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“Ravished by Vikings”: The Pre-modern and the Paranormal in Viking Romance Fiction
by Kim Wilkins

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Maggie realized then, if she had not already, that this was not a modern man who did things according to politically correct rules. He was a Viking warrior with savage sexual appetites and barbarian ways of seduction. An uncivilized lover.

She would have him no other way. (Hill 4474)

The quotation above, taken from Sandra Hill‘s 2001 romance novel Truly, Madly, Viking, is exemplary in how it enacts a double meaning that is central to this essay’s argument about Viking romance fiction, a thriving subgenre of contemporary romance fiction. In this novel, Viking jarl Jorund time travels to modern-day Texas, where he finds love with Maggie, his psychiatrist. On the surface, “she would have him no other way” is a standard affirmation that she likes him just the way he is. The other meaning, though, is that she would not or could not “have him” unless he forced her with his “barbarian ways”. My contention is that the Viking in these romance novels is a symbol of the pre-modern, allowed to be a brutal dominator precisely because he is freed from the restrictions of rational modernity. Moreover, the persistence of the paranormal in these stories marks them as clearly existing outside the general consensus of reality. Socially unacceptable behaviour becomes reframed as part of a fantasy, pre-emptively defusing any criticism that the acts of rape within are meaningful in a contemporary real-world context. Vikings have long been associated with the twin terms “rape and pillage”, and while contemporary renderings of Viking “pillaging” may be a fairly straightforward proposition to discuss, a discussion of contemporary representations of Viking rape is compromised by the emotive nature of the topic of rape, especially male aggression against women. The discourse of “rape culture” across popular media, particularly popular women‘s media, potentially compromises or makes impossible the pleasure of reading about forced sex in literature. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue that such a pleasure should be allowable or condemned. Rather, I follow Angela Toscano’s lead in rejecting the impulse to evaluate such scenes only in terms of how they “affect or reflect the lives of real women”, which limits discussions to how they function as possible mimesis rather than as literary tropes (n. pag). While Toscano is interested in the narrative function of rape, this essay is interested more in the generic function of rape in a particular subgenre. When twenty-first century romance fiction resists twenty-first century feminist censure and self-censure, the subgenre of Viking romance fiction creates a “safe zone” for imaginings of male sexual aggression by representing the men as pre-modern and the context as paranormal.

I adapt the title of this essay from Delilah Devlin’s 2011 novel Ravished by a Viking, which signals male sexual aggression as a key pleasure of the text in large letters on the front cover. The title invites discussion about the term ravishment, pertinent here because it is a word that comes, like Vikings, from the Middle Ages. “Ravissement” at first meant “carrying off a woman” then later “carrying a soul to heaven” then the “secular, affective” meaning of “being ‘carried away‘ emotionally” and from there, carried away with sexual desire (Gradval 5). The word has always represented a slippage from “violent abduction to sexual pleasure” (Gradval 5), which may not be out of place with some medieval notions of love being likened to “a violent experience which happened to you—entered or penetrated you, took possession of you, corrupted your reason and imprisoned you, male and female—against your will” (Vitz 22). Rape and ravishment are expressions of what Gradval would call the same “trope”, that is, the trope of forced sex in literature, whether through forced marriage or trickery, or physical violence, or supernatural agency. In her title, Devlin has [End Page 2] made a conscious choice not to use the word most associated with Vikings and sexual assault (“rape”), but to emphasise the possibility of being swept away by pleasure, even in the experience of being threatened by sexual aggression and violation. In a sense, the semantic slippage performed by the title is also performed by the texts under consideration: sexual aggression does take place, but is constantly framed as a pleasure that exists outside of rational modernity.

Vikings, as noted above, also have their origin in the Middle Ages. They make their first appearance in English in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 787, which records the “first ships of the Danish men that sought land in England” and a welcoming reeve who is slain because “he knew not what they were.” They are called “pagans” and “barbarians” in Aethelward‘s Chronicle; are “seagoing robbers” according to Malmesbury; and known for “burning and plundering and manslaughter” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, early chroniclers also evidence admiring fascination with the Vikings: for example, with the exoticness of their ships and their perceived attractiveness to English women (Frank 23-27). In fact, Vikings might have been the first counter-culture heroes, an example of the commonly expressed sentiment that monsters of any kind exert powers of attraction as well as powers of repulsion: an idea that clearly underpins the entire paranormal romance genre. Of all the characters that history presents us with, there would be few, if any, better suited to represent both brutal, masculine danger and desire than Vikings.

The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages for a reason: in the narrative of progress and supercession to which  Western culture subscribes, it sits between the two “great” periods of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. It is in the middle: its function is to define and validate the two bracketing periods. When we reimagine the Middle Ages now, we are very much still saying something about the modern, the thing that has superseded and flattened it: the medieval, according to Fradenburg, secures “for modernity, its intelligibility to itself” (211). The ongoing cultural impulse to represent Vikings as an irrational pre-modern people allows us to compare ourselves favourably against them and be more certain of our rational modernity. As an example, think of the origins of the modern word “berserk”: the bearskins (literally “bear-shirt”) that some Viking warriors wore while in a battle frenzy. I note that an aspect of the berserker legend has always been the possibility that they were actually shape-shifters, an example of the blurring between historical fact and supernatural fantasy that I explore in more detail below.

According to Geraldine Heng, the medieval romance and the contemporary popular romance can both be recognised by the “structure of desire” that drives the narrative (3): an object is desired, and obstacles cause the deferral of resolution to that desire. More specifically, the chivalric romance usually centres around gender and sexuality as well as adventure, and features the idea of courtly love (longing for an object that remains forever out of reach). This idea displays a similar “pattern of desire” and “economy of pleasure” to the contemporary popular romance (Heng 5). Importantly for the argument I present here, the medieval romance often featured supernatural creatures and events. Heng argues that in contemporary representation, the medieval romance has become almost indistinguishable from the lived Middle Ages, to the point that the whole period is “characterised and depicted in later eras as if it were a romance” (2). In the romance, as in contemporary representations of the medieval, fact and fantasy “collide and vanish, each into the other” (2). [End Page 3]

The medieval romance genre that Heng cites above postdated the Viking age by several hundred years, but nonetheless the flattening of the Middle Ages that allows (or perhaps invites) superstition and the supernatural to colour its representation is also apparent when we consider how Vikings are represented across time. In 793, Norse raiders famously sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne on the English northern coast, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterises the attack as supernaturally monstrous, heralded by whirlwinds, lightning, and “fyrenne dracan” (fiery dragons) (my translation). The language itself is reminiscent of the apocalyptic language that describes Ragnarok, the mythological end times of the Viking gods: “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea / The hot stars down from heaven are whirled / …. fire leaps high about heaven itself” (Völuspá 57, trans Bellows 24). This elision between history and the supernatural turns up again in the contemporary fantasy novel Wolfsangel. As Vali waits aboard a longship for his first raid with his Viking colleagues, the berserkers begin to chant wildly and a series of images form in his mind: “Odin fighting the Fenris Wolf… gallows and slaughter, fire and blood” (Lachlan 77). Story and history slip in and out of each other from earliest records. The boundaries between historical events of the Viking age and Viking mythology are shown to be porous, tinged with a particular complexion of the supernatural: dark, menacing, apocalyptic. What we see, then, is a privileged relationship developing between brutal pagan masculinity and the paranormal, and it is this relationship that provides an engaging dynamic for the contemporary Viking romance novel. For example, in Tanya Anne Crosby’s Viking’s Prize (2013), protagonist Elienor is an unwilling prophetess who is cursed by paranormal dreams and haunted by accusations of witchcraft; in Sandra Hill’s Truly, Madly, Viking (2011), Jorund is a time-travelling Viking who eventually discovers other time-travelling Vikings, including his vanished brother; and Delilah Devlin’s Ravished by a Viking (2011) is set in the colony of New Iceland on a distant planet, where Vikings have been magically transported by the Norse gods via the mythological bridge Bifrost. It is interesting to note that complementing these traditionally published novels is a thriving subgenre of Twilight fan fiction that reimagines Edward as a Viking, and Isabella as his thrall. The nexus between Viking and vampire has already been explored in a sustained way in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series and is more fully developed in the television series adaptation True Blood through the character of Eric Northman. The Viking, like the vampire, is bound by a different set of cultural rules and expresses a different and dangerous set of drives. It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine these fan fictions as well, not the least reason being that (paradoxically) nothing paranormal takes place in them. But what this intertextuality between Viking romance and Twilight fan fiction may point to is the enduring popularity of romance that features submission, domination, and forced sex, and some of the generic conventions that can make those things more palatable to a twenty-first-century audience.

A great deal of scholarship of romance fiction takes as its objects past iterations of the genre. Given the romance genre, like all genres, is contingent and constantly shifting, criticism can easily become outdated (Vivanco 1061). As Luther has written, the standard trope of the rapist turned true love became far less common after the eighties and nineties (n. pag). Vivanco tells us that it is more likely that twenty-first-century romance novels will explicitly address “issues surrounding gender and sexual politics” (1085). Romance fiction now “at times reveal[s] an ardent, feminist awareness of the extent to which patriarchal societies can seek to control women” (1077). Ravished by a Viking’s protagonist Honora is a [End Page 4] smart and powerful spaceship captain who represents a complete subversion of the women’s roles her Viking love interest has come to expect: “Didn’t she know women were meant to be soft and yielding?” (68). Maggie, in Truly, Madly, Viking has a doctorate in psychology and Jorund must learn to hide his “show-vein-is” (i.e. chauvinist) tendencies around her (2831). Elienor in Viking’s Prize is the feisty heroine so valued by historical fiction: an “independent, strong, feisty, and passionate” woman, around whom the “silent rank and file” of unexceptional women exist. The feisty heroine “must be exceptional”; she “lives a life less ordinary” (Tolmie 146), and her feistiness is presented for a female audience’s reading pleasure. In many ways, these stories represent feminist values, and they do it quite naturally and smoothly: there is no sense that it is uncommon for twenty-first-century romance fiction to operate in this manner. However, the trope of ravishment is central to the erotics of every story. In each case, male aggression is presented as uninvited and insistent. Honora has to physically fight Dagr off: “she sputtered and slammed her fists against his chest” (Devlin 69); after Elienor tells Alarik, “You have no claim over me, nor shall I give you anything freely!” (895) he sexually assaults her while she sleeps: “he found himself undulating softly into the sweet warmth between her thighs” (Crosby 2134); and Jorund uses threats as foreplay: “You will bend to my will one day” (Hill 1896). The volume of scenes across this genre that operate as these do supports the idea that male sexual aggression is a key pleasure of the genre. The acknowledgement that reading pleasure is gained from representations of forced sex presents an undeniable conundrum for readers and theorists. As Katie Roiphe points out, such imaginings in popular fiction “seem to be saying something about modern women that nearly everyone wishes wasn’t said” (n. pag).

Paranormal romance author Anne Rice says that a woman “has the right to pretend she’s being raped by a pirate if that’s what she wants to pretend” (in Dowd, n. pag), co-opting the language of feminism (“has the right”, “what she wants”) to support her assertion. What is revealing about Rice’s proclamation is that she needs to say it at all. It is framed as a response in anticipation of the feminist censure that attends representation of rape fantasies, and fantasies of domination and submission. Certainly the widespread success of Fifty Shades of Grey aroused much popular consternation, exemplified in Frank Bruni’s article for the New York Times that took on the “post-feminist power dynamics” of both Fifty Shades and popular HBO television series Girls: “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess” (n. pag, original emphasis). Postfeminism is a term mostly used to refer to women “who are thought to benefit from the women’s movement” but “do not push for further political change”. The opening quotation of this essay, where Maggie explicitly expresses pleasure that Jorund is not “politically correct” exemplifies the postfeminist outlook. Postfeminists, according to Aronson, are seen by feminists as “depoliticized and individualistic” and these tendencies are associated with “the ‘death’ of feminism” (Aronson 904-05). Gill agrees that the tendencies of postfeminism work against the goals of the feminist movement, citing particularly the postfeminist “resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference” (158). Writing about romance fiction specifically, Harzewski also identifies “the pleasures of femininity” afforded “through the recognition of sexual difference” as an integral concern of postfeminism (Harzewski 3469). Not every theorist is as sanguine as Harzewski, with Gill [End Page 5] noting that the reinstatement of natural sexual difference serves to “(re)-eroticize power relations between men and women” with the end result that “discourses of natural gender difference can be used to freeze in place existing inequalities by representing them as inevitable and… pleasurable” (Gill 158-59). Bonomi, Altenburger, and Walton point to popular fiction’s role in representing as positive what they call “dangerous” ideas of abuse against women (733), while Philadelphoff-Puren implicates a certain strain of romance novels—those marked by a “consistently violent representation of heterosexual sex” (32) and the heroine’s “dissimulating ‘no’” (39)—in the low conviction rates of rapists, arguing that these novels have shaped “a legal-romantic imaginary which has material effects on the lives of women who charge men with rape” (38, original emphasis). These reactions exemplify what Roiphe describes as the “upstanding feminist tsk-tsking” about the choices postfeminists make about what to read and what to watch (n. pag). In this discourse, clear discomfort exists around the idea of male aggression as pleasurable to women. The genre of Viking romance fiction, then, creates a more comfortable space for reading pleasure by projecting rape into the past, and obscuring it with the veil of the numinous. The pleasure of ravishment is accepted more readily when it is represented within a context that is neither “modern” nor “normal”: rather, it is pre-modern and paranormal. The genre uses a number of observable moves, related to the pre-modern and the paranormal, to manage the transformation of a potentially guilty reading pleasure into a less-encumbered reading pleasure.

Essentialised sexual difference is a key feature of this genre. Vikings represent an unreconstructed masculinity that is almost fetishized, and which is presented as impossible for modern men to attain. The difference between the Viking male and the modern male is most clearly evidenced in Hill’s Truly, Madly, Viking because Jorund has time-travelled to present-day Texas, allowing for deep contrast. When Jorund sees men in fashionable cowboy boots, he says, “High-heeled boots on men! Are the men of this place demented? Do they not know how ridiculous they look? Do their toes not hurt and their ankles not ache at the end of a day spent in men’s work?” (Hill 664). Jorund’s default assumption is that men work with their bodies, and that anything that interferes with that is “ridiculous”; but in a way it echoes contemporary criticism of the “metrosexual” man as somebody who privileges fashion over traditional male pursuits. Modern man’s inability to match the essential masculinity of the Viking is exemplified when another male character dresses up as a Viking: “On his head was a long, blond wig that Jorund could swear he’d seen on a scullery maid just yestereve. On his upper arms were two makeshift bracelets formed from strips of tinfoil, a product used in modern kitchens to save food” (2018). The particular complexion of the humour in this description is not simply derived from the sharp difference between real Viking and make-believe Viking, but also from the way the dressed-up man is feminised by being associated with women’s accoutrements (wig, bracelets) and domestic work (maids, kitchens, food preservation). A similar strongly drawn image of the inability of the modern to be as masculine as the pre-modern is a scene in which a man dressed in a toga bends over to reveal “bare flabby buttocks” (2016). The modern man is not associated here with sexual aggression, rather with femininity and flaccidity. He is no sexual threat; in fact, he is barely sexual.

Even the modern day alpha male pales in comparison to the authentic masculinity of the Viking. Maggie’s ex-husband is a surgeon, arguably the top of the tree in modern masculine hierarchies. Maggie explains that he had aspirations as a thrill seeker: “He [End Page 6] wanted to …. [s]et a record for skydiving. Climb the highest mountains. Race cars. Scuba dive” (3144). Jorund, by contrast, finds the idea of seeking danger for empty reasons puzzling. In Viking times he had been close to death when “a Saracen horse soldier had… put a scimitar to his throat while dangling him off the side of a cliff.” This experience is presented as a genuinely fearful moment—“had not felt such fright”—an authentic male experience of battle with another authentic male (2871). The challenges facing Jorund’s performances of masculinity present real consequences; the modern thrill seeker’s are consequence-free.

Jorund’s focus on manly physical activity colours his attitudes to the other patients in the psychiatric institution he finds himself in. He takes particular interest in paraplegic Gulf War veteran Steve: “Even those who live in those wheeled chairs should be working muscles that are still alive,” he says (1940). His interest extends to Steve’s mental state. Steve is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jorund explains to Maggie that he is aware of a kind of shellshock among his own people “after a particularly gruesome battle” (1629). This connection across time, however, is not completely shared: Jorund is quick to point out he speaks “not from personal experience” (1629). Within a few weeks, Jorund has instigated a physical activity program to help rehabilitate his fellow inmates, particularly employing the pre-modern activities of sword fighting and rock hurling as a way of helping these modern men reclaim their masculine agency.

The hypermasculinity of these characters functions to heighten the contrast between male and female characters. This eroticization of sexual difference is often focalised through the female viewpoint. Female characters in these scenes seem to lose control of thought and rationality when confronted with the erotic potential of this contrast. Maggie notes that when Jorund’s “maleness [is] pressed against her femaleness, sanity seemed to be lacking” (Hill 1846), and Elienor’s thoughts turn “against her will” to “the firmness of [Alarik’s] flesh beneath her palms as he’d carried her out from the kirken” (Crosby 141). Honora even loses control of her basic bodily functions when she reluctantly agrees to group sex with Dagr and his friends: she “imagined how she must look, her slight frame dwarfed by three large Vikings, and she grew so excited she gulped for air” (Devlin 152). Another pleasure that comes from this representation of contrast is that it allows women to see the desire available in pre-modern notions of feminine beauty: for example, Elienor’s “generous curves” (Crosby 626), or the “soft, full curves” and “ample breast” of Viking woman Tora, who serves as Dagr’s sex thrall (Devlin 37). These notions of attractive female bodies are offered as essentialised archetypes that the pre-modern man understands as perpetually desirable: Jorund notes that Maggie “thought she carried too much weight, but she was wrong. Men did not like skin-and-bone females…. On that issue, men were men” (Hill 3491).

Often, this eroticised difference between men and women is extended imaginatively to signify not just contrast, but conflict. Alarik from Viking’s Prize finds such conflict arousing when Elienor resists him: “Tightening his hold upon the woman’s hair, he rose from his stooped position, hauling her up against him as he came to his feet, and the feel of her soft body hardened his more fully” (559). In this quotation, contrast between masculinity and femininity (“her soft body hardened his”) shares the same space as aggressive domination (dragging Elienor by her hair). The conflict between male and female is at the heart of the sexual pleasure the main characters experience in Ravished by a Viking: “we battle every time we fuck”, Dagr tells Honora (Devlin 162), and his [End Page 7] internalisations during their lovemaking bear this notion out: “crushed beneath his weight” she “smack[s] his arm”, and he compares her protests to that of a “kitten”, which makes him “bark” with laughter (306). Even when not playing out actual physical resistance and domination, aggression infuses the language around lovemaking. “When I look at you, I want to make fierce love with you,” Jorund tells Maggie (3368), and shortly after he continues, “The only question in my mind is whether, this first time, I should woo you or conquer you” (3441); Alarik achieves orgasm with a “powerful thrust and a savage cry” (Crosby 3507); and when Dagr and Honora first have sex in Ravished by a Viking, it is described as “no gentle taking”, peppered with verbs such as “prodded”, “gritted”, “ground”, “growled”, “slammed”, and “clawed” (78-79).

The most common metaphors employed in this contrast/conflict of the masculine and feminine are the tools of pre-modern warfare. Jorund threatens to “teach [Maggie] with my callused hands and hard staff not to tease a fighting man” (Hill 3368), and Dagr describes his erection as “harder than the tempered steel of his father’s sword” (Devlin 80). Even the Viking lover’s face is compared to pre-modern weaponry: “His gaze fixed upon the horizon, his expression hard as unyielding steel. His features were well chiseled like that of his namesake’s, the hawk, and his pewter gray eyes had been likened to the silver of his sword, Dragvendil, for they could slice into the heart of a man with the ease of a fine gilt-edged blade” (Crosby 181). These tools of battle create a curious mix of responses in the female protagonist. “The lethal chill” of Alarik’s “silver-flecked eyes” sends “shivers down [Elienor’s] spine” in a moment of fearful apprehension (Crosby 1371). Later in the same novel, with the same man, it is desire that creates the same physiological response: “A chill raced down Elienor’s spine…. The possibility that Alarik might kiss her made her heartbeat quicken and her breath catch in her throat” (Crosby 1536). Ultimately, though, enjoyment is derived from this battle of the sexes: “By the blessed virgin, was it supposed to feel so good to be caressed by one’s enemy?” (Crosby 488). The playing out of surrender and conquest is invariably shown to be pleasurable.

The pre-modern is the particular place that these pleasures of sexual aggression can go because of the long-held association between Vikings and rape. In these novels, the impulse to ravish is shown to be cultural for Vikings, part of their inbuilt drive to dominate by force, and an essential aspect that makes them who they are. The texts bear this essentialism out in the frank acknowledgement about forced sex in Viking culture. Alarik’s aunt tells Elienor how she was married against her will and found happiness. Dagr’s brother Eirik reflects in a pragmatic way on the sex thralls in his culture that “act the whore” while restrained by metal cuffs (6). Jorund is frank about rape in his family: “My brother Rolf advocated never asking for permission first. He said ‘tis better to do the act, then apologize later, but he was probably talking about something involving sex” (Hill 3300). Such stories arouse Maggie’s horror, which Jorund shrugs off with the declaration, “That is life in my land” (3121).

The essential pre-modern drive to dominate is also represented in scenes of rape in its most direct sense of forced sex accompanied by violence: “female servants … screamed for mercy beneath the abusing bodies of …Northmen” on the same ship that Elienor is transported on (710). The Viking lovers are often shown contemplating rape. Jorund’s earliest reflections on Maggie include: “He could break her slim wrists with a snap of his fingers. He could lift her by the waist and toss her over his shoulder. He could press her to the bed, and…Well, he could do things to her” (903); while Alarik’s first reaction to the [End Page 8] feisty Elienor is to be “sorely tempted to lie [the] wench flat and ride her against her will” (627).  Importantly, this reflection is immediately followed by “But he would not.” Having established that the Viking lovers are Vikings (with the impulse to rape), the books then show these men performing self-restraint that indicates growing affection is present: Dagr’s sensitivity to Honora’s sexual needs “surprised her. She’d thought the savage marauder… [would]… force her quickly onto his cock” (Devlin 75). Nonetheless, the sex acts in these novels at the very least redefine widely held notions of what constitutes appropriate consent, and their pre-modern protagonists allow that perceived grey area of consent to be played out in a way that least offends modern sensibilities.

The ultimate symbol of Viking pre-modern (even animalistic) hypermasculinity is the huge erect penis that each love interest possesses, an extension of the “size and sinew” of the men themselves (Crosby 3974). Devlin calls it a “Viking-sized cock” (74), Jorund needs three attempts to wrangle his “bull-size erection” into Maggie’s vagina (Hill 3478), and Alarik notes he must prepare Elienor “for the size of him” (Crosby 3365). These men exist outside the realm of normal in a similar way to the heroes of the fornaldarsögur or legendary sagas of the Vikings. Sitting between the more realist style of the family sagas and the full-blown mythological retellings of the Eddas, the legendary sagas share with these Viking romance novels the blurring between realism and the supernatural. In some ways, the “Viking-sized” erection is supernature literalised. The Viking erection affords a connection between the hypermasculinity associated with the pre-modern and the rejection of realism associated with the paranormal. It is a clear mark of a superheroic body, a mythical giant phallus associated more with fantasy than with realistic representation.

As I have argued above, there exists a special relationship between Vikings and the paranormal, acknowledged by Jorund himself when pressed to explain how he rationalises his travelling through time: “Mayhap the Norse culture is more inclined to believe in the spectacular than yours. Mayhap, because of our harsh environment, we tend to have more hope in the gods” (Hill 1301). Note that he ties his belief back to his pre-modernity, citing the harsh environment he is native to, and his belief and faith in pagan gods rather than secular rationality. The paranormal is another way that rape is projected out of the here and now in these novels, making it safer or more comfortable to imagine and gain reading pleasure from.

One way the paranormal is employed is to set the context of the story well beyond the realm of consensual reality. Jorund is transported to the modern world by a killer whale. With his pre-modern, supernatural-accepting mindset, he sees this method of transportation as heroic: “No doubt there would even be a praise-poem honouring Jorund, the warrior who rode in the cradle of a killer whale’s mouth and lived to tell the tale” (291). However, for the modern characters, Jorund’s story prompts them to lock him up in the Rainbow Psychiatric Hospital. The modern readers who belong to the same present are, by extension, implicated in a culture in which the irrational is punished by imprisonment and diagnosed and treated with medical science: law and medicine being two significant symbols of modern rationality. Jorund reflects on being forced to wear what he calls a “torture shert” and “ankle restraints” with “bars on his windows” while Maggie treats his delusions of time travel, insisting that he employ the very post-medieval psychiatric method of examining his own feelings: “How do you feel about that?” she asks during their treatment sessions of his resistance to being imprisoned (960). In a later scene, Jorund [End Page 9] breaks out of his straitjacket, a feat of superhuman strength that demonstrates the powerful dispositions of the pre-modern and the paranormal to erupt through the strictures of rational modernity (1348). This dynamic of attempted modern control being usurped by overwhelming Viking power is echoed in sex acts in the texts. Such eruptions of the pre-modern are presented as patently at odds with consensual reality, and so the sex acts too are projected outside the real, and into the realm of fantasy.

Another way that the paranormal works to consign the issue of rape to the outside of serious contemporary discourse is to play up the risible nature of the paranormal elements. Certainly, Truly, Madly, Viking veers often into a comedic tone, especially with regards to time travel: “Maggie put her notebook aside and rubbed at the furrows in her forehead with the fingers of one hand. ‘A killer whale brought you here… from Iceland? A killer whale with bad breath?’”(1097). Many of the paranormal elements of the romance genre could be seen as ridiculous or laughable if removed from their context. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the ways that genres work is that those on the inside (readers and writers) accept the reality presented within the texts without question: supernatural activity makes sense in the genre. From the outside, though, to a reader unfamiliar with generic conventions, the supernatural may seem ridiculous or even arouse contempt: “[i]t is easy to trivialise something that appears, on the surface, to be silly or childish” (Wilkins 274). When Maggie teases Jorund by comparing time travel to Santa Claus, Hill allows the possibility that the supernatural conceit is faintly ridiculous (3748). The erotics of the text, then, may also be framed as frivolous, a bit of harmless fun. The possibility that the supernatural elements allow the texts to occupy a space outside serious discourse is apparent in reader reactions as registered on sites such as Goodreads. One review for Ravished by a Viking starts with, “I HAD to buy this book, just because of the title and the premise of Vikings in space!!” As the reader goes on to note, this is not a text to be taken seriously: “I’m expecting a total cheese-fest” (Jeanine n. pag); while a review on the same site for Truly, Madly, Viking describes the book as an “[u]napologetically cheesy … very light, suspend-your-disbelief… time travel romance” (Yz the Whyz n. pag). The presentation of the paranormal elements means that the serious themes in the book, especially that of sexual violence, have been successfully reframed as too light and “cheesy” to be paid serious consideration.

Moreover, the paranormal elements can be seen as linked intrinsically to the erotic elements. As I wrote above, the Viking erection is the most obvious symbol of the conflation of pre-modern and paranormal with erotic pleasure. In Viking’s Prize, the otherworldly state of dreaming is also implicated in this conflation. Elienor has prophetic dreams, which she tries to hide because they open her to accusations of witchcraft, a crime for which her mother was executed. When she has her dream visions, they are unwelcome and unsettling: “The merest notion that she might meet the same fate as did her mother made her knees weak” (259). In one of these dreams, she sees the face of the Viking who eventually enslaves her, and on first sight of him while awake, she is shocked and horrified: “That face! Sweet Jesu—that face! She recalled it from her dream and shuddered” (480-91). However, it is through dreams that Alarik is able to show Elienor his ability to be gentle and sensitive, when he comforts her when she cries out in her sleep; and ultimately dreams allow her to see Alarik’s fate and save him from it. As well as their paranormal potential, dreams for Elienor have erotic potential. When Alarik touches her naked body without consent in the night and she half-wakes, she tells herself it is “naught but a dream… a [End Page 10] hazy… pleasant… dream” and reflects that she “never wanted to waken” (2139). In this example, unsought sexual contact is allowed to occupy the same place as patently non-real and paranormal prophetic visions. Elienor reflects on the reality or otherwise of dreams, both prophetic and erotic, in these terms: “In reality, how could she even be certain that her dreams were anything more than her own fancy, she reasoned” (2707). The evocative word pairs—reality/dreams, fancy/reason—function as a kind of manifesto for how the text should be read. To paraphrase: in reality, how could imaginings of rape and sexual violence be considered more than fantasy to a reasonable person? Another key word in this regard is the word “witch”, which appears as the designation of a particular kind of paranormal character (Elienor) but also features repeatedly in the word “bewitch”, used in its sense to mean an overwhelming attraction, which Alarik associates with Elienor: “what [was it] about her bewitching eyes that made him lose all sense and reason?” (1826). Once again, sense and reason (markers of the modern) are presented as things in opposition to the paranormal and in opposition to the sexually aggressive erotics of the text.

Vikings rape. It is one of the things that modern culture understands about Vikings, whether or not history supports the notion with detailed evidence. It is a notion that holds sway as tenaciously as the notion that Vikings wore horned helmets (they didn’t). Vikings also share a privileged relationship with the paranormal. Their gods have become our superheroes and even the gritty, realist mode of Michael Hirst’s television series Vikings (2013) is interspersed with supernatural visions of the gods and Valkyries. The trope of forced sex in romance fiction has found itself under scrutiny and pressure since the feminist movement, and even more so now as women’s media, especially e-media and social media, grow increasingly concerned with what is called “rape culture”. Popular blog-site Jezebel, for example, lists the term as one of its most frequent tags. Viking romance fiction, then, is the perfect genre for fantasies of forced sex to comfortably be represented. These scenes are patently not real and patently not of the here-and-now, and thus can function as a safe zone for pleasurable, imaginative fantasies about male sexual aggression. They can also function as a kind of resistance to the detractors who want to see the romance genre, as Toscano argues, “as a kind of field study of women’s sexuality”, often with a view to condemnation (n. pag). A post-script on the bottom of Edvard/Bella Viking/vampire fan fiction “My Viking” provides a lovely summation of my argument: “[N]o negative comments on Edvard being too forceful with Bella”, author sheviking writes, anticipating possible censure for the “savage sensation” represented within. “He’s a Viking after all”. [End Page 11]

List of works consulted

Aronson, Pamela. “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.” Gender and Society 17.6 (2003): 903-922. Print.

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: The American-Scandinavian Association, 1923. Print.

Bonomi, Amy E., Lauren E., Altenburger, and Nicole L Walton,. “‘Double Crap!’ Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey.Journal of Women’s Health 22.9 (2013):  733-744. Print.

Bruni, Frank. “The Beaker Sex.” NYTimes. nytimes.com. 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 June 2014.

Crosby, Tanya Anne. Viking’s Prize. New York: Oliver-Heber Books, 2013. Kindle file.

Devlin, Delilah. Ravished by a Viking. New York: Berkley Heat, 2011. Print.

Dowd, Maureen. “She’s Fit to Be Tied.” NYTimes. nytimes.com. 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 June 2014.

Fradenburg, Louise. “‘So that we may Speak of them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 205-230. Print.

Frank, Roberta. “Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol, Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England.” Representations 100 (2007): 23-33. Print.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-166. Print.

Gravdal, Kathryn. Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chicklit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Kindle file.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Hill, Sandra. Truly, Madly, Viking. New York: Love Spell, 2000. Kindle file.

Jeanine. Weblog comment. Ravished by A Viking. goodreads.com. 20 Jun. 2011. Web. 14 Jun. 2014.

Lachlan, M.D. Wolfsangel. London: Gollancz, 2010. Print.

Luther, Jessica. “Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism.” The Atlantic. theatlantic.com 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Philadelphoff-Puren, Nina. “Contextualising Consent: The Problem of Rape and Romance.” Australian Feminist Studies 20:46 (2005): 31-42. Print.

Roiphe, Katie. “Working Women’s Fantasies.”” Newsweek Online. newsweek.com 10 Jul. 2012. Web. 4 Jun. 2014.

sheviking. My Viking. fanfic.net. 11 May 2011. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.

Swanton, Michael, trans. and ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. Print.

Tolmie, Jane. “Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine.” Journal of Gender Studies 15.2 (2006): 145-159. Print.

Toscano, Angela R. “A Parody of Love: The Narrative Uses of Rape in Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies. 2.2 (2012). Web. 21 Dec. 2013.

Vitz, Evelyn Burge. “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections.” Romantic Review 88.1 (1997): 1-26. Print.

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Vivanco, Laura. “Feminism and Early Twenty‐First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060-1089. Print.

Wilkins, Kim. “Popular Genres and the Australian Literary Community: The Case of Fantasy Fiction.” Journal of Australian Studies 32.2 (2008): 265-278. Print.

Yz the Whyz. Weblog comment. Truly Madly Viking. goodreads.com. 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 14 Jun. 2014.

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When Sleeping Beauty Wakes: Spectacle and Romantic Fantasy In Twilight (2008)
by Athena Bellas

[End Page 1]

In Twilight (2008), heroine Bella’s fantasy sequences repeatedly set out and revise the romance narrative of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale. In particular, these fantasy sequences revise the theme of spectacle in ways that challenge the conception of the feminine adolescent figure as romantic object, a passive spectacle to be scrutinized by a male gaze. Instead, vampire Edward is presented as Bella’s object of desire, and his image is spectacularized, associated with the visual excesses of pattern, lace, and sparkles. This perversion of gendered categories of the image and romance narrative allows for a new set of relations to emerge in which the girl is able to articulate and claim a desiring gaze. In revising this element of the traditional ‘Sleeping Beauty’ narrative, popularized by Charles Perrault (1697) and the Brothers Grimm (1857), Bella claims her fantasy romance scenarios as a rebellion, creating the potential to include other possible modes of ‘doing girlhood,’[1] including the capacity for authorship, protest, dissatisfaction, and the clear articulation of desire and a desiring gaze.

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale is frequently understood by fairy tale scholars like Marcia K. Lieberman and Jack Zipes as a metaphor for the adolescent girl’s acculturation into feminine adulthood signalled by the happy ending resolution of heterosexual romance, marriage, and in some versions, motherhood. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels, and the blockbuster films based on the novels, certainly follow this conservative heteronormative ‘Sleeping Beauty’ resolution. Teen protagonist Bella is ‘awakened’ by her Prince Charming, vampire Edward, they marry, have a baby, and go on to spend eternity together as a family. Like Sleeping Beauty, Bella’s rite-of-passage or ‘awakening’ works towards inducting her into the idealised feminine roles of wife and mother. Several scholars have written about this heteronormative narrative movement in Twilight as retrograde and conservative (Veldman-Genz; Platt; Seifert). However, this paper challenges the simplicity of this reading of Twilight. It deploys a feminist poststructuralist methodology in order to locate points of resistance and innovation in teen film, identifying the ways in which the terrain of girlhood can be expanded to incorporate new and previously unthought-of iterations of power and agency. Chris Weedon writes that the aim of feminist poststructuralism is to ‘understand existing power relations and to identify areas and strategies for change…to explain the working of power on behalf of specific interests and to analyse the opportunities for resistance to it’ (40). I deploy this methodology in the study of this teen screen revision of the fairy tale because it offers a dual optic through which firstly to interrogate and deconstruct the status quo gender relations embedded in and perpetuated by popularised and canonised versions of the fairy tale. Secondly, this optic then works to  highlight ruptures and iterations of girls’ resistance, rebellion, and agency in the film’s revision This is a significant theoretical move for both girlhood studies and teen film studies, for, as Alison Jones argues, this feminist poststructuralist methodology becomes ‘part of the process of enlarging the possible discourses on/for girls and thus the range of feminine subject positions available to them in practice. Or, put another way, we can contribute to increasing the number of ways girls can “be”’ (162). The purpose of this article, then, is to identify the ways in which these ruptures can surface on the teen screen, and how Twilight’s Bella resists the status quo and expands feminine adolescence into new territories through fantasy.

It is clear that many scholars have focused on Bella’s narrative journey post-awakening into feminine adulthood. But this teen screen ‘Sleeping Beauty’ text also includes a very significant labouring of this conservative resolution and Bella’s induction [End Page 2] into the strictures of womanhood. As Maria Leavenworth points out, ‘[t]he Twilight saga is not an extended series in the same sense [as a television serial], but it similarly resists closure, and specifically romantic closure, in the first three texts’ (original emphasis 78). In addition to the delay and resistance of closure inherent in the serial format of the text, Twilight’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenes, which focus on Bella’s dreaming and fantasy images of a beautified Edward in particular, dramatically halt narrative development, becoming points of visual and temporal excess which trouble the linear logic of the narrative and the conservative work of closure. It is in this fantasy space that Twilight’s most subversive, rebellious, and resistant moments of ‘doing girlhood’ arise. These points of temporal and visual excess in Bella’s fantasy sequences rupture and reconfigure the gender relations embedded in the earlier ‘Sleeping Beauty’ text, and this rupture provides space for new positions for the girl heroine to adopt in the romance narrative.

The Twilight series certainly participates in postfeminist cultural ideals about femininity, particularly through the paradigm of ‘active hero/passive heroine’ (Taylor 34), a return to domesticity via the glorification of marriage and motherhood (Negra 47; Renold and Ringrose 329), and the obliteration of personal independence in favour of romantic connection (Gill 218; McRobbie 543). However, this paper shows that this postfeminist ideal of girlhood and feminine acculturation is also significantly challenged, interrupted, and even rejected at times during Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy and dream sequences. With a particular focus on the fantasy and dream sequences that especially proliferate throughout the film text Twilight, I argue that Bella productively disrupts the discourse of feminine beauty and desirability, which requires girls to silence their own desire whilst simultaneously presenting a desirable image for a heterosexual male gaze.[2] I therefore consider this unruly fantasy element of the romance, which challenges and ruptures discourses that seek to govern girlhood through sexist power structures, central to a feminist reading of the text.

Twilight’s unruly fantasy elements, which test these sexist structures and gendered boundaries, include an articulation of gender rebellion. Moments of gender rebellion are significant to note because they work ‘against emphasised femininity, a discourse that reinforces women’s subordination to men’ (Kelly et al. 22). These moments are, as Jessica Laureltree Willis points out, ones in which girls can ‘invent and invert notions of gender’ (101). Willis further writes that using ‘imagination as a resource’ is one way in which girls exercise agency because it is here that they can find ‘spaces for manoeuvring within cultural possibilities for re-conceptualising notions of gender’ (109). In the fantasy sequences presented from Bella’s point of view, Bella temporarily rejects a central stricture that seeks to define and delimit girlhood: the discourse that places the girl as object of heterosexual masculine desire. Bella’s rejection of this stricture defies the paradigm of feminine passivity and submission that pervades the Perrault and Grimm versions of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale. These fantasy sequences not only significantly revise the gender dynamics of the fairy tale, but also provide an expansive imaginative space through which Bella explores new and potentially empowering ways of ‘doing girlhood’ and engaging with romance.

Elizabeth Cowie’s theorisation of fantasy is immensely useful for my reading of Twilight. In her psychoanalytic account of cinematic fantasy, Cowie argues that it ‘involves, is characterised by, not the achievement of desired objects, but the arranging of, a setting out of, desire; a veritable mise-en-scene of desire…The fantasy depends not on particular [End Page 3] objects, but on their setting out and the pleasure of fantasy lies in the setting out, not in the having of objects’ (159). She goes on to suggest that in such a setting out, the spectator is presented with ‘a varying of subject positions so that the subject takes up more than one position and thus is not fixed’ (160).[3] Fantasy may therefore provide a significant challenge and rupture to cultural discourses that seek to fix, stabilise, normalise, and restrict girlhood, as it is a practice of setting out and exploring multiple possibilities for being in the world. Furthermore, it provides a method for theorizing girls and girlhood (both for the girl in the film’s diegesis, and the ideal girl spectator that the text addresses) as active and in flux rather than as fixed and static categories. This variability of objects, positions, and ‘settings out’ provides an invitation to explore multiple, contradictory, and perhaps challenging new ways of doing girlhood. In Twilight, Bella designs fantasy sequences in which possible modes of femininity that fall outside of the definitional boundaries of ‘good’ girlhood can be engaged. This reconfigures gendered relations in fantasy, affording the heroine a position from which to articulate her desire and enact a desiring gaze. In this way, Bella’s fantasy sequences are a setting out, an invitation to spectatorial identification with a teen girl gaze and desire.

The exploration of ‘alternative universes’ in which the normative rules that seek to define and delimit girlhood according to the requirements of patriarchal culture can be broken is central to the genres of girls’ fantasy (Blackford 3). Bella’s alternative fantasy universe, which she constructs in the privacy of her own bedroom, includes the breaking of several normative rules that govern girlhood, replacing them with more agentic possibilities for girlhood. Instead of submitting to the notion that girls have little or no control over the processes of their rite of passage, Bella creates a fantasy space that she has authored and designed. This provides a significant opening for reconfiguring her experience of girlhood in order to include new and potentially empowering elements. Spectatorial engagement with this fantasy could therefore mean an engagement with these new articulations of girlhood, providing an opportunity to fantasise about doing girlhood differently. Indeed, Willis argues that media representations of ‘female agency…located within the imaginary realm’ can provide ‘alternate perspectives on gender and subjectivity’ and thus offer readers and spectators ‘spaces in which girls are not bound by the normative rules or roles of a society’ (106-7).

The potential for this space to act as an invitation to fantasy is important for theorising an active teen spectatorial position. In her work on soap opera spectatorship, Ien Ang writes that

‘the pleasure of fantasy lies in its offering the subject an opportunity to take up positions which she could not assume in real life: through fantasy she can move beyond the structural constraints of everyday life and explore other, more desirable situations, identities, lives. In this respect, it is unimportant whether these imaginary scenarios are “realistic” or not: the appeal of fantasy lies precisely in that it can create imagined worlds which can take us beyond what is possible in the “real” world’ (93).

She concludes that ‘[f]antasy and fiction, then, are safe spaces of excess in the interstices of ordered social life where one has to keep oneself strategically under control’ (95). Ang’s theorisation of spectatorial engagement with fantasy provides a way of reading Twilight’s [End Page 4] invitation to identification. Bella’s fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenarios, which ‘move beyond the structural constraints’ that govern and keep girlhood ‘under control,’ provide an invitation to spectatorial engagement with an imaginary world in which those governing forces have been replaced with alternative, perhaps more desirable, positions and possibilities for feminine adolescence and for engaging in romance narratives.

The romance narrative of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale has been vigorously critiqued by feminist scholars, who point out the sexist dynamic of feminine adolescent passivity and masculine dominance that the tale represents and even promotes.[4] In its culturally pervasive Perrault and Grimm versions, the tale hinges on an encounter between feminine beauty and passivity which is represented as essential to being desirable, and an active, dominating male prince. This encounter places the unmoving and unconscious girl at the centre of a scene of spectacle, upholding sexist structures of the gendered image and gaze. Indeed, feminist scholars like Rowe, Lieberman, and Kolbenschlag have pointed out that this privileging of feminine glamour and passivity reflects the expectations and restrictions placed on girls and women in contemporary culture. This research revealed how the tale upholds the patriarchal script of feminine passivity and subservience to masculine authority, and furthermore, that the tale shrouds this disturbing script in the guise of romantic love between the prince and princess. Twilight both participates in and yet significantly challenges this tradition to create opportunities for subversive revisions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’s’ sexist gender dynamic.

Feminine passivity seems to be embedded in the rite of passage of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tradition. In the anonymous fourteenth century telling of the tale, the romance Perceforest and Giambattista Basile’s version of the tale, ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ (1634), the prince rapes and impregnates the princess as she lies in her enchanted comatose state, inducting her (unwillingly) into the role of mother. While Perrault and the Grimms removed this extreme violation in their more culturally pervasive versions of the tale, the sexist paradigm of feminine passivity versus masculine dominance remains in the narrative of the helpless maiden and the brave, active prince. When the heroine awakes from her slumber and completes her rite-of-passage into womanhood, she is promptly installed in the roles of wife and mother. Lieberman writes that ‘since the heroines are chosen for their beauty…not for anything they do…they seem to exist passively until they are seen by the hero, or described to him. They wait, are chosen, and are rewarded’ with marriage (189). Lieberman elaborates that in this extreme passivity, the heroine has only her beauty to offer, which is most often represented in the tale as ‘a girl’s most valuable asset, perhaps her only valuable asset’ (188). In both the Perrault and Grimm versions, the authors  describe  the figure of Sleeping Beauty as pure spectacle. Perrault describes the scene of the prince’s discovery in terms that highlight and spectacularize passive feminine beauty: ‘he entered a chamber completely covered with gold and saw the most lovely sight he had ever looked upon – there on a bed with the curtains open on each side was a princess who seemed to be about fifteen or sixteen and whose radiant charms gave her an appearance that was luminous and supernatural’ (691). The scene is described in opulent extravagance, with the girl’s figure set in a room studded with gold, laying in a bed with the curtains suggestively thrown open. Fixed in her comatose state, the girl functions here as passive spectacle, ‘the most lovely sight,’ for the prince’s pleasure.

Feminist film and cultural criticism is similarly centrally concerned with the sexist dynamics that construct woman as passive spectacle for a determining male gaze, and the [End Page 5] ways in which they are played out and reproduced in the cinema (Mulvey). Sandra Lee Bartky elaborates that the scrutiny of the gaze functions as a disciplinary force which ensures that ‘[n]ormative femininity [comes] more and more to be centred on woman’s body…it’s presumed heterosexuality and its appearance’ (80). This gaze becomes so culturally pervasive that ‘the disciplinary power that inscribes femininity in the female body is everywhere and nowhere; the disciplinarian is everyone and yet no one in particular’ (74). Significantly, the girl is not only compelled to make herself available as spectacle for this gaze; she is also required to internalise it, resulting in self-surveillance and self-discipline practices that work to ensure the girl’s position as object (for example, in beauty product and diet discourses). This gaze therefore works as a profound disciplinary force, involved in the maintenance of gendered power relations in which girls and women not only present themselves as passive objects of the gaze, but also view and therefore define themselves through it.

