Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pondering the reader-heroine

Lately I have been so busy that I haven't had a lot of time for concentrated reading. Alas, then, not a lot of updates here. However, I have a couple of things in the works and there should be a new review up in the next day or so.

What I have been doing mostly the past few weeks is skim-reading a few things and re-reading favourite passages just before I go to bed because my head can't process any new information. One thing I have been enjoying skimming again for the umpteenth time is Beyond Heaving Bosoms. One of the passages, in particular, has been bouncing around in my head for the past few days and has given me much ponderating potential.

From "Chapter Corset: An In-Depth Investigation of the Romance Heroine, Emphasis, Obviously on 'Depth'":

"[Lisa] Kleypas's experience leads her to believe that readers engage in a symbiotic role-play with the heroine to the point where decisions made by the heroine that the reader disagrees with take on a very personal tone; the rigid code of conduct enforced on heroines points at the level to which readers put themselves in the heroine's place, whether or not they actually identify with the particular heroine herself. When the heroine behaves in ways that the reader approves of, she is able to immerse herself as the heroine, and the world of the story is smooth. When the heroine behaves in a way the reader finds unacceptable, however, that particular heroine suddenly stops being strictly a placeholder, and instead becomes a rival for the hero's affections." [emphasis mine]

I think this ties in quite nicely with a realization I had earlier this year, about the make-or-break for a romance novel for me is whether the heroine is more or less intelligent than I am. When a heroine is as smart or smarter than me, I immediately warm to her and enjoy the book thoroughly, with few exceptions. However, when the heroine is quite a few points down the I.Q. scale from me, I quickly become exasperated and lose all patience with the book. And when I say I.Q., I don't necessarily mean strictly book smarts, but social smarts as well. This is one of the reasons why I detested Dizzy from Connie Brockway's As You Desire, despite her being a so-called child prodigy fluent in a bazillion languages: I thought she was a moron.

What I found particularly fascinating is the notion of the heroine being a rival for the reader of the hero's affections. I think this is particularly true in cases where the hero is truly worthy. Dizzy's physical and mental perfection in As You Desire is indeed nauseating, but it would have been even worse if I thought Harry had been worth it (and considering his taste in women, he definitely wasn't). On the other hand, I had to continually fight stabbing pains of jealousy while reading Pride and Prejudice, despite the fact that I loved Lizzy as a heroine. Whether this may in fact be caused by the considerable similarities between myself and Jane Austen's heroine is an interesting notion to ponder.

I think there's definitely something to be said about the reader's identification with the heroine. We seem to be searching for a heroine who walks the fine line between being intelligent but not intimidatingly so. She can't be an idiot (that would disgust both the reader and the hero) but she can't be too perfect, either, or else the placeholder fantasy is broken. For me, romance novel reading isn't so much wish-fulfillment as trying out my own personality in different situations and with different heroes. The flawed heroine must lie somewhere between the impossible perfections of Dizzy and the bumbling foolishness of Bridget Jones (admit it - you'd like everything to work out for you like it did for her, but you sure as heck wouldn't want to be her). There's a reason why Jennifer Cruisie's average-looking, smart heroines are so popular* but the virginal, flawless beauties of old romances are not.

If anybody is reading this, I'd be curious to know: does having a heroine who's too different from you turn you off? Have you ever felt jealous of a heroine who's both wonderful and gets a wonderful hero? Have you ever felt the heroine just didn't deserve the hero (or vice versa)? Am I the only one who wishes the women in romance would behave with the same sense as smart women in real life?

*Although I still cannot see what all the fuss is about and have never warmed to her books.


A Castle of Romance said...

Heh, sorry to just arrive and start commenting but I found this post really intresting! (I hope this doesn't make me too much of a stalker!)

Actually I was thinking about when I was younger, like quite young, we only had one tv and I had to watch a lot of programmes which weren't very intresting for me as my parents were usually in charge. To spice things up a bit, I used to create my own character (who of course reflected me) to add into the tv show (I was a strange child!) and if there was an actor I liked she would in my mind, also fancy this actor.

It got intresting then however, when the show would introduce a love intrest for that character and I would get jealous myself, because my character was getting sidelined! I remember actually getting quite angry!

Also I know that this is not just me, but a lot of readers of Little Women got upset that Jo didn't end up with whatshisface but ended up with the cronky old writer instead, I think that is a view of heroine self insert, as why would we get angry unless we ourselves were projecting ourselves onto Jo and wanting to end up with whatshisface instead of the writer (I really can't remember their names XD).

