Musings on the “placeholder” heroine


Except for those little moments relieved by the occasional huge moment, everyday life can be a drudgery. Whatever you are engaged in, be it work (no matter how glamorous or lucrative it is) or raising a family or fulfilling your calling at church or attaining some long-held goal (usually all of them at once), at some point, you’ll find yourself slogging through it and wondering where the magic is.

The truth is, there is very little magic, except that which we grab for ourselves. When in the midst of this drudgery, few women1 think to themselves, “How awesome am I? Super-awesome, is what!” While she is in the midst of drudgery, she can be beset with feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and irrelevance, even if other people find her admirable or even inspirational in performing said drudgery.

And this is what TV and movies and books and games are for: little moments of respite from the drudgery. People decry “escapist” fiction, but who really wants to read about other people’s drudgery while in the midst of one’s own?2

Fictional characters are not immune to drudgery. The writers just choose not to show you that part because … why? It’s boring.

Giselle slogs through her neverending days of law school classes and shitty second-shift transcription job and church attendance after being stripped of her precious bookstore she can’t rebuild. She has little to lighten her load or brighten her days. Who wants to read about how tired and hopeless she feels?

Eilis slogs through the neverending stress of building a business, fighting off enemies alone, and seeks her magic in meaningless sex with strangers which she never finds and leaves her feeling worse than she did before.

Justice slogs through neverending farm work, housework, college, and then law school with absolutely nothing but the goal of becoming a prosecutor. Even then, her options are limited to the two counties she can actually drive to every day because she has a piece-of-shit car and no money to buy a decent one.3

And why do they do this? Because they’re just trying to survive: financially, emotionally, and intellectually. It has to be done and there’s no one else to do it. Just like everyone else.

You, the reader, may not think about it much beyond the feeling that, “Hey, that’s a lot more than I do.”

No, it’s not. You do plenty. It’s just that you can’t see it and you probably don’t want to think about it because it’s depressing as hell. I don’t care where you are in your life, every once in a while, you stop, look around, and wonder what the hell you’re doing all this for.

And sometimes, you can’t answer the question.

But you keep going anyway.4



Which brings me to one of those hot-button topics in genre romance: the “placeholder heroine,” wherein the heroine is void of personality or otherwise uninteresting, whose role is to be the foil for the hero as well as a way for the reader to insert herself into the story and thus, in the hero’s arms. The heroine as written serves as the reader’s avatar.

These characters frustrate me. When I read, I want to experience someone else’s life. I do not want to be obliged to construct my own character out of the bare shell the author has given me. Nor do I want to put myself in that shell. I already live my life.

The most egregious example in my recent memory is Bella Swan from Twilight.

Bella is the epitome of the placeholder heroine in that her personality is a void, her opinions are nonexistent, and she does not act. She is acted upon. One could argue that because she is seventeen years old, this is normal. Seventeen-year-old girls have no power and so Bella’s reactivity is not untoward.

Then along comes Edward, who gives her things any seventeen-year-old girl craves: the complete acceptance by, doting attention of, and fairy-tale romance from a truly powerful male. Thus, I would expect that female adolescents and young adults to find this storyline attractive.

What has always baffled me, though, is why this is attractive to so many millions of adult women with husbands and families of their own unless the “placeholder heroine” isn’t just a theory.

I nearly cried when I noticed my husband changing a light bulb. Watching him perform this menial task with so little grace and elegance, so un-vampire like, was a depressing reminder that there was no Edward in my life. My husband didn’t float on air, change the bulb at breakneck speed or pounce off into the forest to protect me. Instead, he fumbled and ultimately dropped it on the floor where it shattered. The whole episode sent me into a depression.

A kiss from my husband is simply a kiss; there’s no woozy feeling or butterflies fluttering in my stomach. We don’t get lost in each other’s eyes while discussing our son’s report card or arguing over bills. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never been married. Bella and Edward live each moment in their own private world, with little else to divert their attention … ”5

Twi-Moms aren’t just reading about Bella, we are trying to be her. We experienced her shock at the depth of Edward’s love, and her crushing anguish when he left her. Stephenie Meyer captured the longing, the desire and the total devotion that is a faint memory for most married women.6

But why a seventeen-year-old sparkly vampire?7 Surely there are enough hot, rich, controlling, stalker alphahole types in adult genre romance to give women their fix of the woozy.

But Edward himself is neither here nor there, really. The point is to escape the drudgery of life, as this article so explicitly states, into the arms of an Edward. The placeholder heroine is, in fact, an avatar for the reader.

Or is she?



So I got to thinking about this one day, and it occurred to me that the vapid heroine might not be an avatar for the reader, but a reflection of how the reader sees herself.