Also central to this construction of girlhood as passivity is the lack of cultural acceptability around girls expressing their desires. Indeed, girlhood studies scholar Marnina Gonick writes that for a girl to be considered ‘good’ ‘usually means that a girl’s desire is left unspoken or spoken only in whispers,’ silencing ‘what has traditionally been socially and culturally forbidden to girls: anger, desire for power, and control over one’s life’ (64 -65). For Deborah Martin, this silencing of girls’ desire in cultural constructions of girlhood reflects ‘the requirements of patriarchal culture for the young girl to give up active and agentic desire and accept her status as object of desire’ (137). These are ‘highly restrictive and regulatory discourses’ that work to contain girlhood (Renold and Ringrose 314) and the possibilities of what it is acceptable to express from the subject position of teen girl. In the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale, it is both the spectacularization of the girl’s figure and her inability to direct the course of her own rite-of-passage that not only places her in the position of passive waiting, but also robs her of the opportunity to articulate her own desire.

Twilight provides a significant revision of the earlier text’s construction of feminine adolescent desire because it is central and authoritative, rather than marginalised and silenced. Bella reconceptualises both the elements of spectacle in her romance fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ sequences in ways that are resistant to the literary fairy tale’s construction of girlhood-as-passivity. Bella’s fantasy designs of her ‘prince’ Edward’s image contain spectacular and pretty elements, challenging the tale’s gendered visual economy that privileges the prince’s controlling masculine gaze and the heroine’s passive glamour. This spectacularization of Edward reverses the gendered dynamics of the tale, placing him in the position of ‘Beauty.’ In this reversal, Bella is able to claim a measure of agency and active looking that the heroine of Perrault and the Grimm tales could not. Bella creates a fantasy space in which she can reject the normative construction of femininity that demands that girls present themselves as desirable objects for a determining masculine gaze. These points of excess in the construction of the representation of romance not only challenge the structures designed to keep the heroine in a passive position; they also work to create new meanings in the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ romance, and create new possibilities for representing girlhood in potentially empowering ways.

Cinematic spectacle and prettiness contain the disruptive potential of excess, and Bella’s spectacular and pretty fantasy images of Edward reconfigure the gendered politics of the image and the gaze. Interestingly, it is this spectacular aesthetic of the Twilight films [End Page 6] that some scholars have labelled as potentially harmful and seductive to a teen girl audience.[5] Natalie Wilson, for example, writes that Twilight acts as a powerful ‘drug’ for unsuspecting female fans, who become ‘prisoners to its allure’ (6). Only those who maintain the ‘critical distance’ of ‘mocking’ and ‘resisting’ the films’ spectacular romantic excesses (6-7) can succeed in refusing the harmful ‘seductive message’ of fulfilment through true love and romance with a Prince Charming that Twilight narrativises (8). Margaret Kramar similarly laments, ‘[u]nfortunately, modern teenagers…may not be able to extricate themselves from Bella’s mind-set or question her underlying assumptions analytically’ (26). I challenge this suspicion and derision of spectacle in Twilight, finding that spectacle is one of its most subversive and critical elements in its representation of contemporary romance and girlhood.

Wilson and Kramar’s assertion that a productive reading of the text only emerges in the cold, distant manner that opposes and scorns the image not only participates in a sexist aesthetic hierarchy of suspicion and degradation of feminine spectacle and prizing of masculine austerity and distance, but also misses the rich potential for the spectacular and pretty teen screen image to be politically potent and invested with details that significantly disrupt the conservative narrative flow. Such a reading is productive for a feminist perspective on the cinematic text, for, as Rosalind Galt writes, a consideration of the pretty considers ‘how the image is gendered formally and how thematic iterations of gender in film can be read not just against women’s historical conditions, but against the gendered aesthetics of cinema itself’ (255). Engaging spectacle and the pretty in a reading of Twilight reveals the way in which the excesses of these elements not only undermine the conservative ideology of the narrative flow, but also work to create a new set of gendered romantic relations through the image and the gaze. In this new set of relations, Bella claims authorial control over the spectacular design of her fantasy image of Edward, providing her with an opportunity to claim and sustain a desiring gaze.

Bella’s fantasy sequences, which revise the gendered dynamics of the Perrault and Grimm ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tales primarily occur in Bella’s bedroom. In these romantic fantasies, Bella is able to construct a bedroom culture that is enabling and productive. Anita Harris suggests that bedroom culture can function as a kind of ‘retreat,’ which can productively be read as ‘an active choice on the part of young women refusing to participate in particular constructions of girlhood’ (133). Harris elaborates, ‘the scrutiny of young women remains…and it is this scrutiny that forces them into private places to reflect and resist’ (133). The bedroom culture that Bella authors and designs in the fantasy realm is indeed a resistant space, where the construction of girlhood as desirability without desire is thoroughly undermined. It is in this enabling and productive bedroom culture that Bella situates and authors fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenes. Instead of accepting her role as passive object for the scrutiny Harris describes, she chooses to design fantasy romance scenarios in which she can clearly articulate her desire and claim a desiring point of view.

Bella’s authorial control over the fantasy sequences is made clear in the beginning of one sequence in Twilight, which presents the scene on a black and white filmstrip that moves across the screen. The soundtrack is dominated by the clicking and whirring of the film running through a projection machine, further emphasising themes of production and projection. [End Page 7]

Black and white scene from Twilight that looks like an old-fashioned film strip with Edward lying on top of Bella on a bed with her face turned towards the viewer.

Figure 1 Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy is visualised on a black and white film reel, emphasising her role as ‘director’ and creator of the fantasy sequences

This establishes Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy – a romantic embrace between the reclining Bella and vampire Edward – as a kind of film within the film, a scene that she has constructed, written, directed, and projected. This scene unfolds according to Bella’s fantasy design, where she has carefully set out her longed-for objects within the mise-en-scene of her desire. This clearly establishes Bella’s authorial authority over the fantasy sequence. As the work of scholars like Gonick and Martin shows, ‘good’ girlhood is governed by an interdiction against girls expressing their own desire and claiming a desiring and authoritative point of view, in order for them to be securely placed in the role of object of desire and scrutiny. Bella’s fantasy sequences, however, create an alternative universe in which this construction of girlhood is thoroughly subverted. Bella authors scenarios and images of her own design, which not only subvert the scrutiny girls are placed under, but creates in its stead a clear position from which to enact a desiring gaze and to articulate her desire.

Twilight’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenes, which focus on Bella’s dreaming and fantasy images of a beautified Edward, dramatically halt narrative development, becoming points of both visual and temporal excess that rupture the logic of the earlier fairy tale text. In the Perrault and Grimm versions of the tale, the heroine’s sleep represents her complete vulnerability and passivity to the prince’s advances, gaze, and, in Basile’s version, the horrific rape. In Twilight, Bella creatively pursues new ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasies that halt the narrative of feminine acculturation and instead insistently focus on her enjoyment of gazing at Edward, significantly reversing the gender dynamics of the earlier text. In these bedroom scenes, there is an intense focus on sleep and dreaming, and a heavy-handed deployment of filmic techniques like slow motion, ultra-slow dissolves, and slowly spiralling camera movements. At the beginning of one of these scenes, Edward and Bella move towards one another and kiss at a painstakingly slow place. This lingering on the [End Page 8] incremental, and almost barely perceptible movement stops the narrative in its tracks. The soundtrack punctuates this languor with the couple’s slow, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. In the following sequence of the scene, there is a transition of shots between a medium and close-up shot of Edward and Bella asleep. The ultra-slow dissolve settles on the scene like a fine mist.

Transitional camera shot showing Edward and Bella asleep on a bed in a medium shot with a faint overlay of the upcoming close-up on them so that a larger faint image of Edward's face is also apparent.

Figure 2 The ultra-slow dissolve and spiralling camera movements work together with the mise-en-scene to create a doubly-decorative image

As this dissolve occurs, the transition between images creates a decorative image in which the figures are decorated with superimposed golden firefly fairy lights and the embellished floral design of Bella’s bedspread. The camera spirals in on the two figures very slowly as this gradual transition between shots occurs, creating a dreamy, hypnotic slowing down and reduction of time. A decorative image is created both by the mise-en-scene’s decorative elements as well as the elaborate editing techniques, suspending narrative and focusing attention on Bella’s fantasy moment of enjoying Edward. This scene of Bella and Edward sleeping is protracted through the use of the ultra-slow dissolve and the dreamy spiralling movement of the camera. As opposed to the determining forces of logic, linearity, and progress, delay provides indeterminate time. Bella’s purposeful slowing-down of time in her fantasy sequences refuses to accommodate the roles and responsibilities of impending womanhood. While the heroine of the Perrault and Grimm versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is imprisoned and made vulnerable by her slumber, Bella’s fantasies of delay are ruled by her expressions of desire, her enjoyment of Edward – and the defiantly intense focus of her attention on these pleasures. This significantly contributes to Twilight’s revision of the passivity and helplessness embedded in the earlier versions of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale. Bella actively constructs these points of temporal and visual excess through her fantasies, significantly interjecting a time that is not ruled by these processes and expectations. This use of slow-motion techniques therefore performs a critical function because it troubles the [End Page 9] seemingly ‘natural’ smooth development of the conservative narrative’s progress towards Bella’s feminine acculturation, and also suggests a desire to rupture this progress and thus an ambivalence and dissatisfaction towards the feminine rite of passage itself.

In these fantasy moments, Bella is temporarily relieved of this construction of time that works to contain and control the progression of girlhood into an idealised womanhood (Lesko; Walkerdine). Girlhood studies scholar Valerie Walkerdine elaborates the specificity of time for feminine adolescence. She writes that girlhood is represented as a period of ‘preparation for the prince’ in both fairy tales and girls’ literature (97). The point of resolution, the prince’s arrival, is ‘attractive precisely because it is the getting and keeping of the man which in a very basic and crucial way establishes that the girl is “good enough”…It is because getting a man is identified as a central resolution to problems of female desire that it acts so powerfully’ (99). This temporality constructs passive progress towards idealised feminine adulthood, which continues to be at least in part defined by romantic ideologies, heterosexual partnership, and motherhood. Interestingly, though the Twilight series’ narrative works towards this resolution that Walkerdine describes, its forestalling techniques consistently frustrate, refuse, and defy its fulfilment. Both the seriality of the Twilight texts and the deployment of filmic techniques such as slow motion and the slow dissolve in the fantasy sequences work to disrupt linearity, defer progress, and challenge narrative cohesion. Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy sequences not only challenge but also unravel these forces that seek to govern, define, and delimit ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ girlhood. The temporary unravelling of these borders allows the fantasy sequences to incorporate other, potentially disruptive iterations of girlhood.

The spectacular excess of Bella’s fabrication of Edward reconfigures the gendered norms of the gaze and desire. In her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy sequences, Bella is not coded as the ‘Beauty’: Edward, the glittering, perfectly groomed, alabaster-skinned eternal teenager is. In these scenes, and indeed throughout the film series, Edward’s figure is repeatedly associated with sparkles, lace, shimmering light, soft skin, and immaculately coiffed hair. In one ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy scene in Twilight, Bella dreams that Edward is in her bedroom. Edward’s face is framed in extreme close-up. He is bathed in a golden, shimmering moonlight that shines in through the window. This moonlight shines through a lace curtain, which creates a dramatic dappled frill pattern of light and shade across Edward’s glowing skin. [End Page 10]

An extreme close-up showing part of Edward's forehead, his eyebrows, eyes, and nose with light reflecting off of them.

Figure 3 Edward’s figure is associated with the spectacular excess of moonlight, pattern and lace in Bella’s dream image

This fantasy moment associates Edward’s figure with these elements of visual and decorative spectacle. The supplemental nature of the decorative, its very gratuitousness, is troublesome, because it exceeds the requirements of the narrative and potentially disrupts its ideology.

These spectacular textural details disrupt the gendered politics that govern girlhood and the gaze. Laura Mulvey’s famous argument that the male figure onscreen cannot ‘bear the burden of objectification’ (13) is challenged in Twilight’s construction of Edward as an extravagantly shimmering spectacle. Spectacular cinematic images have political potential because they have the capacity, in their excess, to rub up against and potentially erode the conservative ideology that the narrative works to hold in place. Barbara Klinger’s work on Douglas Sirk’s melodramas argues that the deployment of an excessive or unreal mise-en-scene can work to ‘subvert the system [of representation] and its ideology from within’ (14). Jane Gaines, in her work on the textural excesses of costume in classical Hollywood cinema, similarly argues that these elements have the capacity to become a ‘dissonant detail’ (150) in the text that is resistant to, in excess of, and uncontained by the ‘conservative’ narrative flow. Kay Dickinson similarly writes that one cinematic component may ‘radically contradict’ another, and that such a contradiction of a conservative narrative or image may defy, challenge, and even overwhelm it (15). Dickinson sees this challenge at work in the text as potentially ‘not only an intrinsic property, but also…a political tool at work within both the object of analysis itself and its audience’s active perception’ (19). These moments of visual spectacle can therefore be seen as having political potency and potential as it not only challenges the normative ideology of the narrative, but also prompts a similarly unruly response from the spectator.

The spectacular aesthetic that Bella creates significantly challenges the immense scrutiny that girls and women are placed under – it enacts the ‘radical contradiction’ that [End Page 11] Dickinson argues for. This is significant because, as Susan Bordo argues, the ‘grip’ of controlling surveillance and scrutiny is one of contemporary culture’s ways of regulating, monitoring, and manipulating the female body ‘as an absolutely central strategy in the maintenance of power relations between the sexes’ (76-77). Currie et al. similarly show that a ‘dominant way to do girlhood’ is ‘the performance of…“emphasised femininity”: the practice of heterosexual femininity that is “oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men” and thus to reconstituting women’s subordination’ (94). Bella’s fantasy sequences challenge the visual structures that hold this subordination in place by designing a visual economy in which she can evade this scrutiny and instead take up an active desiring position in the context of her self-authored romantic fantasies.

In these fantasy moments of visual spectacle, the conservative trajectory of the narrative is significantly halted in its tracks by the iridescent glittering excess of Edward’s beautiful image and Bella’s enjoyment of that image. The spectacle of Edward’s glittering, luminous skin challenges the gendered politics of the image and the gaze. The first time Edward reveals his sparkling skin, these gendered politics of image and gaze are revised, creating a significant invitation for the heroine to enact a desiring look. Edward and Bella are in the forest, and Edward stands in the sunlight, revealing that it is the reaction of light and vampire skin that creates this glittering effect. Edward unbuttons his coat and shirt as he stands in this spotlight of sunshine, and his face and torso light up with the lustrous shimmer of thousands of tiny diamonds. The scene then cuts to Bella’s face in close-up as she admires Edward’s pretty sparkling display.

A close-up shot of Bella's open-mouthed face against a blurred green background.

Figure 4 Bella’s desiring gaze at Edward as he reveals his luminous sparkling body to her

Bella exclaims ‘you’re beautiful!’ as the camera cuts to her point of view and slowly pans up his torso, lingering on this spectacle. [End Page 12]

Figure5, A close-up shot showing Edward's torso from his waist to just below his neck. His shirt and jacket are open and the light is reflecting off of his skin.

A close-up shot showing Edward's torso from above the waist to just above his mouth. His shirt and jacket are open and the light is reflecting off of his skin.

Figure 5 and 6 The camera, aligned with Bella’s desiring gaze, slowly pans up Edward’s sparkling body in a close-up shot

This visual display of the male figure’s prettiness for the heroine perverts the sexist structures of the gaze which fix the female figure in the role of passive spectacle and assert the control of the male figure. It is Edward’s figure that is aligned with spectacle and the over-the-top design of glamorous decoration, and it is Bella who actively enjoys this display – indeed, she calls him ‘beautiful’. Such a perversion of gendered categories carves out a space for a new set of relations to emerge through the image. [End Page 13]

In this way, Bella’s construction of Edward as romantic object and spectacle significantly troubles and reconfigures the gendered politics of the image and the gendered gaze. This provides a challenge to sexist structures of looking, and works to create an opening for a new set of relations in which the heroine’s authorial perspective and desiring look determine the mise-en-scene. This fantasy visualisation is discordant and disruptive. Gaines writes that such visual and aesthetic disruption can create an ‘opening for considering how the spectacular…makes imaginative appeals’ to the spectator and constructs an ‘invitation to…fantasy’ (142-143). These scenes provide an invitation to engage in a fantasy where such a spectacular reconfiguration of gendered dynamics of image and gaze is possible, and where a teen girl gaze can be held as a sustained spectatorial position. Therefore, Bella’s spectacular designs carve out a fantasy space in which spectatorial identification with a desiring teen girl gaze is possible. Such an engagement in fantasy creates an ‘imaginative appeal,’ as Gaines suggests, to consider girlhood in new ways, compelling the spectator to identify with Bella’s challenging and subversive ways of doing girlhood.

Bella is therefore afforded a space in which she can both protest against normative structures of girlhood and romance scripts, then creatively innovate new and potentially empowering positions, expanding the terrain of what is possible for girlhood to include. An examination of fantasy and spectacle is therefore immensely important to a productive feminist reading of the Twilight film texts, as it is here that the most subversive and challenging moments of ‘doing girlhood’ arise. Spectacle in fantasy therefore provides not only an opportunity for rebellion against sexist everyday strictures, but also holds immense creative potential for the valuable work of reconfiguring and reimagining gendered relations in romance. An examination of teen screen fantasy may provide a critical space for examining the scope of both rebellion and innovation in the representation of teen rites of passage.

While many scholarly explorations of the Twilight texts have thoroughly examined Bella’s postfeminist and so-called retrograde journey into adult femininity through marriage and motherhood, few have adequately considered the resistant and unruly fantasy elements in the texts that subvert this conservative closure. As Gottschall et al. note, particular popular images and the ways in which they are engaged with by girls can both ‘rupture and reiterate ways of doing girlhood’ (35) and in this process ‘multiple meanings of girlhood seem to be embodied and enacted’ (39). In this way, Gottschall et al. argue that in any particular media or ‘real life’ example, it is possible for ‘markers of conventional girlhood [to be] enabled and constrained in complex ways’ (40). Therefore, through a feminist poststructuralist methodology, I have argued that while Twilight does present potentially conservative representations of girlhood and girls’ romantic rites of passage, it also simultaneously contains unruly and resistant elements that radically contradict this conservatism. Indeed, in fantasy, Bella is able to break down the visual economy that places girls in a position emphasised femininity, a scrutinised spectacle presented for a heterosexual male gaze, and reconfigures the gendered categories of the image, narrative closure, and the gaze. In this way Bella claims a subjective position and desiring gaze within this romance narrative.

Through alterations to the image and temporality of the tale, Bella carves out a new space in the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ narrative determined by her desire. As this paper has shown, this is significant, as cultural ideals of girlhood continue to hold that such expressions of [End Page 14] desire are ‘culturally forbidden to girls’ and that ‘a girl’s desire is left unspoken or spoken only in whispers’ (Gonick 64-5). If the category of ‘girlhood’ translates, as Gonick suggests, into the silencing of desire, then Bella’s fantasy designs that provide an articulation of her desire significantly alter this construction of girlhood and productively expand the potential for girls to claim powerful subjective positions in the contemporary romance narrative. This article has deployed the powerful methodology of feminist poststructuralism, which offers a dual optic to both interrogate and deconstruct the earlier text’s gender ideologies, while also stressing the opportunities for the heroine’s resistance and agency in the contemporary revision of the tale. These ruptures productively aggravate and destabilise the gender ideology at hand, creating new opportunities for representing the girl’s power and agency in the tale.

Bella’s fantasies provide a setting out of an alternative universe of new possibilities, positions, and objects of romantic desire made available for teen girl spectators. This setting out of the image of Edward and the access to a desiring gaze provides an invitation to spectatorial fantasy in which girlhood is not constrained by the everyday structures that govern and define it. The spectator is presented with the imaginative possibility of a desiring position for the teen girl to occupy, and this imaginative possibility is one that allows for a fantasy of doing girlhood differently, in potentially new and oppositional ways. Bella’s fantasy space is therefore not just meaningful within the text itself; it also proposes significant implications for spectatorial fantasy and imaginative possibilities that expand the terrains of girlhood, romance, and girl’s spectatorship. Bella’s fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenarios, which move beyond the everyday structures that govern and contain girlhood, provide an invitation to spectatorial identification with an imaginary world in which those governing forces can be opposed and replaced with a girlhood that includes empowering elements such as the expression of authorial and creative control, desire, oppositional rebellion, ambivalence, and an authoritative point-of-view.


[1] The concept of ‘doing girlhood’ was proposed by girlhood studies scholars Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz, and drew from Judith Butler’s theorisation of ‘doing gender.’ Theorising ‘doing girlhood’ accounts for the expression of girls’ agency, explaining ‘what girls say and do to accomplish girlhood within limits’ (xvii).

[2] Recent girlhood studies scholarship has interrogated this particular aspect of how contemporary girlhood and girl’s sexuality is governed in patriarchal culture. See, for example, the work of Marnina Gonick and Deborah Martin.

[3] While there is not enough space in this paper to fully elaborate the Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic background to Cowie’s theorisation of fantasy, it is vital to explore her contention that fantasy is a setting out of possibilities, entry points, identifications, and desires.

[4] Feminist writers who have addressed these concerns in relation to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ include Marcia K. Lieberman, Francine Prose, Karen E. Rowe, and Jack Zipes.

[5] See Eva Chen’s study of how the romance genre has long been considered an ‘opiate for the masses’, a ‘dope’ for women that lulls them into an ‘illusory acceptance of the status quo’ (30). [End Page 15]

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Ang, Ien. Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Bartky, Sandra Lee. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Basile, Giambattista. ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia.’ In: The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co, 2001 [1634]. 685-688. Print.

Blackford, Holly Virginia. The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature. New York and London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Bordo, Susan. ‘Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallisation of Culture.’ The Philosophical Forum 17.2 (1985): 73-104. Web.

Chen, Eva Y. I. ‘Forms of Pleasure in the Reading of Popular Romance: Psychic and Cultural Dimensions.’ Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 30-41. Print.

Cowie, Elizabeth. ‘Fantasia.’ The Woman in Question. Ed. Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990. Print.

Currie, Dawn H., Deirdre M. Kelly, and Shauna Pomerantz. ‘Girl Power’: Girls Reinventing Girlhood. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. Print.

Dickinson, Kay. ‘Music Video and Synaesthetic Possibility.’ Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones. Ed. Roger Beebe and Jason Middleton. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Galt, Rosalind. Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.

Gaines, Jane M. ‘Wanting to Wear Seeing: Gilbert Adrian at MGM.’ Fashion in Film. Ed. Adrienne Munich. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. 135-159. Print.

Gill, Rosalind. Gender and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007. Print.

Gonick, Marnina. Between Femininities: Ambivalence, Identity, and the Education of Girls. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.

Gottschall, Kristina, Susanne Gannon, Jo Lampert, and Kelli McGraw. ‘The Cyndi Lauper Affect: Bodies, Girlhood and Popular Culture.’ Girlhood Studies 6.1 (2013): 30-45. Web.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. ‘Briar Rose.’ The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co, 2001 [1857]. 696-698. Print.

Hardwicke, Catherine, dir. Twilight. Summit, 2008. DVD.

Harris, Anita. ‘Revisiting Bedroom Culture: New Spaces for Young Women’s Politics.’ Hecate 27.1 (2001): 128-138. Web.

Jones, Alison. ‘Becoming a “Girl”: Post-Structuralist Suggestions for Educational Research.’ Gender and Education 5.2 (1993): 57-66. Web.

Kelly, Deirdre M., Shauna Pomerantz, and Dawn H. Currie. ‘“No Boundaries?” Girls’ Interactive, Online Learning about Femininities.’ Youth Society 38.3 (2006): 3-28. Web.

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Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. Print.

Kolbenschlag, Madonna. Goodbye Sleeping Beauty: Breaking the Spell of Feminine Myths and Models. Dublin: Arlen House, 1983. Print.

Kramar, Margaret. ‘The Wolf in the Woods: Representations of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in Twilight.’ In Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. 15-30. Print.

Leavenworth, Maria Lindgren. ‘Variations, Subversions, and Endless Love: Fan Fiction and the Twilight Saga.’ In Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 69-81. Print.

Lesko, Nancy. ‘Time Matters in Adolescence.’ In Governing the Child in the New Millennium. Eds. Kenneth Hultqvist and Gunilla Dahlberg. New York and London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001. 35-67. Print.

Lieberman, Marcia K. ‘“Some Day My Prince Will Come”: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.’ Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. Ed. Jack Zipes. Aldershot and New York: Gower, 1986. 85-200. Print.

Martin, Deborah. ‘Feminine Adolescence as Uncanny: Masculinity, Haunting and Self-Estrangement.’ Forum for Modern Language Studies 49.2 (2013): 135-144. Web.

McRobbie, Angela. ‘Young Women and Consumer Culture: An Intervention.’ Cultural Studies 22.5 (2008): 531-550. Web.

Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. London: Atom, 2005. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Web.

Negra, Diane. What a Girl Wants: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Perrault, Charles. ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co, 2001 [1697]. 688-695. Print.

Platt, Carrie Anne. ‘Cullen Family Values: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series’. Bitten by Twilight: Youth, Media, and the Vampire Franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, Elizabeth Behm-Morawits. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 71-86. Print.

Prose, Francine. ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore their Favourite Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Bernheimer. New York: Anchor, 1998. 283-294. Print.

Renold, Emma and Jessica Ringrose. ‘Regulation and Rupture: Mapping Tween and Teenage Girls’ Resistance to the Heterosexual Matrix.’ Feminist Theory 9 (2008): 313-338. Web.

Rowe, Karen E. ‘Feminism and Fairy Tales.’ In Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. Ed. Jack Zipes. Aldershot and New York: Gower, 1986. 209-226. Print.

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Veldman-Genz, Carole. ‘Serial Experiments in Popular Culture: The Resignification of Gothic Symbology in Anita Blake Vampire Hunter and the Twilight series’. Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 43-58. Print.

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[End Page 18]

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‘Falling in Love Intelligently’: Eugenic Love in the Progressive Era
by Susan Rensing

On February 21, 1915, the Chicago Tribune ran an appeal to readers for letters describing their experiences falling in love. With the promise of $1 for every letter published, the newspaper asked its audience to describe what attracted them most to their beloved. “Was it a wayward curl, a roguish eye, a dimple or an alluring smile? …Was it the pies she made or the flowers he brought? …Was it the possibility of a eugenic ideal?” From a modern perspective, the last question seems at odds with the first two. While the former focus on the attractiveness of an individual, either by physical features or by deeds, the latter focuses on the appropriateness of the match. The former are whimsical in tone and allude to the mystery of romance; the latter is clinical in its presentation of love as a decision-making process guided by specific goals, principles, and values. Viewing eugenics as a sort of OkCupid of the Progressive Era might be a bit surprising, especially given the predominant focus of eugenics historiography on involuntary sterilization, race suicide, and immigration restriction.[1] But a closer look at the popular reception of eugenics in the [End Page 1] US reveals an early fascination with how eugenics would make love, romance, and marriage scientific.[2]

As Alexandra Stern notes in her history of the eugenics movement in California, “placing gender and sexuality at the center of the analysis reconfigures the history of eugenics, demanding substantial temporal and thematic revisions” (7). Eugenics entered the American popular discourse in the first decade of the twentieth century—a critical juncture of changing sexual attitudes and gender relations. As Kathy Peiss documents, white middle-class Protestants were concerned about the influence of working-class sexual mores, like petting, treating, and dating, that were becoming fashionable in urban centers. Many middle-class reformers recoiled in horror as young people danced the Bunny Hug and the Grizzly Bear. Mary Odem charts how reform efforts aimed at eliminating prostitution and venereal disease resulted in the policing and regulation of working-class women’s sexuality in the early twentieth century (96-98). As Wendy Kline argues, the eugenics movement was preoccupied with the reproductive decisions of “fit” and “unfit” women and sought to instill a “‘reproductive morality’ into the public consciousness” (2). Sterilization and segregation of women who were labeled feeble-minded were central features of the eugenics movement in the Progressive Era.

But, as Colin Johnson notes, much of the historiography disproportionately presents eugenics as a “one-sided attempt to exercise power over and against particular segments of society—the poor, the ‘feeble-minded, immigrants, people of color, and so on” (28). Instead, Johnson recasts the eugenics movement within the broader history of American sexuality as a robust public discussion about sex and reproduction that “enfranchised ‘normal’ Americans with the power and responsibility to ‘cultivate the race’ in the same way that they might cultivate a tomato plant” (28). Laura Lovett furthers this claim by examining how the rhetoric of ‘race suicide’ was used to push pronatalism for middle-class white women in the United States. This article adds to the historiographic exploration of eugenics and American sexuality by examining the discourse around love and romance in the eugenic vernacular of the early twentieth century.[3] As one proponent explained, “love can, among normal people at least, be ordered” (Eugenics, 178). In a cultural moment where many worried that love and courtship had become wanton, depraved, and libidinous, eugenics promised order, efficiency, and control.[4]

Steeped in the scientism of the age, Americans in the Progressive Era were expected to assert self-control and apply the dictates of scientific experts to all aspects of their lives. In the same way that Americans were encouraged to eat rationally based on the new insights of nutrition science, they were also encouraged to love rationally based on eugenic considerations.[5] Examining the eugenic vernacular reveals how eugenics was popularly understood as a sexual science, i.e. a program for changing the relations of the sexes in order to improve future generations of humanity.[6] Proponents of this view of eugenics were determined to instill a eugenic conscience in young people, particularly college-educated women. The focus on women’s role in mate selection connected eugenics in the public consciousness with the rise of the New Woman and the emerging feminist movement. This article breaks new ground by revealing the gendered anxieties underlying popular anti-eugenics sentiment.

In 1904, Francis Galton unveiled his vision of a new science of good breeding that he called eugenics at the newly founded English Sociological Society (Life, Letters 259). Americans were then introduced to eugenics through newspaper coverage of Galton’s talk [End Page 2] that originated with the London Express but was subsequently reprinted and paraphrased. These articles laid the groundwork for how the American public would come to perceive eugenics as a sexual science. One quote from Galton’s address became emblematic of the goals of eugenics. As the Anaconda Standard described it, “Dr. Galton, in explaining this science, which he may have said to have invented, said ‘The passion of love seems to be so overpowering that it may be thought folly to try to direct its course. But plain facts do not confirm this view. Social influences have immense power. If suitable marriages, from the eugenic point of view, were banned socially, few would be made” (“Society to Study Heredity” 2). The Montgomery Advertiser included discussion of the new “love-regulating science” of eugenics alongside other “Scientific Miscellany” such as improvements in microscope technology and experiments in nutritionally enhanced vegetables. Similar to the other news coverage, the Montgomery Advertiser explained, “It [eugenics] will strive to regulate the passion of love, absurd as this may seem, and much toward this is expected from placing a social ban on unsuitable marriages” (“Scientific Miscellany” 18). From the beginning, then, eugenics was presented as a scientific program for modernizing love and marriage. Romantic love needed to be shaped, controlled, and rationalized so that Americans would only marry and reproduce with suitable matches.

Further complicating the newspaper coverage of the new science of eugenics was the inclusion of George Bernard Shaw’s comments on Galton’s address to the Sociological Society. Both Shaw and H.G. Wells attended Galton’s lecture and offered support for his ideas as well as some measured critiques. Wells actually pointed out to Galton that eugenics was just a new word for stirpiculture and had been popular in America for decades, especially among sex radicals (Life, Letters 259). Shaw offered more unqualified support, enthusing that “there was now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization.” However, Shaw quickly moved beyond Galton’s rather modest reforms for encouraging ‘suitable’ marriages, boldly declaring “what we must fight for is freedom to build the race without being hampered by the mass of irrelevant conditions implied by marriage” (Life, Letters 260). But the quote from Shaw that was picked up for American newspaper coverage of eugenics was his quip about the haphazard nature of selecting spouses: “In spite of all the romances, men and women are amazingly indiscriminate in their attachments; they select their wives and husbands far less carefully than they select their cashiers and cooks. I am afraid we must either face a considerable shock to vulgar opinion in this matter or let eugenics alone” (“Society to Study Heredity” 2). Shaw was already well known in the US as a critic of the sexual double standard, institutionalized marriage, and American “Comstockery” (Shaw 5). Therefore, the inclusion of his comments alongside Galton’s served not only to reinforce that eugenics was a science concerned with reforming love and marriage, but also hinted that eugenics merged well with the ideology of sex radicals, who had for decades discussed how voluntary motherhood and free love would improve the race.[7] In fact, as William Leach documents in True Love and Perfect Union, late nineteenth century American feminists had been arguing for decades for a more rational approach to love as an alternative to what they saw as the pitfalls of Victorian sentimental culture (112). Because of this late nineteenth century context, eugenics was fused with the connotation of women’s empowerment, especially sexual selection of mates, from the beginning.[8] This explains why, when the word “eugenics” first appeared as an entry in the Century [End Page 3] Dictionary in 1904, the definition stated, “the doctrine of progress or evolution, especially in the human race, through improved conditions in the relations of the sexes.”

As it was described in American newspapers, eugenics was consistently presented as a scientific approach to love and relationships. The Duluth News-Tribune predicted that eugenics would eradicate the “reckless thoughtlessness of youth” and the “impulsiveness of love-at-first-sight” and replace it with “the wholesome influence of sober and thoughtful conscience in courtship” (“Science of Eugenics 6). Noting approvingly that the “new science of eugenics has therefore been evolved to direct and regulate the force of romantic love,” the article went on to envision a future where young men and women would carry around eugenic certificates that attested to their hereditary and physical fitness (6). Taking this to absurdist lengths, the article teased that the imagined couple might then seal their engagement “not by a microbic kiss, but by swapping documents” (6). Playing on this theme of sanitizing love and making sexual acts hygienic, a cartoon that was featured with an article on Wisconsin’s eugenic marriage law showed various methods for disinfecting kisses.

Illustration of germless kissing techniques.

The Macon Daily Telegraph also had similarly harsh words about love at first sight, calling it “always in error” (“Love at First Sight” 8). Eugenics, as the editorial explained it, [End Page 4] was not opposed to love, but would instead help set the “boundaries of love” by “forming new channels through which love may flow” (8). As examples of the eugenic boundaries of love, the article approvingly noted that “[p]eople do not tend to fall in love with those who are in racial respects different in contrast to themselves; they do not tend to fall in love with foreigners; they do not tend to be attracted to the ugly, the diseased, and the deformed; nor do they, as a rule, fall in love out of their own class” (“Love at First Sight” 8). The author insisted that it was important to get these eugenic ideals instilled so that people would “love in the right direction, if not at first sight” (8). For this author, eugenics functioned to reinforce existing social mores and to strengthen them with the imprimatur of science.

But for others, eugenic love was a brand new innovation for the modern age. Dr. David Allen Gorton was an 82 year-old doctor who was so enthralled with eugenics that he selected a woman to marry purely on her presumed fitness. Newspaper coverage of Gorton relied on a common Progressive Era trope of the scientist so invested in his research that he would sacrifice himself for the greater good.[9] Gorton became the father of “eugenic twins” and used his public platform to declare that Valentine’s Day would no longer be celebrated in the future. He pronounced the end of “love as we know it—the silly, unscientific love celebrated by penny romances and concoctions of lace paper and gauze ribbons.” In its place would be a “higher love, which will be born of the logical mind and not of the fluttering heart” (“No Valentine’s Day” 20). He minced no words by going even further, declaring that “romantic love leads to ill-considered unions and so is responsible for all the pauperism, for all the disease, and for all the crime that burdens the world” (20).

Illustration of Mr. and Mrs. Gorton each holding an infant.[End Page 5]

He then confidently predicted that “the breeding of children under a regime of scientific love, rather than a regime of redheart, paper lace love, will solve all our great social problems” (“No Valentine’s Day” 20). For Gorton then, eugenic love did not just reinscribe pre-existing romantic customs, but completely replaced an antiquated system that was irrational and dysgenic.

As Francis Galton had hoped, eugenics in America became like a new religion, with its own set of moral precepts and codes of conduct. Central to this movement was the development of a eugenic conscience among young people that would compel them to take into account hereditary fitness when choosing a mate. Eugenic experts who lectured at college campuses reinforced this vision of eugenics. In a collection of twelve university lectures given on eugenics from the 1910s, a consistent theme was the rationalization and control of love and romance. Harvey Ernest Jordan, in a lecture to the University of Virginia, dismissed criticisms of eugenics as “this perennial ‘human stock farm’ idea” and instead explained “[e]ugenics recognizes love of the highest and noblest quality…But it would have love intelligent” (Eugenics 111, emphasis in original). Arthur Holmes, speaking at Pennsylvania State College, stated that “[e]ugenics does not teach marriage without love, but it does suggest the Herculean task of commanding love” (Eugenics 178). Charles Davenport stressed the same point: “The general programme of the eugenist is to improve the race by inducing young people to make a more reasonable selection of marriage mates, to fall in love intelligently” (Eugenics 235).

Calls for an ordered love found strong support among women’s rights reformers, who saw in eugenics an opportunity to empower women with the power of scientific mate choice. Popular news coverage reinforced the notion that prominent women were leading the way to enact eugenic social reform. The Lexington Herald covered the founding of a new eugenics society endorsed by Washington society women, including “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Mrs. William Jennings Bryans, and Mrs. John Hays Hammond.” The new organization, called the National Society for the Promotion of Practical Eugenics, established several goals, including sex education for children and the segregation or sterilization of the unfit. Primarily, though, the founders of this organization emphasized that women should “have a voice in the selection of a mate” and that men should have not just “worldly capital alone, but biological capital” in order to be marriageable (“Eugenics Now Society Work” 2). Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton-Muncie, a sex hygiene lecturer for the New York State Department of Health, instructed young people to “love with their eyes open and their brains active” (“Won’t Banish Cupid” 4).

While presumably both men and women were expected to develop a eugenic conscience and to learn to fall in love wisely, popular eugenic literature emphasized that women, particularly college-educated women, must take the lead in this endeavor. Then, as Scott Nearing explained in Woman and Social Progress, “[a]s the demand grows, —and it is growing,—men will be compelled to meet the requirements of the college-woman standard” (113). Building on this vision of eugenics was La Reine Helen Baker, who wrote a popular treatment that had wide circulation. As she explained it, eugenics was primarily based on “the union of equality [between the sexes], two citizens joining together in love and wisdom” (97). Each of these popularizers, and several others, connected eugenics with the goals of feminism: namely, the equalizing of the marriage relation, the elimination of the sexual double standard, and, in many cases, voluntary motherhood. But none of these [End Page 6] popular writers had as much impact on shaping the eugenic vernacular as Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In 1910, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was considered one of the foremost American feminists.[10] In her magazine The Forerunner, she published Moving the Mountain, which she called a “short-distance utopia”, i.e. a novel that took place only thirty years in the future when the New Woman had taken over American society. As Gilman explained it, the world of the future where the New Woman ruled was thoroughly utopian, in large part because New Women were now empowered to institute a comprehensive system of eugenic reforms. The New Woman would revolutionize reproduction by making mating, pregnancy, birth, and child rearing scientific. The New Woman would no longer settle for a man of dubious genetic worth, but would instead claim the power of sexual selection to drive the species forward. Gilman’s work helped to solidify the belief that eugenics entailed the New Woman creating a new breed of man. The double standard of morals would be vanquished and men would be subject to a uniform eugenic standard.[11]

Thus, as it was discussed colloquially, eugenics was increasingly presented as part of a battle of the sexes discourse in the Progressive Era. Anxieties about the changing status of women became fused with fears of the presumed eugenic reforms that they would implement. Many traditionalist men and women spoke out against the sanitized trend in courtship and pleaded for a return to a more natural, or divine, order. They connected the demands of feminism with the calls for a more scientific approach to love, and accused feminists of treating men like livestock. The eugenic standard that the New Woman was expected to uphold was pilloried widely in fiction, film, and newspaper editorials.

Much of the anti-eugenic sentiment simply took the form of rejecting modern science by defending common sense and tradition from the intrusions of self-appointed Progressive Era experts. One man complained in an anonymous editorial that “[t]he professors of the new science of eugenics would have us believe that the custom of marrying for love is a mistake” (“Scientific Marriage” 3). He insisted that based on his observations, “the choice of a wife on philosophical principles is most certain to end in failure” (3). Rather than listening to so-called experts, he passionately argued that a man should trust his instincts. The poet Franklin Pierce Adams also mocked the idea that love should be ruled by scientists. In his poem “Eugenic Love Lyrics,” he satirized the decidedly unromantic vision of eugenic love with the refrain “Eugenevieve, Eugenevieve, The days may come, the days may go/But to each other we shall cleave, As long as Science tells us so” (120). The unhappy couple in the poem has a relationship built on clinical details, but no real emotions. The poem then concludes with the children of the couple rejecting the parents when they find out that they were merely the results of a breeding experiment. [End Page 7]

Illustration of a man and woman being introduced, a panel of them speaking to each other, then a panel of them coupled with other people.

An example of the resistance and mockery of eugenic experts is seen in the image above. The professors of eugenics try in vain to make a perfect match, but are thwarted by good old-fashioned love, which is haphazard and unpredictable. The man and the woman both wind up with people who are physically dissimilar to them, to humorous effect. Another frequently used trope was to pit eugenics against Cupid, or as the Morning Oregonian mused, “Is the magical touch of Dan Cupid…to run second fiddle to the betterment of the race?” (“Ascendancy of Eugenics” 8). In the popular discourse, Dan Cupid was depicted as the archenemy of eugenics, doing battle for the hearts of men and women in a cold-blooded scientific age. Still other critiques invoked the Divine in opposition to making love and marriage scientific. An anonymous editorial in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader declared that “[e]ugenics is a new name for an old folly…that men can be bred as animals are bred, by rules adopted by men.” What this vision left out, according to the author, was the divine spark that guided two people together. The author continued, “When two people love each other, God has said to them that their children are demanded…Romance may not be important to the professional mind, but the great peoples of the world are those to whom children are born as the culmination of romances” (“Eugenic Marriage” 18). And for others, ignorance was preferable to cutting edge scientific knowledge, especially when that knowledge was construed as sexual knowledge. A folk wisdom column from the Cincinnati Enquirer fumed, “They can teach eugenics in the public schools and get away with it. But the old-fashioned boy who believed in the stork until he was 16 years old always managed to make a pretty good citizen” (“Luke M’Luke Says” 6). [End Page 8]

While much of the anti-eugenic sentiment took these forms, eugenics was more commonly connected with women’s empowerment and both were critiqued together as two sides of the same coin. Much of this kind of anti-eugenics sentiment took on a sexist bent that connected eugenics to overbearing and masculinized women. An illustrated poem in the Salt Lake Evening Telegram entitled “A Eugenic Love Song” made this point with a young man enamored initially by the lovely Inez, his “fair eugenic dove” with whom he was excited to experience “cultivated, sanitated [sic], vaccinated love.” But soon the suitor realizes that Inez is too domineering and has even imprisoned a previous man who courted her. Implying that eugenic love entailed a subversion of gender roles, the suitor abandons Inez for fear that if he married her she “would be the boss” (11).

Lyrics to "A Eugenic Love Song" with cartoon images of a man and woman playing golf and a man walking away from the woman interspersed with the text.[End Page 9]

But perhaps the clearest example of the gendered nature of opposition to eugenic love and marriage is seen in The Gay Rebellion (1913), a novel written by Robert Chambers. Chambers, while most well-known for his 1895 collected volume of Gothic short stories, The King in Yellow, was one of the most popular writers of romantic fiction in the early twentieth century (Cooper 68). With a series of best-selling society novels that began with The Fighting Chance in 1906, Chambers earned a reputation for spinning stories that appealed to the modern woman, leading H. L. Mencken to dub him “The Boudoir Balzac” (Mencken 129). The Gay Rebellion is a satirical novel about a hostile feminist revolution in the United States. The feminists in the novel begin their revolution with the founding of the “New Race University and Male Beauty Preserve” (59). Hidden within the Adirondacks of New York State, the headquarters of the revolution is discovered by two male reporters, Langdon and Sayre, charged with investigating the disappearance of “four young and wealthy men who have…suddenly and completely disappeared” (12). Upon entering the forest, the two men discover messages carved on boulders saying “Votes for Women” (22).

Line drawing of two men in hiking clothes looking at a boulder with Votes for Women carved on it.[End Page 10]

After a few days without any further clues, Sayre spots a “young girl in full war paint and a perfectly fitting gown” named Amourette, who informs him that the men were captured by force, trained at the New Race University, and are now happily married to women as part of the eugenic revolution (27). Sayre scoffs with incredulity, claiming, “women don’t run men off like cattle rustlers. Man is the active agent in elopements, women the passive agent” (50). Rushing back to tell his friend Langdon, Sayre describes the New Race University as “a reservation for the—the p-p-propagation of a new and s-s-symmetrically p-p-proportioned race of g-g-god-like human beings! It’s a deliberate attempt at cold blooded scientific selection” (60). The objectives of this revolution, as explained by Sayre, illustrate the conflation of women’s empowerment with eugenic mating and improvement: “Their object is to hasten not only political enfranchisement, but the era of a physical and intellectual equality which will permit them to mate as they choose and people this republic with perfect progeny” (61-62). Sayre and Langdon forge a plan to capture one of these militant suffragettes by force, but the plan backfires and Langdon is netted and taken prisoner. His captor, Ethra, explains to him, “We women have now decided to repeople the earth scientifically. We shall pick out, from your degenerate sex, such physically perfect individuals as chance to remain; we shall regard our marriages with them as purely scientific and cold-blooded affairs” (87-88).

