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Rewriting the Romance: Emotion Work and Consent in Arranged Marriage Fanfiction
by Milena Popova

In this paper, I examine arranged marriage slash fiction – a sub-genre of fanfiction which focuses on same-gender relationships and is widely acknowledged within the online [End Page 1] fanfiction community to be a close cousin of, and share readership with, Regency-setting romance novels, particularly those featuring marriages of convenience. Using theories of meaning creation in fanfiction to show the intertextual relationships between arranged marriage slash fiction and marriage of convenience romance novels, I explore differences and similarities between the two, with particular reference to sexual consent in the often unequal arranged relationships they portray. I use the theoretical framework of emotion work (Hochschild 551) to understand the development of the relationship between the main characters in marriage of convenience romance novels and arranged marriage fanfiction stories. Emotion work is work performed in a private context such as the family (as opposed to emotional labour, which is performed in public settings and particularly the workplace) to manage one’s feelings and provide emotional support to others. I argue that by focusing on relationships which involve disparities of social standing and often financial dependence of one partner on the other, arranged marriage fanfiction stories explore marriage as an institution which reproduces and amplifies inequalities. This exploration includes the legal and formal aspects of marriage, as well as the social and emotional ones. As a result, they cast the practice of marriage consummation – and sex within marriage more generally – as an at least potentially coercive practice. Furthermore, while arranged marriage fanfiction stories retain some key elements of the romance genre, notably the Happily Ever After (HEA) ending and the sex scene (often the marriage consummation scene) which doubles as the emotional climax (Roach, Happily Ever After 165), they also make key changes to how the relationship between the main characters develops, particularly how the emotion work necessary to make the relationship work is divided between the partners. It is these changes which allow arranged marriage fanfiction stories to challenge dominant discourses of sexual consent within marriage and propose an alternative view of how consent within unequal relationships can be made meaningful. This practice within the fanfiction community indicates a dissatisfaction with elements of the marriage of convenience romance novel, particularly how issues of power inequalities in romantic relationships are handled. Fanfiction provides a space where this dissatisfaction can not only be explored but the perceived issues set to rights.

Romance, work, emotion

As a popular genre predominantly written and read by women (“Romance Readers”), romance novels are a contested space in feminist scholarship and cultural studies. Mainstream romance novels have historically focused on heterosexual relationships culminating in monogamous marriage, although dedicated queer presses have published lesbian and gay romance since the 1970s, and more recently we have seen a proliferation of the LGBTQ romance sub-genre facilitated by digital technologies which enable low-cost electronic publishing and small print runs (Barot). Both in these and in mainstream heterosexual romances, more open “happy for now” endings have become a more common feature (Roach, “Good Man”; Happily Ever After 166). Research on the romance genre often focuses on how it relates to – and enables its readers to relate to – patriarchy and gendered power structures in society. Radway, a pioneer of romance research, subtitles her chapter on the “ideal” romance novel “The Promise of Patriarchy” (119). In it, she breaks down the [End Page 2] narrative structure of the typical romance novel into thirteen “functions,” each based on a stage in the hero and heroine’s relationship, progressing from antagonism through the hero punishing the heroine, a rapprochement, to a final sexual and emotional union. Radway repeatedly refers to the initially cold or ambiguous hero being “tamed” by the heroine. Yet she argues that rather than through a radical change in the hero, this taming is achieved largely through a reinterpretation of his behaviour on the heroine’s part. This argument is worth quoting at length:

The romance thematizes the activity of interpretation and reinterpretation for a very good reason, then. In suggesting that the cruelty and indifference that the hero exhibits towards the heroine in the early part of the novel are really of no consequence because they actually originated in love and affection, the romance effectively asserts that there are other signs for these two emotions than the traditional ones of physical caresses, oral professions of commitment, and thoughtful care. When the heroine retrospectively reinterprets the hero’s offensive behavior as equivalent to expressions of his basic feeling for her, the reader is encouraged to engage in the same rereading process in order to understand properly what she is offered daily in her own relationship (Radway 151, emphasis in original).

Modleski sees a similar role for romance novels in enabling women to accommodate patriarchy, but crucially argues that romance fiction helps readers actively adapt to (rather than passively accept) the harms of patriarchal society by enabling them to recode men’s violent and aggressive behaviours as expressions of love. In her study of Harlequin romances, she focuses on the transformation of the heroine (and analogously, the reader), arguing that she can only achieve happiness “by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, during which she sacrifices her aggressive instincts, her ‘pride,’ and – nearly – her life” (29).

As popular romance studies has evolved as a field, such accounts have increasingly been questioned and complicated through engagements with both romance novels themselves and their audiences. In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Regis challenges pathologising approaches to romance reading, highlighting instead the complexity and variety of works that fall within the romance genre and establishing clear generic links between works commonly considered part of the literary canon and more contemporary mass-market romance novels. She counters the argument that romance novels, through their pre-ordained “happily ever after” ending in monogamous heterosexual marriage, “extinguish” the spirited heroine and “bind” the reader in the structures of patriarchy (11). She questions the assumptions that books have the power to do this, arguing that “[r]eaders are free to ignore, skip, stop, disbelieve, dislike, reject, and otherwise read quite independently of the form” (13). Secondly, Regis says, it is not the ending in marriage that is important to romance readers and writers, but the process of overcoming the barriers and obstacles in the heroine’s path to happiness with the hero. This process takes a heroine who is already bound and frees her. Regis does concede that freedom for the heroine is provisional and constrained, unlike freedom for the hero, which is total and absolute (16). Ultimately, the heroine’s provisional, constrained freedom is achieved through the heroine’s own hard work in taming and healing the hero. [End Page 3]

Regis’s work is firmly situated in a formalist literary theory tradition with little examination of audiences’ engagements with the romance genre. More recent approaches have returned to centering audiences alongside texts. Roach, for instance, has examined both the genre and its readers in an (auto)ethnographic study (Happily Ever After). She returns to the question of the relationship between romance and patriarchy, and picks up on the Beauty and the Beast themes of taming and healing present in many romance novels. She argues that romance novels and the readerly and writerly communities around them provide – within the limits of the tropes and conventions of the genre – a safe space for imaginative play where (predominantly) women can think through the challenges posed by patriarchy (188). Roach follows Sedgwick’s “reparative reading” (Sedgwick 1) model. Sedgwick critiques what she calls “paranoid reading” (1) approaches to texts. Paranoid readings emphasise and expect negative affect, and seek to expose the underlying negative assumptions and effects of texts. By contrast, she proposes a reparative reading mode, where rather than expecting and seeking to expose negativity, a reader approaches a text with hope, open to surprise, regardless of whether that surprise may be positive or negative. Building on this, Roach argues that romance fiction performs “deep work” for women readers struggling with patriarchy. Through their guaranteed “happily ever after” ending, they provide pleasure, an escape from reality, a reparation fantasy and imagined healing. The takeaway message of contemporary romance novels, says Roach, is a simultaneous and contradictory “You can’t fight  patriarchy”/”You must fight  patriarchy” (Happily Ever After 185). She identifies risk and hard work on the part of the characters as some of the essential elements of romance, noting that “giving up individuality to coupledom requires a willingness to make changes in one’s life for the sake of another” (Happily Ever After 23). Yet Roach’s analysis often glosses over how exactly this hard work is performed and how risk is taken by characters in romance novels. Here, Modleski and Radway offer a more in-depth and persuasive account of the heroine’s hard work to predominantly transform herself rather than the hero – and, by extension, the absence of any such work on the hero’s part. Roach herself admits that even at the end of the romance novel the “alpha hero” remains deeply embedded in patriarchy, made only safe for the heroine by his love for her (Happily Ever After 188).

It is this hard work, which Roach identifies as such a central element to the romance narrative, that I want to investigate further in examining how fanfiction readers and writers approach the romance trope of arranged marriage or marriage of convenience. To that end, I propose to view the “taming” of the hero which romance heroines and their fanfiction counterparts engage in through the lens of emotion work theory. Emotion work was first proposed by Hochschild (551) as the work involved in managing feelings to bring them in line with societal norms and expectations. In the original definition, emotion work is performed on the self, and is the (not necessarily successful) attempt to induce or inhibit one’s feelings to make them appropriate to a particular situation. Hochschild identifies three techniques of emotion work: cognitive (attempting to change ideas or images in order to change the feelings associated with them); bodily (attempting to change physical signs of emotion); and expressive (attempting to change expressive gestures, such as smiling or frowning, to change how one feels). Erickson extends the concept to such activities performed specifically to enhance the emotional well-being of others and provide emotional support, especially in a private, family or domestic context (“Reconceptualizing” 890). Umberson et al. identify activities involved in reading others’ emotions as well as managing one’s own as part of emotion work (547). Erickson (“Reconceptualizing” 890, “Why Emotion [End Page 4] Work Matters” 349) argues that emotion work is key to perceptions of marital quality. With regards to emotion work and sexuality, Umberson et al. find that where a disparity in desire for sex is present in the relationship, women who desire less sex than their partners often perform emotion work to increase their own desire, and women in relationships with men often experience this as a one-sided effort to please their partner (550).

These experiences are reminiscent of the heroine’s emotion work in the romance novel and illustrate what Radway and Modleski mean when they talk about romance novel readers encountering and adapting to the demands of patriarchy in their own lives. Moreover, viewed through Gavey’s lens of discursively constructed expectations of women’s sexuality and sexual behaviour, especially in relationships with men (146), such experiences acquire an additional meaning. In this way, the pressure women feel to perform such “emotion work” can be seen as societal coercion, casting doubt on the meaningfulness of any consent to sexual activity given by women in these circumstances. Such expectations, often framed in the language of romance, facilitate certain courses of action and subject positions while making others unavailable. Gavey and McPhillips, for instance, argue that the wider discursive construction of what is and is not “romantic” acts as a significant barrier to women’s ability to negotiate consent and enforce boundaries around sexual activity, such as the use of condoms (355). This further underscores the power of the romance discourse within and outside the romance novel to influence not only attitudes but actions. These discursive constructions of romance and emotion work therefore may shed light on the work both the romance heroine and the romance reader (at least according to Radway and Modleski) perform to “tame” or “heal” the romance hero, and on what that means for sexual consent in often unequal romantic relationships.

Both Radway’s reinterpretation of the hero’s actions as motivated by love and Modleski’s recoding of violent or aggressive behaviours and self-subversion of the heroine can be conceptualised as emotion work. It is the heroine’s emotion work which causes the change in the typically gruff, cold, indifferent hero, and it is the reader’s emotion work that enables them to read the hero’s motivation for his gruffness, coldness, or indifference as ultimately moved by love. Of the heroine in Kathleen Woodwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, Radway writes:

It is in fact a combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or admitting dependence. As a result of her effort, he will be transformed into an ideal figure possessing both masculine power and prestige and the more ‘effeminate’ ability to discern her needs and to attend to their fulfillment in a tender, solicitous way. (127-128)

Regis also acknowledges the taming or healing dynamic through not only emotion work but also domestic work. For instance, in discussing Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, she writes:

Jenny heals [Adam] through her careful attention to his needs and wants: she manages his households with determined efficiency, she learns the duties of being the lord’s wife. Her motive is love: she has loved him since she met him at Julia’s house as a schoolmate guest. (135) [End Page 5]

On the romance novel character’s part, these are examples of work performed in a private or domestic context to enhance another’s emotional wellbeing and provide emotional support (Erickson Reconceptualizing). Additionally, if we accept Radway and Modleski’s arguments, they become an exercise in cognitive emotion work for the reader, actively changing ideas and images in order to change the feelings associated with them (Hochschild). The arranged marriage trope in fanfiction parallels the marriage-of-convenience plot in romance novels, such as the one described by Regis above. The courtship in this variation of the romance novel genre occurs after the marriage and culminates in a declaration of love (Regis 135). Similarly to other romance novel plots, however, the heroine still often needs to tame the hero, using her beauty, charm and grace – that is, her emotion work – to soften a man known for gruffness or even cruelty.

Recasting as emotion work the heroine’s taming of the hero, and (in Radway’s terms) the reader’s reinterpretation of the hero’s callous initial behaviour as love, provides a framework through which the interactions between the protagonists in both romance fiction and fanfiction based on romance tropes can be explored. However, the romance novels studied by Radway, Modleski, Regis and, to a lesser extent, Roach are highly heteronormative. Investigating the arranged marriage trope in slash fanfiction is further complicated by the fact that the characters are of the same gender. There is a tradition in fan studies which argues that slash erases inequalities between the partners (e.g. Lamb & Veith; Russ). Yet fanfiction writers frequently incorporate and explore inequality in the relationships they write about, and the arranged marriage trope is shaped by such inequalities. In this case, however, they arise from factors other than gender, although some may nonetheless have gendered connotations. I will therefore briefly introduce the arranged marriage trope in the context of the Thor/Loki pairing based on the characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the specific stories I am basing my analysis on, before moving on to an exploration of how such stories investigate marriage as an institution which reproduces and amplifies inequalities in a number of ways.

A note on methodology

Fan studies has a history of approaching fan communities and fanfiction as social practices (e.g. Jenkins; Bacon-Smith; Kustritz), but also of looking at fanfiction as literary text using textual analysis (e.g. Derecho; Stasi). In addition, the field has a tradition of auto-ethnography (e.g. Jenkins), as many fan studies scholars are also fans themselves. These traditions are reflected in my approach to the arranged marriage fanfiction trope. My involvement with the fanfiction community as a reader and writer predates my choice of it as a site for research by decades. I therefore bring to my research a dual perspective: that of fan and that of scholar. This is reflected in my approach to both data collection and data analysis. To select stories for analysis, I followed the path any fan new to a fandom, trope or pairing may follow to find stories that are considered good or impactful by the community at large, a path I myself have followed many times as a fan. I used the technical features of the Archive of Our Own to search, sort and filter stories of interest, and immersed myself in them. I used a range of auto-ethnographic insights for this: my understanding of the technical features of the site, but also of the community’s usage practices, and of dynamics and trends within the particular fandom, pairing and trope of interest. The two stories thus selected for [End Page 6] in-depth analysis are representative both in terms of their popularity and impact within fanfiction communities, and in representing trends and themes within fanfiction for this trope and pairing. Finally, in line with fan studies best practice and to protect the privacy of individual fans and fan authors, I have not provided complete URLs for fan works.

 Loki/Thor Arranged Marriage

To investigate the arranged marriage trope and how readers and writers of fanfiction use it to explore issues of consent, I have chosen a small selection of stories from the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom, centred on the relationship between Loki and Thor. The Loki/Thor pairing is the largest pairing under the Arranged Marriage tag on the Archive of Our Own, with around 180 stories as of August 2016. The trope is popular for Thor and Loki, as in the originary works the two characters, although not related by blood, are raised as brothers and therefore are an unlikely romantic pairing. They are also antagonists, with Loki being the villain in both of Marvel’s Thor movies and in Avengers Assemble.

My story selection for this analysis was based on ethnographic knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom in general, and a more in-depth ethnographic exercise within the Thor/Loki pairing in particular. I immersed myself in the Thor/Loki pairing, particularly the Arranged Marriage tag on the Archive of Our Own. I traced the steps a fan new to the pairing or the trope would take, using AO3’s tagging and filtering features to help me find stories of interest. I read a wide range of Thor/Loki Arranged Marriage works, as well as other readers’ comments and discussions around the pairing, and this process of immersion gave me a “feel” for how writers of this particular pairing interpreted and adapted the arranged marriage trope, as well as how they worked with the characters from the originary work. I focused on five of the most popular ones (measured by “Kudos”)[1] and identified common themes. I then narrowed my selection down to two complementary stories for in-depth analysis: Bride (themantlingdark) and XVII (stereobone). My ethnographic exploration of the Thor/Loki fandom and the Arranged Marriage trope enabled me to identify key ways in which the two stories were similar to and different from the originary material, as well as other fanfiction works for that pairing and within the Arranged Marriage trope. These similarities and differences are worth summarising here, as key elements of my readings of the stories arise from them.

Both Bride and XVII depart from the MCU canon[2] by having Thor and Loki grow up separately rather than be raised as brothers. In both stories, Loki is depicted as intersex, as are all Jötnar, and his gender presentation tends towards the masculine but is sometimes ambiguous. This is a common depiction of Loki in fanfiction, incorporating elements of Norse mythology not present in the MCU version, though they are to an extent present in some of the Marvel comics. It often serves to highlight Loki’s otherness and associations with magic and the feminine, which complicates the power relationship between him and Thor. Both stories are told predominantly from Thor’s point of view, though in Bride, the point of view shifts to Loki on a few occasions. It is the structure of the marriage arrangements that makes these two stories a complementary pair for analysis. In XVII, Loki leaves his home to marry Thor and secure a lasting peace between Jötunheim and Asgard. This is by far the more common premise of Loki/Thor arranged marriage fanfiction. Conversely, and unusually for this pairing, in Bride it is Thor who must leave his home to marry Loki. As in many other [End Page 7] Arranged Marriage fanfiction stories, these marriage arrangements, alongside other factors, give rise to significant inequality between the partners at the start of each story.

In the next section, I explore how the institution of marriage in its legal, social and emotional aspects is constructed in these stories. I focus in particular on how the marriage arrangements relate to the inequalities between the partners in a range of gendered and non-gendered ways, and what these inequalities mean for sexual consent. I then explore how the power imbalances are addressed through emotion work, and finally analyse in detail the consummation of each of the marriages and how sexual consent in the presence of power imbalances is handled in these stories.

Thor/Loki and the inequalities of marriage

Marriage as a social and legal institution has a history of constructing and legitimising gendered social inequalities. One mechanism for this is through the legal structures which codify marriage, for instance, the historical doctrine of coverture (Donovan 3) or exemptions for marriage in rape law (e.g. Smart; Donovan). Yet despite extensive reforms of the legal institution of marriage, changes in the material circumstances of women have been slower and more difficult to achieve (Smart 160). Discourse, and the subject positions it makes available or inaccessible, may account for some of this discrepancy, as Gavey argues:

Those discourses which are commensurate with widely shared commonsense understanding of the world are perhaps most powerful in constituting subjectivity, yet their influence can most easily remain hidden and difficult to identify and, therefore, resist (92).

The subject position of “wife” as constructed in discourses of marriage is particularly relevant here with regards to inequality and sexual consent. Gavey, for instance, shows how sex is still constructed as the “duty” of a wife, and how this discourse influences her interview participants’ perceptions of themselves, constructions of their own identity, and their material experience of sex within marriage. With this in mind, it is worth examining how arranged marriage fanfiction stories depict marriage as an institution, including the possible inequalities it produces, reproduces and amplifies.

While gender has historically been a key structuring element of marriage, it is not the primary source of power differentials in arranged marriage slash fanfiction relationships. There are, however, gendered elements to how both Thor and Loki are presented and it is worth exploring those briefly, particularly as they relate to other inequalities and are reproduced and amplified by the marriage arrangements. Lamb and Veith argue that the primary effect of slash is to remove power imbalances from sexual and romantic relationships by focusing on same-gender relationships. They also note that in slash fanfiction, characters who are men – often extremely masculine men – in the originary work acquire androgynous characteristics (243).

This kind of androgynous characterisation is present for both Thor and Loki in all five of the stories reviewed, and particularly in the two chosen for in-depth analysis. Thor is most obviously feminised in Bride, where even the title associates him with the feminine role in a heterosexual marriage. In this story, Thor is both younger and – unusually for fanfiction [End Page 8] about this pairing – physically smaller than Loki. While Loki is heir to the throne of Jötunheim, Thor’s arranged marriage with Loki precludes him from inheriting the throne of Asgard which will pass to his younger brother: an arrangement which evokes the practice of male-preference primogeniture, serving to further feminise Thor. He is also forced to leave his home and join the family and household of his husband. While getting dressed for the wedding – in a white gown – Thor is explicitly described as feeling “feminine” and “delicate,” particularly compared to the frost giants surrounding him. Conversely, Loki in this story has a reputation for coldness and cruelty, adding to Thor’s apprehension about the marriage. These elements evoke the first of Radway’s narrative functions: “the heroine’s social identity is destroyed” (134). Through his removal from his home and family, therefore, Thor here is cast in the heroine role, while Loki’s coldness and cruelty mark him out as a romance hero. Through the mechanism of side-by-side reading (Derecho 73), this gendering of the characters therefore clearly evokes popular romance novel tropes and sets expectations for the reader based on the generic conventions of romance novels many fanfiction readers are familiar with: by the end of the story Thor will have tamed Loki and transformed him into a loving and caring husband. Additionally, these gendered inequalities within the context of the arranged marriage also highlight the structural inequalities of the marriage itself, as Thor leaves behind his own family to formally become part of Loki’s, and as the settlement of property and titles is a key aspect of the marriage arrangement.

Yet the characterisation of Thor as feminine heroine and Loki as masculine hero is complicated in Bride in two key ways. Firstly, Loki himself is shown to have feminine characteristics as well as masculine ones. On a bodily level, Loki, like all Jötnar, is intersex.[3] He is also physically smaller than other Jötnar, and is known for his intelligence, gift for magic, and manipulativeness: characteristics frequently associated with femininity. He is described as both beautiful and handsome. Secondly, on several occasions factors which make Thor feel feminine and vulnerable in the context of his wedding are shown to have gender-neutral or masculine associations in other contexts. When Thor objects to wearing the white wedding “dress,” his mother, Frigga, explains that Loki will also be wearing a white gown. When Thor balks at the expectation to be nude for part of the wedding ceremony, Frigga again re-contextualises this for him by pointing out that in Asgard Thor is frequently nude, for instance in public baths. This complication of the characters’ gender coding and the social structures around them already signals a departure from the generic conventions and power imbalances of the romance novel. This “repetition with a difference” (Derecho 73) encourages a side-by-side reading where the differences between the fanfiction story and the romance novel trope are highlighted. Such departures in turn are a key tool for fanfiction writers and readers to explore and challenge dominant discourses about power, gender and sexuality in romance novels.

As Bride can be seen as part of three different archives – those of romance novels, arranged marriage fanfiction stories, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – additional layers of meanings are created through other side-by-side readings, with both the MCU and other works of fanfiction. The story is fairly unusual within Thor/Loki arranged marriage fanfiction in that it casts Thor in the less powerful position within the relationship. The author’s notes which accompany the story indicate that this is a deliberate choice to explore the change in the power dynamics between the characters. More frequently, it is Thor who starts out as the more powerful partner in the relationship, as is the case in XVII: he is the heir of Asgard, with Loki having to leave his family and make a life for himself in a realm [End Page 9] strange to him. Ambiguous or androgynous gendering of both Thor and Loki is also present in XVII. Loki’s physical beauty is emphasised, as are his magic use, intelligence, and reputation for being manipulative. Yet it is Thor who is too nervous to eat at their wedding feast, while Loki is also described as muscled and a competent fighter. Both Bride and XVII therefore rework their central characters – men in the originary work – into more androgynous versions of themselves, incorporating characteristics associated with both femininity and masculinity. However, far from entirely removing inequality from the relationship, as Lamb and Veith would argue (238), these stories use the arranged marriage trope and related romance novel conventions to introduce other power imbalances between the characters.

There are several other factors, both internal and external to the relationship, through which power differentials are established between Thor and Loki in the two stories. Differences in physical size and strength, for instance, are used to establish – and sometimes negate – power differentials between the characters. In both Bride and XVII, Thor does not meet Loki before the wedding and expects him to be a giant like other Jötnar. This causes him significant anxiety, as this extract from Bride shows:

The Frost Giants that Thor sees on his way through the palace leave him shaken.

I’m going to be torn apart, he thinks.

Even in XVII, where Thor in many ways has the upper hand in the marriage arrangement, he is concerned about Loki being a frost giant:

‘This is your duty,’ [Frigga] says. ‘I know it is hard, my darling, but it is for the good of our realm.’

Thor knows that, he does, but it doesn’t stop it from being hard. Jötun are not an ugly people by any means, but they are giants. And they are cold. Thor doesn’t see how anyone can expect him to marry one. He doesn’t say this, but his mother seems to sense it anyway.

It is only once he meets Loki that Thor’s perception of the power imbalances between them begins to change, and he is palpably relieved in both stories. While Thor is generally depicted as physically stronger than Loki in MCU fanfiction, in both Bride and XVII Loki is presented as a competent fighter. In addition to that, Loki is a powerful magic user, and often uses his magic and intelligence to get his way. Finally, differences in age and experience play a significant role in Bride. The author’s notes accompanying the story specify that Thor is 18 and Loki is 27 in this setting, and this age difference is reflected in the characters’ behaviours, attitudes and even physicality throughout the story. Even after he finds out that Loki is not a giant, Thor continues to be intimidated by his physical size, repeatedly reflecting that he himself is not “fully grown” or as muscular as Loki. Loki is also more sexually experienced than Thor: although neither character has had any sexual experience with a partner, Loki’s [End Page 10] magic allows him to create doubles of himself which he indicates he has done for sexual reasons in the past.

The arranged marriage trope allows external factors such as political considerations, marriage laws and customs, and the characters’ relationships with their families to play a significant role. In XVII, Loki’s marriage to Thor means that he is no longer considered a Jötun: he will not be able to return to Jötunheim or see his family ever again, and he is completely dependent on Thor for everything from basics like food and shelter to emotional support. Conversely in Bride, while Thor has to leave Asgard and is somewhat dependent on Loki, his parents repeatedly reassure him that they will continue to visit and support him. Therefore the consequences of a failed marriage for Loki in XVII are much greater than those for Thor in Bride, which in turn exacerbates the power differential. When read side by side with both romance novels and an understanding of the history of marriage laws and customs in Western cultures, these stories then clearly cast marriage as an institution characterised by and potentially reproducing and exacerbating inequalities. Marriage here is not the “happily ever after,” but rather the beginning of a process of negotiation, with significant personal and social risks attached to failure of such negotiation. While Roach sees risk-taking in the name of love as a key element of the romance novel (Happily Ever After 24), the risks in arranged marriage fanfiction stories are often taken out of a lack of options instead, as the personal, social and legal repercussions of failure – a life spent in an unhappy and unloving marriage, social isolation, or loss of legal status and the financial means for survival – are simply too great. In the face of these risks and power differentials within the relationship, the characters’ options are limited.

There are, therefore, clear power imbalances in Thor and Loki’s marriage in both Bride and XVII. They are caused by factors internal to the characters – physical size and strength, age, experience – as well as exacerbated by ones external to them – marriage customs and access to material and emotional support outside the relationship. While both characters are given androgynous characteristics, the overall picture of their relationship is still one of inequality: more specifically, inequality similar to that in marriage of convenience romance novels (Regis 135). It can be argued that at the outset of the relationship, Thor has considerably more power than Loki in XVII, and Loki has more power in Bride. The construction of marriage as a sexual relationship, as evidenced by the emphasis on marriage consummation I shall explore further below, puts additional pressures on the partner with less power. Even though these inequalities are only partially structural within the setting, they cast doubt on the ability of the less powerful character to give consent to sexual relations in a meaningful way. In the next section, I turn to the emotion work framework to examine how such power imbalances are negotiated within the relationships in the two stories, how the happily ever after ending is achieved, and what this means for sexual consent.

Emotion Work and the Happily Ever After

The Happily Ever After, or at least Happy For Now, ending is an essential feature of the romance novel genre (Roach, Happily Ever After 165). The hero and the heroine have taken risks, worked hard, the heroine has tamed the hero, and they finally come together in [End Page 11] a mutually loving relationship, often a marriage. In marriage of convenience stories, of course, the marriage itself has already happened, but it is transformed from a purely transactional arrangement into one of love (Regis 135). It is useful to view the way this transformation is achieved in romance novels as a result of the heroine’s emotion work. Emotion work is often gendered and the burden of it falls disproportionately on women, particularly in heterosexual relationships (Erickson 346; Umberson et al. 546). This is reflected in marriage of convenience romance novels, where the young bride – who has relatively little power in her marriage and is often financially and otherwise dependent on her husband – has to become skilled at reading the male hero’s moods, negotiating them and transforming his gruff personality in order to achieve happiness and fulfilment in marriage (Regis 135). Radway and Modleski both make convincing arguments as to why, rather than a transformation of the hero or the relationship, this development is actually a transformation of the heroine. In arranged marriage fanfiction stories, the Happily Ever After ending is retained as an essential element and generic convention. Yet even if we accept Regis’s argument that the more important element in the romance novel is not the HEA ending itself but the process of getting there (15), how that ending is achieved differs significantly between fanfiction and the romance novel, though emotion work is still at the centre of the transformation. It plays a vital role in negotiating the multiple and layered power differentials between Thor and Loki in both Bride and XVII, allowing them over the course of the story to create a more equal dynamic. What distinguishes many fanfiction stories featuring the arranged marriage trope from more traditional marriage of convenience romance novels is who within the relationship performs this kind of work. In both Bride and XVII, the bulk of the emotion work depicted falls on the partner portrayed as more powerful in the relationship: Thor in the case of XVII and Loki in Bride.

The first time Loki performs emotion work in Bride is shortly after the wedding ceremony at which Thor and Loki meet. At the wedding feast, Loki seeks to put Thor – still too nervous to eat or engage in much conversation – at ease:

Loki has kept his hands largely to himself. He has leaned over a few times and set his hand at the small of Thor’s back, pointing out the members of court with a nod of his head and breathing the best gossip about them into Thor’s ear. He brushed his fingers over Thor’s when he took his goblet from him to refill it with wine, but Thor wasn’t certain if it was meant to be friendly or if it was incidental. They danced, but Frigga had held Thor closer when she was teaching him the steps than Loki held him as they spun through the hall.

Thor’s surprise at Loki’s behaviour can be viewed through the lens of Western gender roles, with Thor coded as feminine and Loki as masculine and Thor’s expectations of his husband shaped accordingly. It is not clear whether Loki’s behaviour is in line with Jötun gender roles, which are implied to be different to Asgardian (and therefore Western) ones, as most of the story is told from Thor’s point of view. It is, however, clear that Loki is making an effort to set at ease the younger Thor, who is also at that point experiencing culture shock. When the two newlyweds are finally alone on their wedding night, Loki uses his magic to shapeshift into Aesir (or more human-like) form instead of the frosty blue skin of the Jötnar in another effort to provide some reassurance and familiarity for Thor. This is also the first occasion where Thor acknowledges and reciprocates Loki’s emotion work: [End Page 12]

Loki shifts his skin to match his spouse’s and Thor pauses in his pacing to stare.

‘Which do you prefer?’ Loki asks.

‘The night does not compete with the day. As a Jötun you are fairest among your own folk, and as an Aesir you are lovelier than mine.’

‘They are all our people now,’ Loki reminds him, and Thor nods and smiles.

Loki shifts back into his blue skin, pleased with the lad’s pretty speech, and pulls out a seat for Thor.

It is significant that Loki is proactive about making Thor feel more comfortable, as it shows that he clearly understands that Thor is feeling vulnerable and isolated. The gesture of shape-shifting is intended to reduce that feeling of isolation. It is also important that Loki asks for Thor’s opinion and gives him a choice, thereby empowering him to make decisions within the relationship very early on. At the same time, this choice clearly makes Thor uncomfortable as he does not want to cause offence to his husband. He therefore retreats into language which can be seen as rather diplomatic and deliberately flattering, effectively passing the decision back to Loki. So while Loki’s emotion work goes some way towards making Thor feel more at ease, the power imbalances between them are still clearly reflected in this exchange. The fact that Thor declines to make a choice indicates that he may not be feeling safe yet to do so, and by extension to meaningfully give or deny consent to any sexual relations between the couple.

Conversely, in XVII it is Thor who performs the majority of emotion work, both in trying to read Loki and understand how he feels and trying to make Loki feel at home in Asgard, particularly early on in the story. At the same time, Loki is studying Thor and trying to understand him, but he makes no move to initiate conversation or work on their relationship. As Loki expresses a desire for safety and privacy, Thor gives him space by leaving their quarters during the daytime and bringing him food rather than making Loki join the family at mealtimes. This is in stark contrast to Radway’s romance heroine:

Because she cannot seem to avoid contact with him despite her dislike, the heroine’s principal activity throughout the rest of the story consists of the mental process of trying to assign particular signifieds to his overt acts. In effect, what she is trying to do in discovering the significance of his behavior by uncovering his motives is to understand what the fact of male presence and attention means for her, a woman. (139)

A side-by-side reading (Derecho 73) of XVII with this understanding of the heroine’s behaviour in romance novels indicates that this is precisely what Loki is expecting to have to do in this story. He is watching Thor carefully and testing out the limits of any freedom he may have in this new situation. However, where the heroine in a romance novel would then use any knowledge gained this way to provide emotional comfort and support for the hero, in XVII, Loki finds every wish he expresses respected and as much space is given to him as [End Page 13] the social and legal restrictions on both partners allow. Thus Loki does not need to account for and come to terms with Thor’s presence in his life in the same way as a romance novel heroine would.

Thor also seeks to engage Loki in conversation and takes clues from his behaviour to find activities Loki might enjoy. The first breakthrough in their relationship comes when Thor, having seen Loki read the single book he has brought with him from Jötunheim, takes him to Asgard’s library. As the relationship develops, the emotion work involved in deepening and sustaining it evolves to being shared equally between Thor and Loki, indicating that they have reached a level of mutual trust. While the inequality of the marriage arrangement is never erased, and formally, Loki remains dependent on Thor, Thor repeatedly demonstrates that he views his husband as an equal. When Loki is given the choice to dissolve the marriage and return to Jötunheim or stay in Asgard with Thor, he freely chooses to stay and negotiates a reopening of the border between the two realms, indicating that he feels confident in his own status and power as Thor’s husband. Thor’s emotion work has transformed the relationship to one where Loki is a loved and respected equal and feels able to make choices freely and without constraint. Thus, while the Happily Ever After ending is achieved, the process by which it is achieved, and how the obstacles are overcome, differs considerably between arranged marriage fanfiction stories and romance novels.

For readers versed in romance novels as well as fanfiction, the arranged marriage fanfiction story becomes a part of both archives, and the differences in how emotion work is approached in each body of work become a key site of meaning creation. While fanfiction stories retain the romance novel’s Happily Ever After ending, they make key changes in how this ending is achieved. The contrast between the romance novel heroine’s efforts to understand and accommodate the hero on the one hand, and the partner with less power in the fanfiction arranged marriage on the other, who ultimately has emotion work performed for them, becomes a challenge to the power imbalances in the romance novel trope. It is important that the “equality-centered relationship dynamic” (Kustritz 377) is not present in these fanfiction stories from the start. Neither is the “hero” tamed by the “heroine” (Radway). Rather, through persistent performance of emotion work, the partner with more power in the relationship levels the playing field to build trust and minimise inequality in the partners’ day-to-day interactions. In the next section, I explore what these changes to the romance novel generic conventions mean for sexual consent within the relationship.

Marriage consummation

Marriage consummation is a recurring feature of arranged marriage fanfiction stories. Part of the reason for this lies in the generic conventions of slash fiction and romance novels, which often feature sex scenes. In the romance novel, a sex scene is often used to mark the Happily Ever After ending, with the couple consummating their relationship in a mutually loving and respectful way. While this may not be the first sex scene of the novel, or even for the couple, this final, emotional sex scene is still nonetheless a popular feature of a range of subgenres of romance novels. Roach argues that part of the message here for the (mostly) women who read romance novels is that they are entitled to love and great sex in their relationships, and that their partner should be devoted to their sexual pleasure (Happily [End Page 14] Ever After 87, emphasis added). Yet it can be argued the questions raised by the romance novel premise with its unequal relationship around the meaningfulness of sexual consent are often not satisfactorily addressed in the genre, particularly if the transformation of the hero and the relationship has happened largely through the emotion work performed by the heroine. Roach herself admits that the hero at the end of the romance novel is still embedded within patriarchy outside the relationship even if he does submit to the heroine within the relationship (Happily Ever After 187). Thus any re-negotiation of the power imbalance between them is limited and contingent at best.

In arranged marriage fanfiction, the consummation scene too is a key generic convention. While sometimes it is used in the same way as the climactic sex scene in romance novels to indicate the Happily Ever After ending, it has a different function in many fanfiction stories. A closer look at the metadata around the stories and the construction of these scenes in arranged marriage fiction shows how they are used to examine complex issues around sexual consent, power and inequality in intimate relationships. Of the 3600 works tagged “Arranged Marriage” on AO3 in August 2016, 466 also use a tag related to at least one of the following: “Consent Issues,” “Non-Consensual,” “Rape/Non-Con.” Of the five Loki/Thor stories I selected for this analysis, consummation was a central feature in four, with pre-marital sex performing a similar function in the final one. One story presented consummation as an outright rape, and the other three, including the two selected for in-depth analysis, contained discussion of consent issues in light of the arranged marriage and inequality of the partners. Consummation is presented as expected in these relationships, both through the legal structures surrounding the marriage arrangements and through the cultural expectations which construct marriage as a sexual relationship. Through both the metadata around the stories and key features of the stories themselves, arranged marriage fanfiction casts marriage consummation as an at least potentially a coercive practice. References to the range of different sources of power imbalances and inequalities in the relationship discussed previously are present throughout the stories and support this, keeping the issue of meaningful consent as a focal point of the works. This focus evokes both issues around the legal construction of marriage (Smart) and the social and cultural constructions of potentially coercive heterosex practices as “just sex” (Gavey). Where arranged marriage fanfiction departs from the generic conventions of romance novels is again in the distribution of emotion work between the partners. In stories where consummation is explicitly addressed as coercive or potentially coercive, another sex scene later in the relationship may take its place in establishing the Happily Ever After ending.

XVII illustrates well the problematic nature of marriage consummation within arranged marriage fanfiction. In this story, when Thor meets Loki and finds he is not a giant, he is immediately sexually attracted to him. Once the wedding feast is over and the couple are alone in their room, Loki makes it clear that he expects the marriage to be consummated even though he is not feeling enthusiastic about the prospect. When Thor refuses on the basis that Loki would clearly not be a willing participant, Loki is both confused and angry. He accuses Thor of making a fool of him and continues to be cold and hostile but eventually accepts that he has some agency within their marriage. There is a similar, though far less confrontational, conversation in Bride. This time it is Loki who makes it clear that Thor’s consent matters and that he will not insist on consummating the marriage unless Thor is willing. Thor, while nervous, does prove willing, though the language used in reaching their [End Page 15] mutual agreement to have sex is rather formal and carries connotations of meeting expectations, both social and each other’s:

‘I would not have you unwilling,’ Loki says, turning toward Thor. ‘I’m not a monster. This marriage was no more of my making than of yours. We needn’t punish each other for it.’

‘It is no punishment,’ Thor answers. ‘It is a gift, is it not? I mean to keep my promises. I would not rob my husband of the pleasures of his wedding night.’

‘Nor I mine,’ Loki agrees, smiling.

Thor’s phrasing of his consent reflects the discursive construction of the institution of marriage and the wedding ceremony, as it clearly references – and legitimises – the expectations of sexual intercourse generated by their wedding. The word “rob” in particular implies a sense of obligation on Thor’s part and an entitlement for Loki. In XVII, Thor thinks that wedding night rape is “not an uncommon practice, but certainly no practice Thor would ever take part in,” while Loki concedes that he “did not expect [Thor] to be so honorable.” In Bride, while ultimately the expectation is met and the marriage is consummated, this only happens with mutual agreement. It is Loki’s final response in this exchange, picking up on the implications of Thor’s phrasing and the word “rob”, which performs the work of putting them on equal footing, as it acknowledges that the entitlement and obligation of being a new husband applies in reverse too.

The status of marriage as a legal institution is a key factor which influences and shapes the practice of marriage consummation. In the Western legal context, there are consequences for non-consummation which may put one or both parties at risk. As Smart argues, “[t]he civil law on marriage is still interested in whether marital intercourse takes place, and whether the child of a woman is also the child of her husband” (92). In the UK, for instance, non-consummation is grounds for annulment (except for same-gender couples) (“When You Can Annul a Marriage”), which in turn has different legal implications to divorce. In the US, annulment may have a significant negative impact on an immigrant spouse’s application for permanent residence. The exact legal context for Thor and Loki’s marriage is not specified in either Bride or XVII. It is therefore possible to read these stories side by side with the complexities of marriage law. Loki’s anger at “being made a fool of” in XVII can be read as reflecting a similar concern with his legal situation as Thor’s husband. This again highlights the risks of a failed marriage, particularly for the partner with less power in the relationship, and therefore the stakes for the characters in making the relationship work. Far from being a risk taken willingly and in the name of love (Roach, Happily Ever After 24), however, the risks here are clearly ones the characters are forced to take for lack of other options, and potentially at peril of death.

When it comes to the actual consummation of Loki and Thor’s marriage in both Bride and XVII, emotion work plays a key role in facilitating meaningful consent between unequal partners. As previously discussed, unlike in romance novels where emotion work is predominantly performed by the heroine who is also the partner with less leverage in the relationship (Radway; Regis; Roach, “Getting a Good Man”), emotion work in both these stories is performed by the partner who is more powerful: Thor in XVII, and Loki in Bride. [End Page 16] This applies not only to the emotion work needed to build trust within the relationship but also to that needed to ensure any consent given is and continues to be meaningful.

In Bride, the conversation between Loki and Thor once they are alone in their room quickly becomes an equal exchange, both of them working towards building trust and rapport. However, once they agree to consummate the marriage, it is Loki who works to read Thor’s feelings, calm his nerves, and provide reassurance. In XVII, after Thor’s initial refusal to consummate his marriage with an unwilling Loki, the couple grow closer over the course of weeks, largely due to Thor’s efforts to make Loki feel more comfortable and at ease with him. Their first kiss is triggered by a scuffle following a trip away from Asgard during which Loki is verbally assaulted by another character. The kiss leads on to the consummation of their marriage, but throughout this scene Thor continues to consciously read Loki’s reactions and feelings, and verbally or through gestures asks for consent on several occasions:

It gets Thor hot all over, and suddenly he has too many clothes on, and this isn’t going fast enough.

Thor leans back and Loki looks angry, not because Thor is kissing him but because he’s stopped. The look disappears once Thor pulls him upright and leads him to the bed. Loki understands then what’s happening. He keeps himself pressed very close to Thor, like he can’t stand to be pulled away from him right now. Thor doesn’t move them onto the bed though, not yet. He searches Loki’s eyes, tries to figure out what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. He made a promise before, and he means to keep it, despite the lust that grips him tight all over and threatens to drive him crazy.

Here, Thor repeatedly performs the bodily emotion work (Hochschild 562) of controlling his own desire. As he is both the more powerful partner in the relationship and the one who so far has shown a greater desire for sex, this is a key indicator that he is actively thinking about issues of consent and looking to ensure that Loki has the space to deny or withdraw consent if needed. To that end, Thor is also carefully reading Loki’s emotional expressions in order to be able to react and adapt to them. This stands in stark contrast to the findings by Umberson et al. where emotion work around sexuality and desire was performed predominantly by women who desired less sex than their partner, with the aim of increasing their own desire (550). Read side by side with women’s own experiences of such emotion work, this story therefore reveals some key differences. It and other arranged marriage fanfiction stories construct the partner who is more powerful in the relationship and desires more sex as the one responsible for the emotion work of managing their desire and of ensuring that any sexual consent is meaningful. Where the dominant cultural construction of potentially coercive heterosex is “just sex” (Gavey), in these stories this is challenged and presented as “potentially rape” unless, through emotion work and a conscious effort to negotiate and manage power inequalities, consent has been made truly meaningful. [End Page 17]


Arranged marriage fanfiction can be seen as part of several different archives (Derecho 64): the romance novel genre as a whole, fanfiction, the archive surrounding the originary work the fanfiction is based on, as well as potentially that of readers’ and writers’ own life experiences and relationships with dominant cultural discourses of sexuality and consent. Reading arranged marriage fanfiction in this way – side by side with romance novels, originary works, other fanfiction, as well as dominant discourses on consent – gives access to a range of meanings created through similarities and differences with aspects of these different archives.

Arranged marriage fanfiction retains certain key generic conventions of the romance novel: the Happily Ever After ending and the climactic sex scene. However, fanfiction stories employing this trope also directly address issues of power imbalances and inequalities in relationships, casting marriage as an institution which reproduces and potentially exacerbates them. This construction of marriage is built on both its legal and formal aspects, as well as the social and emotional ones. As a result, these stories reframe the practice of consummation – an often taken for granted feature of marriage, commonly constructed as “just sex” – as at least potentially coercive. To resolve this conflict and retain the Happily Ever After ending, arranged marriage fanfiction stories also make key changes to the generic conventions of romance novels, particularly in the way the HEA ending is achieved. Where in romance novels the transformation of the relationship is effected predominantly through the heroine’s emotion work – that is, her effort to understand and support the hero – in fanfiction it is the partner with more power in the relationship, the equivalent of the romance novel hero, whose responsibility it is to perform this emotion work. Through it, inequalities in the relationship are negotiated, the playing field is levelled, and space for meaningful consent (or the denial or withdrawal thereof) is created. It is these changes which allow arranged marriage fanfiction stories to challenge dominant discourses of “just sex” and cast them as “potentially rape”. An alternative discourse then emerges where through emotion work and a conscious effort to negotiate and manage power inequalities, consent is made truly meaningful.

[1] Kudos are a feature of the Archive of Our Own which allows readers to quickly and easily express their appreciation of a story through clicking a single button. A logged-in user can only leave kudos on a story once. The number of kudos on any given story is driven by several factors beyond quality or even popularity of the story: how long it has been available on the archive, how big the community around that particular fandom is, or even the format of the work. Ranking by kudos is therefore a good way to find stories within a single fandom for a long time, but it may miss more recent stories. This method has significant issues when trying to compare the popularity of stories across different fandoms.

[2] The Marvel character Thor is loosely based on Norse mythology. He is a member of the Aesir, an extremely long-lived and god-like (albeit human in appearance) race who inhabit a world called Asgard. Asgard’s historical enemies in the MCU canon are the Frost Giants or Jötnar (singular: Jötun), a race of large, humanoid, blue-skinned creatures who inhabit the ice world Jötunheim. [End Page 18]

[3] Intersex representation in both Norse mythology and Thor/Loki fanfiction is a fascinating topic that is beyond the scope of this research. I am using the pronouns “he/his/him” for Loki in this paper in line with both mythological and fan community usage. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

Avengers Assemble. Directed by Joss Whedon, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2012.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Barot, Len. “Queer Romance in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century America: Snapshots of a Revolution.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, Routledge, 2016, pp. 389-404.

Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland & Co, 2006, pp. 61-78.

Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions. Bloomsbury, 2012.

Dworkin, Andrea. Right-Wing Women. Pedigree Books, 1983.

Erickson, Rebecca J. “Reconceptualizing Family Work: The Effect of Emotion Work on Perceptions of Marital Quality.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 55, no. 4, 1993, pp. 888-900.

Erickson, Rebecca J. “Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 67, no. 2, (2005,): pp. 337-351.

Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. Routledge, 2005.

Gavey, Nicola, and Kathryn McPhillips. “Subject to Romance: Heterosexual Passivity as an Obstacle to Women Initiating Condom Use.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 23, 1999, 349-367.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 85, no.3, 1979, pp. 551-575.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, 1992.

Kustritz, Anne. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 3, 2003, pp. 371-385.

Lamb, Patricia, and Diana Veith. “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines.” Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, edited by Donald Palumbo,  Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 235-256.

MacKinnon, Catharine. Towards a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. Routledge, 2008.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

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

Roach, Catherine. “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 ,2010, n. pag.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana University Press, 2016. [End Page 20]

“Romance Readers.” RWA, n.d., Accessed 5/16/2018.

Russ, Joanna. “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love.” Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays, edited by Joanna Russ. The Crossing Press, 1985, pp. 79-99.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Duke University Press, 1997.

Smart, Carol. Feminism and the Power of Law. Routledge, 1989.

Stasi, Mafalda. “The Toy Soldiers from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland & Co, 2006, pp. 115-133.

stereobone. “XVII.” Archive of Our Own, 2013. Accessed 3/30/2016.

Tag Wrangling Committee. “The Past, Present, and Hopeful Future for Tags and Tag Wrangling on the AO3.” Archive of Our Own, 2012, Accessed 5/16/2018.

themantlingdark. “Bride.” Archive of Our Own, 2013. Accessed 3/30/2016.

Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2011.

Thor: The Dark World. Directed by Alan Taylor, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013.

Umberson, Debra, Mieke Beth Thomeer, and Amy C. Lodge. “Intimacy and Emotion Work in Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 77, no. 2, 2015, pp. 542-556.

“When You Can Annul a Marriage.” Gov.UK, 2016, Accessed 3/30/2016. [End Page 21]


Troubleshooting Post-9/11 America: Religion, Racism, and Stereotypes in Suzanne Brockmann’s Into the Night and Gone Too Far
by Kecia Ali

In the years since 2001, the number of “desert,” “sheik,” or “Orientalist” romance novels published has “exponentially increased” (Burge 182).[1] Alongside the greater prominence of soldier-heroes (Kamblé, Making Meaning), including those engaged in a fictionalized Middle East/Muslim world, these romances illustrate the central place of America’s so-called War on Terror in popular fantasies and anxieties. Even though readers, authors, and editors alike deny any relationship between the rising popularity of such novels and U.S. involvement in Muslim-majority nations (Jarmakani, “Sheik” 994, An Imperialist Love Story ix; Holden 3), popular romance demonstrably reflects current controversies (Kamblé, Making Meaning) even if specific geopolitical topics are omitted (Teo 197, 284).

