I’ve been pondering the Heroine who is Too Stupid To Live, and I have to wonder: why does she exist? Is she evidence that romance readers who prefer their heroines dumber than rocks are also seeking to identify with the hero and not the heroine? Or maybe that the reader who loves these dimwits is perhaps rather dim? Disparaging assumptions about reader intellect aside, I still don’t get how this monster came to wield so much power or appear so frequently.
Candy thinks it’s a “cheap and easy source of conflict: heroine puts herself in danger, and hero has to rescue herâ€1. It feeds the rescue fantasy in a really lazy way, she says.
I agree that the method behind the madness is certainly true in some cases, but I have to ask what the point of access might be for a reader relating to the protagonists (if one assumes that the reader relates to the protagonist couple when reading a romance). How does a reader connect with a heroine who winds up in dangerous situations, draws ridiculous conclusions with no evidence, and generally exists in a state of cluelessness?
I think there’s more likely some degree of hero-fascination in seeing the capable rescue the incapable, assuming again that the female reader in question is often the functioning caregiver in a given situation. But is there also an attraction to identifying with the clueless and often-rescued? Broad assumptions, ahoy!
As Candy and I were discussing the subject, the question of identification reared its head. Do readers even identify with the protagonists at all? Is that a mistaken concept?
For example, in the circumstances of a TSTL heroine, Candy says, “a good deal of it’s also feeding into the â€˜rescue me, big hero dude’ fantasy, in which case, I’d argue the point of identification is at least partially with the heroine. This is all assuming that readers identify with the characters, too, because a lot of readers don’t. I don’t, for example. I tend to be more of a spectator.â€
Myself, I’m not a spectator as a reader, though I have to think hard about my role as reader when I choose a romance. Reading romance demands a different kind of involvement on my part. I don’t seek to identify with one or the other of the pair, but with the emotional development between them. It’s not so much the individuals as what is between them that attracts me.
What’s interesting is the one area in which Candy and I agreed: to quote Candy, “For romances, I have to like the protagonists in a way I don’t have to when I’m reading other types of fiction.â€
Hear, hear. If I find one of the protagonists unlikable, I can’t participate in the development between them, though how I participate other than empathizing is something I’d have to ponder further, as a ready answer isn’t popping into my brain.
Candy explained further better than I could: “I don’t think empathy is strictly necessary, [but] believability is important. They may not make decisions I would, but I need to appreciate how they arrived at those decisions.â€ In other words, it’s more a question of being able to relate to them than it is to empathize with them in all aspects of their story.
Thus encountering a heroine who is Too Stupid To Live ruins a lot of the enjoyment, though whether the reason for that ruination is because of a lack of connection to the protagonists, or a mere disgust for rescue scenarios is an individual determination. Sadly, we’ve encountered plenty of dumbass heroines, like Lee-Lee from Desire’s Blossom and Whitney from Whitney, My Love. (Aside: it is amazing how many people read Whitney when they were younger, then went back to read it again after more romance experience and HATED her insipid blockheaded ass.)
Does the TSTL heroine piss you off because of sloppy characterization? Inability to relate? A natural inclination to dislike the stupid and blissful? (Sorry, that’s me.) What’s your take?
1 Candy’s addendum and assorted thoughts:
There are only so many ways to invoke conflict in romance. Too much external conflict, and you risk switching the focus of the story from the relationship to the external circumstances, in which case, it’s not really a romance any more. Too much internal conflict, and you have a claustrophobic story, or one in which the hero and heroine are either separated for a long time (which: bonerdeath), or one in which the hero and heroine are fighting constantly (which: even bigger bonerdeath). A TSTL heroine who needs to have her stupid ass saved is an easy way for the conflict still be focused on the couple while adding a sense of adventure to it all. Plus, hey, lookit how gosh-darn spunky she is! Isn’t she feisty? And look, another 20-50 pages of story, what with the TSTL set-up, the heroine falling into danger, and then having to be saved.
I’d also like to stress that TSTL behavior doesn’t always break a book for me. One instance of TSTLiveability might be forgiveable, especially if the heroine is young and naive. If she doesn’t learn, however…that’s when I contemplate bringing out the giant bat marked “A Clue” and beating her over the head with it. There’s also the question of believable motivation. If she’s being TSTL for sufficient cause, or if circumstances are desperate enough that the TSTL behavior might actually make sense or seem like a viable option at the time, I might be more inclined to forgive her. And then there’s magnitude of TSTL behavior, too—how much does she endanger herself and the other characters? How likely would it be for somebody in similar circumstances to do something like that? For instance, take Merry of The Windflower, especially her escape attempt. Merry is young and sheltered, but not necessarily stupid; however, her attempt to get away from The Black Joke was pretty ill-advised—but the Curtises did a great job of showing us how desperate she was, so while I was cringing and going “No no no bad idea,” I wasn’t angry at her the way I’d be at a garden-variety dingbat heroine. As Sarah said, “Keeping the reader from getting angry at her is probably the border between ignorant naive heroine growing up and TSTL heroine.”