06-votes-women-2[End Page 11]

Langdon’s discomfort with this plan of eugenic breeding clearly stems from its subversion of men’s and women’s roles: “My position is undignified! Anybody’d think I was a prize animal. I don’t like this poultry talk! I’m a man! …And if ever I marry and p-p-produce p-p-progeny, it will be somebody I select, not somebody who selects me!” (89, emphasis in original). Langdon is assessed by the Regents and given a conditional yellow ribbon for his hereditary worth. When he protests, he is told by one of the Regents that “it is a scientific matter to be scientifically recorded—purely a matter of eugenics” (112). The Gay Rebellion revels in the subversion of gender roles to comedic effect, but the underlying fear of impending loss of masculine privilege is palpable. The novel is illustrated throughout with scenes of men being chased and attacked by women.

Drawing of women armed with parasols chasing one man across a blank page.

Close up drawing of a woman grabbing a man's coattails as he tries to get away.
[End Page 12]
A woman in a cocked hat waving a cat in an upraised hand chases a man in a uniform. The caption reads "Only one fleet-footed young girl remained at his heels."Line drawing of a man clinging to the trunk of a tall tree with a group of women gathered around the base below him reaching up.

As Chambers described it, “No young man who conformed to the standard of masculine beauty set by the eugenist suffragettes was safe any longer. Scientific marriage between perfectly healthy people was now a firmly established principle of the suffragette propaganda” (174). Tapping into broader anti-eugenic sentiments, the novel’s title page shows a devastated Cupid, with a frightened and enfeebled young man cowering behind him. [End Page 13]

Title page of The Gay Rebellion with drawing of Cupid with a hand over his face and nervous-looking man in glasses behind him.

But ultimately, Chambers ends his novel with the traditional gender order being restored when hordes of men and women who were declared unfit rebel against the new eugenic order and bring down the feminist revolution.

Chambers was not alone in expressing eugenic anxieties about the consequences of women’s newfound freedom and self-actualization. In a piercing essay entitled “The Blushful Mystery,” H. L. Mencken asked whether romance could “survive the deadly matter-of-factness which sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose?” (200). The Gay Rebellion illustrated a key facet of the eugenic vernacular in the 1910s: the concern that the New Woman would demand a better, more eugenic, man. In addition to the loss of masculine privilege in the realm of sexual selection, men would be subject to objectification and scrutinized for their health, vigor, and hereditary worth. Within this eugenic vernacular, it seemed that the balance of power in Progressive Era America was decidedly shifting to women.

Martin Pernick has noted similar themes running through early American films that discussed eugenics. In the 1914 comedy Eugenics and the Bar ‘U’ Ranch (Selig 1914), the character named Martha is the eugenics enthusiast who heads out west to find a suitable male specimen. Similarly, in the same year, in Wood B. Wedd and the Microbes (Edison [End Page 14] 1914), the protagonist Wedd is told by the woman he wants to marry that he must first pass a rigorous series of eugenic tests. The tests included various poking and prodding, culminating in a three-hour steam bath, at which point he quits wooing her. The same theme runs through Eugenics versus Love (Beauty 1914), A Case of Eugenics (Vitagraph 1915), The Eugenic Boy (Thanhouser 1914), and A Foe to Race Suicide (Kleine 1912). Based on his survey of eugenic comedies, Pernick concluded that “eugenics is depicted as something imposed by emotionless professionals and rich fanatics, often women, in conflict with the feelings and choices of working-class men” (131).

The gendered anxieties about eugenics were not entirely unwarranted. Women’s reformers advocated vehemently for eugenic marriage laws during this period, requiring a medical certification of health before issuing a marriage license. Professional eugenicists derided these laws, believing them to be not eugenic at all because the medical examinations necessary for certification only tested for venereal disease. Charles Davenport tried in vain to insist that “eugenics is to be distinguished from sex hygiene” and even went as far as to suggest that these laws could cause “many young women of good stock to fear the consequences of marriage, to refrain from it, and so to fail to perpetuate their excellent traits” (Eugenics 1). Nevertheless, women’s reformers across the country eagerly lobbied for eugenic marriage legislation and saw these laws as a central component to women’s advancement. In 1913, Jane Addams was interviewed by a Chicago newspaperman who asked her what the most important women’s issues of the day were. She replied, “I favor strict eugenic marriage laws and woman suffrage.” (“Fashions Not Degrading” 9). Charlotte Perkins Gilman even volunteered to act as a judge in a eugenic marriage contest sponsored by the Medical Review of Reviews in 1915.

Significantly, a survey of the major anti-feminism screeds of the 1910s reveals a strong anti-eugenic sentiment. Benjamin Hubbard’s 1915 tract, Socialism, Feminism, and Suffragism: The Terrible Triplets, Connected by the Same Umbilical Cord and Fed by the Same Nursing Bottle devotes special ire to the eugenic endeavors of feminism: “They [feminists] have changed the word marriage to ‘eugenic mating’ and the bearing of children to ‘breeding’” (215). Similarly, Frederick Merckx’s Bolshevism of Sex warned of “the appointment of women inspectors of eugenics, who would have power to prohibit a man from procreating children, and would have him sent to prison, and his wife on the operating table, if he transgressed their orders…One may ask what has become of the manhood of the country if the nonsensical principles of WOMEN are written into laws” (185, emphasis in original). An editorial in the Waterloo Evening Courier explained, “A feminist state may be altogether just and perfectly eugenical. But it will be a hard scientific system from which love and loyalty will be lost.” This editorial went on to threaten that men would violently resist such an imposition: “Urge feminism too far, smash the home, bring your children up like brooded stock, banish love, and such a terrible masculinism may arise as we have not seen since cave days. The brutal fact is that man is the master of the sexes” (“Feminism Again,” 4). Felix Grendon described a character in his novel as a “young woman [who] seemed a walking embodiment of Votes for Women, Eugenic Marriages, Birth Control, Equal Incomes, Free Divorce, and other monstrous fruits of the unchecked growth of female madness in a feminist epoch” (107). Making love and marriage scientific for these opponents seemed a grave threat to not only the institution of marriage, but to the entire social fabric. That anti-eugenic sentiment was so closely tied to anti-[End Page 15] feminism adds a provocative new dimension to the emerging history of the First Red Scare.[12]

Whether viewed positively or negatively, modernizing and rationalizing love was understood to be one of the central goals of eugenics in the early twentieth century United States. The close examination of so many disparate cultural ephemera provides a finer-grained picture of how eugenics was woven into the public consciousness. Seeing eugenics as a sexual science highlights the ways that everyday Americans in the Progressive Era felt pressured to adapt their own romantic and sexual choices according to eugenic dictates. For some, eugenic love was embraced because it held the promise of a scientific match, guaranteeing life-long happiness and healthy children. For others, eugenic love was yet another intrusion of Progressive Era experts and reformers into their personal lives. And for many, eugenic love was part of a broader feminist social reform agenda that threatened to undermine masculine privilege in matters of love and marriage. Examining the eugenic vernacular not only confirms the existing historiography on the ubiquity of eugenic ideas in the early twentieth century, but also uncovers fresh insights into the complex interplay between eugenics, sexuality, and gender in America.


[1] For recent examples of this, see Mark Largent (2008) and Paul Lombardo (2010).

[2] In this article, I focus mostly on the concept of eugenic love, but I expand my analysis further to include eugenic marriage and reproduction in other research that is in progress.

[3] Katherine Pandora has developed the concept of vernacular science, which exists outside the bounds of professional scientific discourse and serves as an “intellectual commons” for everyday people (2001: 492).

[4] For an analysis of these themes in British fiction, see Angelique Richardson (2003).

[5] For a fascinating history of the rational eating movement in America, see Helen Zoe Veit (2013).

[6] For more on sexual science and women’s rights in the 19th century, see Cynthia Russett (1991).

[7] Jesse Battan (2003 and 2004) details the history of American sex radicals. For more on eugenic discourse among sex radicals, see Susan Rensing (2006) and Wendy Hayden (2013).

[8] Erika Milam (2010) traces the history of scientific debates about sexual selection.

[9] Rebecca Herzig (2005) explores the connection between science and sacrifice in the United States.

[10] There is a voluminous literature on Charlotte Perkins Gilman and feminism. A good starting place is Judith A. Allen (2009).

[11] For an analysis of Gilman’s feminist eugenics, see Susan Rensing (2013).

[12] For more on anti-feminism and the First Red Scare, see Erica Ryan (2015) and Kim Nielsen (2001). [End Page 16]

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Largent, Mark. Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Print.

Leach, William. True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society. New York: Basic Books, 1980. Print.

Lombardo, Paul. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Print.

Lovett, Laura J. Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.

Mencken, H. L. Prejudices: First Series. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919. Google Book Search.Web. 7 June 2014.

Merckx, Fernand J. J. The Bolshevism of Sex: Femininity and Feminism. New York: The Higher Thought Publishing Co., 1921. Google Book Search. Web. 7 June 2014

Milam, Erika Lorraine. Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Print.

Nearing, Scott. Woman and Social Progress: A Discussion of the Biologic, Domestic, Industrial and Social Possibilities of American Women. New York: Macmillan, 1912. Google Book Search. Web. 7 June 2014.

Nielsen, Kim E. Un-American Womanhood: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism, and the First Red Scare. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2001. Print. [End Page 18]

Odem, Mary E. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

Pandora, Katherine. “Knowledge Held in Common: Tales of Luther Burbank and Science in the American Vernacular.” Isis 92.3 (September 2001): 484-516. Print.

Passet, Joanne E. Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Print.

Pearson, Karl, ed. The Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930. Volume IIIa. Print.

Peiss, Kathy. “‘Charity Girls’ and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working Class Sexuality, 1880-1920.” In Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow et al. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. 74-87. Print.

Pernick, Martin. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of Defective Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Rensing, Susan. “Feminist Eugenics in America: From Free Love to Birth Control, 1880-1930.” PhD dissertation.. University of Minnesota, 2006. Print.

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Richardson, Angelique. Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

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First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage: (Homo)Normalizing Romance on American Television
by Bridget Kies

Bryan and David sitting in a tree
K-I-S-S-I-N-G
First comes love, then comes inability to marry
Then comes a stranger and an invasive medical procedure
Then comes the baby in the baby carriage

[End Page 1]

This modified version of the children’s nursery rhyme, featured in the first episode of The New Normal (NBC, 2012-2013), epitomizes contemporary television’s depictions of gay romance: different, but the same.[1] During its short run, The New Normal was hailed as wildly subversive and predictably normative, but its declaration that two men could find happiness by marrying (albeit not legally) and having a baby (by a surrogate) is one that echoes the dominant themes for both contemporary LGBT[2] causes and traditional romance. Prior to its broadcast, The New Normal gained notoriety when the Mormon-owned Utah NBC affiliate announced it would not air the show, citing its insidious content (Skoloff). In response, NBC released the pilot online before the broadcast premiere, and the response among viewers was surprise and relief at how protagonists Bryan and David were just like regular people: “When Bryan and David show physical affection […] they look and feel natural together, like a couple should” (Busis). Through its title as much as its plot of love-marriage-baby carriage, which I will call the normative trajectory, the series both valorized traditional romantic conventions and subverted them by allowing them to be enacted through a gay couple.

Across forms of popular entertainment, narratives like Bryan and David’s are becoming more prevalent. According to the annual survey conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), LGBT characters and storylines peaked in the 2012-2013 U.S. television season (Gouttebroze). The reality of this proliferation must be reconciled with the traditional economic model for television, which relies on advertising revenue and reaching the broadest possible audience for success. For this reason, television tends to “reflect, refract, and produce dominant ideologies” (Joyrich 133), and its messages “either directly or in the guise of entertainment serve to create, confirm, and cultivate” social values (Raley and Lucas 21). The presence of LGBT stories, including gay romance, must therefore say something about American culture.

At first glance, romance and television would seem to be at odds because of the former’s dependence on narrative closure (happily ever after) and the latter’s need to sustain conflicts in order to continue broadcasting. Gay romance would especially seem out of place on mainstream television given its reliance upon mass appeal, yet gay romance flourished on television during the 2012-2013 season. As I demonstrate in this article, this was at the expense of true queerness. In this article, I examine three series that foregrounded gay romance: Glee (Fox, 2009-2015), The New Normal (NBC, 2012-2013), and Husbands (CW Seed, 2011- ). By charting how the traditional romance plot leads to the normative trajectory for the couples in these series, I argue that there can be no queer romance on television.

Homonormativity and the Romance Plot

The normative trajectory of love-marriage-baby carriage followed by gay couples on Glee, The New Normal, and Husbands fits the pattern of heterosexual romance. Although scholars debate which qualities are necessary for a work to be called a “romance,” most agree that romance emphasizes characters living “happily ever after” (HEA) or “happy for now” (HFN). Catherine Roach, for instance, argues that across various subgenres, the “core genre message” of romance is always to “find your One True Love – your one-and-only – [End Page 2] and live happily ever after” (¶1). This happiness is often, though not always, achieved through betrothal of some sort. Pamela Regis defines a romance novel as a work that “tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (19). Roach’s definition of the core genre message privileges monogamy, and Regis, studying popular romance novels, excludes men from the position of the one being courted. Even if we expand Regis’ ideas to include male heroes, these common conceptions of what formulates romance culminate in normativity: engagement, marriage, or some form of monogamous commitment leads to happiness.

In the early 1990s, after a significant number of gay men had lost their lives to AIDS, a “new strain of gay moralism” advocated monogamy and marriage as safer alternatives to the promiscuity traditionally associated with the “gay lifestyle” (Duggan 53). Rather than confrontational politics in opposition to hegemonic heterosexuality, assimilationists encouraged the upholding and sustaining of heteronormative values, but this came at the cost of a “demobilized gay constituency, and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (50). Concomitant with the rise of neoliberalism in the United States, the juggernaut of LGBT advocacy organizations, the Human Rights Campaign, was formed, and “[i]mages of angry protesters shouting, ‘We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it’ were replaced by photos of suit-clad gay leaders…hobnobbing with the likes of Ted Kennedy” (Becker 43).[3] Because neoliberalism extends beyond the free market to “every sector of culture” (Ferguson and Hong 1057) and is “deeply implicated in shaping, taming, and domesticating sexualities and genders” (Elia and Yep 879), homonormativity was a logical end result: greater visibility of gay and lesbian couples whose lives look like those of their straight counterparts.

Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have historically championed a number of causes, but none so fervently as same-sex marriage. Polls in August 2010 indicated that acceptance for same-sex marriage had reached a majority of Americans (Gelman et al), and this was shortly followed by several crucial legal and judicial milestones. First, the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage on a national level as between one man and one woman. In particular, during the 2012-2013 television season, same-sex marriage was a topic impossible to avoid on television, as candidates for election to all levels of the American government espoused their views and as same-sex marriage appeared in various fictional and nonfiction television shows featuring gay couples. Most significantly, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. As that television season ended, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that paved the way for certain national benefits to same-sex couples (and culminated in national legal same-sex marriage as of June 26, 2015). Thus, while same-sex marriage had been foregrounded among LGBT rights causes for nearly twenty years, it reached a particular apotheosis in 2012-2013.

Alongside the development of homonormativity as a preferred political position in the LGBT rights movement, queer theory became increasingly popular in academia. The term “queer” in popular usage often serves as a catch-all for LGBT as well as other identities and sexualities, but its academic and political meaning is usually in counterpoint to the binaries of heterosexual/homosexual and gay/straight, and in counterpoint to homonormativity. Michael Warner, for instance, argues that “normal” marriage, even [End Page 3] among same-sex couples, stigmatizes other lifestyles and identities, like those who wish to engage in open relationships, polyamorous groups, and asexual people (81-148). In response to homonormativity’s privileging of parenthood, Lee Edelman argues that adults are constantly subordinating their desires for children, and that this subordination is laden with homophobia (for instance, the claim that laws against gays and lesbians “protect our children”). For Edelman, same-sex marriage and parenthood thus participate in an internalized homophobia; queerness is therefore a desire against propagation and futurity (33-66). These two examples demonstrate the extent to which queer theory is “committed to challenging and troubling ideological norms” (Joyrich 133). In other words, it is easier to understand what “queer” is not or is anti-, rather than what “queer” is. As Eve Sedgwick explains, “queer” can refer to the “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Tendencies 8, emphasis original). Later, Sedgwick concedes that “queer” also refers more simply to same-sex sexual desire, before she determines that “queer” is best used to signify identities, including race and ethnicity, intersecting with sexual desire and gender performance (8-9). While these example definitions and applications of “queer” vary, they all remark upon what queerness stands in opposition to: hegemonic identities, including whiteness, maleness, and normativity. If the most important aspect of the romance plot is its culmination in marriage, and the most important aspect of queerness is its opposition to the normative trajectory, queerness and romance are irreconcilable concepts.

Queer Television: Broadcast’s Gay Eunuchs and Cable’s Sex Gods

“Queer television studies” has its own set of varied meanings, given television’s (and television studies’) emphasis on the mainstream and queer theory’s position as anti-normative, or the “tension between the articulation of the mainstream and the unsettling of the mainstream” (Joyrich 133). Television’s articulation of the everyday in both content and its constant presence in the home is the normativity that queerness stands in opposition to (Aaron 69). Television’s broadcast schedule, for example, reinforces normative values of family and home. Although many of us now stream series online or record them with a digital video recorder (DVR), television networks still presuppose heteronormativity through the “temporal coordination of the nuclear family” by broadcasting around the “life timetables of children and child rearing activities….and eventually [having] the family united every evening in front of the box during prime time’s evening hours” (Needham 145). Television’s reliance upon the succession of episodes to create a season and seasons to create a series and its tendency toward copycat series and spinoffs to capitalize on the popular are examples of television’s own investment in reproduction (Joyrich 136). Content within particular series, however, may challenge hegemonic normativity by allowing for a subtextual reading of certain characters as queer (Doty 2). By the 2012-2013 season, plenty of characters on broadcast television were openly gay or lesbian, though few would identify as queer, and a reading of the television series and storylines featuring these characters reiterates the normative. [End Page 4]

In one night of television watching during the 2012-2013 season, the average American could watch national or local news coverage of pending LGBT rights legislation, an episode of Modern Family (ABC, 2009- ) with gay parents Mitch and Cameron, an episode of any series on HGTV in which a gay couple achieved their HEA through the purchase of a new home, and an episode of Glee in which young, newly out teenagers celebrated their diversity. Across broadcast and cable, fictional and nonfictional television, gay couples fell in love and set up house like any other romantic couple.

Gay and lesbian characters have arguably always existed in popular culture, but the recognition of them was only possible through an understanding of gay semiotics. Part of the difficulty in ascertaining and asserting sexual identity is that it is not a visible identity but one shaped through emotions and behaviors. As Sedgwick explains, race, gender, age, size, and physical abilities are identities that are “visible in all but exceptional cases,” while sexual identity requires one to publicly assert his or her marginality (Epistemology 75). Absent a public declaration, others may read into clues in speech, behavior, and attitudes; for instance, Sedgwick describes how readers might decode particular adjectives and phrases in nineteenth century literature to understand a character’s homosexuality (94-97). Many of the semiotics that identified particular characters as gay men and lesbians to audiences were portrayals as “funny clowns, flaming queens, fairies, fags and flits” (Raley and Lucas 24). Looking through television history, we may read a particular character as gay based on the flamboyancy of his fashion, mannerisms, and interactions with the opposite sex. Felix Unger of The Odd Couple (ABC, 1970-1975) exhibits many of the characteristics traditionally associated with gay men: he is tidy, dresses well, likes to cook and clean, and is far more invested in his relationship with his roommate Oscar than any romantic relationship with a woman. While The Odd Couple flirted with the “bromance” between Felix and Oscar, the series never explicitly declared Felix’s homosexuality; it is only by decoding particular cultural signs with the series that one can assume Felix might be gay. Queer readings of characters have historically been possible, but these characters were not allowed to participate in the traditional romance plot or normative trajectory.

In recent decades, gay and lesbian characters in film and television have openly identified as such but were typically relegated to the role of humorous sidekick or sexless character on a failed quest for love. The rise of gay characters on television in the 1990s reflected broadcast networks’ attempt to compete with the growing cable market for hip, young, affluent viewers (Becker 80-107). The titular character of the sitcom Will and Grace (NBC, 1998-2006) was a gay man whose unending quest to find the love of his life left him in an ersatz marriage with his heterosexual female roommate and best friend Grace. During the few times that Will Truman was romantically involved with men, sexual activity – even kissing – was rarely depicted, in contrast to the more explicit depictions of Grace’s heterosexual couplings. The success of Will and Grace may be attributed to many factors, including stellar writing and acting and a competitive time slot, but one important reason for the show’s success was due to the lack of gay romance it depicted. By relegating Will to the role of funny gay eunuch, he became non-threatening and easier to have in one’s living room once a week.

Concurrently, the premium cable channel Showtime aired Queer as Folk (2000-2005), a one-hour drama about a circle of gay and lesbian friends loosely modelled on a UK series of the same name. Because premium cable channels like Showtime work on a subscription model and do not rely upon cautious advertisers to fund their programming, [End Page 5] the series they offer tend to titillate and push cultural boundaries more than series on broadcast television or basic cable. Queer as Folk challenged the “gay eunuch” trope through its constant depictions of sex between men. In 2004, the network debuted The L Word, a similar series featuring a group of lesbian friends. With fewer restrictions on sexual content in its programming than broadcast networks, Showtime counted on gay and lesbian subscribers to tune into these two series for graphic depictions of sex.

In spite of all the sex, the normative trajectory is something most of the characters in these two series strive for. Both series featured storylines about going to Canada to get legally married, and at least one couple on each series has a child. Infidelity and promiscuity were plotlines used to sustain drama and conflict, but the treatment of infidelity in these story arcs was unsympathetic. Brian of Queer as Folk and Shane of The L Word are the lone figures in their social circles who favor anonymous sexual encounters and disavow marriage and monogamy, yet their character arcs assert the value of normativity. When Shane leaves her fiancée Carmen at the altar, her life spins out of control. Shane drinks, takes drugs, gets into a car accident, and only cleans up when her little brother is thrust into her care, thus forcing Shane to follow the normative trajectory she had arduously avoided. Although at first skeptical of her role as caregiver, Shane soon thrives as big sister/guardian, and, in the seasons that follow, has much less indiscriminate sex and more success with long-term relationships.

Queer as Folk’s Brian is “someone who has completely liberated himself from the repressive conventions of heterosexuality,” the “ultimate gay hero” (Robinson 154), but he is also narcissistic, relentlessly chastised by his friends and family for not “growing up” and “settling down.” Brian undertakes a five-season, on-again, off-again romance with Justin, a man more than ten years his junior, and during most of their relationship, the two agree that they are free to engage in extrarelational sex. Rodger Streitmatter argues that this is one of the “most intriguing sexual plotlines” of the series: “how two men who aren’t monogamous can, nevertheless, have an emotionally committed relationship” (129). By the series’ final season, Justin has grown tired of their clubbing, drug-using, sexually indiscriminate lives, and in order not to lose him completely, Brian reluctantly proposes marriage. Like Shane and Carmen, Brian and Justin do not make it to the altar; they recognize that marriage will limit their freedom and mutually call off the wedding. In the final moment of the series, Brian dances alone at their favorite nightclub after Justin has moved away. This conclusion to their romance is the antithesis to Regis’ notion that romance culminates in marriage or betrothal, and may be read as queering of the traditional romance plot: the ultimate act of love is not marrying your beloved, but letting him go.

This reading of the conclusion to Brian and Justin’s story, however, is at odds with the series’ repeated emphasis on “settling down” and the increasing number of challenges to Brian’s queer perspective (Demory 75). Brian’s body suffers the consequences of his active sex life. He develops testicular cancer, which is not a direct result of sex but which threatens his performance and his physique. Later, he catches syphilis as a direct result of an unprotected oral sex act. As Brian and his friends grow older, their lives move on while Brian clings to the life of clubbing, recreational drug use, and casual sex. His solitude as he dances in the final moment of the series may be true to his independent spirit, but it is also coded as sad and possibly pathetic.[4] [End Page 6]

Rather than offering a genuine alternative to homonormativity, Shane and Brian serve as cautionary tales that reiterate the value of marriage, monogamy, and parenthood. Although the other characters in Queer as Folk and The L Word may not always succeed at maintaining their relationships or staying faithful to their partners, the normative trajectory is lauded by them, and, by extension, the series as a whole. Although Showtime’s status as a premium cable channel enabled more vivid depictions of gay and lesbian sex, Queer as Folk and The L Word persisted in privileging the sequence of love, marriage, and baby carriage.

Popping the Question on Primetime

These earlier examples of gay eunuchs and gay sex gods striving to follow the normative trajectory on broadcast and cable respectively are echoed in the 2012-2013 primetime broadcast series that foregrounded gay romance. The 2012-2013 season was especially significant in the development of LGBT representations on television not only because of the swell in representations charted by GLAAD, but because for the first time the number of LGBT characters on screen was roughly equivalent to the number of Americans who identified as LGBT, around four percent (Gouttebroze; Gates and Newport). Additionally, the storylines for characters on Glee, The New Normal, and the web series Husbands mirrored stories on the evening news of gay couples marrying and becoming parents, elements typically present in fictional romance. In particular, the marriage proposal serves as the key trope that marks the narrative of these series as romance.

As the central gay couple on Glee, Kurt and Blaine have also flirted with proposals of their own. A deleted scene from the 2011-2012 season features Blaine giving Kurt a promise ring and pledging his love. As soon as Kurt sees the jewelry box, he interrupts Blaine’s speech to declare: “If that’s an engagement ring, my answer is yes!” This scene, dubbed “box scene” by fans, was uploaded to YouTube later in 2012 after fans read the episode script, realized the scene had been cut, and pestered Fox and series creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy to see it. It reached its peak in fan discussions and YouTube hits at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, which would see plenty of stories about the tortuous evolution of Kurt and Blaine’s relationship.

In the fourth season of Glee, broadcast in 2012-2013, Kurt moves to New York to pursue his dreams, a move encouraged by Blaine. Once Kurt is gone, however, the two break up and date others. When they are finally reconciled, Blaine becomes determined to propose to Kurt and is aided by two older lesbians who discuss with him the increasing acceptance for same-sex couples – or, to use Regis’ terms, the barrier between the couple and its subsequent fall in order to achieve romantic narrative closure in betrothal. In the first episode of the fifth season, which was written and shot only a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s decisions in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, Blaine formally proposes to Kurt.[5] In the series finale, set five years in the future, Kurt and Blaine are married, and – like Bryan and David of The New Normal – are expecting a child via surrogate mother.

As evidenced by its title, The New Normal lauds the normative trajectory. Bryan and David are introduced as quasi-married: they have been in a committed relationship for [End Page 7] years, and they own a home and dog together. In the pilot, they decide the next step is having a baby via a surrogate. As if Bryan and David were not normative enough, they quickly become engaged. Bryan, who watches the bridal gown shopping television series Say Yes to the Dress (TLC, 2007-), dreams of having an elaborate wedding, but David believes the ceremony is meaningless if it is not attached to the same legal rights as heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, he gives in and proposes. The proposal takes place at an OB/GYN office, with their surrogate Goldie in the examination chair and a sonogram of their unborn baby in the background. David kneels before Bryan and puts a candy Ring Pop on Bryan’s finger. Bryan says the magic “yes,” then David rises, they kiss, and the camera quickly pans to the sonogram. While traditional heterosexual proposals do not involve a surrogate or a sonogram, these additional elements only serve to reinforce the extent to which Bryan and David embody homonormativity as they embark upon parenthood. That the proposal occurred after the couple decided to have a baby together but prior to the baby’s arrival serves an implicit reinforcement of the notion that having a baby out of wedlock is immoral. This notion is visually manifested in the camera panning away from the potentially controversial image of two men kissing and toward the sonogram, as if to ask the audience if it really wants the baby to grow up in a household with unmarried parents.[6] Bryan echoes the sentiment that having children out of wedlock is immoral in a later episode. While this is an argument for same-sex marriage, it is also a conservative one.

Both Glee and The New Normal were the brainchild of creator and director Ryan Murphy, an openly gay Hollywood executive, and as such, their particular view into gay romance could be chalked up to Murphy’s own worldview. The characters Bryan and Kurt are both loose fictional versions of Murphy; Bryan, for instance, is a television producer who works on a musical series called Sing, clearly a fictional version of Glee. However, the emphasis on the normative trajectory in gay romance is not unique to these series and is reflective of larger social and cultural values. The tremendously popular Modern Family also depicts a gay couple who are parents in what Steven Edward Doran calls a “homodomestic” relationship (95-104). Perhaps most revealingly, the web series Husbands, which was first released online for free viewing, depicted a homonormative (homodomestic) couple. Its status as independent media meant it did not rely upon advertising revenue and mass appeal in order to succeed, and could, in theory, depict genuine queerness.

Like The New Normal, the web series Husbands begins with its couple, Brady and Cheeks, already betrothed. The premise of the series is that Brady and Cheeks, after only a few weeks of dating, got married in Las Vegas while drunkenly celebrating (fictional at the time) nationwide marriage equality. Because they are a famous professional baseball player and reality TV star, Brady and Cheeks are pressured by LGBT advocacy organizations to set a good example for same-sex marriage. From this beginning, the series follows the couple learning to cohabitate and serve as role models for the marriage equality cause, and, finally, having an elegant wedding to make up for the one they were too drunk to remember.

Part of the charm and noteworthiness of Husbands is its awareness of its place in the history of sitcoms and LGBT media.[7] Its narrative reinterprets newlywed sitcoms for a gay couple. Plots involve the flamboyant and comedic Cheeks causing scandals while straight-acting Brady is left to wag his finger, as Ricky Ricardo might have on I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957). In the second season, which was released in the fall of 2012, Cheeks [End Page 8] tweets a photo of himself and Brady kissing, and within minutes conservative religious organizations protest what they perceive as the couple’s flaunting of sex and sexuality. While Brady and Cheeks debate whether they have indeed done anything controversial, television screens throughout their home display some of the images of heterosexual sex that inundate television with little complaint from conservative groups. Brady and Cheeks grant an interview that explains how “normal” their lives are, and during the interview they revisit their courtship, thus allowing the audience to enjoy a romance in reverse.

This media-frenzy storyline calls attention to the pushback series like Glee and The New Normal have received for their portrayals of gay sexual intimacy, even when they are tame in comparison to scenes of heterosexual couplings – pushback that results in Modern Family’s Mitch and Cameron rarely showing physical affection. Husbands depicts Brady and Cheeks as a couple with a healthy sexual appetite; however, their sexuality is always expressed within the confines of marriage, and only kissing and lying in bed together are seen on screen. The final episode of the series shows Brady and Cheeks remarrying to reiterate that their sexuality is restricted to marriage. Although this episode was not intended to be the conclusion of the series, no additional episodes have been produced, and the wedding-as-finale neatly concludes the romance narrative.

In her study of proposals in heterosexual romance novels, Laura Vivanco finds that engagement rings typically get more attention than wedding bands, a phenomenon she attributes in part to the more elaborate design of engagement rings. The private nature of the proposal, as opposed to the public ring exchange at a wedding, makes the engagement ring more meaningful (100). Though the Ring Pop in The New Normal references a joke from earlier in the episode, its uniqueness as an engagement ring for Bryan fits this pattern. Likewise, the promise ring Blaine gives Kurt is made from the wrappers of his favorite brand of gum, folded into a bow tie to reflect his love of fashion. Just as the cut, size, and setting of the engagement ring diamond should be reflective of a woman’s unique personality, these unusual rings demand attention – perfect for the flamboyant Bryan and Kurt. The offering of each ring emulates heterosexual proposal scenes: man on bended knee, ring offered to the woman (here, the more effeminate partner), and a kiss to seal the deal.

“Gaycism” and Exclusion

Series like Glee and The New Normal present gay couples to a wide audience, but do so by making the couples as normative and nonthreatening as possible. Gay couples on these series look and behave like many of their straight counterparts on other television series. Bryan and David, Kurt and Blaine, Mitch and Cameron, and Brady and Cheeks are all white and middle- to upper-class. One partner is more masculine and one more effeminate, so that the pair further mirrors the traditional gender roles within a heterosexual couple. The couples’ desire to remain monogamous, marry (legally or symbolically), and have children reinforces their normativity. Through their romantic storylines, these gay characters seem like “regular people” and act “like a couple should.”

These depictions of homonormativity, while opening romance up to gay couples, do not represent the full range of experiences within the LGBT community. Despite increasing [End Page 9] numbers of LGBT characters, television scholar Kelly Kessler complains that “much of television remains relatively static and predictable” (140). This predictability is indicative of the same-but-different quality found in all romance. The success of romance, according to An Goris, lies in its ability to grant “both comfort and surprise,” to appear “both familiar and new” (76). Likewise, broadcast television relies upon familiar tropes and conventions enacted through new characters. Stories of gay romance embody the same-but-different, familiar-but-new quality so necessary for success in both romance and television.

The corollary to that familiar, satisfying feeling is that there is a lack of romance for those who identify as queer, trans, or bisexual on television. Even lesbians are “more deeply coded by invisibility” than gay men (Walters 161). This can partly be attributed today to economics; gay men tend to have more disposable income than lesbians and so make a more attractive target audience for which television series are crafted (Streitmatter 147).[8] While white lesbians have not been as visible on television as white gay men, they have certainly been seen more frequently than racial minorities of any non-heterosexual identity and more than those who identify as queer or trans. A lesbian in a committed relationship is more easily likened to a white heterosexual than a queer person of color. Although recent series on alternative platforms, notably Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 2013- ) and Transparent (Amazon, 2014- ), feature trans characters, the stories about these characters are about acceptance for their identities and the transition process, not love and romance. While “social tolerance and legal equality have improved the lives of many…the privilege of white, middle-class lesbians and gay men appears to have become entrenched” (Brown 1065). Homonormative white gay men can achieve more power and visibility while other racial and sexual identities have been pushed farther into the margins of popular culture.

Since “neoliberalism does not appreciate fluidity, hybridity, or any other shades of grey” (Kimmel and Llewellyn 1087), then it follows that television today would have little appreciation for anything other than homonormativity. Additionally, by featuring gay characters on their series, some television executives may consider inclusivity a fait accompli. The vernacular term “gaycist” has been used by television critics in reference to series like Glee and The New Normal, not because of their unfair treatment of gay characters (as the rhyming term “racist” suggests) but because investment in gay characters enables television producers “carte blanche to cut PC corners elsewhere” (Bans). For instance, Bryan and David of The New Normal seek their HEA through the use of a lower-class woman’s body, yet the series does little to examine the economic inequalities that lead Goldie to agree to serve as their surrogate. In a flashback to his single life, Bryan is horrified to learn he is on a date with an intersex person; his love for David is “normal” by comparison. Read through a politically queer lens, gay romance “appropriates an ongoing U.S. narrative around the pursuit of equality, freedom, and liberation as cover for the same old American traditions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and general social inequality” (Henry). In a “gaycist” (or homonormative) television landscape, depictions of queerness are more obscure, neatly disregarded by gay men in order to better align themselves with the hegemony. In other words, those intersectional and multivalent identities so important to Sedgwick’s understanding of queerness are largely absent on television featuring gay romance.

Gay romance narratives are “both resistant and recuperative,” sites for working out “contesting ideologies circulating” throughout our culture (Therrien 165). The progress [End Page 10] made by opening romance up to gay couples on the one hand coincides with the subsuming of alternative sexualities and identities into the normative trajectory on the other. The prevalence of homonormativity on television is a double-edged sword. Gay romance depicts stable, loving relationships, but its emphasis on HEA and betrothal reinforces the idea that the ultimate life goals are monogamous marriage and procreation. Gay romance on television may be new and reflect social progress, but as the examples I have used here demonstrate, gay romance is often not queer.


[1] I am grateful for the feedback previous versions of this essay received from Tasha Oren, Stuart Moulthrop, Gilberto Blasini, and the anonymous peer reviewers. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at conferences for the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and the Fan Studies Network.

[2] I use the acronym LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) deliberately. My elimination of additional letters, such as I (intersex), Q (queer or questioning), or A (asexual) is not intended to neglect those groups, but rather to demonstrate how certain facets of culture and politics exclude them. Likewise, I use the terms “gay” and “lesbian” only to reference homosexual men and women respectively, not as catch-all terms for the larger LGBT+ community.

[3] The Human Rights Campaign was recently exposed for its own neoliberal practices: namely, that women and people of color have been systematically excluded from raises and promotions. See Brydum, Sunnivie, “Pride at Work Tells HRC: ‘Enough Is Enough,’” The Advocate, 30 Aug. 2015. Web.

[4] The club at which Brian is dancing and which he owns has been bombed by anti-gay activists. The scene begins with Brian dancing among the wreckage and cuts to a vision of the club restored and full of men. It is possible to read this as a moment in the future, after the club has been renovated and reopened, or as a fantasy that Brian clings to as his friends and even his business have moved on.

[5] Production on the fifth season was delayed due to the death of actor Cory Monteith, but this had little effect on the gay romance storyline between Kurt and Blaine that I discuss here.

[6] Bryan and David are certainly more physically affectionate than previous gay couples on broadcast primetime television, but their expressions of love are still far fewer than those exhibited by heterosexual couples. Their kissing is limited to light touches of lips, and cuts to commercial breaks and pans to other images are often used when the two are being playful or affectionate in bed.

[7] Importantly, both Brady and Cheeks are played by openly gay actors, Sean Hemeon and Brad Bell (also creator and executive producer for the series). On other series with gay romance, at least one of the actors playing a gay character identifies as straight.

[8] This is, of course, a reiteration of the wage gap disparity between all men and women in the U.S. [End Page 11]

Works Cited

Aaron, Michele. “Towards Queer Television Theory: Bigger Pictures Sans the Sweet Queer-After.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Eds. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham. New York: Routledge, 2009. 63-75. Print.

Bans, Lauren. “Your New TV Term of the Month: ‘Gaycism.’” GQ. 4 September 2012. Web. 1 December 2012.

Becker, Ron. Gay TV and Straight America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

Brown, Gavin, “Homonormativity: A Metropolitan Concept that Denigrates ‘Ordinary’ Gay Lives.” Journal of Homosexuality 59.7 (2012): 1065-1072. Print.

Busis, Hillary. “The New Normal Sneak Peek: Five Takeaways.” PopWatch. 29 August 2012. Entertainment Weekly. Web. 1 December 2012.

Demory, Pamela. “True Love Queered: Sex, Melodrama, and Romance in Queer as Folk.” Queer Love in Film and Television. Eds. Pamela Demory and Christopher Pullen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 69-82. Print.

Doran, Steven Edward. “Housebroken: Homodomesticity and the Normalization of Queerness in Modern Family.” Queer Love in Film and Television. Eds. Pamela Demory and Christopher Pullen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 95-104. Print.

Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.

Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack On Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. Print.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Elia, John P. and Gust A. Yep. “Sexualities and Genders in an Age of Neoterrorism.” Journal of Homosexuality 59.7 (2012): 879-889. Print.

Ferguson, Roderick A. and Grace Kyungwon Hong, “The Sexual and Racial Contradictions in Neoliberalism.” Journal of Homosexuality 59.7 (2012): 1057-1064. Print.

Gates, Gary J. and Frank Newport. “Special Report: 3.4% of U.S. Adults Identify as LGBT.” Gallup. 18 October 2012. Web. 1 December 1, 2012. http://www.gallup.com/poll/158066/special-report-adults-identify-lgbt.aspx

Gelman, Andrew, Jeffrey Lax, and Justin Phillips. “Over Time, a Gay Marriage Groundswell.” New York Times. 22 August 2010. WK3. Print.

Goris, An. “Loving by the Book: Voice and Romance Authorship.” New Approaches to Popular Romance. Eds. Eric Murphy Sellinger and Sarah S.G. Frantz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 73-83. Print.

Gouttebroze, Max. “GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV Report: Highest Percentage Ever of LGBT TV Characters on Broadcast TV.” GLAAD. 5 October 2012. Web. 1 December 2012.

Henry, Jon. “A New Filth.” Gay RVA. 18 September 2012. Web. 1 November 2012. http://www.gayrva.com/arts-culture/a-new-filth/

Joyrich, Lynne. “Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)streams.” Cinema Journal 53.2 (2014): 133-139. Print.

Kessler, Kelly. “They Should Suffer Like the Rest of Us: Queer Equality in Narrative Mediocrity.” Cinema Journal 50.2 (2011): 139-144. Print.

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Kimmel, Michael S. and Cheryl Llewellyn, “Homosexuality, Gender Noncomformity, and the Neoliberal State.” Journal of Homosexuality 59.7 (2012): 1087-1094. Print.

Needham, Gary. “Scheduling Normativity.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Eds. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham. New York: Routledge, 2009. 143-158. Print.

Raley, Amber B. and Jennifer L. Lucas, “Stereotype or Success? Prime-Time Television’s Portrayals of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Characters,” Journal of Homosexuality 51.2 (2006): 19-38. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Print.

Roach, Catherine. “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010). Print.

Robinson, Paul. Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and Its Critics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

Skoloff, Brian. “The New Normal Banned by Utah TV Station.” Huffington Post. 27 August 2012. Web. 1 November 2012.

Streitmatter, Rodger. From Perverts to Fab Five. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Therrien, Kathleen. “Straight to the Edges: Gay and Lesbian Characters and Cultural Conflict in Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. Eds. Eric Murphy Sellinger and Sarah S.G. Frantz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 164-177. Print.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. All the Rage: the Story of Gay Visibility in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Vivanco, Laura. “One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. Eds. Eric Murphy Sellinger and Sarah S.G. Frantz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 99-107. Print.

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Piratical Pleasures: Female Dominance and Children’s Literature as Romance in ABC’s Once Upon a Time
by Sunnie Rothenburger

In an early episode of ABC’s Once Upon a Time,[2] Snow White, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood walk into a bar. Red is on the make, Cinderella is annoyed because her boyfriend has to work the late shift on Valentine’s Day, and Snow is angst-ridden over her ongoing affair with a married Prince Charming and her one-night stand with Dr. Frankenstein.

As actor Robert Carlyle observes in his commentary on the scene, it seems like the set-up for a joke. However, it also demonstrates how the series places well-known fictional characters in a non-fictional world and thus deliberately intersects the perils and pleasures of adult eroticism with the idealized happy endings of tales for children. These contrasts [End Page 1] perhaps come across most clearly through the experiences of the protagonist, Emma Swan, the child of Snow White and Prince Charming. Early in the series, Emma must defeat the Evil Queen, who has cursed the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest—the realm where fairy tale characters live—and trapped them in a small town in Maine, where for twenty-eight years they had no memory of their true identities and did not age. Emma, sent through a portal to our world as an infant, only learns of her true parentage when she is an adult. Towards the end of the first season, she fulfills her role as “the saviour” and breaks the curse. She must then learn both to be a daughter to the parents who gave her up and are in fact now her own age, and a mother to the son, Henry, that she gave up for adoption. Just as Emma is sorting through some of these conflicts, she meets Captain Hook, a version of J.M. Barrie’s pirate that exchanges the latter’s “blackavised” countenance and Charles II style for heavy eye liner and a calf-length leather jacket. He is a man who invokes both Emma’s lust and her need for physical and emotional control. As Emma struggles with the difficulties of past and present, Once Upon a Time moves between fantastic and realistic worlds, using well-known narratives for and about children to innovate within the conventions of the adult popular romance. In doing so, the show presents a queering of female heterosexuality, in that Emma’s narrative not only troubles the traditional timeline of love, marriage, and reproduction, but her desire for Hook also involves an unusual amount of aggression and even violence at times.

The show participates in the tradition of television serial drama, and this affects its position on romance, as I will touch on later, but my main interest in this article is the series’ provocative combination of literary genres. The pairing of children’s fiction and popular romance in OUaT makes sense in some ways, given that these two genres have shared origins: both are connected to early versions of fairy tales and to medieval romances. Indeed, the fairy tale, still often positioned as a genre for children, frequently ends with the heterosexual union of adults—the “happily ever after.” The fantasy sub-genre of the popular romance frequently involves the discovery of the supernatural, either in this world or by travel to another realm, which is a common motif in children’s literature. Accordingly, much of Emma’s story arc in Once Upon a Time focuses on her skepticism about both magic and love. In the pilot, Prince Charming’s highly romantic waking of Snow White in the Enchanted Forest contrasts with viewers’ introduction to Emma in Boston: she’s a bail bondsperson under cover trying to catch a perpetrator who ran out on his wife. Thus, from the beginning, Once Upon a Time offers an acknowledgement of the differences that can yawn between the narratives one might have been told as a child about love and marriage and the actual experience of many adults. This is no doubt a strategic move on the part of the show’s creators and writers. Sarah Frantz and Eric Selinger suggest in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction that one of the pleasures of this genre can be its inclusion of cynicism alongside its depictions of love (1). Similarly, Once Upon a Time eventually explores the possibility of romance in this world for Emma, albeit a rather complicated version.

As I will show, the series presents Emma’s chances at love and the nature of her desire as profoundly influenced by her own childhood and how she characterizes and constructs it, a focus on the past that is enabled by the series’ key genres. Once Upon a Time seems to draw, at least indirectly, upon a history of interpretation that examines both children’s fiction and the romance through psychoanalysis, a methodology that emphasizes the formative experiences of childhood in relation to desire. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses [End Page 2] of Enchantment, argues for the fairy tale as fundamental to the child’s working through of psychological conflicts. Jacqueline Rose both reviews and revises the relationship between children’s literature and psychoanalysis in The Case of Peter Pan, describing children’s fiction as an anxious attempt on the part of adults to obfuscate the unstable nature of sexuality, identity, and language. In many narratives for children, Rose argues, childhood signifies a finite process, “at the end of which stands the cohered and rational consciousness of the adult mind” (13). Rose and Bettelheim are two of the giants in the field, but their work, and other interactions between psychoanalysis and children’s literature, have, of course, been developed and explored by many, as in recent works by Karen Coats and Kenneth Kidd, and in the 2010 issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly devoted to Rose’s text.

