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Review: An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror, by Amira Jarmakani

In recent years, there has been a surge of academic interest in the sheikh romance, or what some call “desert romance.” The term describes a small subgenre that appears primarily as category romance, in which the Western heroine finds herself at the mercy of a domineering Middle-Eastern sheikh; common conventions of the novels include captivity, sand, harems, invented geography, horses, and, ideally, feminist reforms in the sheikh’s sadly backward kingdom. These novels have a long and storied history, but one might have expected the events of September 11, 2001, and contemporary American military involvement in the Middle East, to make the form less popular. Instead, publication nearly quadrupled. Exactly how political events might relate to romance readers’ increased desire to read about sexy alpha sheikhs is open to interpretation, especially since the majority of these novels are expressly free of politics, religion, and even real-world geography. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror (2015), the most recent entry into this discussion, reads these novels not as a response to the war on terror but as part of the necessary cultural work that makes this war possible.

Jarmakani’s book joins other recent analyses by Hsu-Ming Teo, Amy Burge, and Stacy Holden. Teo is a cultural historian who, in Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novel (2012), examines the role of “the Orient” in Western cultural texts from the Second Crusade onward. She factors in the national contexts of the U.K, the US, and Australia, and her analysis of popular romance includes types of Orientalist romance less widely studied, such as historicals. Burge, a British medievalist, has a book forthcoming called Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave, 2016), which builds on her 2012 doctoral thesis. This is by far the most systematic, precisely designed study of sheikh romance to date; her book analyzes change and continuity in romantic fantasies about the “romance East.” Holden’s article “Love in the Desert” (2015) draws on a series of disarmingly frank interviews she held with editors and authors of sheikh romance and examines their goals and constraints. As a historian specializing in the modern Middle East and North Africa, Holden has a solid grounding in the political context of the novels. [End Page 1]

Jarmakani makes a lively contribution to this scholarship. She is primarily a theorist, and her work delves heavily into critical race and gender theory, as well as psychoanalytic theory. As such, her work is in some ways a better fit with the early feminist critics of popular romance, Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, than with the other scholars working on sheikh romance. However, her theoretical approach is not what will make this book most valuable to romance scholars: instead, it is her insistence that we read these books from the perspective of the Arab and/or Middle Eastern and/or Muslim characters. Many analyses of popular romance foreground gender, so this is a welcome addition. Her examples draw our attention to those ubiquitous scenes of silent, indistinguishable women in hijab, scenes not unique to sheikh romance but permeating American media. Because Jarmakani comes to popular romance through her scholarly interest in cultural representations of Arab and Muslim women, she is not particularly interested in the novelists’ intentions, or the potential effect of these novels on their readers, or even the texts themselves. Instead, she explores the way in which tropes and motifs in these books fit within a larger context of American ideas about the Middle East.

Two parts of this book were published before: “’The Sheik Who Loved Me’: Romancing the War on Terror” (2010) in Signs, and “Desiring the Big Bad Blade: Racing the Sheikh in Desert Romances” (2011) in American Quarterly. While both are solid stand-alone pieces, this book joins them in an overarching argument using ideas from transnational feminism, critical theory, and psychoanalytic theory via Deluze and Guattari.

An Imperialist Love Story places sheikh romance firmly in the context of neoliberalism, American political ideology, and liberal multiculturalism.  Jarmakani argues that imperialism may look different than it did in earlier centuries, but it is still alive and well, providing real economic benefit to the Western nations that engage in it. Most of us, however, do not like to think of ourselves as intervening in foreign nations for economic or political gain; thus, as a culture we prefer to understand our actions as benevolent, perhaps an effort to rescue oppressed people from merciless regimes or vicious jihadists. We also like to see these interventions as atypical, temporary responses to exceptional circumstances, rather than a characteristic strategy for exploiting other parts of the world for their labor, their natural resources, and geopolitical advantages.  Interpreting self-serving military action as aid requires some serious spin, which we can accomplish in a number of ways. For example, by insisting that our own values—self-determination, freedom, democracy, etc.—are universal values, of benefit to everyone, we can interpret many foreign governments or cultures as in urgent need of intervention. The Middle East, with its vast oil reserves and strategic location vis-à-vis Europe and Russia, has historically been an irresistible target for such intervention. If decades of fending off assorted Western militaries should prompt people in the region to hate us and wish us harm, Jarmakani muses, then we have yet another justification for waging war.

Jarmakani’s argument thus far is familiar. Her next step takes us into the terrain of psychoanalytic theory, but at the level of culture rather than the individual.  Our relationship with the Middle East is all about desire, she argues, but in the sheikh romance, we reimagine our political and economic desires as other kinds of desire: to mate, to affiliate, to help. In this regard, the “romantic sheikh is contemporary US imperialism personified” (xix). He is a companion figure to the terrorist, both of whom spur us to intervene in the region. While the terrorist motivates through fear, the sheikh motivates through desire, and in his contemporary incarnation he is not only a romance hero but also [End Page 2] the ideal political ally, willing to cooperate with the US and representing views on human rights and strategic economic interests that “Anglo-American powers” want to foster. While other scholars have interpreted the sheikh romance as working against popular rhetoric about Islamic extremism, Jarmakani suggests that the reconciliation we see in these books serves our national political agenda and expresses the same imperialist tendencies, albeit in a more benevolent guise. Her analysis of the heroine also has a political framework, drawing our attention to the feminist imperialist fantasies (of rescuing our helpless foreign sisters) played out in these novels.

My single favorite concept in this book arises from Jarmakani’s discussion of the setting of sheikh romance. The twenty-first century sheikh romance usually takes place in an imaginary land, in which authors invent kingdoms and customs with a freewheeling disregard for the real world, even while a number of conventional features (such as sand, harems, horses, and exotic dress) create a recognizable if fictitious landscape for readers. To scholars struggling to describe this setting, Jarmakani offers the term “Arabiastan.”[1] Use of the term nods towards the Orientalist fantasy yet draws our attention to the geo-political implications of this space. Additionally, Arabiastan cleverly mirrors the convention in contemporary sheikh romance of inventing one’s own country.

To return to the issue of feminism, Jarmakani criticizes scholarship on romance for relying on “empowerment” or “choice” feminism. This popular version of feminism rests on the idea that anything a woman does to make herself feel good and powerful is inherently a feminist act, merely because she is a woman exercising her choice. While choice may well be a necessary condition to feminist action, it is not a sufficient one—just consider J.K. Rowling’s memorable Dolores Umbridge, who is quite empowered by her choices.

Has scholarship on popular romance relied on this facile definition of feminism? If so, Jarmakani’s analysis does not demonstrate it. She asserts that “one of the key debates in both scholarly and industry online conversations about romance novels is about the extent to which the books can be considered feminist cultural productions focused positively on female sexual pleasure as opposed to oppressive ‘trash’ books that inure the mostly female readerships to the evils of patriarchy” (82-83). This startling claim can be attributed to the fact that this section of her argument has not been updated since it first appeared in the 2010 Signs article. One of her main sources is Sally Goade’s edited collection of essays, Empowerment versus Oppression (2007). Not surprisingly, Jarmakani finds plentiful discussion of empowerment in Goade’s book, but this cannot support a broader argument about the direction of the field in general. Other examples are even older, and nothing is more recent than 2007. That said, I agree with Jarmakani that associating personal empowerment with feminism is problematic in a scholarly context. Given that American popular culture, media, and advertising today still pitch empowerment as feminism, it can come as no surprise that romance novelists and their readers might embrace the same definition. We might be tempted to read all romance novels as inherently feminist, merely because, as Pamela Regis notes, their narrative structure empowers fictional heroines (15), or because women choose to write them. Jackie Horne, however, recommends a more productive and reflective response, urging scholars/readers to ask themselves, “Can this particular book be considered feminist, and if so, in what ways?” (Horne, n.p.).

Jarmakani’s argument should provoke productive discussion. If we compare Teo’s conclusions in Desert Passions to Jarmakani’s, we find that Teo notes similar problems to the ones Jarmakani identifies—the novels’ inaccuracy, heroes who are “White men [End Page 3] performing in ‘Arab-face’” (Teo 303), passive, speechless Arab women who can only achieve personhood through the American heroine’s efforts—but these two scholars approach the same material in dramatically different ways. Teo argues that “however misguided or inaccurate” these novels may be, “surely [the] humanizing [of Arab and Muslim males]—their representation as attractive and intelligent potential lovers, partners, husbands, and fathers. . . .—represents the ability of this particular form of women’s popular culture to temper negative stereotypes that seem ubiquitous today” (303). Jarmakani dismisses Teo’s interpretation as a fantasy of liberal multiculturalism, in which “positive representations” are seen as a useful response to negative representations (20). Instead, she argues, this kind of binary opposition only strengthens stereotypes (20).

Holden maintains that these two stances are a choice point:

Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in the light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one in which . . . individuals from two worlds, now at odds, . . . [can] fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together (17).

I would have to agree with Holden; both interpretations have merit and can be substantiated with compelling evidence. However, I would add that close reading offers a different perspective from broad observation. Because Jarmakani examines these novels piecemeal, it is hard to see the distinctions that might challenge or complicate her argument. Consider Brenda Jackson’s novel Delaney’s Desert Sheikh, which Jarmakani notes is the only mainstream sheikh romance written by an African-American novelist. Broadly speaking, Delaney’s Desert Sheikh follows the typical fantasy of feminist Orientalism, with a Tahrani sheikh marrying a foreign woman who then introduces women’s rights into his country. A closer reading reveals an interesting spin: the feminist reformer is not the heroine, nor is she American. Queen Fatimah, originally from Egypt, is the hero’s stepmother and an important character in the book. Indeed, her progressive reform was initiated during our hero’s childhood and shaped his perspective on the world. The narrative thus significantly changes the fantasy by putting Tahran’s political and social change in the hands of a woman from the Middle East, in sharp contrast to what Jarmakani notes is the more typical “assumption of Arabiastani women’s ignorance and helplessness” (104). Indeed, Jarmakani points to a scene early in the novel when the sheikh jokes that the heroine might start “a women’s rights revolution” in his home country, yet she asserts that Jackson “backs away from [this] idea” of revolution because it “seems to come too close to readers’ fears about the region” (108). Closer attention to the narrative makes it clear that the sheikh’s joke was amusing because that revolution had occurred a decade or so earlier.

Delaney’s Desert Sheikh shares the fantasy of feminist liberation but does not imagine that Anglo-American women must be the ones to instigate it. Brenda Jackson was born in 1953 and came of age during the Black Power era, when the Nation of Islam was a salient model of Muslim identity and black pride. She called her sheikh Jamal, a popular [End Page 4] Arabic name choice for African-American boys in the United States since the 1970s. Prince Jamal’s mother was originally from Africa, as was his stepmother, giving him a shared racial ancestry with the heroine. This sheikh is less exotic, less alien, more familiar, than the sheikhs who woo white heroines. In fact, the heroine learns more about Jamal’s country from her brother, who has met Jamal’s father. And we should note that this book is ranked by Goodreads readers as one of their favorite sheikh romances.

This brings me to the conclusion of Jarmakani’s book, where she plays with “the possibility of reading the story—whatever story one has been reading or telling about the war on terror—in a different way” (191). This compelling recommendation invites us to look back at An Imperialist Love Story as an elegant model of how such rereading might be undertaken. She reminds us that it is important to look at the ideological work of certain genres, both within romance but also outside of it. Remarkably, this book’s most significant contribution to the field is simultaneously its major limit: examining sheikh romances in this larger context gives us insight into their appeal but also obscures the ways that some of these novels and their authors push at genre boundaries and blurs the complexity of readers’ responses. It’s worth considering a possibility that her book seems to dismiss: that some readers and writers are already reading this story in a different way.