First there are the women who have little enough identities of themselves. For whatever reason they have given their own goals, dreams, and desires over to someone else: husband, children, boss, church, clubs, volunteer organizations. They define themselves in someone else’s terms:

“I am my kids’ mom.”
“I am my husband’s wife.”8
“I am my deity’s creation.”
“I am my organization’s member.”
“I am my mother’s caretaker.”
“I am my boss’s employee.”

Women who have few enough identities of themselves may feel that they are already ciphers and so they understand Bella’s really rather subconscious feelings of emptiness, aimlessness, and hopelessness acutely. Her emptiness makes her identifiable.9

Whether Edward is good for her or not, whether he’s carving out her personality or not, he’s taking her somewhere because a) she doesn’t know there’s a there there and b) wouldn’t know how to get there if she knew because she doesn’t have anything of her own.

But what about the women who do have an identity, love those identities, and take pride in those things?

“I write.”
“I practice law.”
“I raise productive human beings.”
“I save people’s lives.”
“I live off the land and am self-sustaining.”
“I teach people to read and think.”
“I feed and succor the hungry and hopeless.”

No matter how much we love our work (I defy anyone to tell me women don’t find their identities in our occupations and/or work we love every bit as much as men), drudgery will be involved. And in those moments when we are drowning in the boredom, the slog that feels neverending; when we are straining for that next big job to pay for unexpected expenses; when we are alone with our tasks that no one else can do because we’re unique; when we are exhausted and wondering what the hell we’re doing this for, we may feel as empty and colorless and vapid as any Bella: Thus we identify with her as a reflection of where we are at the moment, not a container for who we wish we were.

We are all Walter Mitty, if only for a moment.

  1. Sorry, guys. I know you experience the same drudgery, so feel free to substitute “James Bond” for “Bella Swan.”
  2. Barring Oprah picks, literary fiction sales may bear this out, but I’m not going to look it up.
  3. All from The Proviso, but all my characters have drudgery. The only character I have ever written who likes the drudgery is Jack Blackwood. But he’s really weird anyway.
  4. And make yourself feel even worse by diving into Pinterest and all those mommy blogs with awesome photography.
  5. Until, you know, Bella and Edward devolve into drudgery … eternally.
  6. The original article was taken down and there is no cached copy. You’ll have to take my word for it that this was in the original article.
  7. Yes, I know he’s 100. His entire situation makes no sense. Why are you a 100-year-old vampire going through endless courses of high school? There are better, more mature things to do with immortality unless you simply never progress beyond the age you were turned. This is never explained.
  8. I tackled this one in We Were Gods. Tess’s mother slapped her for saying she was not her kids’ mom and she was not Étienne’s wife.
  9. Germaine Greer said, “The misery of the middle-aged woman is a gray and hopeless thing, born of having nothing to live for, of disappointment and resentment at having been gypped by consumer society, and surviving merely to be the butt of its unthinking scorn.” Well, now that’s fucking depressing, isn’t it?

Men who hate women

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Dude and I went to see this movie for his birthday. I haven’t been interested in reading the books because a) I’m not a thriller/mystery fan and b) haven’t had time to devote to sampling genres I’m not usually interested in. I’m still not interested in reading the books, because I either read the book or see the movie, but not both. (I got burned in the Bonfire of the Vanities.) I am interested in seeing the Swedish version.

mraynes at Exponent II has an excellent post up about the exposition of misogyny in the book/movie.

Ironically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo phenomenon is a prime example of how our society hides from the culture of violence against women. In the original Swedish version, Stieg Larsson titled the book “Man som hatar kvinnor” or “Men who hate women.” Believing that such a title would turn readers off, American publishers renamed the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, changing the emphasis away from violent misogyny to the physical body of the (anti)heroine. This alone speaks volumes about our society. Instead of dealing with the discomfort that in fact, some men do hate women, publishers felt that the only way to sell books was to objectify and sexualize the female protagonist.

Please read the whole post.

This brought to mind a blog post by a Cale McCaskey, ostensibly ripping on romance novels, but really ripping on women, and after I read mraynes’s post, I realized: This is the mindset. Taken by itself, his opinion is irrelevant and he’s a woman-hating man who is single and likely to remain that way.

However, how many WOMEN have I heard over the years say the same thing with regard to romance novels and the women who read them? To hear WOMEN talk about the women who read romance novels, we’re all a bunch of fat Peggy Bundys who, instead of earning advanced degrees, becoming Important People, tending to our hearths with the efficiency of Martha Stewart or a Mormon cupcake baker on Ritalin, or fighting against [patriarchy, white privilege, male privilege, rape culture, insert philosophy of choice].

It is not rapists and abusers alone who silence and hide victims. It is we, society, in our unwillingness to stare evil in the face, name it, and confront it. Until we acknowledge culpability within our culture of violence against women, our daughters, sisters and ourselves will be at risk.

Some men hate women. But so do some very vocal women. Women need to look to themselves concerning their own misogyny.