Psychoanalysis has also frequently served as the framework for studies of romance. In Loving with a Vengeance, Tania Modleski notes that romances have often been read through a Freudian lens as staging the heroine’s maturation, although Modleski revises such readings to include the heroine’s (and the reader’s) desire for vengeance against men’s cruelty (36-39). Jessica Benjamin argues that the heroes of popular romances embody the ideal mother as well as the father in providing both nurturing and excitement (Bonds 120), and Janice Radway posits that “the heroine’s often expressed desire to be the hero’s formally recognized wife in fact camouflages an equally insistent wish to be his child” (Reading 145). Once Upon a Time, arising out of two genres whose readings have been so frequently enmeshed with psychoanalysis, stresses the importance of children’s relationships to adults, including to the adults that they will become and the desires they will possess. The “once upon a time” of the series’ title refers to narratives about children as well as narratives for them; that is, to childhood itself as a narrative created after one’s “maturation,” however this might be defined.

If the romantic heroine is a child, though, (at least before the story’s end), might she be a queer child? In Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley point out that in cultural narratives about the child, there is a simultaneous repression of sexuality to preserve childhood innocence and an assumption that heterosexuality is childhood’s desired end (ix). Bruhm and Hurley add, though, that because children are figured as still learning, they are sometimes allowed to express with impunity desires that adults might deem “queer” in the broadest sense of the term (xiv; xviii-xix). Similarly, Gabrielle Owen draws on Rose’s theories that the child is “impossible” in order to draw connections between the categories of “child” and “queer”. Both, Owen argues, are in excess of perceived boundaries of gender and desire, outside “the normative sequence of heterosexual romance, marriage, and reproduction” (259). One might make a similar argument about heroines of romances: on their way to love, they frequently engage in non-normative behaviours—cross-dressing, for example, is a common motif.[3] More broadly, Modleski sees in the heroine’s anger at the hero “as much a protest as an endorsement of the feminine condition” (49). Indeed, many critics have argued for the genre’s feminist potential.[4]

If popular romances already contain at least the potential to queer aspects of heterosexuality, even while they might in the end reinforce heterosexuality itself, Once Upon a Time demonstrates how combining children’s literature with aspects of popular romance might push this queering even further. The series, unfortunately, has provided little direct exploration of homoerotic desire—its storyline of Mulan’s love for Aurora is cut [End Page 3] off almost as soon as it is begun. However, I read other aspects of the series as exemplifying wider definitions of “queer” as counter to conservative norms of sexuality. Calvin Thomas, in Straight with a Twist, draws on Judith Butler to suggest that, if heteronormativity depends upon its own reiterated ideals and its constant disavowal of what it deems queer, then “radical heterosexuality or self-conscious straightness” could work to point out the contingency of such constructions and challenge them (31). In Catherine A.F. McGillivray’s conversation with Thomas in the same anthology, she suggests that if “the quintessential heterosexual act is coitus for the sake of procreation,” then “anything that is not that would be a queering of heterosexual practice” (270). Alexander Doty uses a similarly broad definition in Making Things Perfectly Queer, asserting that “queerness should challenge and confuse our understanding and uses of sexual and gender categories” (xvii). Indeed, as Doty points out, categories of gay or straight no longer function when the object of desire embodies an unclassifiable gender (xvi). It is through such perspectives that I locate the queer in Once Upon a Time, because the dynamic between Emma and Hook and its aspects of sexual sadism, as well as each character’s own unconventional expressions of gender throughout the series, move some way towards queering traditional sexualities and identities.

As I have suggested, this queering arises in part from the series’ representations of childhood. If children are expected and impelled by many adults to grow up into reproductive heterosexuality, as Katherine Bond Stockton suggests (13), then Emma’s narrative skews this timeline, and opens up space for Emma’s “sideways growth,” to employ Stockton’s term “to refer to something related but not reducible to the death drive; something that locates energy, pleasure, vitality, and (e)motion in the back-and-forth of connections and extensions that are not reproductive” (13). While a major focus for Stockton is “the proto-gay child,” her notion of sideways growth is nevertheless useful for considering Emma’s narrative. Emma is not just concerned with the past, but still in it, positioned as childlike by some definitions. The show’s structure moves back and forth, out of order, between Emma’s infancy, adulthood, and teenagehood; it thus underscores the present effects of past events and the way that the past is constructed in the present. As Rose insists, despite adult attempts to cordon it off as a separate time, “childhood persists” (12). The particulars of Emma’s story also trouble the traditional heterosexual timeline: she has a child when she is only eighteen, while unmarried and in jail, and she does not begin to actively parent Henry until ten years later, and then without any of the enthusiasm stereotypically imbued to new mothers. Similarly, Emma has to learn to become a daughter when she is twenty-eight, and must figure out how to depend on others after having already established her independence.

Moreover, Emma troubles the impetus towards reproductive heterosexuality by pursuing non-reproductive pleasures while resisting normative heterosexual romance and its gender roles. While I have described Emma as childlike, she is hardly the young, inexperienced heroine that Modleski finds in her examples and that persists in some romances today. Emma is an ex-con, a bail bond agent, and later a sheriff. She is also strong, smart, and somewhat sadistic. Indeed, Emma’s behaviour hints at or embodies a variety of practices and desires that might fall under the term BDSM, an acronym that encompasses bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, and masochism. The series avoids explicit depictions of sexuality (not surprising, given its primetime slot on network television), but Emma seems to relish exercising power over her love interest, literally as [End Page 4] well as figuratively restraining him, and causing him pain in a way that, at least some of the time, pleases him as well as her.

In part, Emma’s characterization rises out of the show’s engagement with some of those narratives for and about children that trouble heteronormativity and gender stereotypes. Generally speaking, Emma’s characterization (and the characterization of many of the other women in the series) challenges the portrayal of naïve girls one sees in some of Charles Perrault’s well-known fairy tales, or in early Disney films such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. It hearkens instead towards some of the more gruesome Red Riding Hood stories or the tales collected in the “Girls with Gumption” section of Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek’s Folk and Fairy Tales. My focus here, though, will be on OUaT’s indirect use of psychoanalytic ideas about the child, and its revising of Barrie’s Peter Pan narratives[5] in its portrayals of Emma and Hook. In the series, to be childlike can call up associations with innocence and aggression, asexuality and sexuality, a combination that revises some of romance’s conventions and invites a reconsideration of the relationship between women, violence, and eroticism.

I. The Romance and Female Sadism

The most significant way that we see Emma’s heterosexual “queerness” is through her interactions with Captain Hook. While he has not been her sole love interest on the show, he is the only one, so far, not to have been killed off, and he seems to have spent more time by her side than anyone else. In some ways, their pairing is typical of romance: the beautiful, blonde princess and the roguish but handsome pirate. Hook exemplifies the hero that Modleski describes: attractive and cruel, seductive and violent—often simultaneously. He spends much of his time in his early episodes making innuendos towards almost all of the female characters—including Emma’s mother, step-grandmother, and step- great-grandmother—while pursuing his plans for revenge and monetary gain. His speech mocks courtly love, pronouncing “milady” and “as you wish” with ironic condescension (“Tallahassee”; “Good Form”), and he describes himself as a “dashing rapscallion” and “devilishly handsome,” arrogantly invoking the prose style of some romantic fiction (“Snow Drifts”; “No Place Like Home”). Moreover, he clearly takes particular pleasure in baiting Emma. During a swordfight with her, he pins her on her back and tells her she should just give up, advising her suggestively, “when I jab you with my ‘sword,’ you’ll feel it” (“Queen of Hearts”).

In Modleski’s analysis, the powerful hero is eventually brought to his knees and made to suffer through his intense love for the heroine, payback for his early demeaning treatment of her (37). Similarly, Hook experiences a change of heart at the end of the second season and helps Emma save her son. He later professes his love for her, although she refuses to speak her own feelings until much later in the series. What is unusual about their interactions, though, is the way Hook is made to physically suffer. When they first meet, Emma ties him to a tree, rightly suspicious that he is lying about who he is. She handcuffs him on three other occasions, twice knocks him unconscious, and locks him in a storage closet. Moreover, after their first kiss she demands that he not follow her as she walks away, and orders him to get firewood instead (“Good Form”). She responds to their [End Page 5] second kiss (when she’s under an amnesia spell) by kneeing him in the groin (“Going Home”).

In some ways, the series justifies Emma’s violence through the fact that Hook is initially a threat to Emma’s family and friends: he is so intent on gaining his revenge on Rumplestiltskin for murdering Milah, Hook’s lover, that he will manipulate or hurt anyone who gets in his way. Emma’s treatment of him, then, seems at times less sadistic than ethical: that is, the show draws on traditional notions of women’s desire to protect children and community in order to validate Emma’s acts of violence. It is a pattern that Dawn Heinecken notices is common in programs about female action heroes, such as La Femme Nikita and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

However, Once Upon a Time also suggests the pleasure women might experience in overcoming resistance, in bringing a man literally, as well as figuratively, to his knees. Emma is reticent to verbally express sexual and romantic desire, but an important aspect of her relationship with Hook from the beginning is his ability to identify the eroticism of her aggressive reactions—indeed, to deliberately invite them. He seems to describe correctly Emma’s acts of bondage and brutality as erotic, but even without his explicit “reading” of the situation, both characters’ body language points to a mutual attraction and enjoyment of Hook’s physical vulnerability. In “In the Name of the Brother,” Hook wakes up in the hospital, having been hit by a car after shooting and injuring Belle. Hook’s hand is cuffed to the bedrail and Emma is looking down at him. When he suggests that Emma is turned on by his restraint, Emma answers with a smile. Later in the same scene, when she says, “You have all sorts of sore places I can make you hurt,” Hook grins, and Emma punches his torso before returning his smile. He flinches in pain and answers her question about Cora’s whereabouts, but then goes on to remind her with a glance towards his groin that, while his ribs are broken, “everything else is still intact.” Admittedly, there are aspects of the scene that point to Emma’s genuine annoyance with Hook’s criminal behavior, not just her pleasure in tormenting him, but the violent physicality of their sexuality and Emma’s dominance over him is developed elsewhere in the series. Their first kiss takes place at Hook’s verbal invitation, but it is Emma who suddenly grabs his collar and aggressively yanks him towards her. Even once their relationship is more established, as in the fourth season finale, we see her push him backwards onto her bed and pin his wrists to the mattress while she kisses him. Modleski’s revenge fantasy becomes carnal, shifting the emphasis from revenge to sexual pleasure, with the heroine indulging in, rather than abdicating, her aggression and pride in the name of eroticism. Thus, the show engages with female heterosexual sadism, a fantasy that Carol Siegel terms “The Final Feminist Taboo”.

Although much early criticism on popular romance reads the heroine as implicitly submissive—a characterization perhaps underscored recently by the success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey—some critics have emphasized those moments in popular romance texts that explore a woman’s direct joy in domination. Carol Thurston, writing in 1987, argues that romances of the time include more scenes where power between the hero and heroine is balanced, or even where the heroine is the sexual aggressor (144-45). More recently, Frantz argues that romances demonstrate an attempt by women to claim patriarchal power for themselves: when the author provides the hero’s point of view, readers can witness the hero’s education in the importance and authority of women (“Expressing” 23). Such a process appears to pre-date e-books and paperback romances by quite a bit: in Male Masochism, Siegel argues that nineteenth-century female authors [End Page 6] appropriated courtly love’s narrative of the male humbled in love in order to emphasize female power and depict the education of the hero at the heroine’s hands (12-13), so that in Pride and Prejudice, for example, Darcy can tell Elizabeth, “By you, I was properly humbled” (qtd. Siegel 116). However, Once Upon a Time moves further than these critics’ example texts: Emma’s desire is not only to maintain her own independence or have a relationship where she is an equal partner, but to control and master Hook. She claims a power that is muscular, physically subduing and restraining the hero alongside her emotional and mental maneuvers to dominate.

Obviously, the series is not the first depiction of a dominant, violent woman in popular culture, but many such women are in fact objectified as male masochistic fantasy, as Heinecken (28, 38) and Siegel (Male 11) both point out. As a television serial, Once Upon a Time might be viewed as drawing on that genre’s potential for active female subjects instead. The appeal and potentially subversive nature of the controlling, sexually desiring woman in serial dramas has been analyzed by both Modleski and John Fiske. However, while dominant women such as Kate Roberts on Days of Our Lives or Alexis Carrington on Dynasty manipulate men and seize control over events, such women are, by definition, villains. This does not necessarily compromise their potential to destabilize gender ideologies—Fiske points out that viewers envy such characters’ power over men (188) and Modleski observes that the villains suffer no more than the heroes do (90). Such characters, though, have more in common with Regina on OUaT than with Emma. Regina curses a whole realm because she is mad at her stepdaughter, and she magically controls the Huntsman to keep him as her sex slave. This is less unexpected than having Emma—the series’ heroine and the woman who is often described as the “product of true love”—enjoy sadistic play with an attractive leather-clad hero who wants to be tortured.

Emma might seem to share more with a character like Buffy Summers in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. OUaT seems to owe much to Buffy, especially in its warrior woman protagonist and the conflation of fantasy and real worlds, [6] but in Buffy BDSM is villainized, even though Buffy is not. As Siegel observes, Buffy views her BDSM relationship with Spike as monstrous, a response to the pain of her death and subsequent resurrection, and she eventually ends it (“Female” 58-62). OUaT also leans towards pathologizing, but it complicates this process, as I will show later. Emma could instead be viewed as having more in common with the dominant heroines of some BDSM romance novels, such as those that Frantz discusses in her essay on Joey W. Hill’s fiction, but these novels are part of a somewhat specialized and sexually explicit, although no less important, genre. What is especially interesting about Once Upon a Time is that aspects of BDSM are hinted at in a production based on narratives for children, airing on Disney-owned ABC, which is widely watched.[7]

Siegel notices that the aggressive and violent aspects of sexuality are often still considered taboo for women. She laments, “I remain deeply disappointed that we [feminists] continue to pathologize certain sexualities, and specifically that female domination of men undertaken for mutual sexual pleasure, rather than to make money or get revenge, still remains outside the pale of feminism” (“Female” 57). Similarly, Clare Whatling points out that “[h]egemonic feminist thought has tended to theorize violence as the prerogative of men and as the abuse of women,” which “closes off important avenues of exploration” (420-21). She goes on to cite Marion Bower, who indicates that some feminists are perhaps more comfortable with the “illusion of innocence” rather than with more [End Page 7] complex views of women and violence (qtd. 421). Whatling’s analysis goes some way towards explaining why there is relatively little written on female sadism in relation to men—in popular romance criticism and elsewhere—compared to the extensive theorizing about female masochism (as subversive or not), male sadism, and male masochism: for some feminists, violence may feel like a patriarchal move.

In Once Upon a Time, though, one can see more complex explorations of female sadism and domination and the method and effects of representations of this kind of pleasure for women. In the series, the popular romance hero’s emotional suffering grows into a more explicit masochism at the hands of a sadistic heroine, a move furthered in part by the series’ engagement with Freudian narratives about the child and its rewriting of Barrie’s Peter Pan narratives.

II. Parents, Pirates, and Peter Pan

If Once Upon a Time constructs Emma as figuratively stalled in time, then perhaps her violent sexuality arises from the series’ interactions with constructions of a more aggressive childhood, of the kind that Caitlin Fisher notices in her essay on her own pre-adolescent girlhood: “the girls are smarter and bigger and choose gangs and friends first and grab boys and kiss them and keep them corralled for the whole of recess. […] we press our girl bodies against them and our tongues into them” (60-61). While feminism may have often glossed over adult female violence, the same is true, Fisher notes, of girl violence and its consequences. One of the things, then, that makes Emma and Hook’s relationship intriguing is that it introduces another possibility into the gender dynamics of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan texts. Emma is neither Wendy nor Peter: we know how lost boys and “good” girls respond to Hook, but to ask what a “lost girl” might do with Hook is to open up a new set of possibilities for thinking about gender as well as the representations of the interactions between adults and children.

At the same time, Emma’s brutal treatment of the man who arouses her is very much rooted in Barrie’s narratives. Barrie’s Hook, traditionally portrayed in stage productions by the same actor who portrays Mr. Darling, is often read through psychoanalytic theory as a father figure—a selfish and oppressive embodiment of adulthood, with whom Pan, the spirit of childhood, does battle, effectively enacting the Darling children’s own latent resentment of their father (Tucker 359-61). In Once Upon a Time, while Hook is physically younger than Barrie’s version, something of the “bad daddy” persists. In the third season, he is allied at times with Emma’s father; in fact, the relationships parallel each other—Hook begins to gain Emma’s trust as he gains Charming’s, and Emma and Hook kiss for the first time after Hook has saved Charming’s life (“Good Form”). The slippage between lover and parent is facilitated by the fact that, due to the Queen’s curse and Hook’s time in Neverland, Emma’s father is in appearance about the same age as Emma and Hook.

Interestingly, Hook might also be read as a mother figure. Barrie’s original conception was to have the actor portraying Mrs. Darling play Hook, and one of the early draft titles for the play was The Boy Who Hated Mothers (Birkin viii).[8] In Once Upon a Time, one can see Hook embodying the pattern Benjamin and Radway notice in popular romance of the hero representing the mother, although in this case he is not idealized as [End Page 8] such, at least not at first. Hook’s condescending treatment of Emma has something annoyingly parental about it: in “Tallahassee,” when she gives him her wrist so he can snap on a magical cuff, he pats her approvingly and says, “That’s a good girl.” Moreover, his bandaging of her injured hand and his using his hook to push her hair off her face in the same episode blurs the line between seduction and nurturance.

Thus, instead of Pan engaging the parents through Hook, Emma does. There is evidence that her treatment of Hook results from her anger at Snow and Charming, even as she also sees in them the family she has always wanted. Once Upon a Time revises the passive aggression that Modleski sees in the romance, drawing on a more extreme version of the Freudian child. Stockton notices, “From wanting the mother to have its child, to wanting to have its father’s baby, to wanting to kill its rival lover, the Freudian child (the child penned by Freud) looks remarkably, threateningly precocious: sexual and aggressive” (26). The Freudian child, so deeply associated in literary criticism with fairy tales and Barrie’s work, appears to have influenced Emma’s characterization in her need to restrain and hurt Hook. In “Lost Girl,” Emma, at Pan’s manipulation, must state who she really is. She struggles with the question, but the answer comes when she labels herself an orphan and narrates her childhood as marked by neglect. In Neverland, she states that she feels as though she is still that same “lost little girl.” Although her parents sent her away in order to save her, Emma is nevertheless wounded, like Barrie’s Pan, by her parents’ abandonment. She resists depending on them, and even overtly blames them for the events that led to Henry’s kidnapping and Neil’s death, and for the faith and optimism that she feels has gotten them nowhere (“The Heart of the Truest Believer”).

Also like Barrie’s Pan, Emma rebels against “growing up” as defined by conventional heterosexuality. Emma moves towards parenthood, taking responsibility for Henry, but she actively resists normative romance as a threat to her independence. In “Good Form,” after she describes feeling hopeless as a child, Hook tries to tell her that he understands the feeling, having been through a similar experience himself. She tells him to quit trying to “bond” with her because she is not “in the mood.” Similarly, in the finale of the third season, she breaks out of Regina’s prison without Hook’s help and tells him, “the only one who saves me, is me.” Unlike Barrie’s Pan, who is simply clueless about what Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, and Wendy want from him (Barrie 162), Emma knows heterosexuality and has been hurt by it before, when she was sent to prison by Henry’s father, Neil. The fact that Neil, like Emma’s parents, was acting for her own good only further points to Emma’s lack of control over her early life. Set against Snow and Charming’s idealized story of true love, Emma’s interactions with Hook manifest a struggle to maintain power, a response to a past—a past that persists—in which Emma felt/feels helpless and rejected.

In this way, the series engages with some of the discourse surrounding BDSM as having the potential to heal. As Dossie Easton explains of BDSM, “We get to rewrite the script, which also means we get to rewrite the ending. These scripts often start out looking like trauma and end up somewhere else, in sex, in love, in comfort, in orgasm” (224). Similarly, Emma’s exertion of power over Hook seems to be presented as her own rewriting of her status as helpless child. For example, the series emphasizes the potential perils of love and sexuality for Emma in “The Jolly Roger” when Hook is cursed by Zelena: if he kisses Emma again, it will sap her burgeoning magical powers. When Emma finds out, she is angry at Hook for not telling her sooner, for making a decision about Henry without consulting her, and for trying to convince her to stay in Storybrooke rather than going back [End Page 9] to New York. Her independence threatened, Emma taunts the wicked witch in Hook’s presence: “try enchanting the lips of someone I’ll actually kiss” (“Kansas”). Moments later, when Zelena tries to drown Hook, Emma uses CPR to revive him. In a scene that borders on necrophilia, she leans over his beautiful unconscious body and presses her mouth against his lips. The dynamic between Hook and Emma, with Emma maintaining physical as well as emotional control—here because he could not be more passive, given his unconscious state—allows her a kind of “safe” erotic move by mitigating vulnerability, reversing the neglect she felt as a child. The scene also revises conventional romance: she, rather than he, is the emotionally distant, physically powerful figure who appears disdainful, but who really loves and risks everything to rescue the romantic partner.

This inversion of gender roles is partly enabled by the characterization of Hook, with its connections to Barrie’s pirate specifically and the literary pirate more generally. The reputation of the pirate for being counter-cultural opens up space for Hook in Once Upon a Time to be a different kind of romantic hero than convention might dictate, one embodying the variety of dynamics that can exist between men and women. The literary pirate, as Hans Turley discusses in Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, is a figure whose placement outside the law is often used to hint at transgression in relation to gender and sexuality (2-3). From the time of Byron’s The Corsair and, later, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the pirate has been a common figure in popular romance[9] and children’s literature, perhaps because the pirate’s life beyond conventional morality and law gives him an escapist appeal for readers who may feel they are on the outskirts of power.

Hook’s outside status socially has its corollary in his “queer” expression of gender and masochistic sexuality, characteristics that perhaps make him attracted and attractive to Emma, easing the expression of her own unconventional sexuality. Deborah Lutz argues that part of the literary pirate’s appeal is his inscrutability, what she calls the “buried treasure” of his inner life (34), his performance of “a kind of seductive striptease of subjectivity” (33) for the one woman he chooses to love. Lutz’s phrasing here, despite her arguments elsewhere about the pirate’s masculinity and sadism, suggests that the pirate’s female lover penetrates his initial resistance to her scrutiny. In the same way, Emma refuses to fall for Hook’s innuendo and bravado and he eventually responds by addressing her more honestly, revealing the traumas of his own past and attempting to understand hers. Hook makes the complicating of masculinity even more explicit than that of the conventional romantic pirate in that he challenges what MacGillivray identifies as “one of the cornerstones—if not the very foundation—for current constructions of masculinity in our culture”: that of physical penetrability (Thomas and MacGillivray 263). During Emma and Hook’s swordfight, Emma lands on her back with her weapon sticking straight up into the air; he leans over her and slides the curved hollow of his hook down her blade (“Queen of Hearts”). While he speaks of penetrating her, as I pointed out earlier, the visuals in fact suggest an inversion of sexual imagery, with him being penetrated by or enveloping her instead. This imagery is made literal in season four, when Rumpelstiltskin magically removes Hook’s heart in order to control him, and Emma must return it to his chest. Waiting for her to do it, Hook tells her, “Just be gentle,” and then grunts in pain and surprise as she rapidly plunges her fist into his body. The eroticism of the scene is amplified by him kissing her with fervor immediately after the penetration.

Such troubling of the traditional masculine-feminine imagery might owe something to Barrie’s specific rewriting of the romantic pirate, as I already hinted at in relation to [End Page 10] Hook as a mother figure. In Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook embodies a non-normative gender: “in his dark nature there was a touch of the feminine, as in all the great pirates” (147-8). Marjorie Garber notices, “the stage pirates of Peter Pan, or at least the ornately got-up Captain Hook, could be seen as verging on the edge of drag” (180-81), and Jill P. May argues, “Hook’s ruthlessness is softened because he is afraid of his own blood, imitates the fancy costumes of Charles II, and is so concerned with having ‘good form’” (73). Indeed, Hook’s preoccupation with good form leads to fits of self-torment, described as “a claw within him sharper than the iron one” (Barrie 189). Similar to Barrie’s pirate, OUaT’s Hook attires himself in plunging v-neck blouses and ample jewelry, the only male on the show to do so, and is sometimes the object of other characters’ jokes for his heavy eye make-up. He torments himself as well—in his case over the death of Milah—dedicating his life to revenge and twice asking Rumplestiltskin to kill him so that he can be with her again (“The Outsider”; “In the Name of the Brother”). However, Hook also seeks a different kind of pain. When Charming interrogates him about Cora’s whereabouts in “Tiny,” Hook suggests, with a lascivious glance at Snow, “have your lovely wife torture it out of me, which I promise would be fun for both of us.”

In fact, OUaT’s Hook seems to be constantly victimized, whether he wants it or not, and not just by Emma. Rumplestiltskin chops Hook’s hand off (“The Crocodile”) and later rips out his heart in order to magically control him (“Smash the Mirror, Part 1”); Cora restrains him against a wall and threatens to kill him with his own hook (“Into the Deep”); Tinkerbell and Ariel each hold a knife to his throat (“Going Home”; “The Jolly Roger”); Tamara gags and binds him in the back of a van (“Lacey”); and Zelena has him kidnapped and stuffed in the trunk of a car, then taunts him about his “pretty lips” and tosses a red rose on top of his bound body (“A Curious Thing”).[10] Hook even punches his own younger self in the face for kissing Emma when he and Emma travel back in time (“Snow Drifts”), and in the winter finale of the fifth season, he convinces Emma to plunge a sword into him as the only way to break a spell that has brought all the “dark ones” from the past to Storybrooke. Hook’s physical punishment often seems disproportionate to the amount he dishes out, as well as to that received by the hero of conventional romance and characters such as Charming or Neil. Some of these incidents border on comedy, mimicking the humour in Barrie’s texts of Hook’s suffering at Pan’s hands, but they possess a deeper significance, too. Jenny Alexander notices that male vulnerability is often contained in sci-fi and fantasy in certain ways, “located in ‘nerdy’ male characters” or “reserved for times of extreme danger” (129). In much slash fan fiction based in these genres, she argues, this is challenged: the wounded male body is set up as the object of desire. Something similar happens in Once Upon a Time, perhaps because the series, like fan fiction, queers dominant genres. Hook is an attractive character, and certainly capable of “masculine” heroics, but he is also frequently made physically vulnerable, and this contributes to, rather than works against, his status as a potential object of desire for both Emma and viewers.

III. Hook and I? Childish Adults, Sexuality, Identity

Of course, the rewriting of Captain Hook is only one aspect of the show’s engagement with children’s literature to explore themes usually aimed at adult audiences. The series generally is part of a larger pattern in contemporary culture of an almost [End Page 11] obsessive adult interest in the narratives of childhood and an interrogation as well as repetition of some of these narratives’ gender roles and character types.[11] Once Upon a Time emphasizes and pushes further the sexuality and violence of many of the characters of fairy tales and children’s literature: Little Red Riding Hood is the wolf, who accidentally killed her first boyfriend and now seems to have multiple lovers; Regina’s wickedness has its roots in her teenage love for a stable boy, who was murdered by Regina’s own mother; and the love between Snow and Charming begins when she steals from him, and he pursues her and ensnares her in a net. The emphasis on power differentials in such dynamics and plots is underlined by the costumes on the series—a lot of tight black leather and knee high boots—which certainly evoke the dress of some forms of BDSM role play. In fact, the fairy tale and other kinds of children’s fiction appear to be fertile ground for BDSM fantasy, given the former’s frequent depiction of power structures—queen and servant, adult and child, jailer and prisoner, human and animal, princess and pirate, and so on—a fact that has been explored explicitly by Anne Rice in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and Nancy Madore in Enchanted: Erotic Bedtime Stories for Women, among others. As Whatling argues, BDSM “is likely to play into, as well as out of, the dominant structures of the society in which it is practised” (418). Once Upon a Time, in a similar move, repeats and revises the narratives of well-known children’s fiction, making, as we have seen, the defeat of Captain Hook by Pan and the Lost Boys into the Captain’s erotic submission to a “lost girl.”

I am curious about adults’ motivations in investigating children’s literature, and their desire to highlight or recover such literature’s erotic potential. Ann Barr Snitow, in an essay on popular romance fiction as pornography, quotes Harlequin’s director of publishing, who advises romance authors, “The fantasy must have the same appeal that all of us discovered when we were first exposed to fairy tales as children” (qtd. 252). Is Rose correct, then, in thinking that narratives for children never really belonged to childhood, and that they have always been marked by the adult’s construction and invasion of the child’s world? Who “exposes” children to fairy tales except adults? In light of Rose’s argument, it is perhaps significant that Emma and Hook kiss for the first time while they are in Neverland—Barrie’s world of child’s play, itself a satirical representation of the adult world, becomes the world of adult “play,” where past pain and current eroticism are sadomasochistically explored, a different kind of mirror of the “real” world. The adult creates children’s literature and then reclaims it for adulthood, bringing the process full circle.

Psychoanalysis has examined at length the roots of erotic feeling in infancy, perhaps encouraging adults to “return” to narratives from their childhoods to explore sexuality and aggression, especially since, as Kenneth Kidd postulates in Freud in Oz, children’s literature has influenced psychoanalysis as much as it has been influenced by it. At the same time, as I detailed earlier, the series portrays Emma’s desire for mastery as a response to her childhood passivity and suffering: her feeling at times that she is still “a lost little girl.” Thus, her aggression and sexuality is dependent upon the helplessness and innocence of her impoverished childhood.[12] Is it possible to read Emma as childlike, though, without pathologizing the child as traumatized, and thus potentially pathologizing BDSM in the process as only a response to trauma? Is it possible to read Emma without idealizing the child as either innocent or as accessing some euphoric sexual, aggressive desire? And is “child,” as separate from “adult,” a useful category at all, if, as Rose and Stockton notice, it is an identity created only after the fact? [End Page 12]

These are difficult questions. However, to begin to answer them, at least in this context, one might look further at how Emma and Hook demonstrate the constructed nature of the binaries of adult/child, victim/violator, sadist/masochist or dominant/submissive, and man/woman, and perform the kind of troubling of gender and sexual categories that Doty identifies as queer. While I have argued that Emma and Hook sometimes reverse the expected power positions, their portrayals are also more complex than this, pointing instead to an erotic relationship which avoids neither pain nor pleasure, and encompasses Emma’s selves across time; in fact, Hook and Emma present a negotiation between two wills rather than a negation of one to the other. This more nuanced relationship beneath the surface of things is apparent in Hook’s cheekiness: his very pleasure in her attempts to subdue him points to his ability to find agency in restraint, and although Emma repeatedly puts him in handcuffs, he has little trouble slipping out of them when he wants to. I would not suggest, though, that Hook, as is sometimes said of the submissive partner in BDSM, is the one “really” in control. As Kaja Silverman argues, the male masochist, like other masculine subjectivities which engage with the “feminine,” does not simply reverse the male/female subject positions, but threatens to undo binary logic altogether. In “saying ‘no’ to power” and in embracing “castration, alterity, and specularity,” aspects of identity usually associated with the feminine, the male masochist signals “the collapse of that system of fortification whereby sexual difference is secured” (Silverman 3). Similarly, what is most interesting about Hook and Emma is the tension between them, the struggle for power that is never fully resolved because it is never fully, never finally located in just one person, in just one gender.

This is developed from the time of their first meeting, when Hook places on Emma and himself magical wrist cuffs that will allow them to climb a protected beanstalk, placing mutual restraint (and transgression) at the centre of their interaction (“Tallahassee”). In addition, Emma’s initial ignoring of Hook’s attempts to seduce her, in this episode and elsewhere, points to her own self-restraint, a forestalling of intercourse that might contain its own masochistic pleasure for her. Moreover, at the top of the beanstalk Emma slices her hand, and when Hook binds it for her, Emma notices Hook’s memorial tattoo for Milah on his forearm. The narrative then switches to a flashback of Emma’s relationship with and betrayal by Neil. Thus, the physical injuries on hands and arms link Emma and Hook in terms of past emotional suffering. This adds depth to their interaction, as here pain comes to encompass identification as much as it is part of domination or pleasure elsewhere. Alexander notices something similar with the wounded men in the fan fiction she studies: “While the fetishised vulnerable male body is put under duress, it is not engaged with as a piece of meat to be debased, as [the Marquis] de Sade’s female bodies frequently are” (129). Hook is a potential object of desire in part because of his wounds, as I have already argued, but the amount of time devoted to his backstory in the series also creates the possibility that viewers, alongside Emma, might identify with him too.

Emma and Hook’s interaction differs from that of other sadomasochistic pairings in the series in this mutuality. Regina literally steals the Huntsman’s heart, stripping him of his free will; and Zelena keeps Rumplestiltskin locked in a cage in her storm cellar and engages in what can only be termed “knife play” with the magical dagger that controls him. I do not doubt the potential eroticism of such non-consensual scenarios for viewers, but, as I indicated earlier, Regina partakes in the tradition of the villainess, as does Zelena. Their dominance is presented as part of their immorality, and through them the series criticizes [End Page 13] the subsumption of another human being to one’s will. Similarly, when Emma and Hook come under the curse of the dark one in the fifth season, their intense need to control others’ fates (Emma in trying to save Hook’s life at any cost; Hook in his need for revenge) is presented as part of their moral darkness, and their ability to vanquish the dark ones depends upon them giving up these obsessions. Hook and Emma’s other interactions, in contrast, portray a woman as a desiring subject, as well as acknowledging that the partner is more than just an object.

Benjamin asserts, “We cannot say that sadomasochistic fantasy is inimical to or outside the erotic, for where do we find sexuality that is free of the fantasy of power and surrender?” (Like Subjects 205). While Benjamin’s focus in Bonds of Love is on deconstructing the cultural association between women and masochism, her arguments for the possibility of a more balanced relationship between men and women resonate in this discussion of female sadism and related practices. In eroticism, as in the earliest relationships between child and caregivers, Benjamin argues, the self struggles between a desire for independence and a necessary reliance on others. She writes, “In the experience we call ‘subject of desire,’ the subject casts out the line of identification as well as reeling in the other at the end of the hook” (Like Subjects 59). Ideally, this creates a tension that is never resolved, where one is always influencing the other and being influenced by him/her; relationships do not need to deteriorate into the demeaning of one to the other, the master/slave dynamic Benjamin sees as persisting in many contemporary narratives (“Looking Backward” 12).

If we think about Hook’s hook again, it reveals these tensions between self and other, dependence and independence. Katherine Rowe notices that the hand in literature is often a symbol of one’s agency, the medium through which the inner self acts upon the outer world (6). What she calls the “dead hand”—the disembodied or ghostly hand—points to a suspicion about the integrity and power of the self (2). She mentions Barrie’s Hook in relation to this issue, although she does not discuss him in any detail (2). In both Once Upon a Time and Peter Pan, though, the hook is at once a symbol of loss (of flesh, of control), and of power, an “iron claw” that becomes a terrifying weapon. In Once Upon a Time, the hook also symbolizes the loss of Milah, as well as Hook’s fierce determination to gain vengeance upon the demon who killed her and took his hand in the process. When the hook becomes his new name, transforming Killian Jones into Captain Hook, it signifies the reshaping of his very self. Thus, the hook represents an act wrought upon the self without permission, but also the self’s ability to incorporate otherness and survive. Given the series’ emphasis on the shaping power of early experiences and the struggles to connect with lover, child, or parent, such issues about selfhood reverberate beyond Hook to all the characters in OUaT: the debilitation and strength that derives from past experience, the pain and pleasure of interaction with an other. The hand, like the child we say we once were, is a ghost that haunts us, the other that is also ourselves.

One might argue that the series presents both a sense of anxiety about such “ghosts,” and a fascination with them and their effects. The villains are frequently concerned with stopping or reversing time: Regina’s curse essentially freezes everyone in time; Zelena tries to reverse time so she can kill Snow White’s mother and thus change her own destiny; and Peter Pan is in fact an adult, a father who gave up his own son so that he could return to his pre-adult body and live in Neverland. Pan also magically forces a body-switch between he and Henry, a literal manifestation, perhaps, of the “molestation” Rose [End Page 14] writes about in relation to adults’ creation of literature for children: she sees, especially in Barrie’s Peter Pan narratives, an anxiety on the part of the adult creator about crossing the psychic barrier between adult and child as categories of identity (70). Evincing a similar anxiety, OUaT suggests that one must “deal” with one’s childhood issues, but the goal is to be a better adult, in order to protect, rather than displace, the actual child, an idea emphasized when Regina, Snow, Charming, Emma, Hook, Neil, and Rumplestiltskin put aside past conflicts with each other in order to save Henry from Pan.

The finale of the third season is particularly revealing about the dangers of and fascination with compromising the boundaries between past and present experience and identity. In “No Place Like Home,” Emma and Hook travel back in time and, through an accident, Emma almost prevents her parents’ meeting and thus her own existence. The incident points, perhaps, to the danger of “returning” too intensely to one’s origins, of focusing too much on the past. However, as Emma and Hook work to make things right, Emma witnesses her parents falling in love, as well as Snow’s near-death. Pained by her parents’ inability to recognize her (because they have not yet conceived her), she comes to recognize them, to understand how she has hurt them with her aloofness and criticism. This changes her relationship with them in the present, allowing her to add to her childhood story of neglect an awareness of how loved she was without knowing it.

Significantly, Emma’s new sense of home and self changes her interactions with Hook. At the end of the episode, Emma kisses Hook while Rumplestiltskin recites his wedding vows in a voiceover: “I was an enemy of love. Love had only brought me pain. My walls were up, but you broke them down.” For the first time, Emma and Hook’s kiss is not immediately preceded or followed by an act of aggression. One might read this as an expression of a more conventional heterosexuality, especially given the series’ indications in the same episode of the importance of “moving past” childhood’s concerns in order to be a loving adult. However, the reference to broken walls continues to emphasize destruction and pain as a means of connection, even though here these are emotional rather than physical. Later episodes in the series return to the unconventionally violent dynamic between Emma and Hook, as in the winter finale of the fifth season, when Hook offers to take Emma’s place and die to save Storybrooke from the dark ones. His voluntary death at Emma’s hands, and Emma’s subsequent determination to drag Hook back from the underworld by magically splitting her heart with him, continue to point to love as an experience of both self-shattering and domination, of disruption rather than resolution.

Perhaps, then, rather than growing “up,” Emma will grow “sideways.” Because of the format of the television serial, Emma’s potentially heteronormative “happy ending” and complete “maturation” are indefinitely deferred. As Fiske and Feuer each notice, the serial format, despite its frequent focus on romantic relationships, often also contains a critique of marriage and romantic convention, because there is never a “happily ever after” (180-81,14); moments of happiness are brief, soon interrupted by new conflicts and troubles. Despite Once Upon a Time’s title, its narrative structure moves back and forth between past and present, with “new” histories of the characters revealed in each episode to complicate or speak to the present. Thus, in the show, the past depends upon the future rather than merely the other way around, and the characters spend much time looking for and theorizing about their happy endings, without ever finally finding them. It may be that, when Once Upon a Time eventually runs its course, Emma’s exploration of her childhood might only reinforce the adult-child binary and move her into a “coherent and rational” [End Page 15] identity. In the meantime, though, the interplay between Emma and Hook gives us, not a presexual Pan, but a “lost girl,” who moves towards vulnerability while still relishing power, and whose representation invites viewers to think again on the potential queerness of children’s literature within the romance.


[1] Parts of this paper were presented at the conference for the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, in May 2014.

[2] The capitalization of “upon” in the title here follows the practice of the network in references to the series.

[3] Lisa Fletcher asserts, “from Shakespeare to Georgette Heyer to Jo Beverley, the cross-dresser is an archetypally romantic figure” (81).

[4] See, for example, Frantz (“Expressing”), Coddington, and Radway (“Work”).

[5] I follow Rose in acknowledging the multiple versions of the story of Peter Pan (6), although any quotations refer to Peter and Wendy.

[6] Buffy, the beautiful blonde “chosen one,” enters into a sexually sadistic relationship with Spike, a vampire who wears a calf-length black leather jacket and who has previously been her foe. The parallels to Emma and Hook may owe something to the fact that Jane Espenson, one of OUaT’s writers, was co-executive producer for Buffy.

[7] OUaT’s season three and four finales, for example, were each the top rated program of the day (Ng; Bibel), and each season as a whole ranked in the top twenty in the Nielsen ratings for adults 18-49 (Kondolojy; de Moraes).

[8] While it is not my intent here to add to the many Freudian readings of Barrie’s work, one could easily interpret Hook as a phallic mother, the hook the fetish that denies but is a constant reminder of the mother’s castration. Hook makes a joke about its potential as phallus in “The Name of the Brother” when he lewdly suggests that he could replace his hook with “another attachment” that Emma might prefer.

[9] As Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan observe, “Back at the peak of pirate romance fever [in the 1970s and 80s], you couldn’t swing a saber without smacking some delicious young ingénue who’d been vilely kidnapped by a harsh-faced yet beautiful seafaring rogue who was really the misunderstood son of a filthy-rich nobleman” (107).

[10] There is a joke among fans of the series of a potential romantic relationship between Hook and the floor, since he spends so much time lying on it (see the posting by “toothfairy” on ONCE podcast).

[11] There are far too many examples of adult texts based on children’s narratives for me to cite them all, but here are a few: Rupert Sanders’ film Snow White and the Huntsman (Universal, 2012); Catherine Hardwicke’s film Red Riding Hood (Warner Bros., 2011); various stories by Angela Carter; the Syfy miniseries Neverland (2011); various romance novels by Eloisa James and Kay Hooper; and the pornographic graphic novel Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie (Marietta: Top Shelf, 2006).

[12] Stockton notices that this kind of characterization is often present in portrayals of children who are not both white and middle class: “As odd as it may seem, suffering certain kinds of abuse from which they need protection and to which they don’t consent, working-class children or children of color may come to seem more innocent” (33). [End Page 16]

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Resuscitating the Undead Queer in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga
by Jami McFarland

‘…the vampire is a queer figure because it is disruptive; the vampire breaks down categories, transgresses boundaries, and upsets the very premises upon which systems of normality are structured. At least this is true of most vampires. In 2005, Stephanie Meyer [End Page 1] introduced the Twilight series, which valorized a family of vampires who clearly and firmly refuse the queerness typically associated with the figure.’—Kathryn Kane, Bitten By Twilight

In the last several years, much ink has been spilled in the creation of whole collections of essays exploring the social, sexual, political, and religious ideological foundations of Stephanie Meyer’s four book saga and Summit Entertainment’s five part screen adaptation of the series known as Twilight (Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians and the Pursuit of Immortality (Housel 2009); Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise (Click 2010); Bringing Light to Twilight (Anatol 2011); Seduced By Twilight (Wilson 2011); Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It (Erzen 2012); Genre, Reception and Adaptation in the Twilight Series (Morey 2012)). Stephanie Meyer’s gothic romance series, aimed at teenagers, chronicles the teenage life of the dowdy and awkward Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan (Kristen Stewart) as she becomes intimately involved with two of the most celebrated monsters in Western literature and film: the icy and demure vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and the (hot)headed and bold werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).

With box office numbers in the billions, the Twilight saga has undeniably sunk its teeth into a cultural vein and has seduced large audiences into craving more. The Twilight series primarily follows Bella as she moves to the small and gloomy town of Forks, where she develops a fascination with a particularly strange family of fostered teenagers known as the ‘Cullens’ who attend her school. Captivated and mesmerized by Edward Cullen (the only single and available Cullen), Bella pursues Edward in spite of his strange and suspicious behaviours and/or ways of being. Revealed to be ethical and decent vampires, Edward and the Cullens refer to themselves as ‘vegetarians,’ because they refrain from hunting humans, feeding on the blood of animals instead. Besides the central focus—developing a romantic intimacy and relationship between Bella and Edward—the Twilight saga also pivots around Jacob the werewolf and his competing longings for Bella. While Twilight’s romantic dynamic, unquestionably triangular and arguably queer (McFarland 2013), has the potential to disrupt conventional understandings of desire, romance, and relationships, my focus in this article lies in the queer potential of the romantic monster—the vampire.

Monsters offer some of the most egregious representations of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality. Far from being apolitical creatures that simply fascinate and frighten, monsters embody constitutive difference or ‘otherness’. Put simply, representations of monsters matter because they are socially instructive. Judith Halberstam notes as much in Skin Shows, when she argues that representations of the modern monster and the horrific body bolster and sustain social and sexual hierarchies (Halberstam 1995). Depictions of vampires, for instance, are largely seductive, sexualized, and often indulge fears of forbidden or taboo sexuality (Skal 1993; Creed 1995; Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002). The destructively predatory and hypnotically charming vampire, moreso than any of its supernatural contemporaries, is associated with sexuality. This has not so much been posited by a few as it has been established as a canon when both analyzing and understanding the vampire figure in both literature and film. A scholarly tradition of conflating the vampire with sexuality, especially deviant sexuality, suggests as much (Skal 1993; Weiss 1993; Creed 1995; Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002; Williamson 2005). [End Page 2]

With a predisposition to seducing, nibbling, biting, penetrating, and sucking, the vampire ‘is perhaps the highest symbolic representation of eroticism’ (Jackson 120). While Jackson’s contention is typical of a generation of scholarship that conflates vampires with eroticism broadly, a more recent trend has materialized which focuses on the association between vampirism and homosexuality (Creed 1993; Auerbach 1995; 1997; Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002; Williamson 2005). These scholars, drawing parallels between the lifestyle of the homosexual and the vampire, largely argue that what makes the vampire attractive yet frightening to the general public is its embodiment of sexual transgression and difference: queerness at large. More recently, however, cultural critics and scholars alike have been noting an even more odd and frightening tendency toward the normalization of blood(suckers) within vampire fiction. Referring to the contemporary vampire figure in visual fictions like True Blood (2008-2014), The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and the Twilight Saga (2007-2012), Stephen Marche illuminates this trend when he claims that ‘our vampires are normal. They’re not Goth, they’re not scary, they’re not even that weird’ (March n.pag). Recalling familiar Antebellum chivalry and virtue, modern vampires—gentlemanly, handsome, and young—are, indeed, quite normative.