[1] I also quite like Amy Burge’s term, the “romance East,” which foregrounds generic considerations and the continuities of this Orientalist landscape over time. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. New York: Palgrave, 2016.

Holden, Stacy E. “Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

Horne, Jackie. “Feminist Romance.” The Popular Romance Project. 2012. Web. 28 May 2016.

Jackson, Brenda. Delaney’s Desert Sheikh. Silhouette, 2007.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

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

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Review: Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television, edited by Michael DeAngelis

Michael DeAngelis’s edited collection Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television (2014) is a timely contribution to film scholarship on the subject of bromance in its various media iterations. The term bromance, bringing together ‘bro-’ with ‘romance’, is an attempt to capture the idea of a male intimacy that simultaneously quashes any potential for sexual expression. As DeAngelis suggests, the very concept of bromance is suffused with paradox and contradiction: ‘bromance involves something that must happen (the demonstration of intimacy itself) on the condition that other things do not happen (the avowal or expression of sexual desire between straight men)’ (p.1).

It is a phenomenon that may be simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; at its heart lies a deep ambivalence about sexual equality and gay rights. Bromance is profoundly heteronormative in aspect, as well as potentially misogynistic.  This collection of essays provides a sophisticated analysis of the anxieties prevalent in modern Western masculinity that bromantic screen relations give voice to and, through a range of methods, seek to defuse.

The term bromance, as a signifier of close emotional male bonds in a context of heterosexual friendship, did not reach common parlance until the mid-2000s, by which time it had entered popular vocabulary and culture through films such as I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009) and Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007), developing its own film genre and marketing rationale. The first section of essays in the collection takes a historical purview of American culture and manifestations of bromantic narrative elements prior to its recognition as a genre by Hollywood.

In the opening chapter, Jenna Weinman offers a comparative account of early sixties romantic comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Rudd and the millennial Bromance in ‘Second Bananas and Gay Chicken: Bromancing the Rom-Com in the Fifties and Now’. The love triangles that typified the Hudson-Day relationships of films such as Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) and That Touch of Mink (Delbert Mann, 1962) were [End Page 1] paralleled by immature male friendships that were threatened – and finally usurped – by heterosexual romance. Weinman compares such narratives to later films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007), suggesting that both genres prioritize male-male bonds over those of romantic love, with little promise that such homosocial immaturity will be resolved by the social demands of marriage and fatherhood.

In ‘Grumpy Old Men: “Bros before Hoes”’ Hilary Radner interrogates the film series that provides a model of male-male bonds mediated by a female love interest as a way of undermining any suggestion of homosexual interest. This dynamic calls to mind Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of male homosociality described in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Sedgwick talks of the triangulation of desire, in which men develop intense bonds with one another that are expressed indirectly through a female third party (p1). Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s pairing in the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men (Donald Petrie) referred to the 1960s buddy film The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), the title of which draws attention to a potentially extra-normative bond between the two men. In Grumpy Old Men, the characters Lemmon and Matthau play find themselves competing for the affections of the (younger) Ariel (Ann-Magret), which allows their close relationship to remain unscrutinised. The film appears to evince nostalgia for a previous era in which such male bonds were taken at face value and did not require the bromantic alibi that Ariel’s presence provides.

In ‘Fears of a Millennial Masculinity: Scream’s Queer Killers’ David Greven traces the trajectory of pre-bromance experiments in homosocial intimacy and their expression as psychopathology in the teen horror genre, looking at Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) as a case study. In common with the bromance, such horror films are characterised by immaturity and male bonds that are interrupted by the presence of a maligned female character. Both genres ‘promote intensely defensive responses to sexuality’ (pp. 80-81) but in the horror film only through the death of these ‘queer’ male protagonists can patriarchal order be restored.

The second section of the book focuses on the contemporary cinematic bromance, looking both at canonical Hollywood films that have come to be associated with the term, as well as key examples from world cinema.

Chapter four, ‘I Love You, Hombre: Y tu mama tambien as Border-Crossing Romance’, by Nick Davis, analyses a film that pre-empted the North American inception of the bromance and, in its privileging of a male homosocial narrative, forced the US industry to pay attention to the market for such work. Indeed, Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) goes further than its US counterparts in following through with a homosexual encounter between the principal characters. That it is a relationship facilitated by a strong female protagonist that exists in the place of the marginal roles assigned to Hollywood women, further suggests a tension between the Mexican and US cultural industries that the film reflects.

Meheli Sen’s chapter, ‘From Dostana to Bromance: Buddies in Hindi Commercial Cinema Reconsidered’ takes as its study the dostana genre, looking at its development from the 1970s to the present day. Representation of the masculine code of friendship known as dostana was transformed during this period of Hindi cinema. The intense bonds of love and loyalty and concomitant gestures of sacrifice characterising the ‘Bachlan film’ are [End Page 2] tempered by  subsequent iterations of the buddy film in a more recent Indian cinema, increasingly informed by globalisation and the expression of individual desire.

The remaining contributions of the second section of the book turn their attention to representations of the bromance in Hollywood film. In ‘From Batman to I Love You, Man: Queer Taste, Vulgarity and the Bromance as Sensibility and Film Genre’ Ken Feil explores the use of ‘gross-out’ comedy in popular culture to disavow another vulgarity that looms in the threat of eroticisation of the male body. Looking at films such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) and I Love You, Man, Feil traces how representations of ‘masculine vulgarity’ that both marginalise and objectify women and gay men work to strengthen homosocial intimacy (while negating its homosexual expression).

In ‘Rad Bromance (or I Love You, Man but We Won’t Be Humping on Humpday)’ Peter Forster questions the fundamental dissonance evident in the term ‘bro-mance’ and its wider implications in the analysis of two films, one Hollywood, one American independent. Two issues arise: first, the dangerous proximity of homosociality to homosexuality; second, the freedom allowed by homosocial bonds that threatens to be negated by the heterosexual dyad. Whilst the film narrative may encourage its protagonists to deviate from the demands of the heterosexual romance, the culmination of the plot insists upon its male protagonists giving up their treasured male friendships in favour of heteronormative pulls.

Michael DeAngelis in his chapter ‘Queerness and Futurity in Superbad’ interrogates the notion of ‘queerness’, not in relation to characters or matters of representation, but in terms of narrative time itself. Superbad’s exploration of temporality brings into question the normalcy of time in so far as it supports heteronormative narrative structure. DeAngelis examines how theoretical concepts of ‘futurity, straight time, and queer time can help illuminate the strategies’ (p. 215) used to explore the homosocial connections employed in contemporary bromance, taking Superbad as his case study. Ultimately, the film’s closing scenes do little to undermine the more meaningful scenes of intimacy between the two protagonists, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Sera), at their sleepover prior to their departure for college. The ending, which matches the pair with two female love interests (with whom they were previously unsuccessful), instead ‘intensifies the queer bond between the bromancers by rendering the familiar strange’. (p. 228) The film offers the pair no future together that can accommodate their intimacy so they are forced to renounce each other and part.

The final section of the collection explores depictions of bromance beyond the Hollywood comedy genre, looking at three analyses of bromantic relationships in US television drama.

In ‘Becoming Bromosexual: Straight Men, Gay Men and Male Bonding on US TV’ Ron Becker argues that greater visibility of the gay community in the 1990s was met with mounting anxiety in TV representations of male-male friendships, which led to a shift in bromantic discourse in the following decade. ‘Mistaken identity’ plots, in which male protagonists were taken as gay, articulated such anxieties and were popular in network TV shows including Friends and Frasier. Becker also examines more recent reality TV programming, including the knowingly named Bromance, which presents effeminacy as a greater threat to homosocial bonding than homosexuality itself.

Murray Pomerance’s subject of investigation is the House and Wilson friendship in the US TV series House that flirts with homoerotic promise whilst never delivering: the [End Page 3] quintessence of bromance. In ‘The Bromance stunt in House’ Pomerance describes the ‘stunt’ of the titular character performing the cultural signifiers of homosexuality in order to befriend, and ultimately seduce Nora (Sasha Alexander), an attractive neighbour in Wilson’s apartment block. The stunt depends on the ‘target’ recognising and reading the cues that he provides her with. As Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) has already expressed a sexual interest in the same woman, House’s (Hugh Laurie) performance becomes a show of heterosexual masculine competition, with each more invested in the other’s failure than in romantic success with Nora herself. Wilson is only able to defeat House by staging a public proposal, which simultaneously destroys both their chances, while perversely confirming their commitment to each other. Moreover, the episode ends with the pair watching a hockey game together, while bickering about furniture and singing show tunes. Such simultaneous signifiers of the heteronormative and non-heteronormative, suggests Pomerance, leave the relationship open to interpretation as the viewer prefers.

The final chapter of the book – “This ain’t about your money, bro. Your boy gave you up”: Bromance and Breakup in HBO’s The Wire’ – looks at the dynamics of male friendship and intimacy that characterise the TV series. In a show that consistently marginalises women and female-centred stories, author Dominic Lennard argues how male friendships and homosocial intimacies are favoured, with homophobic rhetoric employed as a bonding strategy in a hyper-masculinised environment that denies its subjects the language in which to articulate their mutual attraction.

This edited collection provides a comprehensive critique of the cultural phenomenon of bromance. It charts the development of key bromantic tropes, such as the privileging of a male intimacy that must be disavowed in its sexual form and homosocial immaturity, across a variety of film genres, scrutinising developments in Hollywood and world cinema and analysing depictions of bromantic dynamics in US TV. Asking as many questions as it answers, the book throws open to debate the possible pleasures available through bromance with its potential, too often contained, for undermining heteronormative modes of representation. [End Page 4]


Review: The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance, by Joseph Crawford

Over the last few years, we have witnessed the publication of masses of books on the Twilight Saga, some addressed to the general public, others geared toward an academic audience (for example, Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality; The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films; The Twilight Saga: Exploring the Global Phenomenon; Twilight and History among others). In The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and Rise of Paranormal Romance, Joseph Crawford tries to offer a more comprehensive perspective on the ascent of the paranormal romance in the twenty-first century, a goal he only partially achieves.

The title prefigures the tension between the conflicting focuses that vie for the author’s attention, and that results in a very informative and valuable book for paranormal romance studies, but not the groundbreaking holistic interpretation of the genre that, as a scholar, I was hoping for. The word play on the first part of the title indicates its focus on the Twilight Saga, as well as the generic point of departure for the study: the Gothic, Crawford’s area of expertise, and the topic of much of his previous critical production, especially his previous book Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror (2013). The second part of the title shows a duality that is not easy to reconcile: vampire fiction and paranormal romance are very different categories. There is a lot of vampire fiction that is not romance, and paranormal romance, although it often includes vampires, is rarely about vampires alone.