Suzanne Brockmann is among those authors whose work directly addresses United States military and intelligence involvement in the (broadly conceived) Middle East and in the fight against what it considers Islamic terrorism. Brockmann (b. 1960) has published over fifty novels since 1993. Roughly half feature military heroes, mostly Navy SEALs. Brockmann began her career writing stand-alone category romances. Her eleven-book Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series (1996-2003, abbreviated TDD), first published in Silhouette’s Intimate Moments line, centers on the members of SEAL Team Ten. The series has recurring characters but mostly independent plots. Her Troubleshooters series (2000-, abbreviated TS), on which this article focuses, comprises larger single-title romances with intricate suspense plots and deeply interdependent storylines carried out over fifteen full-length novels, a novella, and two anthologies. After a hiatus during which Brockmann worked on other creative projects, another novel came out in July 2017. Troubleshooters follows SEAL Team Sixteen, a group of FBI Counterterrorism agents, and former members of both groups who form a private security firm called Troubleshooters, “the equivalent of a civilian SEAL Team” (TS #6 311). Seven of the books incorporate World War II subplots.

The Troubleshooters books merge “progressive, feminist, and antiracist politics” with “jingoistic patriotism,” according to Hsu-Ming Teo, who writes briefly about Brockmann in her study of Orientalism and romance novels (277). Teo’s claim is borne out by the overlaps and divergences between these agendas in the first two Troubleshooters installments written after 9/11. Published in 2002, Into the Night (TS #5) revolves around an al-Qaeda assassination attempt on the president at a San Diego naval base. A Muslim terrorist, whose identity is revealed in the last third of the book, exploits the disintegrating marriage of SEAL Sam Starrett to smuggle weapons onto the base by tricking his estranged wife Mary Lou. It ends with the attack mostly thwarted, a fall guy badly injured, and the real terrorist escaping because racial profiling casts suspicion on the wrong person. In the 2003 novel Gone Too Far (TS #6), Mary Lou and her young daughter flee, fearing retribution; Sam and his FBI-agent love interest Alyssa Locke track them down while hunting the terrorist, apprehended in the book’s climax. Gone Too Far shifts the focus from anti-Arab bigotry to contemporary anti-black racism, America’s history of white supremacy, and the healing possibilities of interracial relationships. Over the course of these two novels, Mary Lou and Sam, both white, find lasting happiness with non-white partners—in Mary Lou’s case, Ihbraham Rahman, an [End Page 2] Arab immigrant suspected of being a terrorist. This pair of novels focuses intently on stereotypes, race, and what it means to be an American.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first briefly surveys the post-9/11 American climate of ideas about Islam and Muslims. The second shows how Into the Night both draws upon and critiques stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. The third compares Ihbraham to sheikh heroes, showing that rather than playing into assumptions about race, religion, and liberal (white) feminist savior projects, Brockmann portrays America as in need of reform. The fourth section concentrates on Gone Too Far, shifting the discussion on race, difference, and American identity to anti-black racism and interracial relationships. I conclude that although Brockmann acknowledges the importance of large-scale social change, she concentrates on and values personal transformation achieved via humanizing intimate connection across lines of racial difference.


In the twenty-first century, Islam and Muslims have taken on a new salience in the construction of (white) American identity, with the male terrorist as a frightening embodiment of unassimilable difference. To be sure, Muslims and the Middle East were on American minds long before the September 11 attacks, with the OPEC-driven oil crises of the 1970s, Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the Libyan-sponsored airplane hijacking in the 1980s. However, these events were overshadowed by, and understood within the frame of, the Cold War. So long as it endured, communists were cast as America’s main enemy. During the 1980s, for instance, the United States allied with religious Muslims, funding the Afghan mujahidin who were fighting the Soviet army.

The fall of the communist bloc overlapped with a series of attacks on American targets in the United States and overseas by Muslim extremist groups, including al-Qaeda. The first World Trade Center bombing (1993) was followed by bombings of Air Force housing in Saudi Arabia (Khobar Towers, 1996), East African embassies (Nairobi and Dar El Salaam, 1998), and a Navy vessel (USS Cole, 2000), as well as the thwarted Millennium plot (Oregon, 1999). All helped shift American attention to a new enemy. The 2001 attacks and their aftermath cemented the figure of the Muslim terrorist as the prime threat to American safety—a strengthening of existing pop-culture images of Arab villains (Shaheen, Arjana). U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, justified on shaky grounds including pursuit of the attackers, punishing complicit governments, possession of weapons of mass destruction, or liberation of oppressed Muslim women, have mired the United States in a seemingly never-ending War on Terror. Intervention has led to hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect civilian casualties in the region, far surpassing the percentage of Americans killed on 9/11.

Most Americans think about this war’s toll less in terms of Muslim deaths and suffering overseas than its impact on American soldiers killed or physically, mentally, or morally injured, and the weight of these deaths and injuries on military spouses and families.[2] Although Brockmann wrote Into the Night and Gone Too Far in the post-9/11 climate of fear of Muslims, her oeuvre is “less an affirmation of predominant political ideology than might be suspected of novels in the warrior romance category” (Kamble, “Patriotism” 160). She acknowledges the messiness of war and the toll it takes on both [End Page 3] American soldiers and on (Muslim) civilians in conflict zones. Moreover, her Troubleshooters bad guys come in many flavors. Some, like al-Qaeda (TS #5, TS #6, TS#7), are explicitly Muslim; others, including Central Asian airplane hijackers, implicitly so (TS #3). Religious extremists collaborate with garden-variety wrongdoers. A non-Muslim mercenary does the bidding of Muslim extremists off-screen, then seeks revenge for personal losses (TS #1 20, 205). Drugs and weapons smugglers who dabble in misogynist violence and pornography are mixed up with Muslim terrorists (TS #11). Other terrorists include the right-wing, patriarchal, white supremacist (and hypocritically anti-Muslim) Freedom Network (TS #8, #13, described [TDD #7 7] as “homegrown terrorists with racist, Neo-Nazi leanings and a fierce hatred for the federal government.”). Other installments feature dictator/drug lords (TS #4, #10), serial killers (TS #9, #15) and human traffickers (TS #16).

In the two books published directly after 9/11, in which Middle Eastern/Muslim terrorists threaten American institutions, Brockmann acknowledges and works to counter anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias. Her work can be understood as part of a push—supported at least rhetorically by then-president George W. Bush—to refuse the equation of Islam with terrorism. In the decade and a half that followed, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the idea that Muslims are necessarily America’s enemies has gained traction. A network of well-funded individuals and groups has deliberately cultivated anti-Muslim sentiment (Center for American Progress, Fear, Inc., Fear, Inc. 2.0); and the idea that Islam is incompatible with American life has moved from fringe to mainstream (Bail). The so-called Muslim bans enacted by executive order in early 2017 build on earlier anti-terrorist immigration restrictions and government surveillance programs, as well as clash-of-civilizations ideologies, as does the administration’s decision to focus its Countering Violent Extremism program solely on Islamic extremism.

These recent alarming developments draw on centuries of ideas about Islam and Muslims (Lyons, Arjana)—mostly but not exclusively negative. Western discourses around Islam, gender, and sexuality have long relied on a sustained tension between attraction and repulsion (Ali, Sexual Ethics, Lives of Muhammad). Building on the work of scholars including Edward Said, Lila Abu Lughod coined the term Islamland to describe the imaginary universe that Muslims inhabit in the mind of many Westerners. In Islamland, women are oppressed, men are patriarchal, and religion determines everything. Timeless and unchanging, Islamland bears only tenuous relationship to actual Muslim or Middle Eastern settings. So, too, Islamland’s shadow: Arabiastan (Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story 11-13). Amira Jarmakani’s term Arabiastan names the fictionalized, anonymized Gulf kingdoms in which astoundingly virile, impossibly wealthy, often royal sheikh heroes find their happily-ever-afters in the arms of plucky, usually white do-gooder heroines.

Brockmann navigates between these poles throughout the Troubleshooter series, steering closer to Islamland than to Arabiastan with her portrayal of the fictional Kazbekistan, “nicknamed The Pit” (TS #3 63). There, corrupt warlords rule through violence and women and girls suffer terribly (e.g., TS #7 93-94). Though Iraq and Afghanistan appear, the fictional Kazbekistan looms larger.[3] Notably, though, Brockmann’s depictions of Kazbekistan and its extremists, including the hijackers who take over a plane in the series’ third installment—written before 9/11 but released shortly after—scrupulously avoid making the bad guys piously Muslim or assigning them religious motivations. Still, Islamland tropes remain recognizable: in her 2008 survey of Brockmann’s work, Sarah Frantz describes Troubleshooters’ invocation of “the harsh realities of life in a third-world Islamic [End Page 4] nation” (13) even though religion remains implicit. Brockmann’s immediate post-9/11 Troubleshooters novels blend reticence about and direct engagement with stereotypes about Islam and Muslims even as they imagine terrorism on U.S. soil.


Although most SEAL activity takes place outside the continental United States, Into the Night (TS #5) imagines a domestic target: al-Qaeda plans to assassinate the president when he visits Team Sixteen’s San Diego naval base. The book’s primary romance is between a SEAL lieutenant and a White House staffer. A secondary storyline tracks the imploding marriage of Sam and Mary Lou Starrett and their involvements—past or current—with non-white partners. Mary Lou’s developing relationship with Ihbraham serves as the pivot for key character developments as well as the novel’s action, with inaccurate prejudices playing a key role in both. Sam’s multi-book relationship arc with mixed-race FBI sharpshooter Alyssa finds resolution in Gone Too Far (TS #6), as does Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s storyline.[4]

Mary Lou Starrett, née Morrison, begins as an unsympathetic character. A lower-class alcoholic with a somewhat traumatic past (TS #5 150-54; Teo 276), she and Sam have a hot but shallow affair mostly off page in Over the Edge (TS #3 8, 50). She turns up pregnant a few months after he’s broken things off, putting the brakes on the relationship finally started by Sam and Alyssa; he withdraws from that relationship to do what he considers the honorable thing, marrying Mary Lou (TS #3 374-5, 383-86).

By the time Into the Night opens, their marriage has badly stagnated. Both love their young daughter and Mary Lou remains committed to sobriety. She does her best to please Sam—keeping house impeccably, being sexually available—but cannot or will not acknowledge Sam’s difficult wartime experiences. After realizing that she deplored any show of weakness on his part, Sam “had given up trying to make his marriage work … and started merely to endure” (TS #5 185). Sam came to understand that “she didn’t love him any more than he loved her. She loved the idea of him, sure. She maybe even loved the image she’d built of him in her head—some superman who never doubted himself, never faltered, and never failed” (TS #5 185). Sam believes that Mary Lou “had no real desire to get to know him—especially if the real him deviated from the picture-perfect super-him she held in her head” (TS #5 185). She wanted the fantasy SEAL and the fantasy home-life, not a real man with emotions and vulnerabilities (similarly, TS #6 191). Mary Lou’s “denial” of “the complexity and reality of his character” appears in Into the Night as “what dooms her relationship with Sam” (Frantz, “I’ve tried my entire life” 211).

As her marriage falls apart, two very different men befriend and court Mary Lou. Bob Schwegel is an attractive white man she runs into repeatedly, first at the library and then elsewhere. Mary Lou thinks that he “looked like Heath Ledger’s older, sexier brother” (TS #5 94). She is flattered and a bit surprised at the attention he pays to her and her daughter, such as offering to carry her books and load them in her car’s trunk, until she learns that he is an insurance salesman; she then presumes his attentiveness is designed to sell her a policy. He eventually tries to seduce her. Her other suitor is Saudi-born landscaper Ihbraham Rahman: dark-skinned, bearded, and foreign. Mary Lou had thought, when she first saw him, that “he [End Page 5] looked as if he might spend his free time organizing an al-Qaeda terrorist cell” (TS #5 81). While Bob reminds her of a Hollywood star, Ihbraham looks like a film villain, “the homicidal terroristic Muslim [who] stalks the Western social imaginary” (Arjana 2). The more Mary Lou learns, though, the more Ihbraham does not conform to her mental model of an Arab Muslim. Like her, he is a recovering alcoholic; he explains that though “Muslims have laws in which drinking alcohol is forbidden … many still do [drink]” (TS #5 82, emphasis in original).

As Mary Lou’s marriage deteriorates, she interacts with these two men, flirting with Bob and coming to rely on Ihbraham as a support for her sobriety (e.g., TS #5 294-297). Meanwhile, Husaam Abdul Fattah has been surveilling Mary Lou. Brockmann sets up uncertainty about the terrorist’s identity: the things he does (make first contact with her, use her vehicle to sneak weapons onto the base where she works a menial part-time job) are things that intersect with Ihbraham’s actions, like making a duplicate car key for her.

Brockmann’s misdirection suggests to readers steeped in media portrayals of Arab Muslim terrorists that Ihbraham is leading a double life, deceiving Mary Lou, who remains unaware of the brewing assassination plot. However, readers eventually learn that Bob—actually Warren Canton from Kansas—is the terrorist. Although a Muslim, he is not “really … a religious man” (TS #5 437); his conversion was motivated by the profit to be obtained from smuggling at the behest of al-Qaeda collaborators, and not any sincere belief: “He’d worship zucchini squash if it would help him bring home the kind of money he was earning these days” (430).[5]

Brockmann simultaneously plays to readers’ expectations, by making a Muslim with an Arabic name the villain, and confounds them: the villain is a white guy who goes by Bob while the brown man with the funny foreign name is trustworthy. FBI agent Jules Cassidy, who as a gay man knows about stereotypes, later observes: “We hear a name like Abdul-Fattah, and we automatically think terrorist, we think Arab, we think Muslim extremist. … we certainly don’t think white American using an alias” (TS #6 497, emphasis in original). The “flip side of racial profiling” is the presumption of white innocence (497).

Even as Brockmann manipulates her readers into assuming, or at least worrying, that Ihbraham is a terrorist, she directly addresses the prejudices that led them to do so. Readers are privy to Mary Lou’s changing thoughts as well as to her interactions with Ihbraham. In her “Readers’ Guide to the Troubleshooter Series” (7), Brockmann lists Into the Night’s point-of-view characters (her term). She includes the hero and heroine of the main romantic storyline and the WWII subplot, Sam, Mary Lou, and “the terrorist.” (She presumably refrains from naming Husaam/Bob/Warren to avoid spoilers.) Despite Ihbraham’s centrality, readers learn only what others think about him.[6] Though he has been keeping the neighbors’ yard looking good, Mary Lou thinks, “really, after 9/11, who wanted strange Arabs prowling around their neighborhood?” (TS #5 81). After they have become friendly but long before the relationship turns romantic, Mary Lou is sitting on a neighbor’s step, and he asks whether he can join her. She says, “You don’t have to ask to sit down. It’s a free country.” He responds with an understated commentary on American racism: “Free more for some than for others. I’ve learned never to assume” (124-125). His reaction is not surprising when, as Sophia Arjana observes, “The portrayal of Muslims as the antithesis of good Americans is not only common—it is the norm” (10).

Mary Lou gradually gains enough distance from her initial prejudice to consider what “most people” would “assume, from the color of his skin and from the way he looked”: “that he was dangerous” (TS #5 125). She herself had done so, though her reaction had changed. [End Page 6] Yet she is not immune to powerful biases. Brockmann depicts Mary Lou’s halting, tenuous, partial unlearning of racist stereotypes. Stereotypes are tenacious and undoing them involves reversals and uncertainties. On the one occasion Bob, Ihbraham, and Mary Lou are all in one place, Ihbraham walks away to speak with other Arab men who have come to see him. Bob mentions Ihbraham’s name and his appearance to sow distrust, telling Mary Lou, “He could be the poster boy for al-Qaeda” (TS #5 277). Neither the reader nor Mary Lou yet knows that Bob is actually the al-Qaeda operative, but Mary Lou begins a heated rejoinder— “Well, he’s not, and you’re being racist to assume…”—only to break off, doubting herself, when one of the “darkly complexioned” men attacks Ihbraham (277-78). (She later learns that they are his brothers; the argument is about nothing more sinister than the family car dealership.) When her emotions run high, Mary Lou reacts with racist assumptions. When the novel’s action comes to a head, Mary Lou—who has already declared her love for Ihbraham—wonders whether he is, in fact, a terrorist. The reader knows better, but Mary Lou still worries that Ihraham and his brothers, “all those Arabic faces and voices, dark with anger” (444), might be responsible for the attack at the naval base.

When the attack occurs, both Ihbraham and Bob/Husaam are in the audience. The terrorist mastermind has used his whiteness to enter the base with minimal scrutiny. He reflects: “Despite claims that this country avoided racial profiling, there were far more places he could go with his fair skin and light-colored eyes and hair than could most people who had such an obviously Muslim name” (TS #5 429). He manipulates a group of white bikers to beat up Ihbraham by insinuating that Ihbraham is doing something suspicious. Ihbraham suffer serious injuries. Because attention is diverted to the man who looks like a terrorist, the real terrorist escapes (447), just as he counts on (458).


In American popular culture, the (Arab/Muslim) terrorist and the (white/American) military hero starkly oppose one another (Shaheen, Arjana). However, soldiers, particularly the spec-ops warriors and Navy SEALS who have risen to unprecedented cultural prominence in the last decade and a half (Chelton), are at times problematically like their terrorist opponents. They use secrecy and stealth; they kill without qualms. Jayashree Kamblé argues that the “warrior hero” often presents “a critique of American patriotic aggression” (“Patriotism” 153). As she notes, “many novels waver between expressing a ‘support our troops’ rhetoric and agonizing over the post-traumatic stress and moral impoverishment that soldiers experience as a result of combat” (154). This is certainly true for Brockmann’s novels—indeed, Sam’s sadness and guilt over agonizing choices he has had to make is something that Mary Lou cannot accept.

In addition to the soldier, the terrorist has another shadow: the sheikh. If Islamland sutures negative images of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners into a fabricated whole, Arabiastan offers the flip side of Orientalist stereotypes: “fantastical kingdom[s]” (Holden 7) and “fairy-tale sheikhdoms superimposed over, and obliterating, the complex geopolitical realities of the Middle East” (Teo 214). Recent scholarship on sheikh romances emphasizes the (white) liberal feminist fantasies they shore up. Stacy Holden (17) suggests that sheikh novels are “a form of socio-political erotica” providing “explicit images and arousing [End Page 7] fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace.” Teo likewise observes that they are one of the few positive pop culture representations of Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East (25-26), though Jarmakani emphasizes more sinister implications of the subgenre (Imperialist Love Story).

In desert romances, the white heroine inspires the sheikh to reform or modernize his (fictional) nation (Jarmakani, “Sheikh”; Holden), or supports him in the face of opposition. Sheikh romances simultaneously draw on and recast stereotypes about racialized Arab/Muslim men. Unlike other violent, backward Arab/Muslim men, the hero rejects despotism, religious extremism, and absolutism. He also rejects passive Muslim women (Teo 14). Unlike the figure more prevalent in “the West’s imaginaire of Islam” of “the Muslim as a frightening adversary, an outside enemy … who, due to an intrinsic alterity, must be excluded from American and European landscapes” (Arjana 2), in liberal feminist-Orientalist desert romances, the sheikh’s transformation at the hands of the white woman renders him acceptable.

Brockmann’s approach differs. Rather than selectively replacing “negative stereotypes” of vaguely Arab/Muslim characters with “exotically upbeat” ones as sheikh romances do (Holden 3), or writing exoticized Muslim-ish characters into military roles as Lindsay McKenna has, Brockmann writes an Arab character who mostly confounds these stereotypes.[7] Troubleshooters storylines treat Arab and Muslim Americans sympathetically while “confirming the dominant narrative … that Muslim terrorists are the enemies of the United States” and “the American military … is justified in waging war on Afghanistan” and elsewhere (Teo 277).

Brockmann never directly confronts the romanticized sheikh. Instead, she displaces the fantasy narrative of racial reconciliation from Arabiastan to America, and flips the script: it is the heroine, not the hero, who undergoes transformation. In the desert novels, with their literal embrace of white women, sheikh heroes metaphorically embrace companionate marriage and liberal feminist projects.[8] The white savior woman is not only their love but also the partner in or catalyst for transforming their societies. In Into the Night and Gone Too Far, on the other hand, it is not the Arab man but the white woman who is transformed, and her society that requires further transformation.[9]

Ihbraham, intermittently exotic and ambivalently American, offers a beta rejoinder to dominant models of heroic masculinity, challenging certain racialized assumptions about Arab/Muslim men. Ihbraham serves as an anti-sheikh without being his terrorist doppelganger. He grew up in California. He lives in a mundane world of family businesses rather than royal politics: a family dispute over an arranged marriage involves a proposed merger with his fiancée’s family’s BMW dealership (TS #5 295, 322-23). He is neither aggressively Westernized nor strictly devout. He resembles neither Harlequin Presents’ wealthy, suave sheikhs nor Brockmann’s larger-than-life and twice as sexy SEALs.

Central to the sheikh genre is its hero: a virile alpha male with money, which symbolizes and grants power (Cohn): “Animalistic yet sensitive, dark and sexy, this desert prince emanates manliness and raw sexual power” (Jarmakani, Imperalist Love Story 1). The sheikh, “largely the descendent of the Byronic hero commingled with the Gothic villain,” has connotations of “irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity” (Teo 160, 1). Arjana notes that “[m]ale Muslim monsters are typically hyper-masculine—aggressive, overly sexual, and violent—characters that also function as tableaux of desire and fantasy” (11). These constructions of monstrous Muslim masculinity resonate with white depictions [End Page 8] of Black men, including but not limited to African Muslims (Arjana). “Muslim monsters,” Arjana (15) writes, “are not just masculine—they are outrageously so, with superhuman sexual powers, an otherworldly kind of strength, and an unfathomable propensity for violence.”[10]

To be desirable, though, a sheikh hero must be more manly than monstrous. In other words, he must be differentiated from his terrorist counterpart. Readers who cannot separate them—like the reader who insists that “my enjoyment of reading romances with Arab hero’s [sic] and harems … came down with the twin towers”—typically reject the subgenre entirely (Teo 191; also Jarmanaki, Imperialist Love Story 13, 134-37). Sheikh romances partly effect this separation between man and monster by effacing religion: Islam, strongly associated with terrorism in many minds, becomes largely incidental. The Harlequin Presents’ sheikh hero will not be “too Muslim.” He observes no religious rituals. He drinks wines with dinner, signaling not just his breach of religious rules but also his elite sensibility. He probably attended Oxford or an Ivy League school. Thus, although “[t]he sheikh in this post-9/11 novel is ethnically Arab”—unlike earlier iterations where he was proven racially European (read: white)—“he is culturally quite Western in his orientation” (Holden 5).

Though religion in no way dominates Brockmann’s discussion of Ihbraham, neither is it simply ignored. Ihbraham abstains from drinking—but as part of a struggle with addiction.[11] This does not mean a complete rejection of Islam: though his parents “chose to embrace the ways of the West and to serve and drink alcohol … yet we observed Ramadan and practiced our faith in other ways” (TS#5 83). He points out the messiness of people’s religious practice, and rejects simple either/or categorizations.

Ihbraham’s hybrid dress style contrasts with sheikh heroes’ desert robes or bespoke suits; he “dressed kind of the way Jesus might dress if He were alive today” (TS# 5 124). His “loose pants,” “leather sandals,” and “worn-out T-shirt” are hybrid garb rather than the robes that symbolize sheikh heroes’ cultural background and masculine potency (Jarmakani, Imperialist Love Story 158; Holden 9; Teo 237). Rather than display professional status or family wealth, his nondescript clothing suits the manual labor he performs. Yet he doesn’t wear that most American of garments: jeans. And, T-shirt notwithstanding, his skin tone and beard enable others to identify him as Arab and Muslim. His physical attributes and grooming as well as his clothes distinguish him from others. Mary Lou reflects on a meeting with Bob: “His blond hair gleamed in the sunshine, his chin was smoothly shaved, and his shirt was crisply white—obviously freshly laundered beneath his well-tailored business suit” (TS #5 231). These descriptions set up repeated contrasts: Ihbraham is dark; Bob is blond. Ihbraham is bearded; Bob is clean-shaven. Bob wears a pristine white shirt and a well-cut suit, while Ihbraham wears a “worn-out T shirt” and “loose pants.” While both men smell good, Ihbraham scent garners additional descriptions: “like fresh-cut grass and some kind of exotic fragrance—sandalwood” (223). Ihbraham’s clothing contrasts also with the “more expensive” suits and “shiny sweat suit” worn by three of his countrymen, who accost him when they are out together, building suspicion about him (277), and with the uniforms SEALs routinely wear.

Ihbraham differs from sheikh heroes not only in having a different class status, as manifest in his clothing and occupation, but also in the desexualized manner in which Brockmann describes him. His appearance is unusual, even appealing, but not lust-inducing. His accent is “lilting” (TS #5 251) and his voice is “musical, gentle” (341).[12] Ihbraham is “so very foreign-looking” and “dark” (TS #5 125), but this exoticism remains mostly divorced [End Page 9] from sizzle or sex appeal. Unlike most sheikh romances, where if either partner is sexually inexperienced or hesitant it will be the (white) woman (Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story 163), Ihbraham is chaste. Though he is attracted to Mary Lou, apart from one “meltingly lovely” kiss in which he proves himself “gentle but in complete command” (TS #5 341), they do not become physically involved in Into the Night. Indeed, Ihbraham’s restraint affects Mary Lou’s modus operandi. The former bar bunny blushes when he complements her beauty. Though “there was nothing remotely … salacious in his eyes, and yet she’d never felt so completely overwhelmed before just from gazing back at a man” (252, emphasis in original). When talking with Ihbraham about accepting a dinner invitation from Bob, she ponders “what it would feel like to kiss a man with a beard like Ihbraham’s. What would it be like to make love to a man with such warm, all-seeing, yet gentle eyes?” And then she chastises herself: “Not that that would ever happen” (252, emphasis in original). Mary Lou later reflects that she “would have [cheated] if he’d have let me. I was that desperate” (TS #6 148). Ihbraham only refers obliquely to his desire for her; when they are committed at the end of Gone Too Far, he still speaks of spending the night together only via “innuendo.” He accompanies it with a sort of marriage proposal, giving Mary Lou the option to defer “our first night together until after we’re married” (476). He does not, however, insist on waiting, although their intimacy remains off-page.

Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s developing relationship provides numerous chances for them to (mis)communicate about gender, race, and double-standards. With their exchanges, Brockmann depicts an America that fails to meet its lofty ideals of racial or sexual equality. In “characterizing inequality as an Oriental practice that should not exist in the West” (Teo 267), Mary Lou occasionally critiques sexist practices and assumptions by figuring them as un-American (e.g., TS #5 374-76). In such conversations, she displays what Joyce Zonana calls “feminist orientalism,” strategies that “figur[e] objectionable aspects of life in the West as ‘Eastern’” to “define their project as the removal of Eastern elements from Western life” (Zonana, quoted in Teo 232). Yet when Mary Lou talks to Ihbraham about how things are “here” in America as opposed to over there, readers should understand that she is not entirely reliable.

Mary Lou is not only an unreliable analyst of gender politics but also a failed feminist: she tried (and failed) to woo Sam by making herself submissive, compliant, and domestically perfect (TS #5 104-106, 319-21). According to Jarmakani, sheikh novels reject the Arab woman who makes herself small and subordinates her opinions, personhood, and desires to make herself agreeable (Imperialist Romance 80-82, 112-115). In Into The Night, this stereotype is displaced onto a white woman. Interestingly, both Ihbraham (TS #5 336-38) and Sam (321-22) agree that a loveless marriage for the sake of security is an unacceptable way for a woman to live. In being or becoming (again) herself, refusing to continue acting like a doormat, Mary Lou reminds Sam of her positive qualities—even as she leaves him. Mary Lou’s internalized sexism is subtly interwoven with her stereotypical ideas about Muslim gender norms. However, rather than make this realization or a recovery from retrograde gender norms the centerpiece of Mary Lou’s character arc, Brockmann prioritizes Mary Lou’s awareness of her own racist assumptions about non-white men, and fear of public opinion about her involvement in an interracial relationship. She must overcome both to have a successful relationship with Ihbraham. [End Page 10]


Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s relationship illustrates a key concern of Brockmann’s oeuvre: the ugliness and harmful effects of stereotypes and the possibility of moving past them. Like Brockmann’s other series, Troubleshooters has a somewhat diverse cast of characters. To a greater extent than most white authors, Brockmann explicitly acknowledges and connects racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Prejudice plays a role in many of her novels. Harvard’s Education (TDD #5) features an African-American hero and heroine and draws crucial parallels between racist bigotry and sexism. The hero, acutely aware of racism (148-50), is offended when the heroine describes him as a bigot for holding sexist ideas (61). In Troubleshooters, racism and sexism play significant roles as does anti-gay prejudice. Gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy, Alyssa’s partner until she resigns to join Troubleshooters, often remarks on the negative impact of stereotypes. His character arc is the prime, although not the only, place that characters confront stereotypes and assumptions about gay people.[13]

Sam is central to discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia and the parallels among them. Alyssa thinks he’s racist (she’s wrong, as she will eventually learn in Gone Too Far), sexist (she’s not entirely wrong), and homophobic (he starts out that way, but he changes, as he gets to know Jules). In one encounter, Sam complains to Jules that Alyssa’s “expectations” of him get in the way: “She thinks I’m some rednecked asshole … She thinks she knows me, but she doesn’t have a clue. She’s prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected me. How the fuck do you fight that?” Jules replies, “Well, gee, I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.” Sam realizes that, “As a gay man, Jules had spent most of his life prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected by most of society,” including Sam himself (TS #3 309-10, emphasis in original). Sam’s embeddedness in interracial relationships—romance, friendship, and family—is where the Troubleshooters books most engage the questions of race.

Interracial relationships figure in several Brockmann novels, often merely incidentally.[14] In Into the Night and Gone Too Far, however, the interracial dimensions of romantic relationships pose a crucial barrier (Regis 2003) to successful romantic resolutions, whether because of individual prejudice or broader societal racism. In Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s secondary romance, in the ultimate resolution of Sam and Alyssa’s romance, and in the historical WWII plotline interwoven in the latter novel, interracial elements dominate. Unlike in Into the Night, where the primary romance and the WWII subplot feature white couples, of the four engagements/marriages that take place in Gone Too Far, only one is a mono-racial couple: Kelly Ashton and Tom Paoletti, both white, whose perfunctory wedding follows a protracted engagement. Overcoming stereotypes, which pose one barrier to successful interracial relationships, is crucial to the story arc of Into the Night and Gone Too Far, and confronting—however incompletely—her own racism is a “redeeming” character development for Mary Lou (Leapheart).

Into the Night focuses on racial profiling of Arabs; in Gone Too Far, anti-Muslim/anti-Arab bigotry remains a concern (e.g., TS #6 148-49) but it cedes thematic centrality to anti-black racism. The thematic shift in Gone Too Far to anti-black racism suggests new questions about racial identity and categorization in Into the Night – especially as they are gendered and linked to reproduction. Where British romances from the early twentieth century were particularly preoccupied by miscegenation, the hybrid progeny resultant from the union of [End Page 11] Arab male and white female (Teo), in the US context as a whole, anti-blackness has been the central structuring principle of racially-based legal discrimination. Of course, the two are not easily separated. When Mary first kisses Ihbraham she thinks about the fact that anyone could see her kissing someone “black. Or brown. Certainly non-white” (TS #5 341).

Mary Lou mostly thinks about race in black and white terms. If “the specter of the silent and oppressed Arabiastani woman haunts the [sheikh] novel as a compelling absent presence” (Jarmakani, Imperialist Love Story, 113), in Troubleshooters the other woman who haunts Mary Lou’s floundering marriage is black. Her statement that “Alyssa’s black” (TS #5 338) is not precisely wrong; Alyssa sometimes describes herself as a “black woman” though she has mixed heritage (TS #3 47). When Mary Lou thinks of Sam and Alyssa having children, Mary Lou imagines their future son would be black, and that it would be difficult for Sam, as a white man, to raise a black child (TS #5 141, 339).[15] Without disagreeing with Mary Lou’s statement that “It’s way harder for a young black man to succeed in America than a young white man,” Ihbraham calmly confronts her with the genocidal logic of her thinking: “So should all non-white men and women in America therefore stop having children simply because life will be harder for them than it will be for your white children?” (TS #5 339). Much later, when she tells Ihbraham she loves him, he reminds her that she had worried about the well-being of dark-skinned children in a world that disadvantages them and warns that, “My sons may have skin as dark as mine” (TS #5 427). She acknowledges the potential difficulties, but affirms that she’s no longer looking for life to be easy. (Interestingly, both scenarios imagine sons rather than daughters, focusing on discrimination toward men and boys of color and ignoring girls and women of color.)

Over the course of these novels, Mary Lou shifts from working to maintain her fantasy American dream of marriage to a heroic (white) SEAL to being in love with and wanting to build a life with a dark-skinned Arab-American man – despite having once been so strongly opposed to interracial relationships that she’d have refused to marry “Jesus himself” if he came “down from heaven” but “didn’t have the same skin color she had”[16] (141). Despite such acknowledgments of her racism, Into the Night framed the problem with her marriage to Sam as her inability to accept Sam’s full humanity, including his ambivalence about deploying violence. In Gone Too Far, however, readers learn that her racism posed the most significant obstacle to marital harmony. Sam explains to Alyssa that it was when he learned Mary Lou was a racist that he abandoned any attempt to save their marriage: “It made her completely unattractive to me. … I couldn’t get past it. … That was when our marriage ended” (TS #6 366, emphasis in original). Her racism not only posed an obstacle to a liaison with Ihbraham, it had kept her from happiness with a white man.

Three interracial relationships structure Gone Too Far. First is that between Mary Lou and Ihbraham. Although they are apart for most of the novel, the question arises of how Mary Lou might have become involved with a terrorist. As Sam, Alyssa, and the FBI search for her, they consider various possibilities. An extramarital affair seems the most likely explanation for her (unwitting) involvement in the terrorist plot, but Sam cannot believe that she is romantically or sexually involved with Ihbraham. He cannot imagine that she is having sex with “an Arab-American with very dark skin” (TS #6 339) or indeed any “man who wasn’t Wonder Bread white” (340). Eventually, as those searching for the terrorist consider the he may not be Arab, Sam comes to wonder if “Rahman’s not the tango? What if it’s … a white guy, right, so Mary Lou’s okay sleeping with him[?]” (368) Though Sam is unaware, readers know that Mary Lou has slept with neither Ihbraham nor the white terrorist, has gotten past [End Page 12] her aversion to dark skin and her fears of being judged by others for being involved with a non-white man and of having biracial children (TS #5 395, 427).

In the other two relationship plots, which eventually intersect, race and racism play essential roles. In the primary romance storyline, between Sam and Alyssa, a black woman’s knowledge about a white man’s perspectives on race proves essential to her coming to know and trust him. Early in the novel, Alyssa declares, “Sam Starrett was full of surprises, not the least of them being that his best friend from his childhood was black” (TS #6 59). The World War II plot line involves a marriage between a former Tuskegee Airman and a white woman. This woman turns out to be Sam’s aunt Dot, his abusive, racist father’s sister. Her husband Walt serves as a surrogate father to Sam. The childhood friend is actually Sam’s first cousin once removed, Walt and Dot’s grandchild. Alyssa eventually realizes that the cousins resemble each other: “God, Sam, he even looks like you.” Sam agrees, pointing out that “most people can’t see past the different skin tones” (TS #6 286, emphasis in original).

Brockmann here presents skin color as a superficial marker that can disguise underlying similarities or affinities. Perceiving beyond surface appearances is necessary for real knowledge, and real knowledge is necessary for true relationships (Frantz, “I’ve tried my entire life”). In this story arc, interracial relationships require people to dig deeper, overcoming first impressions and socially-generated assumptions, whether positive or negative.

Alyssa, who is open minded about racial difference, must move past what she thinks she knows about Sam to make a relationship work. She stereotypes Sam from their contentious first meeting where she decides he is a “redneck asshole” (TS #1 285). She must reject her original, erroneous view of him before she and Sam can pair up successfully. Mary Lou was unable to get past a fixed notion of the unflinchingly patriotic soldier hero to love Sam as a person with foibles and flaws. Yet she overcomes dehumanizing stereotypes of violent, fanatical, monstrous Muslim men (Arjana, Lyons) to know, accept, and love Ihbraham as an individual. If Into the Night’s lesson is that racial profiling makes Americans less safe, the moral of Gone Too Far might be summed up as: racists don’t deserve happily-ever-afters. And if stereotypes are perilous for national security, the greater danger, Brockmann seems to suggest, is that they prevent real and lasting love.


Romance novels set stories of individual transformation within larger social structures to which they may pay more or less attention as author perspective and subgenre convention dictate. Contemporary novels, including those with suspense storylines, reflect on and engage with ongoing political and social controversies as well as established institutions and norms. In the case of the Troubleshooter novels, one major context is American military and intelligence involvement with the Middle East/Muslim terrorism; another is prejudice and discrimination in American society. Brockmann is less critical about the former than the latter. She does raise questions of moral injury to American soldiers and acknowledges the undeserved suffering of Middle Eastern/Muslim civilians harmed by American attacks. However, she largely accepts the basic framing of the War on Terror and American militarism. She more directly criticizes mainstream racial, religious, and sexual- [End Page 13] orientation-based bias and discrimination within the United States. In addition to characters who confront and unlearn their own prejudices, as Mary Lou does, sympathetic (gay, female, and/or non-white) characters confront others’ biases, often individual and sometimes institutional (e.g., Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the rule barring women from SEAL teams). Brockmann’s portrayal of Ihbraham subverts both contemporary American anti-Muslim discourse and romance genre norms.

Brockmann simultaneously deploys and undercuts stereotypes, holding difference and sameness in tension. In addition to depicting white men who confound assumptions that Southerners will be racist or soldiers will be homophobic, she individualizes and humanizes members of marginalized groups. Amy Burge has argued that Orientalist “romance manipulates its hybrid representations of religious and ethnic difference in order to create successful romantic unions” (7). She finds that “medieval and modern romance[s] require a flattening of difference—and elision of strangeness—rather than an embracing of otherness” (180-81). Brockmann, whose novels draw from and also subvert Orientalist topoi and narrative structures, values difference in part for its instrumental value. Despite the persistence of racist, sexist, and homophobic social structures, her heroes and heroines establish connections with others—family, friends, and lovers—across difference. As Ihbraham and Mary Lou agree, radical transformation of unjust realities will be a long time coming. In the meantime, there is love.

[1] Drawing on the no longer operational “Sheikhs and Desert Love” website, Amira Jarmakani (An Imperialist Love Story, ix) notes that there were 100 sheikh romances when she began her research in 2008, a number which “ballooned to 267” during her writing. Amy Burge’s study of Harlequin Mills & Boon shows a significant rise in the prominence of the subgenre between 2000 and 2009 in one publisher’s output (29). An imprecise measurement shows additional growth: an April 2017 search of Amazon’s “Books” category for “sheikh romance” returned 1490 results; the keyword “sheikh” alone yielded 4233 results. Even if inadvertent duplicates, self-published titles, and non-romance items are included in those counts, a figure closer to 1,000 would still represents an astonishing increase in commercially-published sheikh romances in a relatively short period.

[2] This framing ignores the numerous Muslims who have served in the American armed forces (cf. Curtis). Also note the military romances discussed below with heroes and/or heroines from Muslim backgrounds.

[3] Burge distinguishes among sheikh, pseudo-sheikh, and desert romance in her analysis of Orientalist romances (31-2). In some Troubleshooters novels, Kazbekistan functions, as in desert romances, as the “romance East” (14) backdrop against which American heroes and heroines have adventures and fall in love.

[4] The pair meet in TS #1, have an “explosive sexual encounter” (Frantz, “Suzanne Brockmann” 11) in TS #2, and seem to begin a promising relationship in TS #3, which is curtailed by Sam’s involvement with Mary Lou. Echoes of the relationship resonate, if only in dreams and Mary Lou’s jealousy, in the next two novels (e.g., TS #4 259-61). Sarah S. G. Frantz [Lyons] provides a compelling account of this arc in “I’ve tried my entire life.”

[5] Gone Too Far gives slightly more backstory: from a young age he had a Saudi stepfather, and spent time in the Middle East as a young man; he left Harvard and did a jihadi version of the “Grand Tour” (TS #6 496). If the sheikh’s journey is from Arabiastan to the Ivies, as explored below, “Bob” does the journey in reverse. [End Page 14]

[6] Ihbraham does not become a point-of-view character in Gone Too Far either (“Readers’ Guide” 8).

[7] Since the 1980s, Lindsay McKenna has written scores of romances featuring military protagonists. McKenna’s Taking Fire (2015) features a half-Afghan black-ops Marine sniper “shadow warrior” heroine and a half-Saudi Navy SEAL hero. Although both have “devout” Muslim fathers (330-31), neither main character is observant. Both drink alcohol (133) and eat pork (240). The heroine proclaims herself “spiritual, not religious” (331). Heroine Khatereh “Khat” Shinwari tells the hero, Michael Tarik: “You are an ancient warrior who has stepped into today’s world, in my eyes. You have the heart, the morals and values of the finest of the old guard Middle Eastern caliphs and chieftains of so long ago” (368).

[8] Teo goes so far as to claim that, “The modern sheik novel is nothing if not a vehicle for liberal feminist concerns” (267).

[9] Teo suggests that “the sheik romance (perhaps more so than most other romantic subgenres) is about the white heroine’s empowerment in a variety of ways: sexually, emotionally, financially, and socially” (281). Erin Young remarks on the transformation of heroines (206), but it is their Asian-ness that is transformed by the hero’s whiteness/Americanness. Here, Mary Lou’s racist whiteness must be transformed so that America can become what it ought to be.

[10] Arab-Muslim literature also contains tropes of dangerous black sexuality (Malti-Douglas 1991). Such (racialized) monsters are increasingly familiar in paranormal romances, which features possessive and violent alien, vampire, and shape-shifting heroes.

[11] Another Muslim-ish hero struggling with alcoholism is the half-Italian, half-Iranian Reza Iaconelli from All For You (2014), in Jessica Scott’s “Coming Home” series, which highlights war’s effects on active-duty soldiers and military families. Islam is never mentioned, only ethnicity. A fellow soldier harasses him: “I know that like half of them are your cousins and all but I really fucking hate Iraq.” He responds, “My mom was Iranian, shithead. Not every brown guy from the Middle East is an Arab” (145). Despite this blithe dismissal, Reza later admits to the heroine, Emily: “Let’s just say that there are some members of my family who wanted me to think long and hard about fighting a war against our people.” This sense of religio-ethnic loyalty is not merely an Arab/Persian/Middle Eastern characteristic: it is his father who, by having “married a non-Catholic Persian woman” became “the apostate of the family” (232).

[12] Stereotypes are both powerful and malleable. What is charmingly exotic at one moment can be merely unintelligible, or even strange and threatening, the next. Writing about cinema, Arjana notes that “[t]he language of normative humanity is English; the language of the Other, the foreigner, and the monster is babble” (152). Mary Lou refers to Ihbraham’s spoken language as “gibberish,” “strange language,” and “babbling” (TS #5 277, 278). After Mary Lou and Ihbraham become involved, his speech becomes more intelligible; where previously she “couldn’t understand” (278), now she gets the gist without knowing the words: “She’d never heard Ihbraham curse before, and she wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him curse now, because whatever he said it wasn’t in English. She suspected, though, that it was the Arabic version of holy shit” (TS #6 459, emphasis in original). His accent becomes “musical, faintly British” (458).

[13] All Through the Night, in which Jules weds his partner, was the first romance from a major publisher to feature two heroes. (On Brockmann’s treatment of this character, [End Page 15] consult Kamblé, Making Meaning, 124-27, 128-29.) Homophobia and assumptions also play key roles in TS #8, Hot Target, which Brockmann dedicates to her gay son.

[14] In Taylor’s Temptation (TDD #10), the hero is part Native American, and the heroine Irish-American, but their ethnic differences, treated in a brief meta-commentary (421), pose no obstacle to a relationship. In the Troubleshooters universe, what impedes a relationship between Max Bhagat, who has one Indian grandparent, and Italian-American Gina Vitagliano is not ethnic difference but a two-decade age difference as well as a traumatic past incident (their story is resolved in TS #10). In Vinh Murphy and Hannah Whitfield’s relationship (TS #13), neither their racial differences—she is white, he is mixed-race (TS #7 41-42)—nor her deafness hinders their union; instead, Vinh still grieves the murder of his wife, who was Hannah’s best friend.

[15] In the first Troubleshooters book, Joe Paoletti’s sister says, when her daughter Mallory gets involved with an Asian-American (David Sullivan, who is adopted), that her “babies would have slanted eyes” (TS #1 348-9). Similar themes emerge from an African-American perspective (Foster); Erin Young analyzes one novel’s treatment of undesirable mixing from an Asian perspective (213).

[16] This reference early on to Mary Lou’s (impossible) marriage to Jesus alongside occasional references to Ihbraham as Jesus-like in his dress and calm, desexualized in his manner suggests the possibility of reading his character as a Christ figure. [End Page 16]


Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard UP, 2014.

Ali, Kecia. The Lives of Muhammad. Harvard UP, 2014.

Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. 2nd ed., Oneworld Publications, 2016.

Arjana, Sophia Rose. Muslims in the Western Imagination. Oxford UP, 2015.

Brockmann, Suzanne. The Unsung Hero. Ivy Books, 2000. Troubleshooters #1.    

Brockmann, Suzanne. The Defiant Hero. Ivy Books, 2001. Troubleshooters #2.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Over the Edge. Ivy Books, 2001. Troubleshooters #3.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Into the Night. Ballantine, 2002. Troubleshooters #5.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Gone Too Far. Ballantine 2003. Troubleshooters #6.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Flashpoint. Ballantine, 2004. Troubleshooters #7.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Hot Target. Ballantine, 2005. Troubleshooters #8.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Breaking Point. 2005. Ballantine, 2006. Troubleshooters #10.

Brockmann, Suzanne. All Through the Night. Ballantine, 2007. Troubleshooters #12.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Into the Fire. 2008. Ballantine, 2009. Troubleshooters #13.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Harvard’s Education. Mira, 1998. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous #5.

Brockmann, Suzanne. The Admiral’s Bride. Mira, 1999. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous # 7.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Taylor’s Temptation. 2000. Republished in Tall, Dark, and Deadly. Harlequin, 2001. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous #10.

­­­Brockmann, Suzanne. “Reader’s Guide to the Troubleshooter Series.” Ballantine, 2006, Accessed July 18, 2017.

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Center for American Progress (Wajahat Ali et. al.). “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” Center for American Progress, 26 August 2011, Accessed July 18, 2017.

Center for American Progress (Matthew Duss et. al.) “Fear, Inc. 2.0: The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America.” Center for American Progress, February 2015, Accessed July 18, 2017.

Chelton, Mary K. “Readers’ Advisory: There Seem to be More SEALs in Romance Fiction than in the US Navy, and if so, Why Does it Matter?” Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 1, 2015, pp. 21-24.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Duke UP, 1988.

Curtis, Edward. Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service. Indiana UP, 2016.

Foster, Guy Mark. “How Dare a Black Woman Make Love to a White Man.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels, edited by Sally Goade, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007, pp. 103-27.

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Frantz, Sarah S. G., “‘I’ve tried my entire life to be a good man’: Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett, Ideal Romance Hero.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz, Katharina Rennhak, and Sarah Ailwood, Lexington, 2009, pp. 200-218.

Frantz, Sarah S. G. “Suzanne Brockmann.” Special issue of Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, vol. 2, no. 2-3, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 1-19,

Holden, Stacy E. “Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, August 2015, pp. 1-19,

Jarmakani, Amira. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror. New York UP, 2015.

Jarmakani, Amira. “‘The Sheik Who Loved Me’: Romancing the War on Terror.” Signs, vol. 35, no 4, 2010, pp. 993-1017.

Kamblé, Jayashree. “Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger, McFarland, 2012, pp. 153-163.

Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Leapheart, Nicole. “The Best Kind of Trouble: The Top Books in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter Series.” Heroes and Heartbreakers, 17 December 2014, Accessed 21 June 2016.

Lyons, Jonathan. Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. Columbia UP, 2012.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton UP, 1991.McKenna, Lindsay. Taking Fire. Harlequin, 2015.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana UP, 2016.

Scott, Jessica. All For You. Hachette, 2014.

Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. 3rd ed., Olive Branch Press, 2009.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. U of Texas P, 2012.

Young, Erin S. “Saving China: The Transformative Power of Whiteness in Elizabeth Lowell’s Jade Island and Katherine Stone’s Pearl Moon.” Romance Fiction and American Popular Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, Routledge, 2016, pp. 205-211.

[End Page 18]


Marble Under a Strange Spell: St. John Rivers’ “Long-Cherished Scheme” to Wed Jane Eyre
by Michelle Thurlow

Though long since promoted to that lofty category “literature,” Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre nevertheless holds pride of place in any genealogy of the romance novel (Osland 85). Authoritative surveys of the romance novel’s development such as Pamela Regis’s Natural History of the Romance Novel (85-91) and Kristin Ramsdell’s Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (7) acknowledge the artistic debt modern romance writers owe to pioneers such as Brontë, as do many of these popular romance novelists themselves (Barlow and Krentz 22; Clair 66). Indeed, written at a time when the romance novel “was all but synonymous with the English novel” (Regis 16), Jane Eyre is considered a “mother-text” (Frith 172) of the genre. As such, the heart of this masterpiece’s narrative is a love story – a love story between the orphan protagonist Jane and her Byronic employer, Edward Fairfax [End Page 1] Rochester, a character who will go on to become the prototype and “ancestor of all contemporary romance heroes” (Cohn 51).

The barriers to this courtship are myriad, even by the byzantine standards of the Victorian novel. Obstacles to the union range from the social (differences in status between the hero and heroine, an age gap, Jane’s position in Rochester’s household as governess), to the geographical (Jane’s flight to Morton after Rochester tries to make her his mistress, Rochester’s removal to Ferndean after the fire at Thornfield), to the introduction of several false heroines and heroes into the courtship. In the case of Rochester, this includes a “stage managed” (Regis 87) pursuit of the haughty and arrogant Blanche Ingram intended to make Jane jealous, as well as an all-too-real marriage to mentally ill first wife Bertha Mason intended to be hidden from Jane.

Notwithstanding her self-deprecating remarks about her lack of good looks, Jane too receives attention from a false hero, her frigid clergyman cousin St. John Rivers, whose pursuit contributes to the barrier between the main characters. Traditionally, critics have seen the brooding young pastor’s singular function in the novel as foil and stock rival to the true hero Mr. Rochester. Whereas the latter is supposed to represent passion, Rivers is said to embody Rochester’s antithesis – reason (Blom 99). Or, if one likes, would-be bigamist Rochester offers Jane love without marriage, while St. John apparently proposes a marriage without love, intending to make Jane the submissive drudge of his convenience in India (Martin 88). Perhaps Jan Cohn gives the best explication of the differences between Jane’s officious suitors in the following observation:

Where Rochester is dark, St. John is fair. Rochester is nearing forty; St. John is not yet thirty. Rochester is sexually experienced; St. John virginal. Rochester is moody, passionate, capable of cruelty; St. John is emotionally controlled, incapable of violence. And whereas Jane must struggle to establish equality between herself and Rochester, she does not doubt that she is the equal of St. John Rivers. (54)

Conventional belief has it that Brontë invites her readers to interpret Jane’s admirers as opposing doubles (much like Jane and Bertha), with Rochester being the one who actually wants and loves Jane. Yet drawing such an inference poses a new difficulty in that it does not satisfactorily explain why an intelligent man like St. John would desire Jane to go to India with him as his wife if he had such violently romantic feelings for another woman, the majestic Rosamond Oliver. Why not allow Jane to remain single while serving in India with him, or why bother to involve his platonic friend in these missionary projects at all?

However, his vigorous, confident pursuit of Jane becomes more plausible if, as John Sutherland hints, St. John actually loves Jane “in his cool way” (328). If readers dismiss the possibility of St. John’s desire for a companionate marriage with Jane merely because she lacks the beauty of a Rosamond Oliver, then it is only fair to question equally Rochester’s passion for Brontë’s protagonist, as Rochester appears more shallow in his sexual proclivities than does St. John. Moreover, it would be an understatement to suggest that the claustrophobic Rivers is repressed psychologically and lacks the capability of speaking about his emotions with much honesty. If what Sutherland says of St. John’s interest in Jane is true, St. John may not even be aware of the depth of his true feelings for her. [End Page 2]

I do not wish to contradict the interpretation that St. John Rivers is Rochester’s foil, as both men do offer Jane a clear choice between radically different and symbolic life partners. But I also think that Rivers is a more complex creation than he is traditionally made out to be. Since the critical consensus is that his character is the amalgamation of traits Brontë perceived in two actual men, the Revs. Henry Martyn (1781-1812), a famous English missionary to India and college contemporary of Charlotte’s father Patrick, and Charlotte’s former suitor Henry Nussey (1812-60), perhaps this blending of prototypes accounts for some of St. John’s complexity. With this idea in mind, I wish to focus specifically on Henry Nussey’s possible contribution to the composition of Rivers’ character, as Henry was known to Charlotte personally and was the main biographical inspiration for the St. John character. I believe a careful analysis of Henry’s two-year correspondence with Charlotte, which significantly commenced only after she declined his marriage proposal, reveals that his regard for her was less dispassionate than he perhaps led her to believe. If this interpretation is correct, I think it also reasonable to infer that Brontë might have delineated Nussey’s fictional counterpart St. John, even unconsciously, with a similarly genuine romantic interest in Jane too.

Henry Nussey: The Inspiration for St. John Rivers

The Rev. Henry Nussey was one of many siblings to Brontë’s lifelong friend Ellen Nussey (1817-97), with whom Brontë first became acquainted at the Miss Woolers’ School, Roe Head, near Huddersfield in 1831. Ellen’s deceased father John had made his fortune as a cloth merchant, and his well-connected widow Ellen lived, at the time of Brontë’s meeting the younger Ellen, in a grand country estate called Rydings, near Birstall (fictionalized in Jane Eyre as Thornfield Hall). Brontë visited the posh Rydings for the first time in 1832 and surely met Ellen’s brother Henry while staying there. Henry began attending Magdalene College, Cambridge, early that year on scholarship, with the ultimate goal of entering the ministry after earning his BA in 1835. While an undergraduate at Cambridge, he became acquainted with Patrick Brontë’s favorite preacher, Rev. Charles Simeon, who was a leading figure in the Anglican Church’s evangelical movement at that time. Henry also reports with alacrity joining a weekly Bible study hosted by a clique of “religious men, who may meet at each others rooms on a Saturday Even[in]g for spiritual edification & improvement by praise prayer & at present Study of the Scriptures” (Henry Nussey Diary f. 21r).

Despite a zeal worthy of St. John Rivers, Henry seems to have had a rather checkered, short-lived career in the pulpit. Margaret Smith reports that Henry’s clerical legacy was “marred by dissension over the setting up of a school [at Hathersage], by other disputes with his parishioners, and by his own ill health” (131). He eventually retired to the Continent in July 1847 with his wife Emily after only twelve years in ministry, hoping to convalesce to the point of being able to preach again, though his health never did fully improve.

Like St. John Rivers, Henry was an adventurer and missionary at heart, aligning himself with missionary movements and participating in their fundraising efforts even before he set off for Cambridge in 1832. One diary entry recounting a Birstall missionary meeting Henry attended in June 1830 hints at his deepening commitment to a missionary vocation: [End Page 3]

I shall be called to the Ministry, & should it be the Lord’s Will, I would for Christ’s sake gladly be called to be a Missionary; if I could in any degree be an instrument in God’s hands, of promot[in]g the salvation of mankind. (f. 2v)

Sadly, Henry fell off a horse and hurt his head some time during his six-month curacy at Birstall, resulting in an injury that caused him considerable discomfort for the rest of his life. The concussion appears to have affected both his nerves and public speaking abilities, effectively putting an end to any missionary dreams. Additionally, his injury-related oratory problems could have been one of the reasons his third vicar, the Rev. Charles Lutwidge of Burton Agnes (Yorkshire), asked Henry to relinquish the curacy “on acc[oun]t of the inadequacy of my powers to fulfil its duties” (HND f. 36r).

Not one to accept defeat easily, Henry procured his fourth curacy at Donnington and Earnley, Sussex, in December 1838. Deeming it high time he settled down and found a wife, the “perfectly eligible” (Barker 352) Henry, perhaps perplexingly, wrote two letters in February 1839 proposing marriage to Margaret Anne Lutwidge (1809-69), the sister of the vicar who had just fired him, Charles Henry Lutwidge. Henry identifies the young Miss “M. A. L.” in his diary as a “sedate, intelligent sensible & I trust, good girl” (f. 45r) whose “soundness of judgment & . . . staidness of character, w[it]h a possession of [Christian] charity” (f. 31v) he deemed ideal virtues to be found in a clergyman’s helpmeet. Henry journals his reaction to Margaret’s second refusal as follows:

On Tuesday last received a decisive reply f[ro]m M. A. L’s papa. A loss, but I trust a providential one. Believe not her will, but her father’s. All right. God knows best what is good for us, for his Church, & for his own Glory. This I humbly desire. And his Will be done, & not mine in this or in anything else. Evermore give me this Sp[iri]t of my Lord & Master! Wrote to a York[shire] Friend, C. B., Brothers John & George also. (f. 62r)

Henry did, doubtless with the nudging of his sister Ellen, write promptly to Charlotte Brontë on 1 March 1839 proposing that they become yoked together in wedlock, as he so chronicled in the above journal extract. Although Henry’s unexpected and matter-of-fact marriage proposal came out of the blue to Charlotte, and its unromantic pragmatism amuses many twenty-first century readers, John Maynard holds that such sudden proposals would have seemed less of an unheard-of innovation among the Victorians (16). Indeed, within a few months of Henry Nussey’s proposal, another man, an Irish parson by the name of David Pryce, sought Charlotte’s hand in marriage after meeting her for only one evening.

As Henry’s missive to Charlotte no longer exists, scholars must rely on Brontë’s own reply to guess at the kind of offer of marriage the young pastor made to her. There is little doubt that Henry was the complete opposite of the imaginary heartthrob of Brontë’s juvenilia, the Duke of Zamorna, though Clement Shorter seems to think Henry found Charlotte “singularly fascinating” (293). In a famous letter dated 5 March 1839, Charlotte half-heartedly softens the blow of her rejection by giving Henry the Victorian equivalent of the “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” line: [End Page 4]

It has always been my habit to study the characters of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original – her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. (qtd. in Smith 185)

She then goes on to warn the twenty-seven-year-old curate of her own church that he does

not know me, I am not the serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose – you would think me romantic and eccentric – you would say I was satirical and severe – however I scorn deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy. (qtd. in Smith 185)

Understandably, Henry formed a misguided impression of Brontë during her extended visits to Rydings and clearly mistook the painfully shy public Charlotte for the private woman. Critics often cite Henry’s diary entry upon receiving Brontë’s demurral as evidence of his lack of esteem for her: “Received an unfavorable report f[ro]m C. B. The Will of the Lord be done” (f. 64v), though his stoical response could just as easily be explained by Nussey’s pious Calvinism.

More importantly, her letters to Ellen Nussey insinuate that the real reason Charlotte turned down such a handsome, educated man like Henry is that her instinct warned of his controlling nature. In a message to Ellen dated 12 March 1839, Charlotte confesses candidly,

Moreover I was aware that Henry knew so little of me he could hardly be conscious to whom he was writing – why it would startle him to see me in my natural home-character he would think I was a wild, romantic enthusiast indeed – I could not sit all day long making a grave face before my husband – I would laugh and satirize and say whatever came into my head first . . . (qtd. in Smith 187)

Here, Brontë may be implying that Henry would be apt to criticize and scold her if he saw her in her own element (and especially if he read her scandalous Verdopolitan sagas about the Duke of Zamorna and his bevy of slavish mistresses). Additionally, Charlotte’s ensuing correspondence with Henry demonstrates that she sometimes worried about shocking him with her tempestuous thoughts and meriting what St. John Rivers might call “severe reproof” (JE 368). In October 1839, Charlotte refrains from gushing in a letter to Henry about her and Ellen’s recent seaside holiday, lest “I should fall into my besetting sin of enthusiasm” (qtd. in Smith 204) and unsettle Henry with her effusions over the pretty beach scene. Also, while working as governess for John and Jane White in Rawdon in May 1841, Brontë hastily explains why she is writing a letter to Henry on the Sabbath:

You will perhaps think this hardly right and yet I do not feel that I am doing wrong – Sunday evening is almost my only time of leisure, no one would blame [End Page 5] me if I were to spend this spare hour in a pleasant chat with a friend, is it worse to spend it in writing a friendly letter? (qtd. in Smith 255)

Lacking the bantering tone characteristic of her usual correspondence, the above letter comes off as defensive and humorless.

Though modern critics do justifiably laugh off Henry’s brainstorming efforts to find a wife as a “spring chicken pecking about the yard for a suitable and palatable grain” (Raymond 109), Henry did press Brontë to keep up a one-sidedly flirtatious correspondence with him after she declined his proposal in March 1835. It may surprise those who would dismiss Henry Nussey as an unfeeling prig that he often broaches topics involving matters of the heart in these billets. Perhaps this exchange of at least five letters with Henry over the course of two years indicates that he “remained rather fascinated by Charlotte” (Fraser 121) and hoped she would reconsider her rebuff of his hand.

Perhaps realizing that Brontë was more susceptible to romance and honeyed words than she had initially let on, Henry tried a new tack and endeavored to engage Charlotte’s obvious intellectual abilities, hoping to commence a “literary” correspondence with her. In a letter dated 26 May 1840, Charlotte communicates a “polite and patronizing” (Spark 19) answer to Henry’s request that she humor him with a discussion of bookish topics such as science and language:

You must not again ask me to write in a regular literary way to you on some particular topic – I cannot do it at all – do you think I am a Blue-stocking? I feel half-inclined to laugh at you for the idea, but perhaps you would be angry what was the topic to be – Chemistry? or Astronomy? or Mechanics? or Chonchology [sic] or Entomology or what other ology? I know nothing at all about any of these – I am not scientific, I am not a Linguist – you think me far more learned than I am – If I told you all my Ignorance I am afraid you would be shocked – however as I wish still to retain a little corner in your good opinion I will hold my tongue. (qtd. in Smith 220)

In the end, Charlotte’s languid tone did not have the desired effect of throwing cold water on his attempts to draw her out, as Henry subsequently offered to send her some poetry and asked for her own rhymes in return. Although Charlotte tells him in a letter dated 11 January 1841 that she would enjoy receiving some of his lines, he should not expect her to reciprocate the favor:

I shall be glad to receive the poetry which you offer to send me – you ask me to return the gift in kind – How do you know that I have it in my power to comply with that request? Once indeed I was very poetical, when I was sixteen, seventeen eighteen and nineteen years old – but I am now twenty-four approaching twenty-five – and the intermediate years are those which begin to rob life of some of its superfluous colouring. At this age it is time that the imagination should be pruned and trimmed – that the judgment should be cultivated – and a few at least, of the countless illusions of early youth should be cleared away. I have not written poetry for a long while. (qtd. in Smith 245) [End Page 6]

Brontë’s laughably disingenuous denunciation of verse reminds the reader of Rev. Philip Elton’s (from Jane Austen’s Emma) refusal to dance with Harriet Smith at a ball on account of his being “an old married man” whose “dancing days are over” (307). Margaret Smith documents that Charlotte’s assertion that she had not written stanzas since she was nineteen is simply not true, as Charlotte composed many works between 1833-37 (from seventeen to twenty-one years old) (245). Charlotte then penned thirteen poems in 1838 and four in 1839, possibly reducing her output because of the famously condescending and sexist response she received from poet laureate Robert Southey in 1837 deriding female wordsmiths. Likely, by choosing not to swap poems with Henry Nussey in the above letter, Charlotte was trying to avoid cultivating an intimacy and friendship with a discarded suitor, as Henry was possibly pledged to a woman with the last name Follett by this time.

Juliet Barker has questioned the propriety of a minister engaged to another woman corresponding with a single woman like Charlotte Brontë who had previously refused him as a husband (410). Even worse, when the austere Henry was not requesting poetry and such from Brontë, he was chatting to her about both his and his sister’s matrimonial prospects. Six months after making overtures of marriage to Charlotte, Henry wrote to her informing her that he hoped to marry a woman Margaret Smith does not believe was the moneyed Emily Prescott (1811-1907) Henry eventually wedded on 22 May 1845 (202). In a letter dated 28 October 1839, Brontë congratulates Henry on finding a prospective wife, though “fortune is not amongst the number of the young lady’s advantages” (qtd. in Smith 204), indicating that Henry’s “bride-elect” was unlikely to be the wealthy Emily Prescott mentioned above.

Brontë also became embroiled in some drama involving Henry’s admittedly eccentric college friend Rev. Osman Parke Vincent’s (?1813-85) romantic pursuit of Ellen Nussey. Ellen evidently suspected Charlotte of taking her brother Henry’s side in the matter and trying to pressure Ellen to marry Vincent. In November 1840, Charlotte had written to her friend advising against the fatuity of waiting for the kindling of “Une grande passion” (qtd. in Smith 233) to settle down with a presentable man, assuming that is what Vincent was. In the same letter, Charlotte adds with some sarcasm that “His reverence Henry expresses himself very strongly on the subject of young ladies saying ‘No’ when they mean ‘Yes’ – He assures me he means nothing personal. I hope not” (qtd. in Smith 235). Charlotte must have feared Henry was still bitter about her rejection of him and intended his remark about teasing coquettes as a veiled swipe at her for turning him down. Perhaps to emphasize that her refusal was sincere and not a ploy, Charlotte swore to Ellen that toying with a beau’s feelings was a tactic “of which I for one confess myself wholly incapable – I would not tell such a lie to gain a thousand pounds” (qtd. in Smith 235). As it happened, Charlotte urged Henry a few weeks later (11 January 1841) to meddle as little as possible in Ellen’s affair with Vincent and to defer to Ellen’s own good judgment of Vincent’s fitness as an admirer. In one interesting passage in this note, Charlotte writes to her former suitor that it would be no grievous loss if Ellen remained celibate, as “We know many evils are escaped by eschewing matrimony” (qtd. in Smith 245).

However “slight” (Gaskell 126) a resemblance may exist between Henry Nussey and Brontë’s character St. John Rivers, many parallels do undeniably emerge between the two men. Both clergymen had a reputation for taciturnity, both men proposed to a plain woman under the guise of asking for help in establishing a school, and both reported a fervent call to missions. Also, if the above passages from Charlotte’s posts to Henry suggest that he was [End Page 7] more taken by her than his business-like marriage proposal let on, is it possible that Brontë unconsciously delineated St. John Rivers with a legitimate romantic interest in Jane Eyre too?

St. John Rivers: In Pursuit of a Companionate Marriage

Brontë, Jane Eyre, and St. John Rivers himself certainly go out of their way to persuade the reader and other characters in the novel that nothing untoward is going on between the cousins – protesting a little too much, perhaps. For his part, St. John makes a marriage proposal so pragmatic as to come off as insulting, understandably leaving our narrator Jane with the impression that he “has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock, down which the stream is foaming in yonder gorge. He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all” (361). Since she, in spite of Brocklehurst and Sarah Reed’s accusations to the contrary, is frank and outspoken to point of bluntness, Jane naïvely assumes St. John likewise means exactly what he says when he emphasizes her plain looks and his lack of attraction to them in his bid for her hand. She is, as Rochester’s housekeeper Alice Fairfax correctly observes, “so little acquainted with men” (237) and is unable to intuit what St. John is really saying to her underneath his conceited rhetoric.

Other characters in the novel also tend to jump to the “wrong” conclusion that St. John has made a pet of Jane for more than just pragmatic purposes. When Jane returns home from refusing St. John a second time, Diana is standing by the window, unabashedly spying on the pair as they do battle. Diana confesses,

That brother of mine cherishes peculiar views of some sort respecting you, I am sure: he has long distinguished you by a notice and interest he never showed to any one else – to what end? I wish he loved you – does he Jane? (369)

Jane insists that St. John does not love her “one whit” (370), the same turn of phrase she used when doubting the sincerity of Rochester’s own marriage proposal (228). Diana remains unconvinced and inquires, “Then why does he follow you so with his eyes – and get you so frequently alone with him, and keep you so continually at his side?” (370). She then asks ingenuously, “What makes you say he does not love you, Jane?” (370). Jane operates to set Diana straight and pronounces that since humorless St. John professes no love for Jane himself, he must therefore be telling the truth.

At the end of the novel, Rochester also “mistakenly” concludes that Jane may be the object of St. John’s genuine fancy. When Jane heeds Rochester’s supernatural summons and flees to Ferndean to locate her beloved master, she finds a broken Rochester missing an eye and hand. Fretting Rochester “out of his melancholy” (390), Jane baits him by delineating St. John Rivers, who took her in after she escaped Thornfield, as a handsome, learned, and respectable man. In one of the most delicious scenes in literature, Rochester cross-examines Jane about her relationship with Rivers and wonders for what purpose he would have her learn Hindustani:

“Rivers taught you Hindostanee?” [End Page 8]

“Yes, sir.”

“And his sisters also?”


“Only you?”

“Only me.”

“Did you ask to learn?”


“He wished to teach you?”


A second pause. (394)

As Jane fully expects, Rochester susses out Rivers’ intention to marry her and in a fit of pique orders her off the knee she has been sitting on. Giggling at his jealousy, Jane assures her lover that Rivers “sees nothing attractive in me; not even youth – only a few useful mental points” (395). Rochester, only too happy to believe that Jane and her ecclesiastical cousin have no real regard for one another, drops the painful subject and determines that Jane must “become one flesh [with Rochester] without any delay” (397).

Notwithstanding her assertion that St. John sees only a “few mental points” in Jane, the nature of St. John’s true feelings for Jane is certainly a matter open for debate. J. Jeffrey Franklin, for one, posits that both Rochester and Rivers pursue Jane for the same reason:

Precisely what St. John lacks, then, is “sympathy,” and it is Jane’s capacity for sympathy that St. John is most critical of and, I would suggest, that most strongly attracts him to her. What St. John sees in Jane – beyond the prospect of a fellow missionary workhorse, and though he may not be conscious of it – is just what Rochester sees in her: a sympathetic spirit. (467)

St. John reveals himself quietly to this sympathetic “Jane Elliott” (her alias) over their months together in Morton, buying her an expensive copy (Eliot 197) of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion and lending her other titles from his library as a token of his high regard for her. It is St. John who first asks Jane if she is married when she materializes as a charity case on his doorstep one rainy night and ridiculously calls the nineteen-year-old a spinster when he finds out she is unwed. It is St. John who ceases visiting his erstwhile sweetheart Rosamond Oliver and her father at Vale Hall once Jane enters his life and moves back in with his sisters to his childhood home Moor House once it becomes obvious Jane has become ensconced there. It is St. John who stalls in securing employment for Jane because his sisters have become attached to her and her company gives them, as he says, “unusual pleasure” (315). Also, it is St. John who puts Jane under his forbidding surveillance at Moor House (though unsuccessfully hiding his cold, voyeuristic eye), and it is he who derives “a certain charm” from questioning Jane’s “eyes piercingly” (355) as he kisses her every night before bed. Significantly, the only time St. John laughs or smiles is around “Jane Elliott,” not Rosamond Oliver (though it is certainly true part of the awkwardness he evinces around her can be explained by his keen awareness of their difference in social class).

But why would Rivers wish to hide tender feelings for Jane if he is, as my reading alleges, truly partial to her? One obvious reason is that he is a man after Rev. Brocklehurst’s [End Page 9] own heart in that St. John deems, like Lowood’s inflexible superintendent, that the human body is vile and that natural human desires require repression. Gilbert and Gubar contend that both Brocklehurst and his counterpart St. John Rivers form “the personification of the Victorian superego” (343) in the book. Brocklehurst in particular has a sinister need to starve and “mortify . . . the lusts of the flesh” (JE 61) in his “naughty” female charges at Lowood Institution where Jane attends school in the novel’s first volume. Perversely, he ogles the school’s pupils for minutes on end and evinces a complete horror of little Julia Severn’s naturally curly hair, which he orders cut off in a “distorted castration of female sexuality” (Hoeveler 118). He routinely helps himself to the girls’ garments drying on the line and informs Miss Maria Temple that the children’s black stockings are full of holes and in need of repair after he inspects them. Indeed, the twisting of both Brocklehurst and Rivers’ “sexual nature has warped their entire way of relating to other people, leading them to turn sexual energies into suppression of others rather than expression of themselves” (Maynard 213).

Another reason St. John may wish to deny his fondness for Jane is simply due to pride. St. John appears to suffer an exaggerated fear of the vulnerability that people generally experience when falling in love, making it difficult for him to give voice to this compartment of his inner life without feeling shame. In one representative tête-à-tête with Jane, St. John professes a contempt for sentiment, giving the reader a good indication of the kind of wall he has built around his heart where fragile emotions are concerned:

Reason, and not Feeling, is my guide: my ambition is unlimited; my desire to rise higher, to do more than others, insatiable. I honour endurance, perseverance, industry, talent; because these are the means by which men achieve great ends and mount to lofty eminence. I watch your career with interest, because I consider you a specimen of a diligent, orderly, energetic woman; not because I deeply compassionate what you have gone through, or what you still suffer. (335)

St. John certainly has sufficient cause to guard his heart with even greater diligence in volume three of the novel once he discovers Jane’s real identity and her previous engagement to would-be bigamist Rochester. Reacting rather predictably to the existence of this unforeseen rival, St. John dismisses Rochester in a not unbiased way as a “bad man” (340), an accusation Jane casts down with considerable warmth.

But what about Rosamond Oliver – does the narrator Jane not continually emphasize how this delicate “Rose of the World” is Rivers’ great love? Would not traipsing around with such a rich, gorgeous trophy on his arm afford St. John a life of status and ease? While it is true that Rosamond is beautiful and St. John is fond of her, she nevertheless has the “miniature charms of bloodless dolls” (Martin 104) and is ill-matched with St. John spiritually and in every other way:

It is strange . . . that while I love Rosamond Oliver so wildly – with all the intensity, indeed, of a first passion, the object of which is exquisitely beautiful, graceful, and fascinating – I experience at the same time a calm, unwarped consciousness that she would not make me a good wife; that she is not the partner suited to me; that I should discover this within a year after marriage; and that to twelve months’ rapture would succeed a lifetime of regret. (JE 334) [End Page 10]

Even Jane eventually comes to understand that his infatuation with Rosamond was “but a love of the senses” after Jane judges, with some dramatic irony, it would be a “trying” (350) thing to be St. John’s wife. Joseph Dupras argues that Jane misinterprets the depth of St. John and Rosamond’s feelings for one another, projecting the earnest love Jane’s star-crossed parents once shared onto St. John and Rosamond’s superficial bond (399). Indeed, Rosamond’s affections for St. John appear to be just that – superficial – as the young lady abandons her fruitless quest for him at the drop of her bonnet and becomes engaged to wealthy Sir Frederic Granby’s grandson within two months of knowing him. Equally undisturbed at the end of their courtship, St. John remains “serene as glass” (353) when he apprises his sisters of Miss Oliver’s betrothal, maintaining his sang-froid and barely batting an eyelash at the rather juicy piece of gossip. At that moment, Jane perceives that St. John “seemed so little to need sympathy, that, so far from venturing to offer him more, I experienced some shame at the recollection of what I had already hazarded” (353).

Nonetheless, Rosamond’s attachment to St. John serves his purposes in that he trifles with the comely young heiress to stoke Jane’s jealousy, never fully spurning Rosamond’s obvious advances. Though much more subtle in his two-timing than Rochester, St. John luxuriates in his attraction to Rosamond Oliver in front of Jane, just as Rochester buttonholes her with his boastings about the sniffy Blanche Ingram and the womanizing of his previous mistresses Céline, Giacinta, and Clara. When St. John visits Jane’s cottage on Guy Fawkes Day, he notices that Jane has been sketching and is glad she is not frittering away her holiday in gloom. Seeing little harm in offering herself as a confidant, Jane attempts to draw St. John out by asking him what he thinks of the becoming portrait she has reproduced of Rosamond Oliver. In response, all he can do compliment Jane’s artistic skill in capturing Miss Oliver’s likeness: “A well-executed picture, . . . very soft, clear colouring; very graceful and correct drawing” (332). Shaking her head at his stubbornness, Jane tells him that she is sure Rosamond adores him, and St. John indicates his wish to hear more: “It is very pleasant to hear this, . . . very: go on for another quarter of an hour” (333). Taking out his watch, he actually means to time their conversation.

At this point in the interview, St. John’s actions toward Jane become strangely seductive: breathing “fast and low” (333), St. John sits in a chair in Jane’s house, fantasizing about Rosamond Oliver and using Jane’s flattering portrait of the pretty yet vapid girl as a visual aid. St. John then asks Jane to picture him

stretched on an ottoman in the drawing-room at Vale Hall, at my bride Rosamond Oliver’s feet: she is talking to me with her sweet voice – gazing down on me with those eyes your skilful hand has copied so well – smiling at me with these coral lips. She is mine – I am hers – this present life and passing world suffice to me. Hush! say nothing – my heart is full of delight – my senses are entranced – let the time I marked pass in peace. (333)

According to Debra Gettelman, the watch on the table represents Jane’s surveillance of his daydream as St. John “actually tries to get Jane to picture these images with him, asking her to ‘fancy [him] yielding and melting,’ and proceeding to elaborate his own vision in an attempt to lure Jane into the vision as well” (575). After the allotted fifteen minutes have passed, Rivers gets his hat to leave and steals one last glance at the portrait before he goes. [End Page 11] Curiously, he pulls a piece of scrap paper over Rosamond’s face, tears off the part of the blank page where Jane has absent-mindedly scribbled her real name, and gives her a quick stare before he leaves abruptly. Patricia Johnson catches the irony of St. John scorning a copy of Rosamond’s likeness while purloining a shabby scrap of paper with Jane’s real name written on it (178).

Though St. John finds Jane intriguing even before she renounces her alias and resumes her real identity, once she “see[s] the justice” (345) of sharing Uncle John Eyre’s twenty-thousand pound inheritance with her cousins, St. John recognizes her truly remarkable spirit and angles to make such a fine exemplar of womanhood his wife. A close reading of his response to her request that he become her figurative brother conveys an oddly frustrated understatement of his feelings for her:

I think I can. I know I have always loved my own sisters; and I know on what my affection for them is grounded, – respect for their worth and admiration of their talents. You too have principle and mind: your tastes and habits resemble Diana’s and Mary’s; your presence is always agreeable to me; in your conversation I have already for some time found a salutary solace. I feel I can easily and naturally make room in my heart for you, as my third and youngest sister. (346)

Yet despite his promise to embrace Jane as his third sister, St. John conversely draws a perplexing distinction between her and his biological sisters. When Jane informs him around Christmas that she intends to “clean down” (348, emphasis in original) Moor House in time for Diana and Mary’s return to Morton, St. John exhorts Jane to look beyond “sisterly society” (349) for enjoyment, conspicuously avoiding referring to himself as her brother. Jane also complains that since discovering her real identity and vowing to treat her as a sibling, St. John has gone back on his word:

He had not kept his promise of treating me like his sisters; he continually made little chilling differences between us, which did not at all tend to the development of cordiality: in short, now that I was acknowledged his kinswoman, and lived under the same roof with him, I felt the distance between us to be far greater than when he had known me only as the village schoolmistress. When I remembered how far I had once been admitted to his confidence, I could hardly comprehend his present frigidity. (353)

If we come to these lines having read the novel at least once, we realize that St. John does not withdraw from Jane as described in the above quotation because he dislikes her, but because he means to erase their biological relationship as an impediment to marriage. His behavior indicates Rivers wants a bride in Jane, not a kinswoman.

To this end, St. John delights in snatching Jane away from Diana Rivers, who is tutoring Jane in German, ostensibly to claim her as his Hindustani study partner. In reality, of course, St. John is executing his “long-cherished scheme” (JE 364) to train Jane to become his wife and colleague in missionary labors in India, though Jane has yet to agree to become either of those things. Both Diana and Mary laugh that St. John would never have been able to browbeat them into making such a change, and St. John replies quietly, “I know it” (355), [End Page 12] indicating that he both senses and relishes his ability to dominate Jane. St. John shrewdly guesses Jane would feel guilty not giving into his whims, saving her life as he did when she appeared on his rainy doorstep at the novel’s “point of ritual death” (Regis 35, 88) – the moment in the romance novel’s narrative when the union between hero and heroine appears most in jeopardy. Jane’s description of Rivers’ pedagogical methods affords proof of his despotic nature as both a human being and mentor:

By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind: his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference. I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by, because a tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity (at least in me) was distasteful to him. I was so fully aware that only serious moods and occupations were acceptable, that in his presence every effort to sustain or follow any other became vain: I fell under a freezing spell. . . . I wished, many a time, he had continued to neglect me. (355)

Clearly Rivers had no drift of seriously considering either Diana or Mary for his pupil, as his intention from the start was to eliminate Jane’s possible objection to going to India with him that she does not understand an Indian language.

Interestingly, St. John’s formal bid for Jane’s hand in marriage begins on something of a promising note: in declaring himself before a seated Jane, with the rolling Marsh Glen countryside and a coruscating stream as backdrop, St. John intones, “Jane, come with me to India: come as my help-meet and fellow-labourer” (358) – a proposal likely crafted to resonate with a woman of Jane’s spiritual and romantic sensibilities. Nevertheless, as Jane’s irresolute demurrals mount, his rhetoric becomes increasingly coercive as he attempts to “buy her body with the coin of spirituality, hypocritically posing as God’s agent” (Moglen 138). Affecting a dislike for sentimentality, St. John insists that he wishes only to marry her for her industrious work habits, not her person. Foreseeing Jane’s initial objections to such a ghastly union, St. John says that

God and nature intended [Jane] for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service. (359)

Without actually using the words, St. John throws her plainness in her face and proclaims that he only has a utilitarian purpose in mind for their marriage. He eschews soft speech not to communicate his real feelings to Jane, but to avoid the vulnerability that would go with declaring himself to a beloved.

Whether or not Jane is unconsciously aware of St. John’s true motivations for wanting her for his wife, she is positive she cannot marry her cousin. Notwithstanding St. John’s disingenuous claim that Jane is “formed for labour, not for love” (359), Jane apparently instinctively knows that St. John would insist on consummating their marriage, on “scrupulously observ[ing]” all conjugal “forms of love” (361) in their dreadful life together. Yet Jane also knows she would be committing adultery in her heart for her “lawless and unconsecrated” (369) devotion to Rochester and harboring “recesses in my mind which [End Page 13] would be only mine, to which [St. John] never came” (363). St. John, meanwhile, suffers no similar worries over marrying Jane while indulging in secret fantasies of Rosamond Oliver. Jane thus grasps at any excuse she can think of (save that she does not know Hindustani!) to budge St. John from his “matrimonial scheme” (371) involving her. First, she overstates their biological relationship, calling him her “adopted brother” and protesting that she regards him “as a brother – you, me as a sister” (361). Mary Jean Corbett avers that Jane’s objection that the two cousins cannot marry because such a match would be incestuous is merely an excuse:

By constantly referring to her Rivers cousins as her brother and sisters, moreover, she installs a rhetorical impediment to marital union with St. John where no actual impediment exists: although cousin-marriage came under increasing scrutiny after 1860, roughly coinciding with the early stirrings of eugenics, it remained perfectly legal in England (though not in the United States), and fairly common, especially among elites. (110)

To Jane’s dismay, St. John will not be diverted from his course of love by such spurious excuses that he is Jane’s figurative brother. He tells Jane plainly that she is not his sister, otherwise he claims, he would not make their traveling together to India as apostles of Jesus contingent upon their marriage.

Jane, on the other hand, stands firm that she is “ready to go to India, if I may go free” (361), which is to say she is willing to go with St. John to India as his aide only, not his spouse. A flustered St. John sputters, “How can I, a man not yet thirty, take out with me to India a girl of nineteen, unless she be married to me?” (364). Jane counters that they could travel “Very well” together and “quite as well as if I were either your real sister, or a man and a clergyman like yourself” (364). It appears history is on Jane’s side of this debate, as Clare Midgley reports that the Society for Promoting Female Education in China, India, and the East (FES) had assigned dozens of single female “agents” to India and beyond by the time Jane Eyre was published in 1847 (340). This, and the fact that St. John concedes to send Jane to India with another missionary’s wife as a coadjutor, proves that there was nothing impracticable in a single woman like Jane serving as a deacon abroad. His real problem with Jane’s counter-proposal is that St. John could not rule over Jane as his sister (nor would he have sexual access to her) the way he could were she his wife, and he acknowledges as much: “I, too, do not want a sister; a sister might any day be taken from me. I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life and retain absolutely till death” (362).

In contrast to his stoic acceptance of the discarded Rosamond Oliver’s engagement to Sir Frederic Granby’s grandson, St. John escorts Jane home after she balks at his first proposal rankling with “the disappointment of an austere and despotic nature, which has met resistance where it expected submission” (365). Postponing his departure to Cambridge for a week, St. John lingers in Morton in a mission to shoehorn Jane back into his narrative. During this interim, St. John applies bellows to the “slow fire of indignation, and a trembling trouble of grief” (366) burning within Jane by treating his own sisters better and Jane worse. The night before he leaves for Cambridge, Jane chases after him and pleads with him to “forgive” her for not marrying him. When Jane reiterates her offer to go to India as his assistant only, St. John repeats his sophistical claim that doing so would be an insult to propriety: [End Page 14]

I before proved to you the absurdity of a single woman of your age proposing to accompany abroad a single man of mine. I proved it to you in such terms as, I should have thought, would have prevented your ever again alluding to the plan. That you have done so, I regret – for your sake. (368)

Though Jane’s ordeal is anything but funny, J. Jeffrey Franklin comments humorously on this scene by stating that Rivers’

next-to-last trump card is to suggest that Jane’s wish to accompany him to India as a “sister” and not as a wife represents her willingness to live with him “in sin,” the very act that she refuses to commit even with Rochester, whom she loves. Here it is clear, if it was not already, that St. John is blind to his own motives and passions and that he has been cloaking them all along in sanctimonious rhetoric. (469)

Despite having a saintly name that alludes to St. John’s College, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Divine, St. John the Evangelist, and the Apostle of Love, St. John Rivers satanically tempts Jane three times with his offer of marriage (Maynard 133). With “long-suffering” (JE 372) tenacity, St. John lays out the third snare of his trap to capture Jane by placing his hand on her head and praying for her soul, which she describes as having the following hypnotic effect: “I stood motionless under my hierophant’s touch. My refusals were forgotten – my fears overcome – my wrestlings paralysed. The impossible – i.e. my marriage with St. John – was fast becoming the Possible” (373). Elizabeth Imlay remarks that this scene is fraught with “overtones of sexual menace” (64) that, she argues, would not be as obvious to twentieth-century readers as it would to Brontë’s Victorian audience. Imlay quotes Robert Lee Wolff’s analysis of Rev. William Cartwright’s (The Vicar of Wrexhill) seduction techniques and compares them to St. John’s prayer over Jane:

Cartwright is given to extempore praying, especially in private and with pretty girls. For the anti-Evangelical writer, this practice was the equivalent of the confessional for the anti-Tractarian or anti-Catholic writer: it was by private interviews and heated praying, accompanied by caresses, that the Evangelical villains won their influence over unsuspecting women. (209)

Though Imlay grants that the seductiveness of St. John’s intercession over Jane is less overt than in Cartwright’s attempt, there are bizarre similarities between the two incidents, including the fact that both Cartwright and Rivers get interrupted before they become too successful with their victims. As St. John puts his arm around Jane “almost as if he loved” her (373, emphasis in original), Jane hears Rochester’s supernatural cry and breaks free of St. John to find her heart’s love at Ferndean and ultimately marry him. Tellingly, after Jane marries Rochester and writes to St. John in Cambridge about the wedding, he ignores her letter and fails to mention Rochester’s name or Jane’s nuptials in a subsequent letter written to her six months later. St. John’s exile to India is surely a perfect example of the “scapegoat exiled” trope often (but not always) seen in romance novels in which a character who contributes to the barrier between hero and heroine “is ejected from the new society formed by their union” (Regis 39). [End Page 15]

William Percy: A Double for St. John

Up until this point in this project, I have analyzed St. John Rivers from the perspective of Brontë’s first-person narrator Jane Eyre. As invaluable as Jane’s point of view is in helping readers form an interpretation of Rivers’ character, I am sure we could all agree that having access to St. John’s thoughts free from the filter of the novel’s narrative voice would provide a very helpful context in which to make sense of this man’s heart vis-à-vis Jane. Fortunately, material from Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia may furnish us with a fresh angle from which to analyze St. John Rivers’ contradictory actions and statements in Jane Eyre.

From 24 February to 26 March 1839, Charlotte drafted a novelette entitled Henry Hastings around the time she received and turned down Henry Nussey’s proposal of marriage that spring. In this adventure story, Elizabeth Hastings, a forerunner of Jane Eyre (Beer 27; Alexander 167), abets her profligate brother Henry in escaping charges of murder. To complicate matters, Elizabeth becomes smitten with the bounty hunter after Henry – a Captain William Percy, the disowned son of a powerful nobleman. Most authorities (Moglen 86; Bock 58) rightly see William Percy as the prototype of the reserved William Crimsworth from Brontë’s posthumously published The Professor. However, I believe compelling clues also suggest that Percy is the fictional inspiration behind St. John Rivers from Jane Eyre in addition to William Crimsworth.

Just as St. John Rivers is unimpressed with her looks the first time he discovers Jane half-starved and delirious on his doorstep at Moor House, William Percy is less than captivated by the unalluring Miss Hastings when he sneaks glances at her during an Angrian concert one night. Whispering to his companion Charles Townsend seated next to him in the theater, the baronet Percy points to a woman sitting in an opera box opposite his with the resplendent Jane Moore and deadpans, “But who in heaven’s name has she got at her [Jane’s] side, Townsend? Who can the little blighted mortal be? Somebody she’s hired at so much a night to keep near her for the purpose of shewing her off?” (324).

Despite his low first opinion of Elizabeth and his rather ungenerous remarks about her, Percy’s attitude toward Miss Hastings improves after monitoring her conduct on another occasion at a dinner party a day or two after his opera engagement. Perhaps imagining the thoughts that went through Henry Nussey’s mind as Henry watched her during her visits with the Nussey clan, Charlotte has William Percy jot the following in his diary about Miss Hastings’ bearing that evening:

When a tear trickled from her eyelash to her cheek, she hastily lifted her handkerchief to wipe it away, and then, roused to recollection, called into her face an indifferent expression, and turning from the picture, looked like a person without an idea, alien from those she was with. I took good care to seem engaged in deep discourse with Augusta Lonsdale, that she might not suspect what scrutiny she had been the subject of a moment before. (326)

Is it possible St. John Rivers treasures up and ponders similar sensations in his heart as he supervises his cousin at Moor House in Jane Eyre? Like Rivers’ initially bleak assessment of Jane, Percy’s opinion of the shy but kind Elizabeth elevates as the evening continues to the point Percy decides she “was by no means ugly. Her eyes were very fine and seemed as if [End Page 16] they could express anything” (327), even though nothing in her appearance has actually changed in their few hours together.

In his pains to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Henry Hastings, Percy calls on Jane Moore to interrogate her à propos the Hastings pair, “taking care to throw in deprecating remarks and a general air of contempt and indifference” (327) about Elizabeth for good measure. So as not to give away his “freak of taste” (349) for Jane’s young sidekick, Percy harps on and on about how a “very plain” (329) creature like Elizabeth is not a lady “to attract my attention much” (329). To her credit, Jane defends Elizabeth as one who is “so good and so clever. She knows everything very nearly and she’s quite different to other people. I can’t tell how” (329).

But Percy evidently can. As he crosses paths with Elizabeth more frequently over the course of the novella, he “chuckle[s] with internal pleasure at the recollection of the cold, indifferent mien he had assumed” (349) in her presence, trying to camouflage that he has become “marble under a strange spell” (349) around the girl. His manners double those of St. John who speaks frostily and formally to his cousin in Jane Eyre while possibly secreting deeper feelings for her. Finally, when Percy deems the opportunity right to make his move on Elizabeth, he takes his dog Carlo (Rivers also has a dog named Carlo) and seeks her out where he knows she takes her regular walk. Affecting to meet her by chance in the field where she is strolling, Percy nonchalantly accompanies her under the risible pretense of guarding her safety:

it’s highly improper that a young woman such as you should be wandering by herself in such a lot of solitary fields, I shall take the liberty of offering my protection whilst you finish your walk, and then seeing you safe home. (356)

In a striking twist, Percy and Elizabeth stumble upon the grave of a beautiful woman named “Rosamund” during their promenade, apparently one of the scoundrel Zamorna’s many paramours while she lived. One wonders if the memory of the exquisite Rosamond Oliver lies dead in a similar way at the feet of St. John Rivers when he escorts Jane down the Marsh Glen road in the third volume of Jane Eyre and expresses his inclination to become her husband.

In his rendezvous with Elizabeth, Percy declares himself to her in such a way that may actually reveal what St. John Rivers really feels for Jane Eyre. Percy confides,

It never was my habit to impart my thoughts much, especially those that gave me the most pleasure, so I wanted no companion. . . . I used to wish for some existence with finer feelings and a warmer heart than what I saw round me. I had a kind of idea that I could be a very impassioned lover – if I met with a woman who was young and elegant and had a mind above the grade of an animal. (359)

Here, Percy admits that chilly as his airs have no doubt appeared to her to be, Elizabeth may just the type of woman to thaw his icy reserve. Though tempted to become his mistress with such a heartfelt admission of his passion, Elizabeth disciplines her own mutinous ardency for Percy and wrenches herself away from this married man, just as Jane Eyre will later do to Rochester. Leaving “the thwarted Sir William to stew – much to our satisfaction – in his [End Page 17] own juice” (Beer 28), Elizabeth remains the only heroine in Brontë’s juvenilia to refrain from falling into adulterous folly or similar romantic tragedy.

Puzzled at Rochester’s seemingly mercenary pursuit of Blanche Ingram for money and connections in the second volume of the novel, Jane reflects,

It seemed to me that, were I a gentleman like him, I would take to my bosom only such a wife as I could love; but the very obviousness of the advantages to the husband’s own happiness, offered by this plan, convinced me that there must be arguments against its general adoption of which I was quite ignorant; otherwise I felt sure all the world would act as I wished to act. (169-170)

Indeed, while plenty of characters in the novel pursue marriage to better their social position or other pragmatic reasons, St. John Rivers is, I would submit, not one of them. He is, however, much better (and more interested in) than other characters at cloaking his real motives, reframing his missionary ambitions as a humble wish to serve Christ and transmuting his desire for a companionate marriage with Jane into pedestrian offers of employment. St. John does not burn with love for the elegant Rosamond Oliver despite her unfitness to accompany him as a missionary to India so much as he loves Jane precisely because of her ability to do so, as well as the other interests she shares with him. During his otherwise repellent marriage proposal, St. John offers Jane a blazon of the qualities he admires most about her, sharing his admiration of her tireless work habits and generosity in quartering Uncle Eyre’s inheritance, rightly praising her as “docile, diligent, disinterested, faithful, constant, and courageous; very gentle, and very heroic” (360). The barrier to the St. John Rivers-Jane Eyre courtship is not his lack of love for her but, rather, her want of feelings for him.

While convenient for St. John, his “long-cherished scheme” to wed Jane Eyre proposes no mere marriage of convenience only. For someone so adamant that he prefers Jane’s toil to her touch, it is peculiar that St. John bargains for Jane’s sexual submissiveness with such energy, ludicrously demanding that God will not bless the “half . . . oblation” and “mutilated sacrifice” (362) of a sexless marriage between the two cousins. And while she may scorn his idea of love, St. John does assure Jane that “enough of love would follow upon marriage [with him] to render the union right even in your eyes” (364), insinuating subtly that it already remains perfect in his.

If Jan Cohn’s assertion that Rochester is “ancestor of all contemporary romance heroes” (51) is correct, perhaps it not all that far-fetched to suggest that St. John has made his own mark on the history of the romance genre as well – as ancestor of that dubious army of false heroes who form at least part of the external barrier between heroine and true hero in many current works of popular romantic fiction. In this way, St. John survives as ironic “father” of those suitors whose outer trappings such as looks, charm, wealth, culture, or social position within the community have much to recommend them to the romance novel heroine, yet are ill-matched with her due to a serious moral flaw on the “Other Men’s” part or a simple lack of compatibility. From cold, repressed Rivers, to forgivably unfrank Churchill (Jane Austen’s Emma), to wicked Wickham (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), these and other ostensibly disparate romance novel rivals share the similar narrative function of threatening the happy ending of their respective stories precisely because of these characters’ perceived respectability; but their too-good-to-be-true camouflage is eventually [End Page 18] pulled away to reveal the real men underneath to both audience and protagonist alike. Once this exposure occurs, and the remainder of the barrier between true hero and heroine crumbles, it is indeed “a moment of rejoicing for the reader, whose response to the heroine’s freedom is joy” (Regis 33). [End Page 19]

Works Cited

Alexander, Christine. “Autobiography and Juvenilia: The Fractured Self in Charlotte Brontë’s Early Manuscripts.” The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf, edited by Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster, Cambridge UP, 2005, pp. 154-72.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Penguin, 2003.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. 2nd ed., Abacus, 2010.

Barlow, Linda, and Jayne Ann Krentz. “Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, U of Pennsylvania P, 1992, pp. 15-30.

Beer, Frances, editor. The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. Penguin, 1986.

Blom, Margaret. Charlotte Brontë. Twayne, 1977.

Bock, Carol. Charlotte Brontë and the Storyteller’s Audience. U of Iowa P, 1992.

Brontë, Charlotte. “Henry Hastings.” The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, edited by Frances Beer, Penguin, 1986, pp. 301-65.

—. Jane Eyre. Edited by Deborah Lutz. Norton Critical Editions, 4th ed., Norton, 2016.

Clair, Daphne. “Sweet Subversions.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, U of Pennsylvania P, 1992, pp. 61-72.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Duke UP, 1988.

Corbett, Mary Jean. Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Cornell UP, 2008.

David, Deirdre. Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing. Cornell UP, 1995.

Dupras, Joseph A. “Tying the Knot in the Economic Warp of Jane Eyre.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 26, no. 2, 1998, pp. 395-408.

Eliot, Simon. “‘Never Mind the Value, What about the Price?’; Or, How Much Did Marmion Cost St. John Rivers?” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 56, no. 2, 2001, pp. 160-97.

Franklin, J. Jeffrey. “The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 49, no. 4, 1995, pp. 456-82.

Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family. Crown, 1988.

Frith, Gill. “Women, Writing, and Language: Making the Silences Speak.” Thinking Feminist: Key Concepts in Women’s Studies, edited by Diane Richardson and Victoria Robinson, Guilford, 1993, pp. 151-76.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. 1857. Penguin, 1998.

Gettelman, Debra. “‘Making Out’ Jane Eyre.” ELH, vol. 74, no. 3, 2007, pp. 557-81.

Gilbert, Sandra M, and Susan Gubar. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed., Yale UP, 2000, pp. 336-71.

Gordon, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. Norton, 1994.

Halperin, John. Egoism and Self-Discovery in the Victorian Novel. Burt Franklin, 1974.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Jane Eyre through the Body: Food, Sex, Discipline.” Approaches to Teaching Brontë’s Jane Eyre, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Beth Lau, Modern Language Association, 1993, pp. 116-123.

[End Page 20]

Imlay, Elizabeth. Charlotte Brontë and the Mysteries of Love: Myth and Allegory in Jane Eyre. Harvester, 1989.

Johnson, Patricia E. “Charlotte Brontë and Desire (to Write): Pleasure, Power, and Prohibition.” Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Sweeney, State U of New York P, 1993, pp. 174-84.

Martin, Robert Bernard. The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Brontë’s Novels. Faber, 1966.

Maynard, John. Charlotte Brontë and Sexuality. Cambridge UP, 1987.

Midgley, Clare. “Can Women Be Missionaries? Envisioning Female Agency in the Early Nineteenth-Century British Empire.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 2006, pp. 335-58.

Moglen, Helene. Charlotte Brontë: The Self-Conceived. U of Wisconsin P, 1984.

Nussey, Henry. Diary. MS Egerton 3268 A. Boston Spa: British Library, 1967. Ff. 1r-65r. CD-ROM.

Osland, Dianne. “The Stone Diaries, Jane Eyre, and the Burden of Romance.” Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction, edited by Edward Eden and Dee Goertz, U of Toronto P, 2003, pp. 84-112.

Ramsdell, Kristin. Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. 2nd ed., Libraries Unlimited, 2012.

Raymond, Ernest. In the Steps of the Brontës. Rich and Cowan, 1949.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Shorter, Clement. Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle. Hodder, 1896.

Smith, Margaret, editor. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë. Vol. 1. InteLex, 2003. Web. 2 vols. 6 May 2017.

Spark, Muriel, editor. The Brontë Letters. Macmillan, 1966.

Sutherland, John. The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford UP, 1989.

[End Page 21]


Love is what people say it is: Performativity and Narrativity in Critical Love Studies
by Michael Gratzke

[End Page 1] In this article I will outline the objectives of Critical Love Studies, their grounding in a wide range of critical theory, a multi-disciplinary methodology, and finally gives an example of practical application in literary scholarship and participatory community research into experiences of love in the human lifespan. In so doing, I will make three fundamental claims about love. Firstly, that we cannot grasp its full potentiality (it is always yet to come); secondly, that it is performative (it needs to come into being in individual occurrences of love); and thirdly, that changes to the ways in which people experience and represent love happen through countless iterations of what I will call “love acts”. Love acts, like speech acts, do not have any mysterious powers. They simply take place within a normative framework which makes certain acts – such as saying “I love you” ­– intelligible. These three claims are rooted in the basic understanding that love is relational in two ways. On the one hand, love needs to relate to an object, as fleeting as that may be. Types of love objects are habitually used to differentiate between phenomenological categories such as parental love, neighbourly love, romantic love (i.e. “sexualized intimate love”, Milligan 2011, 45), and so forth. On the other hand, love relates to a set of rules which define the validity of love in a given socio-historic context (cf. Pearce 2007). The relationship between an occurrence of love (a set of interrelated love acts) and its social context may be affirmative or constitute some form of deviation from the norm. In some cases, love acts which deviate from the norm achieve “critical mass” and have a transformative effect on their social world.

A telling example of social transformation processes can be found in debates surrounding marriage. By the 1990s, love theorists such as Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1995) or Anthony Giddens (1993) were convinced that marriage as a model for the organization of intimate relationships had been discredited. A perception of high divorce rates (measured against a 1950s white middle-class standard) and the spread of new relationship models such as communes, serial monogamy, couples who live apart, one-parent families, and blended families with more than two parents, as well as the increased visibility of gay and lesbian people in society, meant that Giddens declared the new millennium a brave new world of intimate democracy based on non-hierarchical couples in “confluent love” (1993, 61). De-traditionalization seemed to be an irreversible process. Fast forward a couple of decades, and we find ourselves in a world which has undergone massive changes in terms of fast, global, multi-nodal communication, while traditional values, often fuelled by conservative and fundamentalist religious belief, have made a comeback. Regarding marriage, discourses have shifted from the 1990s set-up, in which progressives who disregarded marriage were pitted against conservatives who clung to it, to a new layering of discourses, in which many progressives and conservatives alike agree that marriage is the best way to organize intimate relationships between non-related adults. We usually do not ask any more why anyone should get married: we ask why anyone should be excluded from marriage. One could argue that traditionalists have won. The 1950s model of two well-adjusted parents with two adorable kids has spread to same-gender couples, and soon fertility technology will allow same-sex parents to have genetic offspring with each other (Ringler 2015). Still, there is a catch for traditionalists. Their model has won, but the price to pay has been to open it up to people of whom they are deeply suspicious. Equal [End Page 2] marriage is both marriage as we used to know it and it is not. It is concurrently the continuation and the annihilation of tradition. In other words, we are witnessing a case of Aufhebung in a Hegelian sense via Jacques Derrida (2001, 196-7). Gay and lesbian people saying “I do” first in private ritual, then in tolerant religious congregations, and finally in front of officers of the state marks a drift in what family, marriage, and love mean, powered by performative (speech) acts of love. New aspects of the potentiality of love have come into being. This is not a smooth process, as reports on violence against LGTBQ people show (Dehghani 2015); neither is it complete, as the increasing numbers of straight couples demonstrate who seek civil partnership instead of marriage (Allen 2009; Bowcott 2016).

In the first section of this article, I will make an attempt at defining some key concepts of Critical Love Studies in relation to narrative research in a wide sense of the term, spanning from literary scholarship via linguistics to social sciences. We will start with the obvious question: what is the love Critical Love Studies claim to be studying? My inevitable failure to give a definitive answer will allow us to explain what is critical about Critical Love Studies: namely, a self-critical stance which aims to avoid becoming judgmental or prescriptive about love. Narrative methodologies are characterized by their emphasis on paying close attention to the narration as well as the narrated and, through that, to the narrator/language user/interviewee. Paying attention to the ways in which people talk about their experiences of love is to be understood as an ethical stance which avoids as much as possible projecting normative love theories onto occurrences of love acts. Normative love theories are those which claim to possess the key to understanding love in general or a specific type of love. These may include theories based on an orthodox reading of Marx, Freud, Rougemont, Barthes, or Luhmann. The aim of Critical Love Studies, as I understand them, is to do justice to experiences and representations of love in their normativity as well as in their individuality. The interplay between pattern and deviation, or the general and the particular, is important to Critical Love Studies, as this opposition marks out the theatre of social relations and therefore experiences and representations of love.

A normative Marxist love theory, for example, which dismisses the perceived commercialization of romantic love in the age of consumer capitalism is more likely to judge love acts which seem to follow patterns of consumer behaviour. If I get a Valentine’s Day card for my wife, take her out to dinner, and even buy some hideously overpriced red roses, I appear to be following profit-driven, made-up social norms. What a staunchly anti-capitalist love theory cannot grasp though is that within the “false consciousness” (Projekt Ideologie-Theorie 1979), a lot of complex relationship work may be taking place. Imagine that my wife and I missed last year’s Valentine’s Day because of a bereavement in the family which started off a difficult year filled with grief and depression. Our going out for Valentine’s Day may very well be a turning point. It may be an experience of shared self-care and love. As a love researcher, you will not know about this unless you ask us open-ended questions. To ask open-ended questions is similar to “Narrative Inquiry”, which also is critical of (neo-) Marxist critique. Narrative Inquiry, however, reifies the “experience”, and levels differences between types of inquiries, which ultimately means that research is “just another conversation” sitting alongside the practical wisdom of people without the potential for overview (recognition of patterns) or induction (refinement of hypotheses) (cf. Pinnegar & Daynes 2007).

To give another example, the internet in general and dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder in particular have been vilified in the media (and by some love researchers, such as [End Page 3] Illouz 2013, 231; Badiou 2012, 5-8; Dunbar 2013, 222). Allegedly, they have killed off courtship and romance. Only Jean-Claude Kaufmann (2012) appears fascinated with the erotic potential of blended dating. A non-normative approach to blended online/offline match making and dating will instead keep an open mind towards the possibility of moments of great tenderness and deep connection experienced by users of these apps. Consequently, in the second part of this article, an offer is made of a non-normative love theory which takes a positive stance towards everyday performances of love as well as the elusive potentiality of love in general. The third and final part outlines an integrated research project which combines various types of narrative research with community engagement in the form of participatory co-design. Love is what people say it is, and not what experts say it should be.

What are Critical Love Studies?

Each occurrence of love should be judged against the backdrop of the socio-historic circumstances in which a set of love acts is performed. This does not mean that love has no universal traits. Looking at love from the viewpoint of narrative research, we must acknowledge that already on the most basic linguistic level, the lexis of English, there is a word called “love” which denotes a something which in order to exist must be distinguishable from many other things which are not love. What exactly this love is, we find much harder to grasp. The Oxford English Dictionary lists no fewer than seven different uses of the noun, not counting scoring conventions in games such as tennis, and four categories for the verb. The linguistic valency of to love expresses attachment, desire, preference, and taking pleasure in something, as well as physical acts. We seem to mean rather different things when we state that we “love these shoes” or “love my partner”. This drift of meaning indicates that, although we may want to entertain the notion that there is a universal concept of love, we cannot actually tell what it is – at least not based on linguistic evidence. Things become even more complex when we look at other languages. A cursory glance at two other major languages of European origin confirms that there is subtle variation regarding the meaning of “to love”. In French, the addition of the adverb bien (well) downgrades aimer from loving to mere liking. Spanish offers three gradations to express affection for another person (Me gustas. Te quiero. Te amo.) whose appropriate usage (the correct socio-historic context) worries the amorous student of Spanish. These simple and well known examples appear to indicate that language plays a role in expressing love before we have even looked at questions of culture. It may very well be the case that the language we use to express our love for someone or something influences the ways in which we experience this love. Furthermore, the Hispanophone and Francophone spheres are vast, and English is not “owned” by British, Irish, American, Australian (etc.) speakers either. It has transformed into variants of global English which are informed by a huge number of environments. When a person in India speaks in English about love, they do not necessarily mean the same things as a person in the UK (cf. Twamley 2014).

The attention to detail which we have just given to the word love (and a good dose of scepticism regarding our ability fully to understand the object of our studies) should inform the attitude Critical Love Studies adopt in dealing with any occurrence of love. This is where we need close readings of love. Close reading is widely employed as a technique in literary [End Page 4] scholarship far beyond its ideological home in New Criticism (Brooks 1979; Wellek 1978). Close reading (also called practical criticism) activates potentiality in any given text by concentrating on the words on the paper (screen), and by downplaying for the duration of the exercise any information which is external to the text, such as literary traditions, paratext, or, in the classroom sometimes, even author name and title. Attention is directed to detail in the text as well as to individual responses of the reader. By noting down which parts of the text spoke to us, and those which did not speak to us, we aim critically to reflect on our preconceptions. Anything which triggers a reaction in the reader, be it surprise, pleasure, agreement, rejection, even boredom, throws a light on the interplay of pattern and deviation. In paying attention to the text and individual reader response, close reading also entails appreciation for the craftsmanship which was needed to write the text, and its ethical stance (Federico 2016). Good close reading accepts the limitations of the individual and should even embrace failure to understand. The dialogue between a text and the critical reader should consequently always be extended into a conversation between readers.

This is where we can take inspiration as love researchers. Critical Love Studies obviously do not operate outside socio-historical contexts, but they can make a systematic effort to read occurrences of love first as valid expressions of love. In this sense, practical criticism of love is the first exercise of Critical Love Studies. Where practical criticism of literature focuses on short forms such as poetry and hand-picked passages from longer narrative prose, narratology aims to understand narrative texts in their entirety. This is where we can safely widen our disciplinary scope: narratology (The Living Handbook of Narratology n.d.), discourse analysis (Schiffrin 2003), and narrative research (Narrative Research 2013) are driven by a dual interest in patterns and deviations from them. Patterns tell love researchers what the commonly held beliefs and widely accepted practices surrounding love are. Deviations, on the other hand, hint at the further potentiality of love. Borrowing the binary of langue and parole from Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics (Jäger 2010), I hypothesize that the term “love” stands for an inexhaustible potentiality of love (the langue of love), which in its fullness is inaccessible to lovers and to researchers alike. This langue of love has to be realized in individual love acts (parole of love) to come into being. As lovers and researchers, we do not have full understanding of the potentiality of love. We are in a position, however, to judge whether the love acts we are experiencing or studying are intelligible in the context of their occurrence (“utterance”). There may be occurrences of love we do not yet understand as such (they go unnoticed or are rejected). There may be occurrences of love which jar with our understanding of what constitutes a well-formed love act (they usually get a lot of attention). And finally, there are occurrences of love which are covered by convention and hence form part of a dominant pattern of accepted love behaviour (they are often taken as given but warrant our critical efforts).

With regard to dominant patterns of love, there have been in the West (which admittedly is another problematic concept) two large-scale and culturally hegemonic attempts to consolidate the full potentiality of love into a single principle (May 164-170). In Biblical times, God was identified as the sole source and guarantor of love. In the Romantic period, the individual (as modelled on the white bourgeois male) replaced God as the source and guarantor of love. Romanticism elevates the assumed uniqueness of an individual experience of love to a unique, unrepeatable epiphany. The Romantics replaced religion as love with love as a religion. Love hence became an end in itself. As students of romance we may enjoy this emphasis, but we should bear in mind that it is rather problematic in its self-[End Page 5] centeredness. If love is guaranteed in the individual and not in the beloved, it loses a great deal of its relationality. The main critique levelled against Sentimental and Romantic love is that the lover, usually a man, is more in love with his idea of love than with the beloved. Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther is a famous case in point. Read by thousands as a manifesto of Sentimentality, the author despaired at his reader’s insistence to identify with “poor Werther” and anecdotally to copy the protagonist’s suicide. Goethe understood his novel in letters as a warning against the excesses of a self-centred youth (Gratzke 2012).

Since the Romantic period, romantic lovers have been expending a lot of energy worrying whether the beloved is an appropriate or even authentic expression of the unique love they feel for them (May 2011, 164). This is, according to Eva Illouz, where the psychology industries have gained their foothold. The modern Western(ized) individual constantly thinks and speaks about itself. It may be looking for someone to love but the main criterion is whether that person is the right one for us. Instead of losing ourselves in the beloved, we find ourselves. Simon May interprets this obsession with love as a defence mechanism in a de-traditionalized world:

Indeed, every increase in individualism fuels the prestige of love. The more independent our identity is of political, religious, national or community loyalties, so the more we turn to love as the ultimate source and sign of belonging — a sign that people display today as eagerly as in previous eras they displayed their fidelity to church or state. And the more individualistic we become the more we expect love to be a secular journey for the soul, a final source of meaning and freedom, a supreme standard of value, a key to the problem of identity, a solace in the café of rootlessness, a desire for the worldly and simultaneously a desire to transcend it, a redemption from suffering, and, a promise of eternity. Or all of these at once. In short: love is being overloaded. (May 2011, 239)

To conclude this part, our attention turns to the notion of critique as implied by the moniker Critical Love Studies. So far I have stated that there is an object to study which we call love. There appears to be some semantic coherence of love, but there does not seem to be a universally accepted universal theory of love, unless one believes that Freud, Rougemont, Luhmann, Barthes, or anyone else has explained love in its fullness. In contrast to this, practical criticism of occurrences of love teaches us that love is diverse and complex. Critical Love Studies are ­– therefore – first and foremost critical of themselves. This kind of critical approach owes a lot to deconstructionist and poststructuralist thought in that it reflects continuously on its own epistemological limitations. Michel Foucault argues in his works that sexuality is not something innate in people which was subsequently subjugated by authorities such as the state, experts, or religious institutions. He rejects the assumption of sexual repression and questions discourses of liberation. Sexuality, in his thinking, is the result of cultural and political production. Power and knowledge circulate widely, bringing forth sexuality, sexual bodies, and sexual practices (Foucault 1998, 15-7). If we turn this way of thinking towards the study of love, we see that a critical approach to Love Studies must ensure that it takes into account its place in the production of love. This is where an inductive method acts as a safeguard. By first paying close attention to the texts, images, and objects which and the people whom we study, Critical Love Studies self-consciously limit their [End Page 6] investment in any normative approach to love. The ethical goal implied here is not to drown out individual variations in the discourses of love which are produced by the love dispositif of which Critical Love Studies form a part (cf. Bussolini 2010). In very practical terms, this means that we have to be aware that people who are interviewed by researchers will always to some extent tell them what they assume the researcher expects to hear. This is a research bias known as “interview bias”, which may creep into qualitative research on top of “interviewer bias” which equally needs to be evaluated throughout the research process (Finlay 2002).

Finally, Critical Love Studies in this vein is by no means the only way to conduct Critical Love Studies. A lot of excellent love research is first and foremost critical of love itself, most notably some of the feminist research into the ways in which ideologies and practices of romantic love continue to subjugate women by burdening them with the bulk of relationship work, often leading to (heterosexual) living arrangements in which women also undertake most of the reproductive work (Gunnarson 2013). A recent collection of essays on Feminist Love Studies calls for “a return to and deepening of the strand of materialist feminism which both includes and goes beyond the study of discourses. The aim is to focus on the material practices and embodied experiences of love, power, and domination in order to move towards liberation” (Ferguson & Jónasdóttir 2014, 1). This type of Feminist Love Studies employs a notion of critique more in the tradition of the Frankfurt School’s Kritische Theorie than in any poststructuralist way (cf. Horkheimer 1992). Compared with the clear political stance taken by Feminist Love Studies, the kind of Critical Love Studies discussed in this contribution is apologetic of love. “Deconstructionist” Critical Love Studies pay close attention to their object of study; this attention may be understood as a form of care or even professional love (cf. Page 2011). We may have to deal with challenging and even abhorrent occurrences of love (representations and behaviour we would prefer not to be explained as loving). Nevertheless, Critical Love Studies understand love as a fundamentally human experience. The analytical philosopher Tony Milligan describes a tendency to extend “scepticism about being loved” into a “pessimism about the nature of love” and posits, “[o]penness to the possibility that we may be loved is an important human virtue which is incompatible which such serial scepticism” (Milligan 2011, 4). This concept of “being human” has been challenged for good reasons (Ferguson & Jónasdóttir 2014, 5). It is still something I value as a beacon. Moving back to continental philosophy: quite possibly “being human” is always still to come, like love is always still to come. Feminist love researchers Ferguson and Jónasdóttir agree with Milligan to a certain degree. Their Feminist Love Studies do not actually reject love, they are critical of “male power” at its heart:

We emphasize that love is a distinctive, creative/re-creative human capacity and energy, that – on its own and/or fused with other essential human capacities, such as the capacity to work – allows humans to act intentionally together to form and change their life and living conditions. It is male power in the ongoing production and exchange of love as a material energy in love and caring practices, not simply ideological beliefs or discourses on love, gender or sexuality, habits or physical coercion that must be analysed to understand the persistence of, and resistance to, male domination when it arises. (Ferguson & Jónasdóttir 2014, 6) [End Page 7]

In the following, I will attempt to build a bridge between a deconstructionist and a materialist-feminist approach to Critical Love Studies. Both sides agree that “love is a distinctive, creative/re-creative human capacity and energy”. I will argue that there is no actual difference between “practices” and “discourses or beliefs” of love, as love only comes into being as an act of love. A speech act (of love) is not fundamentally different from a repetitive set of love acts which constitute a practice of love.

The performativity of love

In his book How to do Things with Words (1962), J.L Austin describes speech acts as “illocutionary acts”. Characteristically, the performance of an illocutionary speech act changes something in the social world. A pertinent example would be the registrar declaring a couple husband and wife. This is not the same as describing two people as husband and wife (Austin 1962, 5). John R. Searle differentiates a number of illocutionary acts: assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, and declaratives. To pronounce two people husband and wife or to baptize someone constitute declarative speech acts. Things become a little more complicated when we consider indirect speech acts. In many cases, utterances which do not signpost their performative character are still understood as having such implications.

When you return home from work, and you tell your partner that you fancy steak for dinner, what is it you are actually saying? Is it an assertive (you want them to know that you like beef), or a directive (you tell them to prepare dinner now), or a commissive (you are promising to prepare dinner soon)? It is apparent that understanding this performance involves a great deal of socio-historic context for the hypothetical couple and for the researcher. Relationship history, individual skill sets, the gender of the two people, the availability of meat (or a kitchen for this matter) – there is a plethora of social, psychological and material considerations which would need to be taken into account in order fully to understand what just happened when you came home and spoke about steak for dinner. These kinds of considerations have, on a more abstract level, generated a lot of controversy, as Searle’s explanations have been found lacking precision regarding the processes taking place when indirect speech acts occur. The position outlined by Kent Bach and Robert M. Harnish in 1992 is particularly helpful here because it stresses the importance of “institutions” (socio-historic contexts). The starting point of their argument is that performative speech acts do not have any special powers compared to any other speech acts. What we learn from the analysis of indirect (performative) speech acts is that in order to be successful, any performative speech act must be understood. Communication must take place rather than mere utterance. What makes declarative speech acts stand out is the direct effect the utterance has in the social world. Bach and Harnish explain:

Declaratives have the distinctive feature of producing changes in the world. There is nothing magical or supernatural about how they manage to do this, and they change the world not by what Seale calls ‘physical causation’ but by convention. They succeed by meeting certain conventional conditions that [End Page 8] constitute an utterance as effecting, generally within an extra-linguistic institution a certain change or creating a certain fact. (1992, 105)

According to this interpretation, the performativity of a speech act lies in its successful communication, which in turn is dependent on a complex (often not conscious) series of assessments an addressee or audience makes when hearing a speech act. They cover questions about the truthfulness of the statement, the intentions of the speaker, their sincerity etc. (1992, 99, 101). If my assessment is that the speaker has declared their love for me to instigate sex, I may be inclined not to trust the intentions of the speaker, their sincerity, or even the truthfulness of the utterance. What Bach and Hamish (1992) call extra-linguistic institutions, which offer the benchmark against which a (performative) speech act is measured, can be understood as formations within a love dispositif, or at least a love discourse. Returning to the dichotomy of practices and discourses, cited by Ferguson and Jónasdóttir (2014), one could argue that discourses are based on practices in the sense of speech acts, many of which are performative, some of them even declarative. No speech act (and by extension no discourse) is performed outside of at least one dispostif. I understand a dispositif/dispositive/apparatus in a wide sense as the dynamic and productive interplay of discourses, practices, and the material conditions for their existence. The love dispositif hence encompasses love norms, love institutions, love theory, all speech acts and practices generated by and in the name of love, as well as the material conditions, such as the gendered division of reproductive labour, and even oxytocin levels in people who experience love. None of these in isolation suffice to understand or explain “love”. Together they produce and reproduce everything we experience or represent as love.

This interplay of discourses, institutions, and their material basis will now be explored further using the opposition of performance and performativity. Performance theory has been widely used outside linguistics, prominently in social sciences, gender studies, and cultural studies. In Erving Goffman’s (1959) micro-sociological approach, the analysis of social performances (face-to-face interactions) operates in a similar way to the practical criticism of love as outlined above. Goffman reads closely how people act in various settings and observes recurring patterns such as the difference between “front-of-house” and “backstage” areas of interaction (restaurants are an obvious example), the use of “costume” (appropriate clothing) and “props”. From this, he draws conclusions regarding “stigma management” (impression management) as the driver of social performances. The aim of our social performances is to offer a coherent and favourable image of ourselves. Social performances are judged by their audiences (addressees) in a similar way to linguistic performances against benchmarks (the conventions of extra-linguistic institutions). In order to perform successfully in face-to-face interaction, I will need to convince my audience that there is little difference between the face and the mask; that, in fact, virtual and actual social identity coincide. Stigma management is effective where the existence of the initial stigma is covered. Goffman’s take on “stigma” sits very well with an understanding of the lover as “wretched” as famously proposed by Roland Barthes.

In more general terms of impression management, we recognize the same mechanism in action. Online dating and blended dating throw up a whole range of issues surrounding virtual and actual social identity: in particular, the friction which is caused by exaggerated virtual identities when they are put to a face-to-face test. In any case, the micro-sociological basis of Goffman’s performance model may be applied to any observation of practices of love [End Page 9] in face-to-face interaction. A first date is easily projected onto “front-of-house” (a bar maybe), “backstage” (the mess I left in the bedroom getting changed several times), appropriate clothing (the carefully chosen outfit on which I settled finally – smart casual possibly), the use of props (flowers again or the seemingly unthinking way in which I place the keys to my expensive car on the table). At this point it would be illuminating to fill in the blanks regarding gender in this description of a date. If it were a heterosexual encounter with a male first-person narrator who thinks he is subtly displaying his wealth and thereby socio-economic attractiveness, we would have a story which conforms with “hegemonic masculinity”. Fill the same pattern with iconic characters such as Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes and you have exotic fan fiction. Make the characters female and you are close to a trendy HBO lesbian-themed TV series.

The term “hegemonic masculinity” was coined by R.W. (Raewyn) Connell in her ground-breaking book on Masculinities (1995, revised 2005). The use of the plural in her title is crucial: once we start to do research into masculinity (through a close reading of gender display and gendered behaviour), we are bound to come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a unified gender identity of all or even most men. Still, there is hegemonic masculinity which denotes a benchmark of male performance against which all occurrences of masculinity are measured. The reason there is a dominant pattern of masculinity in most societies (and that men are often dominant) is not that most men actually meet these standards. One reason is that, implicitly or explicitly, men and woman keep making reference to dominant, hegemonic masculinity. Men are constantly involved in stigma management (usually their actual social identity does not conform with hegemonic masculinity), but in many cases they succeed in creating the impression (a virtual social identity). Women are complicit in this as audiences and speakers, as are men who define their performed self against the norm. Camp masculinity does not make sense in itself. It can be seen as a reaction to hegemonic masculinity in that it creates a niche which remains intelligible in hegemonic terms: camp men are described as effeminate, which leaves the gender binary intact. Very few gender performances are actually disruptive of gender norms. Neither is disruption in itself a positive thing: intersex and trans people may “require a clear name and gender” in their “struggle for recognition” (Ahmed/Butler 2016). Still, not unlike non-normative love acts, non-identical repetition and dissemination of non-normative gender performances may develop traction in terms of transformative change.

The gender dispositif and the love dispositif evidently relate to each other. In both cases they refer to hegemonic masculinity, which informs hegemonic forms of love and intimacy. In the next step, we will look at gender performance once more to gain a clearer understanding how the immaterial (practice and discourse) relates to the material (the economy, the physical). Judith Butler, in her initial model (1990), likened all gender performance to practices of drag, parody, and copying (“melancholic interjection”), which seemed to imply a relatively high degree of choice and agency for the person performing gender. We should, however, not underestimate the accumulated power of iteration as explained by Butler. The gender binary is enforced by constant, wide-ranging, and microscopic processes of repetition of gendered practices, benchmarking of gender performances against heteronormative conditions, and gendering speech acts. This is, at its core, what gender performativity means. Gender is not completely fixed. This applies to individuals as much as it applies to society. Gender needs to reproduce itself constantly. Its norms need enforcing and its borders need policing. In order to come into being, gender [End Page 10] needs to be performed. This carries the opportunity for non-identical repetition, drift of meaning, and practice. There are obstacles and limits to these change processes, and these are material. In her second monograph, Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler makes clearer how gender performances are informed by and inform discourses and practices of class and race as well. The gender performance of someone like Venus Xtravaganza should not merely be judged against the carnivalesque or spectacular. As a working-class Latina trans woman, she was subject to intersecting complex conditions: marginalization in economic terms, stigmatization in racial terms, and a gender which did not seem to follow from the “proper” material base in the flesh (which was not fully intelligible in the socio-historic circumstances). With the odds stacked against her, it is sadly no surprise that her life was cut short. Any possible success of non-normative gender performance relates to the degree in which the socio-historic conditions of the gender dispositif allow for a relative departure from race, class, and gender norms in a particular individual or group of people. Caitlyn Jenner’s very public coming-out in 2015 as a trans woman and her subsequent success in managing her media image (the virtual social self) have probably been made possible by her wealth and whiteness (cf. Blay 2015).

This part has put into question the assumed dichotomy of practices and discourses. Speech act theory, Goffman’s micro-sociology, and Butler’s take on gender performativity all suggest that it does not exist. Practices, discourses, and material conditions jointly constitute a love dispositif. The material conditions of love include socio-economic factors: as Eva Illouz observes, social endogamy is still prevalent. She refers to Pierre Bourdieu when she states that we can only desire what is socially suitable to us (Illouz 1997, 210). Furthermore, the materiality of the human body plays into this. Heightened levels of oxytocin may be a little non-specific and therefore not sufficient to predict love; psychologists can, however, show that we have preferences for certain types of faces, how these preferences change (for example, under the material influence of the menstrual cycle), and that they may have an effect on our choices of love objects (Dunbar 2013, 129-131). We will keep all of this in mind as we now turn our attention back to the potentiality of love. Love is performative with all its conditions and limitations: the need for stigma management, the power of hegemonic love discourses, the force of capillary iterations of love norms, and the influence of the material and the physical.

By now turning to the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, I intend to re-activate the beacon of Critical Love Studies, which is the conviction that “love is a distinctive, creative/re-creative human capacity and energy” (Ferguson and Jónasdóttir 2014). In his Carte Postale, Derrida offers the sketch of a model of love which is performative and relational:

3 June 1977

and when I call you my love, my love, is it you I am calling or my love? You, my love, is it you I thereby name, is it to you that I address myself? I don’t know whether the question is well put, it frightens me. But I am sure that the answer, if it gets to me one day, will have come to me from you. You alone, my love, you alone will have known it. (Derrida 1987, 8) [End Page 11]

The lover names the beloved my love (mon amour), which is a declarative in the sense of Searle’s classification of performative speech acts. S/he worries, however, whether this declaration has the desired effect in the social world. As a sentimental lover s/he suspects s/he is addressing their love ideal rather than the beloved person. S/he also implies that there is a unique quality of this love (the answer to the question of the self can only come from the beloved “you”). This is where Derrida’s voice of a lover comes very close to Roland Barthes’ notion of the lover writing from a position of dependency, hurt, and self-doubt. Furthermore, Derrida’s lover is fundamentally unsure whether their utterance translates into communication. Can I “address myself” to another person and be understood?

Would like to address myself, in a straight line, directly, without courrier, only to you but I do not arrive, and that is the worst of it. A tragedy, my love, of destination. Everything becomes a postcard once more, legible for the other, even if he understands nothing about it. And if he understands nothing, certain for the moment of the contrary, it might always arrive for you, for you too, to understand nothing, and therefore for me, and therefore not to arrive, I mean at its destination. I would like to arrive to you, to arrive right up to you, my unique destiny, and I run I run I fall all the time, from one stride to the next […]. (Derrida 1987, 23)

Derrida does not actually develop this performative model of love in La Carte Postale. He also misses several opportunities to link his reflections on the alien origins of Western philosophy in Greek antiquity (the interchangeability of the “lovers” Plato and Socrates on the postcard from the Bodleian library) to Plato’s seminal Symposion (Gratzke 2015). Instead, Derrida traces non-progress (pas as step and negation) in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. An engagement by Derrida with the Symposion would have been hugely interesting because Plato’s text can be read as a performative and relational working-through of love theories available to the guests at the feast. This collection of speeches in praise of love is often understood as a linear progression towards the most insightful (Socrates’ contribution) with a comic coda (Alcibiades’ taunting of Socrates). However, read as a non-hierarchical, circular, and participatory discourse, we open ourselves up to a fuller potentiality of love as explored by all the speakers in the Symposion together. No single contribution to the debate can exhaustively explain “love”; collectively, they throw lights on the unified yet shattered fullness of love. The term “shattered love” comes from the translation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s article “L’amour en éclats” into English (2002). Eclat is a polyvalent word which in various contexts means fragment, bruit, scandale, luminosité, or splendeur.

According to Nancy, a singularity of love only exists in harbouring the potentiality of love. In other words, the langue of love is there to enable the parole of love. This way of thinking avoids a hierarchy of love acts (occurrences of love). There is no “master figure” of love. Agapé does not rule over philia or eros. Philia or eros do not (need to) strive for transcendence. They in themselves do not stand for anything but themselves. (Nancy denies the validity of the five ascending steps of love as attributed to Diotima in The Symposion.) To Nancy, the core of love is the opening up of the immanent self, which in the terminology used above can be understood as the fundamental relationality of love. Deviating from Derrida’s scepticism about and Barthes’ solipsism of romantic love, Nancy posits that love is always [End Page 12] anchored outside the self. Love can be general and particular, necessary and impossible at the same time; still, at all times it implies an ideal unity of humanity which cannot be defined or evidenced. This imaginary unity is hinted at in the shattered semantic field of the word “love” and in the diverse love dispositif of the present. My argument has thus returned via continental philosophy to Tony Milligan’s analytical assertion that “[o]penness to the possibility that we may be loved is an important human virtue”. Love comes from the outside and enables the relationality of the self, which makes the self human.

Performing narrative research.

In continuation of the passage on naming my love my love, Derrida writes:

[…] when I call you my love, is it that I am calling you, yourself, or is it that I am telling you my love? and when I tell you my love is it that I am declaring my love to you or that I am telling you, yourself, my love, and that you are my love. I want so much to tell you. (Derrida 1987, 8)

In a flirtatious manner Derrida addresses here the interplay between declaration and narration. Narration plays a part in the iterative and microscopic reproduction of relationships and through them social and cultural norms. In this sense, narration has a performative dimension, in which dynamics of norm and deviation apply directly to the social world. Narrative research, as a set of methodological approaches employed in social sciences and qualitative psychology, explores a wide range of narratives, such as “small” individual narratives, which occur naturally in everyday conversation, and “big” narratives, which help to create and to maintain bonds of larger communities. Types of narratives can also be differentiated according to their topical focus, be it “event-centred” (the account of something which has happened) or “experience-centred” (a more sustained reflection). Social scientists in their work may be mindful of the language used in the narratives they observe (or elicit) and record, or the temporal structure of the texts produced (Tamboukou, Andrews & Squire 2013). This is where this approach benefits from knowledge of discourse analysis or narratology. A core skill anyone who works with narrative research methodology ought to develop is, however, “learning to listen”:

Most qualitative researchers who conduct in-depth interviews are interested in how people make sense of their experiences and so their questions aim to elicit people’s experiences and perspectives. However, when a researcher uses narrative principles to guide her interviewing practices, she develops interview questions that focus on specific, concrete life stories. In my view, the principles of narrative analysis ground the best interviewing practice rather than being one viable option among others. In this sense, close attention to narrative principles could improve immensely the data qualitative researchers gather. (Chase 2003, 84) [End Page 13]

Close listening, like close reading, aims to create a relatively open approach to the research data in which the hypotheses (or predictions made on the basis of quantitative data) do not cover up the unique aspects to be found in qualitative material. This attitude can to some extent prevail in research, which then moves up in scale towards general patterns such as stock characters and commonly used storylines: success, redemption, loss etc. (Phoenix 2013). Particularly pertinent here is our tendency to create “personal myths”, which are part and parcel of love relations both in their maintenance through iterative shared performance, and in their public presentation (McAdams 1997, 11-2). Discourse analysis is admittedly more concerned with general patterns than with individual flavour, but it nevertheless offers good insight into the role language and language use play in the creation and performance of identity and of social reality (Paltridge 2012). Teun van Dijk’s work (2009) regarding the relationship between socio-historical contexts and individual language use marks a promising departure from some earlier, rather more “mechanical” concepts. He posits that contexts are not given but created in each occurrence of discourse. Individual users of language constantly negotiate their relationship with various contexts:

The new theory of context further explored in this book emphasizes that the relation between society and discourse is indirect, and mediated by the socially based but subjective definitions of the communicative situation as they are construed and dynamically updated by the participants. These definitions are made explicit in sociocognitive terms, namely as context models stored in the episodic (“autobiographical”) memory of the participants, just like any other social experience. The mediating interface constituted by these context models – construing and ongoingly monitoring the relevant properties of communicative situations – accounts for a vast number of properties of discourse. (van Dijk 2009, 7-8)

This implies a dynamic understanding of the relationship between norm and deviation, pattern and occurrence. The research process which follows from this understanding does not seek to detect the footprints of socio-historic institutions in the analysed text or talk, but to explore the ways in which the writer, speaker, or interviewee negotiates the tension between the individual and the general. Examples for complex constructions of context may include over-affirmation (an insistence that there is nothing special in their narrative when there is evidently a deviation from the norm) or self-aggrandisation (a claim to be free from any precedence when there is only a standard storyline detectable).

Bearing these points in mind, we now move to recent conceptualizations of narratology, which are based on notions of emplotment, sequentiality, eventfulness, tellability, and the intricate relationship fictionality has with notions of reality, auto-fiction, and imagination (Abbot n.d.). Myth-making is an integral part of these processes. It covers “personal myths”, which may be individual or shared between (romantic) partners, as well as the narratives produced in communicative and cultural memory (Assmann 2008). This approach anchors literary narratology in a wider trans-genre and trans-media field of narratological research and memory studies, which chimes with my assertion that narrative research, discourse analysis, and narratology basically aim to achieve the same things. [End Page 14]

To introduce a well-known example, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) tells its story from the perspective of a man, Rob Fleming, who has been “rejected”. It starts out by Rob as the first-person narrator making a list of top five break-ups with the aim of proving (in his head) to his most recent departed girlfriend Laura that she is not the one who has hurt him most (1). This pattern of rejection is his personal myth to which some of Hornby’s readers may be able to relate, as it seems to carry emotional pertinence: often it feels like we are the one to whom stuff always happens (which quite possibly is a perception bias). Later on in the book Rob tries to deviate from this pattern to break up the stranglehold of his personal myth:

When I saw Laura outside the shop I knew absolutely, without any question at all, that I wanted her again. But that is probably because she‘s the one doing the rejecting. If I can get her to concede that there is a chance we‘ll patch things up, that makes things easier for me: if I don’t have to go around feeling hurt, and powerless, and miserable, I can cope without her (1995, 86).

The first sentence contains a simple declaration, which is that Rob feels he would prefer to be back together with Laura. This statement, however, is broken up by a double, progressing emphasis that he knows this “absolutely” and “without any question at all”. Why say this twice? These assurances that Rob “knows” for sure already seem to defend a momentary feeling of emotional authenticity against the next part, in which he turns the emotional event into a tellable experience on which he can reflect. This reflection starts with “but” in a new sentence, which marks the cognitive labour needed in an effort to normalise the experience. It now needs to fit Rob’s personal myth that he always gets rejected, it needs to fit his plot. His emplotment sounds philosophically speculative: he wishes her to “concede” that there was a “chance” of reconciliation. This idea moves seamlessly (a comma, not a full stop separates the next thought) into a reflection on his stigma, his actual social self, which is that he has to “go around” in public (we may assume) “feeling hurt, and powerless, and miserable”. The importance of all three emotions is stressed by linking them with “and” twice. This list seems to put Rob into the category of the “wretched” lover (Barthes). His perceived lack of “power” is ideologically significant. Rob is, in large parts of the book, concerned with being seen as less masculine than other men (1995, 13-4, 51, 86 etc.). He struggles with his investment in hegemonic masculinity. In fact, Laura’s professional success and greater economic power are major factors in this (70). The passage ends with a surprise, a miniature plot twist. Rob turns his initial event-centred objective (the feeling that he unconditionally wants to be back together with Laura) on its head. If there were an indication that Laura relinquished some of her power to reject him, Rob feels he would be sufficiently restored in his personhood to “cope without her”.

A lot of our assessment of this passage (and indeed the book) rests on the implied author whose presence and guidance we read in/into the text. If we think of the first-person narrator and the implied author as allies, we will be more likely to accept the context model offered by Rob himself (women reject him, he would be better off if he regained a sense of self-determination). If we make the assumption (based possibly on our knowledge of other books by the same author) that we are to understand the limitations of Rob’s perspective, we may want to think of Rob’s warped logic as an expression of hegemonic masculinity fighting back against the emotional, economic and social ascent of women. Or, thirdly, we [End Page 15] could interpret this passage as Rob’s attempt to understand an event (his emotions having seen Laura walk past his business) without making them fit his personal myth completely. There is a small difference between feeling rejected (beginning of the book) and desiring a glimmer of hope in order not to feel dependent anymore (the passage quoted above). The narrative entirety of the book does not offer a final assessment. There is no space here to lay out the full plot or its eventfulness and sequentiality, but Rob and Laura do get back together after a series of emotionally significant events (such as the death of her father, where Rob can offer support through familiarity and physical intimacy). In return, if we want to think of this in economic terms, Laura helps to restore some of Rob’s virtual self by organising a club night where he can reconnect with his youthful glory days as a DJ. His sudden proposal of marriage, however, is triggered by a sense of helplessness – he cannot help flirting with other women: “that stupid girl” who has approached him as the cool DJ (238). Rob tells Laura:

See, I have always been afraid of marriage because of, you know, ball and chain, I want my freedom, all that. But when I was thinking about that stupid girl I suddenly saw it was the opposite: that if you got married to someone you know you love, and sort yourself out, it frees you up for other things. I know you don’t know how you feel about me, but I do know how I feel about you. I know I want to stay with you and I keep pretending otherwise, to myself and you, and we just limp on and on. It’s like we sign a new contract every few weeks or so, and I don’t want that any more. And I know that if we got married I would take it seriously, and I wouldn’t want to mess about. (1995, 241-2)

Laura is understandably sceptical regarding Rob’s intentions, but at the end of the novel the reader is treated to some hope. The club night is a success, and Rob plans a mix tape for Laura which is based on music she knows and would like to hear, and not music Rob thinks she should know and appreciate. He is at least momentarily dropping his very late teenage focus on being able to tell cool from uncool pop culture (245). Rob is making baby steps towards accepting the relationality of love as something in which he gives loving attention to Laura rather than obsessing either over his perceived lack of male physical and economic prowess or Laura’s suitability for his pop cultural sensibilities.

This interpretation comes dangerously close to treating Rob Fleming as if he were a real person and not a character in a book. What I have been trying to show, though, is how a close reading interacts with an understanding of context, here expressed in reflections on the implied author and our take on the works of the paratextual real-world author. An equivalent of this dynamic is to be found in the negotiations in which Critical Love Studies engage with the love dispositif at large and interview bias in particular. Interviewee and interviewer will make assumptions over the type of considerations which are socially acceptable to be expressed in the given situation. Neither side will want to reveal too large a gap between virtual and actual social self. This joint bias may be mitigated by creating an environment where acceptance is the basis of communication. If love is what people say it is and not what researchers say it should be or what participants believe they are supposed to say, we will collectively further our understanding.

We can take Plato’s Symposion as a model if we read it as a participatory, non-hierarchical, and, in its circularity, open-ended event which gives space to a number of speakers to reflect on shared and competing love myths. No individual contribution to the [End Page 16] Symposion exhausts the potentiality of love or the richness of experiences of love. In their polyphony and potentially cacophony they illustrate the fragment, bruit, scandale, luminosité, and splendeur of Nancy’s shattered love (l’amour en éclat). Obviously the Symposion reflects an extremely privileged socio-historic environment which has been part of a male-centred academic canon for centuries. What I want to carry into modern day participatory research is the celebratory atmosphere. The speakers of the Symposion disagree over many – indeed most – things, but they are united in the belief that love is of crucial value to people’s being in the world and being in time (mythical, historical, and biographical time). Alcibiades’ taunting of Socrates makes a good example of a performative exploration of love which has its place in a multi-methodological approach for community-based participatory research or CBPR (Israel, Jason 2012).

The research context of my study of occurrences, communications, performances, and representations of love is the work of Hull Critical Love Studies, a research group which brings together the expertise of medical sociology, clinical psychology, and cultural studies. In terms of CBPR, we are planning to run a series of focus groups, writing workshops, and a book club during 2017-18. The outcomes of these will be complemented by in-depth interviews with a range of participants. The over-arching theme for Hull Critical Love Studies is “Love in a Lifespan”, given the research interests in youth work, family displays, old age, and end of life present in the group. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) and Stephen Frear’s film adaptation will feature in my work with people who have gone through break-ups or divorce. This links with the theme of loss important in work with the spouses of people with dementia. Following from our starting point that “love is a distinctive, creative/re-creative human capacity and energy” (Ferguson & Jónasdóttir 2014), we will listen closely to nuance in the narratives produced, performed and discussed during the project with the aim of furthering our understanding of loss as an integral part of love which may very well be traumatic but probably is far less complete than we commonly believe. Meg-John Barker, in their book Rewriting the Rules, asks some pertinent questions about ending a relationship (2013, 130-46). Do we have to see every end of a relationship as a failure? Do we have to cast either side as good? Do we have to stop talking to, stop having some kind of relationship with our ex? The last point is easily dismissed when we look at the many people who, after a potentially difficult time, manage to share responsibility for children. What if we looked at the end of relationships as a common and integral part of relationships? What if the values we upheld while in a relationship were extended to the time and the people involved beyond the end of the intimate relationship? Performative non-identical repetition, we have seen in earlier examples, is productive and can be made to bring forth positive change, provided the critical mass of love acts is reached over a period of time. The potentiality of love may very well extend to former partners and spouses. [End Page 17]

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[End Page 20]


Loving over Skype: Tactile Viewing, Emotional Atmospheres and Video Calling
by Yvonne Clarke-Salt

[End Page 1]


I meet Camilla and Rolf at an independent café on a weekday morning in the El Portal area of Barcelona. Camilla is a 29-year-old American who came to Barcelona as a student, and who stayed on so that she and Rolf could pursue their relationship. She now works for a web-based start-up in a central part of the city. Rolf, a 27-year-old Swedish man, had recently moved back to Barcelona from Sweden, and was working on his master’s thesis. Rolf eats a croissant filled with Nutella, and we all sip our artisan coffees. While Rolf gets on with his much-needed breakfast, Camilla begins to recount some of the early part of their story. As she speaks she glances in his direction continually, as though to check that he agrees with what she’s saying. His chewing seems to go in time with reflective nodding, indicating that he has no objections so far. Camilla’s glances at her boyfriend’s face soon become focussed on something more than agreement though, as unbeknownst to Rolf, the Nutella is slowly spreading itself around his mouth and beyond. She giggles. ‘You’ve got it everywhere,’ she says in a gentle tone, laughing as she pulls a paper napkin from the holder to gently wipe it off. He tries to wipe it himself, but without a mirror he can’t see what he’s doing. She carries on with their story while she wipes, but the Nutella is still making its presence felt: ‘You’ve got chocolate here…it’s everywhere!’ she laughs. He laughs too. ‘Freaking Nutella,’ he says. Camilla starts a sentence, ‘I just wanna…’ then hesitates. ‘A wet-wipe?’ I suggest. ‘Well, that, yeah. And I wanna lick it,’ and I then realise we may not be on the same wavelength. Camilla carries on with the story but, croissant devoured, Rolf is free to ‘chip in at any time’, as Camilla suggests. So he does, ‘Well, that’s not entirely correct…’ he begins.

The above vignette illustrates the physicality of love relationships, how love is embodied, and tacitly understood and felt. Camilla’s glances towards her partner and her desire to lick chocolate off his face highlight how proximity, intimacy, and love seem inextricable. Yet this couple, like the others in this study, spent much of the early part of their relationship living in different countries, negotiating their relationship and love for each other over distance. How, then, can this kind of physical intimacy be negotiated over distance?

During periods of absence, the couples I interviewed found ways to foster their love which often involved video calling. Amelie, a French woman living with her Spanish boyfriend in Brussels, said “we talked so much […] almost every day,” and a Belgian woman said that she and her Chilean partner “always try to get the time, always a lot of time in Skype.” This contact is more than simply staying in touch. Without being physically close, these couples found other ways to communicate these embodied emotions. As Juan, a Spanish man living in Brussels with his Spanish partner, said: “when I started like [pause] beginning to feel something for her […] like just for being sure, that I could write her if I wanted to, I took also my Spanish phone like with me to every place…” Using mobile phones as well as video calling allowed them to have both spontaneous contact and more sustained communication. Some couples speculated that being away from their partner [End Page 2] would have been much more difficult without technology. A Romanian woman, Annika, married to Roger, a Belgian man, commented that “we have also […] we had also Skype and phones I think. Some years ago it would be harder”, and she compared this to his parents, who also had a distance relationship, as she felt that “for your parents was harder for sure […] they did it like by letters”. Like Annika, other couples commented that a live video connection made them feel closer. The virtual space that video calling creates allowed for visceral connections between the distant partners.

Video communication has its limits, though. Skype might be more convenient than writing letters, but it can still be frustrating, as Annika continued, “when you want to communicate something and you’re not home or [don’t] have internet it’s a bit difficult”, and Roger agreed: “Yeah, and also you had no internet everywhere, 3G was not existing.” To overcome this annoyance, they developed a system of calls. Annika asked Roger, “do you remember the communication system we were having?” and then explained, “we had missed calls. Look one, two, three. Two missed calls – call me, three missed calls – we see each other on Skype [laughing]”, and through this they were able to find ways of getting around technological problems. For couples such as Charles and Emma, however, who lived in Spain and Australia respectively, a time difference of ten hours made video communication difficult. Charles reflected, “Skype, with twelve hours of time difference, I mean, I got up at seven in the morning so that Emma could call – we could talk at eight in the evening, her time.” They eventually relied more on email and text because of the time difference, indicating that simultaneous communication, such as by Skype, might be more suited to similar time zones.

This paper draws on research interviews taken from my PhD research on love migrants. The aim of the broader research project is to understand how and why people move for love, and is comprised of 51 narrative interviews carried out in Barcelona, Brussels, and London in 2015 and 2016. The couples that took part were interviewed together, usually in their homes, but sometimes in a coffee shop or café which the participants chose. Most interviews lasted around 90 minutes, though they ranged from 40 minutes to four and a half hours. For this paper, I focus on comments made by a number of the couples about their use of Skype.

Skype has become popular since it was first developed in Estonia in 2003. Microsoft bought it in 2011 for US$8.5 billion, and it is estimated that there are 40 million Skype users online at peak times (Miller and Sinanan 2014, 2-3). Most, if not all, of my participants used Skype, and often they used this interchangeably with “video calling” in general, regardless of whether they were using the platform of Skype or not. My aim in this paper is to focus on one specific aspect of how romantic partners communicate via Skype: the negotiation and maintenance of emotional closeness.

A decade ago, commentators who focused on the use of internet communication spoke of the dangers that disembodied communication could have for identity politics (e.g. Hardy 2002). The concern with technologies such as email, texting, chat rooms, and Facebook then was that they allowed people to adopt online identities which were not specific to their material body. The video calling between the romantic partners which I look at in this paper is quite distinct from this, as they are already known to each other, and because Skype “conveys something of the materiality of bodies” (Longhurst 2013, 665). Nevertheless, while video calling is primarily about seeing, emotional closeness is not limited to that. As the vignette which opens this paper highlights, small, intimate acts are [End Page 3] intrinsic parts of love relationships. My main question in this paper, then, is how can seeing one’s romantic partner on a screen encourage emotional connections between romantic partners? More specifically, what are the practices that romantic partners engage in when using Skype which enable them to feel emotionally connected?

In this article I will argue that the answers to these questions can be found by paying attention to the ways in which these couples used Skype. I will engage with Sara Ahmed’s idea of emotions being a “thickness in the air” (2004, 10) to examine how couples, such as Camilla and Rolf, introduced above, negotiate emotional aspects of their relationship via Skype calls, and argue that a more visceral understanding of the body can help us understand how emotions are communicated and felt.

Arguing for an embodied, visceral understanding of how couples use video calling might suggest that there is a need to enhance the technology used for this with physical body substitutes. Computer engineers who have developed products intended to be held, kissed, or felt in lieu of the partner’s physical body have explored this idea. “Sleepy Whispers” (Gooch & Watts 2012) is one example of this sort of technology, which is a way of sending recorded sound messages to one’s partner. The device is a pillow with a speaker inside and a photo frame with a button to play the messages. This device’s intended use “is that people record and send messages during the day to be listened to just before their partner goes to sleep”, (Gooch & Watts 2012, 61). Once each message has been listened to, it is deleted automatically.

Another example of this sort of technology is “kiss messaging” (Saadtian et al 2014), an apparatus which apparently “provides a physical interface for transmitting a kiss between two remotely connected people” (Saadtian et al 2014, 736), named “Kissinger” by its developers, a combination of kiss and messenger. The developers describe the process of how it works thus: “Each device is paired with another and the amount of force and shape of the kiss by the user is sensed and transmitted to another device that is replicated using actuators” (Saadtian et al 2014, 736). In trials, respondents said: “Once we kissed each other by Kissinger interface, we laughed a lot because we suddenly heard an unexpected sound of motors which was funny” (Saadtian et al 2014, 744). Others said that they became emotionally invested in the object, as it was particular to the couple. There were some reservations about it however, such as the “lips” being too hard, it being embarrassing to use in public, or it provoking doubts about fidelity – as one respondent said: “I was feeling guilty kissing a robot and suggested my partner, to stop using it. This sparked a conversation between me and my partner, but at the end, we were convinced that there is nothing wrong. I could consider Kissinger as a tool to reach to my partner, not a kiss machine.”

However, these, and numerous other devices like them, fall short of the experience of a real body, and become more unnerving the closer they get to replicating human appearance (Saadatian et al 2014). These devices focus on filling in the lack of the other’s physical presence and attempting to replace it with another object, namely the device itself. But what I want to draw attention to, by thinking through the visceral nature of emotions, is how emotions and the body are inseparable. This means understanding that the body desires to touch and be touched, but also that our bodies are integral to our own understanding of how we feel. [End Page 4]

Theorising Emotions

Emotions have been subject to varying definitions over time and across disciplines, ranging from them being functional evolutionary systems (e.g. Darwin 2007/1872), to culturally distinct, internal states communicated through language (e.g. Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990), to relational and embodied ways of being (e.g. Ahmed 2004). This final position, that emotions are relational and embodied, is the one I adopt in this paper. This raises interesting questions when considering how emotions might be embodied through the virtual medium of Skype. How does it create virtual spaces which link geographically separate ones?

In her influential work The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed (2004) is convincing in her call for emotions to be seen as social, embodied and context dependent. Emotions “stick” to bodies that they “make and shape”, as well as circulate between them (Ahmed 2004, 4). Rather than dwell on the origins of emotions or distinctions between the bodily and “intellectual” aspects of emotion, Ahmed focuses on what emotions do, thinking through both how emotions have an affect on us and how we have an affect on others. She uses the idea of “impression” to “avoid making analytical distinctions between bodily sensation, emotion and thought as if they could be ‘experienced’ as distinct realms of human ‘experience’” (Ahmed 2004, 6), thus emphasising that the body and emotions are not separate. Her conceptualisation of emotions in this way is useful as it incorporates bodies which act upon each other.

As emotions are directed at something, be that another person, an object, a memory and so on, “they involve (re)actions or relations of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’” (Ahmed 2004, 8). As such, they are relational. Highlighting the relational qualities of emotions does away with both the idea that emotions are internal states which are expressed “outwards”, or that they are cultural practices which influence the individual, which creates an “outside in model” (Ahmed 2004, 9). Ahmed argues for an understanding of emotions which does not presume they are “something that ‘we have’” (2004, 10), and invites us to think that “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others” (2004, 10). Thus, emotions are not objects which we possess internally and express externally. They are what “create[s] the very effect of an inside and an outside” (2004, 10). The objects of emotions circulate and emotions surround us like “a thickness in the air, or an atmosphere” (2004, 10). Ahmed’s view that emotions are orientated and can thus be near or far away from an object, and that they can move, is useful when thinking about how space and distance play a role in romantic relationships. In the context of this paper, the stickiness of emotions can create connections between bodies which are geographically separate.

A view of love as embodied and related to sexual desire suggests that it is highly physical and therefore proximal, requiring the touching of “real” bodies. Contemporary understandings of intimacy as about disclosure (Giddens 1992), and of sex as “an expression of intimacy” (Giddens 1991, 164), suggest a “coming together” of two people to become one, where distance between romantic partners, both intellectual and physical, is eliminated. In the context of couples who live in different countries, it is interesting to consider how physical and emotional closeness might be achieved. Within the rhetoric of [End Page 5] disclosing intimacy, partners in romantic relationships must reveal every aspect of themselves until there is no space between them. Yet despite the need to reduce distance, and the embodied, physical nature of love, research has shown that intimate relationships can be negotiated and maintained over distance.

This research shows that while some live apart because they have to, others live apart through choice. Deciding to live apart can mean that neither partner has to give up work or move away from intimate relationships with friends or family. Decreasing social pressure for women to move into the man’s household has afforded some women greater independence (Levin and Trost 1999), but it does not necessarily relieve them of their gendered duty to care (Holmes 2004) or alter normative gender roles. Relationships over distance can be facilitated by technology (Levin and Trost 1999), although not for all couples, as technology is unequally accessible to those with low financial means (Parreñas 2001). However, as the stories in this paper demonstrate, technology can be a useful medium to open up virtual space and foster emotional exchange and connection.

Proximity does not necessarily equate to intimacy (Thien 2005). Thus, physical closeness does not always bring about emotional intimacy. The idea of intimacy as disclosure and the “pure” relationship (Giddens 1991) has been critiqued for the romanticised view of equality that it entails (Jamieson 1999) and the fact that it assumes a stable view of the self (Thien 2005, 201). However, if we understand intimacy “to involve unstable and/or strange selves ‘as others’, it can be read differently such that distance does not separate in the same way, and neither does proximity (simply) bind” (Thien 2005, 201). This is useful when thinking through how emotions are experienced over video calling as this means, then, that we can understand people as emotionally desiring bodies, who need closeness, emotional and physical, sexual and non-sexual, for emotional fulfilment.

The idea of emotions as oriented has inspired Morrison et al (2013) to think in more detail about the spatiality of emotion: in particular, love. As Morrison et al (2013) point out, while there may be “emotional geographies” (e.g. Davidson, Bondi and Smith 2005), there need also to be specifically “geographies of love” because love “like any other notion needs to be held up to critical scrutiny” (2013, 506). Morrison et al speculate that specific and sustained academic engagement with love has not happened perhaps “because love continues to be a feminized topic, associated with ‘private’ spaces and feelings, and it is discursively constructed in, for example, popular culture as ‘women’s gossip’” (2013, 506). For Morrison et al, love should be considered in its own right, because “[h]ow, where and what one loves is deeply political” (2013, 506).

Ideas about emplacement, proximity, and embodiment are particularly pertinent here as ideas as to how love might be geographically emplaced and then how it might transcend geographical boundaries underpin this paper. Practices which couples engage in to show their love for each other and create closeness should be understood as emplaced, whether in a physically existing environment or a virtual one. Engagement with this might further understanding of the life-world of love in both virtual and non-virtual space. Furthermore, more attention needs to be paid to the array of everyday practices which couples use to express their love: the sexual aspects of love relationships should not be seen as privileged instances of physical demonstrations of love. Wiping Nutella off your boyfriend’s chin is as important to understanding the physicality of love as the sexual realm. [End Page 6]

This echoes earlier calls from scholars who criticised the tendency for researchers to engage with practices surrounding love but to ignore love itself. Toye (2010) suggests that it is “the logic of synecdoche” which has hampered academic engagement with love; by substituting it for other terms, researchers have not fully engaged with critical reflections on love. In the field of social science, work which focuses on love has tended to this logic of substitution. For example, work which focuses specifically on love and the Internet has sought to understand parental care and authority (King-O’Riain 2015; Longhurst 2013; Miller & Madianou 2012; Parreñas 2001), sibling support (Coe 2013), intergenerational family care (Longhurst 2013), and maintaining families ties across distance (e.g. Oduor & Neustaedter 2014). Work which focuses on romantic love has looked toward sexual practices (Baker 2000; Ben-Ze’ev 2004; Meenagh 2015), infidelity, coming out, dating sites, and how sexual relationships are found and maintained over the internet (Valentine 2006). But, if, as hooks argues, “care does not mean we are loving” (2000, 8), then sex does not always mean love either.

Research on love may also have been neglected because “topics that are associated with rationality and reason” (Morrison et al 2013, 507) are more widely recognised as suitable for research, or because as Toye (2010) reminds us, “Unlike the discourse of sex, which evokes the risqué and the transgressive, the topic of love suggests a conservatism or even a denial of politics, not to mention an aura of naïvete , sentimentality and religiosity” (40). But this focus on sexual practices and a lack of attention to love suggests that love and sex can be separated. Emotional life has certainly been overlooked in academic research, but the binary opposition which has been set up between sex and love is also unhelpful. In particular, if desire, which is an important part of sex, is an emotion, then sex is part of emotional life. Interrogating sex and sexuality may originally have been intended to destabilise and unsettle heteronormative views of sex, but in the context of migration this has meant that “sexuality tends to be mapped onto the bodies of migrant sex workers, rather than being understood as something that all migrants enact” (Walsh, Shen and Willis 2008, 575), so “ordinary” sexual intimacy has been neglected. Questioning the academic separation of love from sex allows us to think through the ways that the two are related and contingent, and to develop a critical understanding of love.

Thinking through love as relational, spatial, political, and visceral, and focusing on what love does, opens up the discussion of love to critical debate. Increasing the scrutiny that academic research on love is subject to will reduce the possibility that love is essentialised or held to be placeless, mysterious, and disembodied. This in turn will enrich scholarship on intimacy, emotions, and love.

Long Calls and Emotional Atmospheres: Cohabiting Through Skype

Couples in distance relationships sometimes use Skype as a way of cohabiting. Rolf and Camilla, for example, met while they were both students on an exchange in Barcelona; however, they met at the very end of Rolf’s stay and only spent a couple of weeks together before he had to return to Sweden. They were living in different countries for much of the initial part of their relationship, and used Skype to get to know each other and develop their relationship. They took turns to visit each other approximately once a month, and [End Page 7] despite missing each other and wanting to be together they found using video calls useful at the start of their relationship.

Camilla: It was actually, I thought it was really wonderful for the beginning of our relationship to be honest.

Rolf: I think you get to know each other in a different way.

Camilla: Absolutely. And we had to be creative and, um, it was I think it was wonderful. I think it was much easier that we lived apart than we would have been dating for a long time and then separated to be honest, um, because I was used to being alone and I was used to sleeping alone and so it wasn’t anything out of the norm other than missing him and not being able to share experiences with him which of course I wanted but, it wasn’t so difficult as it would be now probably that we’ve been living together like in the same city and everything.

As well as the information about cultural differences which they exchanged, they also shared more personal information through their Skype calls:

Camilla: In the very early stages of our relationship we shared some very vulnerable things with each other which again, we were not physically in the same place and we were sharing these things and it really helped both of us feel like we could trust the other person and that it wasn’t something that we were just like in it for like fun.

These calls, though, were not short focused conversations, despite their planning for topics of discussion. They used Skype for extended periods of time, which allowed them to see each other going about their everyday lives. Camilla said:

Camilla: We started having Skype calls and our first Skype call was seven hours. It was insane, and I say […] ‘as if like that was long!’ The first one was seven hours, the second one was six hours, the third one was like eight hours. I don’t even know […] what we talked about.

They described how, on these calls, they would not stay in front of the camera talking all the time, but would get on with their everyday activities.

Camilla: They were so crazy epic long because we just like carried about our lives with Skype on and I was working from home so we could do everything and just leave the computer on – ‘I’m gonna go make tea’, come back ‘oh, I’m gonna go make a tea too.’ I mean, just you could live with that person through the computer. I mean it’s crazy […] I mean it’s incredible. It’s so incredible we did that, I mean, we just lived with Skype on really, I mean that’s the best way to put it. Like, we lived our life with Skype. I would even be giving telephone [End Page 8] classes sometimes and it was on. He was studying, listening to me correct English [laughs] and things like that.

This use of video calls is sometimes called ‘always-on’ communication (Neustaedter et al 2015), which refers to a video connection which is left open for long periods of time, often becoming a background presence rather than a focused phone call. This type of connection has been used in work environments to assist colleague communication (Mantei et al 1991; Bly et al 1997), as a means for transnational families to stay in touch (Oduor & Neustaedter 2014), and has been documented as common practice by couples who live apart (Neustaedter et al 2015; Gooch & Watts 2012; Saadtian et al 2014, Miller & Sinanan 2014). In terms of domestic use in homes among family and people with intimate relationships, always-on communication is said to support emotional connections between participants.

For example, King-O’Riain goes as far as to call always-on video “emotional streaming” (2015, 256), such is the poignancy of the emotional connectivity for the families and couples in her study. The couples she interviewed often used Skype to capture “the ebb and flow of daily life” (2015, 10). The visual channel was particularly popular with young children as it made relatives who were geographically distant more “real” and emotional ties to them were felt “more deeply” as seeing their family members smiling and so on would change the children’s behaviour. Similar ideas about visual connections and emotional closeness were highlighted in Longhurst’s (2013) study of mothering over Skype in which she explores “how seeing one’s child or children affects mothers’ feelings towards their children” (664, emphasis in original). The mothers were able to reassure themselves of the child’s wellbeing by seeing them running around, smiling, laughing and so on. Thus, the image on the screen of the mother or the child can “promote different feelings of proximity (distance and closeness)” (2013, 667) for each.

Longhurst draws on Ahmed (2004) to show how the image of the child on the screen and the computer itself are signs which have become “sticky” with emotion and affect, “‘sticky’ with everydayness, with missing and reconnecting with family members and friends” (Longhurst 2013, 672). Children would take great delight in showing their drawings to grandparents, who enjoyed watching the children playing and doing day-to-day activities. For particularly young children who are unable to articulate themselves, visual cues are clearly important for the adults who care for them. Vision has been privileged as superior to other senses in Western cultures, and as such, seeing provides “something of an epistemological guarantee” (Longhurst 2013, 671), and exchanging visual information like facial expressions could encourage trust and intimacy (King-O’Riain 2015, 6).

However, despite increasing visuality in some parts of life (Rose 2001, 2), it remains unclear what the relationship between the visual and the material is. Thus, as Rose and Tolia-Kelly (2012) suggest, importance should not only be given to the visual, but also “to attend to the relationships between the ‘visual’ and the ‘material’, and to explore what kinds of new thinking might emerge in that intersection” (1, emphasis in original). This is particularly poignant if we are to consider emotions not simply as discourses or practices, but as embodied and relational.

Having the video call in the background creates a space which is visual, yet does not rely solely on sight for the “atmosphere” of emotions to develop. As Rolf put it in the [End Page 9] interview, “adds one extra element, […] adds another dimension which is very important.” In this case, unlike King-O’Riain’s and Longhurst’s examples, in which sight and visual stimulus were important, for this couple, the emphasis was on what was between the visual and the material. Camilla and Rolf were using Skype as a way to sense the presence of their partner, rather than to read their body language. This seems particularly poignant to romantic couples as it can “effectively reproduce the grounded experience of intimacy as the initial period of living together” (Miller & Sinanan 2014, 57). Always-on use, as well as creating an emotional space, allows the “fit” of social roles to be tried out and “stretches intimacy beyond the boundaries of the domestic” (Valentine 2006, 387). The long duration calls provided a window into the mundane, the everyday, which this couple saw this as an approximation of living together. As Camilla said, “We were co-habitating with Skype on.”

Always-on video calls could also relate to Giddens’ (1992) ideas about disclosure, with confluent love being dependent on complete openness between partners. Yet this need for disclosure could also indicate a desire to monitor the other’s behaviour, to see what they are “really” doing when they are “alone”. Other technologies which have been developed to assist couples who are in distance relationships have provoked jealousy rather than soothed the pain of longing. For example, a mattress which heats up when the absent partner is in bed (Goodman & Misilim 2015) is meant to make the couple feel closer to each other when they sleep apart. However, when the mattress does not heat up at night, or when the entire mattress heats up, suggesting more than one person is in the bed, the technology can provoke problems of mistrust.

While always-on communication could prompt feelings of jealousy or a need to monitor, there is much to suggest that it is used in a more positive way by couples in love relationships. Like the families in Longhurst’s (2013) study, couples used Skype to share their daily lives. Whereas families used always-on communication to demonstrate visually, couples spent much of their time not looking at each other, but simply sensing or knowing that the other was there, experiencing the “thickness in the air” (Ahmed 2004) which the presence of their partner created. This may be because communication between two adults is quite distinct from communication with a young child. Despite this, Longhurst (2013) points out that older children often preferred to have no video connection when speaking to their parents as they found it could be too intense and invasive. I will pick up this idea of the video call being too intense in the next section. For now, I will consider other reasons why not all communication between adults moves toward “always-on” use.

Some couples used Skype more conventionally as “visual telephony” (Miller & Sinanan 2014). This was either through choice or because practical reasons, such as large time differences, compelled them to a more structured use. Other couples also commented that if the Internet connection was not very good they became frustrated as the connection was cutting off frequently. This draws attention to how wanting to use video connections can sometimes limit where people can connect. Needing a fast Internet connection might mean using Skype on a laptop in an Internet café, which may not afford the degree of privacy desired by couples. Being in a public café certainly would seem to inhibit “always-on” communication. So, always-on Skyping seems to require a reasonably private environment.

Skyping also requires time. Another couple experienced isolation from other areas of their life because they were trying to find time to Skype their partner. Faye, a 24-year-old Belgian woman, and Carlos, a 26-year-old Chilean man, were living together in Brussels [End Page 10] when I met them. Over the past few years of their relationship, they had spent much time apart in their respective countries and had used Skype to contact each other. They commented:

Carlos: Almost every day we Skype or by Facebook. We spend a lot of time in front of the computer.

Faye: And sometimes you really, or at least like I had some times like ‘OK, I’m going to Skype this evening’ and the other evening and people ask me ‘oh, do you want to drink something? Or go out’ ‘No, no because I have to talk to my boyfriend,’ and in the end you really feel like and if he’s maybe not coming because of some reason and you’re waiting there you look ‘where is he?’ and you really feel like somehow mmm depending really depending on each other and that you maybe lose other things here maybe because of the Skype all the time and that can be hard I think yeah.

This example shows how finding time to speak to one’s partner meant not spending time with friends. Their comments highlight how waiting to communicate on Skype can become an isolating influence, as needing to be at home in front of the computer means that socialising with others is not always possible. Despite wanting to talk to and see each other, arranging to meet for Skype calls caused problems when one of them could not connect to the Internet or had been held up and was late for the appointment. This comment also hints at the ways that dedication to the couple relationship can cause the couple to become “social isolates” (Gerstel & Gross 1984, 67-71) because of the work that a distance relationship requires.

As Miller and Sinanan (2014) have also observed, always-on video calling shares “the intimacy of taking for granted the co-presence of the other” (55), and the intimacy is felt most greatly when there is no pressure to communicate explicitly. Therefore, having to make an appointment to see each other on Skype works against this. While for some this method is the most comfortable, allowing them to continue on with their lives in their homes with the felt presence of their partner, for others it is impractical and emphasises their separation. This is in part because using video to connect requires them to be at home where they have a reliable internet connection and privacy. The practical issue of needing a good connection mean that they are separated from other aspects of their lives, such as going out with friends.

Video calling is a visually intense form of communication which is perhaps not suited to a public environment (Miller & Sinanan 2014). Several couples felt that they could only really Skype their partner from their bedroom. The visual intensity and emotional concentration of video calls to a missed loved one seem suited to a familiar, comforting environment. Despite the spatial fluidity of Skype technology – it can be used in an internet café, on a laptop in a coffee shop, on a phone in the street – the need to use it in the privacy of one’s own home makes it geographically quite specific and limited. The relationship work which takes place through this virtual medium is embedded in a geographically specific time and place. [End Page 11]

Falling Asleep and Haptic Looking

The immediacy of the image might encourage emotional connections in some ways, but the visual closeness of the experience it might also be too intense. As Longhurst’s research (2013) shows, looking can seem confrontational and invasive. Whereas the young children in Longhurst’s study might cry at the immediacy of seeing a family member on screen, the couples in this study found their own ways to mediate the magnitude of the experience.

For Pierre, from France, and Gabby, a Spanish woman, Skype made them very aware that they were apart.

Gabby: We became a bit too sad sometimes cuz… I don’t know, you are alone, and I don’t know, you hear the other person’s voice and I don’t know […] I think, for example we prefer to text […] we share more by text.

Pierre: …with Skype, I don’t know, I found [it] useless sometimes.

For these two people, Skype was not their preferred medium for intimacy. The presence of their loved one on camera heightened their feelings of loneliness and longing for each other which provoked feelings of sadness.

Pierre: I mean we have lots of memories that we were just laying down on the sofa, just listening to each other breathing or…because we didn’t feel speaking, just wanted to be together but then […] like you don’t have the cool part, which is touching each other, and pffff, that’s why I found it [Skype} so boring, you know.

It also limited their topics of conversation; They found, as Gabby put it, that they spoke only “about feelings and emotions” on Skype. As Pierre said, they “don’t exchange much” via Skype about their daily lives. Pierre commented that Skype was “useless” as it did not allow them to share their lives. It was stifling and stilted. Communicating via text, however, meant that they could send spontaneous messages throughout the day about their activities. They usually needed to plan their Skype calls, and these often took place at the end of the day. This lack of spontaneity and the timing of the calls made them feel routine, uncomfortable, and restrictive.

It seems that the intensity of communicating in this way became a burden, as the visual immediacy was at once intense and frustrating. The presence of one’s partner on the screen was “even more in one’s face than co-presence” (Miller & Sinanan 2014, 55), and running out of conversation or feeling obliged to stay in front of the camera can lead to “a de-contextualized mutual staring between correspondents” (Miller & Sinanan 2014, 55). It made it uncomfortable for them to have to see each other so intensely. When the Internet connection was bad, the laboured nature of communication also made them both more acutely aware of the geographical distance between them. [End Page 12]

Having each other visually present made them feel obliged to sit in front of the computer and discuss intensely emotional feelings. They found they preferred to limit the visual channel to overcome this.

Pierre: Most of the time we don’t put the camera actually. The problem is that seeing her face without touching her… then I prefer voice, her voice you know make me other feelings that I prefer, I don’t know, it’s soft and I can imagine her close to me when with the screen no, I know that she’s not close to me, you know they are different –

Gabby: You feel more the distance.

Pierre: – Yeah, actually if I put my headphones and I’m on my bed I can touch my butt and imagine that it’s her touching my butt, you know? So it’s like… no but that’s true… OK. So I prefer to go there and having these sensation than having the Skype.

For Pierre, seeing his girlfriend on the screen led to a heightened emotional experience which he found frustrating. Her voice was ultimately more sensual for him. This couple commented that they had engaged in sexual intimacy over Skype, so it does not seem to be a question of inhibitions or embarrassment in front of the camera. Pierre’s comment about intimate self-touching reiterates the point that the line between love and sex is blurred. It indicates how the physical, relational, and emotional aspects are brought together in what Miller and Sinanan (2014, 65) have described as a “transcendent and holistic experience [which] is simply – love”. Skype creates a space which is discursive, material, emotional, and visual (Longhurst 2013) which has to be negotiated in ways distinct from the physical world.

Restricting the visual image made the experience of Skype more sensual and emotional for other couples.

Camilla: We watched so many movies on Skype and it was like also like –

Rolf: Not so many.

Camilla: Like, five.

Rolf: [laughs]

Camilla: That’s a lot. Well, he fell asleep. So, I watched so many movies. But even still, he would fall asleep and I could see him sleeping while I was watching the movie and it’s the closest thing that you can have to being with someone is, is seeing them and at that stage of our relationship I had never seen him sleep during a movie. That was our first time. [End Page 13]

In their chapter on intimacy in Webcam, Miller and Sinanan (2014) talk about people who would make videos calls in bed. They note the intimate nature of this use, but highlight the practical problems, such as “[not] having enough light” (61), which they say hampers emotional intimacy. Miller and Sinanan imply, then, that not being able to see your romantic partner clearly over the screen is detrimental to fostering an emotional connection with them. But I want to make the case for an embodied, sensuous type of looking which relies on distorted images and might engender emotional connections.

Vision has generally been conceptualised as separate from the other senses and is still mainly studied in isolation (Bacci 2009), yet research has suggested that touch and other sensory experiences “gives richness and meaning to retinal images” (Bacci 2009, 135). Vision, then, is not an isolated channel but one which functions in conjunction with the other senses. Moreover, as Laura Marks, a film theorist, has said, vision can be form of touch (Marks 2002, vii). She argues that by not privileging sight over the other senses and positioning vision within a channel of sensory stimulation, seeing can be tactile and sensuous. This kind of tactile viewing draws on other bodily senses, so the viewer’s body is “more obviously involved in the process of seeing” (Marks 2002, 2). Rather than as the eyes working in isolation, seeing is highlighted to the viewer as an embodied experience

Particular sorts of images provoke this kind of tactile viewing. Images which are distorted, blurred, silhouetted, or dissolving invite haptic looking because the images are not clear: sight alone cannot help us decipher them (Marks 2002). Therefore, other bodily organs are more obviously engaged at the same time as the eyes. These images invite an embodied response, which draws the person seeing the image toward it. When thinking about Camilla and Rolf watching a film together and then falling asleep in front of the camera, the image which they saw of each other was badly lit, perhaps out of focus at times, and maybe obscured by the image of the film. This did not cause frustration or make them put the light on. Instead, what is striking here is Camilla’s feeling that seeing Rolf sleeping felt somehow special. Camilla made it clear that she enjoyed watching Rolf fall asleep, which indicates that rather than looking to see what his facial expressions were, she was looking in order to feel, not to see. As Marks points out, looking in this tactile way “encourage[s] a bodily relationship between viewer and image” (2002, 2), and in this case, Camilla’s bodily feelings were stimulated by a (live) image of Rolf.

In these examples the visual becomes almost too much to bear. Rather than allowing the couples to “sink in” (Longhurst 2013) to each other’s emotional atmosphere, it creates a somewhat awkward experience. It is a reminder that the on-screen image does “not deliver a flesh and blood body” (Longhurst 2013, 674), which can be frustrating and emotionally painful. By avoiding the visual channel, some couples found they were more able to relax into communication with their partner. Distorting the image through low light levels and going so close to the camera that only parts of the body or skin textures could be seen was another way of doing this. This kind of looking is perhaps most similar to how the partner’s body is seen during intimate moments, such as during a kiss; the eyes are often closed or so close to the partner’s body that only small areas of skin or hair are in view. [End Page 14]

Dinner Dates: the visceral body and emotion

The final example shows how Skype dinner dates fostered emotional connections. Camilla and Rolf described how when they had dinner together it was more than simply eating at the same time: they planned the dinner together beforehand, shopped for food, and chose a film to watch together. Camilla described one such dinner date:

Camilla: One of my favourite dates was when he decided that, he looked up a salmon recipe and he sent it to me, and then I looked up an Indie film and so he was in charge of the recipe and I was in charge of the film and we went and bought the ingredients separately and then we cooked our meals separately and then we sat down to have dinner in front of the computer, watching the indie film with the exact same meal. And it was –

Rolf: Well, one of us had to turn off the sound.

Camilla: You can tell he’s the technical one, right? [all laugh] um but it was, things like that we’re really, really nice and magical.

Technical issues of sound aside, the dates on which they prepared and ate the same food stood out in their memories as special. I asked them why it had been important for them to eat the same food:

Rolf: Well, having the same thing makes you feel like the other person is more uh…

Camilla: Like you’re there as close as you can be.

Rolf: …what is the word for it? More present

Camilla: Yes, more present. Perfect. [pause] and so I think that like –

Rolf: That’s important

Dinner dates are part of the canon of “romantic” activities which couples often engage in. They are also one of the ways which other intimate relationships, such as family relationships, are maintained and nurtured. As such, dinner dates are a recognisable form of emotional work (Hochschild 1983) and while Miller and Sinanan hastily dismiss Skype dates of this sort as “awkward and not overly successful” (2014, 56), a more considered engagement with this practice might reveal the visceral experience which fostered emotional closeness.

Critical engagement with the notion of “embodied experience” can move the idea beyond the body as a surface upon which emotions are inscribed, to understanding the body as a visceral entity with an interior and exterior. Johnston and Longhurst (2012) are advocates for the inclusion of sensuous and visceral aspects of life into studies of migrant [End Page 15] lives, and they ask us to consider “the senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste – which are a mechanism for visceral arousal” (334) in order to understand more about emotional life. Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy (2008), who Longhurst and Johnson draw on, say that attention to the “visceral realm” can “increase political understanding of how people can be moved or mobilized either as individuals or as groups of social actors” (Hayes-Conroy & Hayes-Conroy 2008, 469, italics in original). In the context of this paper, what is important about that statement is that through the visceral aspects of life, we can understand how people are moved, in terms of feelings and emotions. This is important as it shows that the body and emotional life are inextricably linked.

Preparing and eating food is a sensuous, visceral experience. Camilla and Rolf could imagine what the other’s body might also be experiencing as they ate; the heat, smells, and textures of the food, in this case, oily fish. The sensing of these visceral aspects takes place within the body, that is, the internal cavity of the mouth, throat and intestines. Thus the body is engaged “not just as a surface etched with social messages but something that encompasses surface and depth, outside and inside, solids and fluids, materiality and spirituality and head and heart” (Johnson & Longhurst 2012, 335), which sees the body as a desiring, sensing entity with emotional and “carnal appetites” (Probyn 2000). This couple’s intentional use of eating as a visceral practice is a way of heightening their own emotional experience through the screen. Eating in particular, as Elspeth Probyn has said, “brings our senses to life, it also forefronts the viscerality of life” (2000, 7). Thus, Camilla and Rolf were able not only to see the emotional expressions of the other through the screen, but to understand more about their own bodily experience and feelings when in each other’s presence. Through these intimate uses of Skype, Camilla and Rolf, and others like them, are creating an emotional space to be together. Food is an emotional object (Ahmed 2004), and not only can it help people to feel at home it can also forge emotional connections with a new home.

For Camilla and Rolf, the always-on use of Skype to sense the other’s presence, falling asleep, and the dinner dates were ways of entering into an emotion-filled home space which, via the screen, spanned geographical space. And as Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy point out in a footnote, with the exception of Elspeth Probyn, “few feminist works venture far in illustrating the visceral mechanisms of such regulation; often the body remains ‘docile’, awaiting the efforts of an ‘active’ mind” (2000, 463). Emphasising the visceral aspect of using Skype shows how the whole body is affected and engaged in “feeling” the way.

Loving in Person

Notwithstanding the ways that Skype helped some couples to feel closer, sharing physical space was still seen by several couples as the most important way of “knowing” their own feelings. Camilla and Rolf noted that despite their positive experiences on Skype, they eventually needed to live in physical proximity. Camilla said, “I wanted to know if it was gonna work in person or not,” and it was this need, shared by both, which instigated Rolf’s move to Barcelona. [End Page 16]

It might seem that love requires bodily knowledge both of one’s self and of the other. For most couples that expressed such an idea, there was a need to be physically close. This was related to knowing how the two bodies would “fit” in the mundane of the everyday. They needed to know whether their bodies, together, could “sink” into the “comfort” of life together. As one man, Heberto, a 33-year-old Catalan male living in Barcelona, put it:

Heberto: I think that, apart from getting on well with someone, you have to touch them, you have to be next to them, you have to, you know? Give them a hug.

Emily, a 39-year-old Irish woman married to Heberto, also felt that physical proximity was necessary to really know if she was in love. She said:

Emily: Um so I think what we’ve done is really romantic actually and the fact that, how do you know that you love someone when you’re doing it through Skype? do you know? I think it’s how do you know, how do you know they’re right when you’re doing it through Skype cuz you can’t smell their skin and when they come home from work on a bad day you don’t see them you’re not part of it.

As Gabriel, a Spanish man living with his French girlfriend in Brussels, succinctly explained:

Gabriel: I had the feeling that like you cannot go, I couldn’t go, past a certain point of affection without being more physically close which in my case proved to be right I didn’t really feel like I really loved her until […] I was actually here […] at a distance I felt like it couldn’t be and […] it felt like, like, like she said… a bit shitty.

Attention to the sensuous and the non-verbal ways which couples use Skype draws attention to how important embodied knowledge is to understanding love. The body and what it “knows” is equally important as what practices and processes shape this embodied knowledge.

This highlights how when discussing love, embodied knowledge should not be reduced to the sexual. While sexual touch is an important part of many couples’ lives, it is certainly not the only type of physical contact which is part of the growing intimacy of a couple’s life. There are complex relationships between love and sex, both in theory and practice. As Toye (2010) has said, researchers have perhaps too often looked at sexual practices at the expense of researching love. And of course, not all sexual contact is loving or intimate. What the material from these interviews seems to suggest is that sex is not a privileged instance of embodiment. Comfort, proximity, and embodiment are not reducible to the sexual. Visceral experiences and knowledge were sought by these couples, but of types which allowed them to get to know intimate practices of their partner. The habits, gestures, and the rhythms of the partner are part of the knowledge acquired about their body. Having this familiarity shows an intimate and deep understanding of one’s partner [End Page 17] and investment in the relationship (Gabb & Fink 2015). Being able to understand one’s partner through their bodily gestures is an important part of the relationship work which goes on to sustain relationships.

A certain amount of this work can be done over distance, but as many of the couples in this study say, being physically proximate was necessary. Social pressure to live in geographical proximity to one’s partner (Thien 2005) may be one reason why so many couples decided they needed to be close to continue their relationship; such is the extensiveness of this idea it may influence how we understand our own feelings. However, knowledge of one’s own body and that of one’s partner seem to be essential to emotional understanding and knowledge.


The ways in which these couples fostered emotional closeness over Skype all seem to involve different forms of bodily knowledge. This knowledge was incomplete, given that these exchanges were after all mediated by an Internet connection, a screen, several hundred miles of geographical distance, and, in some cases, time. What they demonstrate, though, is that, for romantic emotions to develop, bodily knowledge is important.

Bodily longing for the other is not just related to physical desire, but emotional and bodily knowledge. The interviews with these couples reveal that experiencing other bodily sensations while Skyping their partner is one way in which their emotional experience is more complete. Another way that these emotional experiences are felt is that rather than seeing a crisp, clear image of the partner, images which are purposefully distorted and partial, such as through lighting or moving closer to the camera, are crucial to these emotional connections. What does this suggest, then, about the virtual and non-virtual life-worlds of love?

Looking directly at our loved one on screen, it has been argued, might make one or both feel self-conscious (Miller & Sinanan 2014). It might be too confronting for some and too restrictive for others. As Gloria and Pietro found, their on-screen presence was too intense, making them feel obliged to discuss intense, emotional topics. Distorting the image, then, might let the visual to fade into the background, allowing more focus on non-visual aspects such as voice. Blurred, grainy, dark on-screen images “invite the viewer to respond to the image in an intimate, embodied way” (Marks 2000, 2) through an appeal to the senses. Thus, with less focus on the visual, emotions might be given more attention. Distortion, then, allows the image to become multisensory. Limiting the visual field allows the loved ones to use “memories of the senses” (Marks 2000, xi) to fill in what is lacking in this virtual space.

Using this distorted form of looking might also be part of the ritual of talking to one’s partner. The intention of programs such as Skype is to give a clear image to be able to conduct, for example, business meetings over distance. Using it in such a way that the image is distorted also has a ritual quality to it, which marks this out as a special instance of video calling. It is a way that the only the couple use Skype to talk, distinct from other conversations. Rather than just a visual connection, it encourages an embodied relationship between callers. [End Page 18]

Skype stretches geographical space, bringing one’s partner into one’s own physical space despite geographical distance. But in doing this, it also disrupts our understanding of space. People exist both on and off screen, and video calling allows a more immediate way of communicating which also conveys something of the embodied presence of the partner. Seeing one’s partner on-screen when we have not been able to see them in person for some creates a visual immediacy which is out of sync with living apart. Skype allows couples to inhabit each other’s private space, which can make them feel emotionally closer. However, it can also highlight the inability to tend to each other physically, resulting in frustration and melancholy. To use Ahmed’s term, the images become too “sticky”, impossible to get off. For partners in distance relationships, inhabiting both material space and virtual space might become an increasingly common experience. This allows them to share not only the sound of their voice but also images, tastes, and smells, such as when they share meals over Skype.

This article has argued that emotional closeness for couples is fostered via Skype, not just by seeing the other, but also through processes of tactile, haptic viewing, and sensing the presence of the other. Emotional closeness is not only about reading the other’s body as a series of signs, but trying to understand one’s own emotional experience, and locating oneself in the “thickness in the air” (Ahmed 2004) which builds in everyday encounters. It has also argued that in order to “know” whether one is in love, embodied knowledge is essential. This article has offered some considerations as to how couples go about creating situations which even in a virtual environment, allow their bodies to be present and felt by the other. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

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Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

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Darwin, Charles. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. 1872, New York: Filiquarian, 2007. Print.

Davidson, Joyce, Liz Bondi, and Mick Smith, eds. Emotional Geographies. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. Print.

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—. The Transformation of Intimacy. Cambridge: Polity, 1992. Print.

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Hardy, Michael. “Life Beyond the Screen.” The Sociological Review 50.4 (2002): 570-585. Print.

Hayes-Conroy, Allison, and Jessica Hayes-Conroy. “Taking Back Taste: Feminism, Food and Visceral Politics.” Gender, Place & Culture 15.5 (2008): 461-473. Web.

Hochschild, Arlie. The Managed Heart. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1983. Print.

Holmes, Mary. “An Equal Distance? Individualisation, Gender and Intimacy in Distance Relationships.” The Sociological Review (2004): 1-21. Print.

hooks, bell. All About Love. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2000. Print.

Jamieson, Lynn. “Intimacy Transformed?.” Sociology 33.3 (1999): 1-18. Print.

Johnston, Lynda, and Robyn Longhurst. “Embodied Geographies of Food, Belonging and Hope in Multicultural Hamilton, Aotearoa New Zealand.” Geoforum 43.2 (2012): 325-331. Web.

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Levin, Irene, and Jan Trost. “Living Apart Together.” Community, Work & Family 2.3 (1999): 279-294. Web.

Longhurst, Robyn. “Using Skype to Mother: Bodies, Emotions, Visuality, and Screens.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2013): 664-679. Print.

Mantei, Marylin M., Ronald M. Baecker, Abigail J. Sellen, William A. S. Buxton, and Thomas Milligan

“Experiences in the Use of a Media Space.” CHI Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 1991. 203-208. Print.

Marks, Laura U. Touch. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

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[End Page 21]


Feminist Researcher Wishes to Meet Romantic Subject: The “Case” of Mrs. F.
by Susan Ostrov Weisser

[End Page 1] The field of Critical Love Studies is a vigorous and burgeoning one, drawing from multiple disciplines, with or without a feminist point of view. While its diversity of perspectives and methods is certainly a strength of the field, Lynne Pearce has pointed out “the extent to which the social sciences, literary studies and philosophy talk past one another when it comes to research on love and romance” (2015, 1). “Talking past one another” seems applicable not only to varied disciplinary methodologies in love studies but also to feminist critics’ view of romantic love itself as either serving the interests of feminism or in ideological opposition to it.

It is well known that romantic love has been a contentious site for feminist politics since Mary Wollstoncraft warned women about building a marriage on its foundation. There is, for example, a long history of feminist theorists and scholars bent on demystifying love and its cultural representations: for example, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Stevi Jackson, Wendy Langford, Chrys Ingraham, Eva Illouz, Laura Kipnis, and many others. An entire tradition of feminist writing critical of popular romance in particular had a sturdy foothold for several decades from the 1970s onward.[1] But there have also been influential attempts to reclaim the positive, even transformational, aspects of romantic love, coming from psychoanalysts such as Ethel Person to social theorists such as Anthony Giddens and beyond. In recent decades, literary critics of popular fictional romances have also tended to celebrate love and its potential for equalizing gender relations (Ang 1987; Goade 2007; Regis 2003, 2011; Selinger 2007; Goris 2012).

I would argue, along with Margaret Toye, a philosopher, that “Love…needs to be taken as a serious, valid and crucial subject for study, especially by those invested in discourses of the other – most importantly, by feminist, critical and postcolonial theorists” (2010, 41). But these disagreements, not infrequently fraught with overtones of attack and defense, most often occur on the abstract level of scholarly discourse and analysis of published texts. Meanwhile, representations of popular romance in fiction and film sell better than ever, and romantic love as the sine qua non of intimate, embodied personal experience continues as a modern phenomenon of widespread and increasing importance (Illouz 1997; Ingraham 2005; Jackson 2013). The sociologist Stevi Jackson has put this disjunction well in the title of her 1993 article “Even Sociologists Fall in Love.”

Addressing this disconnection between feminist perspectives and women’s desires and behavior in romance has all too frequently caused division rather than enlightenment in scholarship. My own research interests have been in fictional love stories, classic and popular, a resource for understanding that in my view brings to the table exactly the nuance and emotional immediacy that theoretical abstractions about love may lack. Yet I too have been troubled by the desire to make coherent a disparity between my own view of romantic love and what I see in actual (as opposed to fictional) women’s lives, as well as between what I believe and have experienced in my own.

Contradictory definitions of romantic love as either a subset of caring love marked by an ideal of care and equality in heterosexual relations, or an obstacle to, even regression from, that equality, seem challenging to reconcile. Often theorists, researchers, and critics appear to be too invested in one side or the other of these assumptions and their political [End Page 2] implications to be able to let them go. Yet I would suggest that in order to be truly “critical,” scholarly research in Critical Love Studies must do exactly that. Following Stevi Jackson’s observation that “Feminist critique should focus on what is knowable – the cultural meanings of love, how it is deployed or practiced in the making and maintaining of intimate relationships in specific contexts, and the social consequences of these meanings and deployments” (2013, 35),[2] I hope to follow my own path to a feminist understanding of romantic love as at once an individual transformative emotion and a social phenomenon situated in a particular time and location. Rather than argue an ideological position, I would like to look at the “problem of romance” for feminists from the inside out or bottom up, so to speak, through the lens of “thick description” in personal narrative, rather than top downward from the heady atmospheric heights of abstract ideology.

In the 1980s, a group of critics sought out a new direction for feminist scholarship in women’s personal narratives as qualitative research, notably in the collection by the Personal Narratives Group in 1989 and continuing thereafter (Coslett, Lury, and Summerfield 2002; Jackson 1998; Stanley, “The Knowing Subject”; Stanley 1993, 1995; Smith and Watson 1998). In 1990, Liz Stanley argued for the writing and study of “feminist auto/biography” that would pose fundamental questions for feminism, namely “what ‘feminism’ should look like in life as well as in textual terms, what should be the proper relationship between feminist researchers and the ‘subjects’ of their research, what should be the relationship between experience and feminist theory [my emphasis]” (1990, 64). In keeping with what Stanley called a more fluid understanding of selfhood “as fragile and continually renewed by acts of memory and writing” (63), a body of work appeared on the discourse of romance in ordinary women’s life stories (Burns 2000; Griffin 1982; Harvey and Shalom 1997; Hollway 1995; Langford 1995; S. Thompson 1996; Wetherell 1995).

Though my scholarly work has long been in fictional narratives of romance, I also began to study personal narrative early in my career when I assisted in a research study led by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid-1980s. My method here is to re-examine a long-ago subject of this study I call Mrs. F., a woman whose narrative of enduring love shaped her life as she told it to me. Mrs. F. was a “case history” to me when I interviewed her in the mid-1980s. Here, however, I have dissolved the conventional boundary between researcher and subject, between abstract understanding and personal investment, between theory and real-life experience, by inserting my own intellectual and personal responses into the romantic story that Mrs. F told.

As the reader will see, there is a marked contrast between my own view of romance, rooted in both my feminist politics and my personal experience, and the romantic views of my research subject, Mrs. F., who had strong faith in a predestined “happy ending.” My goal here is to show through example how the specificities of the Love Plot, widely available to women as the chief consumers of romance, can construct not only the experience of desiring love in the moment, but more profoundly structure the shape and meaning of a life in memory, in ways that are not either simply or categorically “good” or “bad” for women.

I have also taken the further step of offering my own story of courtship as counter-narrative. Writing a scholarly author’s private experience would seem to break a fourth wall of traditional scholarship, but in fact there is well-known precedent: among others, Nancy K. Miller has written about women and sexuality in “My Father’s Penis” (1991), while Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Dialogue on Love” (1998) deployed a first-person narration of her own experience in therapy in order to explore a different sort of love (see also Sedgwick 1987). [End Page 3] As Liz Stanley noted, feminist autobiography is “characterized by a self-conscious and increasingly self-confident traversing of the conventional boundaries between different genres of writing” (1990, 65).

When Mrs. F. related what she remembered of her life and the place of love in it, her story, told from memory, triggered strong memories of my own later in life. In a way, it might be said that the Love Plot (or the Marriage Plot) as a concept in fiction seems to have “worked” as a guiding principle for Mrs. F., my research subject, in a way it did not for me. By adding my own story to hers, I hope to go beyond categories of “happy” and “failed,” or love-as-caring versus love-as-desire. Instead, I attempt to see myself and Mrs. F. as women whose romantic hopes were subject to personal histories, social goals, and gendered expectations, while also respecting the force of love’s pleasures and its possibilities for self-realization. The challenge here in telling these doubled stories, my own and Mrs. F.’s, is both personal and political: first, to understand what we mean by “love,” and also what feminists – including myself as a feminist scholar – may do with that understanding.

“Life as Narrative”: The Project

It is common to reread books or see beloved old films again and again and bring new perspectives to them at different stages of our lives. But it is not often that academic researchers revisit a study to which they contributed decades ago, and view the results through the differently colored lenses of personal experience. Recently, after completing a book about women and love stories, I found myself thinking in a new way about a particular woman, the subject of an exhilarating project on life stories conducted by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid to late 1980s. When I was assigned to interview Mrs. F., she was about the same age I am now, in late middle age.

The point of this project, for which Dr. Bruner had a Spencer Foundation grant, was to study the ways in which selfhood is constructed through narrative.[3] My own role was to interview the subjects and then help the four other members of our research team, all psychologists, to analyze the structures of the subjects’ self-narratives from a literary point of view. It was an unusual opportunity for me to learn outside my own field of literature, and, not least, tremendously interesting to see how people told their own life stories on the spot when asked to do so.

It might have seemed unlikely that I would be much influenced by Bruner’s work, since it was far out of my field of expertise. When I joined Dr. Bruner’s project in the 1980s, I was completing a doctoral dissertation on women and sexual love in British novels. The Bruner study I worked on for five years was not concerned with concepts of romantic love in narrative or the particular social circumstances of women, my primary interests. But I learned a great deal about the intersection of humanist understandings and social science from the pioneering work of Dr. Bruner, especially the uses to which we put language, and the way we construct the world through perception, memory, and story (Bruner 1986, 1987, 1991).

When the project was completed, the story of Mrs. F.’s life and the romance that forms her story’s core continued to haunt me, and I began to wonder why. Perhaps it was because she shared some elements of my own identity: like Mrs. F., I was born and grew up in [End Page 4] Brooklyn, NY, in a white working-class neighborhood, and both of us married and had children while young. The similarity, however, ended there. Mrs. F. was not educated past high school, whereas I have an Ivy League PhD; she had not attempted a professional career, and I eventually achieved my early goal of becoming a professor; and, not least, she was, by her own self-description, long and happily married, and I am long and (more or less) happily divorced.

But it was not so much the similarity of background that drew me to Mrs. F.’s story as it was her strong and unquestioning belief in the value of love and marriage. I had a certain pride in having risen above my origins from working class to professional middle class, both in my feminist politics, and it must be confessed, in being introspective and self-aware. Yet Mrs. F. appeared to be happier in love and more successful at romance than I felt myself to be. Her narrative stands on her deep conviction that marriage is a woman’s Happy Ending, the source of her security and fulfillment, through which a woman becomes truly herself. Though I felt and still feel that I began to be my genuine self only when I was alone again, I paid an enormous price for this discovery, sacrificing exactly what Mrs. F. says she gained, and never recovering it in quite the same way as when I thought I had it. This disturbed and challenged my feminist rejection of the romantic mythos: what is a happy ending, after all?

Initially, I had a surprisingly strong sense of dismay toward and distance from Mrs. F. In some way she was both unknown yet disturbingly familiar to me, almost akin to Freud’s idea of the Uncanny. In Freud’s theory of the disorienting mix of familiar and unfamiliar, it is the familiar that is the root of the trouble: the return of the repressed. Revisiting the case of Mrs. F. seemed a unique opportunity to confront that decades-old but lingering apprehension. What exactly did Mrs. F. remind me of, and why did I wish to avoid it?

The “Case” of Mrs. F.

Mrs. F, an Italian-American mother of four grown children and part-time worker in her husband’s small business, was a member of a family who had volunteered for the research study on which I was assisting. This family was specifically chosen for no other reason than their “ordinariness” and their willingness to tell the story of their lives. The F.’s were a long-married couple in their early sixties with working class roots. Mr. F. operated a small business, and they were living in Brooklyn, NY, in a house they had owned most of their adult lives. Mrs. F. had spent most of her life as a “housewife,” raising her four children full-time.

Though our research team was very little occupied with questions of gender, I could not avoid thinking about the social conditions of everyday living for women, especially those women who identify themselves with family and home. Mr. F., interestingly, spoke of his wife as not there in the real world in the same way he is:

“Uh my home life is pretty good. Uh with my wife and I – I don’t think my wife was as educated as I would like her to be, although she graduated from high school. But she seems to be very bent on different things. She’s too compliant; she doesn’t know the real world, the way things are.” [End Page 5]

At the time of this project, I was a new scholar, having spent most of my adult life until then raising three children while studying for a hard-earned PhD in literature. I was also both a new feminist and a new leftist, views that had evolved alongside my doctoral studies. My initial response to Mrs. F. was that she was a sort of woman I already knew, and not necessarily in a warm and pleasant way. But then I do not have warm and pleasant feelings about my less-than-happy lower-class Brooklyn girlhood, which I thought of (only when I had to) as peopled by many Mrs. F.’s – legions of women, in fact, all defining themselves through others, unthinkingly accepting their given role. I confess I had some discomfort with Mrs. F. based on my own predispositions: that is, her narrative seemed to press on the story I told myself about my own life.

Mrs. F. – And Me

Though Mrs F and I both came from working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, she had Italian roots while my family was Jewish. We were more or less secular, an anomaly in the deeply religious Irish-Italian neighborhood of my youth, where many children in my neighborhood went to Catholic school. Mrs. F. reminded me of any number of women I knew when I was growing up: hard-working rulers of the domestic space, never expected or expecting to leave the world of women and children, utterly devoted to their families and sustained by close networks of relatives and friends in their daily tribulations. For them, womanhood seemed fixed, both in the geographical space of home and as a metaphor of stability and cohesive values, while masculinity was conceived as a progression toward the open-ended world of earning money, public acknowledgement, decisive choices, “action.”

My own mother did not seem to be one of these women, however: she was not at all like Mrs. F. – which is to say, the Mrs. F. in my mind. My mother was neither one of Betty Friedan’s desperate housewives nor a conscious rebel. She was, however, alienated from her time and place. I knew that my mother wanted to be very different from the others on our “block,” at least. As a young woman, she had emigrated alone to New York from England, as did my father, who met her at his brother and sister-in-law’s home in Brooklyn. Because, like my father, she had been forced to leave school after the primary grades, she was never able to earn a decent wage when I was growing up, nor could she afford to stay home as a traditional housewife, as did Mrs. F. It seemed to me as a child that she did little else but work at one low-paying job after another, coming home to cook and clean after a long day.

But though uneducated, and painfully self-conscious about that, she read a good deal of fiction when she had the time, and had fierce, consuming hopes for her three children. My older brothers and I were going to go to college and become “somebody,” meaning professionals who were respected for their work, who liked their work, and (not least) who earned more than my father did doing maintenance in the dank tunnels of the New York City subway system, a filthy, dangerous, and low-paid job he bitterly despised. I breathed the atmosphere of my mother’s thwarted ambition as naturally as I did her love of fiction and her contempt for the neighborhood around us. Her body was that of a lifelong menial worker, but her head was in the middle class.

My mother did not live better than her neighbors did, but her children were going to, if she had any say in it. That emphatically included her only daughter, who was going to be, [End Page 6] just as much as her sons, the educated professional she had missed becoming. I was not going to marry the neighborhood, meaning I was meant for larger stuff than living on a street like this one in Brooklyn, bearing children and waiting at home for my husband to dole an allowance out of his working-class pocket.

Certainly one area of difficulty for me in understanding Mrs. F. was that she seemed an envoy from this neighborhood, which symbolized my childhood feeling of not-quite-belonging either to the working class or the middle-class, of being out of place. I did not know why my parents, particularly my mother, detested our home, since it was all I knew, but I sensed that something was deeply wrong with it. Though I did not yet understand the concept of class growing up, I see now that this has been enormously important to me, informing my experience of having made it into a professional caste. Even today I avoid returning to that part of Brooklyn, located literally as well as metaphorically at the very edge of the borough. Brooklyn itself is quite diverse, with a number of neighborhoods now hotly sought after by young people and families moving from Manhattan. But fashionability has not yet reached the particular area where I grew up, nor would that sweeten it for me. I still feel oddly but utterly alienated on the few occasions I have passed by the tiny attached houses with religious icons on the drab lawns, and low, bare, unattractive stores with small apartments above them on the (to me) dreary shopping streets. I cannot wait to get “home”, meaning where I now want to live, not where I came from.

For me, growing up meant getting myself out of that neighborhood and into a Big City, which I did as soon as I finished my (then) free public education at a city university, the only possible choice for a girl like me who had to live at home for financial reasons. No one supported that move away from my origins more than my mother. Much later, as an academic, I learned the vocabulary and concepts that allowed me to see her as a sort of feminist: she believed, unlike many of her peers in that neighborhood, that girls had abilities equal to boys, and that women were entitled to careers that would bring status and self-respect. My mother warmly sustained her daughter’s efforts to live out those ambitions: “If I’d only been a man, I could’ve made something of myself,” she used to say, with weary frustration. At the time I only knew that she and I were a team, with the united purpose of getting me to the goal line of success, as she defined that term.

Mrs. F seemed to me, therefore, uncannily, and therefore disturbingly, a woman like my mother (situated in the same kind of neighborhood and class), but also very unlike my mother (who was not a “housewife,” and did not want to be where she was). You might say that Mrs. F. was the icon of the woman I felt I could have become, had I remained in that geographic and social place: the return of the repressed.

Mrs. F Tells Her Life

Mrs. F. had anxiously indicated on the phone to me that she was afraid she would not do the right thing in the interview, the only one of her family to express that fear. Unlike other family members whose responses ran about forty pages when asked to “tell your life story,” Mrs. F. produced brief associative clusters, consisting of comments, opinions, and tidbits of information, often about others: her husband’s and children’s characters, their “problems” and deficiencies, the possibility of “coping” with something called Trouble: [End Page 7]

“I’ll start at the beginning, but roughly, childhood was half and half. I would have preferred a better childhood, a happier one…but with God’s influence, I prayed hard enough for a good husband and He answered me.

I got a very good husband, a little stubborn at times, but I’ll take the stubbornness for the goodness that he’s got there. I had four nice children, a little, shall I say, spoiled [laughs], all spoiled because of my husband, he’s very easy. If it was up to me I think I would have been a little bit more stricter, but I think on the whole they turned out with less problems than a lot of other people.

The major part of that is not being on dope…I am blessed that my kids didn’t start it.

Other problems with them, you can’t let that go and have them perfect.

Healthwise, up until the time I was 53, I had terrible health. After that I had a woman’s operation, which I think helped me a lot, and I feel much better. I think I can cope better with things.

God bless my husband. He had a lot of patience with me, and my family. We had everything thrown at us because of my family. His family, he was only boy and he had everything from the time he was seven years old. I think the life we both had as children, I think we both wanted something different when we got married….

But I think what he went through, and what I went through, we built a better marriage on it. To a point I think we try to make our children not have too much of [the troubles] we had. I think we spoil them sometimes for the outside world. And I think that’s what spoiled our two oldest children, their marriages. My daughter is with a very nice man. I would have preferred someone else, but it’s up to her. My son, I’m still upset over him. It’s six years that he is divorced and he just doesn’t seem to pull out of it. He seems to compare other women to her, which isn’t fair for him to do that, but I don’t know. I really don’t know, and I don’t understand him now anymore. That’s in general.

The only thing I can keep saying is I have a very good marriage, and hope and pray my kids will get the same type of a marriage that I had. Outside of that, I don’t know. I’m happy. I’d like to be in better health now, as my husband and I are getting older, especially him, but I’ll take whatever God has given me.

And that’s about it. Forty years of it [marriage] and it’s all in there… That’s it.”

And that was it. The research team could hardly believe she had nothing more to say when asked for a life story, at least until questioned in the next part of the interview. My mother, a [End Page 8] voluble talker, could have gone on about her life (and did) until the cows came home, and if I had been assigned this task of telling my own story, I probably would have self-consciously affected themes, plot, and subplots. But I did thoroughly understand Mrs. F.’s orientation around Trouble, especially her troublesome children (who both have Troubles and are a Trouble to her). My own three children’s troubles still often seem like the moles in a Whack-a-Mole game of life; as soon as you smack one down, more pop up in unexpected places until you run out of time. I pictured Mrs. F. paroling her grounds daily with mallets, on the ready to attack when Trouble inevitably visited her once again. My mother was the same way, so that made three of us.

The Feminist Researcher Interprets Mrs. F.’s “Story”: Gender and Romance

Mrs. F.’s husband and four children, two daughters and two sons, had each narrated their life stories more or less according to the traditional linear plot tracing maturational development. Yet strikingly, Mrs. F.’s spontaneous “life story” seemed more concerned with her family’s lives than her own. If there is a unifying theme in Mrs. F.’s life-as-a-text, it is that marriage has been her lifelong work of construction, its “happiness” her safety net, its aim the carving out of a private haven in a problematic world (to paraphrase the historian Christopher Lasch).

Reading Mrs. F.’s story, short and lacking in literary detail as it was, I believed I recognized in her the women in my own Brooklyn neighborhood. That is, the home, the “inside”world, though busy and hard-working, was a separate realm from the “outside,” largely male “real” world, defined as an arena of public activity that includes privilege, economic control, and authority. Mrs. F. referred to her father’s word as if it were law: “It was his way or no way at all,” “You didn’t have a say about what you wanted or liked to do.”

In her text, Mrs. F. seems to mediate between the two worlds through a connection with males and their privileged power. Pleasing a male – obeying a father, caring for her husband, praying “hard enough” to God the Father – appears often in her interview. As distant as I felt from Mrs. F.’s generation and way of life, I recognized with some distaste that inner universe populated by important men. In my own non-religious childhood, God was not one of those male figures who conferred protection and blessings, as he was in Mrs. F.’s. But as an only daughter, I was keenly aware of the deep hopes my mother, as a young woman, had once invested in finding a man to provide for her, emotionally and financially. I heard almost every day the many ways that marriage had radically failed her expectations on both counts.

My own father was not dominating in the way Mrs. F.’s father appears in her account; unlike Mrs. F, I had little sense that my father was directing what I was going to do. He was adventurous, pleasure-loving, and an admirer of beauty, both artistic and human (the female variety), while my mother was responsible and worried. She felt he had left her holding down the fort with little firepower; her early belief that his untutored brilliance would somehow later pay off in a middle-class life had not materialized, leaving her suspicious of men and their promises. This cynicism about romance contradicted the dominant narrative about femininity before the post-war women’s movement. Yet her bitter disappointment came [End Page 9] from her deeply-held faith that men were supposed to provide, the unquestioned dream that happiness lay in catching the right one. She had not landed the right fish, due to her naively foolish faith in romantic love, she believed, but it went without saying that I could – and would, if I would learn from her what was good for me. It was her mission to help me so I would not suffer as she had. To my mother, a woman could not achieve the social status or personal integrity that signaled she had “arrived” unless she had both a man’s job – and also a man.

The Love Plot

Most interestingly to me, in the question-and-answer part of the interview that followed the request for a “life story,” an actual story finally appeared in Mrs. F.’s text, and it was preeminently a love story. Mrs. F. spoke of courtship, and, in particular, of one moment of courtship, as the high point of her life’s drama: the Glass Slipper Moment when the Prince recognizes Cinderella as his one true love. This was an episode that, by its very atypicality in the life she describes, served her as an emblem of what she could be, her imaginative possible self. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner remarks that “the realm of meaning, curiously, is not one in which we ever live with total comfort” (64). It is this discomfort, he speculates, that drives us to utilize “the capacity of language to create and stipulate realities of its own” (1986, 64), fashioning “possible roles and possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible, or at least desirable” (1986, 66).

In this love story, Mrs. F. relates her parents’, friends’, and culture’s expectations for her: “I was pressured into doing the first engagement, because all the other girls were doing that.” Yet as an engaged young woman, she said, she was out with a girlfriend when Mr. F., her future husband, came in the door, and “the first time I put my eyes on him, I said to myself, ‘That’s the one I’m going to marry’.” Later in the interview, Mrs. F. says she turned to her friend and declared, “‘I’m going home with that man tonight and I’m going to marry him,’” while resolutely taking her engagement ring from her finger. In the same way, she asserts that they decided to marry when they did “‘cause I wanted to be with him”; at another point, she adds, “it was just – I wanted to be with him and that was it” [my emphases].

Mr. F., by contrast, tells a different and distinctly less “romantic” story in his own interview. He says:

“And then I met my wife and we got married. And I think I should have waited a little longer to get married… I wasn’t secure enough in a job… I think I got married because there was pressure from her family, ‘cause she was engaged to someone else when she met me.”

Mr. F. concentrates on practical circumstances, ironically naming “pressure” from family as his motive to marry, while Mrs. F. portrays herself as a romantic rebel against the social and familial “pressure” to marry another man. Mrs. F. focuses on her own agency in the question of marriage: she says that though her husband never assented “in so many words,” she assumed that if he did not want to marry when she did, [End Page 10]

“…when I set the date I think he would have said, ‘Let’s wait awhile.’ I think he would have said that.”

He did not ask her not to set the date, and so she took an active role in formalizing the engagement. She relates that when he vaguely mentioned getting engaged in a year’s time, she pronounced, “By next New Year’s Eve we will be married.” “He never argued with me,” she adds sweetly.

Clearly, within the realm of love and courtship, Mrs. F. experienced herself as being entitled to and having enjoyed a good deal of legitimate power (Kitzinger 1995; Miller and Cummins 1992; Rudman and Heppen 2003) extending forward from that early moment. To Mrs. F., being in charge of love and marriage is an empowerment that is wholly expectable in a woman’s life, and the romantic story serves as the legitimating force of her entire history. There is, Mrs. F. says near the end of her interview, “no greater triumph” than “finding someone” to share your life with.

In the genre of romance, “finding” the right man is often a specific point in a heroine’s life that entitles her to a seemingly unbounded freedom to choose for herself. For Mrs. F., this agency is the very opposite of the rules in her own childhood and youth, where women served men’s purposes and desires: “The women were taught the man is everything and that’s it.” Romantic mystification blurs the question of choice: she describes herself as “very surprised” when falling in love with Mr. F. (“I couldn’t understand why I picked him”). Again, when she broke off her engagement to her previous fiancé, she was convinced she was doing the right thing and felt no guilt: “I haven’t got the slightest idea why.” Mrs. F. provides no explanation as to what she did not like about her former fiancé, what she preferred about her new suitor, or the consequences of ending the engagement. This contextual gap in the story seems not to trouble her in the least: the romantic moment is all.

In Mrs. F.’s short life narrative, her story, she says, is “all in there,” referring to marriage and family. As a feminist, I wanted to identify and sympathize with her view of what made her happy. But this seemed to me less a story of “free choice” than a myth that served regressive social purposes. For me, her view of love and marriage was simply the adult version of her childhood’s dictum, “the man is everything.” Hers was the romance that women of my mother’s era tried to have in that time and place, where finding the right man for life was everything, the key to stability, happiness, and success as a woman. I could so easily have lived out that idea, and then I would be another who recited that story.

A Different Story: My Courtship

Mrs. F.’s romantic story of courtship and marriage could not have differed more from my own. Hers is imbued with transcendent feeling that signals the emotional high point of a life, a silent certainty that determines its direction. You love a man because you “just know” that he is The One, even if you are engaged to someone else. This knowledge is magically mutual: you both “just know” that you will marry and begin a new life, whether or not the timing is practical, and what’s more, it all works out for the best, the Happily Ever After of the Love Plot. Difficult matters of money, living arrangements, and family approval fall before this greater force like so many trees before the determined lumberjack’s axe. [End Page 11]

In my own teenage world, romance was a powerful secret fantasy of my own (as it is for many teenage girls), in a way as private and embarrassing as sex. My mother’s ideal of marriage, on the other hand, imparted over many years through conversation and gossip, was a matter of choosing a husband of reliable character and the ability to provide the best lifestyle possible. She frequently denounced romance as having led to her own ruinous mistake of marrying the wrong (i.e. “unsuccessful”) man for blind love instead of security.

Getting married was not at all on my mind when I was attending public college while living at home, starting at age seventeen. My brothers had gone to school there too (also living at home, it goes without saying), so this order of things was ordained for me. Thanks to my mother’s guidance and approval, I was busy trying to do well in my studies, with an eye to finding a profession that would fulfill and support me. The possibilities of graduate school and leaving New York were still open and exciting, if unnerving. At age nineteen, I had never lived or traveled alone in my life, never had a bank account, driven a car, or made a life decision on my own.

Besides doing well academically, I was finally realizing, after a long and lonely spell in high school, that I was no less attractive to males than most other girls, and that gave me a new sense of power and confidence. Just after my second year of college, I was enjoying the company and attentions of an attractive young man I met while working at a summer job. He seemed to like me a great deal; in fact, we had exchanged shy vows of (not necessarily eternal) love. This was very agreeable.

Then, one ordinary day, unexpectedly, my mother proposed marriage to me. Four or five months into my pleasant relationship with this young man, also a college student but from an upper middle-class family, she sat me down over the usual cup of tea and asked if I loved him. A quick and definitive answer was obviously required. “I guess so, yes, sure,” I said, defensively – after all, he was spending a lot of time at our house, including sleepovers many weekends (in separate rooms, to be sure). In reality, I was far from sure this was the right person for me, and in fact had not given it much thought.

“So would you like to marry him?” she went on, looking alarmingly serious. “Maybe I will, but we’re in college,” I replied – there was a safe out! “Well, I have a way for you to get married,” she announced, and swiftly outlined a plan by which two young college students could set up a household while costing their parents no more than they were already spending to support them at home. Her lively dark eyes were animated as she counted up the part-time jobs, the summer work, the efforts at frugality. Like a modern Mrs. Bennet, nothing seemed to give her more satisfaction than planning how to “settle” her daughter for life.

I could have said no. But I wanted to see how my boyfriend felt about it, to test out how much he valued me. And when I presented the idea to him, half-laughingly, he looked thoughtful, said he would ask his parents, and then they loved the idea because they had married early themselves. Suddenly it seemed less like a joke and more like an opportunity. It was the beginning of something, the first big thing ever to happen to me, a drama. I found myself spinning fantasies of setting up my – I mean our – own little place, imagining a lifetime of emotional insurance against the isolation I had felt as a high school wallflower. The greatest pleasure of all came from the idea that a man had recognized me for who I really was, had picked me… sort of. The shoe fit, and I was therefore a kind of princess, or even (what was to me far better) Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre, underneath my anxiety and ordinariness. The stew of psychological insecurities and pragmatic considerations that [End Page 12] motivated all this suddenly shaped themselves into a wonderfully familiar form: I was the heroine of a new story, a romance, part of a traditional feminine narrative that would uplift me for a lifetime.

I wanted so much to be part of this story that I told myself I was in love, since it seemed required to take the next step. Before you could say Glass Slipper, there was a cheap ring on my finger (selected by my mother and me, paid for by my mother), a shabby wedding hall was booked (approved by our parents, disliked by my fiancé and me), and the next thing I knew, I woke up like Sleeping Beauty and was married for decades. As you might have guessed, this did not turn out to be the love story I imagined.

My mother’s wedding proposal was in the mid-Sixties, twenty years after Mrs. F.’s courtship. It was a time when everything was about to change for girls like me, when the feminist point of view was beginning to critique the traditional narrative of love, but this was not yet available to me. I did once ask my mother why she had set her cap for me at such an early age. “I could see you needed somebody,” she replied. Did I? Then too, I think she suspected that cohabitation (as sociologists call it) was in the air, and from there, abandonment and ruin.

My mother no doubt would have interpreted this situation quite differently: it was not repression or control, it was a mother’s love and care. From her point of view, she was trying to protect me from the emotional and financial privation she had endured in her own marriage by reverse engineering, doing it right this time. To her, marriage itself was not the problem – it was finding the right man, fixing someone in place who was devoted to you and also made enough money to keep you secure.

I differ from both my mother and Mrs. F. in important ways that reflect living most of my adult life in the decades after 1970. But at that moment when my mother proposed marriage to me, we all inhabited the same romantic universe. My mother could envision a professional career for a woman in a way that her own parents could not, but not life without the romance of marriage. She simply could not conceive of it: for her, the world was too dangerous for a woman to navigate on her own. If you were not born a man, the next best thing was to marry one. Though my mother was a feminist heroine to me in some significant ways, her view of men and love took me down a road that felt irreversible for a long time, one I wish I had not gone along (with). For this reason, when I met Mrs. F. and heard her story decades ago, it was as important for me to distance the romantic in Mrs. F. as it had been for my mother to recuperate the losses of romance in her own life through me.

Cynical Researcher, Romantic Subject

I see consciousness as the key to my own endeavors, both personal and professional, as well as the foundational principle of my feminism. Though I was married myself when I interviewed Mrs. F., I no longer believed in the ideal of womanhood as desired object of the courting man – or afterwards, as the key-holder of the heart in the domestic space of marriage. Mrs. F.’s storied moment of romantic transcendence seemed to me an idealized and sentimental retelling of events as a drama of epic proportions simply to justify a decision made long ago. On the other hand, as a feminist and professional (the professional my mother had wanted me to become), it was very important to me to avoid positioning myself as Mrs. [End Page 13] F.’s superior in my role as audience to this woman telling the story of her life, so I consciously resisted this alienation.

But there was something unacknowledged and conflicted in my approach to Mrs. F.’s story that went beyond my political critique of the traditional woman’s role, or my professional struggle to be objective, or my desire as a feminist to connect with Mrs. F. That is, Mrs. F.’s description of herself as the romantic heroine of her own story had touched a nerve in me. In coming to terms with Mrs. F.’s story, I had to come face to face with a cast-off “Mrs. F.” in myself: in effect, with a troublesome version of my own life.

Seeing from the inside out what Mrs. F.’s story meant to her, her own interpretation of her life, I had to conjure up and meet halfway these “uncanny,” disowned aspects of myself. First, there was the part that did not like to see myself as belonging to my own working-class background. The work of climbing out of the lower class through marrying a better-off man has always been a staple of women’s stories in our culture, beginning with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Thinking of myself as of that place meant the certainty of living under the gloomy shadow of my mother’s frustration as a woman, in the milieu that shaped her eagerness to rush me into an early marriage.

Second, there was a buried piece of me that envied the way Mrs. F. had lived out the fantasy of romance and marriage that colored her life and made it cohesive. Where romance had played a secret role in my own psychic life as a second to the real-world imperative to marry, in Mrs. F.’s telling it was marvelously public, proclaimed out loud with complete confidence in its future success – even when all plot elements seemed to weigh against it (as in a Hollywood romantic comedy, where falling in love with Mr. Right while engaged to the wrong person is very common). For Mrs. F., romance had meant escaping the domination of her father and the “everybody’s-doing-it” nature of early marriage in her peer group. That her romance had led to the right marriage was its final justification. This was, to her, a wonderful outcome that echoed the larger purposes of unseen forces in the universe that choose our appropriate destinies beforehand. In my view, those enabling or crushing forces are economic, cultural, and social, with individual psychology thrown in for good measure. I am sure I would have appeared coldly cynical to her, while to me, she was subjugated and self-deceived… but also, as far as I could see, happy in and with her self-deception.

Now, I certainly did not want to be Mrs. F, and never had, any more than I wanted to be a duplicate of my mother (and my mother did not want this for me either). Yet my envy of her romantic solution lived on in shadow form, within some guarded place in me, even though I had no faith in the concept of a “romantic solution” itself. Despite my feminism, I still longed, at a subterranean level, to trust in the Love Plot. Forced to think about Mrs. F.’s love story, I was confronted (and astonished) by a hidden self I had needed to leave behind so as to shape the newer and better story of my autonomous life post-divorce: a ghost of self that whispered urgently, I wish romance had worked this way for me. Yet in fact I had no way of knowing if what Mrs. F. described had been, in reality, as she had said it had. Could Mrs. F. afford to tell, or view, the narrative of love any differently, given how much she had invested the rest of her life in its ethos?

I was a much more ambitious young woman than the character Mrs. F. appears to be in her narrative, where she talks very little about the questions of class, money or education that preoccupied me. In her romantic story, all these issues are resolved with the choice of the right man. And while Mrs. F. said she was “shy” and always had difficulty speaking up in public, I make my living by speaking in front of classrooms. But in a way, Mrs. F. was more [End Page 14] determined, more of a rebel than I was, at least in her telling. I married the man my mother wanted me to, when my mother told me to, though at the time the choice felt like mine; Mrs. F., on the other hand, emphasizes her rebellion in fighting for her heart’s desire. The irony is that for me, marriage (rather than romance) was both a way of formally escaping from my parents’ household and grip, while also, paradoxically, submitting to my mother’s final bid to be the force that controlled my destiny (for my own good, needless to say).

Though I first heard Mrs. F.’s narrative from an assumed position of my own authority, I have acquired, over the span of years, a certain humility, admiration, and eventually, sympathy for her and her story. This sympathetic understanding has also extended to my mother, who led me down a garden path that resulted in too-early marriage and eventual divorce and emotional pain. Was my mother, a generation ahead of Mrs. F, then a feminist, though she did not know the term? I would say yes, compared to other women she knew, just as Mrs. F., younger than my mother, was able to use certain key terms and concepts of feminism (though still not the word), such as “fighting for what you want,” in ways she said the women of her family had not. But these insights only went so far for my mother and Mrs. F., given the burdens of their lives and times.

Looking at myself in relation to Mrs. F. and my mother, I can see that I made the leap from working-class to middle-class due to living in a different space of history from either of them, and also thanks to my mother’s forward thrust of determined ambitions for me. But perhaps because my youthful desire for passionate love was repressed in the interest of marrying young and (supposedly) safely, the hope of meaning through romance, so important to both my mother and Mrs. F., clung to me as a haunting dream all the while I inched toward professional success. The story of my marriage and divorce is too complex to render here. But I can say that the Love Plot both sustained me imaginatively with its double promise of intense excitement and lifelong security, yet also constrained me with the anxieties lurking beneath the polished surfaces of its story. Today the Love Plot has continued to shadow women through the generations after mine, weaving in and out of our expectations for what love should be, now more than ever spurring envy of the glittery celebrated or fictional lives that we encounter everywhere in the public arena (Illouz 1997; Ingraham 1999, 2005).


I cannot renounce the working-class girl I was (and am still at heart), because it means disowning my origins, but neither can I take up Mrs. F.’s romantic view that romantic love is every woman’s destiny uncritically. Unlike Mrs. F., I resist the idea that romance is mysterious; for me, romance is an expression of desire we are taught how to tell in story form, woven with threads of hope and driven by needs we only dimly sense. There is no way I can know for certain if the mythos of love “worked” for Mrs. F. as she said it did, but as Stevi Jackson advised, I can investigate how it works, the influence and persistence of its cultural forms. Having devoted much of my life as a scholar to trying to understand the Love Plot, I want to own up to the dream without being owned by it. If, as Dr. Bruner argued, we construct our world through narrative, for which culture gives us the instructions and tool- [End Page 15] kits, it follows that we can also re-construct its meaning, revising that narrative when we acquire new tools (Kehily 1995; P. Thompson 1998).

I agree with Shulamith Firestone that love itself is not the “problem” with romance, and I acknowledge that feminism can benefit from recognizing love’s transformative potential for personal growth and egalitarian relations. Yet insofar as the Love Plot has been normative and gendered, I believe (like Firestone) that we should simultaneously be conscious and wary of its potential for other effects, which include the erasure of a history of oppression, and the narrowing of other possibilities, especially for women.[4] The very concept that shapes pleasure and meaning in romantic relations can also limit a life by hiding a power imbalance and renaming it as love. Additionally, I believe more study is necessary to shed light on the often-ignored question of why romance is still consumed mainly by women, in spite of its “equalizing” effects.

Is there a way for feminists to claim love that goes beyond the sentiment of virtue rewarded, that recognizes both love’s capacity to limit and harm as well as to give joy, that questions the definition of a happy ending, and makes space for more transgressive sorts of romance than those rigid forms that dominated popular culture in the past? Can we transcend both denunciation and idealization to embrace love as passionate, often selfish pleasure, rather than attend only to the pretty side of love as the starter yeast for unselfish caring and commitment?

It has been a personal and political challenge to simultaneously tell Mrs. F.’s and my own (real-life) stories with sympathy, while also critiquing the love story with a political eye. As a feminist, I wish to embrace the paradoxes of love as experienced, rather than line up squarely on one ideological side or other as to whether love is “good” for women. Instead of either looking up at romance admiringly, like Mrs. F, or down at it, as my mother had, I have attempted to look at romance with awe and appreciation for its power, just as I listened while Mrs. F. narrated her life to me, and marveled at the workmanship that went into constructing that seemingly simple but quite intricate system of signs and wonders that is the love story.

There is now a large body of theory, analysis, and criticism of those forms of popular romance whose audience is mainly women, but the feminist work on romantic discourse in real women’s lives begun in the mid-1990s seems circumscribed and underdeveloped by comparison. The critic Ien Ang has written that

“By taking seriously the love for romantic feeling as a starting point for engagement with ‘non-feminist’ women, a feminist researcher might begin to accomplish a comprehension of self by the detour of comprehension of the other, in a confrontation with other women who might have more expertise and experience in the meanings, pleasures and dangers of romanticism than herself. What could change as a result… is not what… ‘we’, as self-proclaiming feminists, are struggling for, but more importantly, the sense of identity that is constructed by feminism itself.” (1988, 189)

Though narration of and reflection on lived experience cannot resolve every problem for feminists in addressing heterosexual romance, my hope is that a more immersive understanding through biography and autobiography may disrupt the uniformity of abstract discourses of romance, and in doing so, contribute to a more complex, nuanced, and yes, more critical (in the most generous sense) view of romantic love. [End Page 16]

[1] For short histories of these views, see Goade 2007; Hollows 2000; Pearce and Stacey 1995; Radford 1986; Regis 2003, 2011.

[2] See also Ferguson and Jonasdottir, “Introduction” to Love: A Question (2013), and Jonasdottir, “Love Studies” (2013).

[3] Several publications resulted from this research project: Bruner 1987, 1990; Bruner and Weisser 1991; Weisser 1996.

[4] Berlant’s “Intimacy” (1998) is a provocative discussion of the problematics of contradictory desires and “polar energies,” played out in the zone of intimate life. Berlant also illuminates the limitations of the public fantasy of domestic intimacy and the “life narrative it generates,” excluding alternative plots (285). See also Illouz (2012). [End Page 17]

Works Cited

Ang, Ien. “Feminist Desire and Female Pleasure: On Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.” Camera Obscura 6.1 16 (1988): 179-190.

—. “Popular Fiction and Feminist Cultural Politics.” Theory, Culture & Society 4.3 (1987): 651-658.

Berlant, Lauren. “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 281-288.

Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

—. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

—. “Life as Narrative.” Social Research 54 (1987): 11-32.

—. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 18.1 (1991): 1-21.

— and Susan Weisser. “The Invention of Self: Autobiography and Its Forms.” Literacy and Orality, ed. David R. Olsen and Nancy Torrance (NY: Cambridge UP, 1991): 129-148.

Burns, Angie. “Looking for Love in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships.” Feminism & Psychology 10.4 (2000): 481-485.

Coslett, Tess, Celia Lury, and P. Summerfield, eds. Feminism & Autobiography: Texts, Theories, Methods. London: Routledge, 2000.

Frantz, Sarah, and Eric M. Selinger, eds. New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Pub, 2007.

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012). Web.

Griffin, Christine. Cultures of Femininity: Romance Revisited. No. 69. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1982.

Harvey, Keith, and Celia Shalom, eds. Language and Desire: Encoding Sex, Romance, and Intimacy. London: Routledge, 1997.

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

Hollway, Wendy, “Feminist Discourses and Women’s Heterosexual Desire.” Feminism and Discourse: Psychological Perspectives. Eds. Celia Wilkinson and Sue Kitzinger. London: Sage, 1995. 86-105.

Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

—. Why Love Hurts. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.

Ingraham, Chrys. Thinking Straight: The Power, the Promise, and the Paradox of Heterosexuality. New York and London: Psychology Press, 2005.

—. White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. NY: Routledge. 1999.

Jackson, Stevi. “Even Sociologists Fall in Love: An Exploration in the Sociology of Emotions,” Sociology 27.2 (1993): 201-220.

—. “Love, Social Change, and Everyday Heterosexuality.” Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-First Century 14 (2013): 33-47.

—. “Telling Stories: Memory, Narrative and Experience in Feminist Research and Theory.” Standpoints and Differences: Essays in the Practice of Feminist Psychology. Ed. Karen Henwood, Christine Griffin and Ann Phoenix. London: Sage, 1998. 45-64.

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Jónasdóttir, Anna G., and Ann Ferguson. Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-first Century. New York and London: Routledge, 2014.

Jonasdottir, Anna. “Love Studies: A (Re)New(ed) Field of Knowledge Interests.” Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-first Century. 11-30.

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Love and its Contradictions: Feminist Women’s Resistance Strategies in their Love Narratives
by Nagore García Fernández


I was first attracted to love as a topic of research because I saw other feminist female friends as well as myself struggling with it. There was something jarring about love and feminists, because we seemed to be spending more time criticizing the stereotyped romantic narratives seen in Hollywood films rather than sharing the positive and transformative elements of our everyday relationships. Even if we had read many books and zines, discussed with our comrades, learned from our previous experiences and from those shared among feminist friends, there was still a huge sense of discontent and failure present. From first and second wave feminists we learned about the dangers and the traps of love (Beauvoir 1999; Millett 1971; Firestone 1972; Comer 1974). From other feminists and non-feminists alike we learned that love was a complex emotion (Lagarde 1990; Jónasdóttir 1993; Jackson 1993, 1999; Illouz 1997; Langford 1999; Esteban 2011) and also that other kind of relationships were possible (Easton & Hardy 2009; Barker 2012). But feminists still struggle with articulating our experience among so many contradictory narratives. Love is an issue for feminists and I am interested in exploring how feminist women construct their narratives of love in relation to dominant narratives of romantic love and feminist critical narratives of love.

I apply the concept of “nested narratives” proposed by Mary and Kenneth Gergen (1983) to the analysis of love. The Gergens refer to how different narratives available in the social framework are articulated within personal experiences in subjectivity production. Also, for Jackson “[w]e create for ourselves a sense of what our emotions are, of what being in love is, through positioning ourselves within discourses, constructing narratives of self, drawing on whatever cultural resources are available to us” (1999, 120). Like them, I would contend that we are not passive subjects in these processes, but an active part that assimilates, rejects and subverts those sociocultural contexts in which the narratives are produced (Montenegro & Pujol 2013).

My understanding of love owes much to the work of Stevi Jackson (1993, 1999) and Mari Luz Esteban (2011). They have highlighted that love is a complex emotion that requires serious and critical social research (Jackson 1993; Esteban, Medina & Tavora 2005). Jackson (1993) developed a sociological approach to love as a culturally constructed emotion. In her words, “Far from being just a personal, private phenomenon, love is very much a part of our public culture” (1993, 202). Thus, it cannot be treated as “independent of the social and cultural context within in which it is experienced” (1993, 202). Mari Luz Esteban’s (2011) “amorous thought” refers to emotional, embodied, symbolic, cultural, social and institutional dimensions of love, and also considers that power relations take place in different directions. These theoretical contributions enable us to account for love as both a site of women’s complicity with and resistance against patriarchal relations. In this paper, I aim to explore the resistance strategies of feminist women in order to understand how complicity and resistance work in their narratives about love. On one hand, this could tell us about the experience of women and love in Western societies, while on the other it could shed some light on how feminism works in producing subjectivity.

Resistance Strategies

A Foucauldian perspective on power indicates that power itself permeates every aspect of social life. Power, for Foucault, is not located within but invades all social relations. It is not subordinated to economic structures. Instead of acting by repression, it acts by normalization. In this way, it produces subjects, discourses, knowledges, truths and realities in a positive way. Power is found precisely in that multiplicity of networks in constant transformation. These ideas of power characterise resistance as part of the game: there is no power without resistance (Foucault 1980). Considering these ideas, Lila Abu-Lughod (1990) develops her conceptualization of resistance and reflects over the effects resistance studies have had over the theories of power. Since the 1990s, previously devalued forms of resistance have been re-evaluated: that is, “subversions rather than large-scale collective insurrections, small or local resistances not tied to the overthrow of systems or even to ideologies of emancipation.” (Abu-Lughod 1990, 41). In pursuing a non-romanticized reading of resistance, she asks: what does resistance tell us about power? For Abu-Lughod (1990), theorizing resistance involves theorizing power. She proposes resistance as a diagnostic of power, a project for which we ought to attend to the complex workings of power rather than ask about those who resist. In other words, which are the implications of the resistance we, as social researchers, locate? The study of different forms of resistance will allow us to trace the different – often contradictory – workings of power intertwined in a specific context. In the narrative productions of this study, contradictions between cultures is key. Abu-Lughod relates this contradiction to glocal cultures, to the tensions arising between the global and the local. She also points out how, within this dynamic, women assume, subvert and/or reappropriate different cultural norms, either global or local. In my research addressing the experiences of feminist women in love, this helps in clarifying the relationship between a dominant culture in which participants are involved (permeated with romantic love discourses) and the feminist counterculture where they take part (where other counter-narratives emerge and gain a notorious significance).

Narrative Productions: articulating feminist narratives on love

The methodology used in this study is inspired by Donna Haraway’s (1991) ideas of situated knowledges, which moves away both from non-critical positivist thinking and extreme relativism. Like Haraway, I assume knowledge is produced from a located, precarious, and partial perspective. It is the result of partial connections. In reference to the empirical research, situated knowledges can be seen as semiotic-material places resulting from the relationship between researcher and participants (Pujol, Montenegro & Balasch 2003). From this view, rather than generalizing or representing, my aim is to collect different positions on the issue.

Narrative Production methodology (Balasch & Montenegro 2003; Pujol, Montenegro & Balasch 2003; Martínez-Guzmán & Montenegro 2014; Gandarias & García 2014; Schongut & Pujol 2015) is based in the collaborative production, between researcher and participants, of a series of narrative texts addressing the topic of study. Once the participants agreed to take part in the study, we carried out one or more sessions addressing love representations, meanings and experiences. Subsequently, I textualized the most meaningful aspects emerging from the participants’ narration in a clear and understandable style. In order to maximize  their  agency, I sent the participants the manuscript so they could edit it. The writing process finished with their confirmation of the final version of the text. Once I completed the process with each participant, I got a set of narratives that offer different sets of partial knowledge of love on feminist women (Montenegro & Pujol 2013, 35). These texts are called narrative productions or narratives and I will refer to them as narrative productions in this paper.

The challenge with this methodology is to reflect on this set of narrative productions, considering them theoretical starting points (Gandarias & García 2014). As Montenegro & Pujol (2013) propose, narrative productions are not treated as “pure” empirical material, which means they are not analyzed in the usual sense. The narrative productions are analyzed while being constructed, working from them rather than on them (Martínez-Guzmán & Montenegro 2010). To this end, I have focused on searching for the tensions and the common grounds emerging from the narrative productions (Fraser 2004).

Resisting Love Narratives

In this section I would like to present seven feminist activist women in order to contextualize the coordinates in which these narrative productions have been realized. Their narrative texts are part of a larger study in which ten feminist activist women participated. I selected these women according to different criteria. While they are all feminist activists living in Barcelona, their sexual identities and situations in reference to love differ considerably. I recruited participants from my own personal and political contacts and also through a variation of the snowball sampling technique, which involves asking participants to recruit new participants. I asked feminist friends to recruit possible participants too.

Libertad is thirty-three years old and comes from a city near Madrid. She moved to Barcelona five years ago. She is a sociologist and works as a researcher in gender-related issues. She has been involved in social movements since she was a teenager. She self-identifies as straight and, after a few years of being single, she is starting a new relationship.

Aram is from Barcelona and thirty-two years old. She also has a job in the field of gender equality. She started joining feminist groups in her early twenties. Her romantic trajectory has been straight until recently. Since the end of her most recent relationship, she has been thinking a lot about love.

Lidia was born in Northern Europe and raised in a Latin American country. She arrived in Barcelona in 2005 to do a Masters degree in documentary filmmaking. Since then she has been working on post-pornography as a visual artist, activist and researcher. Her activist trajectory revolves around non-normative sexual practices and gender representations, while love remains unexplored as a field for her activist work.

Rebeca is twenty-four and from a city near Barcelona. She has identified with punk and anarchism since she was a teenager. Overcoming an abusive relationship with a man led her to seek more liberating ways of establishing relationships with both men and women.

Mariona is also from Barcelona and in her early thirties. She is part of the anarchist and feminist movements. Her sexual and affective relationships have always been with feminist women.

Miriam A. and Miriam D. have been long discussing love. They are friends and met each other years ago during a workshop on romantic love. One is from Barcelona and the other comes from a different city but has lived in different places, including the UK. The first identifies as a lesbian and the other thinks of sexuality as a flexible concept. They have worked together in the prevention of abusive relationships and collaborate in several activist projects.

After the narrative productions that I have co-written with these women, I have identified various resistance strategies. First, I will address those resistance strategies that respond to mainstream narratives of love, mostly in its romantic form. Next, I will introduce those that respond to specific feminist narratives of love, which mostly are based in the feminist critique of romantic love.

Dismantling the romantic model. In what follows, I will address three resistance strategies that respond to specific imperatives of romantic love: 1) intentional singleness, which questions compulsory coupledom; 2) lover networks, responding to sexual exclusivity and temporary fixed romantic scripts; and 3) falling for the collective, which redefines the object and the “nature” of love.

Intentional singleness. It is not only heterosexuality that is seen as compulsory, as Adrienne Rich (1980) warned, but also long term relationships. Compulsory heterosexuality as a normative prescription operates through the construction and policing of various forms of “otherness” (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003), such as singleness. Furthermore, this regulation operates within a patriarchal set of relationships, meaning that women have historically been more excluded or questioned by their singleness. Thus they have been defined negatively and in terms of what is lacking (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003; Reynolds, Wetherell & Taylor 2007). Feminist research on the topic has highlighted how in the construction of women’s “single” identity, negative and positive discourses are implicated. A discourse of singleness as a lack is present, while also another which redefines it as independence and self-actualization (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003). Perspectives of this kind are echoed in the narrative texts of this study. Some participants explain how they came to wilfully choose singleness after turbulent breakups.

Cuando Héctor me dejó tuve una crisis de autoestima muy fuerte. Estuve revolcándome en el fango durante meses, sintiéndome una mierda. [Más tarde], [e]mpecé a hacer cosas que nunca antes había hecho sola, como ir a conciertos o hacer una estancia en Viena. Mi proceso fue progresivo, poco a poco he ido sintiéndome mejor y sin recaídas.[1] (Libertad, p. 4)

In a similar vein, Aram explains how she happened to find out she could be fine being single:

[D]escubrí que podía estar sin novio y empecé a tener relaciones en otro formato. Amantes y encuentros puntuales. De golpe experimenté el “no-compromiso”. Pasé de pensarme en relación a otro a pensarme por mí misma. No solo descubrí que podía estar sin novio, sino que además así estaba bien.[2] (Aram, p. 3)

Although both came to view singleness as a desired state, we can see some differences in their extracts. Libertad evokes elements of independency and a more extended social life as the capacity to do activities on her own and with other people. This makes her feel good because she is no longer identifying singleness as a lack but as gain. For Aram, on the other hand, wellbeing as a single woman is located in her ability to manage her sexual life and an identity of her own, non-mediated by a partner. However, both extracts share a common base: regardless of their focus (social or sexual life, identity), their achievements relate to overcoming a partner-oriented model. This movement, as Libertad acknowledges, is a long progressive way, with challenges to face. She points to social pressure as the one of most concern:

Hay mucha presión, vas a una boda y vas sola, o a otras actividades, siempre sola. A veces he tenido la sensación de que la gente me miraba sintiendo pena. Y lo más sorprendente es que yo estaba bien, estaba sola por elección. Hasta los colegas del barrio (con quienes tengo afinidad política) me cuestionaban por estar soltera. [3] (Libertad, p. 8)

In the experience of Libertad, social pressure appears as challenging, although not very constraining. Her awareness of wellbeing is not especially affected, but she finds herself constantly questioned and having to justify herself as being single, a very common experience single women share (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003). Also, it is interesting to note how the pressure comes from different audiences. It is not by chance that Libertad illustrates this questioning through mentioning a wedding. Although in Spain women are less likely to be married than their European counterparts, with those who do marry doing so later in life (INE Spain 2015), heterosexual marriage is still more accepted than other forms of relationships. For women, their early thirties is a stage in life in which friends, relatives and acquaintances may start to get married or to establish other types of long-term relationships with or without cohabitation. The wedding appears here as the ultimate representation, and indeed the ritual form, of our tendency to “couple” or to “partner” one another in an official and public way. But this questioning is not only coming from the most normative audiences, but also from politically radical circles. This is where the contradiction arises: how is it that people with whom she shares a politically radical position, are using heteronormative narratives to read her personal life? I would argue that her relationships are seen as a private issue, thus remaining non-politicized and therefore easier to evoke a dominant view.

In conclusion, I have addressed intentional singleness as a resistance strategy which responds to compulsory coupledom. This strategy consists of the redefinition and re-evaluation of singleness as a possible and acceptable way of being in the world which opens possibilities for a wider social life, an enriching sexual life and a fully completed sense of self. In the quotes from Libertad and Aram, this is not seen as an idealized model; rather, it confirms their everyday experience, a progressive path where they must face the social pressure coming from different audiences.

Lovers networks. Existing in the world necessarily entails relationships with others. Authors such as Judith Butler (2009) and Silvia Gil (2011) have noted our inherently interdependent relationships with others. We are immersed in multifarious networks of relationships with whom we share different forms of intimacy. Lidia frames the issue as such:

[H]aber mantenido relaciones con amantes que se han ido alargando en el tiempo, ha ido modificando mi manera de entender el amor. Estas relaciones, donde a lo mejor follo una vez al año con una persona que conozco desde hace mucho tiempo, me ha permitido ver el amor como un proceso más lento. Quiero a estas personas, y aunque no compartimos una cotidianidad, lo que siento por ellas es amor. Se dan distintos grados de intimidad y confianza, pero tengo amantes con los que creo que podría estar de amante toda la vida o al menos muchísimos años. Al haber pasado tanto tiempo te vas conociendo más, y se genera una relación de compañerismo que es un amor interesante, que no podría ocurrir si tienes una relación estrictamente monógama. Estas relaciones son como amistades con intimidad y sexo. También son relaciones con las que a veces trabajo en algún proyecto. [4] (Lidia, pp. 6-7)

Based on similar experiences, Rebeca reflects on temporality as the backbone of the dominant understandings of intimate relationships.

[E]n mis relaciones de amistad sexoafectivas sí he podido encontrar más esa espontaneidad y libertad, sin las exigencias propias que devienen en una pareja más “clásica”, y lo que es más importante para mí: esa confianza y complicidad no en todos los casos se ha marchitado, sino que se ha transformado y ha perdurado en el tiempo, volviéndonos así compañeras intermitentes, permanentes, atemporales, eternas. [5] (Rebecca, pp. 2-3)

For both extracts, I would like to focus on how temporality and intimacy are presented in opposition to traditional couple relationships. Dominant love narratives position couples in a linear temporality. This usually begins with a process of “courtship” or flirting when the conditions of the relationship remain to be negotiated until the couple is defined as such. This type of narrative usually ends with either the beginning of a long-term relationship or the end of it. Lidia and Rebeca suggest a different temporality in which the boundaries of beginning and end are unclear. Lidia describes further this kind of temporality in the following fragment:

Son relaciones que entienden que yo puedo estar en un pico amoroso y entonces desaparecen temporalmente y luego reaparecen y eso se produce muy orgánicamente. El grado de exigencia con la otra persona es menor y eso facilita que se adapte a disponibilidades personales y afectivas. Por ejemplo, si un amante me llama para quedar, pero yo estoy en el mundo del corazón […] y no me apetece… no pasa nada. Son relaciones infrecuentes o de frecuencia variable, una vez al mes o una vez cada tres meses… A veces también he tenido un subidón de amor con alguno de mis amantes… quizás dura una semana, luego decae, pero vuelve la otra persona… sería como un gráfico de ondas.[6] (Lidia, pp. 7-8)

Here intermittence emerges, varying in intensities and availabilities, ranging from very intense moments to periods of absence which are not understood as lack of attachment. In this sense, intimacy is reconfigured at different levels. Not sharing an everyday life is not seen as a lack of intimacy, but the contrary. The connection is not based here in a common everyday life, but in sharing an intensity and sexual intimacy. Although precarious and inconsistent, this kind of love is highly valued by both participants. This may not sound like something new nowadays, where sexual life and intimacy have adopted different forms in Western societies. However, there is a kind of convenience, as opposed to engagement and commitment, which makes me suspicious. Lovers seem to appear “naturally” when they are needed and in a way that fits individualistic interests. So, from a critical perspective, it is important to ask to what extent this kind of intimacy is mediated by individualized contemporary discourses.

What is interesting about Lidia and Rebeca’s reflections is that, unlike in mainstream society, they recognize these relationships as love, even if it is a love of a different kind. In this sense, these experiences have resulted in a change of their conceptualization of love.

In conclusion, the forming of lover networks appears to be an ambivalent strategy which challenges sexual exclusivity and its temporality by recognizing the intimacy shared with lovers as a valuable kind of love. However, while being liberating for the participants, these practices of intimacy may intertwine with individualistic dominant discourses, an issue in which further research is needed.

Falling for the collective. Miriam A. and Miriam D. describe how they felt about the feminist group in which they were both taking part a few years back:

Miriam D.: Yo estaba todo el dia de asamblea en asamblea. Trabajaba en un librería de mujeres, acababa de terminar el Máster de Estudios de las Mujeres […] … Okupabamos entre mujeres, hacía autodefensa, […]… Tenía la vida más feminista que podía tener y luego tenía un novio, que estaba en casa… Estaba enamoradísima de la red, de todas las cosas que sucedían. Todo era como una montaña rusa, me dejaba llevar y me encantaba.


Miriam A.: Había un discurso muy bonito de lo colectivo y de repente empiezas a ver las fisuras que has estado ignorando.

Miriam D.: Porque nos enamoramos…

Miriam A.:¡Es muy romántico! Se sustituye la pareja por el colectivo. Te enamoras románticamente del colectivo, ignoras sus fisuras y cuando todo estalla, la ruptura se hace muy difícil.

Miriam D.: Acaban saliendo resentimientos hacia el colectivo…

Miriam A.: Algo no hemos hecho bien que cuando todo se acaba y no nos podemos ni ver… Eso pasa mucho en la pareja.

Miriam D.: Te prometes todo y de repente como no es verdad, la decepción es máxima.

Miriam A.: Creo que deberíamos aceptar que no todo es tan intenso y absoluto, aprender a acabar y acabar mejor. […] Por otro lado, sin esa energía muchas cosas no saldrían. Por eso en el fondo creo que no puede ser malo. La energía que desprendemos cuando nos enamoramos de alguien o de algo, que puedes no dormir y empiezas a hacer de todo… A mí me cuesta encontrar esa energía sin el enamoramiento. No creo que sea solo político… ¿esa energía de donde sale? ¿Eso es puramente construido? Esa cosa que no te da nada más… Pienso en algunos grupos que conocí hacía 2009 y desprendían una energía muy potente… Yo me enamoré de todas y de la energía que desprendían, me encantaba… y luego acabó como el rosario de la Aurora. Parece que cuanto más subidón, luego más bajón…[7] (Miriam A & Miriam D, p. 11)

In their story, the expansion of the loving object reaches the collective. So much affection is put into their political projects that they “fall for the collective.” Love here becomes characterized as a force, an energy that is the basis of mobilization and collective action, rather than as the passionate sexual bond associated with romantic love. This move echoes Hardt and Negri’s politics of love (2009). These authors develop a reconfiguration of the notion of love in which they place the common in the center. From this perspective, romantic couple love is seen as narrow, yet the focus goes beyond individualistic practices of intimacy. Rather, it seeks to reclaim the collective. In the narrative productions, however, some romantic features still remain. Romanticizing the collective emerges as a double-edged sword. It has the potential to challenge the legitimate object of love, which moves from being a person or a network of multiple lovers to a specific group of people with whom they share political activism. Some features of the dominant romantic narrative also emerge. The latter part of the quote suggests that in the process of falling for the collective, there are a number of romantic love scripts in play. The naive happy beginning and difficult ending resonate with the romantic temporality revised before. All the passion attached to it also sounds really romantic. In addition, for Alberoni (1996), love is a collective movement of two, which recuperates the idea that there is something about love that is not totally individual. Still, for Miriam A., despite the problematic of the romantic script, the collective fusion has a great destabilizing potential.

In general, this strategy should be consider in its double character: it politicizes the romantic and romanticizes the political. On one hand, the politicization of the romantic appears as a move towards a transformative notion of love, while on the other hand, the romanticization of the political appears as the process by which some elements of the romantic narrative of couple love is assimilated into a narrative about a wider love experienced within a political collective.

Living the contradiction. Contradictions seem to be a part of our subjectivities and have inspired much feminist writing on love and romance (Jackson 1999). These contradictions seen to be more evident in love where very different narratives are in constant play. As Jackson (1999) points out, there is a contradiction between two of the strongest narratives of love in the Western world. Passionate romantic love – as featured in many forms of artistic expression – favours intensity, whereas the lived narrative of heterosexual pair-bonding emphasis long-term commitment. We are both imbued with the mystery of falling in love as with the routinization of a long-term relationship. The narrative of love as an altruistic emotion is as present as the narrative which identifies romantic love as self-centred and individualistic. Eva Illouz focuses on the contradictions of love in contemporary Western societies (1997). With a focus on love, its practices and their relation to the economic sphere, she traces how the contradictions of capitalism have reached the sphere of love. When the narratives of the productive sphere crosscut the private, it is inevitable that contradictions emerge. For Illouz (2012), contradictions are an unavoidable part of culture and, in general, most people manage to move among them without struggling, but this scenario changes when the contradictions affect the articulation of experience. In such cases, incorporating the contradictions into everyday life becomes a difficult task. This difficulty becomes evident in many of the narratives productions I have collected. It is clear in this piece by Libertad:

El amor para mí es un gran contradicción. […] Por una parte pienso en el amor como un sentimiento positivo, pero no puedo evitar que lo primero que se me venga a la cabeza al pensar en el amor sea la negación de la persona. Es cierto que cuando te enamoras estás más contenta, de mejor humor y todo te parece más bonito. Sin embargo, no puedo dejar de relacionar amor con negación individual, sobre todo a partir de la idea generalizada de amor romántico que nos venden y que se reproduce por todas partes. Tengo esa contradicción. Por un lado pienso que el amor es negación de la individualidad, de la autonomía y por otro lado pienso que somos seres sociales y que el amor nos hace creer en los otros y en las otras. [8] (Libertad, p. 1)

Different narratives are interconnected in this fragment. First, love as a positive emotion and its transformative power (it makes us believe in others). Within that positive aspect of love, falling in love is also mentioned. It is interesting how, as Jackson has suggested, “even feminists resort to mystical language to describe it [love]” (1999, 116). Although there is not a mystical language here, there is a positive and magical understanding of falling, as it is seen as a state in which everything seems to be better. On the other hand, there is a strong presence of a negative reading of romantic love more specifically, which evoking the feminist critique which centres on lack of autonomy and individuality as key elements that are denied in the name of love.

The participants in this study incorporate and make their own narratives after the narratives available in their cultural arena (Jackson 1999). As Illouz (2012) explains, culture provides people with different discourses which are often contradictory and which are used, at different moments and circumstances, to account for different aspects of the experiences of love.

In the stories of the participants, many narratives are in play. Besides the mainstream narratives of love, they also incorporate feminist narratives, meaning the contradiction becomes more evident and more difficult to deal with. In the following strategies I will focus on two different ways of dealing with some of the contradictions they struggle with specifically as feminists.

Claiming “romance”. When Lidia and I were constructing her narrative production I was absolutely captivated by this story of her childhood:

[C]on ocho años descubrí las telenovelas. Todas mis compañeras del colegio las veían y a mí me enganchaban mucho. Pero eran tan nefastas ideológicamente que mi mamá me las prohibía y aun así yo me las ingeniaba para verlas a escondidas. Ella guardaba la tele en la parte alta de un armario y resolví el asunto poniendo un alargo que alcanzara hasta el enchufe. De esa forma podía ver las telenovelas a gusto y antes de que llegara mi mamá ya había quitado el alargo y cerrado el armario como si nada hubiera pasado. En estas telenovelas se reproducían los imaginarios clásicos del amor romántico: enamorarse para siempre, encontrar la pareja indicada, que alguien que te salve… Es como una metáfora divertida que ese imaginario en mi casa fuera el que se tenía que quedar dentro del armario.[9] (Lidia, p. 1)

Lidia’s mother was an artist who had lesbian and feminist friends, so as a child Lidia had different reference points beyond the nuclear family. It is interesting to note that from an early age she was resisting her mother’s power by watching telenovelas secretly. A hugely popular cultural product in Latin America, telenovelas were nevertheless forbidden by her mother on account of their reinforcement of patriarchal relations. The consumption of romantic fiction has been largely researched by feminist scholars. Some of these contributions have highlighted how romantic fiction consumers are not merely assimilating a dominant narrative, taking more seriously the pleasures of romance (Jackson 1999; Roach 2010; Frantz & Selinger 2012). In this sense, I see Lidia’s secret consumption of telenovelas as a site of resistance in which she could fantasize with the narratives that were forbidden in her home. It is interesting here to note how, in this case, what is dominant in mainstream society becomes a site of resistance as the order of Lidia’s childhood home works with its own set of norms and values. Later in her story, she refers to a similar strategy in the present time:

Hay perspectivas feministas -que parten de la crítica al amor romántico- que consideran que enamorarse está mal. Aunque comparto la base de esta crítica, no creo que enamorarse esté del todo mal. A veces me da la sensación de que esta crítica se traduce en una negación y/o desintensificación emocional del amor. Yo me resisto a esto, no quiero renunciar a la intensidad del amor, me gusta, soy una yonki. Pero el amor viene en un pack que está muy satanizado: el amor romántico, el sufrimiento… Hay gente que te manda a la mierda por hablar del amor o por enamorarte y creo que este tipo de discursos generan más que ninguna otra cosa, culpa.[10] (Lídia, p. 5)

This illustrates how within our contradictory subjectivities it is possible to maintain a critical view of romantic love and its connection to patriarchal relations while still desiring a romantic fantasy and the passion of falling in love. Moreover, in Lidia’s experience, claiming romance has a specific meaning due to the specificity of her context. Two different narratives are in tension here: the romantic narrative of passion and intensity associated with falling in love, and the feminist narrative of the critique of romantic love as an ideological delusion (Beauvoir 1999; Firestone 1972; Rich 1980; Wittig 2006). Lidia seems to be articulating both narratives in her own experience, while in her feminist circles they appear totally differentiated.

Siento que lo que hay es más un discurso de la negación y esto me molesta y me ha llevado a reivindicar públicamente que yo me enamoro mucho, muy intensamente y todo el tiempo. Reivindicar esta posibilidad en ciertos contextos genera una cierta transgresión de este tabú que es el amor.[11] (Lídia, p. 10)

In this extract, she explicitly reclaims the right to fall in love, a lot and intensely, which calls into question the feminist critique of romantic love as an hegemonic narrative within feminism. Thus, claiming romance here it is not only a resistance that recognizes the many pleasures romance can have for women but is also responding to what has becoming hegemonic in her feminist networks. Moreover, Lidia is not only critical of the hegemony of the critique of romantic love in her circles, but also includes two understandings of love. The first refers to the way feminism has traditionally understood love – as a patriarchal ideology subordinating women. The second refers to her own understanding – as a biochemical engagement capable of producing a boundless energy. Although her proposal is based in the feminist critique, she remarks that it fails to explain her actual experience. The power she is resisting is the “punishment” of her affinity group and she does it precisely by strengthening its position and pointing to a rupture in the same counter-power.

I argue that, in this specific context, incorporating elements of the dominant romantic narrative results in a form of resistance because 1) it challenges specific power relations within feminist networks, and 2) because the participants do not base their assumptions on an uncritical assimilation of the dominant, but redefine and appropriate it from their own experience and feminist position.

Accepting the contradiction. Lidia is not the only participant with a self-critical view on the rigidity of love’s rejection within feminist environments. Other participants like Mariona and Aram also raise the acceptance of contradictions as a starting point for personal and collective feminist work.

Lo difícil es ser sincera contigo misma, ya no sólo con las demás. Ser capaz de aceptar cosas que salen de una misma, de reconocer que reproducimos. Es muy difícil aceptar mucha mierda dentro y que es fácil decirlo, pero cuando sale es muy doloroso. […] Es difícil aceptar cosas que son mal vistas en nuestro entorno.[12] (Mariona, p. 4)

Mariona highlights the difficulty in accepting these contradictions as a feminist, both at a subjective and interpersonal levels. First, she refers to her own feelings and emotions dealing with assimilation, then she points to how the rest understand that assimilation. Assimilating here is understood as failure. However, she chooses to accept it. By recognizing herself an active participant in a feminist counter-narrative, which is also part of a dominant narrative (the romantic), she rejects an external position from mainstream society, while still questioning it.

Aram proposes a possible way to address this contradiction:

Nos sabemos la teoría y me parece un buen punto de partida, pero ¿por dónde continuamos? Asumo la distancia entre teoría y práctica y puede dejar de resultarme incómoda. Sin embargo, siento que fuera de los círculos más íntimos de amistad, no se comparten estas contradicciones. Hay muchos tabús y entre feministas también. Pero el feminismo no tiene que servir para encorsetarnos, sino para lo contrario, para liberarnos, aunque esto implique contar nuestras miserias. Tendríamos que sacar las basuras, rescatarlas y continuar desde ahí.[13] (Aram, p. 5).

Both Mariona and Aram refer to internal processes dealing with pain and contradiction and how these may become invisible among feminist activist circles, but are shared among closer friends. This suggest a division between irrationality and a political rationality and a specific regime of emotions. Contradictory emotions seem not to be accepted at a public level and are thus privately experienced and shared only with the closest friends with whom we feel free to relax. They propose a different dynamic, in which contradictory emotions have a place in political activism. Thus the division of irrationality and rationality is slightly blurred.

In conclusion, this strategy is based on the inclusion of explicit work on the contradictions as part of the emancipatory feminist project. Rather than making contradiction invisible, this could be a starting point from where to accept our cultural and social constraints.

Towards Narrating The Contradictions

In this paper I have identified various resistance strategies in the narrative production of seven feminist activist women in Barcelona. First, I have addressed the resistance strategies that respond to romantic love narratives. Among these, I have included intentional singleness, which questions compulsory coupledom; lover networks, which respond to sexual exclusivity and temporary fixed romantic scripts; and falling for the collective, which redefines the object and the “nature” of love.

Next, I have explored those challenging feminist narratives with a focus on the contradictions of love. Claiming romance incorporated elements of the romantic narrative while challenging specific power relations within feminist networks. Finally, accepting the contradiction suggested that feminist work should start from these contradictions.

Exploring these resistance strategies enables us to think how feminist women construct their love narratives while opening new possibilities of thinking about love. The danger of establishing new hegemonies still remains, but women resist and negotiate their personal love narratives in the context of the meaning of dominant narratives of love and feminist counter-narratives. The Narrative Production methodology provides the opportunity to explore these resistances through the process of co-producing the texts with the participants. This methodology is reminiscent of narrative inquiry and its focus on the importance of people’s lives and how they give meaning to them (Bruner 1991, 2004), but with a special interest on drawing new horizons to understand love experiences within feminist practice, owing to its commitment to challenge taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions (Jackson 1998). From this perspective, it posits the generation of different positions – in both researcher and participants – in relation to the topic of study (Balasch & Montenegro 2003, Montenegro & Pujol 2012). The process of co-producing narratives can be seen as a “circle of dialogue” in which the text is negotiated between both parties. Within this “circle of dialogue”, it is possible to unearth hidden or subordinated ideas whose importance rests in putting established theories in doubt, thus producing new theories that are more closely connected to people’s lives (Fraser 2004). Specifically, it has accounted for the contradictions between critical feminist perspectives and personal experiences. This is an opportunity to generate understandings of love which differ not only from those grand love narratives that dominate our everyday lives, but also from the feminist critiques of romantic love to which we have become accustomed. It opens a way to perform critical understandings of love.

[1] For this paper I am using the original extracts in Spanish of the narrative productions. The translations to English, by Michael Stewart and I, are included as footnotes to each fragment. “When Héctor left me I suffered a real self-esteem crisis. I got totally bogged down in it for months, feeling like shit. [Later] I started to do things that I had never done before on my own, like going out to shows or spending time [on a doctoral trip] in Vienna. It’s been gradual for me: little by little I’ve been feeling better without falling back.”

[2]I discovered that I was able to be boyfriend-less, and I started having relationships in a different way. Lovers, hooking up here and there. All of a sudden I had a taste of ‘no strings attached’. I moved from thinking about myself in relation to another, to thinking about myself as myself. I didn’t just discover that I was capable of not having a boyfriend, but that even more so I was OK that way.”

[3] “There’s a lot of pressure: you go to a wedding and you go alone, or to other social occasions, always on your own. Sometimes I’ve had the feeling that people are looking at me in pity. And the most surprising thing is that I was fine, I was on my own by choice. Even friends from my neighbourhood (with whom I have a political affinity) have challenged me about being unattached.”

[4] Having maintained relationships with lovers that have grown over time has gradually changed my way of understanding love. Those relationships, where maybe I have sex once a year with someone I’ve known for a long time, have allowed me to see love as a slower process. I love these people, and even though we don’t share a day-to-day life, what I feel for them is love. There are various degrees of intimacy and trust, but I have lovers who I could see being life-long lovers, or at least for many, many years. With so much time having passed you get to know yourself better, and a kinship forms that is an interesting kind of love, one that couldn’t happen if you had a strictly monogamous relationship. These relationships are like friendships with intimacy and sex. They’re also partnerships which I work within at times on certain projects.”

[5] “In my emotional-sexual friendships I have definitely been able to find more of a certain spontaneity and freedom, without the demands that inherently emerge in a more ‘classic’ couple. And more importantly for me: that confidence and mutual support hasn’t withered away, but instead has been transformed and has held out over time, making us in turn periodic companions, permanent companions, timeless companions, eternal companions.”

[6] “They’re understanding of the fact that I can be head over heels [for someone else] so they take a step back and then come back on the scene and the whole thing plays out very organically. There’s less demand on the other person and that helps them to adapt to changing emotional and personal availability. For example, if a lover called me to meet up, but my heart’s elsewhere…and I don’t want to…that’s cool. They’re infrequent relationships, or of varying frequency, once a month or once every three…Sometimes as well I’ve been totally smitten with one of my lovers…maybe for a week, then it fades, but someone else comes back…it’s like a wave graph.”

[7] “Miriam D : I was spending the whole day going from meeting to meeting. I was working in a women’s bookshop, I was just about to finish my Masters in Women’s Studies…We were squatting as women, we were practicing self-defense… I had the most feminist life I could have and by the way I had a boyfriend, he was at home…I was completely in love with the network, with everything that was happening. The whole thing was a rollercoaster, I was letting myself get carried away and I loved it.

Miriam A : The collective had this really beautiful discourse, then all of a sudden you start to see cracks that you’ve been ignoring.

Miriam D : Because we were in love…

Miriam A : It’s very romantic! The couple is replaced by the collective. You fall in love romantically with the group, you ignore the cracks and when it all explodes the break-up becomes really difficult.

Miriam D : Some resentments towards the collective end up coming out…

Miriam A : There’s something we haven’t done right when everything is over and we can’t even face each other…that happens a lot between couples.

Miriam D : You promise everything and then all of sudden, since it’s not true, there’s this huge disappointment.

Miriam A : I think that we ought to accept that it’s not so heavy and final, and to learn to finish and to finish better…Besides, without that energy a lot of things wouldn’t come to pass. For that reason I don’t think it’s inherently bad. The energy we give off when we fall in love with someone or something, where you can stay awake and do everything…for me it takes a lot to find that energy without being in love. I don’t think it’s just political…where does that energy come from? Is it just a social construct? That thing that nothing else can give you…I’m thinking about some groups that I was familiar with towards 2009, and they gave off this powerful energy…I fell in love with all of them and the energy they were giving off, I loved it…and then it all went to blazes. It’s like the bigger the high, the bigger the fall…”

[8] “Love for me is a huge contradiction…on one hand I think of love as something positive, but I can’t hide from the fact that the first thing that comes to my head when thinking about love is the denial of the person. It’s true that when you fall in love you’re happier, you’re in a better mood, and everything seems nicer to you. Nevertheless, I can’t stop relating love with self-denial, especially the general idea of romantic love that they sell us and that is played out everywhere. I’ve got that contradiction. On one hand I think that love is a denial of individuality, of autonomy, and on the other hand I think we’re social beings and that love makes us believe in others.”

[9][I] discovered telenovelas when I was eight. All my classmates from school watched them and I was so hooked. But they were so dire ideologically that my mum banned me from watching them and I still managed to do it secretly. She kept the TV on top of a closet and I resolved the matter by using an extension plug. That way I could watch the telenovelas at ease and before my mum was back, I had already removed the extension and closed the closet as if nothing had happened. Those telenovelas reproduced the classic romantic love imaginary: falling in love for ever, finding the right partner, that someone saves you… It is a funny metaphor, that it was this imaginary that had to stay in the closet in my house.”

[10] “There are feminist perspectives – that start from a critique of romantic love – that hold that to fall in love is bad. Although I agree in principle with this critique, I don’t think that falling in love is completely bad. Sometimes I have the feeling that this critique translates into a denial and/or an emotional pairing-down of love. I resist this, I don’t want to give up on the intensity of love, I like it, I’m hooked on it. But love comes in a pack that’s very sanitized: romantic love, suffering…there are people that would kick you to the gutter for talking about love or falling in love and I think that this kind of discourse creates guilt more than anything.”

[11] “I feel that what we’ve got is more of a discourse of denial. That bothers me, and has brought me to assert publicly that I fall in love a lot, passionately, and all the time. Standing up for this possibility in certain contexts sparks a certain transgression of the taboo that is love.”

[12] “The hard thing is to be honest with yourself, never mind with everyone else. Being capable of accepting things that come from within oneself, of recognising that we reproduce things. It’s very hard to accept a lot of the shit we keep inside, albeit that it’s easy to say, but when it comes out it’s very painful…It’s hard to accept things that are frowned upon in our circles.”

[13]We know our theory and that seems like a good starting point to me, but where are we headed? I’m coming to terms with the distance between theory and practice and it might stop becoming uncomfortable for me. Yet I feel that outside of those particularly close circles of friendship, these contradictions aren’t talked about. There are a lot of taboos, among feminists too. But feminism shouldn’t be a straitjacket for us, rather the opposite, something to liberate us, even when that involves talking about our hardships. We ought to take out the garbage, salvage what we need, and continue from there.”


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Love, Limb-Loosener: Encounters in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah
by Jennifer Leetsch

[End Page 1]

In Greek the act of love is a mingling (mignumi) and desire melts the limbs (lusimelēs) (Sappho, Fr. 130). Boundaries of body, categories of thought, are confounded. The god who melts limbs proceeds to break the lover (damnatai) as would a foe on the epic battlefield: Oh comrade, the limb-loosener crushes me: desire.

– Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet

As Carson argues via her explorations of Sappho’s poetry and other literary texts, both classical and modern, in her essay collection Eros the Bittersweet, the Greek poets portray the god of love, Eros, as limb-loosener. The god Eros belongs to a collective of winged gods of love and sex called Erotes (amongst them Anteros, Hedylogos, Hermaphroditus, Himeros, Hymenaeus, and Photos). Eros, however, is also one of the four words in Ancient Greek to describe “love”. While storge refers to familial love, philia to friendship, and agape to selfless love, eros concerns intimate and romantic love, often with sexual overtones. When E/eros (as god and as concept) is described as melting limbs and breaking the lover, it becomes evident that love, driven by the desire for the other, has the potential to rattle boundaries and cross borders. The juxtaposition of opposites (self and other, pleasure and pain, longing and fulfilment, bitter and sweet) that is inherent to love creates movement and provokes action. “Mingling” and “loosening” mark a disturbance of categories of thought, body, place, and identity.

Referencing the descriptions of eros in Plato’s Phaedrus and the philosophical dialogue staged between its protagonists Socrates and Phaedrus, Carson posits love as “an invasion, an illness, an insanity, a wild animal, a natural disaster” whose action is

to melt, break down, bite into, burn, devour, wear away, whirl around, sting, pierce, wound, poison, suffocate, drag off or grind the lover to a powder. Eros employs nets, arrows, fire, hammers, hurricanes, fevers, boxing gloves or bits and bridles in making his assault (1986, 8).

But even though potentially destructive and life-threatening, love always also possesses the capacity for transformation (expressed in the above quote through imagery of natural catastrophes and corporeal processes such as eating and digestion). As Catherine Belsey argues in Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture, love “marks the limits of human mastery” (1994, 27). Love unhinges, makes fluid, makes loose and in doing so draws attention to the perimeters of how we fashion our world and interpersonal relationships through hierarchies of power and control. At the same time, love can mark “the location of resistance to the norms, proprieties and taxonomies of the cultural order” (Belsey 1994, 6). Love can thus be delineated as profoundly active and restless, potentially undermining certain hierarchies [End Page 2] and normative orders. In reading this disturbance as creative, productive, and powerful, love emerges as a harbourer of change and innovation:

Each narrative of love expresses a compound and contradictory impulse: on the one hand, the narrative ventriloquizes cultural values, perpetuating and naturalizing patriarchal models of gender […]; on the other hand, the narrative talks back, revealing frustration, dissent, and potentially subversive responses to those patriarchal constructions. (Strehle and Carden 2003, xii)

In other words, fictions which concern themselves with love and desire – such as romance texts and love stories – are well-established in a position where they are able to interrogate boundaries and to draw back into light what would otherwise be marginal, unspoken, repressed. Love stories can pose resistance to oppressive representation and there is a transformative potential inherent in the very structure of love. The fluidity and instability of love makes it a peculiarly flexible tool for teasing out ever-changing emotions, identities, and alliances; its narratives are specially “attuned to the heteroglossia of cultural and countercultural voices” (Strehle and Carden 2003, xii). When dealing with literary and cultural texts that stem from a point of origin marked not only by their deviance from patriarchal norms (such as feminist or queer voices), but also from colonial or neo-colonial norms (such as diasporic or postcolonial voices), a focus on love and how it is put into narratives will bring to light numerous possibilities for speaking back against these oppressing structures.

I will use the arguments by Carson, Belsey, and Strehle and Carden about love as breaking down boundaries and as an agent of change as the springboard for my discussion of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013). The fact that love functions as a loosener of boundaries and crosser of borders can be applied to three aspects of the novel: space, body, and text. The construction of a specific transnational space for both Ifemelu and Obinze, the two lovers and protagonists of Americanah, are marked by geographical travel and emotional border crossing. Accordingly, the first part of the paper will analyse how the lovers, in the face of the absence of their loved one, fashion their respective spaces of home and belonging, and how both ultimately return to Lagos, where they enact their romantic happy ending. The second part of my analysis will focus on the bodily encounters Ifemelu and Obinze experience, separately and together, and how intimate sexual acts of love break down previously erected barriers. The erotic and bodily aspect of love in the novel, however, is not only portrayed as positive and empowering, but is also marked by trauma and tensions, and I will outline how Ifemelu’s body and hair become a site of contested identity. The third part of this paper will examine the textuality and language of Americanah’s love story and how its romantic trajectory ultimately escapes its conventional boundaries – geographically, digitally, and meta-textually. By focusing in turn on spatiality, corporeality, and textuality, I want to acknowledge the different affects and effects of love and what it does, as material practice, embodied experience, and as a discursive and textual construct. In the course of my discussion, I will link back to both Anne Carson’s conceptualisations of love as limb-loosener and Catherine Belsey’s examinations of love as an act of resistance, while also drawing on the (surprisingly spare) critical commentaries by scholars on Americanah specifically and postcolonial feminist theory more generally. [End Page 3]

Reading Between the Lines: Adichie and the Importance of Love Stories

All of Adichie’s work surreptitiously deals in some way or other with (familial, platonic, romantic, erotic) love. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), is set in postcolonial Nigeria and accompanies its protagonist, the young woman Kambili, on her emancipatory journey as she escapes from the domination of her violent and fanatic Catholic father. Living with her aunt, she falls in love with the young priest Amada, while also discovering her burgeoning sexuality.[1] Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a sensitive rendering of the Nigerian Biafran war, has at its centre two pairs of lovers. The novel traces the war and its traumatic consequences as it follows the fates of the sisters Olanna and Kainene and their romantic entanglements. Significant socio-historical and political questions posed in the novel are thus refracted and subverted through the love relationships of its protagonists. Similarly, Adichie’s short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), focuses not only on the politics of a hybrid, progressive African identity, but always implicates the political with the personal by tracing relationships between family members or lovers.[2]

In “Between the Lines,” a conversation with Zadie Smith in March 2014 at the Schomburg Centre New York, Adichie actually calls Americanah her “fuck-you book” (2014, 16:31), “a fuck you to another version” of herself (16:35). What she means by that is that her first two novels, especially Half of a Yellow Sun, followed the footsteps of the founders of modern African literature, epitomized by such seminal works as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)[3], engaging with questions and subject matters heavily informed by Nigeria’s colonial past, processes of decolonisation and nation-building: “With Half of a Yellow Sun I was very dutiful. For so long I have been a dutiful daughter of literature. I’ve followed the rules… show don’t tell” (2014, 16:40). In going against traditional “African” writing and in transgressing Achebe’s treatment of Nigeria’s traumatic pasts, Adichie opens up pathways for new ways of writing about African experiences. Breaking out from the single story, Adichie’s Americanah pays attention to smaller stories: it “challenges the association of Africa with trauma, torture and politics, bringing into view non-Afro-pessimist representations of Africa” (Goyal 2014, xiv).

In the same conversation with Zadie Smith, Adichie drives home this point as she argues that love and sexuality are an integral part of her stories and her characters. Tongue-in-cheek, she positions herself in the grand tradition of Mills and Boon popular romance novels, but at the same time argues that her work is anti-Mills and Boon (2014, 19:27-21:50) – with female protagonists who strive to decide themselves when and where they want to engage sexually, emotionally, intellectually with their partners, who own and actively tell their own stories.[4] In broaching and narrating love, Adichie’s novels garner a voice that deals not only with the political complexity of its Afro-diasporic characters but also their smaller, more personal stories of love, lust, and loss. In exploring constructions of love in Adichie’s Americanah, this paper sets out to show that love enables encounters between humans and the transgression of borders. As Ifemelu, Adichie’s protagonist in Americanah, says:

The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both [End Page 4] people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. (367)

According to Ifemelu, romantic love can act as an antidote for the repressive and dangerous mechanisms of racism and other systemic structures of oppression.

Routes and Roots of Love

Americanah’s love story is not stationary: its chapters travel and migrate between past and present and between Nigeria, Great Britain, and the United States. We first meet Ifemelu, the female protagonist of Americanah, when she resides in Princeton. She came to the United States on a scholarship after finishing school in Nigeria and has since lived in various American cities, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, Brooklyn, and Princeton. But already on its very first pages, the novel opens up the American space Ifemelu finds herself in: she has to leave clean, affluent, and academic Princeton to have her hair braided in Trenton, a suburb of Princeton: “it startled her, what a difference a few minutes of train travel made” (6).[5] The readers accompany Ifemelu to the hair salon, where she not only has her hair braided but where she also begins a more pervasive braiding process of weaving her story, of travelling back into time to her childhood and youth in Nigeria. These thoughts, which will span several chapters, are marked by “amorphous longings, shapeless desires” to leave America and return to Nigeria: “Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil. And, of course, there was also Obinze. Her first love, her first lover” (7).

Ifemelu and Obinze meet in secondary school and continue their relationship all the way through university, when their ways part. Theirs is love “at first sight”, playing on a romantic trope at work since Greek poets first described the “love madness” caused by Eros’ arrows. From the beginning on, then, Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship conforms to the structures of what we expect of a “proper” love story: love at first sight, being star-crossed (i.e. facing obstacles and hindrances), and the happy end. This trajectory, however, is complicated and enriched by Americanah’s engagement with space building and movement.

The correlation between love and spatial practices is frequent in the novel. In the first chapter, when Ifemelu describes her growing estrangement from her then boyfriend, black American Blaine, she says that “her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out” (9), referring to the locked-in feeling of confinement and stasis she feels. In contrast, a few pages later Obinze thinks back to the acts of love making between him and Ifemelu when they were young and her statement: “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before” (24). Not seeing the ceiling, not seeing the borders of the room, suggest an openness and fluidity that comes with love making. In the course of their relationship, Ifemelu begins to call Obinze Ceiling, the word becoming a shorthand for “what they did together, their warm entanglements” (24).

Movement becomes one of the most important factors in Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship as they move away from each other and lose contact (the reasons for which I [End Page 5] will discuss in the next section). Ifemelu makes her home in various American cities, takes lovers that are white American (Curt) and black American (Blaine), while Obinze moves to Great Britain where, under great duress, he tries to gain legal status and is deported back to Nigeria after a failed attempt at a sham marriage to an Angolan-Portuguese girl called Cleotilde. The spaces both find themselves in are marked by a multitude of affects and relations and both engage in attempts to fashion their belongings abroad. Ifemelu struggles to reconcile her Nigerian identity with the American spaces of femininity and friendship offered to her:

She was standing at the periphery of her own life, sharing a fridge and a toilet, a shallow intimacy, with people she did not know at all. People who lived in exclamation points. […] People who did not scrub in the shower: their shampoos and conditioners and gels were cluttered in the bathroom, but there was not a single sponge, and this, the absence of a sponge, made them seem unreachably alien to her (156).

With time, however, she adapts and finds joy in the acts of mapping her American geography, “[s]he hungered to understand everything about America, to wear a new, knowing skin right away” (166). Obinze in London, in turn, works various jobs at cleaning or moving companies and lives a shadowy, restricted existence in the metropolis: “He would walk fast on the pavement, turned tightly into himself, hands deep in the coat his cousin had lent him, a grey wool coat whose sleeves nearly swallowed his fingers” (281). He is swallowed up by the grey and hostile urban topography, where he is regarded as foreign and not-belonging, “his existence like an erased pencil sketch” (318). The fear and trauma of being an illegal migrant as well as the consecutive exportation becomes deeply inscribed into Obinze’s relationships to space and to others. When he returns to Nigeria, he becomes a wealthy business man but marries a woman he does not love, and feels not moored but “as if he could float” (44). Both in London and Lagos he experiences a multiple sense of place and alienation. He only can truly “come home” when he is reunited with Ifemelu, who returns to Lagos years later.

As Sara Ahmed argues in her essay “Wiggle Room,” the act of adjusting to spaces is an act of meaning making: “Sometimes to create space we have to wiggle about. You know those moments when you try and fit in a space that is smaller than you are” (2014, n.p.). By distorting the rooms and spaces, be they social categories, gender assignments, or the skins we wear, we enlarge them, we make them fit. This act of fitting adjusts spaces but it can also make them fill up and spill over: “We might in spilling out of the rooms we have been assigned, in our struggle with an assignment, mess things up” (2014, n.p.). In this transgressive move of messing things up, one can locate an act of resistance and appropriation. Looking at both Ifemelu’s American spaces and Obinze’s London experience and their homecoming, I argue that both in some way spill over the rooms assigned to them. Their returns to Nigeria (one voluntary, one forced) mark both successful and failed engagements with space, but also pose a comment on the structure of love and desire. Many critics have expressed a “sense of disbelief that Ifemelu would choose to go back to Nigeria (and not under duress of any kind)” (Goyal 2014, xii), and within the novel, Ifemelu is faced with the same doubt: “Everyone she had told she was moving back seemed surprised, expecting an explanation, and she said she was doing it because she wanted to, puzzled lines would appear on foreheads” (16). The return to Africa seems to not sit well with a novel that [End Page 6] explores transnational and diasporic identity. But instead of reading the return home as a failure, I think it is much more interesting and fruitful to see it as “an exploration of blackness that does not highlight injury or trauma, but focuses on romantic love, hair, and nostalgia” (Goyal 2014, xiv), love being the key word here.[6] The story of Americanah ends happily, reuniting Ifemelu and Obinze in Lagos.

Adichie plays with the usually normative and rigid borders of social categories and national spaces as well as the conventional, conservative plot structures of the love story, and in doing so she makes them wider, more porous. In desiring and in realising her desires (returning to Nigeria, returning to Obinze, having a happy ending), Ifemelu wiggles free and spins “herself fully into being” (586).[7] This movement underlines the argument from the beginning of this article: love has the inherent potential for movement, for change. In performing the love story with all its obstacles and resolutions, and in swapping Nigeria with America and then back, divisions are made fluid. Conceptions of original or authentic “homeland” and of “away” are being questioned and complicated – “And this was Nigeria, where boundaries were blurred” (483) – as continents are travelled, cities rediscovered, and oceans and borders crossed.[8] The seemingly binary opposition between routes and roots is cancelled, as both Ifemelu and Obinze find home in each other. It is no coincidence that the last words of the novel are “Come in” (588) and that Ifemelu invites Obinze to cross the threshold into her house. The intimacy and the romantic, sensual happy ending proposed by Americanah here does not seem static or terminal at all.

“Multi-boned, multi-ethnic”: Erotic Encounters, Corporeality, and Self Love

Besides the affective spatiality performed in the novel, the locus of the body is another contested point of contact in the web of love that is spun within the text of Americanah. How corporeality and love are intertwined is made abundantly clear when the text of Americanah dwells on the moments of “entanglement” between Ifemelu and Obinze. When they first meet as teenagers, they are drawn to each other like magnets, and of their first encounters Ifemelu says: “[S]he was jolted by a small truth in those [Mills and Boon] romances. It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge” (69, 70). Here, the bodily, sensual experience felt by the two lovers brings to mind Carson’s extrapolations of love as limb-loosener, as twisting and unhinging the joints of your body. In both referencing the very conventional and kitschy Mills and Boon romance stories Ifemelu reads as a young girl and simultaneously asserting an authentic embodied experience of love and desire, the novel gives weight to what is elsewhere perceived as light (entertainment): the act of love between two people. When Ifemelu and Obinze meet again after years of absence, the sex is described as “seamless desire” (551) and “an awakening” (551) which un-numbs the body.

But bodily encounters, if painfully and violently enforced, have the reversed, opposite effect. When Ifemelu undergoes a traumatic episode of sexual assault, she closes herself off from the world and from Obinze. Early on during her time in Philadelphia when she is still a newcomer in America, Ifemelu struggles to find a job. Following a newspaper advertisement for a “personal assistant”, she finds herself confronted with a white American man, a tennis [End Page 7] coach from Ardmore, who forces her to be sexually intimate with him in exchange for money. Ifemelu undergoes the ordeal and afterwards falls into a deep depression, cutting off her friends, her family, and her long-distance boyfriend:

She could not bear the thought of touching her own body […], wishing she could reach into herself and yank out the memory of what had just happened. […] She was bloodless and detached, floating in a world where darkness descended too soon. […] She felt herself sinking, sinking quickly, and unable to pull herself up (190-192).

The sexual violation of her body not only brings with it depersonalization disorder symptoms and disgust but also causes a detachment from the world around her. Only years later, sitting at her kitchen table in Lagos, she tells Obinze what happened to her and starts the reparative work of talking through her trauma: “She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in her chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hands in his” (543). In the silence that follows their words, she feels “safe” (543). Obinze’s love for Ifemelu enables her to pull down the walls she had built around herself.

Romantic love in Americanah, then, is closely connected to self-love. This is mirrored by what Ifemelu feels from the very beginning of her relationship with Obinze: “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size” (73). Self-love and the problems that come with it in the novel play out in a space marked by restrictions put upon the black female body. As Gayatri Gopinath has observed, femininity and womanhood are often used “as primary markers of an essential, inviolable communal identity or tradition” (2003, 138). The female body becomes a symbol and marker for how national borders are drawn. Both Ifemelu’s weight and her hair are contested sites, not only regarding the politics of how women should look and behave like, but also for the more personal question of self-care and interpersonal relationships.

On the first pages of the novel, while she waits on the Princeton Junction platform for her train to Trenton, Ifemelu ruminates on the shape of her and of other women’s bodies, recognising that “‘fat’ in America was a bad word, heaving with moral judgment like ‘stupid’ or ‘bastard,’ and not a mere description like ‘short’ or ‘tall’” (6). Coming to America, she had learned to avoid that word, but when a man in the supermarket verbally harasses her, the word comes back to her: “She said the word ‘fat’ slowly, funnelling it back and forward, and thought about all the other things she had learned not to say aloud in America. She was fat. She was not curvy or big-boned; she was fat, it was the only word that felt true” (7). The stranger in the supermarket had wanted to offend her, but instead “prodded her awake” (8) to rethink her American space and eventually return to Nigeria. In admiring another woman who wears a mini skirt, and in being content in her own large body, Ifemelu argues back against white Western ideals of femininity and respectable female bodies. That her relationship to Obinze, however, adds to that act of self-love, becomes clear later in the book when she has returned to Lagos. When meeting after years of being apart, Ifemelu is self-conscious about her body size but reassured when Obinze calls her beautiful: “Oh, no, Ifem, you’re not fat. You’re being very American about that. What Americans consider fat can just be normal” (531). What is being made visible here are the different national stances towards [End Page 8] female bodies, and the always harmful notion of others dictating how a (black) woman should look, dress, and behave. Instead of merely relying on male reassurances, Ifemelu throughout the novel engages in processes of critically questioning these notions, continuously advocating for a “multi-boned, multi-ethnic world of women” (219), a multifaceted politics of beauty.

In drawing attention to the tensions of conflicting attitudes towards the black female body, Adichie sheds light on the legacy of colonialism and its essentialist position towards African sexuality and corporeal difference. She connects her protagonists’ sexual encounters and their physicality with broader and deeper running discourses on national identity and alterity – as Judith Butler would argue: “Discourses do actually live in bodies. They lodge in bodies; bodies in fact carry discourses as part of their own lifeblood” (Butler, Meijer and Prins 1998, 282). In complicating “normal” or “neutral” embodiments, Americanah “wittily undermines American perceptions about Africa” (Goyal 2014, xi). Another aspect which links to the self-empowering strategies of the body and of loving oneself is the conversation about hair opened up in the novel. As mentioned above, in the opening pages, the reader accompanies Ifemelu to a hair salon, where she gets braids in preparation for her return to Lagos.[9] The question of black hair – weaves and braids and afros – and its unruliness is taken up time and time again during the novel; it is a sign of the deeply entrenched assumptions that constitute blockages and hindrances in the dynamics of black female corporeality, sensuality, and sexuality. As Adichie says in an interview with the Guardian: “Hair is hair – yet also about larger questions: self-acceptance, insecurity and what the world tells you is beautiful. For many black women, the idea of wearing their hair naturally is unbearable” (Kellaway 2013, n.p.). In finding support via the internet and the blogosphere, Ifemelu learns to accept her hair; in cutting off the straightened, relaxed, smoothed and burnt part of her – “something organic dying which should not have died” (251) – that conforms to society’s expectations of her, she releases her fractious hair. Accompanying that material act of cutting and releasing is a speech act stating that she “simply, fell in love with her hair” (264), and, I would argue, herself.

By refusing to be a ready-made product for desire or consumption, Ifemelu, then, moves exactly against the harmful mechanisms Adichie cautions against in We Should All Be Feminists: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” (2014, 27). Instead of shrinking herself, Ifemelu expands herself and the rooms she moves in through negotiating her body, sexuality, and her desires. The erotic and embodied aspects of love performed by Americanah open up conversations about race, consent, sexuality and free will. Reading the female black body and identity within and simultaneously against discourses of oppression and discipline (patriarchy, (neo-)colonialism) means to inspect and appraise expressions of love as inherently connected to identity constructions and subversions. Love can function as a tool to re-appropriate and to rebuild certain power relationships. By regarding love as empowering tactic, cultural and literary representations such as Adichie’s Americanah harbour the potential to destabilise stereotypical and restrictive orders and advocate new ways of speaking about relationality, affiliation, and alliance. [End Page 9]

“Desire moves, eros is a verb”: Love and/as Text

Having discussed love in Americanah with relationship to space and to body, I now want to turn to the third category: textuality. The textual architecture of the novel is built around different linking devices, focal points, and temporal levels. As delineated above, the chapters alternate between Ifemelu and Obinze’s perspectives and always reach back into the past, consciously drawing parallels and correlations between both lovers’ developments. One of the structural linking devices employed by the novel is the hair salon Ifemelu travels to in the first chapter. This hot, noisy, and female space serves as the point of departure for Ifemelu’s “time travels” (see chapters 1, 3, 9, and 18). Thinking back to her roots (her childhood and her mother), the decidedly feminine space of the hair salon becomes a meeting point for various female genealogies (49). Another linking device is the blog Ifemelu starts after having lived some years in the States. The blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, and connects the different themes and story parts to each other. Blogging anonymously, Ifemelu creates a safe space where she can talk about her experiences relating to racism, sexism, and (female) black politics of resistance (topics include Michelle and Barack Obama, WASPs, or Beyoncé). Her call to “Un-zip yourself” and to open up conversations mirrors how Angelika Bammer, Minrose Gwin, Cindi Katz, and Elizabeth Meese (1998) regard cyberspace as “a frontier through which we enter a nonspace, the space that isn’t ‘really’ there. It is a safe space, which the actual, material spaces in which many people live is not.”[10] Through blogging, she “writes herself into existence” and counters “the silence that she feels defines her in America” (Isaacs 2016, 179).

Communication via different channels and the obstruction of that communication play an important role in the fabric of Americanah’s romance text. The two lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, once separated by the Atlantic, call each other on the phone, send each other letters, voicemail messages, and later emails. Similarly to the way the blog and the hair salon function as linking devices, the emails Ifemelu and Obinze exchange after their estrangement propel the text from one place and one focal point to another. New media, like emails, Facebook, and the blog, create intimacy and convergence; a possibility of connection and closeness that is open and multi-branched, multi-directional: Ifemelu interacts with her readers; she quickly composes emails to Obinze on her phone only to afterwards delete them again; Obinze stalks Blaine (Ifemelu’s ex-boyfriend) on Facebook and roots through her blog’s archives to clandestinely “keep in touch.” The expression of keeping in touch is a curious one, where the digital space enables touching and contact: “They had kept in touch, she and Ranyinudo, throughout the years. At first, they wrote infrequent letters, but as cybercafés opened, cell phones spread, and Facebook flourished, they communicated more often” (17). As Camille Isaacs contends, Americanah uses these channels “to constitute peculiar spaces of access to both homelands left behind and the host cultures” (2016, 174). I would argue, however, that the specific textual architecture the novel displays not only links different focalisations or geographic places of belonging together, but makes another argument about the text’s love story and its affective dimensions.

With regards to the relation between love and language, Catherine Angel posits, “The desire to speak desire is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture. As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement. It undoes the perceived straitjacketing. Unlaces the [End Page 10] corset, winds down the hair” (2012, 205). The dynamics of love as acted out by Ifemelu and Obinze (their desire for each other, represented by reaching out, keeping in touch via words) create processes of sense-making and bridge geographical as well as emotional distance. Obinze says of his email writing: “He began to write to her about his time in England, hoping that she would reply and then later looking forward to the writing itself. He had never told himself his own story […] Writing to her also became a way of writing himself” (461). Desire for the other produces action, language, creation. Love becomes a story to be told, a narrative: “Desire moves. Eros is a verb” (Carson 1986, 17). Love is a site which acts as a starting point for, as I would argue, text and textuality: “As Socrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you” (49). A story begins with love entering; it initiates the processes of the creation and production of story, flows of narrative and textuality are induced by the advent of eros. Love enables communication: “Desire in Western culture is inextricably intertwined with narrative, just as the tradition of Western fiction is threaded through with desire” (Belsey 1994, ix).

The love story of Americanah punctures silence; inhabits the gaps – and thereby engages in actions of breaking down or melting away distance and difference. Perhaps the most significant example for how the textuality and language of Americanah’s love story escapes boundaries and loosens borders is the second blog featuring in the novel. This blog, titled The Small Redemptions of Lagos, is both Ifemelu’s blog once she has returned to Nigeria in the last chapters of the novel, but it is also blog that actually exists on the internet under the WordPress address While this can clearly be regarded as a marketing strategy for the publication of the novel (the blog entries were mediated and managed on Adichie’s Facebook profile by her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, cf. Guarracino 2014, 21) and to heighten impact and circulation, the blog, which is still online and features entries from August 27, 2014 to November 2, 2014, is also a metatextual continuation of Americanah’s text, which escapes even the confines of the lovers’ happy ending. During the story in the book, the blog functions as a self-identificatory tool for Ifemelu to settle back down in Nigeria and to speak to Obinze. The “real-life” continuation on WordPress features, among others, blog entries on Nigerian politics, Ebola, African politicians, and infrastructure (“Problem and Solution”), hair care, skin care, and vaginal care products (“The Aruidimma Centre”), and lipstick, fashion, and beauty (“Style”), all written by the first-person author figure of Ifemelu.

There is also, however, a category called “Ifem & Ceiling”, Ifemelu and Obinze’s nicknames throughout the book. As Serena Guarracino has argued, the novel’s characters “keep expanding beyond the finished confines” (2014, 21) of the text, and I argue that the blog also writes forth the love story beyond the happy end of the novel. The blog entries in the “Ifem & Ceiling” category continue writing the love story into the future, beyond the “Come in” of the novel, describing their shared everyday life: “Ceiling is different here in Enugu. He’s lighter, he jokes more, he is less silent. But I sometimes see his face fall and I know he’s missing [his daughter] Buchi” (“Ifem & Ceiling 2”). They also describe little connections and touching points: “So, we support the same Charity. We started supporting the same Charity at about the same time without, of course, knowing what the other was doing. #Lovenwantiti #truecompatibility #mostromanticcoincidenceever” (“Ifem & Ceiling 7”). The love story moves out from its confines between the covers of the book and displaces the oppositions between fiction and metafiction, text and metatext. Thus, the blog outmanoeuvres the reader and defies all desire for control and closure. With this strategy of [End Page 11] empowerment, the lovers’ voices of the text, in the text and also outside of it, do not cease to speak.

Conclusion: “It’s just a love story”

Having examined the interrelation between love and space, body, and text in Adichie’s Americanah, I would like to argue that the novel showcases the transfiguring, transformative momentum of love in the context of postcolonial transnational writing. The love story engenders not only creative textuality, but also subversive configurations of space and of feminine corporeality. Tracing the relationship of the two lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, the above discussion has illuminated the different effects and affects of the love story. Spatially, the text exists between Africa, America, and Great Britain, but the romantic happy ending, a stock characteristic of every love story, complicates one-sided conceptions of national borders and belonging. Regarding the sexual and erotic components of love, I have traced the corporeal tensions Ifemelu has to negotiate as she experiences both traumatic and reparative intimacies. Textually, the novel similarly escapes constraints as the love story wilfully extends beyond the frame of the book into the open and multi-directional digital space of the internet.

In writing against oppression and against the restrictive powers of the norm, Americanah engages in an empowering act of giving voice to the formerly silenced, of providing wiggle spaces for alternative identity constructions. The novel as a transnational love story tries to take first steps in subverting certain ingrained divisions by dissecting and diagnosing social, cultural, political, and emotional patterns. Americanah is a text which seeks to un-bind boundaries, to unsettle settlement and to deal in all things human: love and romance are powered by the motion of meeting, of encountering and touching each other. In Americanah, love stands for fluidity and fractiousness – sometimes ugly, painful and twisted, but always disturbing boundaries. It is culturally contrapuntal: it functions as a site of resistance and resilience for oppressive ideologies. Instead of stasis, the novel argues for flexibility and for overcoming divisions and boundaries. As Anne Carson argues:

Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive (1986, 30).

The boundary is a place at which something may begin, may become present; it acts as a starting point. Love exists because of boundaries but also in the boundaries. Love can “whirl” binary oppositions, it constitutes a playground for the struggle with other systemic relations of power, for interpersonal affiliations, as national and transnational meeting points. Love stories, like Americanah, might be “only” love stories, but as such they are important:

Don’t we all in the end write about love? All literature is about love. When men do it, it’s a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it’s just a love story. So, although I wanted to do much more than a love story, a part of [End Page 12] me wants to push back against the idea that love stories are not important. I wanted to use a love story to talk about other things. But really in the end, it’s just a love story. (Adichie, interviewed by Brockes 2014)

[1] For a more in depth discussion of Purble Hibiscus, see, for example, Marta Sofia Lopez’ “Creating Daughter-lands: Dangarembga, Adichie, and Vera” (2007).

[2] For further readings of the interconnections of the personal and the political in Adichie’s earlier work, see Manisha Basu’s “Loving and Leaving: The Ethics of Postcolonial Pain in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus” (2012) or Susan Z. Andrade’s “Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels” (2011).

[3] Things Fall Apart has since become the most widely published/read work of modern African fiction and has cemented Achebe’s position as the father of African writing. The novel writes back to “the vision of Africa as a land of savagery and darkness, the distorted reflection of the continent depicted in the work of writers like Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary” and has become the cornerstone in the project “of recuperating notions of African culture and heritage” (Krishnan 2014, 11).

[4] This echoes what Adichie argues for in her published TED talk on feminism and its discontents, We Should All Be Feminists: “The idea that sex is something a woman gives a man, and she loses something when she does that, which again for me is nonsense [sic]. I want us to raise girls differently where boys and girls start to see sexuality as something that they own, rather than something that a boy takes from a girl” (33). We Should All Be Feminists follows Adichie’s own processes of unlearning the restrictive and oppressive perceptions of how gender is woven into the fabric of social, cultural and political structures and constitutes an invocation for gender equality.

[5] The confrontation of different spaces with each other is a thing that Americanah excels in. The opposition never stays binary and clear-cut, the text rather teases out the geographical differences and similarities to de-essentialise conceptions of “Western” and “African”. Princeton is wealthy but also bland, smelling of “nothing”. Trenton is hot and sticky and dirty, but also marked by the feeling of connection and sisterhood, however stilted, Ifemelu experiences with the hairdressers. As Yogita Goyal argues, “Americanah takes on the charged questions of race, travel, and migration, it shows how black Atlantic concerns and American conceptions of race are reshaped and transformed in relation to the postcolonial state and its own itineraries of hope and despair, migration and return” (2014, xvi).

[6] It would be interesting to compare Americanah with other contemporary reinventions of the immigration novel, such as the recently published Behold the Dreamers (2016) by Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue or Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013), as all deal with cultural dislocation and the idea of original “home” and “exile” in a globalized twenty-first century world of interconnectedness and alternative spaces of belonging.

[7] In returning, Ifemelu also becomes the eponymous Americanah – a word which signifies someone having left and then come back, demarcating a hybrid in-between identity: “They roared with laughter, at that word ‘Americanah,’ wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke” (78). [End Page 13]

[8] An article forthcoming in November 2016 in “Diaspora & Returns in Fiction,” the 34th issue of African Literature Today (edited by Helen Cousins, Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo, and Ernest N. Emenyonu), called “Negotiating Race, Identity & Homecoming in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah & Pede Hollist’s So the Path Does Not Die” by H. Oby Okolocha, will discuss this as well.

[9] The hair salon acts as a place of female community and a meeting point, just as much as the online community of which Ifemelu finds through a friend. It is a natural hair community “done with pretending that their hair was what it was not, done with running from the rain and flinching from sweat. They sculpted for themselves a virtual world where their coily, kinky, nappy, woolly hair was normal” (263). In engaging with both these communities, Ifemelu not only takes part in an act of self-love, but also an act of loving other women. Americanah thus clearly articulates a feminist ethics of care, which can especially be found in Ifemelu’s female friendships and alliances.

[10] For a more in depth and detailed discussion on gender and cyberspace, see Mary Flanagan’s influential piece on “Navigating the Narrative in Space: Gender and Spatiality in Virtual Worlds” (2000). [End Page 14]

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. Print.

—. Half of a Yellow Sun. London: Fourth Estate, 2006. Print.

—. The Thing Around Your Neck. London: Fourth Estate, 2009. Print.

—. Americanah. London/NY: Anchor Press, 2013. Print.

—. “The Small Redemptions of Lagos.” Web. Accessed 11 June 2016.

—. We Should All Be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate, 2014. Print,

Ahmed, Sara. “Wiggle Room.” Feminist Killjoy. 28 September 2014. Web. Accessed 11 June 2016.

Andrade, Susan Z. “Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels.” Research in African Literatures 42.2 (2011): 91-101. Print.

Angel, Catherine. Unmastered. A Book on Desire, Most Difficult To Tell. London: Allen Lane, 2012. Print.

Bammer, Angelika, Minrose Gwin, Cindi Katz, and Elizabeth Meese. “Part 3: The Place of the Letter: An Epistolary Exchange.” Making Worlds; Gender, Metaphor, and Materiality. Ed. Susan Hardy Aitken, Ann Brigham, Sallie A. Marston, and Penny Waterstone. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998:161202. Print.

Basu, Manisha. “Loving and Leaving: The Ethics of Postcolonial Pain in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.1 (2012): 67-86. Print.

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

Brockes, Emma. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Don’t we all write about love? When men do it, it’s a political comment. When women do it, it’s just a love story.’” The Guardian. March 21 2014. Web. Accessed Jun 11 2016.

Butler, Judith, Irene Meijer, and Baukje Prins. “How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Signs 23.2 (1998): 275-286. Print.

Carson, Anne. Eros: The Bittersweet. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1986] 2000. Print.

Flanagan, Mary. “Navigating the Narrative in Space: Gender and Spatiality in Virtual Worlds.” Art Journal 59.3 (2000): 74-85. Print.

Gopinath, Gayatri. “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion.” Uprootings / Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Ed. Sara Ahmed, Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier and Mimi Sheller. Oxford/New York: Berg, 2003. 137-156. Print.

Goyal, Yogita. “Introduction: Africa and the Black Atlantic.” Research in African Literatures 45.3 (2014): v-xxv. Print.

Guarracino, Serena. “Writing ‘so raw and true’: Blogging in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.” Between 4.8 (2014): 1-27. Print.

Isaacs, Camille. “Mediating Women’s Globalized Existence through Social Media in the Work of Adichie and Bulawayo.” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 17.2 (2016): 174-188. Print.

Kellaway, Kate. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘My new novel is about love, race … and hair.’” The Guardian. 7 April 2013. Web. Accessed June 11 2016.

[End Page 15]

Krishnan, Madhu. “Negotiating Africa Now.” Transition 113 (2014): 11-24. Print.

Levine, Caroline. “‘The strange familiar’: Structure, Infrastructure, and Adichie’s Americanah.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 61.4 (2015): 587-605. Print.

Lopez, Marta Sofia. “Creating Daughterlands: Dangaremba, Adichie, and Vera.” Journal of the African Literature Association 2.1 (2007): 83-97. Print.

Okolocha, Oby H. “Negotiating Race, Identity & Homecoming in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah & Pede Hollist’s So the Path Does Not Die”. ALT 34 Diaspora & Returns in Fiction. Ed. Helen Cousins, Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo, and Ernest N. Emenyonu. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. James Currey. The University of Rochester Press, New York, 2016: n.p. [Forthcoming].

Smith, Zadie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Between the Lines: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Zadie Smith”. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 19 March 2014. Web. Accessed 11 June 2016.

Strehle, Susan and Mary Paniccia Carden, eds. Doubled Plots. Romance and History. Jackson: University Press of Mississipppi, 2003. Print.

[End Page 16]


The boys’ love phenomenon: A literature review
by Ágnes Zsila and Zsolt Demetrovics

[End Page 1]


Ágnes Zsila was supported by the New National Excellence Program of the Ministry of Human Capacities. This study was supported by the Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Office (Grant number: K111938).


Introduction to the boys’ love phenomenon

The increasing popularity of boys’ love media has received growing attention in academic fields over the past two decades, resulting in a wealth of exploratory studies focusing on either the media or the fan community (Galbraith 2009). “Boys’ love” is an umbrella term for Japan-specific media – primarily anime and manga –, which thematize the romantic love of two men, often in a sexually explicit form. The representation of male homosexuality appears in video games, movies, series, and other original or fan-created visual (fan art) and textual pieces (fan fiction) (McHarry 2011). Boys’ love originates from shōjo manga in the 1970s, created for young women, which depicted romantic encounters, mainly between heterosexual couples. However, representations of male homosexuality began to appear in these stories, attracting female enthusiasts (McLelland and Welker 2015, 4). The growing popularity of stories centering on male homosexual encounters contributed to the independence of this emerging genre, which was later divided into two subgenres. Shōnen-ai, which literally means “boy love”, portrays the romantic love between two men by focusing on emotional aspects, whereas yaoi[1] presents male homoeroticism in a sexually explicit form (Welker 2015, 42).

Stories thematizing the romantic love between two men have always been popular among young women not only in Japan but also in North America and several European countries (e.g., Germany, Italy), where movies and books depicting homosexual romance attracted many fans in the late 1970s (Welker 2011, 211-228). However, American gay movies and books never managed to create as expansive a space for fans as boys’ love did. Slash,[2] which can be considered as the Western counterpart of boys’ love, emerged in the 1970s in North America (Saitō 2011, 172), and established an active fan culture. Nevertheless, slash communities remained relatively small, closed groups that did not wish to draw attention from outsiders due to copyright concerns in respect of their non-original works (Thorn 2004, 174). By contrast, the growing popularity of anime and manga outside Japan resulted in boys’ love transcending the boundaries of the manga industry, and related materials (e.g. video games, visual novels) gained the attention of Western fans in the mid-2000s. The positive reception of boys’ love, which preserved most of its cultural specific features in the international adaptations, inspired the formation of large, online fan communities (Thorn 2004, 174). As the Internet became more accessible, manga fans with this special interest in boys’ love could meet online and contribute to the creation of fan-made pieces (e.g. fan fiction, fan art), establishing large, international collaborations (Thorn 2004, 174).

The global boys’ love phenomenon consists of three components: professional and amateur creators, consumers, and boys’ love materials (Mizoguchi 2003, 49-75).The extensive online fan communities and their wide range of activities provided an active, [End Page 2] international background for this phenomenon, and publishers and policy-makers also contributed in the comics market. According to Mizoguchi’s estimation, there were approximately one million Japanese boys’ love fans in the mid-2000s (2008, 44), whereas Thorn reported that hundreds of thousands of women had been engaged with the boys’ love phenomenon (2004, 174).

Parallel to the global expansion of the boys’ love manga industry and fan activities, further subgenres emerged due to the growing interest in male homoerotic stories. For instance, “shōta”[3] became popular in Japan, which portrays pre-adolescent boys in sexually charged situations as objects of attraction (McLelland 2005a, 15). However, this subgenre received mixed reception from boys’ love fans, since the portrayal of underage boys in erotic scenes was strongly associated with child abuse (McLelland 2005a, 2). In contrast, the male counterpart of yaoi, termed “bara”[4], was appreciated more among sexual minorities, although it never managed to transcend the boundaries of gay culture (McLelland2000, 136). Bara materials are created by and for gay men, and feature masculine characters in more realistic story settings. The underlying reasons for men and women showing an interest in male homosexual narratives are sharply different. Bara is primarily related to gay culture (McLelland 2000, 35-136), whereas its female-oriented equivalent, boys’ love, has created a unique space for women to share a collective fantasy in which they can dissociate themselves from gender constructs and social restrictions (Hori 2013).

As a consequence of the global popularity of this genre, the boys’ love phenomenon has also attracted the attention of academics. The English-language literature consists of theoretical studies and qualitative research in the fields of Japanese and East Asian studies, communication and media studies, cultural anthropology, and gender studies (Madill 2010). Only a few studies have conducted empirical research on large samples using quantitative methods (e.g. Pagliassotti 2008a). This paper provides an overview of the international literature on boys’ love from the past twenty years regarding genre-specific characteristics and tropes, fan culture and motivations, critics, and social implications.

The genre-specific characteristics of boys’ love

Boys’ love works combine traditional (e.g. forbidden love) and genre-specific (e.g. “rape as an expression of love”) narratives which reflect the conventional (yet undeniably problematic) tropes of heterosexual romantic literature, with the exception that this love occurs between two men (Mizoguchi 2003, 56). In the majority of cases, boys’ love stories depict the first encounter of characters who fall in love with each other at first sight. Following this, certain difficulties (e.g. sexual orientation concerns, coming out to family members and friends, or past negative experiences) begin to dominate the narrative. Relationship anxieties, terminal illness, rape, incest, and other dramatic themes are often found in this genre (Madill 2011). The portrayal of such psychological traumas in boys’ love stories has a special meaning for the fans of this genre, as will be discussed later in this section.

The visual representation of these stories (e.g. manga, fan art) reflects a particular aesthetic and idealistic design (Madill 2011). The early stories introduced European protagonists in idealized foreign countries (Bollmann 2010, 43). This tendency has, [End Page 3] however, changed in the past two decades, and the romantic encounters have been placed in a Japanese cultural setting.

General boys’ love stories feature “bishōnen” characters (i.e. beautiful boys), who have exceptional physical characteristics (McLelland and Welker 2015, 6). A common couple in boys’ love consists of a dominant, masculine character called “seme”, and a submissive, feminine partner, the “uke” (Bauwens-Sugimoto 2011). A considerable proportion of fans prefer the uke over the seme, which can be attributed to the similarities with female gender roles that allow female fans to identify with male characters (Kamm 2013).

According to the theoretical work of Mizoguchi (2008, 152), general genre-specific tropes are (1) rape as a representation of overflowing love, (2) preserved heterosexual identity of the protagonists after being involved in homosexual activities, (3) seme-uke roles based on physical appearance, (4) fixed roles that cannot be reversed, (5) sexual encounters always involving anal intercourse. However, Kamm (2013) points out that a number of stories do not include the latter two tropes. He argues that roles can be reversed at certain points in the story or with the introduction of a new character, and the depth of a relationship can be illustrated through different types of sexual interaction. In addition, intense emotions, never-ending love, monogamy and loyalty are also important tropes in most boys’ love narratives (Fujimoto 2007a, 63-68).

It is common for the uke to become a rape victim by the seme or by a third person in boys’ love (Mizoguchi 2008, 152) stories. In spite of the fact that rape is a serious societal problem, the boys’ love genre provides a positive reframing of sexual assault and victimization. As Hagio remarks, the (aesthetic) illustration of rape in a more supportive environment may help boys’ love fans cope with similar experiences by providing a more controllable and positive situation in the narratives to relive their own traumas (2005). The seme rapes the uke in their first sexual interaction, which begins with the resistance of the submissive character. However, the seme cannot suppress the overwhelming emotions he has for his partner, which were concealed until that point (Mizoguchi 2008, 151). The uke finally accepts his devotion and expresses his approval, which leads to the satisfaction of both partners (Orbaugh 2010, 181). After this, a deep emotional bond begins to form between the protagonists, which might be contradictory in light of the fact that the uke was raped by the seme previously, but this rape is positively reframed in boys’ love stories, and indicates the beginning of a passionate relationship. Indeed, same-sex relationships are portrayed as particularly deep and honest, and the partners are shown to be unconditionally supportive. For instance, if the uke is being raped by a third person, the seme provides psychological support for him (Mizoguchi 2008, 154). In reverse, if the seme struggles with the outcomes of an early life trauma (e.g. memories of child abuse), a common trope in boys’ love narratives, the uke provides him with help to overcome difficulties (Gibbs 2012, 186).

The prioritization of emotions over traditional social norms, gender constructs, financial advantage and social expectations is significant in the genre of boys’ love (Fujimoto 2007a, 63-68). The male protagonists are usually heterosexual men in a relationship with a woman (Mizoguchi 2000, 193-211) who suddenly fall in love with each other when they first meet. Interestingly, the protagonists are not labeled “gay”, even after being involved in a homosexual relationship (Mizoguchi 2010, 157). Their social environment maintains their heterosexual image, attributing their acquaintance and strong emotional involvement to an accidental coincidence that could happen to anyone (Mizoguchi 2008, 132). The two main characters do not consider themselves homosexual either (Galbraith 2011, 213). [End Page 4]

McLelland and Welker remarked that narratives focusing on the positive aspects of homosexuality, which avoid the presentation of stigmatization and sexual identity concerns, may suggest that it is easy to come out as gay in Japan where these stories are set (2015, 3), although theoretical (Mizoguchi 2008, 32) and empirical works (Pagliassotti 2008a) point out that the majority of boys’ love fans are aware that these stories do not reflect social reality. Saitō also emphasizes that boys’ love characters and settings are not representative of the real lives of gay men, but are constructed elements of a collective female fantasy (2007, 245) which has developed in the online world.

The boys’ love fan community

The global accessibility of the Internet played a significant role in the international popularity of the boys’ love genre and the formation of online boys’ love fan communities in the mid-2000s, when boys’ love anime and manga were introduced to a Western audience (Thorn 2004, 173). Since then there has been a growing interest in scanned and translated boys’ love manga among young women (2004, 174). Consequently, large fan communities of female enthusiasts have developed. These anonymous, closed groups allow members to express their appreciation for bishōnen characters involved in homosexual romances (2004, 173-174).

“Fujoshi” is a commonly used expression for female fans of boys’ love. The Japanese term means “rotten girls”, which refers to fans’ sexually-driven reading practices (Galbraith 2011, 212). Based on the prevalence of heterosexual women in fans’ conversations on gay-themed magazines in the 1970s, it was assumed that the vast majority of female boys’ love fans were heterosexual. However, empirical research conducted in the mid-2000s did not support this presumption. In 2008, Levi (2009, 154) found that only around 58% of North American respondents (86% female) were heterosexual; while Pagliassotti (2008a) reported that 47% of English-speaking European fans (89% female) and 62% of Italian participants (82% female) were heterosexual. Zsila, Bernáth and Inántsy-Pap (2015, 60) recently found that 66% of Hungarian boys’ love fans were heterosexual (91% female). Moreover, Lunsing (2006) and Welker (2006, 841-870) also emphasized that lesbian fans were vital members of the boys’ love fan community in the mid-2000s.

The vast majority of fans (93%) are both creators and consumers (Pagliassotti 2008a). Age difference, level of education and social status are insignificant in the social community of boys’ love enthusiasts, and there is no clear distinction between professional and amateur creators (Mizoguchi 2008, 336-350).

It is common for boys’ love fans to reinterpret general communication signs as homosexual affections (Galbraith 2011, 221). This mechanism was described by Galbraith under the term “rotten filter” (2011, 221), whereas Meyer used terms such as “yaoi-eye” and “yaoi glasses” to describe this perceptual process (2010, 232). It is common for female fans to view the world through their “rotten filter” and to imagine homosexual encounters resulting from sexually neutral objects or interactions, although imagination and reality are adequately separated and coexistent in their everyday lives (Saitō 2007, 245). They consider non-fujoshi as “normals”, and themselves as “abnormals” for having this fascination with homosexual men (Galbraith 2011, 221). [End Page 5]

“Playing gender” (Thorn 2004, 176) and experiencing sexuality in the safe confines of fantasy play a significant role in this phenomenon. Galbraith (2009) argues that boys’ love fans are always seeking “moe”, which could be defined as a strong emotional response to fictional characters. Moe is considered by Galbraith to be the most important motive for creating and sharing boys’ love materials. According to Galbraith, “moe talk” is a common activity in boys’ love fan communities. Moe talk is an affective conversation about fictional characters and couplings that evoke moe in fans (2015, 158). Two related terms should be mentioned in connection with Galbraith’s work. The first is “transgressive intimacy”, which is strongly related to the dynamism of the “rotten filter”, as it refers to romantic and erotic potentials that are perceived in sexually neutral verbal or nonverbal communication between men, and are screened out by boys’ love fans’ rotten filter after being detected (Galbraith 2011, 213). By contrast, “nioi-kei”[5] materials purposely contain hints of homosexual affection in order to be detected by fans (Aoyama 2013, 66).

Yaoi role-play is a popular social activity among boys’ love fans, in which two or more participants engage in a virtual, mostly chat-like sexual interaction with each other, playing the roles of gay lovers (Galbraith 2011, 227). The majority of fans have preferred roles, character types and settings, and seek role-play partners in the form of advertisements in boys’ love fan communities. The seme-uke roles, physical traits of both men, and situational characteristics are described in these advertisements. Mizoguchi calls these fans “virtual lesbians” for engaging in sexual role-plays with each other in order to act out male homoerotic fantasies (2008, 339). Furthermore, the author considers the community of boys’ love fans a sexual minority according to the way that they communicate with each other using fantasies of male homosexuality (2010, 155).

The underlying motivations behind participating in fan activities related to the genre of boys’ love have been examined in qualitative research (e.g. Chou 2010, 78-90; Pagliassotti 2008b). This has provided us with a deeper knowledge of the global boys’ love phenomenon, and helped to draw a more nuanced picture of the function and importance of this genre for the fans.

The motivation behind the boys’ love phenomenon

According to the results of qualitative research conducted on a sample of Taiwanese boys’ love fans, the main motivations behind creating and consuming boys’ love were linked to its entertaining, inspiring and sexually arousing characteristics (Chou 2010, 78). These motives were also found in Pagliassotti’s research, who systematically categorized fans’ responses based on theoretical considerations (2008b). As a result, she identified ten distinct motivational dimensions. The “Pure” love without gender dimension comprises responses emphasizing that boys’ love characters express their love for each other regardless of gender and related social expectations. Pro-gay attitude/forbidden & transgressive love contains responses emphasizing that boys’ love promotes supportive attitudes toward gay men, since these stories point out that the love of same-sex couples have for one another is not so different from the feelings heterosexual couples have: only sexual preferences are distinct. The Identification/self-analysis dimension was important for those fans who wished to gain a deeper knowledge of themselves, their emotional reactions [End Page 6] and sexual desires. This motive also appeared in Penley’s (1992, 484) and Suzuki’s arguments (1998, 243). Melodramatic/emotional elements attracted those fans who wished to read or view stories that evoked strong emotions in them. The Dislike of standard romances/shōjo factor referred to those who disliked heterosexual romance stories due to their perceived schematic structure and one-dimensional characters, whereas other respondents pointed out that they found pornography inappropriate for themselves due to its explicit portrayal of sexuality. A female-oriented romantic/erotic genre was an important motive for those who found this genre closer to their tastes than other romantic genres, since boys’ love is created by and for women, and authors pay careful attention to the emotional impact of slightly erotic homosexual representations on female fans. The Pure escapism/lack of reality dimension reflected responses emphasizing that boys’ love helps readers escape from real problems, illustrates fictional characters and settings that expand the imagination of fans, and helps readers forget about real life. The appreciation for Art and aesthetics in boys’ love materials also appeared in Chou’s study (2010, 87) as a motivation. The Pure entertainment factor comprised responses that focused on the entertaining and relaxing characteristics of boys’ love media. Finally, several fans were motivated to read boys’ love manga because they found it Arousing/sexually titillating.

Theoretical research in the field of boys’ love studies has revealed that the creation of the genre was highly associated with gender issues (e.g. Welker 2011; Fujimoto 2007b; Nagaike and Suganuma 2013). Boys’ love is often considered to be a critical response to a patriarchal society (Welker 2011, 223), and an escapist genre rooted in dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles and related social expectations (Kamm 2013). According to this, boys’ love characters are considered to be representations of the ideal self-image of those women who feel that the socially constructed gender system is not appropriate for them (Fujimoto 2004, 86) due to perceived inequality in power and social hierarchy (Welker 2011, 223). In contrast, boys’ love stories equalize power (Chou 2010, 88) by constructing idealized male characters with a female soul (Fujimoto 2004, 86). Female fans can therefore dissociate themselves from restrictive gender expectations by identifying with a gender construct provided in boys’ love narratives that is more appropriate to their needs (Welker 2011, 223).

Thematic stories often contain dramatic themes such as early-life traumas (Bollmann 2010, 44) and gender-related problems (e.g. relationship anxieties rooted in sexual identity dilemmas) that represent women’s collective and individual struggles (Welker 2011, 223). However, these concerns are presented in a supportive and positive form (e.g. rape blame does not exist in boys’ love), contributing to a potentially more positive reframing of fans’ personal experiences (Mizoguchi 2008, 154-155). As Mizoguchi (2008, 84-86) explains, the visual representation “constitutes the comic readers’ psychological reality” instead of the real content. Nevertheless, a number of boys’ love fans may never be able to overcome their problems through fantasy, and thus they avoid stories including certain scenarios that are close to their personal experiences (e.g. rape) (2008, 32).

There is a social expectation toward women in Japan and in several European countries that women should be chaste and repress erotic thoughts. Boys’ love allows them to develop sexual fantasies and to express their desires in the form of creative works and social activities (Galbraith 2011, 213-216). They can participate in sexual experiences within the safe confines of fantasy without any real consequences (Früh 2003, 27-56), and in a closed, female-dominated community in which members do not have to restrict or censor [End Page 7] their erotic thoughts (Fujimoto 2007b, 36-47). Since the sexual interaction takes place between two men, and thus erotic thoughts are projected onto male characters, female fans can dissociate themselves from their female desires that cause tension, given that it contravenes socially constructed gender expectations (Fujimoto 2007b, 36-47; 2004, 87). However, thematizing male homosexuality in women’s fiction is widely accepted in Japan, since these texts are considered to be part of women’s sexual culture (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 18). The acceptance of male homoeroticism is deeply rooted in the history of homosexual culture in Japan. Indeed, homosexual practices are intertwined with several Japanese traditions, and a complex system of age-structured homosexual customs called “shudō” persisted through several historical periods (Pflugfelder 1997, 26). For instance, this custom established a deep emotional and personal relationship between samurai warriors and apprentices as part of the mentorship and training process in becoming a warrior (Leupp 1999, 53-54). Restrictions on homosexual behavioral practices clustered in time around the appearance of Western cultural values (McLelland and Welker 2015, 7).

According to representations of Japanese society in boys’ love media, it could be concluded – incorrectly – that Japan is particularly tolerant of homosexuality compared to Western societies (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 18). However, gay men constitute a sexual minority there too (McLelland and Welker 2015, 3), and face difficulties with societal stigmatization (Herek 2009, 32-43).

Research points out that the positive representation of gay men in boys’ love media and the core message of equality regardless of gender and sexual preference is of special importance for fans of the post-industrialized Anglophone world (Pagliassotti 2008b). Indeed, it is particularly important to them that boys’ love media promote tolerance, which can contribute to the social acceptance of homosexual men (2008b). In a similar vein, Mizoguchi (2010, 159) highlights the importance of raising awareness of this potential among creators of boys’ love, as this could be used to increase social acceptance.

Despite the positive aspects of the boys’ love phenomenon (e.g. creativity, international collaborations, self-supportive resources and promotion of pro-gay attitudes), critics have stated that this genre may not serve as a positive representation of gay men. Instead, the idealistic illustration of fictional characters and controversial situations (e.g. rape as the expression of love) reflects an unreal and rather detrimental image of gay society. Furthermore, the pathologization of female fans devoted to media content focusing on male homosexuality, and censorship as an effort to control the circulation of thematic materials including controversial themes (e.g. erotic content featuring underage boys), have raised particular concerns relating to boys’ love fan culture.

Boys’ love critics

The “yaoi debate” (or yaoi ronsō) began in the early 1990s as a protest by gay activists against boys’ love (Mizoguchi 2008, 178-180). This debate took place in a fanzine in which a provocative essay, written by gay activist Masaki Satō, was published, who wished for the decline of the boys’ love genre for presenting an unreal image of gay people (Mizoguchi 2008, 179). Several heterosexual and lesbian women responded to Satō’s essay, starting a debate, which expanded into a discussion on gay rights and the social perception of sexual minorities [End Page 8] that might be biased by representations in boys’ love media (Mizoguchi 2008, 178-184). Satō argued that women consider men perverts for expressing sexual desire, while they do the same in boys’ love by misinterpreting their sexual fantasies in order to maintain the impression that they create art which, in their view, cannot be equal to pornography (qtd. in Mizoguchi 2008, 178-180). Furthermore, Satō argued that boys’ love increases discrimination against gay men due to its idealized portrayal of them (Mizoguchi 2008, 181-182). He claimed that this genre only widens the perceived social distance between gay men and heterosexual individuals (Mizoguchi 2008, 180-181), since the majority of gay men are not young and beautiful but average men with ordinary jobs (Mizoguchi 2008, 181). Thus, boys’ love may give the impression that gay men are generally attractive, usually develop a “proud gay identity”, and have a stable, homosexual relationship (Mizoguchi 2008, 181). However, highly idealized illustration of characters can be found in many other romantic literary genres; thus, this argument could be applied to a number of works of romantic literature besides boys’ love.

Satō also argued that the refusal of boys’ love characters to accept their gay identity clearly shows that this genre cannot promote social tolerance but serves only as a source of private entertainment for women (Mizoguchi 2008, 181-182). Finally, Satō outlined that boys’ love should not serve as an escapist genre for women but should function as a medium which contributes to the growing social acceptance of sexual minorities without portraying gay men as objects of the female gaze (Mizoguchi 2008, 186).

Regarding the sexuality of female fans, empirical research findings do not support the commonly held assumption that the vast majority of boys’ love fans are heterosexual women (e.g. Pagliassotti 2008a; Levi 2009). Mizoguchi describes in her work that she became a lesbian through reading boys’ love manga (2008, 164), suggesting that this genre may have an impact on the sexual behavior of fans. However, further research would be required to determine a causal relationship between sexual preference and exposure to boys’ love media.

Boys’ love fans may find it difficult to navigate between the heteronormative world and fictional homonormativity. According to Galbraith’s (2011, 220-221) work, fans devoted to boys’ love media consider themselves privileged dreamers who have an extensively developed fantasy world. They reported that nontraditional romances expand their imagination. They label themselves “abnormal” for this special interest, while consider those “short on dreams” as “normal” (2011, 221). Similarly, “normals” often pathologize boys’ love fans for their attraction to gay men (Kamm 2013). A widely held assumption has also emerged that boys’ love fans might be sexually-deprived women, although this hypothesis is not supported by empirical evidence (Mori 2010, 101; Sugiura 2006, 40). A number of boys’ love fans might also consider their fascination with gay romance a pathological construct at the beginning, but their anxieties diminish when they get to know other people sharing the same interest (Mizoguchi 2008, 72).

The emergence of the boys’ love genre, particularly shōta, raises concerns about the impact of explicit sexual content featuring underage boys on the healthy sexual development of young female fans (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 14-18). Japan seems to be more permissive in terms of placing underage characters into fictional erotic scenarios, since the appreciation of young and beautiful boys was part of the cultural tradition in several historical eras (McLelland 2005b, 96-159; McLelland and Welker 2015, 6). Although boys’ love narratives containing explicit sexual representations of underage boys are legal as virtual child [End Page 9] pornography in the United States, these materials could be categorized as child-abuse media in Australia and countries with similar local legislation (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 15). Since several boys’ love fans associate shōta with pedophilia, they remain critical regarding its content, despite the fact that these materials are targeted at young women who, as McLelland and Yoo point out, incorporate these fantasies as part of their healthy sexual development without causing harm to other individuals, particularly young boys (2007, 8).

The social potentials of boys’ love

The formation of large online communities in the mid-2000s provided a space for intercultural communication among individuals attracted to homosexual romance stories (Thorn 2004, 173). Furthermore, these communities established intercultural collaborations among fans, which contributed to the spread of scanned and translated manga which had not been published outside of Japan (Thorn 2004, 173). Scanlations – i.e. manga scanned and translated by fans (Noppe 2010, 131) – provided a great opportunity for boys’ love enthusiasts to improve their English language skills as well as establishing a core base for international friendships that transcended cultural differences (Nagaike and Suganuma 2013). These international collaborations contributed to the process through which individuals with the same interest met online, and their wide array of social and creative activities have expanded into a “universal psychological phenomenon” (Mizuma 2005, 20) since gaining the attention of publishers, followers and academics (Thorn 2004, 171-178).

In addition, boys’ love fan communities encouraged members to cope with personal problems through social activities, provided a supportive environment, and helped fans become more self-aware (Suzuki 1998, 243). Thus, the intimate, female-dominated space of boys’ love enthusiasts could be seen as ideal for helping fans to cope with problems and for establishing virtual friendships based on their attraction to male homosexual erotica (Mizoguchi 2008, 339). Consequently, the perceived “abnormality” of the fujoshi identity (Galbraith 2011, 221) is of positive significance in this context and reduces the extent to which boys’ love fans may feel socially isolated.

In recent years, social networking sites have provided an appropriate space for boys’ love fans to share material and discuss their fascination with male homosexual romances. This interactive online platform is very significant for underage boys’ love fans, since their membership remains hidden in the case of secret groups where they can share adult content. They can gain knowledge of their sexual desires and act them out in a safe place of fantasy, as emphasized by Früh (2003, 27-56). Furthermore, anonymity is provided for all fans on web pages and forums (Wood 2006, 409). They therefore cannot be identified by parents or friends (Wood 2006, 408-409). Indeed, the families of boys’ love fans do not know anything about boys’ love in the vast majority of cases, thus they are not aware when a family member is involved in the boys’ love phenomenon (Wood 2006, 409). Consequently, parents have no control over the exposure of young girls (or boys) to homosexual content, which has both advantages and disadvantages.

Finally, qualitative research (Pagliassotti 2008b) proposed that the boys’ love genre could contribute to society’s acceptance of gay people in a cross-cultural context (Pagliassotti 2008a) due to its positive portrayal of gay people. Although critics doubted that [End Page 10] boys’ love media would promote favorable attitudes toward gay men, a positive association was found between exposure to boys’ love media and pro-gay attitudes, irrespective of sexual orientation (Zsila 2015, 399-403). However, it is not clear whether it is the exposure to boys’ love media that gives rise to pro-gay attitudes, or vice-versa. Further research is therefore needed to determine whether boys’ love fans are more accepting or the frequent exposure to boys’ love media has a positive impact on fans’attitudes toward gay men (Zsila 2015, 404).


Boys’ love, which portrays the romantic love between two men, has received a great deal of attention from researchers over the past two decades. As a consequence, a number of relevant theoretical studies, and qualitative and quantitative research articles, have emerged, focusing on either the media of boys’ love or its consumers. In this paper, we provided an overview of the international literature relating to boys’ love based on the main characteristics of this genre, the fan culture and motivations behind it, critiques of the genre, and the possible social implications of boys’ love. Although there is a growing body of English-language literature on this genre, a great number of articles are still only available from Japanese sources, making it difficult to synthesize the conclusions of different disciplines that investigate distinct aspects of the boys’ love phenomenon. Moreover, both the characteristics of boys’ love media (e.g. preferred settings, character types) and fans’ needs change over time, as was emphasized by several authors, e.g. Bollmann (2010, 42-46); Mizoguchi (2008, 53-128); Welker (2015 42-75). However, there are a number of apparently common features across time periods and audiences. Firstly, boys’ love has inspired the creativity of numerous fans, motivating them to create self-expressive pieces intertwining their desires with their art. Secondly, this genre has contributed to the formation of active fan communities, leading to international collaborations between fans. Finally, boys’ love media has created a supportive space for women, who can share their fantasies without the pressure of social restrictions, and who wish to achieve the same for gay people proven that qualitative research demonstrated that pro-gay attitudes promoted by boys’ love media was one of the main motives of women to be fans of this genre.

[1] Japanese acronym originating from “yama nashi, oichi nashi, imi nashi”, which means “no climax, no point, no meaning”. This expression refers to the focus on sexual content instead of a complex storyline.

[2] Fan-created stories borrowing characters and settings from original works (e.g. movies, TV series). The term “slash” comes from the / symbol, which refers to the romantic bond between two characters in these works (e.g. Kirk/Spock in the early Star Trek stories).

[3] Japanese term derived from the anime entitled “Tetsujin 28-go”, which featured a young male character, Shōtarō, who was a symbolic representation of cuteness and charm in the story (Saitō 2007, 236).

[4] Japanese term, which literally means “rose”. The expression is derived from a gay photo collection published in the early 1960s, and was revived later by a magazine for gay men entitled “Barazoku” (Mackintosh 2006). [End Page 11]

[5] Japanese term that refers to literary and visual media that hides “nioi” (hint, touch) for the fans of male homosexual stories to detect the signs of homosexual intimacy. “Kei” is a widely used term to describe groups or categories (Aoyama 2013, 66). [End Page 12]

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[End Page 16]


PLOTS: an art installation
by Angelika Böck

PLOTS focuses on three (heterosexual) love stories and on the differences between the initial perception of an experience and its subsequent retelling. For this three-part sound installation the artist requested each of the partners to describe turning points in their mutual relationship. In an abridged form, the descriptions given by each pair were subsequently passed on to two male and two female authors, who wrote a series of fictitious scenes based on this material. The original narrations and the adapted scenes served as starting point for the installation. The installation presents the history/stories of the three couples on three adjacent tables.

Photograph of the three tables with sets of headphones on them at the PLOTS installation.

Photograph by Laura Egger

To experience the installation, click the audio files below. The artist recommends using headphones to listen to the audio files.

PLOTS 1 Audio Track

Photograph of the PLOTS installation showing one person standing at a table using the headphones to listen to the installation audio.

Photograph by Angelika Böck

PLOTS 2 Audio Track

A close-up picture showing the top of one table in the PLOTS installation, which looks like it is printed with color photographs of a variety of everyday things. There are headphones on the table.

Photograph by Laura Egger

PLOTS 3 Audio Track


Angelika Boeck
PLOTS, 2002
Audio visual Installation
3 CD’s, 3 x 54 Photos (18 x 24 cm)
Presentation: 3 tables (70 x 220 cm), 3 CD-Player, 6 headphones

About the Installation

(text by Randi Gunzenhäuser)

The English word “plot” can mean both a story line (of a drama) or a conspiracy, but also, as part of a language of space, pinpointing a location. Accordingly, this work is devoted to the most varied versions of three heterosexual love stories with each individual, whether they be part of the relationship or a complete stranger, giving their own account. Stories of love exercise a special fascination on us in that they offer a particularly obvious combination of personal and cultural perception. By narrating his or her story, each person acquires a share in the action, occupying narrative space vis-à-vis visitors to the exhibition and so attaining authority for his or her account.

The experimental layout makes use of the diverse meanings of the term “plot”. The starting point in each case are the two versions of the love story as recounted separately by each partner. In all, three couples were questioned on their individual versions of the story of their mutual relationship. Angelika Böck requested each of the partners to describe turning points in their mutual relationship. In an abridged form, the descriptions given by each pair were subsequently passed on to two male and two female authors, who wrote a series of fictitious scenes based on this material. The original narrations and the adapted scenes served as a starting point for the installation.

The installation presents the history/stories of the three couples on three adjacent tables. Each table represents a portrait of one of the couples. Photos of locations jointly identified by the couple as the scenes of “turning points” in their relationship lie on the table. The artist has mixed details from the couple’s personal photo album among these photos of places of dramatic importance, as well as pictorial material visualising the associations created in her own mind upon hearing the story, e.g. film stills and illustrations. Both narrative highlights and trivial incidents are presented, the couple’s own perceptions and fictionalised associations from the male and female authors, details relating specifically to the couple, but also the reactions of Angelika Böck, who acted as a mediator among these various levels.

Each table is fitted with a pair of headphones which can be put on. A female and a male off-speaker re-enact the story of the couple, followed by its fictitious adaptations. The versions of the two people involved can be heard, as well as the four different adaptations of each love story developed by outsiders. The story from the male point of view is heard from the right side of the headphones and the female perspective from the left.

The diverse plots of each love story spur visitors to the exhibition to trace the tracks of individual stories and take a stand for one side or the other. Visitors can only listen to either the man’s or the woman’s voice if they wish to understand the story. Those lending an ear to both sides of the headphones will understand nothing, the two voices blending into an incomprehensible gabble.

“Plots” evokes complex interactive processes between a man and a woman involved in a relationship. Both seemingly provide information on one and the same relationship, but through their words it becomes apparent that it is not the same relationship when recounted by two people. Although the representations coincide at times, misunderstandings are also voiced, in fact entirely different assessments of the same situation exist. Self-perception and external perception can differ drastically. This also becomes evident in the course of the fictional adaptations, which in turn offer greater scope for external perception, since the authors are in no way acquainted with the persons involved and have the possibility of freely embellishing and reassessing all that has been narrated. The clash between the perceptive criteria and ideal constellations of individuals and cultures is particularly manifest in this work.

Viewers have the possibility of choosing among the various representations, but by doing so, almost inevitably commit themselves to taking sides. In addition to the three couples who remain anonymous, twelve writers and two professional off-speakers took part in this project.


Thomas Bahmann (film director and scriptwriter)

Susanne Bienwald (writer)

Butz Buse (scriptwriter and actor)

Bettina Böck (dramatic producer)

Doris Haider (copywriter)

Klaus Heid (artist),

Gabrielle Heller (scriptwriter and actress)

Michael Hornstein (composer, saxophonist and scriptwriter)

Robert Hültner (writer)

Andrea Kästle (Journalist)

Tobias Niemann (neurobiologist)

und Fabienne Pakleppa (writer)


Ditte Schupp und Jakob Ried