Stephanie Meyer’s chaste and conservative Twilight saga especially demonstrates this tendency toward the normalization of the vampire figure. The Twilight books and films, which center on a morally righteous family of vampires referred to as ‘the Cullens’, construct an image of vampirism that is white (alabaster-white), moneyed, educated, patriarchal, monogamously coupled, appropriately reproductive, domestic, and, as Kathryn Kane poignantly notes, ‘distinctly unqueer’ (Kane 117). A (straight)forward embodiment of the American (neoliberal) dream, Meyer’s conservative conceptualization of the vampire as a normal and compliant subject, Kane and I argue, strays from the canon’s radical representation of the vampire as a strange and disruptive troublemaker.

Through an in-depth thematic analysis of the five filmic re-imaginings (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn: Part 1, Breaking Dawn: Part 2) of Meyer’s four book Twilight saga, this article explores, develops, and challenges Kane’s contention that the modern vampire as characterized by Meyer’s Edward Cullen is distinctly un-queer.[1] While for the most part I agree with Kane’s assertion that Stephanie Meyer’s vampire—a figure that has often been championed as being both transgressive and sexually ‘deviant’—is emptied of some queerness, I depart with Kane’s argument when her definition of ‘queer’ stops at transgression. Following an elucidation of the various conceptualizations of the term ‘queer’ to make clear how the term will be deployed throughout the article, I trace a history of queerness within the vampire genre to locate Meyer’s conceptualization of the vampire within this practice. Claiming that Meyer’s representation of the vampire largely breaks with its traditionally queer (troubling) ancestors, I demonstrate how Edward Cullen, frighteningly less monstrous and more normal than his predecessors, is not wholly capable of parting from a well-established tradition of understanding the vampire as queer. While Kane briefly explores how the Twilight series restrains the radical possibilities of queerness, I wish to fully expand this analysis to include an exploration of the ways in which this text as a cultural artefact is in the business of producing meaning about normative queerness; and how this text, in spite of its normalizing tendency, is still very queer. [End Page 3]

Conceptualizing Queerness

Traditionally, vampires have often been thought of as being quite queer creatures. They are troubling (queering; verb) because they challenge and defy the rules and institutions of hetero-patriarchy, strange (queer; adjective) because their habits, appetites, and appearances are divergent, and homosexual (queer; noun) because they are often imagined engaging in same-sex relations. Vampires are simply ‘queer’. As illustrated, the use of the term ‘queer’ here does not refer to a particular conceptualization, but to a multitude of meanings. The word ‘queer,’ initially utilized to describe something of a strange or unusual nature, has undergone significant transformations in both activism and scholarship. For example, while the 1980s’ human rights activists’ reclamation of the pejorative ‘queer’ indicated an identity for LGBT individuals and communities, the use of ‘queer’ in contemporary academia frequently refers not so much to an identity, but to a politic associated with anti-identity attitudes. Thus, ‘queer’ is both a ‘catch-all’ term for the panoply of LGBT identities (sexual orientation) and an attitude (positionality) that challenges hegemonic systems and institutions predicated on heteronormativity and the supposed stability of gender and sexuality. Queer as an organizing identity for both alternative sexuality and oppositional positionality make up the bulk of ways in which the vampire has traditionally been understood in relation to the Western construction of the queer.

Most often, these two divergent discourses arise in scholarship regarding the vampire figure in one of three ways. First, the vampire is associated with queerness because the vampire itself is depicted as explicitly engaging in same-sex sexual activity and is therefore assumed to be a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identified character. This association is arguably most commonly discussed (Weiss 1993; Creed 1993, Aurebach 1997; Dyer 2002; Williamson 2005). Although not limited to women, the vampire as an explicitly queer identified character is most often represented as a lesbian or a bisexual woman (Creed 2002). While few films revel in explicit same-sex male vampirism, Gayracula (Roger Earl 1983) being one of the few exceptions, the 1970s and 1980s most remarkably abounded in fetishistic images of lesbian vampirism. Commonly referred to as ‘dykesploitation’ films, films exploiting images of lesbian desire, such as The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker 1970), Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster 1971), Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel 1971), Vampire Orgy—originally titled ‘Vampyres’ (José Ramón Larraz 1975) and The Hunger (Tony Scott 1983), to name only a few, deal exclusively with representations of the vampire as a lesbian or bisexual. Many, most notably Bonnie Zimmerman, Andrea Weiss, and Barbara Creed, have noted the metaphorical possibilities linking vampirism and lesbianism. This union between predatory vampirism and licentious lesbianism, Creed notes, is a happy one, because both lesbians and vampires have been popularly imagined as seducing ‘properly’ disciplined and gendered subjects away from patriarchal order (Creed 59).

Secondly, the vampire is associated with a queer identity without explicitly engaging in same-sex behaviour. Put differently, the lifestyle, behaviour, performance, and gestures of the vampire are implicitly compared to those of the Western construction of the queer. In particular, Richard Dyer notes the similarities between vampires and Western understandings of lesbian- and gay-identified individuals in his article ‘It’s in His Kiss!: [End Page 4] Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism’. Dyer confirms as much when he claims, ‘what has been imagined through the vampire image is of a piece with how people have thought and felt about homosexual women and men—how others have thought and felt about us, and how we have thought and felt about ourselves’ (Dyer 73). Here, Dyer is, of course, alluding to the long history of the West perceiving LGBT identified individuals as sexual and physical predators capable of mass infection (Benshoff 1997; 2006). Amenable to queer readings, vampires, Dyer argues, are similar to the West’s socially constructed ‘homosexual’ because they are both steeped in histories marked by secrecy and mystery, isolated from normative society, and sexually voracious, among other similarities. There is, of course, nothing inherently ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ about being private, alienated, or sexual; however, this is how the West has frequently constructed and thus understood LGBT identified individuals. This essentialist notion that queerness has certain innate sensibilities and behaviours makes possible the conflation of the vampire with Western constructions of the ‘queer’.

This leads me to the third, and perhaps most significant, conceptualization of ‘queer’ in scholarship focusing on the vampire figure and its fictions. While the first two applications of ‘queer’ focus on the longstanding trend of exploring both the explicit and implicit connections between the vampire figure and gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, the third application centers on the more recent yet equally important trend of equating the vampire with an attitude or ethos that refuses to comply with the rules of hegemonic systems. Throughout my work, the capitalization of ‘Queer’ will refer to the latter understanding in order to provide distinction between the two. Accordingly, ‘Queer’, in this sense, refers less to the supposedly innate and stable identity often coupled with LGBT individuals, and more to the actions taken that are motivated by the intent to challenge, transgress, disrupt, and destabilize naturalized systems of oppression such as compulsory heterosexuality, monogamy, temporary able-bodiedness, white supremacy, and patriarchy, among others. Put differently, the first two applications rely on the usage of ‘queer’ as a noun to categorize a set of people with supposedly identifiable differences, while the third depends on ‘Queer’ as a verb to indicate a state or action. Aligned with a positionality, ‘Queer’ is, therefore, not necessarily contingent on one’s sexual identity, but on one’s lack of compliance with or mistrust in normalized systems of ordering.

As a positionality that is aligned with disruption (Muñoz 1999), loss (Love 2007), and failure (Halberstam 2011), ‘Queer’ has understandably been perceived by activists and scholars alike as a politic or ideology of gay culture. However, as mentioned previously, ‘Queer’ is less an identity-organizing construct and more a critique of identity (Jagose 1996). Assuming that a sexual orientation, then, like ‘gay’ even has a culture that possesses unique, fixed behaviours, gestures, and attitudes is antithetical to ‘Queer’ sensibilities. However, this is not to say that queerness, like heterosexuality, is not performative (Butler 1990, 1993, 1999). Refusing categorization and definition, Queer sensibilities reject essentialized notions of sexuality which rely on an acceptance of the supposed fixedness and stability of socially constructed binaries like homosexuality/heterosexuality. It is this disruptive potential of Queer, Kathryn Kane maintains, that aligns with the vampire (Kane 107). Regarding the vampire as a ‘boundary threat’, Kane argues that the vampire, like the Queer, has conventionally disrupted ordered ways of knowing, being, and relating: ‘it undoes that which is taken to be fixed’ (106). Kane is critical of Meyer’s depiction of the ‘defanged’ (107) vampire which, she claims, is ‘a radical revision’ (107). Arguing that [End Page 5] Meyer’s conservative and sympathetic vampire represents the pinnacle of heteronormative success and order, Kane contends that Meyer’s conceptualization of the vampire is decidedly ‘unqueer’ (117).

Correspondingly, Meyer’s conservative representation of the vampire is, indeed, quite queer (strange) in its un-Queer (un-troubling) tendencies. Although I agree with Kane’s contention that Meyer’s vampire has been emptied of much of its potential to trouble, challenge, disrupt, transgress and, hence, Queer systems and institutions of power, I disagree with her argument when she severs herself from a tradition of aligning the vampire with gay and lesbian (queer) identity. While Kane briefly acknowledges a scholarly tradition of conflating the vampire with LGBT identity, her line of argument is overwhelmingly and distinctly grounded ‘in the way the vampire aligns with [Q]ueerness, not gay and lesbian identity’ (Kane 105). Even as she suggests, without elaboration, that many compelling connections exist between Meyer’s vampire and homosexuality, Kane divests Edward Cullen of his queerness and homoeroticism and instead contributes to a popular mainstream understanding of Edward as an unqueer vampire. I, on the other hand, discern a queer individual in Meyer’s protagonist vampire. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the Cullens and none of them are imagined as being explicitly gay identified characters, I return to the metaphor to explore the vampire’s relationship to queerness. Taking direction from Richard Dyer’s conflation of the performances of both vampirism and Western constructions of queerness, I locate Meyer’s conceptualization of the vampire within this tradition.

I have elucidated multiple conceptualizations of the term ‘queer’ to illustrate shifting notions of queerness while creating the parameters of how I will engage with ‘queer’. While I occasionally refer to the vampire’s Queer potential, my use of the term ‘queer’ in this article refers to the limited and limiting categorical understandings of sexual difference. Put simply, I employ ‘queer’ to indicate a perceived sexual orientation rather than a defiant positionality. Aligning vampirism with queerness, I will trace the often homosocial and homoerotic histories of the vampire figure to resuscitate the queer within Meyer’s heteroromantic fiction.

Edward’s Great Queer Ancestors: (Blood)suckers and Man Haters

The vampire is popularly imagined as a caped, white-fanged aristocrat. He is of your Halloween variety—foreign, male, effete, unsympathetic, ghostly, lonely, old, white (very white), and most likely saying ‘I vant to suck your blood’. He is Dracula. Although the image of Dracula informs our popular understanding of the vampire, the vampire is a versatile monster that has been (vamp)ed and re(vamp)ed throughout the years. As Nina Auerbach begins in her influential text Our Vampires, Ourselves, ‘…there are many Draculas—and still more vampires who refuse to be Dracula or to play him’ (Auerbach 1). In all its diversity, the vampire has been represented as being sympathetic, trans, female, lesbian, bisexual, white, black, Asian, evil, good, homosocial, and symbolic of psychosis (respectively Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (Neil Jordan 1994), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson 2008), Vamp (Richard Wenk 1986), Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer 1936), The Hunger (Tony Scott 1983), White SkinLa peau blanche” (Daniel Roby 2004), [End Page 6] Blacula I (William Crane 1972), Thirst Bakjwi” (Chan-wook Park 2009), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon 1997-2003), Twilight (Harwicke 2008), The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher 1987), Martin (George A. Romero 1976)).

These vampires, in all their various forms, have functioned throughout the decades as salient metaphors for a myriad of social and political epidemics afflicting the United States. Vampires have been useful stand-ins for everything from slavery (Lee 2002; Cain 2009), consumption (Marx and Engels 1967; Latham 2002), modernity (Abbott 2006; 2007), and immigration (Newland 2009) to polymorphous sexuality (Auerbach 1997; Zanger 1997), lawyers (Sutherland 2006), menstruation (Creed 1993), sexual disease (Skal 1993), and surveillance (Grandena 2013). Although the vampire figure has symbolized all such meanings, among others, it has most commonly haunted the popular cultural landscape during moments of sexual panic and crisis to symbolize an embodied threat to normative sexuality (Marche n.pag). Correspondingly, we see a rise in vampire fiction produced at the turn of the century when women were becoming more independent. Similarly, vampire fictions experienced a renaissance in both literature and film in the United States during the 1960s and 1980s when the sexual revolution and AIDS epidemic transformed the sociosexual terrain. Although vampire films are, of course, not restricted to these periods, the rise can perhaps be best explained by grasping the vampire’s fundamental relationship to sexuality.

The vampire’s characteristic bite or ‘kiss’, as it is often referred to—yet another indication of the vampire’s association with sexuality—situates both predator and prey in an intimate embrace that is at once both satisfying and painful. Although you do not have to read the vampire’s transformational bite as being sexual, Richard Dyer, among a number of other writers, says, ‘an awful lot suggests you should’ (Dyer 75). The vampire’s erotic bite, consequently, appropriates the place of sex—penetrative sexuality specifically. Archetypically, this erotic displacement commonly occurs between a predatory male vampire and an unsuspecting female victim; however, both male and female vampires are also regularly imagined freely preying on men and women. The vampire’s connection to deviant sexuality, then, or queerness—more appropriately—is but a single step in the logic when a vampire bites someone of the same sex. Consequently, the vampire as a character has been integral to the production of gay and lesbian fiction as its participation in same-sex relations has often been overlooked (Dyer 73). The vampire allows authors to explore sexual themes and imagery that may otherwise not be available to them. To illustrate a tradition of queerness, I turn to several of Edward Cullen’s queer predecessors who, more frequently than not, revel in same-sex biting—a preference that is markedly homoerotic (or (hemo)erotic), if not homosexual.

Often thought to be the inventor of the vampire, Bram Stoker—the creator of the notorious Count Dracula—is frequently credited, mistakenly, as being the first to imagine the vampire. Although Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula (1897) largely defined our modern understandings of the vampire, Count Dracula is not the first vampire in Western literature. In fact, prior to the conception of the unpleasant Dracula, who singlemindedly pursues young women, vampires were considerably more homosocial, more homoerotic—more queer. Nina Auerbach notes as much when she argues that the infamous Dracula ‘is less the culmination of a tradition than the destroyer of one’ (Auerbach 64). Referring to a tradition in which vampires were considerably more friendly and intimate, Auerbach argues that the nineteenth century pre-Dracula vampire ‘offered an intimacy, a homoerotic sharing, that [End Page 7] threatened the hierarchal distance of sanctioned relationships’ (60). For example, Samuel Coleridge’s unfinished and ambiguous poem ‘Christabel’ (1797), written a century before Dracula, tells the story of a young but dead woman named Lady Geraldine who has inexplicably returned to charm and captivate the young maiden Christabel. Successfully captivated by Lady Geraldine’s enchantment, Christabel is transfixed by the sight of a naked Lady Geraldine, her breast specifically. The erotic overtones of the prose are markedly Sapphic, for example:

So half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did she recline
To look at the lady Geraldine,
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breathe aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! Her bosom and half her side
A sight to dream, not to tell?
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel
(qtd. in Urisini 32)

This imagery, in which Lady Geraldine, partially naked, holds the attentive gaze of Christabel, takes advantage of the naked female figure and lesbian desire. Employing her seductive wiles, Lady Geraldine’s power, as Auerbach and others have noted, lies in Geraldine’s focal breast (Auerbach 26). Correspondingly, Barbara Creed and others (Weiss 1993; Williamson 2005) have argued that ‘the female vampire’s seduction exploits images of lesbian desire’ (Creed 59). The imagery of predatory and voracious female intimacy and sexuality is undeniably homoerotic in its vivid illustration of same-sex attraction between Lady Geraldine and Christabel.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s supernatural novella Carmilla (1871) similarly focuses on a young girl named Laura who is haunted by dreams of a beautiful and mysterious woman named Carmilla and, later, Millarca—both anagrams of ‘Mircalla’. Both Carmilla and Millarca are eventually revealed in the narrative to be the same person, Countess ‘Mircalla’ Karnstein, a female vampire who expresses a predilection for vampirizing young women—a preference that produces palpable homoerotic underpinnings. Following a suspicious carriage accident, Carmilla is unexpectedly placed under the supervision of Laura’s father where she officially meets Laura. They quickly become close friends in spite of Carmilla’s abrupt and disruptive mood swings which fluctuate between perplexing rage and unsettling ‘passionate declarations of her liking for [Laura]’ (Le Fanu 82). Distressed by ‘a cruel love—strange love that would have taken [her] life’ (82), Laura expresses confusion: ‘I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of [End Page 8] abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling’ (87).

Correspondingly, Laura’s contradictory feelings of both disgust and adoration resonate with popularly imagined representations of how gay and lesbian identified individuals have thought and felt about themselves as they experience dissenting attraction and desire. Also implied in her statement is the notion that Laura is attracted to and affected by Carmilla in spite of her best efforts to remain unyielding. Similarly, being bitten by a vampire constructs a biological connection that binds the victim to the prey in spite of reason. Thus, the narrative which ambiguously explores Carmilla’s lust and/or hunger for Laura in many ways establishes a tradition in which vampirism is conflated with homosexuality. One possible implication of such imagery is that women who desire other women are predatory and, more worryingly for a heterosexist, patriarchal culture, capable of ensnaring heterosexual women, transforming them into deviants, sexual or otherwise. Although Christabel toys with lesbian desire, Carmilla effectively establishes the trope of the lesbian vampire, as it is this fiction which is re-appropriated time and again in twentieth century horror films.

After the creation of Carmilla, the lesbian vampire as a trope does not significantly return as a common depiction until the 1970s. No longer a thinly disguised metaphor for queer desire, the films of the 1970s portray many of their female vampires as explicitly lesbian- and bisexual- identified individuals. The Hammer productions especially boast lesbian vampires whose ‘lust knows no boundaries’—a tagline from the so-called Karnstein Trilogy Lust for a Vampire (Sangster 1971). While the instances of lesbianism or queerness discussed in both Christabel and Carmilla are more incidental, the instances in the dykesploitation films of the 1970s—loosely adapted from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’—are purposeful. The female vampires find identity politics and are clearly lesbian (Auerbach 56). Correspondingly, these films exploit imagery of softcore lesbianism that is at once both threatening and non-threatening. These films offer audiences—overwhelmingly heterosexual and male—the brief opportunity to revel in images of pornographic depictions of lesbianism before the narrative re-establishes order or ‘proper’ ways of relating within the heterosexist matrix. Even as these films narrowly present lesbian desire, they demonstrate a shift in patriarchal and heterosexist structures. These films arguably emerged during a time of burgeoning feminism and a greater awareness of lesbian relations. For Auerbach, films such as these can indeed celebrate alternative expressions of female desire as a result of the shifting attitudes of the 1970s (Auerbach 165). Where lesbian or, more appropriately, queer desire was suggested in the nineteenth-century female vampire, lesbianism is specifically addressed in the vampire films of the 1970s.

Although ‘Carmilla’ and ‘Christabel’—fictions which solely focus on intimacy between women—largely establish the explicit queerness of the vampire figure, a comparable pattern of same-sex intimacy and attraction between men can similarly be traced throughout vampire fiction. Referring to Lord Byron’s ‘Fragment of a Tale’ (1816) and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), Nina Auerbach makes clear a connection between the male vampire figure and homosexual writing. Elaborating on this correlation, Richard Dyer’s ‘It’s in His Kiss: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism’ provides a rich variety of examples to argue that the vampire figure and vampire fiction in general is a cultural phenomenon that has been both produced by and about men in the [End Page 9] category ‘queer’: ‘From Manor and Har to Anne Rice’s Louis, Armond and Lestat, or from Vathek to Gaywick, there is a line of vampire Gothic writing that is predominantly queer/gay produced, or which at any rate forms part of a queer/gay male reading tradition’ (Dyer 71). Vampire fiction, like Gothic fiction, Dyer argues, is often in contention and divergence with hegemonic male culture and narratives (72). Apart from elucidating a tradition of queer produced vampire fiction, Dyer’s most important intervention in the scholarship relies on the metaphorical connections between the construction of the vampire and the queer.

Ultimately arguing that the vampire’s metaphorical possibilities account for its traditional and historical relationship to queerness, Dyer explicates how the construction of the vampire is dependent on modern discourses used to articulate the social construction of queerness. Dyer argues that there is a fit between vampire imagery and gay and lesbian identities. Referencing both explicitly queer and heterosexual vampire fictions to illustrate how the visual production of vampirism is homologous with the construction of queerness, Dyer underscores several features that the two identities share: privacy/secrecy, uncontrollable desires, and discourses of self-loathing. Although there is nothing inherently private, uncontrollable, or self-loathing about the popularly imagined queer, these features, Dyer argues, are integral to modern notions of hegemonic queerness.

I have focused on traditions of both visual and metaphoric queerness represented throughout Western vampire fiction. A history of textual and visual homoerotic vampires, both male and female, and a metaphoric compatibility begin to explicate my, among other scholars’, reasons for extending the metaphor to contemporary vampire fictions such as True Blood (Brace and Arp 2010; Culver 2010; Curtis 2010) and, most importantly, the Twilight saga. Turning now to a more direct analysis of the Twilight saga, I will illustrate and reiterate Dyer’s claim that ‘much of the form of vampirism/sexuality is homologous with the social construction of queerness’ (Dyer 77). Although the Cullen family and, more importantly, Edward, in many ways represent a major revision in the construction of the vampire as monster (Kane 117), Dyer’s metaphoric understanding of the vampire largely remains the same. I return to Kane’s claim that Edward and the Cullen family are ‘distinctly unqueer’ (Kane 117) to argue instead that Meyer’s representation of vampirism continues to articulate and conflate popular discourses of the ‘queer’—inflected by gender, race, class, and ability—with the vampire figure.

 The Undead Metaphor

Turning to a more direct analysis of the Twilight saga, I will demonstrate how Meyer’s vampire, regarded as being atypical and revisionary (Kane 2010), represents an extension of the very tradition it is believed to disavow. Locating the self-hating outsider known as Edward Cullen within a tradition of equating the experience of the vampire with the imagined experience of the queer, I will illustrate how Meyer’s film series reanimates this undead trend.

As a social construction, homosexuality or, more appropriately, queerness is often perceived to be a fixed and stable category that is thought to have inherent and identifiable characteristics and ways of being. While privacy has been integral to the definition of the [End Page 10] ideal sexual citizen (Rubin 1984; Warner 1999; Dyer 2002), which, according to the construction, does not include queers (Rubin 1984; Warner 1999; Puar 2007), privacy has also been integral to the construction and perception of the queer for other reasons. Popular culture often imagines queer individuals to be private individuals either out of necessity to avoid perceived—yet very real—physical and psychic violence (Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce 1999); Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee 2005)) and/or because the queer individual is ashamed of his/her same-sex attractions (M. Butterfly (David Cronenberg 1993); J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood 2011). Correspondingly, it is under the conditions of a heterosexist matrix and often flagrantly homophobic culture that queer individuals are encouraged or, more appropriately, forced—both intuitively and physically—into lives of secrecy. Although there is nothing inherently private about queer folks, the idea of privacy is frequently perceived to be very important to the queer ‘lifestyle’.

Similarly, secrecy and privacy are integral themes within traditional vampire fiction. Noting the similarities between the lifestyles of the queer and vampire, Dyer discusses the importance of the secret double life in which both vampire and queer must hide their true identities. Like the perceived-to-be or self-identified queer, the vampire must conceal its strange desires and acts to ensure its survival in a society that ruthlessly maintains normalcy because, as Dyer notes, there is a ‘sense that being a queer is something one must keep to oneself [which] certainly accords with an idea of the authenticity of private sexuality, but it also is something that one better keep private if one is not to lose a job, family, friends and so on’ (Dyer 78). As a result, the vampire’s existence relies on its ability to be consistently regarded as belonging to a group that is not its own—essentially, the vampire is able to ‘pass’ as being human. The sociological phenomenon known as ‘passing’—which not only includes sexual passing, but racial, gender, and class passing—is reliant on successful misrepresentation. The concept of passing requires a critical nod of acknowledgment to the constructedness or performance of identities—racial, gender, sexual, class, bodiedness, or otherwise. In the same ways that queer individuals have been understood as possessing an identifiable ethos, ways of being, and cultural practice (Dyer 1988; Halperin 2012)—or, as Dyer aptly observes, ‘a widespread discourse that there are tell-tale signs that someone ‘is’’ (Dyer 78) —vampires, similarly, have ways of being which, if revealed, threaten their existence. Although Dyer made this comparison over ten years ago, this theme of what is essentially ‘passing,’ which fittingly resonates with the lives and stories of many LGBT identified individuals, still rings true for the vampire figure in Meyer’s Twilight saga.

The characterization of Edward Cullen as an emotional teenage boy with pouty lips, beautifully coiffed hair, and, most notably, sparkling skin appeals, perhaps unintentionally, to camp’s aesthetic and performance. Revealing his bare skin to the sun’s magical rays and Bella’s gaze, Edward bemoans, in a fashion reminiscent of ‘coming out’ narratives, ‘This is what I am’ (Twilight 0:52:12). Bella gasps, ‘It’s like diamonds. You’re beautiful.’ (Twilight 0:52:18)—cue swooning drag queens. The depiction of Edward as a strange (read as odd, different, queer), glittering adolescent—a condition that Pramod Nayar terms ‘Supernatural masculinity in drag’ (Nayar 62)—who is simultaneously repulsed by Bella’s abject body (most notably, her scent) and attracted to her appearance reads as Liberace-excess, Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show-camp, RuPaul-drag: queer at the very least. Steven Marche similarly notes queer incongruities in the seemingly staunch hetero-romantic tale in his article ‘What’s Really Going on With All These Vampires?’: ‘Twilight’s fantasy is that [End Page 11] the gorgeous gay guy can be your boyfriend’ (Marche n.pag). Despite Marche’s hasty generalization that ‘[v]ampires have overwhelmed pop culture because young straight women want to have sex with gay men’ (Marche n.pag.), I believe that the parallel that Marche draws between the representation of Edward Cullen and queerness is fitting and a subject worthy of greater attention.

Indeed, Meyer’s ‘beautiful’ vampire breed renders statements like Dyer’s—‘the classic metaphoric statement of the idea of the gay male image of the gay man as a sparkling, agreeable surface masking a hidden depravity, brilliant charm concealing a corrupt and sordid sexuality’ (Dyer 80)—quite fitting. My attention here is, of course, focused on Dyer’s description of the vampire’s body as being sparkling and agreeable because Meyer’s vampires—in a break with traditional vampire convention—indeed, sparkle. Among being exceedingly beautiful, Meyer’s vampires sparkle when their skin is exposed to the sun. The iconic scene in Twilight in which Edward not only reveals himself to be a vampire to Bella but also exposes his peculiar ability to sparkle has been only one of many sites of incredible amusement and disparagement for viewers of the Twilight series. This scene of discovery and Edward’s fabulous ‘coming out’ is instigated by Bella cagily saying, ‘I know what you are’ (Twilight 0:50:36). In spite of this ‘othering’ language, which is strikingly similar to Dyer’s ‘tell-tale signs that someone ‘is’’ (78), Bella does, in fact, have grounds to suggest that Edward is different. After all, the first half of the Twilight film goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Edward’s ways of being are different, strange, peculiar—queer, even. As Bella notes, Edward is ‘impossibly fast and strong. [His] skin is pale white and ice cold. [His] eyes change colour and sometimes [he] speak[s] like [he is] from a different time. [He] never eat[s] or drink[s] anything. [He doesn’t] go out into the sunlight.’ (Twilight 0:49:43). Not only does Edward have ‘give away aspects’ (79) which align him with vampirism, reinforcing Dyer’s comparison and argument that both the queer and vampire have ‘tell-tell signs’ (71), Edward has queer ‘give away aspects’ which more closely align him with queerness.

While Dyer argued that vampirism in all its expressions was easy to read as an image of queerness, I argue that Edward Cullen’s revisionary signs more readily associate him with queerness. Besides possessing the ‘othering’ yet typical traits of conventional vampirism, Edward sparkles when out in sunlight, appears to be repulsed by the sight and smell of Bella, and, perhaps most importantly, will not and/or cannot bite—the figurative act of sexual penetration—or have sex with Bella. Surely, this is the type of concealed ‘sordid sexuality’ (80) Dyer was referring to previously. These particular additions to the vampire mythos are unquestionably queer behaviour for a vampire (Sommers 155). But, more importantly, are these additions not also queer behaviour for an adolescent male? If only stereotypically indicative of the ways of being ‘gay’, these features align Edward more readily with queerness. Stephen Marche suggests as much when he claims that Edward resembles the gay best friend construction:

Edward…is a sweet, screwed-up high school kid, and at the beginning of his relationship with Bella, she is attracted to him because he is strange, beautiful, and seemingly repulsed by her. This exact scenario happened several times in my high school between straight girls and gay guys who either hadn’t figured out they were gay or were still in the closet. (March n.pag) [End Page 12]

Although Marche’s hasty claim is quite reductive and essentializing, it reinforces Dyer’s comparison between the rhetoric and discourse of queer- and vampire-spotting and, more importantly, it locates queerness within the hetero- and abstinent Twilight saga.

Conventionally, monsters emerge to disrupt and challenge hegemonic ideas of the normal. Consequently, monsters, including vampires, evade rules, mores, and order. Renowned for especially evading sexual rules, decorum, and order, the vampire’s appetite, in spite of its sexual orientation, ‘always exceeds and defies cultural mores’ (Weinstock 2012). At the whim of its appetite, the vampire has traditionally been depicted as indiscriminately feeding on both men and women. Consequently, the vampire, unable to control its hunger, has often been depicted in same-sex biting, penetrating, and sucking. This imagery, which imagines a man or woman invading the body of another of the same sex, has had limited visual homoerotic representation in popular culture. Thus, the vampire’s voracious and irrepressible appetite has afforded it the opportunity to engage, even if only platonically or temporarily, in same-sex relations.

Recently, however, vampires have been depriving themselves of this natural yet evil instinct in an attempt to be civil and moral—HBO’s True Blood and Meyer’s Twilight series being the most blatant expressions of this trend. Although not the first to depict the vampire as attempting to control its appetite, Stephanie Meyer is the first to depict her vampire as being successful and content while doing so. Where Anne Rice’s self-loathing and sympathetic Louis is ultimately unable to manage his natural inclination toward drinking human blood, Meyer’s resolute and controlled Edward ultimately perfects repressing his bodily appetites. Although drinking the blood of humans is perhaps the most distinguishable and significant feature of the vampire as well as its greatest pleasure, Meyer’s vampire, in a mark of disinterest with this convention, abstains from feeding on humans. Referred to as ‘vegetarian’ vampires, Edward Cullen explains, ‘my family and I, we are different from the others of our kind. We only hunt animals. We learned how to control our thirst’ (Twilight 0:54:20). In the interest of leading a moral life, Meyer’s vampire rejects and denounces an inherent part of its self-identity because vampirism and morality are thought to be incompatible.

Correspondingly, if we are to understand the vampire’s innate and pleasurable act of sucking the blood of humans as a thoroughly Victorian displacement of the traditional sex act, recognizing its refusal to feed on humans as an attempt to abstain from sexual intercourse—same-sex or otherwise—is but a step in the logic. Put simply and directly, Meyer’s Byronic Edward not only controls the biological impulse to bite and suck human blood, but, more significantly, controls his voracious impulse to penetrate and suck the bodily fluids of his victims.

In a flashback which reveals a pre-vegetarian Edward, Edward describes himself as a monster. While the choice of language is interesting because it resonates with how LGBT identified individuals have often been represented and thus thought of (Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002), the language also reveals a judgement. This fictional condemnation and repression of a super(natural) instinct eerily resembles an existent discourse which condemns natural feelings of same-sex attraction and desire. This existent discourse, informally referred to as ‘Pray the Gay Away’, endeavours to reconcile homosexuality with religious beliefs, specifically Christianity. The fundamentalist practice of attempting to convert people identified as ‘homosexuals’ into ‘heterosexuals’ resembles the Cullen family’s practice of converting vampires into vegetarian vampires. In the same ways that [End Page 13] the Cullen family believe that the desire to and act of (suck)ing the blood of humans is incompatible with a moral life, many extremist Christians believe that same-sex desire is incompatible with a moral life. Given Meyer’s religious standing and the text’s overriding didactic messages of piety and restraint, connections emerge between Meyer’s fictional family who abstain from the perverse bodily desire to consume blood and individuals like Alan Chambers, the longstanding president of Exodus International, the organization which has single-handedly become synonymous with the phrase ‘Pray the gay away’ (Crow n.pag). Both bodily desires, thirst for blood and attraction to the same sex, are similarly constructed as being purely biological and instinctual, and both pious groups, the Cullen family and organizations like Exodus International, champion similar ideologies that maintain that those very instincts can be overcome with just a little (neoliberal) effort and determination.

Gripping Edward’s hand, Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) leans into Edward’s dying and bed-bound body and tenderly whispers words, unbeknownst to the viewer, into Edward’s ear. Following this, Carlisle bites into Edward’s exposed neck, holding Edward’s face still as his body writhes in agony. In the violent moment, Edward is pictured screaming, gasping for air as his eyes open wide in pain. A victim of circumstance, Carlisle is depicted as experiencing feelings of regret and possibly even abhorrence as he removes himself from Edward’s penetrated and infected body. Carlisle is demonstrated as possessing immense focus and self-discipline: ‘not many of us have the restraint to do that’ (Twilight). Carlisle’s decision to ‘turn’ a dying Edward is one based in compassion and reason instead of impulse and instinct, which distinguishes Meyer’s brand of vampirism from her predecessors. Even as Carlisle is seen as producing a monster, Carlisle is sympathetically rendered as the morally righteous patriarch who is capable of controlling his desires.

Another feature of the vampire narrative that Dyer claims can be easily read metaphorically as an image of queer sexuality and experience is the discourse of self-loathing that surrounds the vampire. Discourses of self-loathing are particularly essential to the construction of the sympathetic vampire (Williamson 63). As many have noted, the sympathetic vampire is a vampire who loathes its condition or identity but is essentially and ultimately constrained by it (Williamson 2005; Dyer 2002). Unlike the unsympathetic vampire, the sympathetic vampire despises and feels contempt for its perceived and/or self-identified culture and personal identity. Unlike the traditional vampire, imagined as a predator and perpetrator, the sympathetic vampire is regarded as being a victim of circumstance (Williamson 63). Again, Dyer relates this imagery to the queer identity and experience. Dyer posits that queer readers of vampire fiction may very well identify with the ‘curse’ of vampirism because the framing language used to understand and empathize with the melancholic vampire reflects modern bio-medical discourses about the ‘curse’ of ‘homosexuality’. With the medicalization and essentializing of ‘homosexuality’, individuals identified as queer were more frequently pitied than abhorred. Indeed, the twentieth century ‘argument that “we/they can’t help it”’ (Dyer 81), which has often taken the form of ‘a mix of distaste for homosexuality with a recognition that it cannot be resisted’ (81), is similarly employed within the vampire narrative. Respectively, the sympathetic vampire innately ‘can’t help it’ and its awareness of its biological disposition is often met with feelings of regret, disgust, and disappointment. This identity crisis, which, as Dyer contends, bears a striking resemblance to the consequences of internalized homophobia, rings true for forlorn queer folks across North America. [End Page 14]

Throughout the series, Edward experiences several identity crises in which he struggles to accept his seemingly inherent queerness as a vampire. As a creature that has instinctively perverse desires—a voracious thirst for human blood— Edward is perhaps fittingly imagined as experiencing crises which are almost always surrounded by language of self-loathing: ‘All the men I killed were monsters. And so was I’ (Breaking Dawn: Part I 0:05:40). This language, as Dyer notes, has been informed by the modern queer. In Breaking Dawn: Part I, Edward recalls a time when he enjoyed killing humans. Interestingly, Edward is only ever visually imagined as haunting, biting, penetrating, and sucking male bodies, save Bella’s body, which is always out of necessity to save her life. Edward is demonstrated biting the neck of a man. When he explains this to Bella, he emphasizes that he only penetrated (my language)/punctured men. This scene is informed by language of regret and disgust—’I was a monster’ (Breaking Dawn: Part I 0:5:56). Although Edward is meant to be read as regretting his decision to kill men, I argue that this scene can be alternatively read as an instance of Edward’s homoerotic panic, especially because this ‘coming out’ scene is in response to Bella jeeringly saying ‘What, you’re not a virgin?’ (0:05:12). The language of the forbidden, the impermissible, combined with Bella’s enquiry about Edward’s previous sexual exploits, contributes to the reading of Edward as an ashamed queer. In addition, these scenes in which Edward struggles with his identity often occur when Edward warns Bella of the dangers of his ‘condition’ to discourage her from its destruction‘I’m the world’s most dangerous predator’ (Twilight 0:53:20). Thus, Edward’s continuous and purposeful distancing from his ‘condition’ renders his actions and attitudes self-loathing.

While Edward attempts to purge himself of any vampireness by refusing to live like a vampire, as demonstrated by his choice to maintain a ‘vegetarian diet’, the villainous vampires—perhaps only villainous because they embrace their nature, which stands in direct opposition to the nature of humans—epitomize the self-identified, out and proud queer, because they embrace and revel in their desires. Whereas Edward denies himself the pleasures, desires, and experiences of the vampire, James, the most celebratory of his differences, embraces his supposed genetic nature and all that it entails. Thus, I draw a parallel between the frequently self-hating Edward and the construction of the ashamed homosexual, both of which are popularly imagined as being incapable of embracing their ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self. The coded language of the ashamed homosexual, equated with the vampiric condition of Edward. is just another example of how Edward Cullen can be understood as participating in the constructed ways of being queer.

Normalized Vampires/Queers

Many Queer scholars have voiced concern for/with the longstanding myopic focus of the LGBT agenda in North America. Repudiating the movement’s central focus on gays in the military and, most significantly, same-sex marriage equity, Michael Warner in particular discusses the agenda’s attempt to normalize and desexualize gays as being misguided and in the interest of only select identities. Rather than either devising a radical reimagining of sexuality, family, and relationality, and/or challenging institutions and [End Page 15] structures which disproportionately privilege the normative, the movement promotes the reappropriation of traditional and restrictive values and institutions.

This type of agenda, assimilationist in function, has been referred to as ‘homonormative’. Homonormativity, as defined by Lisa Duggan in her article ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, ‘is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumerism’ (23). Working to downplay homosexuality as a form of significant otherness, homonormative conventions mark individuals within lesbian and gay communities as indistinguishable from heterosexuals (Duggan 2002). In line with the gay assimilationist viewpoint(s), homonormative politics are quite different from radical Queer politics, which not only strive to deemphasize the importance of sexual identity politics, but address LGBT issues as they intersect with gender, race, class, ability, and capitalism. Conversely, homonormative politics prioritize issues that involve the mainstreaming and thus normalization of gay identities. Focus on the legislation of same-sex marriage, adoption, and military service as the primary concerns of most lesbian and gay activist groups exemplifies homonormative rhetoric and discourses. Thus, rather than questioning or challenging heteronormative structures and institutions like marriage and childrearing, homonormativity simply asks for inclusion in the existing structures.

Assimilationist ideology that strives to have queer individuals recognized as similar, if not normal, resonates with the discourses employed in Meyer’s text. Although the Twilight series is not explicitly a text about queer sexuality, it is a text about queer creatures. A text about vampires, monsters, and individuals not unlike us, the Twilight saga implicitly explores themes of normality and abnormality. Consequently, the text carries several persistent and enduring yet embedded and invisible notions about normality. These notions are so pervasive and established in Western culture that they are rarely questioned or challenged. I argue that the Twilight series, in its production of normality and abnormality, is reproducing problematic discourses that reappropriate homonormative rhetoric. Much of the rhetoric and many of the discourses that surround the assimilationist approach in the struggle for gay rights, I contend, are reappropriated by Twilight’s Cullen family: in particular, Edward. Like homonormative queers, vampires who endeavour to squelch their abnormal desires and who instead channel their energies into fostering incredibly committed monogamous relationships and raising children are sympathetically rendered as valuable individuals.

I argue that this type of un-radical politic, the assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into queer culture and identity, is deployed in the Twilight saga, whether consciously or unconsciously, to mark ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ queers as separate from ‘abnormal’ and ‘unhealthy’ queers. This is best exemplified by the Cullen family, Edward specifically, through their reappropriation of traditional American values, such as virtue, loyalty, and sacrifice, as well as institutions, such as marriage and family building. In fact, Meyer’s films glorify heteronormative structures and institutions by upholding the importance of compulsory heteronormative coupling, monogamy, the practice of abstinence before marriage, matrimony, the nuclear family, and organic child rearing, which the film Breaking Dawn: Part I provides for Bella and Edward in spite of all supposed folkloric and supernatural odds. Although a queer character—if, at the very least, because [End Page 16] he represents something abnormal—Edward not only takes part in these institutions and structures, but cherishes and upholds them as markers of the good and healthy normal life. Although Edward will never be able to fully attain a normal life because we are told that vampires are—like queers are imagined to be—intrinsically abnormal folk, Edward can acquire most of the sociosexual markers of the valuable sexual citizen. Put simply, Edward cannot change his biological and disreputable impulses, but he can conduct himself in a manner deemed appropriate enough to afford him with the opportunity to border respectability and thus receive the social privileges and rewards listed above.

The Cullens and Edward, in a rejection of their ‘natures’, align themselves with normality by upholding and participating in both social and sexual (heteronormative) value systems and institutions assumed to be natural to humans. Accordingly, the Cullens are valued as respectable figures—in spite of their literal and figurative queerness—because their sexuality is ‘heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and non-commercial’ and ‘coupled, relational, within the same generation and occur[ing] at home’ (Rubin 280). According to Rubin’s hierarchy of sexuality, their sexuality and ways of relating do not violate distinctions of ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ sexuality, but bolster it by blindly accepting the supposed ‘normalness’ of it.

This message is nowhere more blatantly stated in the text than when Bella implores Edward to have sex with her. We are told that Edward refuses to have sexual intercourse with Bella because ‘Edward is old school’ (Eclipse 1:12:36) and, more importantly, her human scent is most potent and thus attractive to Edward’s vampiric senses when she is sexually aroused. But in desiring to have sex with Edward as a human being before being turned into a vampire, Bella pleads, ‘You said you wanted me to have every human experience’ (Eclipse 1:15:10). Although sex is but one of the ‘human experiences’ Edward hopes for Bella, this statement and scene alludes to the stakes in sexual conduct. A desire for human experience is relegated to a select few privileged experiences which are considered human and thus good. Edward does want Bella to have every human experience and he does want to have sexual relations with Bella, but for Edward, the human experience is conflated with ‘normal’ sexuality: ‘Believe me, I want to. I just want to be married to you first’ (Eclipse 1:17:10). More concerned for her ‘virtue’ (Eclipse 1:17:29) than the threat of vampirization, Edward conflates not desire, perverse or otherwise, with normality and/or ‘human experiences’, but proper sociosexual conduct —a feature that aligns him not only with religious morality, but with homonormative rhetoric and discourses.

Among the moral didacticism, the film’s fascination with marriage serves to normalize the vampires. Meyer’s text, I argue, draws from gay liberationist strategies that have situated the gay individual as being no different than their straight counterpart. Drawing a parallel to the rhetoric and discourses of the North American gay and lesbian movement, I argue that the Twilight series employs homonormative propaganda and strategies to articulate the normalness of the vampire. In an attempt to normalize the vampire, the series embraces an invisibilized politics of ‘the normal’ which requires the vampires to repudiate their perverse desire—a similar tactic that the North American gay movement took in the 1990s.

According to Michael Warner, the North American lesbian and gay movement experienced a drastic political shift in the early 1990s. Warner contends that a large faction of the gay movement stopped embracing a politics of sexual pride and instead embraced a politics of shame (Warner 42). Recognizing that ‘power lies almost exclusively on the [End Page 17] normal side’ (44), the gay movement, he argues, underwent a desexualisation in hopes of garnering more support (legal and social) from the heterosexual majority. As a result, the movement’s embrace of ‘normal’ began with ‘divorcing homosexuality from sex and then from politics’ (60). Similarly, the Twilight text, I argue, divorces desire from sex and politics. The Cullens are virtually ‘just like’ their human counterparts, save their strange desires and impulses. We are told that the only thing that distinguishes the vampires from humans is their desire and lust for blood; however, according to Meyer’s text, if that desire is controlled and restrained, then, vampires—positioned as fundamentally different—can be ‘just like’ us. By controlling their desires and embracing institutions and values considered ‘normal’, the Cullen family move from being creatures of disgust to creatures of respectability. Accordingly, just as ‘marriage, in short, would make for good gays—the kind who would not challenge the norms of straight culture, who would not flaunt sexuality, and who would not insist on living differently from ordinary folk’ (Warner 113), marriage would, similarly, make for good vampires.

Meyer reveals that vampirism can be good—normal, even. If the unnatural desires of the vampire and queer cannot be squelched, the Twilight series reveals that the lifestyles that are assumed to belong to those desires can be. As a result, the queer lifestyle of Edward ultimately becomes indistinguishable from a normative human life. Duggan’s homonormative politics provide a useful platform for addressing and discussing Edward’s normalizing tendencies and his desire to be seen as the same. Accordingly, as gay and lesbian individuals acquire more social and legal equality in North America and social attitudes toward non-normative sexualities evolve, representations of queer individuals change as well. Situating the vampire—a figure that has been championed by queer folks for being queer—as a character that desires to embrace normality as opposed to rejecting it seems fitting to a decade that has begun to accept the emergent normative queer.