The brief introduction is very promising. Beginning with a personal anecdote about a graduate student reading group of popular fiction, he points out the negative and visceral reactions that Twilight awoke among sophisticated readers interested in other popular genres, regardless of their “literary value”. He insightfully observes that “[c]learly the Twilight books had accomplished something, something that strongly appealed to an extremely wide contemporary audience: no author sells over 100 million books by accident” (3, emphasis in the original). He compares the saga’s success to that of the Harry Potter series, which was largely positively received, and concludes that “the much more [End Page 1] heavily contested success of Twilight, which can count both its fans and its detractors by the tens of millions, points to its position astride a major fault line in contemporary culture” (3). Crawford’s reading of the controversy surrounding Stephenie Meyer’s books is right on target, but it is in the framing of the saga that his argument becomes murky. On page four he establishes a cause and effect relationship between the success of Twilight and the rise of the genre “sometimes labelled ‘paranormal romance’ and sometimes ‘dark fantasy’, but always awash with novels featuring red, white and black covers” (4). Crawford establishes a periodization in which he considers a pre-history of the genre in the 1970s and 1980s (where vampires are portrayed as more humanized), a consolidation between 1989 and 2001 (the emergence of vampires appearing as love interests), and generic maturity between 2002 and 2005 (the year of publication of the first Twilight installment). However, on page eight, he considers 2000-2008 “the crucial years . . . in which the paranormal romance moved from being an obscure subgenre to an extremely popular (and extremely controversial) form of mainstream fiction”. The implicit tension in Crawford’s periodization , where “generic maturity” precedes (rather than coincides with) mainstream success, reflects Crawford’s oscillation between an interpretation in which Twilight is at the center of the paranormal phenomenon, and another in which the saga is just the most popular manifestation of an ongoing trend in which it is somehow an outlier. Twilight does not imitate other books already being published (Stephenie Meyer has been very outspoken about the fact that she does not read paranormal romance herself) but it has definitely captured an existing zeitgeist. On the other hand, it boosted the visibility and sales of a genre that was already growing and developing a significant readership at the time. In fact, as Crawford admits later in the book, many of the most enthusiastic Twilight fans do not enjoy other paranormal romance authors. Crawford’s reluctant acknowledgement of and dismissiveness towards these other authors provides a skewed perspective of the evolution of the genre.

Most relevant for the readers of this journal is Crawford’s overly superficial treatment of generic issues. After dismissing Pamela Regis’ definition of the romance novel as ahistorical, and the RWA’s definition of the genre as too restrictive, he makes a generic distinction between novels that would be strictly paranormal romance (here defined as “[a] work that tells the story of the development and consummation of a positive, loving romantic relationship between a human and a vampire”) and those that also include “mystery and action adventure storylines” (9). His example of the first kind is Lori Herter’s De Morrisey series (1991-1993), while his examples of the second kind all fall into what most publishers, readers, and critics would consider urban fantasy, a term that Crawford uses later in the book but that is not mentioned in the introduction. The problem with this definition of genre is that Herter’s novels are an early example whose lack of real conflict actually make them generic outliers. According to this clear-cut distinction between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, virtually no paranormal novels published since 2000 could be considered strictly romance because even those that end each novel with the ‘happily ever after’ (HEA) of a new couple include “mystery and action storylines” that occupy a large percentage of the text and are essential to the world-building and reading experience.

Chapter 1, “The First 800 years”, begins with the use of the term romance meaning a text written in a Romance language as opposed to Latin, and its early use as a narrative form of fantasy and adventure versus the more realistic genre of the novel. Crawford then [End Page 2] moves to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and the romance novels of Jane Austen, introducing one of his major arguments: that both genres came from the same origins, and both converge again in the paranormal romance of today. He also argues that the Byronic hero is another unifying element of both romance and the Gothic that manifests itself in the paranormal romance, in which the supernatural character of the hero exacerbates the Byronic elements of the alpha-male. This chapter touches on all the mandatory canonical texts, from Jane Eyre  (1847) to Clarissa (1748), and, already in the twentieth century, Rebecca (1938) and The Sheik  (1919), tracking the evolution of the Byronic hero in both the Gothic and the romance. From those early twentieth-century texts, Crawford moves to the 1970s with the publication of Interview with the Vampire (1977) and The Flame and the Flower (1972) as examples of the evolution of the vampire and the romance novel respectively. While the information included in the chapter is hardly new, the synthesis is informative and the interpretation solid.

Chapter 2, “Romancing the Paranormal”, continues where chapter 1 left off, with the beginnings of the paranormal romance itself. This is the most valuable chapter, since it tracks the development of the vampire and other paranormal beings from monsters into love interests, incorporating less-well-known texts and offering insightful analysis. He traces the shift from the sympathetic vampire of the 1970s and 1980s in literature and film to the vampire as a love interest and, therefore, the first actual romance novels. He focuses on the work of Lori Herter in the De Morrisey series (1991-1993), Maggy Shayne’s Wings of the Night series (1993-), and Linda Lael Miller’s Vampire series (1993-1996), as well as Harlequin Mills & Boon’s first attempt at publishing a paranormal line, Silhouette Shadows, from 1993 to 1996. He also establishes a parallel with changes to vampire films in the 1990s, especially Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), as well as other influential paranormal box office successes of the period, such a Ghost (1990) or Angel for Hire (1991). While again, his focus is on the vampire, Crawford’s examples also include werewolves, witches, ghosts and other paranormal characters and themes. The last part of the chapter is devoted to the rise of the young adult paranormal romance, especially Annette Curtis Klause and L. J. Smith.

This analysis is continued in Chapter 3 “Sleeping with the Enemy”, which includes an extensive analysis of Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (one of the early urban fantasy series, starting in 1993) and Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) TV series. Crawford admits that Hamilton’s series, which was still going in 2014, has undergone a very drastic and unique evolution unusual for the genre, but there is no doubt that it is a major milestone in the development of the paranormal. That is the case even more so in the two TV series, especially Buffy, which was undoubtedly a major influence that reached a much larger audience than the early novels ever could.

Chapter 4, “The New Millenium” begins with an analysis of Christine Feehan‘s Carpathian Series (1999-) and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse (2001-2013). Crawford’s discomfort with the romance makes its first appearance here. It becomes evident that his analysis is much more insightful when it comes to Harris’ series (usually classified as urban fantasy) than Feehan’s (definitely romance). However, after a few pages on each author, the largest part of the chapter is devoted to the Twilight saga, which is also the subject of the entire next chapter, appropriately entitled “The Twilight Controversy”. Contrary to the author’s discomfort with the previous texts, his analysis of Twilight shows significantly more enthusiasm for the subject, and provides a great synthesis of criticism (scholarly and [End Page 3] otherwise) on the bestseller collection. One of the most provocative ideas in the book is its analysis of the “cultural fault line” that reactions to Twilight bring to the forefront. Crawford points out that while supporters of the saga are reading the characters’ actions within the framework of the genre—and therefore not necessarily as models of real-life behavior—its detractors are not utilizing those generic conventions and therefore consider the characters as dangerous role models for readers who, in their view, don’t know any better. Ideologically, he points out how the text is multi-vocal, so while it touches on potentially controversial topics such as marriage, abortion, and premarital sex, it is easy to read Twilight as advocating opposing ideologies, if the reader chooses to ignore its tensions and contradictions.

Reading Crawford’s book, one might think that Twilight is both the highlight and culmination of the paranormal romance, because the sixth and last chapter, “Mutations”, is devoted almost exclusively to film and television adaptations of previously published paranormal romances, especially the films based on the Twilight series and the television series True Blood (2008-2014)), based on Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, and L. J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries (2009-). These visual versions are what the author considers in his epilogue the manifestation of the “maturity of the genre” (271); a genre that in his opinion is in decadence—at least in its form as a novel. His evidence for this conclusion again shows the problems inherent in his equating of paranormal with vampires; Roxanne Longstreet, who publishes a young adult paranormal series as Rachel Caine, told Crawford that “most editors in traditional publishing that I’ve spoken to are no longer seeking vampire-themed material” (271), which Crawford takes to be evidence that paranormal fiction on the whole is past its prime. Yet a quick look at two of the most successful authors in the 2014 New York Times Best Sellers list confirms that J. R. Ward had two number one bestsellers, one of them in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, in which vampires are the protagonists, and one featuring other paranormal beings, while Patricia Briggs (who writes paranormals without vampires) also had a number one bestseller. There simply is not evidence that if vampires are not in, paranormal is out.

The alternating definition of vampire romance at some times and paranormal romance at other times is one of the methodological problems of Crawford’s book. It is debatable whether such a distinction can even be made, since virtually all series combine an ever-increasing array of paranormal beings, of which vampires are only one. However, his initial definition of paranormal romance in the introduction only included “a loving romantic relationship between a human and a vampire” (9). This definition grossly simplifies the complex and varied pairings that are created in these texts. Just to mention a few examples, in J.R. Ward’s The Black Dagger Brotherhood, most pairings are among vampires, and those initially human turn out to not be really humans or change into something else, such as a ghost before their HEA. In other series, such as Sookie Stackhouse, although vampires are the first supernatural species the reader learns about, all kinds of shapeshifters, and even demons make an appearance. Even the protagonist, as we eventually learn, is part fairy and achieves her HEA with a shapeshifter. In Sherrilyn Kenyon’s world, there are no actual vampires (although daemons can be considered similar since they cannot withstand sunlight and live off human souls—not blood), but the characters and pairing that take place, although at the beginning of the series include some humans, are mostly among dark-hunters, shapeshifters, gods and goddesses of varied mythologies, dream-hunters and other supernatural beings.  In fact, paranormal romance [End Page 4] sometimes even pushes the boundaries of heteronormativity (a homosexual couple are the protagonists in Lover at Last (2013) by J. R. Ward, and in Lynn Viehl’s Dreamveil (2010) the HEA is between a woman and two men).

There is also a lack of explicit criteria in the selection of authors and texts included in the analysis. Crawford glosses over most of the bestseller paranormal authors of the twenty-first century. Authors such as Patricia Briggs, Kresley Cole, Kim Harrison, Richelle Mead, and Carrie Vaughn are barely mentioned. J. R. Ward, Jeaniene Frost, Tanya Huff, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Jane Ann Krentz are mentioned little more, and authors such as Gena Showalter, Nalini Singh, Katie McAlister, Linsay Sands, Lynn Viehl or Kerrilyn Sparks (to name a few of the authors that were publishing paranormal by 2007 and are still publishing today) are not included at all. Crawford also displays a certain tone of condescension towards romance in general and the paranormal romance in particular, even if he never quite displays the contempt of other critics of the genre. This attitude may help explain the fact that he draws a direct line from the early 1990s through Feehan and Harris straight to Meyer, and then describes a supposed decline of the genre, which in his view survives only in film and television. Crawford also ignores the historical context in which the genre developed; while he includes historical interpretations of earlier texts, no socio-historical contextualization is given for newer texts.

In spite of the major gaps outlined above, overall, Joseph Crawford’s book is well-written and informative. He pulls together valuable information and creates a genealogy that includes both the Gothic and the romance strands which converge in the paranormal romance, and proffers some provocative interpretations of this connection. The book is strong in the areas the author is familiar with (the Gothic, Twilight, and the television programmes and films he analyzes) and his description of the trajectory of the paranormal from Ann Rice to the romances of the 1990s is the best and most complete that I have yet seen. However, while the book covers the years 1990-2000 reasonably well, it is definitely not a study of the paranormal romance in the  twenty-first century, as the title (which states the years 1990-2012 as the period being analyzed) seems to indicate. If the reader keeps in mind the limitations in its scope, Crawford’s new book is a valuable contribution worth reading for anyone interested in this genre. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Bucciferro, Claudia. The Twilight Saga: Exploring the Global Phenomenon. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013. Print.