I find also that I really don't like to read gay romance, not because I don't like gays but because the idea of two men doesn't appeal to me as I can't project myself onto one of the men, can I? Right now i'm translating a Chinese comic book and I'm really hoping that one of the male characters that I completely adore will end up with the female character that I most relate with, however I think that he is in love with his estranged male best friend instead -_-, if this does happen I think that I will be so heartbroken i'll stop translating!

I think that you are absolutely right about liking heroines who are similar to ourselves, and als I think maybe we look for Heroes who fit our own ideal of a man, those are the books which I keep forever, where the Heroine reflects me and the hero my ideal :D.

KJH said...

Thanks for your comment! I just noticed it today. (Obviously, I need to check on my blog a lot more).

Your experience of childhood reminds me a lot of mine. I would always rewrite movies, TV shows and books in my head so that I was the heroine, or at least the heroine was more like me. Truth to tell, I still do that! I also might tweak the plot, or some of the other characters, so that they're more of my ideal.

I don't think you're the only one who gets angry when the heroine (aka the reader) doesn't end up with the "right" hero. To take your own example, I recall hearing that a lot of women wrote to Louisa May Alcott because they were pissed Jo didn't end up with Laurie. I know I certainly get jealous and upset if the hero of the story pays attention to other women besides the heroine! That's one of the reasons I disliked Mansfield Park so much (which I reviewed last year).

I am always fascinated by what books other other readers cling to, and I would be interested to hear which ones are your "keepers" in terms of relating to the heroine/wanting the hero.

A Castle of Romance said...

Ah really, I didn't know that about the women writing to Louisa! Intresting, and goes to show things haven't changed!

Actually i'm so picky when it comes to couples that I like, usually more often than not, the pairing I like always fails -_-... and the book/series/movie ends up on it's way to the charity shop XD.

However strangely enough the pairing that I most enjoyed came from a very sweet japanese comic (unfortunately i've very Asian-centric as my degree is East Asian Studies) I read once, where the girl was very happy-go-lucky and totally in love with the hero but the hero had been jilted at the altar (so therefore didn't trust any woman, as is typical) and was very stand-offish but at his core incredibly noble.

What I enjoyed was the complete contrast between the two, he was very smart and accomplished at everything he tried his hand at but was awkward in social situations, whereas she always spoke her mind in front of others and had a good heart but wasn't particularly skilled at anything (and was in fact very bad at anything physical, with comedic results).

I really related to that female heroine, being someone who is also scatter-brained and jumps into things without thinking and the Hero was my perfect man, kind, smart and very noble (in fact, so noble that he refuses to read 'The tale of Genji' because of how the hero decieves the women).

I so wanted those two characters to get together, that when the very cool, sophisticated, beautiful, talented ex-fiancee emerged in the picture again I was on my seat, hoping that he wouldn't get back together with her! The ex-fiancee I suppose is a character type of women who I find exsasperating because of their perfection and I wanted the ditzy girl to succeed because despite her inherent flaws, her good heart would win the day in the end (and thus in real life so would I XD).

As for the classics, I prefer Emma over Pride and Prejudice being more able to relate to Emma then Lizzy, I never really liked the whole Byronic Hero thing in Jane Eyre but it's still one of my favourites and was repulsed by Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights.
As for Mansfield park, i'm not sure, I used to really like it a few years ago when I was shy and put upon like Fanny but as I got older I didn't like it as much and Emma became my favourite.

However in contemporary fiction, I very much enjoyed the pairing between Ashling and her boss in Marian Keys "Sushi for beginners" usually I stayed away from chicklit like the plague, but I really enjoy her books!

Hmm I guess I really like the kind of Heroine who isn't perfect, who has some major flaw but is kind-hearted at the core and a Hero who is noble and somewhat more cool-headed than the heroine. Ha, I guess that says a lot about my own tastes and perceptions :D.

Ah dear when I get typing I go on and on :)~

KJH said...

Lots of women like chick lit heroines for the very reasons you mentioned. I also like Emma because she makes mistakes and puts her foot in her mouth a lot, and that's something I can really relate to! But I think Lizzie isn't set up by JA to be the perfect Mary Sue heroine either (that's more Jane). Her prejudice helps bring her down to earth. What I can really relate to with her is her sauciness.

When you mentioned the ex-fiancee thing, it hit a nerve! One of the things that drives me insane is when the hero has a woman from his past who reappears, and the heroine can't tell if he's still in love with her or not. I can't tell you how much I hate this plot device!

Thanks for sharing your comments! I'm glad somebody found this interesting enough to respond to.