In 1995, Nina Auerbach argued that vampires, far from being simply fantastical monsters, were creatures that embodied the age in which they were created. What vampires are, she maintains, ‘in any given generation is a part of what [she] is and what [her] times have become’ (Auerbach 1). Referring to the years in between 1989 and 1993 (the years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency), Auerbach draws compelling parallels and makes convincing comparisons between the representations of vampires and the moral panics and social fears of the period. Correspondingly, my intervention in vampire studies has explored the rather recent depiction of the ‘normal monster’ while discerning how its depiction similarly parallels contemporary Anglo-American politics and culture.

This scholarly work took shape during 2011 and 2013 when debates about sexuality took front stage in U.S. politics. It was during these years that Rick Santorum, one of the Republican primary candidates, was glitter bombed by protesters for his hateful and homophobic denouncements of same-sex marriage. It was during these years that President Obama was re-inaugurated, defeating Mitt Romney. It was during these years that Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage and his administration urged the Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex couples. It was during these years that landmark victories for gay rights were achieved, including the legal recognition of same-sex couples from the federal government in states where same-sex marriage is legal. It was also during these years that the final Twilight film, Breaking Dawn: Part II (Condon 2012), which grants the undead but no longer unwed couple Edward and Bella a happily-ever-after ending in spite of their supposed difference, was released. [End Page 18]

These are queer times in which we live. Queer (stange), indeed, when our vampires look and act like what we imagine normative people to look and act like; however, it is not surprising that creatures that have traditionally embodied difference look and act like (some of) ‘us’ now. Returning to Auerbach’s objective, vampires, far from being unimportant and nonsensical creatures, ‘matter because when properly understood, they make us see that our lives are implicated in theirs and our times are inescapable’ (9). Consequently, as North America witnesses a mainstreaming shift in attitudes toward (white, wealthy, able-bodied, male) gays, so, too does it experience a change in attitudes toward one of queer folks’ figurative and metaphoric counterparts, the (white, wealthy, able-bodied, male) vampire. Thus, Meyer’s hetero(normative) vampire reflects an emerging homo(normative) queer.

In this article, I have sought to recover the apparently absent queer of the Twilight series. A narrative about a supposedly odd and out-of-place girl meeting and falling in love with a vampire (or, more appropriately, a rich, white (super)man living with vampirism), the Twilight series is not a text about the abnormal, but instead, one about the normal. Normality is not something that has traditionally come easy to queer folks, and thus, drawing a parallel between Meyer’s normal vampire and the queer identity, commonly understood in opposition to the ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ and ‘good’, has not been a common strategy among scholars theorizing around the Twilight series. I, however, maintain that the normalcy of Meyer’s normative Edward Cullen can be attributed to recent changes in both American attitudes toward and representations of queer individuals. In a society where people once considered different and strange are more frequently understood as being ‘normal’, it only makes sense that the figures they influenced, embraced, and celebrated also evolve to accommodate the period’s new attitudes and perceptions.


[1] This work does take up both textual and visual vampire fictions as if they are identical mediums. While the article does not permit space to discuss the differences between textual and visual constructions of the vampire, it is worth noting that they do differ. Generally, vampires of film adaptations are emptied of much of the queerness of their literary counterparts. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

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Anatol, Giselle Liza. Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Auerbach, Nina. ‘My Vampire, My Friend: The Intimacy Dracula Destroyed.’ Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. Ed. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 11-16. Print.

—. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

Boyer, Sabrina. ‘“Thou Shalt Not Crave Thy Neighbor”: True Blood, Abjection, and Otherness.’ Popular American Culture 33.2 (2011): 21-41. Print.

Brace, Patricia, and Robert Arp. ‘Coming Out of the Coffin and Coming out of the Closet.’ True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 93-108. Print.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

—. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

—. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.’ Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990. Print.

Cain, Jimmie. ‘Racism and the Vampire: The Anti-Slavic Premise of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture. Ed. John Edgar. Browning and Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009. 127-134. Print.

Click, Melissa A., Jennifer Stevens. Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & the Vampire Franchise. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.

Condon, Bill. dir. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2011. DVD. 16 November 2011.

—. dir. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2011. DVD. 20 August 2012.

Creed, Barbara. ‘Woman as Vampire: The Hunger.’ The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Ed. Barbara Creed. London: Routledge, 1993. 59-72. Print.

Crow, David. ‘Ecumenical News.’ Ecumenical News. N.p., 23 June 2013. Web.16 July 2013.

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Culver, Jennifer. ‘Dressing Up and Playing: Vampire Assimilation in Human Playground.’ True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 19-32. Print.

Curtis, William. ‘‘Honey, If We Can’t Kill People, What’s the Point of Being a Vampire?’: Can Vampires be Good Citizens?’ True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 65-78. Print.

Duggan, Lisa. ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.’ Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics. Ed. Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 175-194. Print.

Dyer, Richard. ‘It’s In His Kiss!: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism.’ The Culture of Queers. London: Routledge, 2002. 70-89. Print.

Erzen, Tanya. Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Print.

Grandena, Florian. ‘Heading Toward the Past: The Twilight Vampire Figure as Surveillance Metaphor.’ Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader. Ed. Marina Levina. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 35-52. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

—. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Halperin, David M. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

Hardwicke, Catherine. dir. Twilight. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2008. DVD. 22 August 2012.

Housel, Rebecca, and Jeremy Wisnewski. Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981. Print.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1996. Print.

Kane, Kathryn. ‘A Very Queer Refusal: The Chilling Effect of the Cullens’ Heteronormative Embrace. Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & the Vampire Franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens. Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 103-118. Print.

Latham, Rob. Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. ‘Carmilla.’ Children of the Night: Classic Vampire Stories. Ed. David Stuart Davies. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2007. 65-132. Print.

Lee, Debbie. ‘Proximity’s Monsters: Ethnography and Anti-Slavery Law in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.’ Slavery and the Romantic Imagination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 156-179. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Marche, Stephen. ‘What’s Really Going on With All These Vampires?’ Esquire. 13.10 2009: n. page. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967. Print.

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McFarland, Jami. ‘Triangulated Desire in Meyer’s Twilight: A Queer Dynamic.’ Journal of Dracula Studies 15 (2013). 23-46. Print.

Morey, Anne. Genre, Reception, and Adaptation in the Twilight Series. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.

Nayar, Pramod. ‘How to Domesticate a Vampire: Gender, Blood Relations and Sexuality in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight’. Nebula. 7.3 (2010): 60-76. Print.

Newland, Paul. ‘The Grateful Un-dead: Count Dracula and the Transnational Counterculture in Dracula A.D. 1972.’ Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture. Ed. John Edgar. Browning and Caroline Joan Picart. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009. 135-152. Print.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Rubin, Gayle. ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.’ Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1984. 267-319. Print.

Skal, David J. ‘Rotten Blood.’ The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993. 332-353. Print.

Slade, David. dir. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2010. DVD. 20 August 2012.

Sommers, Joseph. ‘The Other Edward: Twilight‘s Queer Construction of the Vampire as an Idealized Teenage Boyfriend.’ Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol and Margaret Kramar. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 153-168. Print.

Sutherland, Sharon. ‘Piercing the Corporate Veil—with a Stake?: Vampire Imagery and the Law.’ Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Ed. Peter Day. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. 159-176. Print.

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Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free, 1999. Print.

Weiss, Andrea. Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in Film. New York, NY: Penguin, 1993. Print.

Weitz, Chris. dir. New Moon. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2009. DVD. 20 August 2012.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema. London: Wallflower, 2012. Print.

Williamson, Milly. The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy. London: Wallflower, 2005. Print.

Wilson, Natalie. Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2011. Print.

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“You and I are humans, and there is something complicated between us”: Untamed and queering the heterosexual historical romance
by Jodi McAlister

Untamed by Anna Cowan was one of the most keenly anticipated and polarising historical romances of 2013. A debut novel from an Australian author, it won Favourite Historical Romance at the 2013 Australian Romance Readers Awards,[1] as well as netting Cowan the Favourite New Romance Author award.[2] It attracted rave reviews from some readers, but was criticised harshly by others. This is perhaps unsurprising, because Untamed is an unusual novel: while it adheres to the structure and many of the tropes of [End Page 1] what we might think of as a typical heterosexual historical romance, it is also recognisably queer.

The popularity of Untamed and its notoriety within the online romance reading community make it an ideal candidate for study, because it raises an interesting question: what does it mean to queer the straight romance, and can it be done in a way that readers find satisfying? (This question is asked with the obvious caveat that no single text can be satisfying to all readers of a novel; however, it is certainly worth inquiring as to whether a novel can be satisfying to enough readers to position it as a “successful” text.) Romance novels are often criticised for reproducing rigid gender roles, usually because they are read as reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. What reader reactions to Untamed show is that there is a considerable appetite for more fluid portrayals of gender, and that many readers are prepared to reject rigid archetypes. As such, I am rather more interested in readers’ reactions to the text than the text itself in this article: I do not seek to provide some kind of authoritative reading of this text, nor to argue whether this text is ultimately successful in its project or not. I approach this text with the understanding that popular texts are polysemic, containing the possibility for a myriad of different readings. It is these readings which are of most consequence to me in this article: in what circumstances is Untamed read as queer?

To briefly summarise the plot: the heroine of Untamed is Katherine “Kit” Sutherland, the eldest daughter of a genteel but poor family barely clinging to respectability. She has come to London for one season at the age of 28, where she is awkwardly and badly attempting to perform the role of marriage-minded debutante. At a ball, she encounters hero Jude, Duke of Darlington, who has disguised one of his friends as himself so that he can move around the room in relative disguise. (We should note here the gender neutrality of both protagonists’ names, one textual signal of the queerness of their relationship.) Jude needs to disguise his identity because he is intent on seducing the ball’s host and the book’s villain, Lady Marmotte, for political reasons – a sexual encounter which Kit accidentally witnesses. But although this figure of the daring rakish seducer is immediately familiar to the reader of the historical romance, the book swiftly complicates the trope. Kit recognises immediately that playing this role is self-destructive to Jude, and not an expression of his true desires. Fascinated with her ability to see through his disguises, Jude makes a deal with Kit: he will stop his sexual affair with her married younger sister Lydia if Kit will allow him to leave London with her and return to her family’s country house as her guest. What he does not say, and what Kit does not expect, is that he will travel with her dressed as a woman, a costume he wears for more than half the book.

This figure of the cross-dressing duke is, for the most part, what has endowed Untamed with its notoriety (despite the fact that Kit also cross-dresses), and it is the most discussed aspect of the book in reviews. It is certainly the factor that makes the book unusual: while cross-dressing heroines appear in historical romance with some regularity, cross-dressing heroes are comparatively rare. As I will discuss, Jude becomes the locus for many of the concerns and anxieties expressed by readers around the book’s particularly brand of queerness. But we should not make the mistake of situating Untamed’s cross-dressing duke within an otherwise “standard” historical world. To examine the book’s queerness, we must look at in its entirety. It is a book deeply concerned with performance: of performing gender, performing social roles, and even, at a deeper textual level, performing history. Ultimately, it is Kit and Jude’s failure to adequately perform the first [End Page 2] two that leads to their romantic connection; and the book’s failure to adequately perform the last that enables their union. Performance is both eroticised and ultimately rejected. Untamed appears to be a rejection of rigid archetypes, aspiring to protagonists who are individuals rather than normatively masculine or feminine: an idea that Kit expresses when she thinks of her relationship with Jude that, “you and I are humans, and there is something complicated between us.”[3] However, as I will discuss further, readers had varying opinions of the success of Untamed in this regard.

Queering the Straight Romance – Untamed versus The Masqueraders

To highlight the way that gender roles are read and queered in Untamed, it is useful to read it against another text with a similar plot which does not have the same aspirations to queerness and fluidity. I have chosen The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer. While reading a text from 1928 against one from 2013 may seem somewhat unfair, this historical gap is in fact useful to my purposes. The time period in which Heyer was writing effectively precludes her from any aspirations to queerness, as this was hardly a concept with which she was familiar: although The Masqueraders clearly has some queer potentiality, it is just as clearly recuperated into heterosexual romantic love based in normative gender roles. The Masqueraders is also an ur-text for romance with cross-dressing protagonists, and is clearly one of Untamed’s direct ancestors. As such, reading the two texts against each other allows us to isolate the textual elements where Untamed’s project of queering becomes obvious.

For purposes of definition, I am relying on David Halperin’s explication of the word “queer”. He writes that:

“Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers… ‘Queer’, in any case, does not designate a class of already objectified pathologies or perversions; rather, it describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance. It is from the eccentric positionality occupied by the queer subject that it may become possible to envision a variety of possibilities for reordering the relations among sexual behaviours, erotic identities, constructions of gender, forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community – for restructuring, that is, the relations among power, truth and desire.”[4]

Halperin’s definition places emphasis on the fluidity of queerness. He does not denote a number of identities and designate them as “queer”: instead, he argues that the queer space is one of infinite possibility which cannot be contained by such rigid boundaries. The openness and fluidity of this queer space thus makes it a productive one for a freer existence than is typically allowed – one which, I contend, negates the need for performance, as one’s true identity can be expressed. It is in this space that the happy ending of Untamed takes place: a space where Kit and Jude are freed from performing the [End Page 3] gendered and social roles prescribed to them by their historical society. This is clearly anachronistic: the novel’s final scene, in which a homosexual couple, a heterosexual couple, and the complex and androgynous Kit and Jude all picnic together harmoniously and lovingly in a sort of queer Eden, is distinctly outside the realm of historical possibility. Understandably, many readers took issue with Untamed’s historical inaccuracy; however, it can be read as another way in which the novel is queered. In many ways, Untamed invokes a sort of retrofuturism, with history itself becoming a fluid “horizon of possibility”.[5]

This preoccupation with rigidity and fluidity was clearly part of author Cowan’s project when writing Untamed. In personal correspondence with me, she wrote:

“Society thought about gender very different back then, and even though in many ways it was more rigid, there was more room for men to play the woman (e.g. in school productions) – especially in the aristocracy, where male dress was only just moving away from the very effeminate.”[6]

Cowan is essentially having it both ways here: the strict rules of the historical society provide rigid gender and social norms (which Kit and Jude fail to adequately perform), although the society still contains the generative possibility for queerness, particularly in regards to masculinity. But this is a sort of performative queerness: the effeminate could only ever be a costume for a man, not an intrinsic part of his identity. This is the kind of formulation we see at work in The Masqueraders, which is arguably the most well-known romance text featuring a cross-dressing male protagonist, and a foundational text for the cross-dressing historical romance (although these texts usually feature cross-dressing heroines only, making The Masqueraders, with its cross-dressing hero, particularly apt to compare to Untamed). Hero Robin is playing the role of a woman, Miss Kate Merriot, while his sister, heroine Prudence, plays the role of Mr Peter Merriot, in service of one of his father’s schemes. However, it is clear that Miss Merriot is, for Robin, a costume only. His desires are firmly heterosexual, and when he acts on them, it is in male costume: he appears at a ball masked so as to begin a relationship with his love interest Letitia, whom he later saves from a forced marriage by playing at being a highwayman and killing her prospective husband in the very masculine ritual of the duel. He wears petticoats for utility’s sake only, and the novel ends with him casting them off forever to marry Letitia and to take up his public identity as his father’s son. His cross-dressing is, perhaps, playful, but his brand of masculinity is normatively heterosexual. Despite the admittedly unusual cross-dressing, The Masqueraders is not, I contend, an especially queer novel (which is hardly surprising, considering it was written in 1928 in a social context when “queer” was hardly a concept Heyer would have known or approved of).

Untamed, by contrast, builds on the foundations laid by The Masqueraders, but has a recognisably queer project. . Robin is clearly a man concealed in a dress, but when Jude assumes female dress, he essentially becomes his alter-ego Lady Rose. Kit describes his transformation, which she finds deeply disconcerting:

“Kit had seen her brother, Tom, assume local roles in the local, amateur productions – she’d even seen him act the woman more than once, when the number of parts required it. He always remained Tom, acting. The Duke’s transformation was absolute, down to the very marrow of his bones. There [End Page 4] wasn’t a single hint of self-consciousness about him. His demeanour, the set of his mouth, the lazy sway of his hand, all belonged to Lady Rose. The ease with which he changed his skin was frightening.

How could she ever hope to glimpse his true face?”[7]

This quote highlights the text’s preoccupation with the difference between performance and identity. It demonstrates both Kit’s discomfort with Jude’s ability to perform and her instinctive knowledge about his fragmented, wounded identity. She knows that while costumes conceal Jude’s true identity – there are many poignant and erotic scenes of her undressing him throughout the novel, unlacing gendered clothes to expose the human body beneath – they are also representations of his identity. The restrictions placed on him by society – both gendered restrictions, which force him to perform masculinity, and social restrictions, which force him to perform aristocracy – have caused his identity to become fragmented.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued that shame can be defining for queer subjectivities, and we can see this in evidence in Untamed.[8] Jude’s shame at aspects of his identity has facilitated this fragmentation, causing him to desire to become his costumes. He has the following discussion with Kit:

“’I know I’m cracked – I feel it all the way through me – but there is this… thing inside. If I let him out he will – […] I need to take… him… out.’

‘Is that your plan? Kill the man inside?’

Yes.  Kill what was sick and dangerous. Be the man outside who didn’t frighten people. Be only that man.”[9]

We can read the “man inside” as Jude’s true, queer self, who is “sick and dangerous” in a rigid historical society which has no facility for expressing queer, fluid identities. However, it is arguably the “man outside” – Jude’s performance of a normatively masculine rakish aristocrat (an archetypal historical romance hero) – which is the dangerous one, in the sense that it is dangerous to Jude’s own psyche. Jude’s shame at his own identity often makes him perform an outward lack of shame (“How could anyone be so lacking in moral sense – in shame?” Kit thinks, early in her acquaintance with him, astonished by his brazenness at seducing Lady Marmotte at a party in Lady Marmotte’s own house),[10] a sort of defensive function. His journey throughout the book is one of exposure: not to the world, but to Kit. Their romance is dependent on the fact that she knows and accepts all of his identities – the outwardly performed ones, and the inner loathed ones he prefers to keep hidden. She accepts him not as man or woman, but as human. Their love enables him to construct a whole, unified and distinctly queer self.

This is almost the opposite of what occurs in The Masqueraders, where Robin casts off his feminine identity completely. When Robin informs Letitia that he has been masquerading as her friend Miss Merriot while also occasionally appearing to her as a man, it is to apologise for the deception. He does not need to reassure her that his skirts are not [End Page 5] part of his identity – his normative heterosexual masculinity goes without saying. He is not ashamed of his masquerade, nor is his masculinity questioned by either Letitia or the text: and, indeed, we might argue that Robin’s distinct lack of shame is one of the reasons that The Masqueraders is not a queer text, despite its preoccupation with costumes and performing gender – and is, in that sense, despite its queer potential, a product of its time.

We should also note here that Jude’s particular brand of androgynous masculinity is one which the text seeks to eroticise (with varying degrees of success for different readers, as I will discuss). In addition to his cross-dressing, Jude is bisexual, something which Kit finds both erotic and troubling. She is worried that, in addition to sleeping with her sister Lydia, Jude will seduce her brother Tom (who is gay) and break his heart, but also imagines, “Jude’s pale beauty… an image of his limbs hot and in movement, his chest pushing flat against another man’s chest”,[11] an image which she clearly finds sexually interesting if somewhat frightening. Tellingly, this image focuses on Jude’s naked body, with his costumes stripped away from him, signalling Kit’s romantic and sexual fascinating with Jude’s “true” self, rather than with one of the performative versions of his identity. The use of the generally feminine word “beauty” is also key here, contributing to the eroticisation of a genderfluid male body: something never evident in The Masqueraders.

One reviewer of the text read this eroticisation of Jude as “fannish”, because the figure of Jude drew on archetypes of eroticised masculine suffering common in fan cultures.[12] This reviewer argued that Jude is a “woobie”: a fandom term for a character forced to suffer who is both pathetic and (often erotically) compelling. The hero who suffers is regularly eroticised by romance; however, key to the “woobie” is, according to this reviewer, a certain fluidity:

“The woobie is an object of both identification and desire, in a fluidity of identification which I think tends to be more characteristic of women than men, or of marginalised people than privileged ones on an axis of privilege.[13]

The language this reviewer uses suggests a familiarity with thought around gender and genre, and may point to a particularly literate reading of Jude – one that would not be available to, say, the contemporary readers of The Masqueraders. It also points to fluidity not necessarily in gender but in identification: the reader can both desire the erotically suffering Jude, and identify with him as queered hero. This would seem to be a demonstration and complication of the ideas expressed in Laura Kinsale’s essay ‘The Androgynous Reader’, in which she claims that romance readers often identify with hero as well as heroine, embracing both masculine and feminine. Kinsale writes that,

“as she identifies with the hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realise the maleness within herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and… can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honour and gentleness and vulnerability: yes, ma’am, all those romantic clichés. In short, she can be a man.”[14] [End Page 6]

Kinsale seems to be suggesting quite a literal queer reading here: the reader, as well as the protagonists, is fluid and unfixed. Read alongside Kinsale’s essay, Jude’s gender fluidity potentially allows him to function not just as object of desire, but object of identification. This makes reader reactions to his portrayals doubly interesting. Overall, where readers read Jude as feminine, he drew criticism, but where he was read as androgynous, he was more successful. There is, it seems, an appetite for gender fluidity within romance: for a cross-dressing hero who does not simply shuck off his skirts at the end of the novel like Heyer’s Robin and recuperate himself into normative heterosexual masculinity. Kinsale argues that what romance readers savour “is the freedom to expand into all aspects, feminine and masculine, of their own being.”[15] Reader reactions to Untamed appear to prove her point: readers, it would seem, are keen to have objects of identification and desire outside the “traditional” fixed gender archetypes of heterosexual historical romance. As one reviewer pertinently puts it, Untamed is “everything I didn’t even realise I wanted from Georgette Heyer.”[16]

Performing Gender: reading Jude

While both protagonists in Untamed cross-dress, it performs different functions within the text. Kit uses cross-dressing as a symbolic way of laying claim to agency, but never passes or attempts to pass as a man. Jude, on the other hand, successfully performs gender. His disguise as Lady Rose is wholly convincing, and only Kit is able to penetrate it. Kit’s brother Tom, for example, thinks that “She [Lady Rose] changed from one thing to another so quickly it sometimes smacked the breath from him,”[17] but, as the use of the female pronoun indicates, never suspects that Lady Rose is not a woman. Even Kit herself finds herself occasionally confused: watching Tom and Jude play cards, she realises that she sees “a man and a… woman.”[18] Cross-dressing both signifies and problematises Jude’s identity: he uses clothes not just to disguise himself as, but to become the roles that he plays, whether it is Lady Rose or the Duke of Darlington. Within the text, these identities are specifically referred to as “roles”: Jude reminds himself he “still had a role to play”[19] after he meets Kit for the first time; and Kit finds his entirely believable masquerade as Lady Rose frustrating, wondering “if he was even conscious of playing a role.”[20] But at the same time as these roles are performative, they are also real. “You seem to be confused. I’m a woman,” Jude tells Kit towards the midpoint of the novel.[21] He means this in jest, but there is also an undercurrent of seriousness: Jude’s identity is simultaneously performative and real, the roles becoming the performer, the performer becoming the role. As the heroine of this particular romance novel, Kit is uniquely equipped to see through Jude’s charade – she  alone can “run a finger through the grime on a window to let some light shine through”[22] – but the person she sees beneath the costumes is not a gendered self: she sees not man, not woman, but Jude.

Marjorie Garber notes that scholars examining cross-dressing have a tendency to look not at but through the cross-dresser, which she calls an “underestimation of the object”.[23]She argues that the notion of a “third” sex created by cross-dressing, operating outside of a rigid gender binary, has been misused by many scholars, who have attempted to co-opt it for one gender.[24] She contends that this third sex is, in fact, “a mode of [End Page 7] articulation [and] a way of describing a state of possibility.”[25] Cross-dressing becomes an “interruption”, a “disruptive act of putting into question”.[26] Jude, we might argue, belongs to this third sex, his cross-dressing putting into question normative ideas of masculinity. Kit is the only person who has been able to look at instead of through him, accepting him as a human without the need to force him into performing a binarised gender role with which he is uncomfortable. As such, Jude uses her image to give himself comfort: “he remembered, like whisky pouring warm through his chest, that it didn’t matter… She didn’t love him because he was a duke,” he thinks towards the end of the novel.[27] The reference to “duke” here is, on the surface, a reference to his social position, but it is also a reference to duke as a masculine role: Kit, after all, loved him just as much when he was masquerading as Lady Rose. It is this ability of Kit’s to both look at and see through Jude that makes their romance possible.

As well as disrupting masculinity more broadly, in a generic sense, Jude also disrupts the archetype of the historical romance. While, like many other historical heroes, he enjoys a high social status and a privileged position of wealth, his cross-dressing is in many ways a rejection of the “alpha” masculinity with which so many of these heroes are endowed. While in some ways, Darlington is similar to what we might call the “dandy” hero – the man who cares about fashion, style, and clothing, and who is generally fastidious about appearance – it would be rare to find a romance hero who self-describes as not “the manly variety of man”.[28] For instance, in Anne Gracie’s The Winter Bride (2014), which like Untamed, is a historical romance set in Britain by an Australian author, hero Freddy is fastidious about his appearance and shares some characteristics, such as flippancy, with Jude, but he also partakes in stereotypically masculine pursuits, such as boxing. While Freddy certainly appreciates women’s clothing, it seems unlikely that he would ever wear it. Jude is an unusual hero, and his cross-dressing has become the novel’s most notorious aspect for this reason: it seeks to interrupt and disrupt expectations, creating a new – queered – space of possibility for the heterosexual romance narrative.

Garber ultimately concludes that cross-dressing allows for the possibility of “structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself.”[29] This exposes a vulnerability internal to society, which, she contends, is wedded to binaristic modes of thinking.[30] Lisa Fletcher, writing specifically about the cross-dressing heroine in historical romance fiction, persuasively argues that Garber’s thinking here is too Utopian. She goes on to contend that popular romance fiction largely uses cross-dressing to dispel, rather than create, threats to normative constructions of sexuality.[31] If we look at Heyer’s The Masqueraders, we can see Fletcher’s point proven: as she writes, the declaration of “I love you” is concurrent with a revelation of the cross-dresser’s true sex and a reaffirmation of their heterosexuality (true here of both cross-dressing protagonists: Prudence is revealed as a woman, Robin as a man).[32] Untamed, however, aspires to something closer to Garber’s Utopian figuration in the character of Jude. Jude’s cross-dressing is used to signify his membership of Garber’s “third sex”: to trouble the binary between masculinity and femininity, particularly the way this binary is regularly represented in historical romance fiction. It is Kit’s ability to recognise Jude for who he is – outside the binary – on which their romantic narrative is predicated.

The success of the novel for many readers hinged on whether this binary was successfully troubled, as opposed to simply flipped. There were few reviewers who disliked [End Page 8] the novel on the grounds that it attempted this queering of the hero: rather, success hinged on execution. For the following reviewer, the book was successful:

“And for me, it didn’t feel like he was just a man putting on a dress, it felt like an actual expression of an integral part of who he was – he felt genderqueer to me (even though I know that in the time of the novel, gender and sexual orientations were seen very differently than they are today). As Lady Rose, Darlington is able to put aside the social expectations and constraints on him as a duke and he’s able to deal with Kit and her family on a more level playing field. In many ways, he’s more comfortable as Lady Rose than he is as Darlington.”[33]

The appeal here of the portrayal of Jude is the way it equalises the relationship between Kit and Jude, signalling an awareness of the problematic power dynamics of heterosexuality. Jude’s innate queerness allows him to construct a relationship with Kit that, although nominally heterosexual and certainly appearing so to the historical society of the novel, mitigates these problematic aspects of historical heterosexual power. Along similar lines, another reviewer writes simply that, “[t]hey [Kit and Jude] are both very androgynous. They are both so very human,”[34] which again signals the appeal of the equalised relationship between Kit and Jude: they are the same, therefor they are equal, which addresses many of the problems of power that are often concerns of the historical romance. With these issues of gendered power set aside, Kit and Jude are able to simply be themselves – to be human.

However, for many reviewers, Jude’s queerness was not successfully portrayed. Instead of the masculine archetype of the romance hero being troubled, the book was read as simply inverting romantic archetypes, with Kit playing the role of hero and Jude the role of heroine. Jude becomes not just feminine, but, for many reviewers, negatively feminine. For example, Alexis Hall (the author of acclaimed same-sex romance Glitterland) wrote the following comment on Dear Author under the moniker AJH:

“I know Ms Cowan has said explicitly Darlington is ‘fairly queer-gendered’ and he’s living in a world full of binaries so it’s not like he has the option to understand himself as anything other than an unmanly man, but his ‘unmanly’ traits appear to be: passivity, weakness, powerlessness, fearfulness, and frigidity. I don’t particularly see those traits as gendered, I just see them as negative. Also, if you’re going to assign your genderqueer characters traits, which for better or worse, code as female, why chose such as stereotypically feeble ones? I’m not disdaining or condemning Darlington for all the time he spends cowering and weeping on the floor (truthfully, I could see why someone night be into it) but he seems to walk into the text, be briefly intriguing, have unhealthy, self-destructive sex on a piano, jump into a frock for no reason and then commence falling apart.”[35]

Similarly, another commenter wrote: [End Page 9]

“I’m all for having non-stereotypical characters, and I applaud that, but at the same time just giving your heroine the stereotypical male characteristics and vice versa isn’t something that strikes me as really playing with gender roles, especially if it’s reinforced that ‘oh he’s behaving like a woman’.”[36]

Reading these comments, we could argue that Jude’s masquerade as Lady Rose is, perhaps, too successful. He performs femininity so well that he is read as feminine – and this is a kind of femininity which is disempowered. This is arguably reinforced by the book’s epilogue, where Kit has taken on the role of captain of industry, while Jude is blissfully domestic: an inversion of the typical historical roles of man and woman. Kit has social power, which she enjoys wielding, while Jude is content to stand by her side. We can see here Fletcher’s contention that cross-dressing in historical romance can work to reinforce, rather than subvert, normative constructions of gender: Jude’s characterisation, particularly his vulnerability, is read as feminine, thus reinforcing that as a feminine quality even though he is not a woman. One reviewer highlights this explicitly, writing that she is “not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are ‘worn’ by the opposite gender.”[37] Where Jude is read as feminine instead of as a member of Garber’s third sex, he becomes problematic to readers, because he is read as negatively feminine.[38] This is in contrast to Kit, who is read as positively masculine. This is something author Cowan found frustrating and sexist: in correspondence with me, she wrote that, “I never intended to write Jude as female – he’s a version of masculinity I like.”[39] However, many readers did not find that Cowan succeeded in her intentions, and read Jude as an example of a kind of pathetic femininity, even though he is male.

This perception of negative femininity in Jude seems to revolve around his emotional vulnerability, which becomes more pronounced as Kit strips his costumes from him. We might read this as a stripping of armour, and thus of power, leading to a reading of Jude as disempowered and thus taking on the feminine role in a heterosexual binary. As Jessica Tripler notes in her review of the reviews of Untamed, the vulnerable hero who needs comforting is a romance staple.[40] It is Jude’s cross-dressing, we can extrapolate, that is the complicating factor which is leading his vulnerability to be encoded feminine for so many readers: unlike Robin of The Masqueraders, who remains masculine in petticoats, Jude becomes explicitly equated with the feminine. For these readers, he has not been successfully portrayed as Garber’s “third sex”, and the horizon of possibility that Halperin argues queerness designates has not been sighted.

However, where readers do read Jude as successfully genderfluid, rather than as a male character adhering to a rigid heroine instead of hero archetype, then not only does Untamed work as a queer text, due in large part to the equalised power relations between Kit and Jude, but the erotic appeal that Cowan has tried to encode in Jude – “he is the sex symbol hero, for me,” she wrote in correspondence with me[41] – is activated. Tripler notes that there are a number of romance review websites which feature “book boyfriends” – that is, pictures of handsome men who might resemble romance heroes – but none of these websites featured Untamed, despite the fact that it attracted a considerable amount of press and attention within the romance reading world. As Tripler mentions, the focus in these reviews is on the “hotness” of the heroes, which is usually analogous with his traditional masculinity.[42] Jude appears to have been troubling for these websites. Despite [End Page 10] this, other reviewers – notably, reviewers who enjoyed the book – found him distinctly appealing. One Goodreads reviewer, who states that she “adore[s] pretty men. Especially in dresses”, uses pictures of cross-dresser Kaya to illustrate her imagined Jude.[43] Another reviewer calls Jude “deliciously androgynous” and wonders whether the character represented on the novel’s cover (a dark-haired person, apparently a woman, in lacy gloves and long dress) is meant to be Kit or Jude, hoping that it is Jude, because “that is hot”.[44] This signals the appeal of the cross-dressing, genderfluid hero for a specific audience: one that finds this particular brand of androgyny erotically appealing.

Performing social roles: reading Kit

As Jackie C Horne notes in her review of Untamed, the cross-dressing heroine has long been a staple of historical romance, with putting on men’s clothing a way for her to wield social power within a social structure that denies it to her.[45] In this sense, Kit’s cross-dressing in Untamed is much more straightforward than Jude’s. Towards the beginning of the book, she describes herself as “a narrow kind of woman with no power,”[46] and her textual journey is towards obtaining it: ultimately, she dons trousers as a way of accessing an agentic spectrum encoded masculine. For her, cross-dressing is not a way of performing gender: instead, it enables her to perform social power. This is a practice that Kit seems to learn from Jude: in their first encounter, she describes the Duke of Darlington as “a hairstyle, some tall collars, and a cravat that other men envy.”[47] This demonstrates her awareness, from the beginning of the novel, of the way clothes can create power – particularly gendered clothes, which make the wearer the object of envy to their own sex (and, by expansion, the object of desire to the other). Kit’s awareness is reinforced as correct by the text: she says this unwittingly to Jude himself, unaware that he is the real duke and that the Darlington she is describing is in fact his friend Crispin, who is dressed in Jude’s clothes as they playfully attempt to ascertain just how long it will take their peers to realise that the man in the hairstyle, collars, and cravat is not Jude at all. Crispin is thus – for a little while, at least – able to utilise the social power afforded to a man of such high status. Kit learns from this and deliberately appears in public in men’s clothing as a way of claiming the status and agency that is afforded to men in her society (not, importantly, claiming maleness as a gender).

If we return to Halperin’s definition of “queer” as “at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”, then Kit’s cross-dressing is certainly queer. It does not necessarily express a queer sexual identity – although her normatively masculine qualities, such as physical and mental strength, are part of her erotic appeal to Jude – but it is a definite challenge to the normal, legitimate and dominant in her society: the patriarchal structures of power. This claim is one that Kit makes deliberately and consciously, something which sets her apart from many of her fellow cross-dressing heroines. Prudence in The Masqueraders does not use her cross-dressing to claim any real kind of power, nor is it allowed to her by the text in any real measure – for example, when she is goaded into a duel, she is rescued by her eventual husband Sir Anthony Fanshawe, who engages her prospective opponent in another duel the day before she is due to fight. Prudence passes as [End Page 11] a man, but Kit does not, and this lack of interest in doing so is key to her claim for power. Her first appearance in men’s clothing is in public at a ball:

“She wore a midnight-blue coat that had to have been stitched on. The shoulders were crusted with jewels that refracted candlelight from the chandeliers above. It made her look even stronger. Taller. Hard and incomparable.

She wore breeches tight as skin, her long, muscled legs on display for everyone to see, feet planted firmly in shining black boots.

Her hair was gathered in a tight knot on top of her head. Her face with its crooked nose and severe brows, was plain and exposed. Her collars were short, so that the expanse of her brown throat was clear.

[…]

She was like something new and badly understood that was going to change everything. Like electricity.”[48]

Apart from the use of the pronoun “she”, there are no descriptions of overt femininity here: instead, description relies on Kit’s physical strength – an outward representation of her emotional strength. Indeed, there is in this excerpt an implicit rejection of feminised beauty: Kit exposes her “crooked nose” and “severe brows”, as well as highlighting her “muscled legs”. However, Kit does not “pass” like Jude does: instead, she dons male clothing to access masculinised power and rituals. Her first act, upon entering the ball, is to strike the book’s villain, Lady Marmotte, across the face with her glove, challenging her to a duel.[49] Similarly, Kit ultimately plays Lady Marmotte at piquet for a significant piece of information which would ruin Jude – performing a masculine ritual (gambling), while Jude becomes the damsel in distress. When Kit dons male clothing, it is the culmination of a running narrative thread around her inability and refusal to perform conventional femininity, and a claim for social power.

It is this to which Jude is drawn, both emotionally and sexually. He eroticises Kit’s strength: while he is dressed as Lady Rose, he watches her chop wood, and thinks, “[h]er movements were heroic, articulate, economic. She was so, so strong,”[50] a moment which swiftly develops into a sexual fantasy. (The word “heroic” is particularly telling here, positioning Kit as the hero – rather than the heroine – of the romance.) At the end of the novel, when she announces her plans to become a captain of industry, his response is, “[m]y God… I cannot wait to watch you live,”[51] awed by her boldness and audacity: traits regularly coded masculine. Kit’s claim to the social power afforded men – and, in a generic sense, the romance hero – is key to her romantic and erotic appeal to Jude, perhaps because it positions her in a queer space, reaching for, per Halperin, a horizon of possibility, as well as making her equal to him. Importantly, in the novel’s two key sex scenes, Kit and Jude are dressed in the clothes of the same gender. In the first, they are both wearing female clothes, and the scene ends with Kit penetrating Jude: “[s]he learned to enter him, so that when he [End Page 12] came he rose up into her mouth and his chest drew the arcing, suspended pain of letting go”.[52] In the second (the first scene of penetrative heterosex), they both wear men’s clothes. The stereotypical tropes of virginity loss in historical romance, where the virgin heroine is initiated into sexual pleasure by the experienced hero, are almost totally absent. Instead, Kit and Jude are constructed as equal participants and desiring agents in all ways in this scene. The masculine power that Kit lays claim to via cross-dressing extends to the bedroom, where she regularly takes control, and is ultimately vital to her relationship with Jude.

Unlike Jude, Kit is generally liked by readers of Untamed. The biggest criticism of her cross-dressing is that it is anachronistic. Overall, she is a far less troubling figure for reviewers than Jude. Perhaps this is because the cross-dressing heroine, unlike the hero, is a relatively familiar archetype: as Horne writes of cross-dressing heroines in her review of Untamed, “though her peers may find her costuming scandalous, the cross-dressing heroine of romance fiction more often finds approval from readers raised to take the equality of women for granted.”[53] It is often noted that the romance is, in many ways, an expression of feminine power.[54] This may explain why Kit is generally liked even by reviewers who felt that the queering of the central relationship was not successfully achieved, and that the binary was flipped instead of problematised: a heroine ending a romance novel with more power than the hero is fairly familiar, although this is often emotional power rather than the literal industrial power Kit wields. She becomes a less problematic figure than Jude, whose more pathetic characteristics are read as reinforcing a version of femininity that is fragile and disempowered. One reviewer favourably writes: “the heroine began the story being the ‘untamed’ of the title, and she finished the book still ‘untamed’”.[55] Kit’s power is not curtailed, and whether the narrative is read as successfully queered or simply a flipped binary, her journey to power appears to be generally satisfying. She is also a less troubling figure, because her costumes are clearly performative: she never “passes” as a man.  While her cross-dressing certainly contributes to the novel’s queerness, it is in a way that does not trouble the typical narrative of the heterosexual historical romance.

Performing history: reading anachronism

As many reviewers note, Untamed is not an especially historically accurate representation of the nineteenth century. While elements of nineteenth century British life and politics are important to the plot – for example, one major subplot revolves around the Corn Laws – it appears to be informed more by a kind of historical verisimilitude than history itself. It is perhaps not coincidental that the majority of the anachronisms in the book revolve around gender: Kit’s public cross-dressing and the fact that the divorcee Lady Marmotte wields immense social power, for example, seem historically unlikely. So too does the Edenic scene that takes place at the end of the novel, where a heterosexual couple, a homosexual couple, and Kit and Jude all picnic together. Arguably, there is a retrofuturist function at play in Untamed: that is, it presents an alternative view of the future as imagined from the past. This anachronism makes the narrative – especially the queer elements of the narrative – possible. Inasmuch as history is rigid, it must become fluid in service of Kit and Jude’s romance, just as the rigid society defined at the beginning of the [End Page 13] novel becomes fluid by the final utopian picnic. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued that heterosexuality “masquerades so readily as History itself,”[56] because heterosexuality is privileged as a kind of organising principle due to its link to reproduction. While Untamed is recognisably a heterosexual romance, it also attempts to construct an alternative history with a distinctly queer bent: one where the link between heterosexuality and history is complicated. History becomes a horizon of possibility, and anachronism is necessary to create the queer space in which the novel’s happy ending takes place.

This makes certain requirements of the reader. They must adopt a fluid reading position, and be willing to treat the past not as fixed but as this horizon of possibility – to embrace the text’s retrofuturist aspects. Because Untamed is marketed as historical romance rather than as part of an overtly retrofuturistic genre (such as steampunk), some readers, unsurprisingly, are unwilling to do this. This reader is one such:

“I’m definitely one of the Historical Authenticity police (I believe a popular term is nitpicker), and I totally understand that not everyone cares about this or notices them the way I do. But the issues in this book were really egregious, both in their level of inaccuracy and their importance to the story. Major plot points turned on events that did not or could not have occurred.”[57]

This signals not so much a resistance to the book’s attempt to queer its central relationship, but a resistance to anachronism. This is noted as a personal reading preference, but the appeal to realism is telling: this particular reader has certain expectations of the historical romance genre, and is not open to a retrofuturist reading.

Other reviewers, however, had a different view. “I often read historical romances as a particular type of speculative fiction, so deviations from what actually happened or how things worked tend to not bother me… sometimes history must behind service to the story,”[58] one writes, signalling a clear openness to a retrofuturist reading through the reference to speculative fiction. In her review, Kat Mayo specifically identifies the fluidity of the historical backdrop as necessary to the narrative:

“I’m not convinced this is actually a historical romance. It sounds like a historical romance and Cowan uses the convenience of the historical setting and its social mores to create a somewhat familiar backdrop for romance readers, but she doesn’t let the setting get in the way of the plot. This will be a deal breaker to many readers, but it seems clear to me, by the way the story is crafted, that Cowan never really makes an attempt to be faithful to history. The setting is more like a stage in which Cowan sets up her characters, and the backdrop is fluid as it needs to be to tell their story.”[59]

Mayo’s review both highlights that historical realism – or, at least, historical plausible deniability – is something readers expect in the historical romance genre, and identifies that Untamed has a different generic project. Essentially, Untamed presents a request to the reader to treat history as malleable: something which might be uncomfortable to those reading the book with the expectations of historical romance, but acceptable to those who read it via a more speculative lens. [End Page 14]

I suggest that this request is similar to the “unhistoricism” proposed by Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon in ‘Queering History’, which they suggest refuses the “compulsory heterotemporality of historicism.”[60] Goldberg and Menon contend that a process of unhistorical reading should be open to the possibility of anachronism, as it refuses an understanding of the past that treats it as wholly other, as well as rejecting a focus on normative heterosexuality.[61] Fletcher argues that the portrayal of romantic love in historical romance (referring particularly to the phrase “I love you”) functions to link the present to the past, giving heterosexuality a “claim to universality, timelessness and truth”.[62] Untamed, however, rejects the universality of a specifically heterosexual romantic love and instead offers a picture of romantic love with queer potential against a historical backdrop in which such a thing would have been virtually impossible. As such, Untamed requires a kind of unhistorical reading from its readers, asking them to embrace anachronism so that the retrofuturistic queer space in which the romantic happy ending takes place can be established. However, given that the book has been marketed as and is largely discussed as historical romance, readers reading Untamed with the generic requirements of that subgenre in mind have not necessarily been prepared to undertake this unhistorical reading. This does not mean that they are resistant to the book’s queer project – rather, it signals that it fails as a historical romance. This, in turn, would suggest that Sedgwick and Fletcher are correct when they assert that history and heterosexuality are entangled: it is very difficult, it seems, to imagine a historically plausible queer love story that is not clandestine and private, but public.

Conclusion

Untamed is remarkable not because it is necessarily successful – and, indeed, arguing whether it is objectively a successful novel or not is a fraught and ultimately unproductive practice – but because it is unusual. In correspondence with me, Cowan asserted that she sought to queer the heterosexual romance,[63] and reader reactions to this are instructive when we think about the way the genre might evolve in the future. No reviewers took issue with the way the book sought to subvert normative historical social roles: while some noted that Kit’s cross-dressing was anachronistic, none were concerned about her claims on social power typically coded masculine (perhaps, as I argued, because this was an extension and exaggeration of the female victory often encoded in the romance narrative). Similarly, few readers seem to have taken issue with the project of queering the hero. Some did – “the traditionalist in me kept waiting for both characters to do SOMETHING within the normal outlines of Hero and heroine,”[64] one reviewer lamented, another derisively compared the book to the Jerry Springer Show,[65] and a third wrote that, “I guess I am just the ‘urber [sic] alpha male’ type”[66] – but these were comparatively rare (and came, in several instances, from reviewers who referenced a conservative Christian belief system). The figure of the cross-dressing duke was exciting for many readers. The fact that readers generally enjoyed the book greatly when they were able to read Jude as a fluid character, and were disappointed when they read him simply as taking on the role normally played by the heroine is particularly interesting: it signals that there is in fact an appetite among historical romance readers, even readers of exclusively [End Page 15] heterosexual historical romance, for a queered narrative. The willingness of many readers to accept the anachronisms of the book would seem to be another sign of this appetite, although the number that did not suggests that the historical romance genre encodes a requirement for realism, and that it is difficult to write a queered romance within these realistic historical requirements.

Overall, the responses to Untamed demonstrate that there is an appetite among historical romance readers, for a kind of fluidity that we might call queer, particularly in terms of portrayals of gender. Given history’s entanglement with heterosexuality, this is difficult to achieve, even where, as in Untamed, the central romance is nominally heterosexual. However, if we read Untamed against Heyer’s The Masqueraders, we can see the ways in which the historical romance has developed, mirroring modern mores. Regardless of whether or not the book was considered successful by the individual reader, the publication of Untamed would seem to signal a new horizon of possibility for the historical romance, and a growing enthusiasm for a kind of fluidity that we might call queer.


[1] Notably, this broke the stranglehold held on this category by well known (and similarly controversial) Australian historical romance author Anna Campbell, who won the award from 2008-2012.

[2] ‘Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards.’ Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards. 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 August 2014.

[3] Cowan, Anna. Untamed. Destiny Romance, 2013a. Kindle edition, location 1319.

[4] Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 62.

[5] I am using the term “retrofuturism” to refer to idea of an alternative version of the future as imagined in the past. A similar function is used in steampunk novels, another popular (and pseudo-historical) genre. In steampunk, this is a vision of the future as imagined from the nineteenth century: usually a future in which the major technologies are based on steam and clockwork. Interestingly, this idea of the horizon is invoked not only in Halperin’s explication of “queer”, where he speaks about it as a “horizon of possibility”, but also in author SM Stirling’s work on alternate histories, which is drawn on by steampunk scholar Mike Perschon to describe the genre. Stirling writes that alternate history takes place in a world where “horizons are infinite and nothing is fixed in stone”. (Stirling, SM. ‘Why, Then, There’. Worlds That Weren’t. Harry Turtledove, Walter Jon Williams, SM Stirling, Mary Gentle. New York: Penguin, 2005, 151; Perschon, Mike. ‘Finding Nemo: Verne’s antihero as original steampunk.’ Jules Verne Studies 2 (2010): 179-194.)

[6] Cowan, Anna. Personal correspondence with this paper’s author. 30 September 2013c.

[7] Cowan, 2013a, locations 811-815.

[8] Sedgwick’s work on shame appears in several of her written works. Most important for this paper is her article ‘Queer Performativity: Henry James’ The Art of the Novel’, in which she identifies “shame on you” as an alternative performative speech act to the marital “I do” as one which linked to queerness, as the word “queer” cannot decouple itself from associations with shame and stigma. (4) She argues that shame and pride (a word with obvious cultural importance for queer people) are “different interlinings of the same glove”, and that both are performative (5). She writes that, “[s]hame is a bad feeling [End Page 16] attached to what one is: one therefore is something, in experiencing shame” – and perhaps that something is queer. (12).This makes shame the catalyst for “metamorphosis, reframing, refiguration, transfiguration, affective and symbolic loading and deformation” (13) – all of which speak to the “horizon of possibility” offered by queerness in Halperin’s figuration.

[9] Cowan, 2013a, locations 1880-1884.

[10] Cowan, 2013a, location 635.

[11] Cowan, 2013a, locations 3214-3215.

[12] This is particularly true in what is referred to as h/c – hurt/comfort – fan fiction. While this exists across many different fan cultures and can feature protagonists of many gender, particular pleasure seems to be generated for many readers by positioning male characters of the sufferers and object of comfort. (cf. Fathallah, Judith May. “H/c and me: An autoethnographic account of a troubled love affair.” Transformative Works and Cultures 7 (2010).)

[13] Mely. ‘Cowan, Anna: Untamed (2013).’ Coffeeandink. 23 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[14] Kinsale, Laura. ‘The Androgynous Reader’. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, 37.

[15] Kinsale, 40.

[16] Rule, Belinda. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 24 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[17] Cowan, 2013a, location 2742.

[18] Cowan, 2013a, location 1711.

[19] Cowan, 2013a, location 367.

[20] Cowan, 2013 a, location 1795.

[21] Cowan, 2013a, location 2240.

[22] Cowan, 2013a, location 648.

[23] Garber, Marjorie B. Vested interests: Cross-dressing and cultural anxiety. New York: Psychology Press, 1997, 10.

[24] For example, Garber contends that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar attempt to co-opt the term for women when they argue that literary women persist in seeking a genderless third sex, while the blurring of gender boundaries gives literary men a kind of nausea. (9)

[25] Garber, 11.

[26] Garber, 13.

[27] Cowan, 2013a, location 5307.

[28] Cowan, 2013a, locations 1100, 1152.

[29] Garber, 342.

[30] This is perhaps especially true of nineteenth century society. Thomas Laqueur has argued convincingly in Making Sex that a major shift in thinking about gender occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: there was a shift from a one sex model, where women were imagined as lesser, inferior versions of men, to a two-sex model, where women were figured as men’s opposites. Masculinity and femininity were thus figured as polar opposites. Untamed’s rejection of this paradigm is another way in which it mobilises anachronism to construct a queer space of possibility. [End Page 17]

[31] Fletcher, Lisa. Historical romance fiction: Heterosexuality and perfomativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008, 73-74.

[32] Fletcher, 75.

[33] Luhrs, Natalie. ‘Anna Cowan’s Untamed: Magnificent and Flawed.’ The Radish. 17 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[34] Mmeguillotine. ‘A Review of Untamed.Goodreads. 17 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[35] AJH. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[36] Mary. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[37] Pamela. ‘Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency.’ Badass Romance. 4 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[38] It is also worth noting here that it was not only Jude’s particular brand of masculinity that reviewers were critical of. While Kit was generally liked and I could find no criticism of the minor female characters, some reviewers took issue with the portrayal of the other male characters in the book. Reviewer GrowlyCub argues that Kit is a “martyr heroine who is the only competent human being in the world” in a book full of “men in distress”, going on to write that she would “have appreciated at least one male who wasn’t a totally useless shitsack”. Kit’s gay brother Tom and his partner Crispin, Jude’s friend, come in for particular criticism: “all the gayboys are totally wet and hopeless”, says Alexis Hall in his review. The vulnerability of the male characters – Jude in particular, but also some of the minor characters – seems to have been a sticking point for some reviewers. (GrowlyCub. ‘Book Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ GrowlyCub’s Den. 2 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014; Hall, Alexis. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 1 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.)

[39] Cowan, 2013c.

[40] Tripler, Jessica. ‘Anatomy of a Polarizing Book.’ The Radish. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[41] Cowan, 2013c.

[42] Tripler.

[43] Lord Rose. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 15 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[44] SunnyGirl. ‘Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Femdom Book Reviews. 24 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[45] Horne, Jackie C. ‘The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-dressing Hero, Part 1: Anna Cowan’s UNTAMED.’ Romance Novels for Feminists. 27 August 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[46] Cowan, 2013a, location 695.

[47] Cowan, 2013a, location 348.

[48] Cowan, 2013a, location 4700-10.

[49] It is important to note here that although the masculine ritual of the duel is invoked, Kit is challenging another woman to fight – symbolically laying claim to agency not just for herself, but to elevate disputes between women to an important, and, in this case, political level. Lady Marmotte is shown as dangerously powerful throughout the novel: however, the book does not ultimately pathologise her as a powerful woman. At the [End Page 18] end of the novel, when Kit has taken on the masculine role of captain of industry, Lady Marmotte becomes one of her biggest economic rivals.

[50] Cowan, 2013a, location 1979.

[51] Cowan, 2013a, location 5395.

[52] Cowan, 2013a, location 3796.

[53] Horne.

[54] For example, in the introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, romance author Jayne Ann Krentz writes, that “[r]eaders understand the books celebrate female power. In the romance novel… the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman… Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men. The books also defy the masculine conventions of other forms of literature because they portray women as heroes.” (5)

[55] Leighton, Leisl. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 10 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014

[56]Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, 111.

[57] Sunita. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 15 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[58] Luhrs.

[59] Mayo, Kat. ‘Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Book Thingo. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[60] Goldberg, Jonathan and Madhavi Menon. ‘Queering History.’ PMLa (2005): 1616.

[61] Goldberg and Menon, 1612, 1616.

[62] Fletcher, 15.

[63] Cowan, 2013c.

[64] Sara. ‘Anna Cowan – Untamed.’ The Window Seat on a Rainy Day. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[65] Erytryn. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[66] Ann. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

‘Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards.’ Australian Romance Readers Association – Awards. 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 August 2014.

AJH. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Ann. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Cowan, Anna. ‘The Cross Dressing Duke by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013b. Web. 4 August 2014.

Cowan, Anna. Personal correspondence with this paper’s author. 30 September 2013c.

Cowan, Anna. Untamed. Destiny Romance, 2013a. Kindle edition.

Erytryn. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Fathallah, Judith May. ‘H/c and me: An autoethnographic account of a troubled love affair.’ Transformative Works and Cultures 7 (2010). Web.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical romance fiction: Heterosexuality and perfomativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vested interests: Cross-dressing and cultural anxiety. New York: Psychology Press, 1997. Print.

Goldberg, Jonathan, and Madhavi Menon. ‘Queering History.’ PMLa (2005): 1608-1617. Print.

Gracie, Anne. The Winter Bride. Melbourne: Penguin, 2014. Print.

GrowlyCub. ‘Book Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ GrowlyCub’s Den. 2 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Hall, Alexis. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 1 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. The Masqueraders. William Heinemann, 1928. Print.

Horne, Jackie C. ‘The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-dressing Hero, Part 1: Anna Cowan’s UNTAMED.’ Romance Novels for Feminists. 27 August 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Kinsale, Laura. ‘The Androgynous Reader’. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. ‘Introduction’. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1990. Print.

Lord Rose. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 15 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Luhrs, Natalie. ‘Anna Cowan’s Untamed: Magnificent and Flawed.’ The Radish. 17 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mary. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mayo, Kat. ‘Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Book Thingo. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mely. ‘Cowan, Anna: Untamed (2013).’ Coffeeandink. 23 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Mmeguillotine. ‘A Review of Untamed.Goodreads. 17 July 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[End Page 20]

Pamela. ‘Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency.’ Badass Romance. 4 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Perschon, Mike. ‘Finding Nemo: Verne’s antihero as original steampunk.’ Jules Verne Studies 2 (2010): 179-194. Print.

Rule, Belinda. ‘A Review of Untamed.’ Goodreads. 24 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Sara. ‘Anna Cowan – Untamed.’ The Window Seat on a Rainy Day. 14 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. ‘Queer performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.1 (1993): 1-16. Print.

Stirling, SM. ‘Why, Then, There’. Worlds That Weren’t. Harry Turtledove, Walter Jon Williams, SM Stirling, Mary Gentle. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Sunita. ‘Comment on DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Dear Author. 15 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

SunnyGirl. ‘Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan.’ Femdom Book Reviews. 24 May 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

Tripler, Jessica. ‘Anatomy of a Polarizing Book.’ The Radish. 26 June 2013. Web. 4 August 2014.

[End Page 21]

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Love’s ‘Schema and Correction’: A Queer Twist on a General Principle
by Lynne Pearce

They had stood that way for a long time in front of the fire, its burning tossing ruddy chunks of light, the shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock . . . Stars bit through the wavy heat layers above the fire. Ennis’s breath came slow and quiet, he hummed, rocked a little in the sparklight and Jack leaned against the steady heartbeat . . . fell into sleep that was not sleep but something else drowsy and tranced until Ennis, dredging [End Page 1] up a rusty by still useable phrase from the childhood before his mother died said, “Time to hit the hay, cowboy. I got a go. Come on, you’re sleeping on your feet like a horse” . . . Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his [Jack Twist’s] memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it. (Proulx 310-11)

In a previous article for JPRS (2.1)– subsequently revised and expanded for a chapter in Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega’s edited collection, Trauma and Romance (2013)– I explored the issue of repetition in love-relationships: in particular, the tension that exists between the genre of popular romance (where love, for both heroines and authors, would appear to be infinitely repeatable) and the emphatically non-repeatable, typically tragic, endgames that characterize a good deal of literary romance from the fourteenth century to the present.

However, the unanswered question this investigation left hanging in the air is why and how certain love-relationships present themselves as so definitive as to be non-repeatable in the first place? Although, in the previous article, I acknowledged that it was attachments which demonstrated Agapic qualities (i.e., they were sudden, involuntary and non-negotiable)[1] that were most likely to resist substitution/repetition, I stopped short of offering an explanation for why this should be the case. The discussion that follows provides a speculative answer to this question through recourse to a psychological model that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been used in connection with romantic love before: namely, the art historian E.H. Gombrich’s modelling of perception and consciousness (what we see and what we know) as a process of ‘schema and correction’.[2] Following Gombrich’s work, I put forward my own general principle of how the cognitive processes involved in an individual’s first attraction to his or her beloved helps explain why some attachments are more stubbornly enduring than others, before adding the further queer twist of how this may be of particular significance in (certain) homosexual[3] relationships. In addition, the discussion carries with it a political subtext that calls upon us to reconsider the value of amorous attachments so seemingly unique and irreproducible that their spell cannot be broken. While my first objective here is to offer a psychological explanation for why this is so, I also find it interesting to reflect upon the ways in which attachments that contemporary Western culture would typically regard as obsessive and perverse (in the sense that they persist without hope of resolution) may be legitimated. The gauntlet that such a stance throws down to the ‘self-help’ discourses of ‘letting go’ and ‘moving on’ is something that I foregrounded in the conclusion to my chapter in Trauma and Romance (2012:86-87), but this was before I had brought the conceit of romantic attraction as a process of schema and correction into the equation.

Now provided with a model which is, at very least, one way of explaining how some passionate attachments persist while others fade, it is, I believe, possible to call upon society to better respect and understand what is so easily dismissed as unhealthy obsession. From a wider societal perspective it is, of course, good that not everyone’s experience of falling in love is as non-reproducible as the phenomenon I explore here; however, it is arguably equally important not to put unwanted moral and psychological pressure upon those enthralled by a particular relationship to seek out a new one when they have no need to. On this point, careful historicization of the discourses concerned also serve to remind us that, in the nineteenth century and early-twentieth century (as in many [End Page 2] non-Western cultures today), life-long mourning and/or melancholia[4] for a lost loved-one was, and is, fully permissible. This, then, is the wider political and ethical debate to which this article speaks and which will, I hope, bring to mind textual plots and subplots from a broad cross-section of literature where bereaved or abandoned lovers refuse recuperation and trouble the text’s happy ending. Often the discordant function of such figures is passed over, but s/he may well work as an exemplar of the general, yet queer, principle I seek to explore here with the help of Annie Proulx’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2002 [1999]) and Ang Lee’s award-winning film based on the text (2005). With respect to the latter, it is indeed worth remembering that many viewers and reviewers enjoyed the film but were critical of its (and, of course, Proulx’s) ending on account of Ennis del Mar’s perceived refusal to ‘move on’: a point to which I shall return.

The article is divided into three sections: first, an exploration of the theory that has informed my thinking; second, a section which I have entitled ‘Love’s Beginning’ which draws upon Gombrich’s model of schema and correction to demonstrate, with the help of Proulx’s story, how some love-objects impact upon our consciousness in such an explosive way; and third, a section entitled ‘Love’s Sustenance’ which turns its attention to how such enchantments remain fresh and vital in a long-term relationship like that of Jack and Ennis. For while all these mechanisms may be seen to apply to heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships, it is arguable that they are more visible in the latter on account of the extra work non-heteronormative subjects have had to do (at least, historically) both in matching their desires to pre-existing schema and then adapting them – often across genders – for their own use: the (im)perceptible ‘queer twist’.

Rethinking Ravissement

As readers of this journal will be aware, theories of love and romance, both ancient and modern, abound with evocative and poetic descriptions of falling in love – many of them figuring it as a singular moment in time (Cupid’s arrow) or, indeed, the ‘ambush’ of Barthes’s ravissement (1990 [1977]):

Love at first sight is an hypnosis: I am fascinated by an image: at first shaken, electrified, stunned, “paralyzed” as Menon was by Socrates . . . subsequently ensnared, held fast, immobilized, nose stuck to the image (the mirror). (189)

Yet such is the stupefying intensity of the event that accounts of how such an improbable and instantaneous ‘hypnosis’ might be explained are harder to come by. Barthes himself, a little later in the same entry, nevertheless provides the beginnings of a theory for how we can appear to fall helplessly in love with someone we have only just met:

In the animal world, the release-switch of the sexual mechanism is not a specific individual but only a form, a bright-colored fetish (which is how the Image-repertoire starts up). In the fascinating image, what impresses me (like a sensitized paper) is not the accumulation of its details but this or that inflection. What suddenly manages to touch me (ravish me) in the other is [End Page 3] the voice, the line of the shoulders, the slenderness of the silhouette, the warmth of the hand, the curve of a smile, etc. Whereupon, what does the aesthetic of the image matter? Something accommodates itself exactly to my desire (about which I know nothing) . . . Sometimes it is the other’s conformity to a great cultural model which enthralls [sic] me (I imagine I see the other painted by an artist in the past); sometimes, on the contrary, it is a certain insolence of the apparition that will open the wound: I can fall in love with a slightly vulgar attitude . . . a brief (but excessive) way of parting the fingers, of spreading the legs, of moving the fleshy parts of the lips in eating, of going about some very prosaic occupation, of making one’s body utterly idiotic for an instant . . . (190-1) [my italics]

For Barthes, then, it is the lover’s Image-repertoire (his or her cache of stock images/qualities and emotional catalysts) that is responsible for pre-programming us to respond to certain visual cues[5], attitudes and behaviours. The implication is that we will chance upon, in certain individuals, a critical mass of features that somehow “accommodate [themselves] to our desire” (191) (as determined by our Image-repertoire) no matter how idiosyncratic or un-aesthetic these may be.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition (such as Soble (1990) cited in note 1) struggling to account for the phenomenon of ‘love at first sight’ have come to a similar conclusion;[6] namely, that our seemingly instantaneous attraction to a particular individual must, in truth, be triggered by pre-existing values and/or practices, be this the manner of one’s loving (our love of God is extended spontaneously to other objects) or in the way in which the special qualities discovered in certain individuals resonate with properties we already esteem (see note 1). Such a verdict not only asks serious questions about whether an attraction which is, in effect, a response to a pre-existing schema can really qualify as ‘love at first sight’, but also whether Agapically-inclined romantic love (the sudden outpouring of desire and solicitude that characterizes Barthes’s ravissement) is really any more unpremeditated than Erosic love (typically seen as a considered response to attractive qualities in a certain individual). As the previous sentence hints, the inclination to lavish affection on unfamiliar individuals or objects is arguably as dependent upon pre-existing patterns of behaviour (our unconditional love of God spills into our love for our neighbours and prospective partners) as ‘property-based love’ is on pre-existing schemas.

Taken together, then, both Barthes and the analytic philosophers make a strong case for all romantic love – even when seemingly instant and involuntary – being, in effect, a response to something that is already there. As we shall see, this is a conclusion perfectly in line with what Gombrich (and the Gestalt psychologists he drew upon) believed about the workings of perception and consciousness more generally (i.e., ‘there is no seeing without knowing’).[7] Whether or not we subscribe to this thesis, it is clearly crucial not to confuse its implications, in a romantic-love context, with a devaluing of what we may previously have thought of as love at first sight. Just because there is an element of response or reflex involved does not render the ontological experience any less immediate and profound for the subject(s) concerned. Indeed, by turning now to Gombrich’s account of all that is involved in the process of ‘matching’ a new object to a pre-existing schema, I can, I hope, demonstrate why falling in love – whether ‘at first sight’ or by means of a ‘slow burn’ – can [End Page 4] have such a powerful and long-lasting impact upon our consciousness. To anticipate, this is because it is not simply something in the love-object that “accommodates itself exactly to [our pre-existing] desire” (Barthes 191) but rather that we have to work to make the ‘match’ happen. Indeed, it is now my belief that it is this cognitive labour, rather than ravissement or ‘love at first sight’ per se – that is the key as to why some expressions of romantic love prove both so searing and so enduring.

As acknowledged above and in note 2, E.H. Gombrich’s interest in the work of the philosopher Karl Popper, psychologist J.J. Gibson’s work on visual perception and the Gestalt School arose from his attempt to theorize the history of (Western) art (see Gombrich 21-25 for a full discussion of these antecedents): namely, how the styles and conventions of pictorial representation change and evolve. It was the way in which each new generation or school of artists developed a style which was similar to, yet different from, that which preceded them which fascinated him (Gombrich 55-78) and whose conundrum was ultimately resolved through the practice he described as schema and correction. According to Gombrich, in order to “even describe the visible world . . . we need a developed system of schemata” (76), but when we triangulate this schemata with both the representations of our predecessors and what we see with our own eyes (i.e., the ‘correction’) a wholly new schema emerges.

In these speculations on how the process of schema and correction operates in painting and draughtsmanship, Gombrich describes a circuit of cognitive activity that can, I believe, be usefully compared to the work the subject is compelled to do when presented with a prospective love-object (or romantic scenario) that matches, but not quite, the visual ‘semes’[8] and affective qualities cached in his or her Image-repertoire:

My point here is that such matching will always be a step-by-step process – how long it takes and how hard it is will depend on the choice of the initial schema to be adapted to the task of serving as a portrait . . . He [the draughtsman] begins not with his visual impression but with his idea or concept . . . Having selected such a schema to fit the form approximately, he will proceed to adjust it . . . Copying, we learn from these experiments, proceeds from the rhythms of schema and correction. The ‘schema’ is not the product of a process of ‘abstraction’ or a tendency to ‘simplify’; it represents the first approximate, loose category which is gradually tightened to fit the form it is to reproduce. (63-4)

Gombrich’s draughtsman, then, is compelled to repeatedly reconfigure what he knows in the light of what he sees even though without his initial schema as a point of reference, he would have been unable to even begin his task. “Matching might come before making” (Gombrich 99), for sure, but the lasting achievement of the artist is in wresting a new and fresh perception from the disjuncture of the percept and its schema. In the process, moreover, the draughtsman or woman – and his/her correlate, the lover – will have effectively manufactured a new schema against which all future variants will be compared.

Such acknowledgement not only of the importance of the correction relative to the schema but also of the intense labour involved in aligning the two, suggests to me a possible explanation for why those lovers who have worked hardest at the matching of their schema – their ‘ideal object’, however conceptualized[9] – with the percept will find it [End Page 5] hardest to replace the relationship with another when, for whatever reason, it ends: having toiled so hard on refining their outline – which is now at once ideal and idiosyncratic – where should they expect to find its likeness again? Moreover, the work, though exhausting, is not necessarily exhausted. Each and every time the lover chances unexpectedly upon his or her love object, the same instance of double-vision has the potential to recur: s/he sees the ideal outline (the gestalt), but also the dissonant halo – until the two, with a quick blink of the eye, are skewed back together into an Image-repertoire that is, for the subject concerned, seemingly unique.

A further benefit of utilizing Gombrich’s notion of the schema (a tool in a purely cognitive process) in contrast to psychoanalytic concepts such as Freud’s ‘ego-ideal’ or Lacan’s ‘objet petit à’ (see note 9) is that it enables us to explore the role played by the a priori objects of romantic love relations without recourse to heteronormative models of Oedipal subject development. In other words (and as discussed in notes 5, 8 and 9), the lover’s schema is not necessarily traceable to any one conceit, image or bond, but is more typically a composite of multiple qualities that s/he has encountered up to that point. This is especially helpful when we contemplate the nature and function of the schema in gay, lesbian and/or queer relationships (see note 3) where neither psychoanalytic nor ideological figures (e.g., the parent of the opposite sex or the prince and princesses of fairytale) may be expected to function as a generic ideal – at least, not in a straightforward way. Indeed, freed from the logic of Oedipus, it surely makes sense to propose that subjects who are aware of the heterodox nature of their affective and sexual preferences will discover their schemata in a dispersed range of sources rather than the abstract (yet gendered) parental objects of psychoanalysis. Further, the love-schema, like Gombrich’s visual-art schema, may be as far removed from its Ur-source as is imaginable and yet still be a schema. In the same way that – for Gombrich – the history of Western art may be traced through the evolution of its aesthetic schema (each new School, or movement, revises and adapts the schema of its immediate predecessor), so might non-heterosexual lovers today be expected to respond to schemas that are already queerly twisted before embarking upon their own practice of correction.

By corollary, and in anticipation of the discussion of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ that follows, we may also speculate that lovers who have previously identified as heterosexual will have to work especially hard to bring their love-schemas in line with a potential love object of the same sex. For if an individual has never had cause to question his or her sexuality before it is quite possible that the assemblage of semes (see note 8) that comprise his/her ideal schemata have become so associated with a person of the opposite sex that they are unrecognisable in a person of the same sex (in contrast to openly bisexual- or queer-identified subjects for whom such semes transfer easily across the sexes). In this regard, indeed, one could argue that it is the distance travelled between a schema and its correction that constitutes the truly queer and volatile space of a love-relationship even if, once his/her personal ‘correction’ has been effected, the subject concerned loses sight of how wide the gap once yawned. [End Page 6]

Love’s Beginning

Readers familiar with ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (the story rather than the film, though the latter is a very faithful reproduction of the former in many ways) may recall that it opens with an italicized postscript, at the heart of which sits Ennis del Mar’s dream of his dead lover Jack Twist:

Ennis del Mar wakes up before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts on a nail shudder slightly in the draft . . . It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning . . . He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.

The stale coffee is boiling up but he catches it before it goes over the side, pours it into a stained cup and blows on the black liquid, lets a panel of the dream slide forward. If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong. The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence. (Proulx 283)

Although it is now already several years since Jack’s death, Ennis still has the pleasure and consolation of dreaming about him; indeed, each night brings with it the promise of a new coup de foudre. Just as it was at their beginning, so might Jack Twist stride into his life again – unbidden. Indeed, it is the involuntary nature of the dream, the very fact that Ennis must not “force his attention on it”, that links it so neatly with the genesis of the love-affair and positions it at the Agapic pole of romantic love (see note 1).

Yet the unbidden question the persistence of these dreams raises is clearly ‘how’? How is it possible for certain love-affairs to live on in the unconscious in this way, and with this tenacity, when others see the tabula wiped clean overnight? Is it simply a matter of the individual psyche (i.e., evidence that some of us are more susceptible to lingering attachments than others)? Or of the qualitative strength of one attachment over the next: where we love deeply and meaningfully, we love longest?[10] Or is it, as I’m proposing here, somehow bound up with the nature of love’s inception: the way in which some encounters are marked by a process so charged – and challenging – as to defy the evacuating processes of memory?

There are, of course, other theoretical models available to explain why certain attachments persist and certain memories refuse to die: most notably, Freud’s diagnosis of mourning and melancholia (see note 4) and the trauma theorists’ accounts of how distressing incidents can be lodged in the unconscious indefinitely (Caruth, Felman and Laub). Vis-à-vis the special circumstances of romantic love, however, Roland Barthes has perhaps come closest to giving the moment and manner of the encounter the attention it deserves. For no matter how convincing we might find Freud’s proposition that mourning cannot be completed until each and every incident associated with the beloved has been revisited (253), this still fails to explain why some relationships accrue more memories – [End Page 7] or, rather, the raw-materials from which memories are manufactured – than others. And this is where Gombrich’s model of cognition as a process of schema and correction as outlined above can, perhaps, help us: namely, the more slippages that are encountered between a pre-existing schema and its queer or quirky ‘other’ during the period of ravissement, the harder the lover has to work in aligning the two; even, in some cases, years down the line and/or after the beloved has been lost. Put simply: the more unlikely the love-object, the more persistent the attachment.[11]

I turn now to Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in order to explore these propositions further and, on that point, should clarify that my objective in so doing is to refine and illustrate my theory rather than provide a ‘reading’ of the text per se (fascinating though it undoubtedly is).

Although ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a text which keeps character-focalization to a minimum (and then almost exclusively through the eyes/consciousness of Ennis del Mar), there are one or two episodes near the start of the story which may, I think, be read as indicative of the extremely challenging schema and correction work both men (but especially Ennis) are compelled to engage in before the other was even recognizable as an object of love and desire. Starting with the occasion of the men’s first encounter –  in the “choky little trailer office” of the Farm and Ranch Employment Agency (285) – the text offers portraits of Jack and Ennis that reveal the extent to which both men, in their person, combine the idiosyncratic with the conventional and hence thwart classification according to idealized and or ready-made schemas:

At first sight Jack seemed fair enough with his curly hair and a quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buck teeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of the jug, but noticeable. (286)

Ennis, high-arched nose and narrow face, was scruffy and a little cave-chested, balanced a small torso on long caliper [sic] legs, [but] possessed a muscular and supple body made for the horse and for fighting. His reflexes were uncommonly quick and he was farsighted enough to dislike reading anything except Hamley’s saddle catalog. (286)

We see that while Jack at first sight conforms to the conventional/heteronormative schema of a good-looking man there is, nevertheless, something odd about him: even at twenty, he is slightly over-weight and has protruding teeth; Ennis, by contrast (and, in this case the idiosyncrasies or ‘flaws’ are listed first) is skinny and imperfectly proportioned but otherwise fits a conventional heroic ideal by being quick and powerful. While Proulx may not route this description through the focalization her characters, these physical characteristics – both ideal and idiosyncratic – are threaded through the narrative that ensues. When Ennis remembers or dreams about Jack, for example, the latter’s buck teeth feature; while it is Ennis’s physique that enables him to pack a punch, both literally and symbolically, on Jack’s heart. In terms of their semantic profiles, then, it may be seen that both men conform to and yet deviate from  heteronormative cowboy stereotypes in ways that are guaranteed to intrigue and provoke as they size one another up and, in Gombrich’s terms, begin the arduous process of ‘matching and making’. [End Page 8]

Significantly, the first time the text shows the men appraising one another, it is from the ultra-de-familiarizing distance of their respective camps on Brokeback Mountain:

During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain. (287)

This must be read as a somewhat hyperbolic demonstration of schema-correction inasmuch as huge cognitive effort is required to match the two semantic fields: a black dot in Jack’s case, a red one in Ennis’s. And yet it may also be read as paradigmatic of the sort of making and matching (bizarre, unfamiliar, difficult to make out) that lives longest in the memory banks and when focused on a potential love object – serves to fuel the life and after-life of romance.

The difficulty Jack and Ennis have in figuring each other out is registered in the text – at the level of the plot – in the length of time it takes before their mutual attraction is recognized. Love at first sight this is not; and yet, when they do finally come together it is with all the suddenness of a coup de foudre, as though – after long months of schema-adjustment (we remember Gombrich’s description of the draughtsman at work) they see each other as an object of desire for the first time:

Ennis woke in the red dawn with his pants around his knees, a top-grade headache, and Jack butted against him; without saying anything about it both knew how it would go for the rest of the summer, sheep be damned.

As it did go. They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended from ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. (291)

For Ennis, consumed with homophobic anxiety, it is an alignment and realization that, at a conscious level, he can never come to terms with or completely understand; while in Jack’s case, as will be discussed below, it is only latterly (when he remembers the time that Ennis held him in a maternal embrace: see epigraph at head of article) that he is seen to glimpse one of the sources of his schemata.

Love’s Sustenance: Reification

I move now to the representation of the phase of Jack and Ennis’s relationship that Barthes, in his teleology of romance, designates ‘the sequel’ (197-8). In so doing I am not, [End Page 9] however, leaving ‘the beginning’ behind since the hypothesis of enduring love that I am testing here is crucially dependent upon the dynamic exchange between ideal and variant, schema and correction, established during the period of protracted ravissement. Further, the telescopic nature of Proulx’s plotting means that a good deal of information about the moment of first encounter is revealed retrospectively through the vehicle of the two men’s memories and dreams.

As readers familiar with either the short story or the film will be aware, the plot of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, subsequent to Jack and Ennis’s first summer on the mountain, is structured around a series of contrapuntal episodes focusing on the men’s domestic lives when apart and their annual or biennial ‘fishing trips’ together. The articulation of the two is handled extremely deftly in Ang Lee’s film which makes rather more of the domestic interludes and the (painful) passage of time this represents.

From their first trip away together, some four years after the summer on Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis’s reunions take on a supercharged intensity. Although such passion can, of course, be explained simply as a response to abstinence (both sexual and emotional), there are several instances in the text where we can, I think, see the dynamics of the initial schema and correction process repeating themselves. Take, for example, this description of when Jack first lands on Ennis’s doorstep:

Late in the afternoon, thunder growling, that same old green pickup rolled in and he saw Jack get out of the truck, beat-up Resitol tilted back. A hot jolt scalded Ennis and he was out on the landing pulling the door closed behind him. Jack took the stairs two and two . . . then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood . . . and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, little darlin. (295)

What Proulx’s account of the reunion emphasizes is, once again, the ideal and idiosyncratic nature of this relationship, both in terms of the men’s physical appearances – note the mention of  Jack’s defining feature, his buckteeth – and what, following Barthes, we may describe as the ‘scene’ (192).[12] Although the doorstep is the prototypical site of romantic union from traditional folk songs to military homecomings, this is undoubtedly a queer one.

Dirt-poor, Ennis and Alma (Ennis’s wife) are, at this time, living in a small apartment above a laundry and, during the interlude of the embrace, Alma breaks onto the scene twice: the open door-frame symbolic, if you like, of Ennis’s heteronormative responsibilities and constraints. What is most interesting from the point of view of my hypothesis, however, is that this dissonance between the ideal and the actual serves only to magnify the specificity, and hence the intensity, of the romantic encounter. Indeed, it could be said that the text positions us, as readers, to share the ‘hot jolt’ that scalds Ennis as an explosion of incongruous visual and discursive cues converge in a split-second of time. Like Ennis, we scramble our schema to make sense of the scene before us and, in the gap between what we see and what we know, register once again the seeming uniqueness of this love-relationship.

The image of the ‘hot jolt’ that Proulx invokes here may, of course, also be read as indicative of the fact that – for lovers, as for the population at large – lightning can, indeed, strike twice. The chances of it striking more than twice would, however, seem slim – and [End Page 10] yet this is precisely how the reunions between Jack and Ennis continue to be characterized. Even within the context of the Hail Strew River trip (305-310), which Ang Lee’s film figures as the crisis point and nadir of the relationship, the same electrical imagery is invoked: “One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the same sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough” (307). And while, once again, it is possible to make a banal reading of this (the sex was good because it was so infrequent), it may – for the purposes of my hypothesis – also be read as evidence of the way in which the a priori moment of schema and correction continues to repeat itself. Each time the lovers meet the same ‘jolt’ of mis/recognition occurs. To re-iterate Barthes: “I cannot get over having had this good fortune: to meet what matches my desire” (194). And yet the ‘match’, as we’ve already established, is far from perfect; so it is rather a case of having always to tweak the schema to accommodate the desire.

Meanwhile, the way in which such repeated corrections may over time lead to a permanent expansion and alteration of the schema is recognized in Gestalt psychology through the concept of reification (the generative aspect of perception which causes the percept to appear to the beholder with more information – visual, sensory, conceptual – than the eye actually beholds).[13] This appears to usefully account for the way in which an expanded, intensified schema may eventually over-determine the act of perception to such an extent that we readily supplement the information provided in a perceptual prompt with data stored in the improvised schema. To invoke another school of cognitive psychology, perception thus becomes apperception[14] and, onto the figure of the beloved and all that has become associated with him or her, is projected the effort of all our past ‘making and matching’.

Read as an analogy for the dynamics that come to characterize a long-term love-affair like that of Ennis and Jack, it therefore also becomes possible to suggest that although the ‘jolt’ of schema versus correction has the capacity to continue ad infinitum, the repeatedly-adjusted schema will gradually come to subsume the original to such an extent that it will acquire a life or substance of its own – something in the manner of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum (Baudrillard 1981). Inasmuch as this revised schema will over time accommodate many of the beloved’s notionally undesirable features as well as his or her more endearing ones, it may also be seen to play an important role in protecting the relationship from ‘spoiling’: what Barthes figured as a “speck of corruption” on the Image-repertoire (25). Once brought within the figure of the new outline or schema, whose difference from the bland original is precisely what makes our attachment so compelling and unique, aesthetic flaws, bad behavior, and even everyday irritations – the death-knell of more Erosically-defined relationships (see note one)– are accommodated and forgotten.

As it happens, Proulx’s story features a metaphor which speaks to the benefits of the reification of the schema in a long-term love-relationship very well. Having been dealt a symbolic killer-blow in his fight with Jack at Hail Strew River (when Jack spells out to him the great life they might have had together were it not for Ennis’s homophobia), Ennis drops to the ground as if “heart-shot”(309). A minute or two later, however:

Ennis was back on his feet and somehow, as a coat hanger is straightened to open a locked door and then bent again to its original shape, they torqued things back almost to where they had been before, for what they’d said was no news. Nothing ended, nothing begun, nothing resolved. (310) [End Page 11]

Although this likening of the relationship to a gestalt or shape is, of course, entirely coincidental, the conceit of a coat-hanger being “torqued back into shape” also serves well as a trope for the redemptive power of the oft-corrected and now reified schema. For while everything in the circumstances in which Jack and Ennis find themselves in militates against the survival of their special relationship (Jack’s infidelity, Ennis’s conservatism and homophobia, the spoiling of their no-longer-young bodies), it does survive; largely, I would suggest, because these uncomfortable particulars have already been incorporated into an outline that, according to the first principles of gestalt, is always already more than the sum of its parts (see note 7).

Conclusion

As the title of this article indicates, my likening of the process of falling in love to E.H. Gombrich’s account of the role of schema and correction in the stylistic evolution of Western art presents itself as a general principle rather than one that is in any way exclusive to homosexual relationships. Indeed, as far as Gombrich and the theory that informed his work is concerned (Gestalt, Popper), the maxim that ‘matching comes before making’ is seen to be foundational to all acts of cognition. By implication, the application of the principle to the perception-cognition of lovers must necessarily include all lovers: each one of us will fall in love in response to our personal schemata regardless of where this – and, indeed, the gender of our potential love object – positions us on the spectrum of sexualities available to us.

On this point, I am aware that my description of Jack and Ennis’s relationship as ‘homosexual’ throughout the course of this article may seem rather dated in a special issue dedicated to the exploration of specifically queer romance. However, as outlined in note 3, this is because Proulx’s story is set – with much historical fidelity – in an era and culture when there were only two options (one normative, one deviant) as far as sexuality was concerned. In addition, picking up on my opening comments in the introduction, it is arguably the aggressively heteronormative context in which Proulx’s characters operate that makes visible the struggle they have in connecting their schemata to their apprehension of each other. And this, in turn, is what makes both the schemas and their corrections perceptible to us as readers; considering that Jack’s ideal love object may be sourced to his mother (see epigraph at head of article), and Ennis’s experience of affection is limited to his children and his horses (see extract in section one (Proulx 295)), it is no surprise that they have to work as hard as they do to make the match, effect the correction.

The fact that Jack and Ennis’s love-schemas appear to originate in the conservative and stereotypical semantics of the family is also unremarkable: in rural mid-West America in the early 1960s there was presumably little in the way of gay/lesbian iconography and the more complex sexual identifications of the queer movement had yet to be imagined (see note 3). Given the enormity of the gulf between ideal (and permissible) love-objects and their displacement onto a lover of the same sex it is also not surprising that the process of schema correction should take some time. In terms of Proulx’s narrative, indeed, it is not until the crisis of the Hail Strew River trip that Jack is seen to make the connection (even [End Page 12] now unconscious) between Ennis’s protective embrace and a mother’s love, while Ennis remains blind to his desire to perform that role (as Jack’s partner) until after Jack’s death. (Having created a shrine out of his and Jack’s entwined shirts and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain, Ennis belatedly utters the marriage vow – “Jack, I swear-”(317)). What Proulx’s text reveals to us so effectively, then, is just how hard her two protagonists have to work to bring their love in line with a schema they recognize and value. Jack, we know, has had a good many male lovers apart from Ennis, but whatever sexual pleasure or relief they provided, it failed to match the type/typology of love he yearned for. Understanding this also, of course, suggests why love so hard-won is also not easily forgotten. Jack and Ennis keep coming back to each other, year after year, precisely because – in Barthes’s words – each matches the other’s desire (194) without them knowing exactly what that desire is. The slippage becomes, in effect, a mystery that needs to be solved and, hence, a compulsion.

As noted above, the logic of the psychology on which both Gombrich’s model of schema and correction and my application of it to a romantic love context dictates that the processes I have explored here vis-à-vis fictional homosexual relationships should apply to all love relationships regardless of the sexual orientation of the subjects concerned. Although the practice of schema and correction may be more visible in homosexual relationships located in a history or culture where the non-normative is hidden from view, it follows that all of us discover and identify our love objects by a similar process; the qualitative difference, it would seem, is the comparative ease with which a heterosexual subject – or, indeed, a contemporary gay-/queer-identified subject – is able to match their schema to a prospective partner. In any relationship where the gap between our schema and our love-object is wide, however, the love itself is liable to be deep and long-lasting; it is the fascination of something that fits, or matches, almost but not exactly that has the power to bind us to him or her forever.

Finally, by way of conclusion, I return to the political subtext introduced at the start of this article. Although Proulx’s story was penned fairly recently (1999) and focuses on a relationship that spanned the latter-half of the twentieth-century (1963-83), for many readers and viewers it will be seen as a compelling but in every respect archaic account of how ‘modern love’ (whatever the sexuality) should be lived. Yet in line with my discussion in ‘Romance and Repetition’ (2010; 2012), I am personally rather less inclined to read the end of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ as ‘depressing’ or, indeed, to characterize those whose affections exceed the ‘normal’ period of time typically allocated for mourning unhealthy or obsessed. As I observed at the beginning of the article, time was – and less than a century ago – when widowhood (and its non-marital equivalents) was a socially acceptable affective state, and contemporary society’s pressure to ‘move on’ and love again as part of a life-project centred on the meeting of needs and the enjoyment of entitlements would have been unrecognizable.

The literary history of tragic romance, meanwhile, has typically preferred to draw the veil on any such extended mourning by contriving an ending that involves both parties. Proulx’s text, by contrast, which ends with the memorable but cryptic pronouncement “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” (318), may indeed be read as a positive break with the tradition in this regard. For while we may regard the text’s repetition of Ennis’s catch-phrase as the final, ironic comment on the cruel price he’s been forced to pay for his failure of nerve all those years ago, who is to say that Ennis del Mar, now, would be better off ‘moving on’? Instead – and notwithstanding the cold light of dawn in a lonely trailer – there [End Page 13] is surely also a case to be made for living with the thing that one has worked on so inexhaustibly and, in the process, defined one’s life no matter how queer this might seem to others.


[1] ‘Agapic love’: my use of this term to describe romantic love relationships has been questioned by scholars who understand it to refer to ‘the love of God’ and hence existing in singular contrast to the love that characterizes our interpersonal relationships. It should, however, be noted that I refer here to the ‘Agapic qualities’ present in certain expressions of romantic love, which is not the same as declaring the love Agapic per se. In this I am following the work of Alan Soble (1990) who proposed that the discourse of romantic love is inscribed by both Erosic and Agapic elements: “But romantic love may also exhibit features of the second [Agapic] view: it arises (and disappears) mysteriously, incomprehensibly; the lover is not always expected to have reasons for his or her passion; and the lover is only under an illusion that the beloved has attractive qualities” (15-16). See also Anders Nygren’s classic Eros and Agape (1983 [1936]).

[2] E.H. Gombrich (1909-2001) was a world-renowned art-historian whose theories of how the visual arts (principally painting) have evolved over the centuries drew upon the work of the philosopher Karl Popper and Gestalt psychology (which originated in Germany in the early twentieth century through the work of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka) (see Gombrich 21-23). Both Popper and the Gestalt school proposed radically new ways of understanding perception, arguing that our ability to ‘see’ objects depends entirely upon a pre-existing ‘schema’ or concept for the object concerned. It is also important to acknowledge that the principles of Gestalt had already been linked to the visual arts in Rudolf von Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954). Gombrich’s debt to these theorists is visible in his Story of Art (first published in 1950) but becomes explicit in Art and Illusion (first published in 1960). A useful article comparing Popper and Gombrich was published by Norbert Schneider in 2009.

[3] As discussed at the end of the article, I recognize that my use of the term ‘homosexual’ as a descriptor assumes a binaristic conception of sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) which the Queer movement has done much to undermine. However, for the purposes of this article, which centres on a fictional text set in the early 1960s, I have used the term advisedly since I feel it to be the most historically/culturally appropriate (although Ennis del Mar proclaims “I ain’t no queer” we know that the connotations of the term are not what they are today). In other parts of the discussion I use the terms ‘gay’/‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ as I consider appropriate according, again, to the cultural/historical context. Ang Lee’s film  Brokeback Mountain (2005) solicited a good deal of media and online discussion about whether the protagonists were gay, bisexual or rather ‘heterosexual men who, by chance, entered into a homosexual relationship’. The fact that, today, Facebook and other social media sites provide users with an expansive list of sexual/gender identifications indicates how far Western culture has embraced the theoretical implications of Queer theory (even while it is important to recognize that this by is by no means the case in many other regions of the world). See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/10637968/Facebook-sex-changes-which-one-of-50-genders-are-you.html (accessed 14/02/14).

[4] ‘Mourning and Melancholia’: the distinction between these two terms, à propos Freud, is well-rehearsed and widely commented upon. Broadly speaking, mourning is seen [End Page 14] to represent a ‘healthy’ processing of loss which, while it may take a very long time, finally resolves in the mourner being able to ‘let go’ of the loved-object which is seen to be separate from him or herself, while melancholia is understood as an introjection of the lost loved-object in order to keep him or her permanently alive. In his essay, Freud links the tendency to melancholia to narcissistic personalities who depend upon their lovers to verify their own sense of identity and hence cannot bear to do without them when they disappear or die. See Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1991 [1915]) and Pearce (2007: 83-109).