Clarke, Amy and M. Marijane Osborn, eds. The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

Crawford, Joseph. Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror. London, England: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

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

Reagin, Nancy, ed. Twilight and History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.

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

Viehl, Lynn. Dreamveil. New York: New American Library, 2010. Print.

Ward, J.R. Lover at Last. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

[End Page 6]


Review: Existentialism and Romantic Love, by Skye Cleary

In her introduction to Existentialism and Romantic Love, nascent Australian scholar and writer Skye Cleary speaks directly to the motivations behind her book. Cleary seeks to set the record straight on the popular notion of modern love as it is articulated via the maze of popular internet dating sites, self-help books, and celebrity advice columns. Romantic love is defined and referred to almost constantly throughout Cleary’s book as the proverbial search for our understanding of the perfect soul mate or as the nineteenth-century ideal would describe as the “immortal beloved.” The quest, defined by Cleary “involves the idea of creating a union and becoming ‘we’ instead of two ‘I’s” (14). Cleary examines the questions: does such a union exist? Can it exist? And if so, how can it exist?

To complete her mission, Cleary enlists the assistance of five existentialist philosophers as her antidotes-in-arms because she believes “they explore the space between the ideals of romantic loving and the compromise lovers make in order to try to achieve those ideals” (1).  In a work that is part scholarship, part demystification, and part guidance, Existentialism and Romantic Love pursues a tour-guide approach to philosophy that is best represented by authors such as eminent English philosopher Roger Scruton and Swiss-born writer Alain de Botton. As their proprietorial rental rights of the bookshop front window attest, Scruton and de Botton are masters in distilling opaque philosophical theories into practical and palatable formats that are both enriching and entertaining for a broader thinking audience. Their nuanced crafting is more difficult to achieve than appears in the reading of their works. Existentialism and Romantic Love falls in between the categories of a reference manual and the type of work read by de Botton’s populist audiences, because the style and tone of Cleary’s writing does not subscribe to either category.  The caveat here is that this is Cleary’s first book.

Cleary’s argument is organized into five neat, balanced, and similarly sized chapters. Bookended by an instructive introduction and conclusion, Cleary’s chapters provide a synoptic overview of the persuasions and central arguments of the five existentialists in chronological order: Max Stirner; Søren Kierkegaard; Frederick Nietzsche; Jean­-Paul Sartre; and Simone de Beauvoir. Each chapter offers a brief historical summary and a perspective of existential theory that is contextualized with contemporary expectations of a romantic [End Page 1] relationship. As a part of each chapter, Cleary also offers a clever tactical detour that navigates the reader’s attention to a particular and narrower lens of interest. For example, in the case of Max Stirner, Cleary steers us toward the topic of “loving egoistically,” and in the case of Simone de Beauvoir, the notion of “loving authentically” occupies the central theme. This zooming in style is a skillful stratagem that allows Cleary an opportunity to canvas the broadest spectrum of existential interpretations of romantic love at the same time as giving her the occasion to probe deeper into a specific quality of love.  As a result, the reader is acquainted with Stirner’s contemplations on sacrifice and ownership; Kierkegaard’s search for balance between passion and pleasure and notions of subjectivity and perspective; Nietzsche’s advice on self-mastery; Sartre’s note to self on love’s destruction, and Simone de Beauvoir’s contemplations on devotion and gender differences.

On the positive side, Cleary’s duplication of the mapping structure in each chapter offers the reader a concentrated introduction to each philosopher’s contribution. Cleary’s summation of her extensive reading of each philosopher’s theory is built on a lucid style that is easily comprehended. The internal organization of each chapter has a catalogue-like quality. The danger of this uniform approach emerges after reading the first two chapters. It is at this point that the rewards of this reliable organization begin to weigh on the reading rhythm – so what we gain in recognition and direction we lose in our anticipation and the desire to keep reading. This is a pity since Cleary’s best work comes in the penultimate chapters on Sartre and de Beauvoir.

As a counterpoint to this clinical style, Cleary interpolates her information material with personal opinions. The insertions in the text ranging from practical instructions through to subjective observations are candid, conversational, and built with a language rooted in popular idioms. An example of this kind of tone and language is revealed for instance, when Cleary speaks about one of Nietzsche’s romantic interests, Lou Salomé. Cleary describes the lover as having “both brains and beauty” (73). These more populist interjections appear in contrast to the academic writing style of the work, and while it easy to see why Cleary is tempted to add these commentaries as a way to posit the work for a wider readership, the colloquial style pleads to a different publication.

Cleary’s insights however, provide their most valuable worth in a well-cadenced conclusion that bring her aerial discussions of existentialism and personal observations together. Cleary’s canvas of the existential view of romantic love is vast, compact and at times dense, but the quick reader can look forward to the book’s excellent and comprehensive concluding index which represents a  highly resourceful shortcut for any tour guide styled reading.

Existentialism and Romantic Love is a catalyst. The book opens one door to further close reading of existential texts and opens another door for thinking romantics to reconsider their idealistic approach to romantic love with an existential and, perhaps more realistic light.  While Cleary’s rhetorical approach refers back to the reader as the self-interrogator, Cleary’s surgical probe through the eyes of five existentialist thinkers does not mask her personal skepticism that the quest for a union built on “becoming ‘we’ instead of two ‘I’s” (14) is fraught with danger. [End Page 2]


Review: Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus, by Jonathan A. Allan

Romancing the Bottom: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow.

When was the last time you thought about your anus? I mean, really thought about it. Analyzed it. If it’s been a while, here’s the book to get you going.

I tried to remember any previous analysis of the significance of the anus to which I’d been party, anytime I’d been invited to reflect on the implications surrounding that end bit of our anatomy that most of us engage daily but so rarely theorize. I could recall only one such incidence: my prenatal class at the hospital, almost twenty years ago, in an evening session that covered diapering, circumcision, and other matters pertinent to “down there.” Our neonatal nurse informed her class of expectant and nervous parents that some babies were born without an anus, which she helpfully further defined as a “butthole.” Another thing to worry about, I remember thinking, resolving to count fingers, toes, and all points of egress on my soon-to-arrive son. The nurse’s point runs contrary to our author’s assertion about the “universality of the anus” (47), but I assume that any sans butthole newborns are very quickly given one.

Jonathan Allan has given us a book about the anus. Allan is Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba. A recipient of last year’s Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America, he has longstanding interests in popular romance studies, particularly in the figure of the male virgin.

There is much to love about this fascinating book, Professor Allan’s first. (Look out for upcoming volumes on the foreskin and hymen, all part of the new “Exquisite Corpse” series on what is left unsaid about the body that Allan is editing for the University of Regina Press—another Canadian prairie city that does, yes, rhyme with the delightful and neglected body part that I can only hope will one day make its way into Allan’s series). I could begin my praise with the design choice of the asterisk that adorns the book’s cover [End Page 1] and chapter headings (with an etymology I’d like to read as “ass-to-risk” but that really means “little star” and that can be used to indicate omission in printing). I love as well the book’s pink endpaper, bringing to mind the glowing tinge of the spanked bottom, the puckered rim of our tender opening. The book is playful and experimental in these ways.

So what is Reading from Behind about, exactly? To what end (if I may, and I fear there’ll be no stopping me) does it serve? Allan’s first line indicates his subject matter: “the role of the anus, the rear, the posterior, the behind, the bottom, the ass in literary theory and cultural criticism” (1). And precisely the omission of such. The individual chapters are uniformly fruitful and enlightening. I learned from them. They consist of a series of often very close readings of key texts that Allan presents as case studies from the “anal archive” (19). These careful readings shine light on texts as varied as Anne Tenino’s m/m romance novel Frat Boy and Toppy, the short story and film Brokeback Mountain, paintings by the Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman, Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge, and two Latin American texts: the Delmira Agustini poem “El Intruso” and the Mexican film Doña Herlinda y su hijo.

Allan’s larger project in urging us to “read from behind” in these chapters is to de-emphasize the standard phallic reading of the texts of culture. The practice of reading from behind directs us to look for anal eroticism and other posterior pleasures that lie buried in texts and too often omitted from textual analysis that is predisposed toward the phallic. Enough of privileging what the penis is up to, privileging penetration, privileging the top! When we read from behind we disrupt such phallocentrism, with its attendant homophobia and misogyny. Allan wants to “rewrite[e] the erotic monopoly of the genitals” (141), to get away from a “sphincter-tightening” approach that always insists on a certain reading (9). He is reading from behind—privileging the bottom—in order to develop a new theory of sexuality that decenters the primacy of the phallus (132); that evades the binary of top/bottom, active/passive, and penetrator/penetrated; that is more plural and global (128).

Where does this book fit into the field of romance studies, the interest of readers of this journal? While Allan works primarily in queer theory and masculinity studies, those with a focus on popular romance will find much of relevance in his text, and not only in the chapter devoted to a close reading of Tenino’s romance novel. Larger themes relevant to romance studies resonate and are discussed throughout the book: explorations of love, romance, and eros in film, poetry, visual art, and fiction, as well as the concept of male virginity and the experience of gay male sexual debut. In terms of the book’s focus on anal sex, such scenes have become increasingly common in popular romance fiction. “Anal is the new oral,” as Allan quotes the pundits (70-71). Especially in erotic romance and in m/m romance, scenes of anal pleasuring are almost run of the mill. Allan’s book helps the student (and author) of popular romance studies think about the meaning of such scenes.

What is left behind by this analysis? A little too often, I fear, clean writing and tight editing. Allan has his writer’s tics of self-reflexive wordiness, of excessive and repetitious quotes and phrases (“I cannot help but admit/think/smile/wonder[twice]/note,” all within pages of each other [86-94]; riffs on “I want to be careful” that appear four times in ch.8; an over-fondness for phrases such as “it must be noted,” “it must be admitted,” and “I am reluctant to”). There is the sort of jargon one might expect but still hope to avoid (e.g., “affective and intellectual responses that work to destabilize and critique how we think about normativity, eroticism, and power, especially when figured in hegemonic and [End Page 2] hierarchical terms” [115]). I found myself wishing for leaner writing—for more anality—in his revision and editing process. Sometimes the sphincter really does need to be tight. Allan’s writing, however, can also delight, as in his reference to “the man who refuses his role and embraces his hole” (38).

A larger issue concerns the focus of the book. At first, the text seems to promise an examination of the buttocks, to explore for us the cultural meanings of the behind. But the rear end covers a whole lot of territory and its topography is not all the same. The cheeks are not the rectum. As Allan himself quotes Eve Sedgwick as saying, “The sexual politics of the ass are not identical to the sexual politics of the asshole” (126). A woman dressed in tight booty shorts that cup her round buns is not the same as a man with lubed-up anus ready for a partner’s fisting. Artistic explorations of these two scenarios offer quite different possibilities for cultural and literary criticism.

Allan opens his introduction with a Jennifer Lopez reference to 2014 as the “year of the booty” (1-2), but I suspect Allan’s text isn’t what she had in mind. The cover blurb trots out Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middleton. All these women are famous, one way or the other, for their derrières—but these women are not discussed in the text. In fact, only rarely discussed is the behind of almost any woman (the narrator of “El Intruso” in Ch.6 may be an exception, as is mention of the minor character Alma in Ch.4’s discussion of Brokeback Mountain).

From this perspective, the book promises more than it delivers. As Allan notes, the anus is the great equalizer (27). While Freud suggests that some of us are born with more potential for anal pleasure than others (33), we all—male, female, gender-queer, and transgender alike—have an anus. I hoped at first that this book would help me think broadly about gender and the bottom. Yet as Allan eventually makes clear in his introduction and as his chapters lay out one by one, his analysis is one of “anal poetics” and primarily concerns masculinity and, more specifically, queer male anal eroticism.

Women think a lot about their rear end: “Does this [dress, skirt, pair of pants] make my butt look big?” is the stereotypical question. The admired, desired, bedazzling booty is an iconic flaunt zone of female figure and fashion, especially in an era of twerking and a playlist of songs ranging from “Fat Bottom Girls” to “Baby Got Back” to “Anaconda” and “All About That Bass.” To have cake to display, a ripe booty to shake: all this is a complex good begging analysis. There is much to be said about a woman’s relationship to her rear in a culture that fetishizes this body part, both celebrating and punishing women who have too much, too little of these posterior curves, who do too much or too little with them. If I were to give Allan’s own book a reading from behind, I’d ask him about this omission: the status of the ass for women as a source of both empowerment and objectification. I wanted Allan to take me through it and shed some light on these gendered dimensions of the behind. Its sashaying fleshiness gives a theorist much to grab onto, I would think. Alas, such is not Allan’s task.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask: my desire, not his. Fair enough. If I find this focus on the male anus a bit narrow—a bit tight for my fit—I’ll readily admit that the behind presents a vast geography and that there’s a peevishness in taking a book to task for what it doesn’t cover. Any book could always do more; no book can do everything. The man does a lot, and he does it well. Let someone else continue his agenda of reading from behind and use it to produce a cultural analysis of female booty. [End Page 3]

It might be better, finally, to focus on what the book does do for me as a reader. Here is one way that I like to judge a book: What new question or idea did it give me? What does it open up? What connections does it help forge? The new question I got from reading Allan’s text is, for me, a very intriguing one: What does it mean to read the romance from behind?

Allan helps us to think about popular romance studies in a fashion perhaps more sideways than from behind—sideways, in that Allan’s interests pertain mainly to a queer male reading of cultural and literary texts, or to a reading of queer male texts. Still, the projects are aligned. Yes, let’s de-emphasize that phallus, for all the reasons Allan articulates. Masculinist and misogynist hegemony has had its day. Allan’s queer theory aligns well with popular romance’s feminist agenda in this regard. His book serves as an excellent example of the inherent mission overlap between feminism, on the one hand, and queer theory and a certain brand of masculinity studies, on the other. Read him for that reason alone, if you’d like greater familiarity with those important fields.

This notion Allan gives us of “reading from behind” is a powerful interpretive tool. It is related to the practice of “reparative reading” that Allan borrows from Sedgwick. A reparative reading of the romance—a reading from behind, a queer reading—is one that rejects a patriarchal and phallic-driven notion of sex and of gender relations and that reads the romance genre as a space of alternatives. Much of the current wave of scholarship in popular romance studies is reparative, exploring these women-centered texts as sites of resistance and possibility.

The more Allan’s book got me thinking about it, the more the popular romance genre struck me as a form of writing from behind. The roles of top and bottom are central to the opening scenarios of traditional romance storytelling, with the alpha hero as top but also, paradoxically, as asshole or “alphahole”, as Wendell and Tan put it in their Beyond Heaving Bosoms (2009). In the heroine’s initial estimation, the hero is often cold, arrogant, intimidating, maybe threatening. Who is more anal than him: obstinate, controlling, emotionally withholding? He will open up, of course. She will end up as “power bottom,” topping from the bottom, or neutralizing the top’s power through that great equalizing force of love.

Allan himself notes how genre fiction such as popular romance occupies a bottom position in the hierarchy of literary studies (65). The genre writes from behind, pushing out into romance stories the character of the patriarchal alpha and then transforming him into the feminist lover, supportive and egalitarian. The genre props up patriarchy only to knock it down. Admires the patriarch, acknowledges his power, even curtsies before him, but then seduces him into prostrating himself, bending over, and taking it up the ass, bareback, like a real man. Romance novels make that big boy learn to love it. Reading Allan’s book gave me this idea: the genre is about buggering patriarchy, over and over and over.

In terms of teaching utility, the book as a whole is probably a bit much for most undergraduates, but individual chapters could be useful in more advanced or specialized undergraduate classes (in literature, film studies, sexuality studies, queer theory) and certainly at the graduate level. The central chapters stand alone as close readings of their respective texts and could easily be assigned individually. This structure is both a strength and a weakness, as the book can feel like a series of knit together and somewhat randomly chosen case studies, particularly as the volume ends very abruptly, without a conclusion or—dare I complain?—a satisfying climax. [End Page 4]

My quibbles, I hasten to note, are only because I want Allan to keep writing and to do great writing, giving us fresh ideas and new ways to read culture on the par with those in Reading from Behind. In the end (I now see this word play everywhere), what Allan’s book yields for popular romance studies is a rich entrée to the cognate fields of queer theory and masculinity studies, bringing romance texts into wider critical conversations. Pick up a copy or order one for your library. Open yourself up (you bottoms). Take the plunge and dive in (for you tops). Either way, shake that booty. It’s speaking to us all, and it’s time we listen. [End Page 5]


Review: Sex, or the Unbearable, by Lauren Berland and Lee Edelman; Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics, by Ann J. Cahill; Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism: The Politics of Pleasure, by Joel Gwynne

Sexuality and the erotic play central roles within the realm of the romance novel. As evidenced by recent contemporary criticism from some media outlets, the literary elite continues to deride romance novels as pornography for women and as objectifying the female characters thereby reinforcing cultural notions of gender and objectification.[1] Romance authors, scholars, and fans have taken to blogs and columns to combat these criticisms, yet larger cultural questions about the portrayal of sexuality and the issues about objectification in popular culture must be further explored.[2]

Sex and the erotic are often unsettling topics within contemporary culture, particularly expressions that lie outside the constructions of the heteronormative commodification model of sexuality. While Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable, Ann J. Cahill’s Overcoming Objectification, or Joel Gwynne’s Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism do not specifically address these issues within romance scholarship and contemporary popular culture, they offer insight into the core questions of these debates. Underpinned by feminist and queer theory, these three texts take on questions of the erotic, sexuality, and objectification in both historiographical and theoretical approaches. Their usefulness for romance scholars specifically and popular culture scholarship more [End Page 1] broadly is in their use of relatable and rich examples from art, film, and literature. All three texts offer maps, albeit strikingly different ones, for scholarship in popular culture.

Berlant and Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable grows from the work of these two leading scholars of queer theory. The text seeks to articulate the spaces in our lives in which we are both comfortable and unsettled, in which we both connect and disconnect from others and ourselves: sex is the best example of this space for Berlant and Edelman. They write in the preface, “What we offer […] is an analysis of relations that both overwhelm and anchor us—an affective paradox that often shapes the experience of sex. We approach sex here as a site, therefore, at which relationality is invested with hopes, expectations, and anxieties that are often experienced as unbearable” (vii). They utilize sex as the interaction with self and others as the core expression of their vision of the unbearable precisely because of its potential to be both settling and unsettling. At the heart of this discussion is the concept of negativity that undermines the idea of complete or stable identities. For Berlant and Edelman, sex offers a sense that the boundaries of identity and of self are undone, open, and disconcerting. Berlant writes, “Sex and love are not events that change anything, usually; they induce a loosening of the subject that puts fear, pleasure, awkwardness, and above all experimentality in a scene that forces its participants to disturb what it has meant to be a person and to ‘have’ a world” (117). Sex, love, the erotic, relationships with others do, indeed, unsettle the ability to claim a stable, fixed identity, as these encounters question the impermeability of the borders of self.

The structure of Berlant and Edelman’s text is demonstrative of their larger thesis about relationality and the unbearable. They organize the text as a dialogue between the two of them, in which there is back and forth commentary and disagreements about the other’s and their own arguments. The structure is incredibly dense and is at times unsettling to the reader. Indeed, at times the book is unbearable in the manner that Berlant and Edelman show the unsettling nature of relationality and dialogue. They practice a dialogic approach to creating their narrative by writing and responding to each other throughout the text, and their disagreement on the theories can cause confusion about the argument of the overall text. It is often like the reader is an unsuspecting audience to their private conversations and frequently ones that seem to have already been in progress. These unsettled feelings would be amplified if the reader were not familiar with their earlier individual works, such as Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) and Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Additionally, they utilize and create a dialogue with Jacques Lacan, Gayle Rubin, and Eve Kosofosky Sedgwick in the first two chapters, and in the third they apply their methodology to the short story “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis, in which a narrator discusses the breakdown of a relationship. Through their engagement with this text, Berlant and Edelman articulate the manner in which their individual positions differ but also build a shared argument that sex and by association relationships undo the stability of knowledge and identity. Thus, for example, Edelman writes, “To encounter another is to have to confront our otherness to ourselves. The wonder is not that we get things wrong: dialogue tends to proceed, after all, as much by identifying and correcting misreadings as by concurring with the other’s account” (68-69). Berlant responds, “As in politics and sex, in theory the encounter induces all the concomitant dread and excitement at the potential for something to become different” (71). While sex and encounters with others destabilize identity, they also create potential for growth, for change, for an indefinable something else. [End Page 2]

This discussion of sex and the unbearable offers a great deal for the romance scholar. Berlant and Edelman practice a scholarship based in relationality and dialogue. Berlant writes in the afterword, “Structural consistency is a fantasy; the noise of relation’s impact, inducing incompletion where it emerges, is the overwhelming condition that enables the change that, within collaborative action, can shift lived worlds” (125). Sex and relationships do shift individual’s worlds and undermine that structural consistency that Berlant cites, which many readers and scholars of romance see within the stories that are so much a part of the romance genre. A sexual encounter or falling in love can and frequently does upend the identity and lives of so many characters in our favorite novels. While Berlant and Edelman do not address popular romances, their work can be informative to the work of romance scholars in tackling issues of the place of sex and the erotic, especially within some romance tropes, such as discovery of a new sexual orientation plots in queer romances, or submissive-for-you plots in many erotic romances of all orientations.

While Berlant and Edelman address the realm of sex as a moment of decentering, Ann Cahill’s Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics seeks to confront the topic of objectification and determine a new approach to the issues at the heart of the feminist concerns with the concept. She writes,

Among the many indispensable concepts associated with feminist theory, objectification holds a privileged position. The claim that patriarchy renders women things, thus robbing them of a host of qualities central to personhood—moral agency, self-worth, autonomy, to name a few—connects a disparate group of social realities that otherwise might remain conceptually separate. (1)

She examines the literature of feminist approaches to the concept of objectification, which she states is a central tenant of feminist theory historically and has impacted the broader dialogue about gender and sexuality. Cahill addresses issues surrounding objectification and masculine bodies, “unsexed women” (women who are not viewed through the lens of sexual objectification, for instance mothers and women who are disabled) sex work, and sexual violence. Her project is to describe the theories of objectification, and to express a different model for discussing the body, articulating a new vision of sexual ethics that posits the possibility of sexual encounters as positive experiences for those involved. She relies upon Luce Irigaray as a theoretical guidepost for her argument against the prioritization of the concept of objectification and in her articulation of “carnal ethics.”

Cahill outlines two positions of feminist thinkers and their expressions of objectification; those who use it as an underpinning to their theories, such as Catherine MacKinnon and Simone de Beauvoir, and those who analyze the idea itself, such as Linda LeMoncheck, Martha Nussbaum, and Rae Langton. As Cahill examines these positions, she notes that the ideas of objectification all rely upon a particularly Enlightenment and Kantian notion of the modern construction of self that prioritizes the mind over the body, thus disembodying human beings. Through their reliance on this Kantian construction, feminist theorists invoking the idea of objectification disassociate women from their bodies in order to address the sexual objectification that occurs. The core of these analyses is that women are reduced only to their bodies and not treated as more than their body and that, [End Page 3] most frequently, these arguments center on women in pornography as the example to the manner in which objectification functions.

Cahill breaks down this theory of objectification, stating that the objectified woman is different than any other type of object as she is still able to communicate her desire and behaviors, which is part of the point in the theory of the objectification—to deny that the woman is a talking, functioning being. She writes, “To be sexual is to be a thing, and often to be the object of another’s gaze and attention; the pleasure of being such an object cannot be explained simply by the internalization of a dominance/submission framework, since we can imagine and even experience such objectification without hierarchy” (26). For Cahill, being a sexual being and engaging in sexual activity has at the heart of it being seen substantively as an other.

Sexuality cannot be divorced from the body, and therefore, objectification, as the definition stands, may not be the most effective tool to understanding the concepts of subjecthood and identity. She argues that sexual objects can be men, women, and trans* people and that the objectification may not be harmful but a part of sexual desire in that it acknowledges the embodiment of the other. Objectification, as it stands within feminist theory, does not allow for positive sexual interactions from Cahill’s standpoint. Cahill, therefore, argues that using the concept of derivatization would be better for articulating the potential for harm in sexual interactions. Cahill writes, “To derivatize is to portray, render, understand, or approach a being solely or primarily as the reflection, projection, or expression of another being’s identity, desires, fears, etc.” (32). What is damaging, for Cahill, is the derivatization of others, in which the other serves only to fulfill the desire of the one to the detriment or dismissal of the other.

In the end, Cahill argues for a concept of an embodied intersubjectivity, which she describes as “be[ing] open (even vulnerable) to the attention, acts, and being of the other” (xiv). Later, she writes,

To be sexually intersubjective is to be aware of one’s sexual particularity as an ongoing project, a project grounded in one’s material existence and location while simultaneously invested in and marked by the sexual particularity of others. Difference is described here not as a threat to be negotiated or a problem to be solved, but rather as the possibility condition for the embodied interactions through which the self develops. (153)

For Cahill, sexuality must be grounded within the body as it is embedded within the lived experiences of the individual’s materiality. As she argues, this sexuality is one that is based in dialogue, consent, and negotiations. It is about sharing desires and determining together what is sustainable sexuality within the relationship.

With this conceptual model of an embodied intersubjectivity, Cahill seeks to overcome the disassociation from the body that occurs through traditional constructions of objectification, but she also argues for a sexuality that is built upon positive agency. Cahill’s text offers the romance scholar an alternative to the feminist constructions of objectification that have often underscored criticisms of the portrayals of erotic romance heroines and heroes within the text as well as in their representations on novel covers. Moreover by nuancing the ideas around embodiment and sexuality, she demonstrates an approach that opens discussions around sexuality and identity for all individuals, not just [End Page 4] addressing issues facing women. Additionally, Cahill’s text is engaging as it utilizes examples from popular culture, such as a 2003 Miller Lite advertisements, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (1996), Striptease (1996), and The Full Monty (1997), and dissects complicated theoretical models in understandable and readable ways. In this manner, Overcoming Objectification is not just a solid text for scholars looking to complicate notions of objectification but would also be adaptable to a classroom setting.

While Cahill and Berlant and Edelman offer theoretical arguments about issues around sex and sexuality, Joel Gwynne creates an analysis of source material in his Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism, thus making his project feel different from the two previous texts under discussion. His project is to study a sample set of women’s erotic memoirs (fewer than twenty in total) with the earliest published in 1993 to the latest in 2009. He breaks his text into thematic chapters—agency, intimacy, pornography, and transgression—which are,

committed to analysing the ways in which contemporary women express and live their individual, diverse and private sexual identities amidst conflicting narratives of female sexuality. This study is premised on the belief that contemporary erotic memoirs may have a special role to play in the process of reconfiguring female sexuality as active and agentic . . . It is also premised on the conviction that, while offering private conceptualisations of female sexual subjectivity, women’s memoirs are inherently political in their colonisation of the male dominated space within mass culture where mainstream narratives of human sexuality reside. (6)

These memoirs demonstrate the ways in which women interact with and represent their sexualities and, beyond that, the world around them. He argues for the social project of the erotic, through which he examines and critiques these women’s memoirs. The sociality of the erotic grows out of the continual reexamination and revising of ideas of sex and sexuality that occurs through dialogue, media, and other institutions and interactions.

Gwynne draws widely on feminist theory, and he instructively articulates the historiographic trajectory of such theory and of the feminist movement. His analysis of the idea of postfeminism, which he posits early in the text, is also substantive, and his use of this terminology in conjunction with his source material demonstrates the cultural milieu in which these memoirs are published and that demonstrate a postfeminist consciousness. This consciousness foregrounds the belief that feminism accomplished its goals, and Gwynne argues that the memoirs he studies are framed by their authors and publishers as postfeminist and liberatory but ultimately demonstrate an on-going oppressive environment for women and their sexuality. “One cannot avoid concluding that popular women’s erotic memoirs—while framed as liberating—continue to celebrate male sexual-domination,” he writes (119), and he views the authors’ sexual explorations as failures of their own liberation. To use Cahill’s term, Gwynne presents the authors as derivatized, arguing that their sexuality and their experiences are reflections of their culture and their lovers and not their own desires and choices.

For the romance scholar, Gwynne’s text offers an excellent source for feminist theoretical approaches to sexuality over the last few decades. His feminist historiography is thoughtful and would be helpful for students, especially in conjunction with some of the [End Page 5] memoirs themselves as well as other texts on women’s sexuality and popular romance. Unlike the other authors in this review, Gwynne does address the popular romance occasionally throughout his text, and he links certain trends in erotic romance with these erotic memoirs. Not all of these links are convincing. For example, Gwynne discusses briefly the popular juggernaut that is the Fifty Shades series, although he compares it to the Twilight Saga without seeming to understand that Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction. He writes, “[Anastasia Steele] reminds the reader of another virginal romantic heroine of postfeminist popular culture—Isabella Swan” (8). This language could easily have been an editing error, but it might also suggest a lack of knowledge about the romances he occasionally mentions, and there are equally jarring moments throughout the text in which a derisive attitude about certain sexual practices and lifestyles bleeds through his writing either intentionally or unintentionally. Of particular interest here, are his discussions of BDSM, which he calls an “eroticisation of power” (24). When examining the women’s discussions of their explorations of D/s dynamics and rape fantasies, his analysis recalls the concept of “false consciousness” that he couches in a discussion about feminist responses to these issues (92). He argues that these memoirs “engage in a process of normalizing and destigmatising not only ostensibly transgressive female behaviour, such as sexual promiscuity, but even more extreme forms of taboo sexuality such as sadomasochism, prostitution and paedophilia” (12-13). His articulation establishes a negative view of these author’s experiences and by extension their choices and desires.

All three of these texts—Berlant and Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable, Cahill’s Overcoming Objectification, and Gwynne’s Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism—will be of use to scholars of popular romance. They offer romance scholars new theoretical approaches and critical methodologies, as well as new structural models for pairing fictional and non-fictional accounts of sex, the erotic, and sexuality within contemporary culture.

[1] See, for instance, William Giraldi’s column for The New Republic on May 19, 2014 entitled “Finally an Academic Text Devoted to ‘50 Shades of Grey’: When a Very Smart Scholar Takes on a Very Dumb Book,”

[2] To name a few examples, see Alyssa Rosenberg’s “Men, Stop Lecturing Women about Reading Romance Novels” for The Washington Post on May 20, 2014,, or Rachel Kramer Bussel’s interview with Eloisa James on May 29, 2014, for Vulture, “Eloisa James on Feminism, Sexuality, and Why Romance Novels Are More Than Worthy of Respect,” [End Page 6]


Review: The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, by Laura Frost

Nothing, one might argue, could be further from popular romance than literary modernism. On the one hand, we have a type of writing intimately concerned with both representing and eliciting pleasure in a reader, whose material conditions of production are commonly aligned with mass readerships, and whose literary strategies include the recursive repetition of well-loved plots and favoured character types. Apparently at odds with this type of literary production is the elitist, coterie, avant-garde experimentation of literary modernism. T.S. Eliot, George Steiner, and William Empson all sang the praises of difficulty (Frost 20), and followed by Lionel Trilling’s 1963 identification of modernist literature with ‘unpleasure’, critics have commonly located modernism’s signal aesthetic practices in the discomfiting, disturbing, or unpleasant. A steady stream of critical works have emerged in the past two decades that seek to characterise, categorise, and map the “new affective terrain of modernity” (Flatley 4) and modernism. As Sianne Ngai has persuasively shown, the modernist period ushers in, with a new intensity, a concern with the representation not of noble or uplifting affects, but of “ugly feelings” – disgust, boredom, irritation, and shame. For every Clarissa Dalloway experiencing the pleasures of flowers, there are more numerous Septimus Smiths, alienated and terrified, unable to cope with modernity’s discombobulating transformations.

Yoked to this sense of literary modernism’s denial of pleasure is its reputation as a coterie writing and reading practice. Early studies of literary modernism commonly maintained the great divide between high- and lowbrow literary productions, defensive of their texts’ avant-garde status and wary of the taint of the popular. Yet in recent years, particularly in the wake of the colonizing expansion of modernist studies, scholars have begun to look more closely at the convergence of mass and elite cultures and the ways in which modernist writers “absorbed and remade forms of mass culture rather than merely disparaging them” (Mao and Walkowitz 744). A notable line of inquiry for scholars such as [End Page 1] Nicholas Daly (1999) and Martin Hipsky (2011) shows that the barriers between modernism and popular romance are more permeable than they appear.

Laura Frost’s The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, an engaging study of aesthetic and affective experimentation by exemplary modernist and interwar writers, finds new gaps in the fence. As she persuasively shows, many ‘highbrow’ texts borrow from popular genres, from Aldous Huxley’s responses to Elinor Glyn in Brave New World (1932), or Anita Loos’s deployment of the techniques of silent film titling in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925). Loos’s bestseller, the subject of Frost’s final chapter, has long been a subject of contention for scholars – is it modernist and ironic or a buoyant middlebrow fantasy? – and provides an opportunity for Frost to further engage with the enjoyable frissons between modernist innovation and the new pleasures of modern mass culture. That Gentlemen Prefer Blondes could in the 1920s (as now) be simultaneously taken for lowbrow pulp and highbrow satire illustrates the tensions between mass and elite, and pleasure and unpleasure, that represent for Frost “a new way of defining literary modernism more capaciously” (14).

Though the concept of unpleasure is central to her argument, Frost suggests that, rather than its opposite, unpleasure is a “modification” of pleasure (6). Within their stylistic innovations, modernists betrayed their signal concern with pleasure: specifically, with the training of the modern subject towards the enjoyment of new types of literary pleasure. “[M]odernists claimed that the struggle with difficult texts had its own intrinsic rewards” (21), parsed in terms of the “exercise of cultural distinction” (212), which worked to compete against the “charms of vernacular culture” (21):

Modernism’s contribution to the genealogy of pleasure is the declared substitution of one set of pleasures (refined, acquired, and cognitive) for another (embodied, accessible), in which the disavowal of the latter is promoted as an aesthetic principle. (22)

As Frost relates, the “double-bind” (236) in which so many modernists were tied was in accounting for mass culture as simultaneously “compelling” yet also a kind of “false consciousness” (226). To the modernists, as Frost relates, pleasure was “a force […] run amok in contemporary culture: in the cinema, in popular literature, and in the public’s enthusiasm for fun.” (236) In response, modernist writers and critics deployed a battery of defensive aesthetic measures – both textual and representative – that sought to differentiate and distance both writing and reading subjects from the intoxicating effects of pleasure upon culture (Frost devotes some pages to Q.D. Leavis’s salvoes against vulgar enjoyment). At the same time as it denies pleasure, though, modernism engages in the project of transforming pleasure: readers were asked not simply to “tolerate” the “hard cognitive labor” of modernist difficulty, but in fact to “embrace” it (6) – and learn to enjoy it. The reader must become a kind of masochist, willing to submit to the indignities of “discomfort, confusion” (6) and textual pain in the search for novel types of literary bliss.

In spite of their disavowal of accessible pleasure, Frost also shows how many modernist works also “participate” in the very strategies of embodied affect and desire as the popular texts they “purport […] to reject.” (13). In chapters on Ulysses’s smells, Stein and tickling, and the “anhedonia” (164) of the novels of Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys, Frost traces the representation and elicitation of new types of somatic and affective [End Page 2] experience. For example, in a highly readable chapter on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Frost demonstrates Lawrence’s attention to the textual and erotic strategies of the interwar desert romances of E.M. Hull. Hull’s best-selling 1919 romance The Sheik was accorded extraordinary notice by both Lawrence and Q.D. Leavis, who viewed its “predictable formulas and sensational prose” as “epitomizing popular pleasure” (90). In spite of its immense presence in the popular culture of the twenties, inspiring sheet music, films starring Valentino, magazine ‘true stories’ and two perfumes, the interwar desert romance a la Hull enjoyed a relatively short-lived popularity, fizzing out (except for new spikes of interest from the 1990s within the narrower confines of popular romance fiction) sometime in the thirties. As Frost shows, however, Hull left an indelible impression upon both Lawrence and Leavis, who saw in The Sheik “a symptom of cultural decline” (100). In her 1932 salvo Fiction and the Reading Public, Leavis argues that the feeling produced by popular romances such as Hull is largely somatic, “cheap [and] mechanical”, at once passive and “masturbatory” (quoted in Frost 101); such embodied experiences, if repeated, render the general reader incapable of “bear[ing] the impact of a serious novel” (quoted in Frost 100). “If popular reading is a narcotic,” as Frost puts it, “modernism is bracingly therapeutic” (104).

This reading of romance as “regressive or banal” and modernism as “challenging and unfamiliar” is both itself something of a critical banality, and as Frost shows, called into question by Lawrence’s own use of the bread-and-butter pleasure management strategies of popular romance fiction. However, as Frost argues, the “Hullian turn” (111) in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is designed not to elicit pleasure but to “discipline and even curtail it” (90). Tracing verbal resemblances between The Sheik’s and Lady Chatterley’s mutual exploration of sexualised “shame”, Frost shows how Lawrence uses the same language to effect an entirely different response: where Hull’s text is “arranged to make her reader swoon with arousal” (125), Lawrence’s “rhetorically overshadows the sensation of pleasure” (126). In spite of the infamously pornographic reputation of his “Shame Epic”, Lawrence’s language of sex is designed not to provoke desire but to withhold it, “putting space between itself and the reader” (120). Yet Frost is at pains to show that it is not through the usual story of textual experimentation or difficulty beloved by Leavis that Lawrence disciplines readerly pleasure. Rather, it is by employing those techniques of popular romance writers – including “repetition, cliché and stereotype” (104) – that Lawrence is able to resituate pleasure at a point of tension between “novelty and familiarity, the shock of the new and the gratifications of the sure thing” (129).

Readers of this journal may wish Frost to have engaged more thoroughly with some of the key critical texts of popular romance studies, but her insights on the pleasures of modernist texts, and the disciplining of pleasure, should nevertheless be welcome to scholars seeking to further unpack the tensions and relationships between popular and highbrow literary production in the first half of the twentieth century. [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Daly, Nicholas. Modernism, Romance, and the Fin de Siècle: Popular Fiction and British Culture, 1880-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Hipsky, Martin. Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925. Athens: Ohio UP, 2011. Print.

Mao, Douglas and Rebecca Walkowitz. “The New Modernist Studies.” PMLA 123.3 (2008): 737-48. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

[End Page 4]


Review: The Contradictions of Love: Towards a feminist-realist sociosexuality, by Lena Gunnarsson

Published in Routledge’s ‘Ontological Explorations’ series, it is my guess that for most readers of this journal – as for myself – Lena Gunnarsson’s book on love is one that might have passed them by were it not for this review.

This chimes with something I have become increasingly aware of recently: that is, the extent to which the social sciences, literary studies and philosophy talk past one another when it comes to research on love and romance. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that many of us working in the field probably consider ourselves more ‘interdisciplinary’ than we really are. True, we have regularly drawn upon psychoanalysis and ‘continental’ philosophers like Roland Barthes to help refine our thoughts on the mechanisms of love and the dynamics of intimate relationships, but it is rare that you see literary/cultural critics turn to the debates on love in analytic philosophy or, indeed, the work of sociologists like Gunnarsson who continue to work within a broadly Marxist-feminist tradition rather than ‘cultural studies’ pole of her discipline. This, in turn, suggests that literary/cultural theorists and critics may benefit greatly from the de-familiarization of love offered by these alternative scientific approaches: in which spirit I offer this short review of Lena Gunnarson’s recent book.

The Contradictions of Love explores the phenomenon of love through a ‘critical-realist’ theoretical framework with the feminist objective of answering the question of why “women continue to be subordinated to men through sexuality and love” despite their “relative economic independence from men” (1). Gunnarsson’s commitment to the ‘critical realism’ of the post-Marxist philosopher Roy Bhaskar (2008 [1975], 1998 [1979]) nevertheless means that she answers this question in a very different way to those of us brought up in the shadow of poststructuralism: a movement which she regards her work as being seriously at odds with (see Part Two of the book: ‘Challenging poststructuralist feminism’).

Indeed, the poststructuralist’s complacent acceptance that love, like gender, is best understood as a discourse whose historical baggage will inevitably lag behind social change [End Page 1] is, for her, the problem. To anticipate and effect change we need to attend the social structures of ‘real-life’ (how men and women are living, and negotiating their relationships in the material world) rather than the spurious ‘materiality of discourse’ that she ascribes to Judith Butler and her followers. In the book’s Introduction, Gunnarson makes clear that both she and her mentor, Anna Jónasdóttir, believe that love is a phenomenon that “exists independently of our knowledge of it” (16) and that while knowledge is, itself, part of reality “the former (reality) cannot be reduced to the latter (knowledge)” (11).

It is, of course, a measure of the orthodoxy that the poststructuralist tradition has assumed that Gunnarsson is nevertheless obliged to spend so much of the book analysing what she perceives Butler’s work to stand for. Much of this is in the form of the ‘common sense’ (political) objections a non-specialist would bring to Butler’s work (how can we improve relations between the sexes in the material world when sexual difference has been reduced to a position in discourse?), though it is arguable that her hard-line stance is compromised later in the book (Chapter Seven) when she embraces Roy Bhaskar’s ‘non-dualistic’ model of loving as a way forward. Bhaskar’s location of (true)love in ‘metaReality’ (see below) itself dispenses with the significance of gender in our personal relationships and sidelines patriarchy to the realm of a ‘false-consciousness’ that we need to move beyond (122-4).

As noted above, Gunnarsson’s first inspiration was her supervisor Anna Jónasdóttir, and Chapter Three provides a useful and thought-provoking review of the latter’s work. One of the most far-reaching consequences of Jónasdóttir’s insistence on a ‘critical-realist’ approach to love, according to Gunnarsson, is that it challenges the recent tendency amongst theorists “to theorize sexuality as something separate from love and care” (17). By contrast, Jónasdóttir “sees our erotic-ecstatic and caring capacities as dialectically conjoined” (17) and invents the concept of “love power” (characterized by a dialectical interplay of care and erotic ecstacy) as “the basic motor in our existence as human beings” (17). Love, therefore, is best understood as an emphatically material socio-sexual phenomenon fuelled by necessity: “humans depend psychologically upon one another for their existence” (14).

Jónasdóttir’s thesis ‘Love power and political interests’ was completed in 1991 and published as Why Women are Oppressed in 1994. In it she follows the principles established by the Marxist- and radical-feminists of the 1970s, but proposes that any explanation of women’s oppression in an era of [relative] economic independence for [many] women in the West needs to shift its attention to “men’s exploitation of women’s love power” (44). For me, the most interesting part of Jónasdóttir’s work as presented by Gunnarsson is the former’s definition of love not only as a basic human need or necessity, but – at its best – as a profoundly creative labour:

What, then, do I mean by the ‘production of life’? Much more than bearing, nourishing, and raising children, even though these activities are extremely important in their context. Women and men, in their total intercourse in pairs and groups, also create each other. And the needs and capacities that generate this creative process have our bodies-and-minds as their intertwined living sources. These needs and capacities must be satisfied and developed for the human species to survive, and for us individuals to live a good and dignified life. (1994:23) [End Page 2]

The creative – and productive – nature of love is something I have explored in my own work (2007), and Jónasdóttir’s account of this in explicitly Marxist terms offers an interesting perspective on why two individuals working together on a common cause (other than themselves) can be so rewarding (i.e., the need to produce, to labour, is intrinsic to human existence and is the key to a ‘good life’ providing we own ‘the means of production’ as, in our relationships, we do).

However, this model of love at its creative best is, according to Jónasdóttir, extremely difficult to achieve in patriarchal society on account of the fact that men and women are differently positioned in terms of both their needs and expectations and this has resulted in a division of labour (women care in order to ‘earn’ the love and respect of their men, while men enjoy ‘erotic ecstacy’ but miss out on the positive experience of care). This is an arrangement which ultimately disadvantages both parties and prevents them finding fulfilment in shared ‘creative productivity’ beyond themselves.

For Gunnarsson, it is the diminution of the men’s experience of love that is of particular concern and which fuels her enquiry in Part Three of the book. Following a chapter [Chapter Six] in which she draws upon the ethnographic research of Wendy Langford (1999) and Carin Holmberg (1993) to further theorise how, and why, women continue to ‘sacrifice’ themselves for love, her attention shifts to how we might re-conceptualize the practice of love in such a way that both men and women share in the rewards of caring and erotic ecstacy. This is where Roy Bhaskar’s work, mentioned above, is invoked to carry her thesis forward and Gunnarsson is to be commended on the challenging theoretical task she sets herself in aligning Jónasdóttir’s focus on “the historically specific configuration of practical human love in contemporary western societies” (122) with Bhaskar’s transcendent vision. For although Bhaskar is the scholar credited with inventing the methodological practice of ‘critical realism’ (see references in my opening paragraph above), his subsequent presentation of metaReality (2002) as “absolute reality” (115) (in contrast to what he terms ‘relative reality’ and ‘demi-reality’) moves ‘true love’, among other things, to a transcendental realm that would presumably be of little interest to Jónasdóttir.

