AND hero.
I looked at my Goodreads shelves to see how I judge heroes and heroines differently. I picked fourteen shelves, one dedicated to each sex, and counted the net positive rankings. It seems that I examine the hero more harshly and admire heroines more than their male counterparts. However, there are no masculine equivalents for these shelves castigating females: heroine-so-perfect-she-farts-potpourri (16); heroine-dumb-dumb-dumb (22); heroine-feisty-in-a-bad-way (18). Still, heroines come out on top. 😉
|hero-deserves-a-better-heroine (4)||heroine-deserves-a-better-hero (9)||HEROINE (+5)|
|hero-greatest-hall-of-fame (10)||heroine-greatest-hall-of-fame (14)||HEROINE (+4)|
|hero-love-him (28)||heroine-love-her (44)||HEROINE (+16)|
|hero-needs-to-grow-the-beep-up (18)||heroine-should-grow-the-beep-up (11)||HEROINE (+7)|
|hero-loser (27)||heroine-loser (5)||HEROINE (+22)|
|hero-jerky-pig-hall-of-fame (17)||heroine-jerky-sow-hall-of-fame (1)||HEROINE (+18)|
|hero-hate-him (37)||heroine-hate-her (32)||HEROINE (+5)|
The female protagonist doesn’t need to be a super-strong woman, or the very best at what she does, or even someone I like. Simply put, I need a heroine I can respect. That’s all. If she’s absolutely horrid, but the hero is swoon-worthy like in Highland Velvet then it depends on the writer selling me the plot.
Holding Out for a Hero
Kinsale argues that Romance readers want to see less of the heroine and more of the hero. They want to be inside his head, feeling his emotional upheaval as he falls in love. He is the object of the readers’ desire, not the heroine.
Her argument has merit. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women was published in 1992. Romance has changed immensely through the years regarding how heroes express themselves. In the past, there was little, if any, head-hopping into his thoughts. The hero was inscrutable and stoic. At most, we felt his frustration or desire for the heroine. “I love you”s were not revealed mid-story, but in the last few chapters or pages.
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, the genre grew to show both perspectives. Rere was the book told only from the hero’s point-of-view (third-person omniscient, of course). Today there are a plethora of romances told strictly from the hero’s 1st-person-POV. If a book is written from the heroine’s side and sells well, expect a sequel that tells the same story from the hero’s POV.
The Universal Tale
I know straight men who read romance—gay men and lesbian women too. Not everyone who reads Romance does so out of wish fulfillment. Sometimes folks are just looking for engaging stories, which happen to be Romance. When looking for a cozy detective mystery or an alien-packed space opera, I’m not searching to find myself, but for an escapist adventure. It doesn’t matter who the characters are, so long as they engage me. Then again, some people appreciate an MC who is relatable, which enhances their reading pleasure.
Books are so very private yet wonderfully universal to experience. There’s no right or wrong in the way we enjoy or take part in them. It’s ok to judge or not to judge the characters or the plots, so long as we don’t judge each other as readers. Fiction is an alternate reality that can mean so many things to different people. There are multitudes of worlds for us all to experience in unique and deeply personal ways and we have authors to thank for that. (And editors, don’t forget editors. I wish I had one.)
Do you read Romance for the fantasy of being desired by the hero or of being the hero in pursuit? Is neither more important, and you enjoy the overall love story, the plot, or the character development? Or is it the sex, be it the anticipation or the consummation? There are no condemnations here; we do this for the shared fun! Please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance!