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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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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

Abbott, Stacey. Celluloid Vampires: Life after Death in the Modern World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Print.

—. ‘Embracing the Metropolis: Urban Vampires in American Cinema of the 1980s and 90s.’ Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Ed. Peter Day. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. 125-142. Print.

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.

Urisini, James, and Alain Silver. The Vampire Film. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1975. Print.

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.

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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.

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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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Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels
by Stacy E. Holden

Dr. Geneva Gray woke to the sound of nomads attacking her archaeological camp, which, though technically in Egypt, bordered all too closely the kingdom of Bah’shar.[1] Taken captive, the American was presented by the desert marauders as a gift to Sheikh Zafir bin Rashid al-Khalifa, leader of this fictional Arab country. Zafir recognizes Dr. Gray, or [End Page 1] Genie, for they had once dated when they both attended the same American college. Ten years ago, Genie had broken off the relationship after Zafir had informed her of his impending arranged marriage and then asked her to return to his kingdom as his mistress. Now a widower, Zafir does not endorse the illegal detention of Americans, but his response to this crisis is dictated by the cultural and political conditions of his Arab kingdom. “The ways of the desert are ancient and cannot be changed overnight,” he says (Harris, “Kept” 121). Bowing to political exigencies in Bah’shar, Zafir forces Genie to return to his palace in Al-Shahar, promising the noted scholar that in return for her captivity he will grant her exclusive rights to excavate the precious temples of the capital city. Thrown together, their simmering attraction threatens to blossom into love, a dangerous situation since Zafir’s people may not be ready to accept a Western queen. After an assassination attempt, the Sheikh sends his lady love back home, stating simply “we are two different people from two different worlds” (Harris, “Kept” 144).

The notion that Arabs and Westerners are “from two different worlds” has a long history in Western high art and popular culture, but its current iteration reflects a historically specific pessimism about Arab-American relations that has shaped cultural production in the post-9/11 world. Although not all Arabs are Muslim, and although the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not Arab, American popular media routinely conflate the two categories, such that news broadcasts, films, television series, and potboilers reify the various peoples of the twenty-two countries of the Middle East and North Africa into a single homogeneous entity that is dark, dangerous, religiously “other,” and dead set against the West (Markovitz; Shaheen; Takacs). American popular culture has thus fused the “Global War on Terror” announced by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks with the “Clash of Civilizations” predicted by Samuel Huntington in the 1990s, presenting conflict between an American-led West and an Arab-led Islamic East as the defining feature of international relations in the early twenty-first century (Huntington).

By my count, Harlequin and Silhouette have published at least eighty sheikh romance novels by twenty-one American authors since 9/11. According to cultural historian and literary scholar Hsu-Ming Teo, these stories of desert love can be read as subversive tracts, for they are presently the only form of American popular culture consistently evoking compassion for Arabs or the Arab world (Teo 216; 301-303). This compassion hinges on a cross-cultural exchange of values: the heroine ultimately embraces the family-oriented culture of the Arab world, while the sheikh adopts the liberal feminist agenda of his Western beloved and her compatriots (Teo 233).

Teo describes sheikh romance novels as “a valuable historical archive showing how ordinary, educated women understand and interpret Arabs, Muslims, citizenship, and belonging, and Western relations with the Middle East” (26). True to form, the ending of Harris’s novella “Kept by the Sheikh” helps scholars to appreciate one author’s political imagination in a post-9/11 world. This story does not end with Zafir and Genie in separate worlds, but rather brings the couple and their cultures together. Zafir changes the law prohibiting Bah’shar’s rulers from marrying foreigners and also holds a special vote to ensure that his people agree with him—which, conveniently, they do (Harris, “Kept” 186). And so, Zafir’s love for the American fosters democratic process, or at least some version of it, in the Arab world.

The ending of “Kept by the Sheik” becomes more significant when contextualized with its author’s life story. Like many Americans, Harris has a deeply vested interest in the [End Page 2] War on Terror now being waged in various areas of the Arab world. The forty-seven year old author not only grew up in a military family—both her mother and father were soldiers—but is also the wife of an officer, a now-retired Technical Sergeant in the Air Force. And Harris is as close to a “blue-blooded” American as found in this national melting pot, for she is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization in which descendants of those who fought for American independence actively promote patriotism through various charitable endeavors. On 11 September 2001, she was at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and her thoughts turned immediately to the precarious future of her husband and those who served with him. In fact, she had only just returned that very day from a visit to him in Italy, where he was then deployed to Italy supporting Operation Joint Forge, a NATO effort in support of Kosovo (Harris, email, 16 February 2014; Harris, interview, 16 July 2013).

Harris—much like the ten other authors and three editors interviewed for this article—denies an explicit intent to address politics in her romance novels, but both the text of her novels and the transcripts of her interviews belie this unassuming assertion. Indeed, the author reveals a belief that her novels may well contribute to a better American understanding of the Arab world. Analyzing the sheikh, a composite Arab hero that essentializes the region’s political and cultural complexities, she notes that “I think it’s important for romance reader to think of him as a man, to know that he is sexy and desirable as a man from their own culture could be. Maybe that’s naive of me, but I choose to believe having sheikhs populate romance novels makes readers think of them as people, not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists who hate America” (Harris, email, Follow Up, 11 February 2013).

In this essay, I expand and supplement the textual archive relied on by Teo by adding a new set of documents: interviews with some of the “ordinary, educated women” who write and publish these texts. Methodologically, I am a historian by training—one whose work previously analyzed the political and economic conditions of Morocco and Iraq via oral history and other first-hand accounts—and so I am keenly aware of a need to expand the source base for examining the cultural trends represented by sheikh romances. For this essay, I interviewed eleven authors and three editors. This article was particularly influenced by interviews with six authors and two editors of Harlequin Presents, a category line specializing in stories about “alpha males, decadent glamour and jet-set lifestyles” set in a “sensational, sophisticated world” (Harlequin Presents). Another important resource was Susan Mallery, author of the Desert Rogue Series published by Harlequin in the Silhouette Special Edition line. Mallery and her editor Karen Richman made themselves available on multiple occasions via email and in person.

These interviews suggest authors of sheikh romances consciously and deliberately struggle against the negative stereotypes of Arabs perpetrated by the media and other vehicles of popular culture. They do so by deploying some of the more positive—indeed, one might say exotically upbeat—stereotypes drawn from the long history of Orientalist fiction and film. In a complex negotiation between their own desires, the traditions of the genre, and the expectations of readers and publishers, sheikh romance authors embrace an ideal of Arab-American reconciliation, albeit one in which the happy ending occurs according to Western sensibilities. [End Page 3]

The Popularity of Sheikh Romances in the Post-9/11 World

Among the sheikh romance authors whose work straddles the dividing line of the 9/11 attacks, few have been as consistently popular as Susan Mallery, whom Teo identifies as a “master of this genre” (Teo 284). Long before writing a sheikh romance, Mallery had admired the sheikh romance author Barbara Faith, who had been the sole author allowed to pen such novels for the category line Silhouette Special Edition. In 1998, three years after Faith’s death, Mallery’s editor, Karen Richman, invited her to submit a proposal for a sheikh romance novel in that line (Mallery, interview). Richman recalls that Silhouette had identified the author as a rising star and “so our plan was to go out with a three-book series, in three consecutive months to help market the series and profile her writing” (Richman, email). On a road trip through Louisiana with friend and fellow author Christina Dodd, Mallery plotted the trilogy. “I started with three books and really never thought I would do more,” she explained, “but the reader interest was huge and the mail started pouring in. So I kept writing them” (Mallery, interview in Shoemaker).

The popularity of Mallery’s “Desert Rogue Series,” now thirteen volumes strong, may be partly due to the author’s self-consciously idealized version of the Arab world. Each of Mallery’s books takes place in a fictional country located on the Arabian peninsula, and each country is explicitly described in both the text and in interviews as standing slightly apart from that real-world context, a “Switzerland of the Middle East” (Mallery, email; Kidnapped 179; Princess 11). Mallery does not set her books in real places, she has explained, because:

The real world of the Middle East is complex and difficult. There are religious differences and deadly conflicts. My books are about taking people away from the real world. So I created my own countries where my romantic stories can take place. There’s [sic] no religious issues, no war, no disagreements, except between the hero and heroine (Mallery, interview in Shoemaker).

In this quote, we find Mallery emphasizing a negative stereotype of the Arab world put forth in the nightly news as a lived reality in the Arab world. She is unapologetic in her decision to omit the media representations of disturbing events in real life and the negative stereotypes, thereby sanitizing this place it for consumption by her readers, most of whom are American.

Mallery’s effort to keep “real world” issues outside the borders of her novels was put to the test in 2001. The fourth book in her series was due out in November 2001, two months after 9/11. Since this book, titled The Sheikh and the Runaway Princess, had gone into production ten months earlier, the publisher could not change its plans and replace the monthly category romance with, for example, a tale of a fireman, which would have directly reflected American sensibilities after 9/11. The editorial staff at Silhouette worried that the book would not sell. After all, they had witnessed firsthand the trauma of 9/11. The American headquarters of Silhouette is in downtown Manhattan, and its employees saw smoke from the Twin Towers from their office windows as they followed news of the crisis on TV. Richman remembers, “we were a little worried about how readers would react, [End Page 4] especially with the fourth book in the series set to be published right after that terrible tragedy” (Richman, email). With two sheikh books in production, Mallery predicted extremely low sales and believed her career might be over (Mallery, interview). Sharing her concerns, editors at Silhouette re-named the sixth book, which was in production and due to be released in June 2002. Eliminating the Arab term “sheikh,” the editors titled the book The Prince and the Pregnant Bride, an ethnically neutral term that sidestepped potential antipathy about the Arab world (Mallery, email).

The fears of the Silhouette editorial staff proved unfounded, and Mallery went on to publish another seven books set in her fictional Arab world. Indeed, Mallery insists that there was “not a blip in sales. Nothing” (Mallery, interview). Since each of her sheikh romances had a press run of 100,000 copies, these culminated in sales of 1.3 million books (Reardon).

The popularity of Mallery’s series is not an anomaly, for other authors have found that 9/11 did not affect continuing interest in the Arab world. When 9/11 occurred, Sandra Marton was under contract to write The Sheikh’s Convenient Bride. In this story, an episode in the O’Connell family saga, CPA Megan O’Connell falls for her client, Qasim al Daud al Rashid, the King of Suliyam. As the wife of a retired New York City police officer, Marton was understandably distressed by the 9/11 tragedy (Marton, interview). Two weeks later, she informed her editor that she felt that she could not write the sheikh romance (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2013). Marton’s editor assuaged her concerns and quickly assured her that the sale of sheikh romance in the category line of Harlequin Presents had not suffered due to the 9/11 attack. The author ultimately decided to write the book for which she was under contract.

Marton felt at ease doing so in part because she created “a sheikh who was comfortable in Western culture” (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2013). In this way, she found her own recipe for generating a fictive Arab world that was comfortable for American readers. The sheikh in this post-9/11 novel is ethnically Arab, and yet he is culturally quite Western in his orientation. He is an alumnus of Yale University, and his American mother resides in California. The cover of the book deliberately eschews visual mention of Arab culture, since it features a naked man and woman in bed together. Noting that Arab clothing can be “off-putting,” Marton and her editor “had long ago agreed that my sheikh books would never feature covers in which my character was dressed in Arab garb.” Marton also insists that her stories “deliberately avoided religious discussion or religious rules.” Towards this last, her stories actually upturn the principles of the Islamic majority in the Arab world. She notes that she allows her sheikhs to drink wine, prohibited by Islam, “because I give them a backstory that involves being educated in the West” (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2-13). Her readers responded to this formula; Marton has since published five more books, each focusing on an Arab hero who is Westernized and an American heroine.[2]

Authorial anecdotes underscore the popularity of the sheikh hero in a post-9/11 world. Barbara McMahon writes for the category line Harlequin Romance. This category line is distinct from Harlequin Presents, because it targets readers who seek a more realistic fantasy, devoid of international glamour. McMahon reports that she “had a sheikh book come out the month after 9/11. I worried it would tank and I’d get no sales from it. However it sold as well as any of the other sheikh books I’ve done—phenomenally well as my editor said about it” (McMahon, email). [End Page 5]

Indeed, authors report healthy sales of books premised on stories of sheikh heroes courting American women among desert ergs. Jane Porter, who writes for Harlequin Presents, published seven romance novels set in the Arab world between 2002 and 2009.[3] “My sheikhs,” she asserts, “outsell anything else I write by $10,000 a book…They’re the highest selling” (Porter, interview, 17 July 2013). And speaking in terms of sales and of creative writing honors, Maisey Yates reports that “some of my most successful books have been sheikh heroes. Both my award nominated books have been sheikh books…My sheikh heroes tend to be reader favorites” (Yates, email).

Underscoring the profits to be earned from the publication of sheikh romances, editors have made concerted efforts to encourage the publication of sheikh romances. Linda Conrad, who writes for the category line Harlequin Romantic Suspense, reports that, “Several years ago my editor asked a few of her authors to consider writing Sheikh heroes for marketing purposes” (Conrad, email). She has since published four novels in which an Arab and an American fall in love as they work together to untangle international intrigue. In a like manner, Linda Winstead Jones, who writes for the category line Silhouette Intimate Moments, was asked to write a continuity series about sheikhs. In a continuity series, as she explains, “a group of editors comes up with the concepts and characters and hands that over to their authors” (Winstead, email). Thus, her books—The Sheik and I (2006) and Secret-Agent Sheik (2002)—explicitly result from and reflect market demand for Arab heroes in a post-9/11 world. Lynne Raye Harris’s editor requested a sheikh romance in December 2009, and Harris has since published a novella and three novels set in the Arab world. In fact, she identifies Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir (2015) as her best-selling novel (Harris, interview, 28 April 2015). Sandra Marton left Harlequin Presents and began to self-publish in 2013, initiating this risky business venture with a sheikh hero, an economically driven decision that underscores the popularity of the Arab fantasy with readers.

Overall, the numbers of sheikh romance novels increased notably after 9/11, even as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq heated up. Teo has compiled a revealing graph that demonstrates the numbers of sheikh romances published in a given year between 1969 and 2007. With numbers hovering around six in 2000, the lines of the graph morphs into a severe incline in 2002, with eighteen sheikh romances published that year (Teo 5). A reporter for the Chicago Tribune counted four sheikh romance novels a year published in the 1990s, compared with seventeen—quadrupling that modest tally—in the first six years of the twenty-first century (Reardon).

Forging a Fictional Kingdom

The political fantasy of the sheikh romance lies in the happy union of the two people from vastly different worlds, the United States and a generalized Arab region. Lynn Raye Harris notes that her American readers find the Arab world “so foreign, so Other.” Harris has an MA in English and so is familiar with theoretical Othering in Western imperial texts. She notes that these sheikh romances provide “such an Other experience, and I think Americans are fascinated with that” (Harris, interview, 28 April 2015). One critical tenet of [End Page 6] the novels, then, is that the world of the Arab potentate is differentiated from that of the American heroine.

Authors of sheikh romances universally situate their storylines among desert sands, a terrain abandoned in modern times, in order to underscore the differences between the Arab hero and his American heroine. They do this despite the fact that rates of urbanization in the Arabian peninsula, the heart of the Arab world, hover between 80 and 90 per cent (Barakat 29). Jane Porter notes that, “I don’t think I’ve ever written a Sheikh story that spends more than maybe twenty or thirty pages in North America. My Sheikh stories always take place in the desert” (Porter, interview 1 May 2014). This setting is unfamiliar—and attractive—to Western readers. In this way, the authors forge a fantastical kingdom that draws upon Orientalist notions. “Sand, camel, desert…tent,” recites Harris, who reflects on these heavily charged common nouns and asserts that “readers need the key words, because they create the world in their head” (Harris, interview, 17 July 2013).

Maisey Yates unwittingly broke this unspoken rule as a first time author of sheikh romances. In drafting The Inherited Bride, she wrote a story in which Princess Isabella Rossi of Turan seeks out some semblance of a normal life before doing her duty to her country by undertaking an arranged marriage to High Sheikh Hassan al bin Sudar of Umarah. When Hassan’s brother Adham seeks her out in Paris, the two—at least, in the initial draft—embark on a Mediterranean vacation in which the princess engages in “normal” activities, like eating hamburgers or walking in the streets, while the couple fall in love. Mention of the desert came late in the novel, thus being downplayed. After Yates submitted her draft, she notes that her “editor…sent me a revision letter, and she was, like, what is the point of doing a sheikh if you never have them in the desert? That is not what readers want. She said, what they go to it for is for this setting, and you haven’t given them that…You need to, you know, move the desert part forward because you are not fulfilling the fantasy” (Yates, interview). The setting establishes the hero’s credibility as a man from the Arab world, and this sets up the cultural differences between him and his leading lady, which is one inevitably wrought with political overtones.

And so, nearly without exception, authors of sheikh romances set their fictional countries in the desert. Mallery, for example, has created a network of desert states in the Middle East proper, including Bahania, El Bahar and the hidden city-state the City of Thieves.[4] These countries are rentier states. Thus, oil production largely accounts for the personal fortune of $14 billion of the royal family of El Bahania (Mallery, Prince and Pregnant 14). Her books are illustrated with a map of the Middle East that inserts these countries into the existing state system. Bahania is squeezed next to the United Arab Emirates, while El Bahar is contiguous with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In some sense, Mallery is counting on her readership’s vague knowledge of this region, for “Oman,” she notes, “is just gone, and I apologize to the people” (Mallery, interview). The author is quite conscious of her use of the desert setting as a genre trope, one whose familiarity is critical to the success of these romances. “The oasis,” she thus notes, “speaks to the traditional and stereotypical view of the desert. But it’s fun, and if they can have sex at the oasis, all the better” (Mallery, email).

Indeed, desert terrain exists for Mallery even in places where it would actually be a near impossibility for it to be present. Thus, the arid climate of Mallery’s desert setting dominates fictive Lucia-Serrat, which is an island country purported to be in the Indian Ocean, where, presumably, tropical terrain and sultry beaches would prevail. But even [End Page 7] natives of Lucia-Serrat, like ruler Prince Rafiq, though American on his mother’s side and educated in the West, feel the tug of the desert. Much of the novel takes place in California, where Rafiq has set up an office. And yet, when informed of his heroine’s virginity, he feels “the ancient blood of his heritage, of those long-gone desert warriors” (Mallery, Virgin 125). In a like manner, Kiley, his love interest, finds that Rafiq, like all princes of tropical Lucia-Serrat, has “the desert blood that flowed through their bodies [and] made them loyal unto death” (Mallery, Virgin 229). The desert defines the sheikh romance even when it is not directly set in the desert, not least because the desert influences the personality of the hero.

Mallery’s Rafiq is not the only protagonist for whom the environment determines personality. Maisey Yates has published three sheikh romances for the category line Harlequin Presents. In Forged in Desert Heat, her readers find that hero Zafar Nejem of fictive Al Sabah “wasn’t just from the desert; the desert was in him” (64). As he informs his love interest Ana, “The desert can make you feel strong and free, but it also makes you very conscious of the fact that you are mortal” (28). According to Yates, “My personal vision of a sheikh is a man steeped in tradition, and also honor. A man who is perhaps out of step with the modern world, because of how ‘apart’ he is in his desert kingdom. Deserts are harsh, so in my mind this creates the image of a man born to withstand the harshness of the world” (Yates, email).

Lynne Raye Harris is also fascinated with the desert and admits her choice of setting for her sheikh romances has been influenced by her reading of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the memoir of T.E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—in a graduate class on the Middle East. Focused on the Arab Revolt of 1916 in the area that is now the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, this British memoir was published three years after E.M. Hull’s novel The Sheik (1919), a book often identified as the forebear of today’s sheikh romance. An abridged version of that novel, Revolt in the Desert, came out five years later, its title speaking to the Western fascination with this seemingly deadly foreign terrain. Much like E.M. Hull’s novel, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom takes place in an untamed desert in which, ultimately, a Westerner “gone native” brings order and civilization to Arab society. Harris fabricates desert kingdoms for her sheikh based partly on Lawrence’s descriptions. “I know there are problems with Lawrence’s interpretation,” she admits, “and yet Pillars is so poetic that it does capture the imagination completely” (Harris, email 16 December 2011).

Like Mallery and Yates, Harris links the physical setting to the personality of her main character. The fictive kingdom of Jahfar, for example, is ruled by Adan Najib Al Dhakir. Here, the desert looms as an ominous force, for it seems—mistakenly—that his wife Isabella Maro had killed herself by walking into its shifting sands. Adan finds his amnesiac wife very much alive—and singing in a bar in Hawaii (another highly exoticized area populated by non-white people). The moment that he finds her, he “had the look of the desert, that hawklike intensity of a man who lived life on the edge of civilization” (Strangers 12). It is no surprise that Harris contends that “the desert is wild and untamable in many ways and, presumably, a man who comes from that wildness is also a bit wilder than any other type of contemporary romance hero” (Harris, email, “Follow Up,” 11 February 2013).

Culture Clash

[End Page 8] Emphasizing difference, Harris asserts of Arabs that “their country, their land, their customs—everything is so foreign to us as Westerners” (Harris, interview, 16 July 2013). Romance authors take pains to introduce a mysterious and somewhat colorful setting to their readers in order to establish that their sheikhs comes from a foreign culture. Reflecting and refracting common American beliefs, the authors portray a standardized Arab culture that is distinct from that of the United States. In doing so, they recycle common Orientalist conceits—patriarchy, despotism, and exoticism—that have littered American literature since the colonial age. In relying on stereotypes that have been perpetuated for 300 years, the “foreignness” of the Arab place is in fact quite familiar to Western readers; authors are not unaware of this paradox. “It’s a tad embarrassing to realize I’m playing into Western stereotypes,” notes Harris, “and yet I also have to say that I couldn’t write the story any other way.” As she delves into the reasons for this necessity, Harris shifts from the language of political critique—“playing into Western stereotypes” —to what she calls “the literary side.” “Taking it to the literary side of things,” she explains, “the story plays into underlying myths…that speak to the collective unconscious of the romance reader” (Harris, email 16 December 2011).

Many authors highlight their heroes in the text—not in the cover art—as an Arab Other by depicting them as wearing native costume. The hero may look good in an Armani suit, but he is far better-suited to desert robes, which his American heroine finds striking and sexy. Sabrina Johnson, for example, is a princess of El Bahania, but she also meets the criteria of an ordinary Western career woman, a must in modern-day American romances (Teo 222). She was, after all, raised in Los Angeles by her American mother and is a historian by training. Sabrina is in the desert looking for the fabled City of Thieves when its mysterious ruler Kardal rescues her from a deadly sandstorm. He is “dressed traditionally in burnoose and djellaba” (Mallery, Runaway 11). Despite being held captive, Sabrina is increasingly captivated by Kardal. “Desert sand,” she asserts, again highlighting his Arab Other-ness, “flowed through his veins” (Mallery, Runaway 119). This non-Western facet of Kardal makes her heart beat faster, as evidenced by Sabrina’s sartorial musing that, “Today he wore Western garb—a well-tailored suit in dark gray with a white shirt and red tie. She wasn’t used to seeing him dressed like a businessman. In some ways she found that she preferred Kardal in more traditional clothing” (Mallery, Runaway 159).

Amira Jarmakani has analyzed descriptions of clothing in sheikh romances and found that these texts “covertly racialize” the Arab Other (Jarmakani 919). In the United States, Arabs struggled within the court system to be recognized as “Caucasian” in the early-twentieth century (Beydoun). Jarmakani, however, argues that descriptions of Arabs in sheikh romances do more than attend neutrally to ethnic differentiation, thereby belying American legal understandings of whiteness. Instead, she warns of an ominous racial logic underpinning the desert fantasy. Admitting that “overt references to race or racialization are hard to find,” Jarmakani argues that “covert articulations of race, sometimes coded through the tropes of ethnicity or region, play a vital role in exoticizing and eroticizing the hero” (Jarmakani 906). She hypothesizes that “the most obvious or salient way in which sheikhs are covertly racialized through cultural markers are in what amounts to a fetishization of ‘Arabian’ forms of cultural dress” (Jarmakani 919).

Indeed, conversations with romance authors suggest that the promoting of an interracial romance is part and parcel of the fantasy that they want to create for their readers. Yates, a European-American married to an African-American man, deals [End Page 9] comfortably with issues of race and interracial relationships, which, for her, can be part of a romantic fantasy. Thus, she penned The Highest Price to Pay, which centered on a white fashion designer who falls for an investor from sub-Saharan Africa. Yates admits that she looks for elements of interracial romance, even in sheikh novels. And yet, in a conversation between Yates and Sharon Kendrick, it becomes clear that these are not easy to find. The latter shares that her editor took out a scene where the heroine looked down and found that sheikh’s “hand looked so very dark against her white skin” (Kendrick, interview). The evidence from these conversations does not detract from the differentiation through clothing identified by Jarmakani. Rather, it supports Jarmakani’s contention of a “covert” and “coded” language of racial difference. The romance industry may not want to racialize the sheikh, at least not in any explicit way, but romance authors themselves do often assert that they seek to promote fantasies in which people who belong to different races can find love, and if that desire cannot be expressed in discussions of skin color it remains legible elsewhere.

To facilitate their interracial/intercultural romance plots, the American authors interviewed for this article drew upon a variety of sources to forge a composite Arab world that often belies the region’s political and cultural particulars and complexities. This process is exemplified in the composite setting of Sandra Marton’s The Sheikh’s Defiant Bride. Marton’s romance is set in the fictional kingdom of Dubaac, which she invents as a state in northwest Africa on the border of the Sahara desert and seemingly in close proximity to Mauritania, a poor country whose GDP relies on fishing and some minerals, like copper and iron. Despite the logistics of the fictive country’s placement, however, Dubaac is modeled loosely on Saudi Arabia, for it is an oil-producing state, which is a rarity on the African continent. (Only two African nations are known for oil production: Algeria in North Africa, and Nigeria in West Africa.)

Marton superimposes not only the economic system of Saudi Arabia on Dubaac, but also its culture. In the opening of the book, Sheikh Tariq al Sayf engages in an “ancient custom” as a rite of mourning. Reflecting on his lost brother, he carries a hawk on his arm into the “endless silence of the desert” (Marton, Defiant 7). Chanting his brother’s name, Tariq unlaces the hood of the hawk and sets him free, hoping this action helps his brother’s spirit find peace.

Marton’s inspiration for this scene came from an exhibit on Saudi Arabian culture that she visited in London. There, the curator had arranged for a goshawk and his keeper to be maintained as part of the cultural experience for foreign visitors. Marton was allowed to put on a glove and hold the traditional bird of prey treasured and conserved on the Arabian peninsula. She notes that, “when I wrote that first chapter where he’s burying his brother and he sets his brother’s hawk free, that’s what I went back to, was that moment…I wrote that from my own feelings of what I felt that bird on my wrist wanted, which was to remain with me, but to be free to fly, which was a wonderful moment and I was able to use it” (Marton, interview). In this way, Marton clearly attends to the emotional impact of an American engaging Saudi culture, but she standardizes it so that the particularities of different countries merge into a single Arab world.

In this instance, the author anchored the culture of her fictive Arab kingdom in the real traditions of one country in the Arab world, but that is not always the case. Mallery, for example, draws inspiration for a fantastical Arab culture from a variety of literary and cinematic sources, many of which scholars would deem part and parcel of the Orientalist [End Page 10] canon. For example, she distinctly remembers purchasing Georgia Elizabeth Taylor’s 1978 historical romance The Infidel at a yard sale while in high school. Set in eleventh century Spain, when Arabs ruled Al Andalus, this book recounts the story of the fictional first wife of El Cid, who fought the ruling Moors. Violet Winspear’s Palace of the Pomegranate was the first sheikh romance that she ever read, and this, too, has been an inspiration in her perpetuation of sheikh romances set in the desert. An early Harlequin Presents, it tells the tale of socialite Grace Wilde, who falls in love with Kharim Khan while on an expedition in the Persian desert. Clearly drawn to Orientalist romance, Mallery also attributes inspiration to a 1986 TV movie called “The Harem” with Art Malik and Nancy Travis, in which the British heroine is taken captive by an Arab hero with whom she falls in love (Mallery, interview).

And so, the Arab world constructed by Mallery is an amalgam of these highly exoticized presentations (and a real hoot for those of us who have done hard traveling in an actual desert). Given the economic wealth of the protagonists in Mallery’s novels, she can “do some research on art or architecture and then just, you know, put sequins on it, metaphorically” (Mallery, interview). Thus, there are not only opulent palaces in Mallery’s work that date back to the eleventh century, but also fantastical desert encampments in which tents the size of small condos are provisioned with plush carpets, generators flushing in cool air, and tubs of steaming water (Bride Who Said No 208). In this way, Mallery grounds her works in a fantasy that eschews discussion of any factual differences between the US and specific countries of the Middle East and North Africa, instead celebrating an exoticized fantasy about a glamorous Arab culture.

Marton and Mallery are not the only authors to enunciate a standardized—and perhaps misleadingly colorful—Arab culture that is deliberately distinct from that of the American heroine. Jane Porter created the fictive sheikh kingdom of Ouaha in North Africa. The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride takes place among the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, which run along the northern Sahara Desert. Porter had not yet traveled to Morocco when she wrote these romance novels, the actual site of this mountain range, but she enjoyed doing research on this country. A constitutional monarchy, Morocco claims an urban population of 57 per cent.[5] The author, however, does not set her tale among the bright lights and tall buildings of densely populated Essaouira or Agadir, coastal cities near the Atlas Mountains. Instead, the plot takes place in a barren region where the American photographer Tally is kidnapped by Ouahan rebels while on assignment in Baraka. She is then held captive by their leader Tair. It comes as no surprise that Porter emphasizes how distinct her Arab hero is from American men; Tally finds he is a “man wedded to the desert” (Porter, Disobedient 56).

Porter’s construction of Sheikh Tair fits an autocratic, “archetypal” mold promoted by authors of desert romances. Speaking in general of sheikh heroes, Sharon Kendrick, the one British author interviewed for this study, insists that the sheikh is “the archetypal match-up man because he’s powerful, he has that kind of cruel side that women fantasize about and find very attractive, and he’s usually autocratic because he owns a very great, oil rich country” (Kendrick, interview). And, indeed, the political culture of Ouaha’s rebels is premised on notions of despotism, albeit benevolently implemented. “My word here,” Tair tells Tally, “is law. Anything I want, I get” (Porter, Disobedient 60). Tair himself notes the contrast between his culture and that of his American captive. “The American didn’t understand his world,” he reflects. “His world was primitive and it fit him…In the desert, [End Page 11] justice was meted out by a fierce and unwavering hand. If not nature’s, than his” (Porter, Disobedient 75). Thus, the desert setting renders Tair an Oriental despot, and his power over life and death sets the sheikh apart from his Western counterparts.

The establishment of seemingly incompatible lifestyles and values between the two protagonists is of primary importance to Porter, who takes pains to highlight the cultural differences that Tally and Tair must overcome in order to be together: differences marked not simply as those between East and West, but between a pre-modern, patriarchal past and a postmodern, egalitarian present. “Sheikh romances,” the author asserts, “don’t have to be politically correct. In fact, usually they aren’t” (Porter, email 5 December 2014). Porter thus has her hero call his lady love “woman” for most of The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride, while Tally can’t believe that she would “fall for a Berber sheikh? For a man that would rather kidnap women than meet them on an online dating service?” (Porter, Disobedient 141). The book’s plot pays clear homage to the silent film The Sheik, as does its emphasis on the erotic appeal of the sheikh romance tradition. “There’s an intensely sensual element in the desert romance,” states Porter, highlighting the Arab world as distinct and different, “with the powerful, mysterious sheikh as lover, that you don’t find in any other culture, and the appeal has been Valentino” (Porter, email 5 December 2014). Much like its cinematic predecessor, this particular romance provides a captivity narrative in which Tally falls in love with her captor. The tangles of the plot also nod at this Orientalist classic, for Tair saves Tally from a deadly sandstorm after she tries to escape his encampment. “The whole Valentino myth,” Porter states eighty-one years after the release of The Sheik, “you know, that’s kind of what American Westerners fell in love with.” The readers, she continues, musing on the expectations of her audience, “don’t compare me to history, they don’t compare me to facts, they compare me to the other writers who do the genre…So, you play with archetypes, reader expectations, and then what you as a writer kind of bring to that book” (Porter, interview 1 May 2014).

Ultimately, Porter’s plotline—like that of other sheikh romance authors—deliberately emphasizes the differences between an Arab sheikh and his American love interest. Porter identifies this distinction as part of her “personal fantasy” (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). Tally, for example, pushes Tair to see that “we’re completely different culturally. Our values clash, our interests don’t align” (Porter, Disobedient 151). Even upon realizing her feelings for Tair, Tally will admit, “Yes, she loved him but she didn’t understand him or his culture” (Porter, Disobedient 155). Porter may not have yet visited Morocco or North Africa, but her trips to other non-Western places, such as Japan and Turkey, have influenced her writing of sheikh romances. She finds that, “I like the culture clash, and I’ve always used that” (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). In this way, Porter sets up a plotline in which protagonists of dissimilar cultures are thrown together in the desert, an isolated setting that inescapably forces them to confront their differences.

Spoiler Alert! Cultural Tensions Resolved

Ultimately, the hero and heroine fall in love, for a Happily Ever After ending is a must in any romance novel, but this action is complicated by the need for an Arab sheikh and his American love interest to overcome a host of cultural differences. “You’re [End Page 12] fascinated by the history and the culture and the differences, which are fascinating differences,” notes Sandra Marton, enunciating a common premise among authors of sheikh romances, but, she continues:

the one feeling I do get, is that I can say something positive. I do agree there that I can say, in effect, to the reader: it’s not as cut and dry as you think it is. These people are not one stereotypical individual. There are differences, just as there are among westerners. And I think that’s a very valid part of what we do, which is to remind readers that not everyone is a newspaper headline (Marton, interview 18 July 2013).

It is clear that Marton consciously perceives her work as playing a “positive” role, however modest, in how American readers conceptualize a troubled and often demonized area of the world. Yet like other authors, she is caught between the desire to explore differences among her Arab and Western characters—“these people are not one stereotypical individual”; “not everyone is a newspaper headline”—and her desire to promote a fantasy of reconciliation that is not just between two individuals, but more broadly between their two disparate cultures: a reconciliation which often does rely on stereotypes, if only as a genre-defining shorthand.

The complexity of this task is visible in what authors say about their intentions concerning sheikh romance novels. For example, many clearly intend for their Arab hero to stand out not only as a foreign potentate but also as a man with individual and universal characteristics that transcend any one ethnic identity. Maisey Yates explains that “it’s important to me that all of my characters are treated with respect and treated as individuals, regardless of their backgrounds.” She continues:

Not to say culture doesn’t inform certain elements of character, but I feel like depending too much on what you ‘think’ an Arab hero would do is a danger. What would this hero do? That’s the most important question. He’s a human being like any other hero from any other race/culture (Yates, email 26 March 2013).

In a like manner, Lynne Raye Harris does not deny the political implications of an Arab hero and an American heroine finding their Happily Ever After, but she, too, wants to ensure that her readers see beyond the particularities of his ethnic identity. “As my editor always tells me,” she explains, “he is a character with the same problems and wants and needs as anyone else. Where he comes from is secondary—and yet it does play into who he is, especially when coupled with a Western heroine” (Harris, email 16 December 2011). The careful negotiation between sameness and difference that Harris describes as playing out in editorial discussions—ultimately, sameness is primary, though difference must be there—can also be found in any given sheikh romance’s denouement, and in the political fantasy offered in it.

Sheikh romance authors often see themselves as putting forward an alternative fantasy of the Middle East: one that emphasizes attraction, rather than fear, and one that implicitly contradicts Huntington’s contention of a perpetual Clash of Civilizations. “I would [End Page 13] love to think that we are in some way getting people to look at other people and other places, and saying it doesn’t all have to be, you know, American Velveeta cheese on white bread; there’s something else out there,” Sandra Marton insists (Marton, interview). Marton and other authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse. Islam, for example, is the principal religion of the Middle East and North Africa, and highly misunderstood by many Americans. This religion is not necessarily off limits in romance novels, though the treatment of it by authors exists on a spectrum, one that ranges from complete omission of it to oblique or (occasionally) direct interaction with it.

In Mallery’s romances, for example, the reader experiences the complete elision of Islam as a religious force in her fictive Arab world. “I never discuss their religion at all,” notes Mallery, and then she jokingly adds of the people there that “I assume they’re all Lutheran” (Mallery, interview). Certainly, a not-so-close examination of her texts suggests that Christianity, not Islam, may be the dominant religion of the Middle East. As’ad, for example, the sheikh prince in The Sheikh and the Christmas Bride, is Western in his practices, drinking wine with dinner or when he needs to reflect (Mallery, Christmas 132, 197). What’s more, he marries a very devout Catholic, Kayleen James. Kayleen not only grew up in a convent, but she is considering a lifelong commitment to it when they meet. Thus, her only jewelry, besides a watch, is a pair of cross earrings and a cross necklace (Mallery, Christmas 118, 248). She insists—and As’ad allows—that Christmas is celebrated at the palace (Mallery, Christmas 143). Eventually, they will be married in a seventeenth-century cathedral in El Deharia (Mallery, Pregnant 182).

This is not the only occasion on which Mallery has “Christianized” her fictive Arab world, arguably putting many readers at ease with the idea of traveling—even imaginatively—to the Middle East. In The Sheikh and the Virgin Secretary, Kiley Hendrick and Prince Rafiq of Lucia-Serrat will marry in a church (Mallery, Virgin 181). In Bahania, Prince Jeffri of The Sheik & the Princess Bride describes the utopian interfaith religious community that defines his country, stating “Our people celebrate many faiths, and respect all.” This leads his lady love Billie, a fighter pilot, to muse that, “While the rest of the Middle East couldn’t seem to get it together, Bahania, and their neighbor El Bahar, offered religious freedom to all” (Mallery, Princess Bride 22). In a like manner, King Hassan of Bahania tells his daughter-in-law Cleo, a former night manager of a copy shop in Seattle, that “We celebrate many faiths in our country, and each is given its due” (Mallery, Pregnant 220). The text, however, strongly implies that the royal family is Christian, for the palace grounds are endowed with a fourteenth-century church, and this is where King Hassan’s daughter Zara will marry Rafe, an American soldier who earned the title of sheikh by saving the life of one of Bahania’s princes (Mallery, Pregnant 83). Readers are clearly directed to see the royal family as Christian.

Other authors of romance novels invite their readers to feel more at ease with Islamic cultures and practices. In Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir, for example, Lynn Raye Harris constructs the fictive Kyr, which is ruled by Rashid bin Zaid al Hassan. Harris never explicitly identifies Islam as the dominant religion of Kyr. And yet, her descriptions of Kyr incorporate Islamic elements into its narrative and settings. The cityscape of the capital has minarets (Harris, Carrying 72), Rashid notes early on that he had “missed the call to prayer [End Page 14] ringing from the mosque in the dawn hour” (Harris, Carrying 9), and most clearly, the name of Allah is invoked twice in the text, once by a servant and once by Rashid himself (Harris, Carrying 67, 179). None of this is to say that the novel does not draw on the Orientalist tropes of the genre. When he learns that American Sheridan Sloane has been accidentally impregnated with his royal sperm, for example, Rashid forcibly takes her to his kingdom, which he rules as a dictator, albeit a benevolent one. He tells the mother of his heir that “I am a king, and I must be harsh at times. But I am not a tyrant” (Harris, Carrying 126). Rashid exercises his power over nomadic tribes who live in the desert (Harris, Carrying 76, 151). From his palace, he deals with “national problems, including one between two desert tribes arguing over who owned a water well” (67).

Yet even as Harris’s plot and setting are consistent with some preconceived Orientalist notions of backwardness and despotism in the Arab-Islamic world, she uses that familiarity to undermine other stereotypes held by her readers. During a verbal sparring match with Sheridan, Rashid challenges the American to reconsider her conceptions of the Arab world: “‘I am a desert king. Of course I’m a barbarian. Isn’t that what you believe? Because I speak Arabic and come from a nation where the men wear robes and the women are veiled, that I must surely be less civilized than you?’” (42) Harris asserts that “I love that particular line,” and then she notes that:

you can’t beat the readers over the head with this stuff, and you can’t change a reader’s mind by preaching to them. But maybe that line will make someone think, ‘Huh, I did kinda think that, but he’s just a man, yeah, a rich man and a king, but a man with feelings and just a person.’ In that sense, I hope that I’m undermining the stereotypes as much as I can. Some readers won’t get that, and they’ll skim right over it. But I take very seriously the charge to make my Arab-Islamic people…people. I think that’s important (Harris, interview 28 April 2015).

Harris’s comments confirm the assertion of Teo that “whatever the representational failings of sheik romance novels, no other genre of American popular culture had determinedly and repeatedly attempted to humanize the Arab or Muslim other—even if, out of ignorance or incomprehension, imaginary Orients had to be created in order to do so” (216). And it is noteworthy that in pursuit of this “humanizing” project, Harris has Rashid mention not only the costume element that typically signals Arab male difference in the romance genre, the “robes,” but also an iconic signifier of Islam to many Americans, the veil.

In a group interview I conducted with several sheikh romance authors, the veil was a particularly lively topic, taking up more than ten minutes of the conversation. The wearing of Islamic dress means many things and takes many forms in different countries in which Islam is a presence. Sometimes, it can appear as a result of state-sponsored dress codes, as in Iran; elsewhere it emerges as a result of grassroots activism against the government, as in Egypt or Tunisia.[6] American romance authors are likewise divided—sometimes self-divided—when they discuss the topic. Some authors do not like the idea of women wearing what they see as an uncomfortable piece of clothing in order to achieve what they consider to be an outdated form of modesty. Others are more conflicted. Marton, for example, lives in a northeastern university town where she is increasingly seeing [End Page 15] women wearing “something approximating full burqa.” (This term refers to the costume of Afghan women.) “Part of me says, this is the way it is, this is their culture, they’re entitled to it,” Marton explains. “And that’s the rational part. The other part of me says it’s awful, I’m judging it, I shouldn’t judge it, I am, I’m judging it as a woman, and I’m judging it as a writer” (Marton, interview).

Unlike Marton, Porter sees defending women’s right to dress as they see fit as an unambiguously “feminist” stance (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). It seems fitting, then, that in her fiction, Porter also seems comfortable representing Islamic beliefs and practices. She credits this creative choice to the fact that she often traveled overseas with her late father, who legated to her a curiosity about foreign cultures and “the gift…of being told the world is beautiful and interesting” (Porter, interview 18 July 2013). She explains that she highlights cultural differences, because readers like the distinction and the concomitant idea that such distinctions can be overcome:

We like something that isn’t our neighbor next door because you can suspend your disbelief. It’s almost like Disney for adults because at the end of the story the foreign and the exotic and the frightening aspects are rendered, you know the toxic poisonous aspects, are rendered tame. You know the things that might be evil or bad just become good and accepting. You know the East and the West collide and ultimately, you know, in my books it’s not that the East is subjugated but that the East and the West find peace and that both cultures are respected and that we are drawn to the opposite. So for me personally, I think that is the fantasy element… (Porter, interview 18 July 2013).

In equating the Middle East with the adjectives “frightening” or “toxic,” this quote reflects an American conception of Islam as a catalyst for many of the ills in the Middle East, a conception actively promoted in the media. However, Porter then invites her readers to imagine a resolution premised on a mutual respect in which both protagonists manage to maintain their culture.

In her books, Porter embraces the challenge of creating a recognizably Islamic setting. In The Sheikh’s Chosen Queen, for example, she imagines a place—the fictive Sarq, located next to the United Arab Emirates—where 90 per cent of the population is Muslim (Porter, Chosen 65). There, Sharif Fehr rules. He is an autocrat described as “one of the most powerful leaders in the Middle East” (Porter, Chosen 13). Sharif, however, is confounded by his new role as guardian to his deceased cousin’s children, so he invites schoolteacher Jesslyn Heaton to take charge of them. The two had once dated in England, but Jesslyn finds now that “his baggy sweatshirts were gone, and the faded, torn jeans were replaced by a dishdashah or a thoub, as more commonly known in the Arabian Gulf, a cool, long, one-piece white dress and the traditional head gear comprised of a gutrah, a white scarflike cloth, and the ogal, the black circular band that held everything together” (Porter, Chosen 10). Sharif harbors anger towards Jesslyn for breaking up with him without explanation many years ago, but Jesslyn refuses, until the very end, to admit that her infertility made her feel unworthy of wedding the crown prince. Ultimately, the explicitly Muslim sheikh marries the explicitly Christian commoner, and Jesslyn is happy to learn that “Sharif had incorporated elements from both their faiths in the service.” A similar [End Page 16] “incorporation” of East and West is implied for the future of the country, as Jesslyn afterward assists in setting up an American School in Sarq. “Education,” this main character notes, “was one of the best ways to touch and improve the world” (Porter, Chosen 173-174).

Conclusion

With its explicit images and arousing fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace, the sheikh romance novel can be read as a form of socio-political erotica. By the end of each book, the American heroine always decides to live in the Arab world, while the sheikh unswervingly embraces the political and social values of his Western bride. Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington’s vision of a Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the clash between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together. For many of the authors interviewed for this study, reconciliation offered through romantic love is a microcosm of the broader attitudinal change they would like to foster. “I think it would be lovely for us as a culture to begin to stop being so afraid of North Africa and all the people and the men and the women and the children,” Porter says, speaking for many of her colleagues. “It’s hard with the current political situation, which is why I think that the fantasies of the stories are important and allow us still to have a relationship with a part of the world that the media can make very frightening to us” (Porter, interview 1 May 2014). Set in fictional kingdoms, filled with romance and politics, sheikh romances serve as the perfect vehicle to assuage American fears—anxieties found both in readers and in authors—regarding Arabs and their world.


[1] I would like to thank Mary Bly for her invaluable assistance in getting this project off the ground. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Romance Writers of America, which provided an Academic Research Grant (2012) that allowed me to travel to Atlanta and carry out many interviews with authors.

[2] See Marton, Sandra: books post-2006.

[3] See Porter, Jane. “Bookshelf.” for a bibliography. Porter will have a new sheikh book published in 2015.

[4] For a complete list, see http://www.fictiondb.com/author/susan-mallery~series~desert-rogues~3502.htm, accessed 5 July 2015.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_by_country, accessed 13 December 2014.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijab_by_country, accessed 14 December 2014. [End Page 17]

Works Cited

“Desert Rogues: Susan Mallery Book List.” FictionDB.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 January 2013. http://www.fictiondb.com/author/susan-mallery~series~desert-rogues~3502.htm

“Harlequin Presents.” Harlequin. N.p., n.d. Web, accessed 5 July 2015.

Barakat, Halim. The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Beydoun, Khaled A. “The Business of Remaking Arab-American Identity.” Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera, 15 June 2012. Web, accessed 6 July 2015.

Conrad, Linda. “RWA Sheikh Focus Group Invitation–Follow Up.” 13 July 2013. E-mail.

Grace, Carol. “questionnaire.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 11 February 2013. E-mail.

Harris, Lynn Raye. Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2014. Print.

—. Interview with Stacy E. Holden. 16 July 2013.

—. Interview with Stacy E. Holden and HIST 479 Class. 28 April 2015.

—. “Kept for the Sheikh’s Pleasure.” Chosen by the Sheikh. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2010. Print.

—. “Re: Sheik Novels.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 11 February 2013. E-mail.

—. “Re: Hello and Follow Up.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 16 February 2014. E-mail.

—. “Re: History 479 & my book.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 16 December 2011. E-mail.

—. “Re: HIST 479–Essay 3.” Message to Stacy E. Holden and Kristen Blankenbaker. 16 December 2011. E-mail.

—. Strangers in the Desert. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2012. Print.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996, reprint; New York: Touchstone, 2011. Print.

Jarmakani, Amira. “Desiring the Big Bad Blade: Racing the Sheikh in Desert Romances.” American Quarterly 63.4 (December 2011): 895-928. Print.

Jones, Linda Winstead. “Re: RWA Sheikh Focus Group Invitation.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. E-mail.

Kendrick, Sharon. Interview by Stacy E. Holden. 17 July 2013.

Lee, Miranda. Sold to the Sheik. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2004. Print.

Little, Douglas. American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Print.

Mallery, Susan. Interview by Stacy E. Holden. 18 July 2013.

—. Interview by Marilyn Shoemaker. “Susan Mallery Talks about her last book in her Desert Rogue Series.” Marilyn’s Romance Reviews. N.p., 1 October 2009. Web. 26 January 2013.

—. “Re: Sheikh Novels.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 7 February 2013. E-mail.

—. The Prince and the Pregnant Princess. New York: Silhouette, 2002. Print.

—. The Sheik and the Christmas Bride. New York: Silhouette Special Edition, 2007. Print.

—. The Sheik & the Princess Bride. New York: Silhouette Special Edition, 2004. Print.

—. The Sheik and the Runaway Princess. New York: Silhouette Special Edition, 2001. Print.

—. The Sheik and the Virgin Secretary. New York: Silhouette Special Edition, 2005. Print.

—. The Sheik’s Kidnapped Bride. New York: Silhouette Special Edition, 2004. Print.

—. The Sheik &the Princess in Waiting. New York: Silhouette Special Edition, 2004. Print.

[End Page 18]

Markovitz, Jonathan. “Reel Terror Post 9/11,” Film and Television After 9/11. Ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 201-225. Print.

Marton, Sandra. Interview by Stacy E. Holden. 17 July 2013.

—. “Re: Sheikh Romance Novels.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 21 April 2013. E-mail.

—. “Re: Sheikh Novels.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 5 May 2013. E-mail.

—. The Desert Virgin. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2006. Print.

—. The Prince of Pleasure. Self-published, 2013. Kindle edition.

—. The Sheikh’s Convenient Bride. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2004. Print.

—. The Sheikh’s Defiant Bride. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2008. Print.

—. The Sheikh’s Rebellious Mistress. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2008. Print.

—. The Sheikh’s Wayward Wife. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2008. Print.

McMahon, Barbara. “Re: Introduction, Sheikh Romances.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 23 March 2013. E-mail.

—. The Nanny and the Sheikh. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2007. Print.

Porter, Jane. Interview with Stacy E. Holden. 17 July 2013.

—. Interview with Stacy Holden and HIST 479 Class. 1 May 2014.

—. The Sheikh’s Chosen Queen. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2008. Print.

—. The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride. New York: Harlequin Presents, 2005. Print.

—. “Re: Follow Up Sheikh Article.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 5 December 2014. E-mail.

Reardon, Patrick T. “The Mystery of Sheik Romance Novels.” Lifestyles. Chicago Tribune, 24 April 2006. Web. 27 April 2013.

Richman, Karen. “sheik responses.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 20 February 2013. E-mail.

Romance Writers of America. “Romance Industry Statistics.” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 December 2013.

—. “Romance Reader Statistics.” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 December 2013.

Shaheen, Jack G. Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2008. Print.

Takacs, Stacy. Terrorism TV: Popular Entertainment in Post 9/11 America. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Print.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012. Print.

Yates, Maisey. Forged in Desert Heat (Harlequin Presents, 2013).

—. Interview by Stacy E. Holden. 17 July 2013.

—. “Re: Query: Sheikh Questions.” Message to Stacy E. Holden. 26 March 2013. E-mail.

[End Page 19]

 

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Chick Lit in Historical Settings by Frida Skybäck
by Helene Ehriander

Chick lit is a genre that usually depicts what life is like for young women in big cities, or occasionally—for the sake of variety—on fashionable country estates. They pursue their careers, go to parties, gossip with their girlfriends, and shop, while dating a series of men in their hunt for the right one. They contemplate their identity and their life, and they want everything at once so that their life will be perfect. Being slim and fit, having flawless nails and well-coiffed hair, enjoying success at work, and having a beautiful, well-kept home is a must for these women who aim for perfectionism and long for happiness. Chick lit is usually associated with the present day, and tends to be regarded as a humorous and ironic commentary on contemporary ideals and expectations. Most of the books classified in this genre take place in our own time. [End Page 1]

There are, however, several novels very close to chick lit that take place in a historical setting. These novels include many of the ingredients that we find in chick lit, but here it is grand balls instead of clubbing, muddy streets instead of asphalt, horse-drawn coaches instead of sports cars, rustling silk and bobbing tulle from dressmakers in Paris instead of famous designer brands, and visits to the confectioner instead of a latte at the sidewalk café. The important questions that the young female protagonists have to confront are not very different from those occupying Bridget Jones and her sisters, and it is not difficult for the reader to recognize herself and identify with them (Ehriander).

“Chick lit in corsets” is written by women, read by women, has female heroes, and conveys a picture of women as being basically the same throughout the ages, so that much is still as it was in the past. The readers, moreover, are often young, and this is the type of book that attracts teenage girls and their mothers. In this article I discuss Swedish “chick lit in corsets” with examples from two novels by the Swedish author Frida Skybäck (born 1980): Charlotte Hassel (2011) and The White Lady (Den vita frun) (2012). I am particularly interested in these narratives as adolescent literature and adolescent reading. Frida Skybäck’s novels are marketed by the publisher Frank Förlag as adult literature, but Skybäck deliberately writes primarily for teenage girls, and Charlotte Hassel has been offered to teenage readers in the children’s book club Barnens Bokklubb (Skybäck, interview).

Chick lit in historical settings

According to Rocío Montoro, “Chick Lit is sometimes seen as a revamped version, a rebranding, or (for some) simply a renaming, of other more traditional forms of popular writing, namely romance or romantic fiction” (7). “Chick lit in corsets” can be regarded as a genre hybrid with some of its roots in older romantic literature. The novels are very close to what is usually called “romance” but they also have several typical features of chick lit. Many of them could also be called “feel-good” novels, a designation that comes from the emotions they arouse in the reader. Kaye Mitchell writes in her article “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction” about how chick lit has also influenced the traditional romance. Chick lit is considered to have higher status and is treated with greater respect than romance, and authors and publishers alike believe that the romance genre has something to gain from being influenced by chick lit as regards, for example, the portrayal of better-educated, more ambitious heroines (Mitchell 134). Chick lit has also challenged the old boundaries between popular culture and more highly esteemed literature, and publishers tend to advertise romance together with chick lit so that the two genres will attract readers from each other (Harzewski 2011, 32, 41). That genres in today’s literature cross-fertilize each other is the rule rather than the exception, and there are many reasons for this. Authors who write in a particular genre are often regarded as innovative if they break one or more of the traditional structures. They can also profile themselves and express their personal authorial style by relating to the set framework of the genre, and by going against the conventions they can criticize the accepted norms and values of the genre. [End Page 2]

Maria Ehrenberg, in a book about present-day romance from Maeve Binchy to Marcia Willett, divides light historical novels into four categories:

  1. The unique person. In this category we meet historical personages and read about historical periods and events from the perspective of one person’s actions.
  2. Laborious everyday work. These books describe the misery and toil of everyday life.
  3. Recent history. The Second World War is a common topic here, and the narrative often continues down to the present day.
  4. The Miss Novel, also known as the governess novel or the manor-house novel. Here we find mystery and elements of thriller, as well as issues of class, money, and wealth. The historical backdrop is often sketchy and stereotyped, and the stories end with the by tradition dictated kiss (39-40).

Frida Skybäck’s novels do not fit into any of these four categories, although there are elements of the Miss Novel in particular. Maria Nilson writes that it may seem strange to call historical portrayals “chick lit,” and she cites as an example Anna Godbersen’s four-part suite The Luxe, which takes place in Manhattan in 1899–1900, of which at least the first part is close to chick lit (40). Nilson writes that it is fairly unproblematic to call the first book, The Luxe, chick lit jr., that is, chick lit for young readers: “There are parties and clothes and shopping and intrigues in an upper-class milieu. Then the series develops in a different direction, turning much darker, and it also becomes more difficult to identify the genre” (40, author’s own translation). Chick lit jr. is characterized by the inclusion of typical chick lit ingredients while simultaneously considering matters such as reaching adulthood, identity, awakening sexuality, the future, and relations to friends, customary elements in stories for adolescents and young adults (Johnson 141 ff.).

The action of Frida Skybäck’s debut book Charlotte Hassel (2011) takes place in 1771, with flashbacks to 1758. In 1758 Charlotte is a young woman from a well-off family who falls in love with a man of her own age. After a party she walks the short distance to her home, waiting for her parents, when an older man, influential and wealthy, follows her closely in order to assault her. Charlotte puts up a fight when he finds his way into her bedroom and tries to rape her, and she kills him with her letter opener in self-defense. When her parents arrive they help her get rid of the body and they send her to safety in England, where she finds a good life with a male friend, to whom she becomes engaged. Her parents and sister suffer fraud and extortion, and after thirteen years Charlotte decides to come back to Stockholm incognito to try to put things right. She also understands that a coup d’état is in the making. She meets once again the man she loved in her youth and breaks off the engagement in England; it turns out that her fiancé is homosexual and that they can only ever be good friends, which they remain even after Charlotte marries someone else. The kind, thoughtful homosexual male friend, with interests in fashion and interior decoration, is a common character in chick lit. The female characters in the novel are complex, and Skybäck plays with the stereotypes of the whore and the Madonna when she allows room for young women’s thoughts and feelings. [End Page 3]

In this novel there is plenty of female culture and feminine attributes: Charlotte buys mineral makeup, enjoys delicious pastries, and has exquisite dresses made for her. However, there is also a feminist intention in that Charlotte takes control over her life and her situation. She gets involved in the game of politics, showing a clear vision and sense of purpose as she averts the planned coup d’état. The reader follows Charlotte from the time when she is a young and somewhat insecure girl, which makes it easier for younger readers to identify with her, up to the happy ending, when she has developed into a grown-up woman who takes her share of what life has to offer.

Romance

The term “romance” is one that embraces a wide variety of literature on the theme of romantic love.[1] In Barbara Fuchs’s book Romance the analyses range from ancient Greece, through medieval tales of chivalry, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, to end with Harlequin romances. Fuchs also underlines how many sub-genres there are, and how popular contemporary romance literature is (124 ff.). Romances in the sense of romantic literature written by women for women usually have a similar construction, consisting of a number of set narrative structures that are varied in a more or less predictable way up to the happy ending when the heroine receives a kiss, an offer of marriage, or both. Frida Skybäck’s second novel, The White Lady (2012), contains less chick lit and more romance in the narrative, but it is powerful in its feminist message when it comes to emphasizing women’s right to shape their own lives and to be respected even if they are neither beautiful nor rich. This novel combines several literary motifs and patterns that often occur in both romance, chick lit and books for young adults: for example, the “ugly duckling”, “Cinderella,” and the orphan child (Harzewski 2006, 38). Most of the action takes place in the castle of Borgeby in Skåne. The story is about the fates of individual women, insolvency, and love across class boundaries: “love across the classes [is] an extremely common theme in historical romance,” Jerome de Groot writes in his survey in The Historical Novel (58).

Janice A. Radway, who has written a study of female readings of romance literature, Reading the Romance, states that the reading works for readers “as the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth” (194). But Radway goes on to claim, albeit in a rather limited study, that the reading women display different strategies and that their reading serves a number of different purposes. This is interesting given that romance literature and the reading of it has been criticized from many quarters for being conservative, presenting a distorted picture of society, fooling its readers, and even turning them into addicts and slaves since their real problems are never solved; instead they get stuck in a reading that brings temporary relief through illusory solutions. This outlook on the reading of romantic literature and female readers as victims has a long history. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856–57) has achieved great significance with its portrayal of a reading girl who through time loses contact with reality and as a young woman falls into a destructive pattern with reading, eroticism, fashion, and shimmering pink dreams of romantic rendezvous, while she cheats on her husband, runs up huge debts, and ends up seeing suicide by arsenic as the only way out. [End Page 4]

Perhaps some romance literature over the years could be called escapist, and can justifiably be accused of building on stereotyped gender roles, with protagonists that are poor role models for young readers, but in today’s romance and chick lit there are interesting exceptions which actually use the genre and the form to communicate feminist messages to their readers through playful, knowing hints and examples of energetic heroines who shape their own lives. It is also not infrequent that the genre comments on itself in its portrayal of literature and reading. This gives readers the chance to read subversively and to read against the text; instead of passivizing the reader, this can give strength. It is also quite common for the female protagonists to be interested in literature, and using the wisdom they have derived from their reading. Maria in The White Lady enjoys the castle library and immerses herself not only in romantic novels but also reads, for example, contemporary female poetry.

Diana Wallace, who has written a study titled The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000, argues that the historical novel was one of the most important forms for women’s reading and writing during the twentieth century. She testifies to how she herself and many of the women she knows have read historical novels by and about women ever since childhood: “From an early age I read women’s historical novels avidly, as did my mother and sister. The same was true, I later discovered, of many of my female friends and colleagues, and of many of the literary critics, writers, and theorists who have been central to the development of feminist literary criticism” (ix). She points out, however, that there has been a tendency to associate female authors’ historical novels with romance and label them as escapist: “Associated with the ‘popular’, women writers have thus been doubly excluded from the established canon” (Wallace 10). What I think becomes clear when one studies what has been written about the different genres is that romance is perceived as a female genre while historical novels are masculine (and “serious”).

 Historical novels

Då som nu (“Then As Now”) by Hans O. Granlid from 1964 is still the standard Swedish work about the historical novel. Granlid does not write anything about children’s and young people’s literature, nor about young people’s reading, and of all the novels he analyses, only one is by a female author. The situation is similar in major English-language studies, and another remarkable thing is that, when the origin of the historical novel is described, only male authors are highlighted, with Walter Scott taking pride of place. Female authors and the genres they have developed and published their works in have to take a back seat as male authors set the pattern for how historical novels should be written.

In his introduction Granlid poses interesting and fundamental questions about what a historical novel is and what characterizes it. He is interested in the problems of analogy and archaization: that is, how the historical period is described in the literary work, how the matter is presented and placed in a particular time, how it is related to the present, and what specifically is archaized in content and style. Closely linked to the problems of analogy and archaization is the problem of anachronism: that is, what happens when writing about something from the past that is to be read in the present, made comprehensible to contemporary readers (Granlid 16 ff.). Archaization is thus about how the text is made [End Page 5] “old-fashioned”: anachronisms are things or expressions that are out of place in the period, and analogies are agreements between our time and the historical time.

Historical books often incorporate a large amount of fact in the narrative, which means that people often ask where the dividing line between fact and fiction runs. A historical novel can never be regarded as “true,” for somewhere the author has decided where history ends and the story begins: in other words, where facts give way to fiction, and if a factual event is described we must remember that it is slanted in some way by the author.

Maria Nikolajeva, in her book Barnbokens byggklossar (“Building Blocks of the Children’s Book”), discusses what a historical portrayal is, with examples from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868. The novel is about the author’s experiences in a domestic setting during the America Civil War, and it is partly or mostly autobiographical. The book has been read by many generations of girls and has also been filmed:

Historical novels are set in the past. It is important to remember, however, that it is the author’s past, not the reader’s, that determines whether a novel can be called historical. From the perspective of a reader in the 1990s, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Nils Holgersson, and Elvis Karlsson all depict a bygone time, but they were written as contemporary accounts. This may seem unimportant, but it is crucial when we judge values in the text. Little Women expressed its period’s view of the role of women in society. A modern young people’s novel set in the same historical period as Little Women would perhaps express our modern view of the same issue. (Nikolajeva 49)

With regard to values, which Nikolajeva finds important, a story thus cannot just lie maturing and subsequently become historical (49).

Ying Toijer-Nilsson writes that most historical novels for young readers have a boy as the leading character (24). This no doubt has something to do with the conventions of historical books for young people, where war, for example, is a common topic, and girls have traditionally stayed at home while boys have been at the center of the exciting events. Moreover, girls and women learned early on to read texts where boys and men have prominent roles, whereas boys and men tend to read only about their own gender, since they are brought up to view anything associated with the female sphere as less important. However, Maria Nikolajeva writes in Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic that one can discern a change in historical narrative as regards the leading characters: “In particular, the masculine viewpoint of the earlier historical novel has been challenged by contemporary writers in favor of the ‘her-story’” (131). To attract all readers it has often been considered important that the protagonist should be a boy or a young man and that there is excitement enough to keep the reader’s interest to the very end. It has also been common for the author to choose to have both a girl and a boy, often siblings, so that readers of both sexes can identify with one of the leading figures. Kent Hägglund has written about the significance of the historical novel both for our perception of history and as reading matter for young people:

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, the historical novel has meant a great deal for the interest that children and young people take in [End Page 6] history. Novelists have often taken the lead in giving new perspectives. Women, children, minorities, and war victims of bygone times were given a central position in literature, long before they were included in school history books.

It has even happened often that authors of young people’s books have taken up an interesting topic before historians have tackled it. There is nothing strange about that: both historians and authors are driven by a conviction that knowledge of the past can help us in our lives here and now.

Both use knowledge and imagination to explore people and phenomena in a bygone time. But the researcher always reaches a limit where he or she must stop, and dividing lines between what we know, what we can assume, and what we have no idea about. The author has the freedom—or perhaps rather the compulsion—to step over that line, to give life to persons who never existed, to forge links, to invent. (Hägglund, author’s own translation)

Hägglund goes on to say: “Of course there are novelists who use a historical setting merely as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been enacted in the present.” The concept of the historical novel thus includes not only the time aspect but also a quality aspect. In research on literature and history there has long been awareness that history and fiction are closely related since all attempts to depict our past take some form of narrative, but this can be done in more or less responsible ways. There are and have been authors who have endeavored to write serious historical novels and there are those who have written what are somewhat condescendingly called “costume novels,” seeking to tell an entertaining story in a historical setting. In costume novels the historical period is just a backdrop; the historical details can be quite correct while the people and relationships are not put into any factual historical context.

There are thus many levels to take into consideration as a reader when reflecting on a historical novel and what is “true” and “correct”. The details must be accurate in that the clothes, for example, should correspond to the period and that there should be no cars in a period before the car was invented. In Frida Skybäck’s novels, the characters are placed in a historical time where genuine historical figures are named and possible historical events are depicted. Frida Skybäck, who teaches history and English, faithfully uses the vocabulary of the period and she is also careful to try to get the historical details right. During the time she was working on Charlotte Hassel, one of the books she read was the diary of Märta Helena Reenstierna (Årstafruns dagbok 1793-1839), and she learned how modern that lady was in her way of expressing herself, and how her thoughts did not differ noticeably from the way we think today. In both of Skybäck’s books there is an afterword outlining how much of the narrative is fact and how much is fiction.

Historical events must be correctly depicted, but as a reader one also has to be aware that they are probably depicted from a particular angle, perhaps with a specific intention, and that it is often the victor who writes the history. In historical accounts women, poor people, and children are portrayed less frequently than men, kings, and well-off people, although this is slowly changing (Brown and St. Clair 186). It is even more problematic in a historical narrative to picture how different people have thought and felt [End Page 7] through the ages. There is more documentation and material when it comes to men, but the material for women and children is very limited.

People are the same through the ages

“The problem for historians,” Karin Norman writes, “is that we have so little access to the way people perceived their own situation and justified their actions. It is easy to resort to ascribing our own thoughts and values and emotions to other people. It takes a balancing act between generalizing and relativizing: how similar or different were people in the past from us today? Similar or different in what way?” (51, author’s own translation). Authors have greater freedom in this matter than historians do. John Stephens, in his study Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, says that major historical events tend to be described through love stories and human relations in this kind of fiction (206). On several levels, as Stephens also points out, there lies a contradiction within historical fiction. While the text links past and present, it simultaneously gives the illusion of an older literary discourse. The discourse constantly balances between “the same” and “different.” In a broader perspective this is a matter of a transhistorical outlook versus cultural relativism (Stephens 202 ff.). As I see it, it is not a question of either/or, but of where the discourse is positioned on different occasions on a scale between these two poles. In portrayals of the past there must be more similarities than differences to facilitate understanding, especially for young readers. A text that is placed too far on the scale towards “difference” makes identification difficult and risks not being perceived as plausible, and may even be incomprehensible. It is also a matter of the level on which one wants to put the interpretation. If you go straight into the text and look at the details, relations, or emotions that display similarity or difference, you tend to perceive the text as showing a high degree of cultural relativism. If, on the other hand, you choose to abstract and raise the relations and emotions to a higher level, there is a good chance of seeing the text as transhistorical and common to all mankind. The foundation is similar but the constituents take on relative expressions depending on the time in which they exist and the culture and social class they reflect. The transhistorical position means that humanity, wishes, and needs are the same through the ages, but that they find different social expressions. In other words, one could say that people are alike through the ages and that it is the stage on which they act that differs from one period to another. People are steered by their environment and their culture, but they are basically the same; if we peel away or abstract the exterior, the human core is constant. By emphasizing the similarities and the basic correspondences, it is possible to create an understanding of both past and present.

This understanding is also used by Frida Skybäck. The distance from the historical period allows readers to see their own lives and their own problems in perspective, and it offers an opportunity to come to terms with these. Moreover, the reader gets an idea of what it means to be a woman here and now in comparison with what it could be like in the past. When women read about women and the things that have occupied women’s time and interest through the ages, it also establishes a historical community. Family sagas tend to be popular, and by reading them one can glimpse historical connections that would not otherwise be visible. Women get their share of history and can draw parallels to their own [End Page 8] experiences. Frida Skybäck’s The White Lady depicts two generations of women in parallel. The older woman has just had a daughter, and since she is growing increasingly weak from a terrible illness that she does not understand, she writes a diary for her newborn daughter. The novel ends with the daughter reaching adulthood and having a daughter of her own, for whom she starts writing a diary. Through her own mother’s notes she has found out who she is and has got to know the mother who drowned herself to save her newborn daughter when she was just a few months old. Diana Wallace writes: “As a genre, the historical novel has allowed women writers a license which they have not been allowed in other forms. This is most obviously true of sexuality where it has allowed coverage of normally taboo subjects, not just active female sexuality but also contraception, abortion, childbirth and homosexuality” (6).

In Frida Skybäck’s two books we find, beside the portrayal of the young woman who does not understand that she has contracted syphilis from her husband, accounts of pregnancy before marriage, the contraceptive methods used in those days, attempted rapes, a sexual relationship with a man who is not a potential future husband but a tender lover who teaches the young woman “the art of love”, and sexual relations across class boundaries. History is written here from a female perspective, and female concerns are visibly in focus. At the same time, this can be viewed as a comment on life today, an explanation for why we relate to these parts of life in a particular way. Girls and women are lifted out of their exclusion and marginalization, and the author has the liberty here to write alternative history. John Stephens says that what is depicted as universal human experience in a historical account can mean that our descriptions of the past are colored by our image of present-day reality (202 ff.). In Frida Skybäck’s books this is entirely intentional, a narrative device to enable the reader to reflect on herself and her own life as she reads.

Role play in a historical setting

Diana Wallace writes in her preface how history lessons in school disappointed her since they were never about women, and she sees this as one reason why so many girls and women have read and still read historical novels where women are allowed to be central figures (ix). Wallace goes on to write:

The “woman’s historical novel”, then, encompasses both the “popular” and the “serious” or “literary” ends of the spectrum, but one of my arguments here is that the two are intimately linked. [. . .] We need to read both “serious” and “popular” historical novels together and against each other if we want fully to understand the range of meanings that history and the historical novel have held for women readers in the twentieth century. (5)

Eva Queckfeldt has written about “the historical novel without history” in the annual of the history teachers’ association: [End Page 9]

To restrict the discussion solely to historical novels, these have been considered and discussed both as a source of knowledge and as an educational aid, not least by history teachers. The advantages of the novels are thought to be, among other things, that they let the reader experience the past in a different way from the textbooks. For example, the reader meets figures from the past and it is, probably rightly, assumed that this makes him/her familiar with the people of bygone times, their context, their everyday life, and their thoughts. This almost always concerns the “good” historical novels: Per Anders Fogelström’s novels about Stockholm, Vilhelm Moberg’s emigration epic, Väinö Linna’s crofter trilogy, to name just a few examples. These are novels written by authors who took pains to give as correct a picture as possible of the past. Often they were accounts that not even professional historians could object to.

The problem is that these good novels are just a small proportion of all the “historical novels” produced. There is also a whole undergrowth of novels that call themselves “historical.” (63, author’s own translation)

The good historical novels mentioned by Queckfeldt are also all by male authors, and she contrasts these with seven “pulp novels” in which reality is doctored for the reader and the novels’ “conflicts become simple and are explained as a result of the individual persons’ actions.” The plot “circles around LOVE for the female readership” (64, author’s own translation). These novels have such great defects in their language, the anachronisms are piled on top of each other, and all the historical details are so vague that they could be used almost anywhere. Queckfeldt argues that these novels, carelessly thrown together and trivial in content, are “without history.” Frida Skybäck’s novels counteract this by showing, from a female perspective, how history repeats itself and how today’s women are a part of the past, therein giving women a place where they refuse to “take shit from anybody.”[2]

Frida Skybäck plays with historical depiction, with romance and chick lit, and with the stereotyped characters of the whore and the Madonna, in order to give scope to women’s thoughts and feelings. By playing with genres she opens possibilities for readers to read subversively, to try out new roles and lines, and to find themselves and stand up for who they are. Frida Skybäck, who works as a teacher at an international high school in Lund, is also aware that in other countries much more historical material is used than in the Swedish school. In Sweden, history as it is taught is comparatively dry and lifeless, and she thinks that it is important to arouse an interest in the source of power that history represents through literature that can move people. Diana Wallace writes about how women in Mussolini’s Italy were prohibited from studying history at university: “A knowledge of history, this suggests, has the potential to be dangerously subversive [. . .]. It is not surprising that in women’s hands the historical novel has often become a political tool” (2). Compared with Madame Bovary’s tragic fate, this is the reverse way to view women’s reading: either girls and women read with emotion and can then be affected to the point of madness, or else they are able to read with the brain connected and the result can be a threat to the prevailing society.

Janice A. Radway has exposed the narrative structures in romances in the same way that Vladimir Propp in the 1920s identified the set narrative features of Russian folktales. Radway has found thirteen recurrent features, which she calls functions, in romances: [End Page 10]

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The heroine’s identity is restored. (134)

It is important to have knowledge of how narratives are built up, since this is also the foundation for our interpretation of them. When we recognize the set form, we know what type of story we are reading, and when we have read several of them we soon detect when an author is going against the familiar pattern. In these deviations an author’s ideological intentions can be obvious: for example, when an author with feminist ambitions breaks the pattern in a traditional romantic narrative. This also opens up for questions about how historical literature functions, namely, that it brings our history to life and invites the reader to take the step into an alternative time, a kind of role play where one can learn something about our history, about our own time, and about ourselves and the contexts to which we belong as girls, women, and humans.


[1] “The term romance derives from the French and was first used exclusively to refer to medieval romances (sometimes called ‘chivalric romances’) written in French and composed in verse. These narratives were concerned with knightly adventure, courtly love, and chivalric ideals, often set at the court of King Arthur. Later the term was used to refer to any medieval romance, whether in verse or prose, and regardless of country of origin” (Harzewski 31).

[2] This idiomatic expression is often used by young women in Sweden today to indicate that they do not accept infringements of their integrity, outdated values, stupid comments, or lack of respect. [End Page 11]

References

Brown, Joanne, and Nancy St. Clair. The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc, 2006. Print.

Ehrenberg, Maria. Nutidsromantik: Från Maeve Binchy till Marcia Willett. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2009. Print.

Ehriander, Helene. “Chick lit i korsett.” Chick lit – brokiga läsningar och didaktiska utmaningar. Ed. Maria Nilson and Helene Ehriander. Stockholm: Liber, 2013. 159-173. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Godbersen, Anna. The Luxe. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Granlid, Hans O., Då som nu. Historiska romaner i översikt och analys. Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1964. Print.

Hägglund, Kent. “Mot främmande land på Attilas häst.” Dagens Nyheter. 14 May 2001. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chick Lit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Print.

— — —. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

Johnson, Joanna Webb, “Chick Lit Jr.: More Than Glitz and Glamour for Teens and Tweens” Chick Lit. The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 141-157. Print.

Mitchell, Kaye. “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 122-140. Print.

Montoro, Rocío. Chick Lit. The Stylistics of Cappuccino Fiction. London: Continuum, 2012. Print.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Barnbokens byggklossar. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1998. Print.

— — —. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996. Print.

Nilson, Maria. Från Gossip Girl till Harry Potter: Genusperspektiv på ungdomslitteratur. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2010. Print.

Norman, Karin. Kulturella föreställningar om barn: Ett socialantropologiskt perspektiv. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen, 1996. Print.

Queckfeldt, Eva. “Den historielösa historiska romanen.” Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift. N.p., 1995-96. 63-70. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Skybäck, Frida. Charlotte Hassel. Stockholm: Frank, 2011. Print.

— — —. Den vita frun. Stockholm: Frank, 2012. Print.

— — —. Interview by Helene Ehriander. 2 August 2012.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1992. Print.

Toijer-Nilsson, Ying. “Lite välkommen ‘herstory’.” Abrakadabra 6 (1997): 24-25. Print.

Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

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True Love’s Kiss and Happily Ever After: the religion of love in American film
by Jyoti Raghu

[End Page 1]

Introduction

In this article, I investigate romantic love in American film as a site for experiencing a divine presence in the immanent everyday experiences of love, marriage and family (Williams, Dante 6, 8, 40; Williams, Outlines 7, 9, 14, 17, 29).[1] To explore this theme I focus on the “kiss” in romantic love scenes in American films. To me the kiss in film is symbolic of a potential theological event where divine grace may infuse itself on the lovers, making their lives sacramental. I explore how the kiss can offer theological insight into how romantic love transforms into a window of grace, beauty and glory through which a divine light shines through the sacrament of love (Williams, Outlines 17, 29).

I shall draw theoretically upon several intellectual threads, including courtly love and romantic literature, Christian theology and theological aesthetics, and postmodern theory. Then, rather than look at romantic comedy per se, I shall focus on two different genres and film series, the action-adventure Matrix trilogy, and the Shrek quadrilogy of animated fairy-tales. I look at these films because I am interested in popular films of different genres where romantic love plays a substantial part. Furthermore, the kiss is central to the love plot in both film series and thus they offer good examples of how the kiss functions romantically and theologically. I shall finally briefly visit two romantic comedy films, The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Something’s Gotta Give, to see how religious discourse plays out in romantic films.

Before I begin, I note two qualifications. First, this article presupposes and is written within a Christian theological and religious framework, though not adopting or espousing a Christian worldview. I do argue, though, that this Christian framework has left its legacy on modern and postmodern Western culture, including on romantic love and film. Second, while also treating other religious traditions and other international film cultures would enhance this investigation, unfortunately my own lack of expertise in either field limits me to a discussion of Christianity, postmodernity, and romantic love in American film. I hope, however, that this article may spur those with expertise in other traditions and cultures to take on similar investigations.

Courtly Love, Christian mysticism, and romantic theology

In his now dated work The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis writes of a “religion of love” as one aspect present in the European medieval genre then called courtly love literature, which, according to Lewis, is the precursor of romantic love literature (18).[2] He notes that this religion of love, as well as other aspects of the courtly love tradition, have informed and still inform our conceptions of love and romance, particularly in art and literature (Lewis 1-3). A glance at American film, past and present, would seem to validate Lewis’ idea. Not only is romantic comedy an ever-popular film genre, but romance seems to play its part in many American films. The search for true love, a soul-mate and a happily ever after, sometimes as the telos and summum bonum of life, seems to be an idea which dominates popular culture and which plays itself out as the preoccupation of many films. Moreover, this experience of love, in popular culture and in film, bears almost a sacred, salvific quality. [End Page 2]

According to Lewis and other noted scholars, courtly love literature, and the religion of love within it, has not been derived from the Western Christian tradition nor the mystical tradition, where mystics use erotic language and the sentiments and experiences of human, romantic love to describe divine encounters and the soul’s relationship with God (Boase 35, 85, 109; Lewis 18, 40). Courtly love and romantic literature from the medieval and early modern period only borrow the language and sentiments of Christian discourse for use in a completely different and profane direction (Boase 109-11; Perella 89-90). The two literatures are not analogous, partly because they differ in the object of love, one of which is human, and finite, the other which is divine, and infinite (Boase 83-85, 109-11). Moreover, the medieval Christian Church had no interest in promoting passion or romance within or outside marriage, while a staple of courtly love literature is passionate expression and desire (Lewis 13-17). Indeed, sometimes courtly love literature could be sacrilegious, extolling the virtues of secular love and erotic or sexual delight while mocking religious chastity and ascetic devotion (Lewis 18). According to this theory, courtly love or the religion of love and the Christian religion run counter to each other.

No doubt there is truth to this thesis. We need only to glance at the plethora of romantic comedy films to recognize this. A good majority of them do seem to worship and venerate this ideal of romantic love, particularly as the acme of human experience and fulfillment. Nevertheless, it would also do us good to question if that is all there is to it, or if there is some connection and relevance to experiences and discourses that have taken place within the Christian tradition, and even more so, if they might not bear some theological meaning and value.

For example, there are striking similarities between courtly love and early modern love poetry and Christian mystical discourse (Perella 85, 268-69). In Christian mystical discourse, as stated above, mystics often not only use erotic language and imagery, but also the sentiments and experience of human, sensual love to describe their experiences of God, from the biblical Song of Songs to the ecstasies of Saint Theresa (Perella 38-40). There is talk of love, sensual delight, passion, and ecstatic union with the beloved, which is here God or Christ (Perella 34-36). Moreover, in figurative art there is the same ambiguity, where representations of divine love or the soul’s relation to God are depicted in human amatory fashion (Perella 33). Since the two discourses existed side-by-side, and scholars acknowledge that the courtly love tradition may have borrowed language and sentiments from Christian discourse, is it not possible that when these sentiments are “secularized” within a human, romantic framework, that they might not bear a remnant or a surplus of meaning of the tradition from which they have borrowed? Likewise, could Christian mystical discourse not also bear a remnant of human erotic experience as well, insomuch as the two might appear more similar than believed in both cases? Why could the influence not flow in both directions? Why could courtly and romantic love literature not have influenced religious thinking, and why could it not become a bearer of actual religious meaning and experience?