[5] The specifically visual dimension of romantic love has been explored by Troy Jollimore in the widely-acclaimed philosophical study Love’s Vision (2011). While the love-schemas I refer to here may owe a great deal to specifically visual prompts, they are (following Barthes, note 8) probably best understood as a composite of visual, affective, and cognitive ‘semes’.

[6] Other philosophers who have explored the concept of ‘love at first sight’ include Simon May (2012) and most recently Christian Maurer (2014).

[7] Gestalt translates from the German as the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”. Philosophical interest in the concept can be traced back to David Hulme, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant and David Hartley among others, but it was only in the early twentieth century that Max Wertheimer recognized its significance for our understanding of human perception. The key principle that underpins the theory as it was developed by the so-called Gestalt school is that the eye sees objects in their entirety before identifying their individual parts, hence Kurt Koffka’s maxim “the whole is other than the sum of its parts” (see D. Brett King and Michael Wertheimer’s Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory 2007).

[8] ‘Semes’: a term which derives from semiology (or ‘the science of signs’) and refers to the individual components of a larger semantic whole or ‘sign-system’. Roland Barthes made radical use of semiology in S/Z, his legendary analysis of Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine” (Barthes 1991[1970]). Of particular interest to my discussion here is his proposition that textual characters are no more than ‘a collection of semes’ rather than representations of subjects who are in any way integrated wholes. My suggestion here is that a lover’s Image-repertoire is constructed of a diverse ‘collection of semes’ in a similar way.

[9] ‘Ideal object’: Psychoanalytic theory has, of course, furnished us with several compelling accounts of how such ‘others’ form a crucial point of reference in our adult sexual relationships (e.g., Freud’s ‘ego-ideal’ and Lacan’s ‘objet petit à’: see Coleman 2009 240,Wright 175), their limitations (also well-recorded) being that they function in a specifically familial and heterosexual economy and the fact (discussed further below) that they fail to account for the idiosyncrasy of our attractions. In this regard, Barthes’s characterization of the human (textual) subject as a collection of ‘semes’ (see note 8 above) is a helpful counter to the notion of an abstract and holistic ‘ideal object’: as Barthes’s himself acknowledged in the entry on Ravissement (188-94) we can fall in love with a gesture as well as a person.

[10] Christian Maurer (University of Fribourg) cited in note 6 is now working on the significance of profundity in love relationships.

[11] With thanks to my colleague at Lancaster University, Professor Hilary Hinds, who helped me crystallize the implications of this point. [End Page 15]

[12] Roland Barthes on ‘the scene’: “The first thing we love is a scene. For love at first sight requires the very sign of its suddenness (what makes me irresponsible, subject to fatality, swept away, ravished): and of all the arrangements of objects, it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time . . . what is immediate stands for what is fulfilled: I am initiated: the scene consecrates the object I am going to love. . . (192)”.

[13] ‘Reification’: to ‘reify’ , in psychology refers to the mechanism by which an abstract concept is rendered concrete (Coleman 648), but in studies of perception has been extended to refer to the ways in which we project additional meaning onto an outline that does not, in itself, contain that information (see ‘apperception’, note 14 following). See also Kurt Koffka, Perception: an Introduction to Gestalt Theory (2014 [1922]).

[14] ‘Apperception’: “the process by which new experience is assimilated to and transformed by the residuum of past experience of an individual to form a new whole” (Coleman 50). [End Page 16]

Works Cited

Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Universal Pictures, 2005. Film.

Arnheim, Rudolf von. Art and Visual Percpetion: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004 [1954]. Print.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1991 [1970]. Print.

_______ A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 [1978]. Print.

Brett King, D. and Michael Wertheimer. Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory. Rutgers: Transaction Publishers, 2007. Print.

Coleman, Andrew M. Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

______ Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Print.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia [1915].” On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

Gibson, James J. The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Print.

Gombrich, E.H. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Second Impression. London: Phaidon, 1980 [1960]. Print.

Jollimore, Troy. Love’s Vision. Princeton: Harvard University, 2011. Print.

Koffka, Kurt. Principles of Gestalt Psychology (The International Library of Psychology). London and New York: Routledge. 2014. Print.

Köhler, W. Dynamics in Psychology: Vital Applications of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Grove Press, 1960 [1940]. Print.

May, Simon. Love: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.

Maurer, Christian. “On Love at First Sight”. Love and its Objects: What Can We Care For?  Eds. Christian Maurer and Tony Milligan. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 160-176. Print.

Nygren, Anders. Eros and Agape. London: SPCK, 1983 [1936]. Print.

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

_________“Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love”. Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011). Web.

_________“Romance, Trauma and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love”. Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature. Eds. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. 71-89. Print.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and its Enemies. Third Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2011 [1957]. Print.

______“The Philosophy of Science: A Personal Report”. British Society in the Mid-Century. Ed. Cecil A. Mace. London and New York: Routledge, 2010 [1957]. Print. [End Page 17]

Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories. London: Harper Perennial, 2006 [1999]. Print.

Schneider, Norbert. “Form of Thought and Presentational Gesture in Karl Popper and E.H. Gombrich.”Human Affairs 19.3 (2009): 251-258. Print.

Soble, Alan. The Structure of Love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990. Print.

Wright, Elizabeth, ed. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. Print.

[End Page 18]

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14 Weeks of Love and Labour: Teaching Regency and Desert Romance to Undergraduate Students
by Karin Heiss

[End Page 1] In February 2012, after finishing my Magister thesis on the popular Regency romance and getting my degree,[1] I was offered the opportunity to become a doctoral candidate at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), along with the chance to start teaching English Literary and Cultural Studies at the Department of English and American Studies.[2] In addition to two first-year introductory modules on cultural studies, I had the opportunity to design and structure a fourteen-week seminar to be offered as an elective module[3] on (British) popular romance. While many seminars had included references to popular romantic structures and Christine Feehan’s The Scarletti Curse (2001) was analysed in a seminar titled “The Gothic Vision,” popular romance had not been the focus of a seminar in our Institute of English Studies before.

This article examines the proceedings of the seminar and the applied approach to teaching the popular romance in three distinct ways. First, it documents and reflects on the planning, structuring, and delivery of the module. Secondly, it considers the students’ development and progress and their response to the pedagogical measures. Lastly, it argues popular romance as a topic for academic study can appeal to both BA and teaching degree university students who study English in a German academic setting.[4] Popular genres in general (such as crime or detective, but also horror fiction—seminars on which generate a lot of student interest and participation in my experience) have a strong appeal as a subject, presumably since they connect directly to many students’ reading preferences and interests. Of course, there is also a case to be made for the idea that some of my students started to express during classes: that a seminar on popular culture initially often gives rise to the (very quickly corrected) notion that this topic would contain “less difficult and complex” texts to analyse, not involve much abstract theory, or require much personal effort. But this did not deter the participants from engaging in the texts and assignments. Thus, student interest can definitely be generated, even among those who picked popular literature as a topic because they assumed it would just be “easy.” Moreover, dealing with popular genres can motivate students by demonstrating that academic approaches are more than dry, abstract theories, but can and should inspire critical reflection on their own lives, how they conceive of the world, their own habits, contexts and reading practices. Finally, with regard to the academic setting, it will be shown that such a module can very well be integrated into courses which focus on the study of literature and culture in general, and can enliven academic discussion by shedding light onto genres which are underrepresented even in the study of popular culture.

The students were permitted to choose the elective class after having acquired knowledge of basic approaches to both literary and cultural “texts,”[5] leaving me with the task of recapping that knowledge and encouraging them to apply it to the study of popular romance novels and their structures. This seminar was designed to provide insight into the workings of specific popular romance subgenres, as well as to offer an overview of criticism levelled against the genre in general, and to enhance student’s abilities to analyse a popular cultural environment of production and consumption.

The seminar “Reading the Popular Romance” was thus one of a number of similarly structured elective seminars on various topics offered in the respective semester. Which of these seminars the students attended was up to their preference in topic and depended on how they managed their personal study schedule. For them, the module offered the chance to actively incorporate and apply the knowledge they gained in introductory and advanced seminars, which focus mainly on theoretical approaches and exemplary case studies. Thus, [End Page 2] working within the constraints of one genre and on selected texts with given literary and cultural studies approaches would help them to think critically and perform academic analyses both orally and in written form. In pursuit of their degree, the Proseminar is intended to be the next step in becoming proficient at producing coherent (close) readings and analyses of a text, followed by incorporating the analyses into a sound argumentative structure—first with the lecturer in class and then with a more narrow focus in their end-of-term-papers. Acquiring academic skills at this level also includes honing research abilities and being able to conform to the desired formalities both when preparing presentations and the end-of-term-paper, especially with regard to the bibliographical details. In order to facilitate this learning, I used a mixture of teaching approaches. Learning objective oriented measures, such as recaps on central approaches and summaries of the results of analyses, were central in relaying the necessary information to the students (Johansen 11-13). In addition, some elements of activity-oriented teaching (Johansen 89-91) were incorporated to enliven the teaching style and encourage student participation as well as increase interest. The most important measures in this respect were group work/working with a partner (Johansen 73) and interactive class discussions which were partly designed to help students with their soft skills, developing the capacity to work in a team and dealing with possibly conflicting opinions of others in an academically appropriate manner. However, these approaches were subject to revision throughout the duration of the seminar, since “no single strategy works for every teacher in every situation” (Daniel 91). The pedagogical aims in the first stages of planning and structuring the seminar were quite basic, since it is difficult to judge the exact possibilities of a class without getting to know the students and the dynamics among them first. The seminar structure was in itself very conducive to discussions and group work, as it let students develop trains of thought and arguments on their own, share them in a group of their peers, and then present them to other groups and the lecturer. Developing skills at both accepting but also formulating constructive criticism and delivering it to a fellow student were likewise part of the aims for this module. The “point of departure” for the students also varied, with some having read popular romances before, but not the specific subgenres we were to touch upon, while others’ experience of the genre was mostly limited to ideas from Hollywood cinema. Thus, bringing everyone onto a level that the class could start from was of utmost importance in the first weeks.

Concerning linguistic abilities, the seminar provides a stage for the students to practice speaking English freely in front of an audience (especially important for those doing a teaching degree) and bringing them closer to complete fluency in the English language. By the time they attended the Proseminar, the students also had undergone two language training courses with the university’s language department, in addition to at least five years of English in school. Therefore, the students’ language capabilities allowed for the seminar on popular romance to be held entirely in English. At times, though, especially in group discussions, it became apparent that their passive language skills and vocabulary were more developed than their active ones. Most prevalent were problems with grammar and tenses in spoken English. As a result, the class was comprised of a medium-level group of readers, speakers and writers, with exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. Some of the students also intended to go abroad at the end of their second year in order to perfect their language skills. [End Page 3]

Since the class was offered as part of the English Literary and Cultural Studies elective seminar for second to fourth year BA and teaching degree students, the syllabus material had to be limited to primary literature by British authors. Thanks to the work I had done in my Magister thesis, I was deemed capable of choosing the primary and secondary texts myself, running them by my supervisor for final approval. However, a US-American angle was included by providing an overview of the romance genre and its place in popular culture, as well as in the publishing industry and the importance of marketing and producing the book as an “object” in the UK and in the US. The idea of analysing the popular romance novel in its book form as an object was motivated by my background in the analysis of book markets and book production, acquired as a result of research conducted for a degree course called “Study of the Book” (Buchwissenschaften), also taught at FAU.

During the fourteen-week semester, with one ninety-minute unit per week at my disposal, the focus was on three primary texts which were analysed in depth, namely Georgette Heyer’s Bath Tangle (1955), E.M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919), and a more recent Mills & Boon category romance, Marguerite Kaye’s The Governess and the Sheikh (2011), which falls into both the Regency and desert subgenre. Special emphasis was put firstly on an introduction to the popular romance as a genre, as a mode, and a functioning cultural construct within an economic context. Secondly, we concentrated on the aspects of hierarchical difference presented in the texts, which were supposedly overcome by the end of the novel. One important objective was to foster students’ capacity to work actively on texts with theoretical concepts from postcolonial studies, gender studies, and media/film studies, and also to show them the breadth of possible fields of research to specialize in during their own studies and maybe even for their BA final papers.

Twenty students signed up for the class—nineteen female students and a “minority” of one male—a ratio that already hints at the very gendered perception of the genre, considering that I advertised the class under the heading of “Reading the Popular Romance.” This overall number of students is quite common for seminars, since they are designed for relatively small groups in order to allow for more intense discussion and a teaching style that also focuses on individual students and their performance. That the popular romance genre had not been on students’ radars as a viable area for academic interest emerged in the first session when I conducted a short oral survey of the reasons why they had selected this class and what expectations they had for it. It turned out that a few of the students were actually romance fans while others were either oblivious to the genre beyond the common stereotypes, or reluctant to admit that they had read popular romances before. Consequently, it became another goal of the seminar to show how current common stereotypes mostly still refer back to 1970s/80s feminist criticism of the genre. When I inquired as to why the students had actually chosen this particular class, the majority of them admitted that they had seen the title and had never encountered a seminar that dealt with popular romance before and were actually quite surprised it would be a topic that fourteen weeks could be devoted to in academia.

Of immediate concern to the students were, of course, the assessments. To successfully complete the seminar, they had to perform an in-class presentation which was mandatory in order to be admitted to the final assessment. The latter was in form of an end-of-term paper (10-12 pages, i.e. roughly 4,000 to 5,000 words) on a topic of interest pertaining to one or more appropriate texts and approaches we dealt with in class.[6] With [End Page 4] prior discussion and approval of the lecturer, it was also possible to work on a suitable text not discussed in class beforehand. All topics were primarily chosen and worded by the individual students themselves, thereby making them familiar with the thought processes that go into putting together and verbalizing a thesis on a specific topic as well as researching and describing it in a limited number of words. A further requirement was the weekly reading of required texts designated as essential for each session. In preparation for the assessment, individual meetings were offered and one week’s teaching unit focused entirely on the academic skills and research abilities needed to complete the task successfully. In the last session of the semester, the students were required to present their assessment topic of choice to the whole class and to elaborate on their approach to the assessment, getting feedback and constructive advice from both their colleagues and the lecturer.

Structurally, the lessons were divided up into a presentation (which was a collaborative effort of several students), a discussion about the required reading (with the lecturer adding information from various other texts), and finally the application of the approaches and ideas we had talked about to the primary text(s) in question. I probably should mention that, though I was talking about the “romance,” it was made clear from the outset that the findings of the seminar would only relate to the two specific subgenres we would analyse and sweeping generalizations were to be avoided. The overall structure of the fourteen-week seminar was as follows:

Week Topic
1 Introductory session
Why analyse popular romance? Introduction to romance in a pop cultural context. Introduction to critical voices concerning the romance.
2 Basic concepts in dealing with and approaches to romance/ Romance Defined
Presentation
: Overview: The History of the Romance Genre
3 The framework of popular romance in the US and the UK: A look at the publishing industry
Presentation
: Mills & Boon and Marketing
4 Academic Skills Session
5 Literary analysis & close reading: Bath Tangle (1955)
Presentation: The Regency as historical period

[End Page 5]

6 Gender and gender difference in Bath Tangle (1955)
Presentation: Gender and the popular romance
7 Representations of History in Bath Tangle (1955)
Presentation: History Inside and Out – Romance Book Covers and Contents and the Re-Presentation of History
8 Foundation of all desert romance: The Sheik (1919)
Presentation: Orientalism and the Popular Romance
9 Intersections of race/nationality and gender in The Sheik (1919)
Presentation: Self and Other: Constructions of Race and Nationality
10 A change in media: The Sheik (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino
Presentation: Introduction to (Silent) Film Studies
11 Combining desert and Regency romance: The Governess and the Sheikh (2011)
12 Changes in the popular romance from Hull to Heyer to Kaye
Presentation: Sexuality and Sexual Encounters in Modern Popular Romance
13 Results and Question session
14 Presentation of End-of-term paper topics

After the introductory session, we started out with the basics: general facts about the popular romance as a genre in terms of definition (Hollows 68-88; Engler 7-12), and in terms of approaches that had been used in order to analyse the romance to date. We then set out to have a look at the cultural framework of producing (publishing industry guidelines, marketing techniques, authors as figures of fame) and consuming the popular romance in a popular cultural context. Here, students were asked to participate and comment based on their own experience (also by making comparisons to other popular genres they knew). Having outlined the basic premises of the publication conventions and possibilities, the students again had a chance to contribute, this time via group activities. They had to select three romances at random out of a substantial number of recent and older ones I brought to class and identify what form of publication (single-title/category or formula) as well as sub-genre they belonged to and what the target audience could be, [End Page 6] judging from the cover, in-book ads, author presentation, and paratextual elements. This exercise drove home the possible distinctions to be made within a certain set of current romance publications. The students responded positively to the activity and made observant remarks about the romances they had chosen and how they thought the elements of marketing were incorporated in order to ensure high customer interest. The discussion soon turned to the question of whether the romance novel covers were actually designed to attract new consumers or whether they were more a “marker” of genre for an already existing readership. All groups had at least one older historical romance cover that featured the stereotypical bodice-ripping male protagonist and the heroine with excessively luxuriant hair. Most students commented that even if they were looking for a novel with a romance plot, the covers would quite possibly deter them from buying the book for fear of the reactions of the cashier and people who might observe them carrying or reading a book with such a cover. A discourse of negation and self-censorship became apparent in the groups of students (“I might actually buy the novel, the blurb sounds good but the cover is just too embarrassing.”). Public acquisition of texts which were openly advertised as having “explicit” sexual content and were aimed at women was obviously taken to signify affiliation of the consumer with the stereotype of the frustrated housewife/woman and thus with discontent about one’s position in life and with regard to relationships in particular. Consequently, even though we had discussed and dispelled this stereotype of the reader, it became obvious that it is so ingrained in cultural imaginations about the popular romance as to become almost unshakeable. Fixing images of excessive heterosexual interaction onto the cover and thus referencing both a female tradition of romance production and female pleasure in the consumption of (romantically motivated) sexual action indicates connections to possibly illicit, private reading practices that could be considered culturally transgressive and maybe even part of a taboo which surrounds female-centric depictions of sexual interaction. Of course, this interaction on the cover is entirely expressed in terms of exaggeration, hyperbole, hyper-femininity and -masculinity, clearly marking the representation as a construct, as “fiction,” thereby containing anxieties about active female desire, projecting the latter into the realm of fictionality.

Mixing up these historical romances with Mills & Boon Modern category and single-title romances, like J.D. Robb’s/Nora Roberts’s Naked in Death, made for an interesting discussion, since students thought that the crime and science fiction elements as well as the cover of Robb’s text were much closer to genres usually coded as masculine or connected to male traditions of writing. Throwing authors like P.D. James, who writes crime fiction, into the discussion made some of the students realize that if no full name with indication towards the sex of the author is given on the cover or in the paratexts, the genre and cultural practices associated with it are most often the origin of assumptions about gender identity and writing practice. Especially surprising was also the fact that students very quickly started to pick up on the (sexualized) codes of the cover tradition and its system of signification which had been shortly discussed the week before. This indicated an aptitude with visual signifiers that boded very well for the planned film analysis.

Part of assessing in-class participation was having the students give presentations on topics such as the historical development of the genre, marketing techniques, gendered and heterosexual discourses in the popular romance, and the depiction of sexuality and sexual interaction in the novels examined. When it came to literary analysis, we started out by going over the narrative basics and laid the groundwork for understanding the subgenre [End Page 7] specific plot motifs, settings, and the recurring set of stereotypical characters. Analysis was conducted mostly through close reading and was based strongly on Pamela Regis’s eight central plot points (Regis 30-38) as well as George Paizis’s work on characterization in his book Love and the Novel (10-26). Here, the notion of a text operating as a “closed system [that is] both an ideal world and an unreal world” (Paizis 99) as well as issues of power and quality of the characters were examined, establishing the different hierarchies and power relations between various (groups of) characters. Group work at this stage included tasks like describing the (structural) function of select chapters in relation to the whole novel and discussing the importance of analysing them (also with regard to how the chapters would fit into Regis’s eight points of the popular romance). Moreover, it encompassed analysing the narrative situation and devices (on the level of discourse), and figuring out how the different characters are constructed by the text, taking into account different levels of mediation.

The Regency romance deals with a set of stereotypical characters (for example the rake, the Byronic hero, and the bluestocking or the spinster), which were introduced in order for the students to be able to judge adherence to and deviation from these roles. Going over constructions of gender and gender difference in Bath Tangle required a short introduction to Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian psychosemiosis (especially the concept of the mirror stage) in order to illustrate the emergence of structures of difference and desire. Psychoanalytical questions included inquiries into oedipal structures and absent parental figures. Furthermore, Judith Butler’s concept of performativity, as incorporated into an analysis of Heyer by Lisa Fletcher in Historical Romance Fiction (13-24), was subsequently dealt with and proved to be a notion that the students understood very well and could transfer onto Bath Tangle. With respect to gender as such, the general inquiry started off with the students identifying and discussing the nature and characterization of patriarchal authority figures and other structures of patriarchy in Heyer’s text. We then moved on to questions of how the gender roles presented in the novel are constructed as normative. This was achieved by an analysis of the linguistic and stylistic markers which have become conventionalized and thus help consolidate the gender stereotypes within the fictitious realm. Lord Rotherham and Serena Carlow, the protagonists, were examined in relation to their respective doubles or foils in the narrative, Serena’s stepmother Fanny and Major Kirkby. This doubling allows two separate courtship plots to unfold and while one is given more narrative space, it was interesting to note that the more conventional (pseudo)historical upper class courtship failed, whereas the courtship depicted and constructed as not in keeping with the ideals of the Regency romance upper class was the more successful and more prominent one. On the level of discourse, however, the love-hate type of romance is still a stereotypical feature of the Regency romance since it provides more internal obstacles to be overcome by the potential couple, as the students determined.

Historical difference was another topic examined in connection with Heyer’s novel, starting out with the postmodern dissatisfaction with “history”[7] as such, and then opening up the pop cultural historical setting as a liminal space into which discussions of current problems get displaced or projected and then negotiated. Claims to verisimilitude are “an illusion, created by the structural features of the text” (Hughes 18); therefore the analysis of these structural features and the effect they achieve was an important task. The students’ assignment was to examine the function of the Regency setting, how the reader [End Page 8] encounters historicity and to decide whether there is a degree of metafictionality to the novel. For this purpose, Helen Hughes’s chapter on “The Structures of Historical Romance” (13-28) enabled the students to make the proper connections. Another important part of this task was gaining the ability to identify history as related to tradition and nostalgia on the level of story. On the level of discourse, history became visible as a combination of “dated” language and Regency markers. These markers could take the form of dress or customs, but could also surface in allusions to contemporaneous (political or social) Regency events and historical persons.

Concerning the second subgenre of choice, the desert romance, we began by determining the specific plot motifs, the set of what are now stereotypical characters, and the aspects of the setting that are specific to the subgenre. Moreover, we established the notion of Orientalism as a vital concept in analysing the setting and the characters constructed as “other” (Teo 241-261). The motifs of the harem and captivity became important in this context too, especially in connection with Emily Haddad’s article “Bound to Love” (42-64). The narrative analysis was done as group work and again focused strongly on pivotal scenes of the novel, such as the Recognition (Regis 36-37), the Point of Ritual Death (35-36) and the Declaration/Betrothal (34-35; 37-38). The self/other distinction and, in addition, the resulting colonial discourse inherent in The Sheik were examined by the students in order to be able to understand the intersections of the categories of race/nationality and gender—an approach that was transferred onto the 1921 US-American silent film adaptation starring Rudolph Valentino. The differences between the book and the film, such as the omission of rape scenes or the change in the first meeting of the protagonists, were analysed in light of the background of the time and place of production (e.g. laws banning inter-racial marriage/relationships and miscegenation) and with regard to plausibility to the intended audience of both book and film. Questions of ethnic/racial affiliation and their respective representations within the power dynamics of the desert romance were raised and led to an investigation into stereotypes of race and gender and the privileging of different sides of the hierarchical binary oppositions. The construction of dynamic hierarchies between protagonists and supporting characters in the text through narrative representation became one of the foci of the analysis as well as the heroine’s privileged narrative status as character focalizer. These differences and hierarchies also became apparent in the analysis of the different cover illustrations that have graced the novel The Sheik throughout the decades. Furthermore, the silent film version was used to illustrate the practice of hiring European actors to play non-European characters, thereby enforcing the notion of a possible slippage from the privileged category of difference into a non-privileged one, but prohibiting any movement from the non-privileged category to the privileged one. Silent film practices such as title cards, intertitles, background music and the distinctive acting style were analysed in comparison to contemporary and current expectations of a narrative film, in addition to the general implications of choice of actors and scenery. Here, the students’ initial reactions to the acting style, which encompassed statements such as “He [Valentino] looks completely ridiculous. I can’t take this film seriously” soon gave way to a deeper understanding of historical and technological developments of film as a medium, and its debt to theatrical traditions as well as, in case of the silent film, to melodrama.

Teaching in this segment was also highly influenced by student input. For example, one of the presenters on silent film analysis was not sure how to rate the importance and [End Page 9] effect of the real name of an actor appearing beneath the name of his character on the intertitle instead of being named in the final credits. This warranted further contextualization of the medium film within a wider debate concerning the moving image as illusion versus representing “reality.” The analysis identified the instance of the appearance of actor’s name on the intertitle as a means of breaking the fourth wall. This consequently serves to curb anxieties about miscegenation and the threatening Other for an audience that was still primarily perceived as passive and therefore open to the notion of the film as a reflection of “reality” at the time of the film’s production. In so doing, it was possible to demonstrate the impact these seemingly tangential questions that arise during a presentation can have, and to expose the intricate network of discursive effects that affects each and every form of representation in a certain medium.

The combination of Regency and desert setting in Kaye’s The Governess and the Sheikh confronted the students with their first category romance (published by Mills & Boon). By now, the students were, for the most part, able to work with concepts such as Orientalism on their own in study groups with only marginal input from the lecturer and could present their findings to the other groups, who had been performing analyses using a different approach. The gaze, interpreted as a narrative gaze in the sense of a focalizing character, representing a “point of view,” showed the incorporation of the male perspective into the desert romance novel. Whereas in The Sheik the male protagonist and his thought process remain closed-off from the heroine, and, by extension, also from the reader, the hero of The Governess and the Sheikh, Jamil, becomes available not just from the outside, by being described and looked at by the heroine, but actually by having his thought processes and feelings represented through character focalization as well. This serves to establish his attraction to and developing love for the heroine from the start, as opposed to the older novel, where the Declaration (Regis 34) has to take place in direct speech at the very end of the novel.

Moreover, the historical setting again provided for an interesting interpretation of the Regency and desert setting as liminal spaces for the negotiation of modern cultural issues. A group task for the students involved applying Jessica Taylor’s ideas on “[…] Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels” (1032-1051) to the novel. According to her article, the construction of the Orient as an imaginary space and place is made believable by citing detailed (often stereotypical) images (of furniture, clothing, architecture) which evoke verisimilitude, even though the texts are set in “imaginary [desert] locations” and realms (1038). Thus, a fantastical space is produced that is nevertheless imbued with plausibility. The Orient consequently becomes knowable and controllable along with the male hero who is “tamed” by the white, Western heroine. The hero’s choice of the white female protagonist as a partner and thereby his participation in heterosexual monogamy is contrasted with the myth of the Oriental harem, the latter being subsequently dispelled in its function as a threat to the protagonists’ relationship. This clears the future for a modernized (i.e. westernized) Orient under the positive influence of a white female figure (1040-1024). The opening chapter of The Governess and the Sheikh was under particular scrutiny here, since it starts out from the male character’s perspective, making it obvious it is his society which is defined and centring the romance more firmly on equal ground in later chapters where the representation of both the male and female protagonists’ views are concerned. The description of lavish surroundings as well as the hero’s dealings with matters of state establish the contrast between what Taylor [End Page 10] calls details of reality and an imaginary (desert) realm (Kaye 7-18) and thus prove Taylor’s point.

A further issue of interest in this modern Mills & Boon romance was the fact that this was the first novel we read that contained explicit levels of (hetero)sexual longings and activity. A student presentation on the development of the rise of the more sexually explicit romance dealt with jay Dixon’s chapters on this topic in her book The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909–1990s (133-153; 155-178) and detailed the relations between the Mills & Boon romance’s concept of “legitimate” or privileged expressions of heterosexual love, physical desire, and also violence as a form of character interaction. Concerning the actual description of the characters’ experience during sex, narrative perspective was of utmost importance, as well as Catherine Belsey’s idea about the bodily union being able to bridge a sort of Cartesian dualism (23). Talking about sex and sexual interaction, especially in connection with the emotions portrayed in the novel, it was surprising to see that most students were quite reluctant to discuss these scenes in detail in class—and if they did, they employed either rather inventive euphemisms that rivalled the romance’s vocabulary or they reduced a scene with full intercourse to the expression: “physical contact.” Generally, I had assumed that the session which incorporated psychoanalytic approaches to literature and the repeated use of terms like “penis envy” or “phallus” would have done away with this disinclination. Even more interesting was the fact that it turned out a majority of my students wanted to incorporate Kaye’s “explicit content” novel into their end of term papers, and most of them willingly made reference to one or more of the sex scenes in order to analyse power structures, discourses of gender or the body. Therefore, the reluctance to discuss these scenes seemed to be directed towards an official teaching (or semi-public) context, and not the result of a general aversion towards reading and analysing them—thereby giving strong indication that the Mills & Boon romance that was dealt with constitutes part of a pleasure which is considered private, or at least experienced as belonging to a non-public space. The male student, in contrast, was confident in discussing the sexual aspects of the books, and was particularly interested in applying a psychoanalytical approach to the romances we discussed.

The final topical session was dedicated to the noticeable changes in the popular romance as we had traced them in the three exemplary texts. The wider context for these changes was covered by a discussion of Dawn Heinecken’s article “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction” (149-172), which led to a further categorization and comparison of the novels’ protagonists as well as the pivotal plot points and developments.

The seminar ended with a revision session in which we collected the knowledge we had accumulated concerning the popular romance in general and the exemplary sub-generic texts in particular, while applying different approaches to the novels. Interactive collection of assembled knowledge made up most of this session, with the students devising a huge blackboard sketch with colour coding for information we had collected over the semester. This exercise was met with much enthusiasm and carried out very satisfactorily.

Noticeable among the students during the whole semester was that they had trouble shaking off their quick stereotypical judgments about the popular romance audience as “frustrated housewives,” even though the issue was made a topic of discussion at several points, clarifying that this idea about the popular romance audience was rooted in a 1970s/1980s feminist backlash and an older tradition of romance plots. Finally, I [End Page 11] conducted an anonymous evaluation of the seminar to get the students’ feedback in an attempt to judge the impact the seminar, the teaching style, and the information exchange had on them and if they thought any of this would shape their future studies. The overall feedback for the seminar was (grade-wise) between an A- and a B+ (overall average mark in numerical grading system was 1.58), and most of the students remarked on how surprised they had been that there were so many different things one could “do” (i.e. analyse) with a popular romance. The evaluation reflected a positive reception of the seminar’s structure and choice of primary and secondary texts. General topic preference was divided between desert and Regency romance and the respective approaches, but marketing strategies and the “romance industry” were also noted as subjects of great interest. Also, out of fourteen students who took part in the evaluation, eleven claimed a notable increase in their interest in and knowledge about the topic of the seminar. The focus of this interest was also reflected in the choice of seminar paper topics. Twelve students completed the end-of-term assignment and were successful. The rest of the students finished the seminar as such, but did not hand in a seminar paper, some due to internships abroad and some due to mismanagement of time. Bath Tangle was the students’ favourite romance to work on in their papers, and was thus analysed by five students, who wrote about gender and gender difference, love relationships as a consequence of difference in categories of power, the function of the depiction of traditional gender roles, and issues of class and class distinctions. Three incorporated Hull’s The Sheik into their papers and examined issues of discourses of race and nationality, power relations and the gaze, as well as constructions of masculinity. As for The Governess and the Sheikh, four students decided to work with the text, respectively analysing gendered discourses, the gaze, Orientalism and the construction of power relations through categories of difference. One student was very interested in venturing into another romance subgenre for analysis and focused on Christine Feehan’s The Lair of the Lion (2002) and the protagonists’ adherence to gender stereotypes in the gothic popular romance in comparison with stereotypical gothic novel characters. In general, the students exhibited a very good grasp of the approaches to the romance, even though a small number of the seminar papers that were handed in proved that they sometimes had difficulty distinguishing between the levels of story and narrative mediation. Moreover, they tended to conflate the retrospective fictional construct of a historical era as a setting in the novel with the actual historical era and its characteristics—especially when dealing with topics such as gender constructions in Bath Tangle. Here, one of the papers kept referring to “actual” Regency gender positions and comparing them to the characters’ in the romance novel, not taking into account Heyer’s version of the Regency as a post-Regency retrospective construct. This level of abstraction was, however, achieved by most of the students after having dealt with the issue in class in the session on constructions of history.

In conclusion, if I offered this seminar again, I would attempt to incorporate different secondary texts and include one session to actually analyse first-wave romance novel criticism in detail to help historicise judgments about the popular romance and its readers. Moreover, I would try to direct some of the discussion even more, since sometimes the group works did, for all of some students’ efforts, not result in as much academic interaction as previously anticipated—which then had the effect of the lecturer having to intervene in order to bring the session to a satisfactory ending. It would also be interesting to focus on different subgenres, such as paranormal romance and maybe historical [End Page 12] paranormal romance, with emphases on conceptualizations of the Other and the inclusion of gothic or horror elements. To sum it up, though, the seminar touched upon various literary and cultural studies approaches and demonstrated the multiplicity of possibilities as well as the versatility of the Regency and desert romance and its changing strategies of negotiating social position, class issues, gender standards and stereotypes as well as ideas of racial and ethnic categories. [End Page 13]

Appendix I.

Heiss-1


[1] My degree course was started before the German university system switched to the BA and MA system in late 2007 (“Studiengänge und Prüfungen.”). Thus, the degree I studied for was the Magister Artium (M.A.), a degree mainly designed to prepare the student for a further academic career in his or her field. The average period of education was nine semesters, i.e. four and a half years. This period could be extended if, for example, students were to go abroad for one or two semesters. The final paper (called Magisterarbeit), roughly probably equivalent to a Master’s thesis, with eighty to a hundred pages in length, was the Magister thesis I handed in at this stage. After passing final examinations in both written and oral form, I was awarded the title M.A. The main difference to the Master of Arts is that there was no prior degree (like a BA) that had to be attained before you could complete your studies at M.A. level. Thus, subsequently, I was accepted as a doctoral candidate/ PhD candidate and started working towards my PhD thesis (called Dissertation in German). [End Page 14]

[2] For a better understanding of the hierarchical structure at the FAU, see Appendix 1. It has to be noted that the term ‘Chair’ does not denote just one professor and his/her position but instead encompasses one professor who holds the chair as well as various subordinate members of staff, ranking from post-doctoral lecturers to doctoral candidates who can also hold a teaching position.

[3] The term module is here intended in the British English sense of “each of a set of independent units of study or training that can be combined in a number of ways to form a course at a college or university […]” (“module.”). In this context of meaning, module is taken to be interchangeable with the term seminar, which, also being in the German descriptive title of the module, signals a preoccupation of both a limited number of students and the teacher with one overall topic which is discussed in a thorough, if not exhaustive manner (“seminar.”). Both terms also hint at the difference from a lecture, which would mainly involve input from the lecturer and less actual work (i.e. group work, discussions, presentations) on the students’ part.

[4] An especially interesting aspect here is that most of the popular romance publications in Germany are actually translations from the US-American or British market. There are some German romance authors, like Michelle Raven, for example, who writes romantic suspense, but they are few and far between. Thus, those students who attended my seminar and professed to be actual fans of popular romance were already familiar with the genre being dominated by British and US-American authors. Therefore, they were already familiar with authors like Georgette Heyer or Barbara Cartland.

[5] The module on popular romance as such, a type of seminar officially called Proseminar in German, is an independent elective module, to be taken after the students have completed a basic seminar and advanced seminar in literary studies (Grund- und Aufbaukurs Literature) as well as at least the introductory module in cultural studies (Grundkurs Culture). The advanced module in Cultural Studies, in which the students are supposed to read and analyse first-hand scholarly texts, is obligatory only for BA students (Krug 4-5), not for those pursuing a teaching degree (Mittmann 4-7). These basic or advanced seminars last one semester each, so by the time the students are eligible to attend the Proseminar described here, they are at least into their second year, i.e. third semester. The majority of my students were advanced undergraduates, most of them in their fourth semester, with two fifth-semester students, one sixth-semester student, and one who was in their eighth semester at the time. BA students made up the bulk of attendees, followed closely in number by the teaching degree students, the latter aspiring to become English teachers for the German classroom.

[6] These assessments are part of the general structure of the seminar as fixed in the examination rules for the whole course of study. For the different Proseminare to result in students having the same formal academic training in oral and written argumentation, which is essential in order to advance to the next level of their studies, the examinations and final assignments have to be comparable concerning their basic requirements.

[7] Here, a general introduction to postmodern conceptions of history was attempted, featuring scholars such as Hayden White and his notion of Meta-history, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of grand narratives as well as Linda Hutcheon’s term historiographic metafiction. [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Print.

“Chair of English Literature.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

Daniel, David B. “Learning-Centered Lecturing.” Effective College and University Teaching: Strategies and Tactics for the New Professiorate. Ed. William Buskist and Victor A. Benassi. London: Sage, 2012. 91-98. Print.

“Department Anglistik/Amerikanistik und Romanistik.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

“Department of English and American Studies.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

“Departments.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909–1990s. London: UCL, 1999. Print.

Engler, Sandra. “A Career’s Wonderful, but Love Is More Wonderful Still”: Femininity and Masculinity in the Fiction of Mills & Boon. Tübingen: Francke, 2005. Print.

“Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Theology.” UnivIS: Information system of Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. n. d. Web. 4 April 2014.

Feehan, Christine. Lair of the Lion. New York: Leisure, 2002. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Haddad, Emily H. “Bound To Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 42-64. Print.

Heinecken, Dawn. “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 149-172. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Bath Tangle. 1955. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2011. Print.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. Print.

Hughes, Helen. The Historical Romance. New York and London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Hull, Edith Maude. The Sheikh: A Novel. 1919. [n.a.]: BiblioBazaar, 2007. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. 1988. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Johansen, Kathrin et.al. Einsteigerhandbuch Hochschullehre – Aus der Praxis für die Praxis. Darmstadt, WBG, 2010. Print.

Kaye, Marguerite. The Governess and the Sheikh. Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2011. Print.

Krug, Christian. “Studienplaner: Bachelorstudiengang.“ Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Erlangen. 28 Feb 2012. Web. 3 April 2014.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.

Mittmann, Brigitta. “Englisch für das Lehramt an Gymnasien – Studien- und Examensplaner.“ Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Erlangen. 11 September 2013. Web. 3 April 2014.

“module.” Oxford Dictionary of English. 2nd ed., revised. 2005. Print.

[End Page 16]

Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Robb, J.D. Naked in Death. 1995. New York: Berkley Books, 2007. Print.

“seminar.” Oxford Dictionary of English. 2nd ed., revised. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

“Studiengänge und Prüfungen.” Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Erlangen. 18 October 2011. Web. 5 April 2014.

Taylor, Jessica. “And You Can Be My Sheikh: Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels.” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 1032-1051. Print.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. “Orientalism and Mass Market Romance Novels in the Twentieth Century.” Edward Said: The Legacy of a Public Intellectual. Ed. Ned Curthoys. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2007. 241-261. Print.

The Sheik. Dir. George Melford. Perf. Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Patsy Ruth Miller. Paramount, 1921. DVD.

White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. 1973. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

[End Page 17]

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Stacy Holden’s “Love in the Desert”: An Author’s Response
by Megan Crane

Do contemporary sheikh romance novels fetishize Arabs and subject them to the unwavering, privileged glare of the Western imagination as Holden asserts? Or is there a way in which all stories of the beloved fetishize and objectify the beloved—both heroine and hero in their turn, regardless of their cultural background or racial make-up, across all subgenres of romantic fiction?

I was an avid and enthusiastic reader of romance novels long before I found myself pursuing my doctorate in English Literature, a habit I continued throughout my graduate studies and on into a career writing them. I’ve written fifty books under various names[1], including six novels written as Caitlin Crews for Harlequin Presents featuring sheikh heroes. As a life-long romance reader, former scholar of literature, and a current author of romances, I feel one could as easily substitute “Scottish highlander” or “Greek tycoon” for “sheikh” and make many of these same arguments.

Just as murder mystery novels rarely focus on protagonists who have no connection to the central murder and no hope of solving it by the close of the book, romance novels rarely spend any time with characters whose conflict cannot be made the critically beating heart around which the rest of the story is erected. It is the rare “Sassenach” (that is: English) heroine in a historical romance novel who, upon finding herself mired in the politics of the Scottish highlands—often after her abduction at the hands of the hero—does not then immerse herself in the (usually) fairly happy culture thereof and, indeed, go on to do such things as broker quiet peace treaties with more high-minded English citizens to whom she may or may not be related, despite the actual and tragic history of English/Scottish relations. [End Page 1]

Is this evidence of a certain triumphing of a fantasy version of “Englishness” over Scottish Highland culture or revisionist history with a large helping of problematic post-colonial blindness to go along with it? I’d argue that it is not; that it is, in fact, merely an example of a device that authors use to isolate their heroine in a setting she can’t control and must, therefore, share in detail with readers as she learns to adapt to it and even to enjoy it.

I’d argue that any fantasies in these stories have more to do with the modern woman’s belief in the power of femininity to solve problems and change lives for the better than in any kind of cultural or historical revision. For example, the popularity of this or that band of warriors (see: the alpha heroes of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, Julie Garwood’s beloved Highlanders, Kristen Ashley’s almost-outlaw biker gang) who are forever altered once the members begin to fall in love.

Further, this kind of setting, be it an impenetrable Scottish castle or a remote desert sheikhdom, puts the hero in a larger-than-life position of dominance over the heroine. There is only one way that a heroine can “win” any battle with such a mighty figure: she must use her love for him, of course, and his for her, to lead them both toward any satisfactory emotional conclusion. And that satisfactory emotional conclusion is, like the solving of a murder in a murder mystery, the point of the romance novel.

I write for the Harlequin Presents category romance line, in which wealth and luxury are the expected trappings of any story. As such, I’ve written five novels featuring Greek tycoons since 2010 and see no conflict whatsoever between each hero’s vast wealth (and occasional personal, private island in the Aegean) and the current economic situation in Greece. Not because the book is “escapist fantasy,” as romances are so often accused of being, but because the point of the book is the power differential between the hero and the heroine and how they address it in their dealings with each other. One of the ways that imbalance is expressed is through the use of incomparable wealth and power to emphasize masculinity, from my Greek heroes to, for example, the proliferation of dukedoms and thus heroes who happen to be dukes of the realm in historical romances set in England. Class and social boundaries (or perhaps supernatural powers vs. their lack in a paranormal romance) are common ways to play with the power gap between hero and heroine in all romance subgenres.

Thus: made-up sheikhdoms where the sheikh-as-hero rules supreme, the better to illustrate that vast difference between the two protagonists. There are as many (I’d argue far more) made-up Mediterranean islands littering the romance landscape; so many, in fact, that one could walk from Gibraltar to the shores of Cyprus on these imaginary land masses without getting the least bit damp. These invented principalities and kingdoms serve the same purpose as the many imaginary sheikhdoms do: they accord the characters near-immeasurable wealth and power, and they thus allow the author infinite possibilities for storytelling involving the manipulation of these elements toward the desired happy ending.

I’d argue further that depictions of these vastly powerful men, whether in contemporary romances or their paranormal cousins which tend to push these concepts even further with depictions of men who become supernatural creatures, are first and foremost powerful ruminations on masculinity and relationships and the ways in which love alone can solve the problems that nothing else can. The reconciliation fantasies that lurk within romance novels are between the heroes and the heroines first and mainly, are [End Page 2] not specific to any particular culture or even in some cases species, and are certainly not restricted to stories featuring sheikhs.

Holden suggests above that these novels operate as “the perfect vehicle to assuage American fears— anxieties found both in readers and in authors—regarding Arabs and their world.”  While there are certainly authors who explicitly address religious and cultural differences in their heroes and heroines and those who ignore these issues entirely, these are choices on the part of the authors that I’d argue are almost exclusively in service to the story itself and certainly not constrained to sheikh romances. Romance novels are not the exclusive province of Americans or, indeed, Western women, and thus, the fears they strive to address lie more within the scope of human frailty and the darkness of the human soul than any purely Western, quasi-colonialist gaze on the shifting geo-political landscape. Love in these books is held to be eternal while politics are instead the stuff of the moment and wholly conquerable should our hero and heroine wish it.

It’s worth noting that Harlequin Mills & Boon are truly a global publisher. Authors hail from all parts of the world and write about whatever destinations they please/can make work in their stories. So too do they write about whatever characters they please, as I know firsthand. I’ve written thirty books for Harlequin Presents thus far and have never had any editorial interference with any of my characters no matter their nationality or race. I’ve written heroes and heroines of color and at no point has the characters’ heritage even been mentioned by my editor (or any other editor, to my knowledge) as either a positive or a negative. We’ve always simply discussed the love story.

In the end, all romances concern themselves with the collapsing of boundaries, whether internal or external, in order to lead the characters—and the reader—toward an often hard-won happily ever after. It should then, perhaps, come as no tremendous surprise that authors of these books see very few limits to the things they can make right with the power of love.

That is, after all, the point.


[1] As of July 1, 2015. [End Page 3]

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