Within the romantic love tradition itself some Christian writers do correlate human and divine experiences of love. One may help to lead to or understand the other, and they are inseparable in meaning under a Christian conception of love (Lewis 35, 41; Perella 86-90, 261). In the works of medieval authors such as Andreas Capellanus, for example, courtly love was a chaste and ennobling discipline, whose end was grace bestowed by the lady, grace that elevated the knight to blessedness (Lewis 33; Perella 100). But this [End Page 3] blessedness was not just in a secular sphere, or for secular delights or ends, but was a complement to Christianity: without Christian virtue and practice one could not attain the lady’s benediction. Service to the lady was also thought to develop Christian virtues, such as humility, faith, and devotion (Perella 116-20).

The exemplum of the fusion of human romantic and divine love, however, would be Dante. According to twentieth century English (Christian) writer and poet Charles Williams, there is a theological tradition of romantic love, or a romantic theology, present in poets and artists, of which Dante is the greatest figure (Williams, Dante 91-93; Williams Outlines 7). For Williams, due to the Incarnation of Christ in the world and in the flesh, all human experiences bear a spiritual significance; through Christ’s presence, they become possibilities of divine manifestation and an infusion of grace (Williams, Outlines 9, 15). For Williams this is particularly acute in romantic experience, including sexual love, particularly in marriage (Williams, Outlines 7-9). The experience of this love-feeling has a sacred aura to it that leads to God. There is something about the encounter with the human beloved that facilitates not only divine encounter, transcendence and grace, but also spiritual growth, devotion, and holiness. Williams writes:

The heart is often so shaken by the mere contemplation of the beloved that it is not conscious of anything beyond its own delight. The whole person of the lover is possessed by a new state of consciousness; love is born in him….But in this state of love he sees and contemplates the beloved as the perfection of living things: love is bestowed by her smile; she is its source and its mother. She appears to him, as it were, archetypal, the alpha and omega of creation…the first-created of God. (Williams, Outlines 16)

Moving from Dante’s experience of Beatrice and the medieval experience of romantic love where passion, even sexual feeling, can be ennobled to a spiritual vision of beauty, the profane here is rendered into a beatific vision, where the two loves meld and mix into one.

Moreover, this vision has the capacity to see the human transformed to the divine, while remaining as it is. Williams continues:

Not certainly of herself is she anything but as being glorious in the delight taken in her by the Divine Presence that accompanies her, and yet is born of her; which created her and is helpless as a child in her power. However in all other ways she may be full of error or deliberate evil, in the eyes of the lover, were it but for a moment, she recovers her glory, which is the glory that Love had with the Father before the world was. (Williams, Outlines 16-17)

Just as in the Eucharist the material bread and wine come to bear the flesh and blood of Christ, so the beloved through love becomes a theophany or window to the divine, remaining what she is yet also being more than this. She becomes sanctified and becomes the locus of sanctification through an experience of divine beauty. He finally explains this romantic theology:

This experience does at once, as it were, establish itself as the centre of life. Other activities are judged and ordered in relation to it; they take on a dignity [End Page 4] and seem to be worthwhile because of some dignity and worth which appears to be inherent in life itself—life being the medium by which love is manifested. A lover will regard his own body and its functions as beautiful and hallowed by contact with hers….His intellectual powers will be renewed and quickened in the same way. And—if Romantic Theology is correct—his soul itself will enter upon a new state, becoming conscious of that grace of God which is otherwise, for so many, difficult to appreciate. (Williams, Outlines 17)

As in the Incarnation or God coming to the world and flesh through Christ, so these everyday experiences of love and marriage are the very site through which life can be experienced as having a deeper divine reality; indeed, without the Incarnation or these divine hierophanies in the everyday, we would not really understand the divine at all. There is a religious spirit in love, to which poets, especially Dante, have born witness (Williams, Outlines 56). Interpreting Dante’s writings, particularly The New Life and The Comedy, through the lens of romantic theology, Williams again asserts the possibility of romantic love experience as a means of Christian grace. He notes that Dante’s first visions of Beatrice awaken a caritas and agape or Christian charity and love in him, and inspire a beatitude (Williams, Dante 94-97, 108). In The Comedy, she leads him not only to divine contemplation, but also to redemption and salvation because she inspires holiness and virtue within him, an in-Godding or taking of the self into God (Williams, Dante 107-08).

The important things to note about Williams’ romantic theology is that he finds the sacred in a common everyday experience, here of romantic love, and finds this also to be a means of sanctity and redemption (Williams, Dante 111). He writes that “holiness may be reached by the obvious ways as well as by the more secret.” (Williams, Outlines 46). If we neglect the spiritual meaning of these experiences, then according to him, we neglect a way of sanctity (Williams, Dante 111). Furthermore, since according to Christian tradition marriage is a sacrament of the church, it bears the possibility of bestowing grace, and of experiencing other sacraments, including the Eucharist (Williams, Outlines 36-37). Through married life, a couple may experience not only Christ’s manifestation and grace, but may relive the sacred experiences of Christ’s life through their marriage (Williams, Outlines 14). However, while they experience this transcendence and grace, the experience also remains human and immanent. It is not an allegory, or merely symbolic; as Beatrice, it remains what it is, two human beings living together, as well as something more (Williams, Dante 109).

This theme of romantic love and the intertwining of sacred and profane can also be found in Robert Polhemus’ treatment of 19th and early 20th century British literature in his work Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H Lawrence. Though I would disagree with Polhemus’ thesis that erotic faith in the British novels of this period is primarily a “religion of love” at odds with and supplanting traditional Christian faith, Polhemus’ work highlights the continuance of the courtly and romantic love strain in literature, and also the inextricable links in this literature between eros or erotic faith and religion, religious experience, and religious language (1-6, 22-24). For Polhemus the novel itself is a trajectory of the erotic and erotic faith (3). Though Polhemus characterizes this erotic faith in love as tenser, more complex, more uncertain, and less positive than the “happily ever after” trajectory of romantic love in American films which links them to themes of grace and redemption, nevertheless Polhemus’ work also attests to the power of [End Page 5] this erotic faith and belief and desire in the power of love, particularly to redeem and save (or damn in its absence), and its inextricability with traditional Christian theological ideals such as salvation and martyrdom (1-6, 47, 169). Whether it be the chastening and spiritualization of the erotic in Jane Austen (ch.2), the romantic passionate desire for ecstasy and union in Emily Brontë (ch.4), the attempted melding of the romantic, erotic and Christian in Charlotte Brontë (ch.5), the cult of domesticity and family in Victorian novelists such as Dickens (ch.6), the intertwining of the erotic with Christian themes of sacrifice in George Eliot (ch.7), the interconnection of the vulgar and holy in Joyce (ch.10), or the proclamation of the holy in the erotic and sexual in D.H Lawrence (ch.11), Polhemus underlines the importance of erotic love and desire in the lives of the characters, its ennobling and salvific (and sometimes dangerous) potential, particularly for the male, and its tensions with traditional Christianity (1-6, 10-12, 15, 47, 128, 249). Thus Polhemus’ work further supports and attests to this legacy of the intertwining of theological and erotic discourse, which carries over into romance in film.

We may ask at this point what all this has to do with romantic film. I draw upon these authors and traditions simply to assert that there also has existed a Christian tradition from Dante onwards that did not see human romantic love and divine love as contradictory, but as part of the same continuum, or that may have fused the two experiences. It not only used erotic imagery and love sentiments to describe divine encounters, but saw in the human experience of romantic love a shadow of the divine and a means of grace. This tradition, instead of disavowing passion, eroticism, and devotion or sublimating it to divine being, exalts this passion and eroticism within human relationships as a means to the divine; in other words, eros is also a part of the Christian way to salvation (Williams, Dante 111). Indeed, as theologian Richard Niebuhr has explained in his work Christ and Culture, within Christian history and tradition, there have been positive understandings of the relationship between Christ and human culture and society. In these views, human culture has its positive value, worth and goodness, where one sees within the human something of the divine, and where the human can become a bearer of divine meaning and significance.

This deeper meaning to romantic love still exists as a remnant and possibility in modern representations, including in romantic film. Though we exist in a secular or post-secular era, Christianity has left its legacy on culture and in art and literature. This deeper religious meaning in romantic literature is one legacy that can be observed in romantic film as well. Moreover, I think this becomes even more relevant in our (Western) postmodern era, where a focus on and an exaltation of everyday life and experience, sometimes to a sacred level, becomes possible. After the “death of God” (particularly a Christian, transcendent God), Western religious discourse has to be displaced to a human, immanent, secular level. Because of this courtly love tradition and its connection with Christian discourse, and this theology of romantic love that also runs through it, romantic love in our postmodern era, particularly in film, has become a bearer onto which religious discourse has been displaced. In reverse of the original situation, human, secular language and sentiment now may be used to describe religious experience and to engage in religious discourse. [End Page 6]

 A Theological Aesthetics of Popular Culture and Romantic Love

Theological explorations of religion and film often treat issues such as theodicy, suffering, sin, evil, the demonic, or alienation; or they often explore themes of larger relevance such as oppression, injustice, war, violence, and gender.[3] Treatments often deal with alienation and religious or spiritual experience as occluded, particularly in postmodernity (Coates 17-18). Often scholars hold the view that theologically relevant films must be those that unsettle us from complacency and force us to confront the complexities, i.e. evils, in human existence (Jasper 242-44; Deacy, Faith 23-24, 26). Films that provide entertainment and pleasure, or make us happy, are sometimes judged as mere “wish-fulfillment” fantasies, considered too “trivial,” escapist and illusory to warrant theological and academic inquiry (Deacy, Faith 25-26, 30-31).

Yet, as is the case with the courtly love tradition, Christian mystical discourse, and romantic theology, there is also another side to Christian theology, one that explores goodness and beauty, and sees in the humanly good and beautiful an expression of the divine in the human. According to this theology, to dismiss the beautiful, or here joyous, as something unimportant is to make life miserable, mean, and barren (Häring 338). This view contrariwise explores God’s goodness and love in His relation to human beings and the universe.

Christian theological aesthetics delves more into this theme. It concerns itself with the relationship of God with art and beauty, and with God as perceived and experienced through beauty and art. It often speaks of God’s glory, which includes and is inseparable from God’s beauty, and joy; glory is beautiful, the beautiful is full of joy, and a theology without joy is impossible (Barth 316-19). Beauty points to fact that being is in essence joyous (Viladesau 363). Pleasure and enjoyment are also experienced with God’s beauty (Moltmann 334). To believe in any finite beauty is to believe in the reality of the Absolute, or God; otherwise, joy becomes groundless and illusory (Viladesau 363). Without beauty, we lose our way to God, which makes us miss God’s glory here and now (Chittister 366). Indeed we must surround ourselves with beauty because beauty brings out that the best in life really possible (Chittister 367). Likewise, this beauty is more than just pleasant. Theologically speaking, divine beauty is often linked with truth and goodness (Häring 338-339). What is beautiful is also true, is also good.

Gratitude is likewise integral to the enjoyment of this presence of beauty, which manifests God’s glory (Moltmann 334). Gratitude for beauty and openness to its message are of utmost importance in the sacramental (Christian) life (Häring 341). Anyone who allows the beautiful in knows that life is a meaningful, wonderful gift, a gift of divine grace (Häring 342). God’s gifts of grace transform and enable us to see all things in light of beauty (Navone 358). Furthermore, since nothing exists that we have not been freely and lovingly given, in all creation is a motive for gratitude (Navone 356). God’s gifts manifest God’s will which is God’s love (Navone 357). Eros, a more intimate passionate love and desire than agape, is integral to our worship of God, religious life, and religious commitment, and also integral to God’s love for us (McFague 346-47; Balthasar 322). Without this passion and intimacy, love, human and divine, becomes cold and sterile (McFague 347).

Christian theological aesthetics often link art as the locus for experiencing this divine glory and beauty, and also link (human) beauty and pleasure (in the work of art) [End Page 7] with the divine. Works of art becomes sites for theophanies, where the divine manifests itself; the art form thus remains itself yet becomes more than itself (Bird 3).[4] This often manifests as an event, an encounter in which the divine presence reveals itself to us through itself.[5] The human representation in its finitude thus becomes a sign and symbol of something more beautiful and divine, expressed humanly through art (Balthasar 320). The real and original experience of beauty and joy in the work of art becomes analogous to a higher and more comprehensive experience of divine beauty and joy (Rahner 220-21).

Film can also be a very good medium for manifesting the divine. Experiencing pleasure in film images can open the viewer up to experiences of the beautiful, which lead to experiences of the good and true (Verbeek 172-177). Moreover, film is a total experience, operating on multiple levels. It works on us on a semi-conscious level that viscerally affects us as an embodied experience (Plate 59-60; Marsh 95-101). Emotion, sentiment and mood color our experience of film (Tan and Frijda, 51-55; Marsh 87-95; G. Smith 111-117). It affects us through images which cause emotional reflection (T. Martin 120). This emotional, immediate experience links it with all art in making it amenable to divine encounter (O’Meara, 213). It is a more totalizing experience than other forms of art (T. Martin 46), which may make it easier to experience the beautiful, which we are to experience in the totality of our being (Häring 338). Films also make us see in new ways through the more careful lens of the film experience (T. Martin 139; Plate 57), which may allow us to see the holy, or divine goodness present within them (Johnston, Reel n. pag.).[6]

When film becomes a site for divine manifestation, it shows us the divine possibilities for God’s manifestation anywhere and everywhere in a world-affirming way, including in everyday life (Greeley 92, 93, 95). Popular culture can be important theologically because it shows us how people may be experiencing the holy in everyday life. In an era of postmodernity (or post-post), popular culture in embodied life is the medium with which most people relate, and the site in which groups such as Generation X are having religious experiences (Lynch, After 96-102, 112-121). It can allow the divine presence through images which a postmodern audience may perceive and understand as potentially sacred.[7] What is necessary is a theological aesthetics of popular culture that relates it to everyday life in order to explore how popular cultural forms may enable transcendent experiences of encounter and also beauty, pleasure, and joy (Lynch, Understanding 189-194).

Furthermore, in the postmodern era, the divine encounter may be displaced, represented and manifested differently through popular culture, in secular or human forms that bespeak the same reality and experience in a form more comprehensible and authentic to a postmodern, secular audience (Eliade, “Artist” 179-80; Deacy n. pag).[8] With the focus on personal experience of the self and the aesthetic inner life in postmodernity, theophanies that flow through human forms and narratives in film may be more effective art forms (Lynch, “Sociology” n. pag.). [9] Pop or rock music may work better than classical, and embodied narrative styles than the abstract.[10] Most importantly, exploring divine manifestation through forms of everyday life allows us to view this life sacramentally, to see it possibly in a higher light as a manifestation of God’s beauty, joy, love, and glory infused with grace (Greeley 17, 92, 93, 95).

Popular films are an extension of the theological value of popular culture. In postmodernity, Hollywood and popular film also can provoke religious experience of the sacred (Graham, “Theology” 36, 41; Johnston, “Theological” n. pag.).[11] Romantic love, [End Page 8] because of its history with the courtly love tradition, Christian mystical discourse, and romantic theology, seems to be one bearer of this remnant of Christian theological aesthetics, where a divine beauty may be perceived to manifest itself in the forms of everyday life in film. The love of a divine Other may be held to manifest and represent itself through love of a human other. Indeed, as in romantic theology, in an era where Jesus struggles with temptations of marriage and family in The Last Temptation of Christ and where he is married in The Da Vinci Code,[12] romantic love, marriage, family, even sex, are not perceived as antithetical to or precluding manifestations of God’s presence in film. Moreover, discourse on love in film sometimes may stand in for discourse on religion. This shows us that the love story in postmodernity can sometimes bear the remnants of the former Christian story about grace and redemption.

The Sacramental Kiss in Romantic Films: The Matrix and Shrek

According to early Christian scholars, the kiss did hold meaning in Greco-Roman society. Often erotic and shared privately within the family, public kissing for reasons of friendship and reconciliation was also practiced (Klassen 126-27; Penn 6, 10; Phillips 5-6). But with early Christianity the kiss took on new meaning and importance, being not only practiced but discussed in the writings of Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Clement, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine (Penn, passim). From New Testament origins in St. Paul’s writings, the kiss finds itself in the Christian liturgy or worship service by the second century. Begun as a greeting among Christian brethren at church, by the fourth century it also found its way into the Eucharist and into Christian baptism (Perella 17-18; Phillips 7, 16-17, 27). It could thus be viewed as a means of the infusion of grace (Perella 43; Phillips 30). The kiss was also known as the kiss of peace, or pax, and thus was viewed as a form of communion, reconciliation, and forgiveness; the kiss of peace established concord and unity (Klassen 135; Penn 43-47). Moreover, from Greco-Roman times the kiss was thought to contain a magical-mystical meaning, thought of as a means of spiritual exchange; in Christianity it signified an exchange of souls (Penn 20, 37, 40-41; Perella 5, 26-28; Phillips 5). In Christianity the kiss thus also obtains a pneumatological significance; a kiss was a way of exchanging Christ’s spirit, and also of sharing the Holy Spirit (Perella 15-19; Phillips 8-11). The kiss must also arise from the heart in true affection; if it did not, then it could become the Judas kiss of betrayal, instead of the kiss of peace (Penn 65, 112-18; Perella 28). Though Christian authorities attempted to regulate the kiss’s erotic possibilities, at one time banning the kiss between members of the opposite sex (Penn 13, 80, 110-12; Phillips 24), a certain eroticism may have still remained, particularly evidenced through the use of the dove as the symbol of the kiss of peace and the Holy Spirit transferred thereby, since the dove also held erotic connotations in Greco-Roman culture (Penn 48-49; Perella 253-57).

In the Christian mystical tradition and in courtly love and romantic literature, the kiss conceit also continues. The erotic kiss could symbolize the kiss of God to the human, or the embrace of the soul with God (Perella 31-38). The kiss could also represent the completion of mystical experience, or illumination and an infusion of grace (Perella 43-45, 52-58). In medieval courtly love literature, while the kiss becomes profane, and perhaps [End Page 9] more erotic, it still appears, partially in the idea of a union of hearts or souls, and exchange of spirits (Perella, 90-91, 95-96). The kiss could also exemplify the telos of the devotion, and could signify a bestowal of grace or benediction, this time by the lady (Perella 101, 116). This idea of an exchange of hearts or souls in the kiss, and the kiss as an ecstatic moment, continues into love poetry during the Renaissance and Baroque periods (Perella 181, 184, 189).

 The Matrix trilogy

The kiss is central to the Matrix films. This kiss theme is more than just romantic; it is salvific, having a resurrecting power. In the first movie of the trilogy, when it appears as if agent Smith has killed Neo, Trinity tells Neo:

I’m not afraid anymore. The oracle told me that I would fall in love and that that man, the man that I loved, would be the one. So you see, you can’t be dead, you can’t be, because I love you.

Then Trinity gives him a kiss, and his heart revives. Getting up again, Neo suddenly is able to fight the agents without effort. He can stop bullets; as Morpheus says, “He’s beginning to believe” that he is the One, and acts accordingly. He is able to defeat the agent by going into his body and causing the agent to implode.

It is love that gives Neo the power to be the One, love as expressed through the kiss. This kiss thus is more than just a kiss; it confers a supernatural power. Moreover, Trinity’s name, as a representation of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, must be significant here, as it is Trinity’s love that repeatedly saves Neo. But the kiss is pivotal as the symbol through which this resurrecting power of love occurs. The kiss is thus salvific, and transforms Neo into the One.

This romantic love through the kiss develops further in the next film, The Matrix Reloaded. First, since Trinity and Neo’s love has already proven salvific, the erotic love scene between them shows us the importance of eros, intimate passion and desire, in romantic love, but also perhaps in something deeper, in our religious devotion and experience. It shows eros as a necessary aspect of human and divine love (McFague 346, 347; Greeley 165). This passion, since it is expressed by Neo the Savior, is not just a human passion but perhaps also a divine one (Balthasar 323).

In The Matrix Reloaded, the Merovingian, the dastardly Frenchmen, also acts as one foil to Neo. He explains his philosophy of life thus:

Causality—there is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why… why is the only real source of power. Without it you are powerless and this is how you come to me…another link in the chain.

What the Merovingian represents is a mechanistic universe of necessity, of rational and logical calculation, control, and manipulation. It is not only without eros, but without joy, [End Page 10] beauty, or love, and thus without goodness or truth. Neo, contrariwise, acts out of love and passion, here exemplified by his love for Trinity, which is what makes him a savior. Persephone, the Merovingian’s wife, and symbolic in her namesake, the Greek goddess who inhabits the underworld, is willing to help Neo if he gives her a kiss, that is, if he brings that passion, love and beauty back into her life and resurrects her. She explains:

You love her [Trinity]; she loves you. It’s all over you both. A long time ago I knew what that felt like. I want to remember it, I want to sample it. That’s all.

She also tells Neo that he has “to make me believe I am her.” The first kiss is terrible, but then Neo gives Persephone a long kiss as if she were Trinity, and she agrees to help them.

Neo then enters the Matrix and meets the architect. The architect also tells Neo that all the previous five anomalies were created to be attached to humanity, but declares that “while the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific vis-à-vis love.” The architect refers to love as

an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason, an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth—she is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

He also calls hope “the quintessential human delusion.” Yet Neo chooses the door back to the Matrix, rushes to Trinity, and catches her just in time. Though she appears to die, Neo says, “I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.” This time, he resurrects her. She says, “I guess this makes us even,” and they kiss.

The architect, similar to the Merovingian, is interested in logic and reason, control and balance, not in love, joy or desire. What is missing in this technological means-end world is beauty and joy; here we value efficiency instead (Chittister 366). But Neo, as the sixth anomaly, is different, because he does love, and in a passionate, intimate way, exemplifying this love and passion in a way that shows how grace and love transcend this world of efficiency and utility, filling it with delight and lifting spirits (Häring 338, 341). Moreover, this love is once again salvific: contrary to the architect’s predictions, Neo is able to resurrect Trinity from death through the power of love, this time again consummated and exemplified in the kiss.

In the last film of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, the kiss does not play as central a role, but we do find a religious discourse taking place in the name of romantic love, where this love bestows a semi-sacredness to everyday life and the human sphere, bestowing (Christian) religious virtues. Rama-Kandra, whom Neo meets in the nether-subway world at the beginning of the film, explains why he is trying to save his daughter Sati:

I love my daughter very much. I find her to be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. But where we are from that is not enough. Every program that is created must have a purpose. If it does not, it is deleted.

Neo remarks that he has never heard a program speak of love, and thinks of it as a human emotion. Sati’s father answers: [End Page 11]

It is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?

Neo replies: “Anything.” Sati’s father also remarks that he is grateful for his wife and daughter, and that they are gifts. What is interesting here is the ability to appreciate everyday life and its beauty and goodness, here the beauty of a child and family, in an almost sacrosanct way which almost seems to appreciate them as gifts of grace. This also runs very counter to the technological, mechanical world of the Matrix.

Likewise, when Trinity is dying, she is grateful for the love Neo and she shared, without regret and fear. As she is dying, Trinity explains how much she loved him, and says:

How grateful I was for every moment I was with you, but by the time I knew how to say what I wanted to it was too late, but you brought me back, you gave me my wish, one more chance to say what I really wanted to say.

She asks Neo to kiss her one last time, and dies. Gratitude, often an integral part of divine grace, helps Trinity see the nature of life in an almost sacramental way, infused with (divine) goodness.     Thus, in the Matrix trilogy we can see a romantic love discourse that bears the remnants of a religious discourse, of salvation, of grace, of beauty, goodness, and of gratitude. Moreover, this discourse becomes heightened in postmodernity. There are certainly religious themes present in the Matrix, including Christian ideas, concepts, and symbols, and these link together with the love story in a meaningful way. We see this most clearly through the motif of the kiss.

 The Shrek Quadrilogy

At first glance, the Shrek quadrilogy does not seem to merit theological relevance. Yet these animated tales do play with love, romance and the kiss in such a way that also evidences remnants of religious discourse and experience within the romantic love story. In the first movie, Shrek, princess Fiona is waiting for “true love’s first kiss” which will release her from a spell that turns her into an ogre at night, and then she will take true love’s form. After she meets her true love, Shrek the ogre, they embrace and then comes their true love’s first kiss. Fiona is lifted up into the air amid light and sparks and comes down again in ogre form. She does not understand why she is not in love’s true form and says: “I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be beautiful,” but Shrek tells her: “But you are beautiful.” Then it is happily ever after.

Of course, this tale cleverly plays upon the fairy-tale ideal of romantic love. Yet, at the same time, “true love’s kiss” not only shows the influence of the romantic love ideal and literature derived from the courtly love tradition, but also evidences the importance of the kiss. The kiss is not only the completion and attainment of “true love,” but also bestows a grace, and inspiration, and gives a sanctity and blessedness to Shrek and Fiona’s love. The kiss takes place in a church, in front of a clergymen, and the sparks and lifting in the air show that there is something magical, supernatural to it. Being in a church, the kiss takes [End Page 12] place as the consummation of the marriage ceremony, which can be taken as sacramental. Yet, Fiona and Shrek remain the same; what this signifies is that the grace and blessedness bestowed on them, while transfigurative, is also something that can be found within their human lives and human experience of marriage.

In Shrek the music often helps to convey the mood and experience of falling in love.[13] The theme song for the movie is “I’m a Believer,” which starts with:

I thought love was
Only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else
But not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seems
Disappointment haunted
All my dreams

And then I saw her face
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her
If I tried.

We need only to think of Williams and Dante and their romantic theology to see how a vision of the beloved transforms experience and makes ready an acceptation of the good. The language also recalls religious discourse; the man becomes “a believer” or begins to have faith after this vision.

These themes, and the kiss motif, continue through the next three Shrek films. In Shrek 2, we have the evil Prince Charming trying to replace Shrek as Fiona’s rightful husband. In order to compete with him Shrek steals and drinks the potion called “Happily Ever After” which promises “beauty divine” to whoever drinks it, and becomes a hunk. Yet though Fiona has changed back into human form and Prince Charming pretends he is Shrek, a love potion does not work on Fiona, and Charming’s kiss to wed himself to Fiona is not effective. When Shrek finds Fiona and offers her his new and improved human form if they kiss before midnight, Fiona prefers the old Shrek. After midnight is their true love’s kiss as ogres with light, magic, and sparks. Fiona’s parents also accept Shrek now and again we end in a happily ever after.

Going back to the Christian theology of the kiss, we should remember that a kiss not from the heart, not with true affection, and not full of faith cannot have effect, cannot bestow the holy spirit or confer unity and peace, cannot knit the souls of the kissers; it becomes a Judas kiss instead. That is why Charming’s kiss cannot work. But since Shrek and Fiona are “soul-mates,” that kiss will always be effective in bestowing love and grace, and in transforming the lovers. [End Page 13]

Shrek 2 continues a postmodern religious discourse through this legacy of a Christian theological remnant and hyper-meaning within this romantic love tradition. For example, Shrek’s potion “happily ever after” promises him “beauty divine.” But in the end it does not really work. The theological significance that this could bear is akin to grace and mystical discourse. Mystics cannot make a divine encounter happen, cannot transform themselves into divine beings or experience divine union. God must “kiss” them, must do the initiating. The same holds true with grace; its infusion is something God bestows, not something we can attain by our effort. Romantic love often works in the same way in film; it is something that happens and that we cannot control, and which transforms us unexpectedly. Here, this theme is present not only with Shrek’s potion, but in the story of Prince Charming. He cannot make Fiona love him or manipulate the circumstances of love and happiness through his own efforts. Here one cannot make love happen, just as one cannot make beauty, goodness, or truth happen. The theme song of Shrek 2 is the Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love.” Some of the lyrics read: “Well I didn’t mean to do it; but there’s no escaping your love.” It is thus not for humans to control or decide but something that happens to one as a gift of grace.

The religious discourse through the romantic love story also continues in the third film, Shrek the Third. A disgruntled Prince Charming gathers an army of disgruntled fairy-tale villains who desire their own happily-ever-afters, and again unsuccessfully try to make them happen. Yet here a young King Arthur convinces these fairy-tale villains to repent and reform, while Shrek tells Charming to seek his own happily ever after, after which Charming is killed by a tower prop. Arthur tells them:

A:        You’re telling me you just want to be villains your whole lives?

V:        But we are villains; it’s the only thing we know

A:        Didn’t you ever wish you could be something else?

When they reply discouragingly, Arthur quotes Shrek’s speech to him:

Just because people treat you like a villain, or an ogre, or just some loser it doesn’t mean you are one. The thing that matters most is what you think of yourself. If there’s something you really want, or someone you really want to be, then the only person standing in your way is you.

The villains lay down their weapons and ponder other professions, such as growing daisies or opening spas. In other words, they have seen the error of their ways, have repented, and are redeemed and reformed of their wickedness.

We also see in Shrek the Third the repeated theme of “happily ever after,” not only in the plot ending, but throughout the film as a motif and desire. The “happily ever after” scenario in romantic comedy can be a romantic ideal, but understood theologically, it could signify (Christian) hope in life and in divine redemption and salvation (Greeley 108, 112; Brown 219) to be experienced on a human as well as divine level. Bringing back Williams and his romantic theology again, it helps us link the good, or even wondrous, in human experience with a divine goodness. Moreover, in these films, happiness is something that is constantly lost and must constantly be regained; read theologically, this could also symbolize the sacrament of marriage, which constantly bestows a grace that renews the [End Page 14] difficult or dull moments by bringing that grace or experience of love (Williams, Outlines 53). It is likewise salvific or redemptive; it constantly rescues Fiona and Shrek from evils and tribulations, and is sealed by the kiss (Williams, Outlines 47).

The last film, Shrek Forever After, ties everything together. Though Shrek is happily married with ogre triplets, he finds this life dull and monotonous. Because he cannot be grateful for his life, he nearly loses everything. Without his love story with Fiona, he ends up in a dystopia. Yet again the answer is “true love’s kiss,” which Shrek must receive by midnight. Though in this dystopia Fiona has no interest in love and dislikes Shrek, Shrek slowly restores her faith and makes her fall in love with him again. Though true love’s kiss does not work the first time, it works in the end, just in time, and reality is restored to normal. Shrek goes back to his children’s birthday celebration, grateful for all that he has, and we have the final happily ever after.

What stands out to me in this last movie as regards romantic discourse as a bearer of theological meaning and religious experience is the romantic theology of love, marriage and family as sacramental, holy experiences that can lead to redemption. Shrek lives in a state of ingratitude at the beginning of the film. He has forgotten to see his life as a gift of grace. After he has lost it all, Shrek realizes this. He states that “my life was perfect and there’s no way to get it back. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.” He now sees all the good to be had in his everyday life, and is grateful for it. He tells Fiona: “You’ve already done everything for me Fiona. You gave me a home and a family.” Upon their true love’s kiss, Shrek tells Fiona: “You know what the best part of today was? I got the chance to fall in love with you all over again.” At the end of the story, he likewise remarks to Fiona: “I always thought that I rescued you from the dragon’s keep.” Fiona replies: “You did.” Shrek then answers: “No, it was you that rescued me.” He thus has seen his life in a new sacramental way, which has bestowed beauty and light upon it and has redeemed it and redeemed himself.

In this dystopia, we also see Fiona’s redemption from skepticism, and restoration of her faith. Fiona is cynical, faithless, and loveless. After Shrek kisses her and nothing happens, Shrek remarks:

S:         I don’t understand. This doesn’t make any sense. True love’s kiss was supposed to fix everything.

F:         Yeah, you know that’s what they told me too. True love didn’t get me out of that tower. I did. I saved myself. Don’t you get it? It’s all just a big fairy tale.

S:         Fiona don’t say that. It does exist.

F:         And how would you know? Did you grow up locked away in a dragon’s keep? Did you live all alone in a miserable tower? Did you cry yourself to sleep every night waiting for a true love that never came?

S:         But, but I’m your true love.

F:         Then where were you when I needed you?

She has lost faith not just in love, but in the good and beautiful in life, especially as freely given gifts. Everything now depends on her own human effort and will against a cruel world. That is why the kiss did not work; she no longer believes, or loves. [End Page 15]

Yet even here, there is still a ray of hope. After one of Shrek’s failed attempts to connect with Fiona, Puss remarks:

I am not believing what I have just witnessed. Back there—you and Fiona, there was a spark. A spark inside her heart I thought was long extinguished. It was as if for one moment Fiona had actually found her true love.

It is thus up to Shrek to restore her belief and faith in love through love. Through the sacrifices Shrek makes to save Fiona, Fiona comes to believe in Shrek and the power of love again: in the power of goodness, and in beauty and happiness. When Shrek apologizes for not having been there for her, Fiona says that it does not matter, that he is here now. Her life and her past are beginning to be redeemed through this experience of love, and her faith and hope are renewed. Then comes true love’s kiss, in which both Shrek and Fiona find redemption, and a renewal of the sacramental grace bestowed upon their love. Moreover, here true love’s kiss transforms the world and restores it to its rightful order as well, showing the power of love to renew the phenomenal world, exemplified in the married couple (Williams, Outlines 32). Without that love, in a world of cynicism, faithlessness, and disbelief, everything is a dystopia. With the grace and beauty of love, it is beautiful and joyous again, showing how love repeatedly renews the world (Williams, Outlines 32).

In the last movie, we see clearly the analogous relation of romantic love and religious faith, and how this romantic love narrative and discourse could stand in for that of religious faith, showing once again the transposition of Christian theological themes into romantic discourse. We can read the love story again as more than just a romantic love story, as that through which in postmodernity, due to the historical relation of romantic and Christian discourse, discourse on religion, God, and faith take place, albeit in a secularized, human form.

 Love as Religious Discourse in Romantic Comedy

In postmodernity the genre of romantic comedy also becomes a site in which religious discourse takes place, where discourse about love can be read as discourse about religion. What these romantic comedies show even more clearly than the above films is how the love story in film acts as a foil to the modern secular story of hedonism, value-neutrality, scientific rationality, skepticism, cynicism, and disbelief. Romantic love acts as a site which challenges this secular viewpoint by allowing for an experience of love which contains the possibility of a deeper significance as a divine, religious experience.

For example, in the 2009 comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Connor Mead is a New York City playboy, cynical about love and marriage. When refusing to give the toast at his brother’s wedding, he states that:

To me marriage is an archaic and oppressive institution that should have been abolished years ago. [End Page 16]

He goes on to say about love:

Love, it’s magical comfort food for the weak and uneducated. Yeah, it makes you feel all warm and relevant but in the end love leaves you weak, dependent, and fat.

Continuing on a little later, he says:

I wish I could believe in all this crap. I do. I also wish I could believe in the Easter Bunny….I am condemned to see the world as it really is, and love, love is a myth.

We could substitute religion, faith, or God very easily here for the word love, and probably marriage, and we would probably recognize this speech as the modern, secular, skeptical view of religion.[14] In the film, Connor seems jaded, cynical, and shallow, enjoying the swinging bachelor’s life. His moral reformation begins when his deceased lecherous uncle Wayne visits him, warning him to repent of his ways. This movie is playing upon Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is warned to repent of his life and ways. The connection signifies religious and moral meaning, requiring the repentance and reformation of Connor. Connor does see the error of his ways, and begins a new life, a life of committed love.

Likewise, in the 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give, Harry Sanborn is a sixty-three year old New York City bachelor also enjoying the hedonistic single life. He meets Erica Barry, the divorced mother of his girlfriend, and while he is convalescing in her home from a heart attack, they develop a special romantic relationship which turns into love. When they first make love, it is as if they have both experienced something new and wondrous in their lives, an openness and vulnerability but also passion and elation. That was the first night either of them had ever slept eight hours. We can chalk it up to just sexual desire, but something happens that also transforms their lives. Erica, repressed, uptight, and unemotional, can then not stop weeping, which finally helps her overcome her writer’s block and enables her to write her next play, and which opens her up to a relationship with another younger man. She appears happier than ever, and explains to her daughter it was because she let love in, even if it did not work out. Meanwhile Harry attempts to go back to his former playboy life, but to no avail. He is unhappy, and every time he sees Erica he has an anxiety attack which he fears is another heart attack. Realizing he needs to change, he goes back, tries to find every woman he has ever wronged, and makes amends. He looks for Erica in Paris, but finds her with another man. Yet she returns to him. When Erica tells him she’s still in love with him, Harry says: “If it’s true, my life just got made.” Harry then remarks: “I finally get what it’s all about. I’m 63 years old, and I’m in love, for the first time in my life.” And we have a happily ever after.

Erica and Harry’s first night together was a transformative experience, akin to a moment of grace. Whether realized before or not, it brought something missing from their lives into it, love, passion, or wonder, that changed and transformed them. They had to change their lives for the better: in Erica’s case learning to let go of control, open up and let love in; in Harry’s moral reformation and responsibility. Harry’s comment that he is in love [End Page 17] for the first time at 63 can be read as the possibility of redemption at any age and stage, which has been a part of the Christian message as well.

 Conclusion

The kiss and romantic love in film can operate religiously and theologically. They have the capacity not only to bear a theological significance, but to offer an opportunity for divine encounter and transformation, as well as containing the possibility of a religious discourse. This is due to the origins of medieval courtly love and its relationship with Christian theological discourse, where medieval courtly love borrowed the sentiments and language of Christian discourse, particularly mystical discourse. Moreover, something of the humanly erotic also remained within sublimated mystical discourse, fusing the two experiences and making it more difficult to distinguish one from the other. This paved the way for romantic love, the descendent of courtly love, to contain the possibility of this deeper theological meaning and religious experience within it. In postmodernity, where God is dead, and where transcendence has been displaced onto immanence and the divine onto the human, this dormant religious and theological possibility of romantic love in culture and art can sometimes be activated, and can become pregnant with meaning. This holds particularly true in film. Moreover, in postmodernity romantic love in films can sometimes stand in for and represent religious experiences of God or for religious discourse. Therefore, I contend that romantic love in film can be one style, form and representation through which religious experience and reflection are taking place in postmodernity. It thus shows the religious and theological possibilities of popular culture and popular cultural manifestations.

Finally, I hope looking at romantic love in film in this light, in relation to theological aesthetics, contributes to opening up and freeing theology and film studies, which seldom treats the theme of romantic love as theologically or religiously pertinent. Theology and film studies should welcome more often these positive engagements with film and religious studies and popular culture. To quote the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf:

I see happiness as a right. I think that it is a human right to be joyful. The person who makes a dark, realistic film in India is wasting his time….Many things must yet change in India before the people’s lives become better…So why should the people be depressed by movies like that? They must be allowed to have some pleasure in life. The person who has had to sell his body for a morsel of food – you want to make a film for him about social justice? What is he supposed to do after seeing that film? (92)

Going on to speak about his profession, he says that “we filmmakers are here only to illuminate, to bring joy to life. All I seek is that, after seeing a film of mine, a person feels a little happier, and acts with a little kindness towards the world” (93). Like Makhbalhaf, we can aim to take seriously those filmmakers who by treating romantic love desire to bring a little more happiness and joy to life and to the world, and consider such a goal a legitimate [End Page 18] enterprise. We can also appreciate films (and scholarly work) that reveal and point us toward this joyous side to life, and realize their value.

I close with a discussion of the ending of Cinema Paradiso. At the end of the story Salvatore/Toto, who is now a famous filmmaker in Rome, watches the film his old friend and father-figure Alfredo left for him upon Alfredo’s recent death. The film is a composite of all the love and kissing scenes that Toto’s hometown’s Catholic priest had censored out of the movies. The film brings tears to Toto’s eyes, perhaps for the memories of his youth and the love for film that has made him rich and famous, perhaps for memories of Alfredo and how he changed his life, perhaps for remembering the past that he left behind. But it signifies something else as well: the kisses signal passion, wonder, beauty, ecstasy and joy, treated in courtly love and romantic literature, but also having origins in Christian mystical discourse and the Christian sacrament of the kiss. I hope this kiss can begin to be understood as that which sometimes graces life, not just in romantic love, but in all our everyday moments, and which may be read and understood as a symbol of human or divine goodness, not to mention the hope, faith and belief in the good, the beautiful and the true, and perhaps the happily ever after of romantic love or Christian redemption. Let us hope that we, unlike the priest, do not censor this out of film or religion, its study, and certainly not out of life.


[1] Though Willliams, as an Anglican, more clearly identifies the romantic love in the sacrament of marriage with the Incarnation and the life of Christ, I translate that here also to mean a divine, sacramental presence in romantic love and marriage.

[2] For readers not familiar with it, the courtly love literature and tradition is thought to have arisen in the 12th century in the Provence region of France, and was popular during the high Middle Ages. It concerned a knight’s love for and devotion to a lady of superior social standing, usually married, and consisted not only of a description of the knight’s passionate devotion, but also his service and humiliation to the lady. There existed also a system of rules and observances which must govern this service.

[3] See for example Zwick, Graham, May, Deacy Faith, and Deacy and Ortiz.

[4] The idea of a hierophany stems from religion scholar Mircea Eliade; a hierophany is an eruption of the sacred into the mundane or profane realm, where the sacred manifests itself into something profane, making that something both what it is and something more. A theophany is the same idea only with the eruption of God or the divine into the mundane. For more information see Eliade, Sacred.

[5] French philosopher of religion Jean-Luc Marion has written extensively about the event of God’s manifestation, sometimes called the saturated phenomenon, a revelation that gives itself from itself to a human subjectivity, and that human beings cannot control but are controlled by. The revelation can also often manifest itself through a work of art, as an encounter; it entails the revelation through the work of art to a passive subjectivity. Most of the writings of Marion are a propos to this phenomenon, but in particular Being Given may be of use in explaining this idea.

[6] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 2 and 3 of section 2, entitled “Seeing life.”

[7] For a discussion of the use of postmodern styles in relation to theology, see Detweiler, and Detweiler and Taylor. [End Page 19]

[8] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 5, 8, 12 and 14 of section 3, entitled “Cupitt and Bonhoeffer meet the Kranks.”

[9] Again this is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the relevant passages can be found in paragraphs 7-14 of section 2, entitled “The Subjective Turn in Modern Spirituality,” and in paragraphs 2-3 of section 3, entitled “Reading Film in the Context of the Subjective Turn.”

[10] See Detweiler and Taylor.

[11] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 1 and 2 in section 5, entitled “Finding God in the movies.”

[12] Though I reference the film, I actually have not seen The Last Temptation of Christ, but am just depending on what I have heard about the film.

[13] See J. Smith and Taylor.

[14] Ben-Ze’ev and Goussinsky consider the “ideology of romantic love” as an unattainable, unrealistic transcendental ideal that under certain circumstances can lead to fanaticism and violence, much in the way many modern intellectuals view religion, particularly fundamentalism (xii-xiv). [End Page 20]

 Movies Cited

Cinema Paradiso. Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Perf. Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin. Miramax (US), 1988. Online download.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas. New Line, 2009. Online Download.

Shrek. Dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy. Dreamworks/Universal, 2001. Online download.

Shrek 2. Dir. Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Dreamworks/Universal, 2004. Online download.

Shrek Forever After. Dir. Mike Mitchell. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Paramount 2010. Online download.

Shrek the Third. Dir. Chris Miller and Raman Hui. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Paramount, 2007. Online download.

Something’s Gotta Give. Dir. Nancy Meyers. Perf Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

The Da Vinci Code. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan. Columbia, 2006. Online download.

The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Barbara Hershey. Universal, 1988. Online download.

The Matrix. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 1999. Online download.

The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

The Matrix Revolutions. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

Music Cited

Counting Crows. “Accidentally in Love.” Shrek 2: Motion Picture Soundtrack. Dreamworks/Geffen, 2004. CD.

Diamond, Neil. “I’m a Believer” lyrics. STLyrics. n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.

Duritz, Adam, Dan Vickrey, David Bryson, Matt Malley, David Immergluck. “Accidentally in Love” lyrics. Elyrics. n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.

Smash Mouth. “I’m a Believer.” Shrek: Music From the Original Motion Picture. Dreamworks, 2001. CD.

Works Cited

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ed. Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. New York: Cross Road, 1995. Print.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. 1 Seeing The Form. Trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Ed. Joseph Fessio and John Riches. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982. 117-127. Excerpt in Thiessen 320-325.

[End Page 21]

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 2 The Doctrine of God. Eds. G. W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957. 650-659. Excerpt in Thiessen 315-319.

Ben-Ze’ev, Aharon and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Bird, Michael. “Film as Hierophany.” Religion in Film. Eds. John R. May and Michael Bird. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. 3-22. Print.

Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977. Print.

Brown, Stephen. “Optimism, Hope, and Feelgood Movies: The Capra Connection.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 219-232. Print.

Chittister, Joan. “Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light.” Religious Life Review 40 (2001): 178-180. Excerpt in Thiessen 366-367.

Coates, Paul. Cinema, Religion, and the Romantic Legacy. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003. Print.

Deacy, Christopher. Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005. Print.

— — —. “From Bultmann to Burton, Demythologizing the Big Fish: The Contribution of Modern Christian Theologians to the Theology-Film Conversation.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 12. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

— — —, and Gaye Ortiz, eds. Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. London: Blackwell, 2008. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 1 March 2012.

Detweiler, Craig. “Seeing and Believing: Film Theory as a Window into a Visual Faith.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 1. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

Detweiler, Craig, and Barry Taylor. A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 30 March 2012.

Eliade, Mircea. “The Sacred and the Modern Artist.” Criterion 1964 (Spring): 22-24. Excerpt in Apostolos-Capadona 179-183.

— — —. Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. Print.

Gilkey, Langdon. “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, IL. 17 May 1981. Keynote Address. Excerpt in Apostolos-Cappadona 187-192.

Graham, David John. “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 87-95. Print.

— — —. “The Uses of Film in Theology.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 35-43. Print.

Greeley, Andrew. God in Popular Culture. Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1988. Print.

Häring, Bernard. Free and Faithful in Christ. Vol. 2 The Truth Will Set You Free. Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1979. 102-109. Excerpt in Thiessen 338-343.

[End Page 22]

Jasper, David. “On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 235-244. Print.

Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 4 March 2012.

— — —. “Theological Approaches.” Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. Ed. John Lyden. London: Routledge, 2009. Chapter 17. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 15 March 2012.

Klassen, William. “The Sacred Kiss in the New Testament: An Example of Social Boundary Lines.” New Testament Studies 39.1 (1993): 122-135. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. Print.

Lyden, John. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 2 February 2012.

Lynch, Gordon. After Religion: ‘Generation X’ and the Search for Meaning. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002. Print.

— — —. “Film and the Subjective Turn: How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 5. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

— — —. Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. London: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Makhmalbaf, Mohsen. “Once Upon a Filmmaker: Conversation with Mohsen Malkhmalbaf.” Interview by Hamid Dabashi. Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present, and Future. London: Verso, 2001. Excerpt in The Religion and Film Reader. Eds. Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate. London: Routledge, 2007. 92-94. Print.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.

Marsh, Clive. Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004. Print.

Martin, Joel W, and Conrad E Ostwalt Jr. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. Print.

Martin, Thomas M. Images and the Imageless: A Study in Religious Consciousness and Film. London: Associated University Presses, 1981. Print.

McFague, Sallie. Models of God, Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. 133-135. Excerpt in Thiessen 346-348.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology and Joy. London: SCM Press, 1973. 58-64. Excerpt in Thiessen 334-338.

Navone, John. Toward a Theology of Beauty. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996. 77-82. Excerpt in Thiessen 355-358.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951. Print.

O’Meara, Thomas Franklin. “The Aesthetic Dimension in Theology.” Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. Ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. New York: Cross Road, 1995. 205-18. Print.

Penn, Michael Philip. Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Print.

Perella, Nicolas James. The Kiss Sacred and Profane: An Interpretive History of Kiss Symbolism and Related Religio-Erotic Themes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Print.

[End Page 23]

Phillips, L. Edward. The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship. Cambridge, UK: Grove Books, 1996. Print.

Plate, S Brent. Religion and Film: Cinema and the Recreation of the World. London: Wallflower, 2008. Print.

Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

Rahner, Karl. “Theology and the Arts.” Thought 57 (1982): 24-29. Excerpt in Thiessen 218-22.

Smith, Greg M. “Local Emotions, Global Moods, and Film Structure.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 103-126. Print.

Smith, Jeff. “Movie Music as Moving Music: Emotion, Cognition, and the Film Score.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 146-167. Print.

Tan, Ed S., and Nico H. Frijda. “Sentiment in Film Viewing.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 48-64. Print.

Taylor, Barry. “The Colors of Sound: Music and Meaning Making in Film.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 2. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. Print.

Verbeek, Marjeet. “Too Beautiful to Be Untrue: Toward a Theology of Film Aesthetics.” New Image of Religious Film. Ed. John R. May. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. 161-177. Print.

Viladesau, Richard. Theological Aesthetics, God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 210-213. Excerpt in Thiessen 361-366.

Williams, Charles. Outlines of Romantic Theology. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005. Print.

— — —. Religion and Love in Dante. Westminster: Dacre Press, 1970. Print.

Wright, Melanie. Religion and Film: An Introduction. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Zwick, Reinhold. “The Problem of Evil in Contemporary Film.” New Image of Religious Film. Ed. John R. May. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. 72-91. Print.

[End Page 24]

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