The love that we might hope to find in metaReality is, according to Bhaskar, “the totalizing, unifying, healing force of the universe” (Bhaskar 2002) (120). Key to love’s power, moreover, is its intrinsic ‘non-dualism’: “If we are in touch with and affirmative of the non-dual level of being at which the ‘outside world’ is part of us, unconditional loving will be the spontaneous attitude towards the world” (120). Such an unconditional outpouring of love, reminiscent of how Agape is characterized within the Christian tradition, is necessarily oblivious to gender difference and, unlike Jónasdóttir’s critique of hetero-patriarchy, would presumably extend to all sexualities and all expressions of love.

In attempting to square the interests of Jónasdóttir and the (post-millennial) Bhaskar, Gunnarsson focuses on the fact that both nevertheless “conceptualize love as a creative, energizing power or force” (122) and locates the dysfunctionality that preoccupies Jónasdóttir in Bhaskar’s illusory ‘demi-reality’:

Male authority, female sociosexual poverty and the exploitation which they both depend on and sustain are real inasmuch as our collective belief in them informs our practices, which construct the reality in which we must act. Yet, [End Page 3] they are only half-real, since they negate necessities on which they depend. (123)

Moreover, Gunnarsson discovers in this slippage between demi- and meta-reality the clue to why women “generally enjoy loving men even when it deprives them of their strength and dignity” (123); that is, because at its most basic level “love is fundamentally unexploitable” (123).

Regardless of how persuaded we are of this rationale – and, indeed, whether we think it adds anything to other well-known explanations of why women appear to ‘love too much’ – credit must be given to Gunnarsson in effecting a difficult philosophical move. In the subsequent chapter, ‘Men in Love’, she explores further what confinement to the realm of ‘demi-reality’ means to men and speculates on what form male emancipation, following Bhaskar’s model, might take. In this chapter, too, she engages with the work of Jessica Benjamin (1988, 1998) and some masculinity scholars; this provides a welcome (if belated) orientation of her project in theories and debates with which readers of this journal, like myself, will be more familiar.

More generally, it difficult to gauge how much of interest literary/cultural critics are likely to discover in Gunnarsson’s study. For anyone working in the field of romance studies, all new definitions of love are, of course, welcome and thought-provoking, and Bhaskar’s transcendental ‘non-dualism’ may appeal to critics and theorists who are persuaded by the notion of love’s creative and generative power. Gunnarsson’s starting point in Jónasdóttir’s theory is, however, likely to have rather less appeal to readers of this journal; not necessarily because they/we are all poststructuralists (!), but because the Marxist-/radical-feminism which motivates her project will seem dated and, conceptually, familiar to most of us (notwithstanding the new direction she claims for her investigations). This last point also raises an issue with Gunnarsson’s sources (both theoretical and ethnographic) in general, which is that many are over 20 years old. Inasmuch as her philosophizing of this material is new, its historical nature should not necessarily matter; however, the assumption – stemming from Jónasdóttir’s work – that patriarchy in the Western world is an institution that has not evolved or adapted at all does seem problematic. This is not to say, of course, that things have necessarily been getting better (in some respects they may be getting worse), but patriarchy is clearly not an a-historical monolith and relations between the sexes have been liable to all manner of social, as well as cultural, change over the past quarter-century. This said, there are plenty of moments in this tightly-argued book that will, I’m sure, prove thought-provoking to JPRS readers and encourage us to extend the reach of our interdisciplinarity. [End Page 4]

Works Cited

Bhaskar, Roy. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso, 2008 [1975].

_______ The Possibility of Naturalism. London: Routledge, 1998 [1979].

_______ Meta-Reality. London: Sage, 2002.

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

_______   The Shadow of the Other. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Holmberg, Carin. Det Kallas Kärlek. Stockholm: Månpocket, 1995 [1993].

Jónasdóttir, Anna. Why Women are Oppressed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994 [1991].

Langford, Wendy. Revolutions of the Heart. London: Routledge, 1999.

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

[End Page 5]




Review: Conjugations: Marriage and Form in New Bollywood Cinema, by Sangita Gopal; Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema, by Monika Mehta

Best known for its romantic melodramas and ubiquitous song-and-dance sequences, Bollywood is the largest of India’s culture industries. This prolific Hindi-language commercial film industry based in Mumbai (Bombay) boasts an annual output of over 250 films and a daily audience of 100 million. Its films have always been tremendously popular not just with Indian viewers but also those in the Middle East, South East Asia, parts of Africa, and the former Soviet Union. In the past decade, this cinema has also attracted mainstream audiences in the West, first in the U.K. and increasingly in the U.S., in part due to the success of films like Moulin Rouge (2001) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) that pay tribute to Bollywood’s extravagant style. This cultural interest around Bollywood has invigorated South Asian cinema studies in the United States. The field is abuzz with an ever-expanding corpus of textual analyses, archival work, and ethnographic studies, not just of Bombay cinema but also of other regional cinemas in India. In this review, I consider two excellent additions to the scholarship on gender and nation in Bollywood: Monika Mehta’s Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema and Sangita Gopal’s Conjugations.

Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema uses a Foucauldian framework to examine how diverse instances of “cutting, classifying, and certifying” shape representations of sex and sexuality in mainstream Hindi cinema, primarily between the 1970s and 1990s (Mehta 7). Writing against the prevailing conception of censorship as a top-down process in which government bureaucrats demand the deletion of parts of a film they deem offensive, Mehta urges us to conceptualize censorship not in terms of the “repressive hypothesis”—i.e., censorship as a something that limits creative expression and polices representations of sex in cinema—but in terms of Foucault’s more fluid conception [End Page 1] of power. The implications of this theoretical reframing are laid out in the book’s introduction (Chapter 1). The vigorous participation of lay audience members and various civil and political organizations in debates about cinematic representations of sexuality, Mehta argues, indicates that censorship is not simply a technology of the state. Rather, it constitutes a field of struggle where different actors jostle to make sense of cinematic texts and give shape to their desires. The move away from censorship as prohibition allows us to see more clearly the productive effects of censorship, both in terms of the audiences invited to view particular films and what Foucault called the “incitement to discourse” (Foucault 17).

That censorship generates important effects is amply clear when one considers how the categories and language used by India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) shape the reception of a film. As several of Mehta’s chapters demonstrate, whether a film gets a U (unrestricted exhibition) or an A (exhibition restricted to adults) certificate is a crucial factor in determining who watches the film, when, and in what context. Certification helps produce the audience of the film. If the CBFC delimited the reach of Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (Truth, God, Beauty, 1978) by restricting its exhibition to adults (Chapter 5), the same agency’s enthusiastic stamp of approval for Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Brave-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride, 1995) as a “family love story” invited audiences to enjoy the latter film along with their family and friends (Chapter 8). These disparate cases make clear that certification and classification are important not simply because they can make or break a film at the box office, but because the labels they generate mark particular films and audiences as normative and others as undesirable. The implications for the construction of gender, sexuality, and heteronormativity are stark. Gendered ideals and discourses about desire are produced not simply in moments of spectacular rupture—that is, in the debates that controversial films inspire—but also in and through the most banal, everyday operations of the state, namely certification and classification.

Students of Hindi film and film history will find Mehta’s emphasis on the “micropractices” of censorship very instructive. Whereas previous studies of censorship in India and elsewhere have relied on legal documents and government reports almost exclusively, Mehta balances such archival information with ethnographic data and close readings of films. This methodological choice is significant as it allows her to narrate the history of censorship as an institution in India, from its British colonial origins to the changes proposed to the Cinematograph Act in 2010 (Chapter 2), and to link that story to the day-to-day operations of the CBFC (Chapter 3). The granular picture that Mehta paints through interviews with examining committee officials and observation of committee meetings is fascinating. One sees not just the structure and logics of the system at work—how committees are composed, at what levels particular decisions are made etc.—but also the arbitrariness and messiness of the process. Together these chapters provide a cogent critique of the postcolonial state and its patriarchal attitude vis-à-vis its citizens (thought to be in constant need of protection and education) even as they unravel the idea of a monolithic “big bad state” that imposes its decisions from above. Instead, censorship provides the means through which the state and its populace negotiate their relationship to each other.

Struggles over cinematic representations, particularly those involving female bodies and sexuality, are evident in several chapters. Take, for instance, Mehta’s remarkable [End Page 2] discussion of Gupt Gyan (Secret Knowledge, 1974), “the first sex-education film,” in Chapter 4. The travails of this film lay in its medicalized depiction of sex and sexuality, and its apparent blurring of documentary and fictional genres. The film’s “realistic” representation of sex—replete with clinical depictions of the human body, venereal disease, and sexual intercourse—baffled officials who were used to demanding cuts of titillating close-ups and gyrating dance moves. After extensive review and debate involving not just the CBFC but also the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and intense back-channel lobbying by the filmmaker B. K. Adarsh, Gupt Gyan was released with some cuts and an A certificate. Still, the film’s success at the box-office and its subsequent de-certification in the context and aftermath of the political Emergency (1975-77) speak to the highly contingent nature of public debates about censorship, sex, and sexuality. The crucial importance of the political milieu is also apparent in the banning of Pati Parmeshwar (A Husband Is Like God, 1989) explored in Chapter 6. The CBFC deemed the film’s focus on the self-sacrificing wife demeaning, a clear indication that it was attuned to the widespread feminist activism and legal measures initiated during that period to end violence against women. Interestingly, other state entities to which the filmmakers appealed their case, including the Bombay High Court, disagreed with the CBFC’s assessment.

Whereas the aforementioned chapters deal with wrangling within the state, other case studies highlight the active role of audiences in shaping censorship debates (in particular, Chapters 5 and 7). Mehta’s close reading of the popular magazine Filmfare’s 1955 forum on censorship shows that readers’ deep investment in censorship lay not simply in their love of cinema, but in their understanding of how censorship was linked to concepts such as democracy, morality, tradition, and state authority (Mehta 42). These connections are also on display in the many letters to the editor that Mehta discusses in chapter 7 on the controversy surrounding the song “Choli ke Peechhe Kya Hain?” (What Is Behind the Blouse?) from Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (Villain, 1993). This chapter specifies just how the “liberalization” of the Indian economy in the early 1990s simultaneously enabled the circulation of the notorious song—the multiplication of its pleasures, one might say—and provoked anxieties about the female body as a bearer of national identity and cultural values. In conjunction with Mehta’s analysis of Satyam Shivam Sundaram, a film about “an ugly girl with a beautiful voice” (114), the Khalnayak chapter explains how Bombay cinema configures the relationship between sound and image, and the place of the sexualized female body in that audiovisual compact. These chapters make for good reading in a course on Bollywood or film history or, even more generally, in a unit on Foucault’s notions of discourse and the play of power.

Towards the end of her book, Mehta makes one final move that undercuts the censorship-equals-prohibition formulation. In fact, she turns this idea on its head in Chapter 8 by linking the “cuts” of the censor to the creative decisions of filmmakers themselves. Focusing on the additions and deletions that director Aditya Chopra made to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, both before the film hit the screens and in a later official DVD release, Mehta argues that these choices are as critical as the CBFC’s process of certification in constructing DDLJ as a “family love story.” Equally important are the many paratexts associated with the film (DVD “extras” such as the made-for-television documentary “The Making of DDLJ” and deleted scenes) for they enable many alternate routes into a film that is quite conservative in terms of its representation of romance and familial hierarchies. Less well developed but equally intriguing is Mehta’s suggestion that scholarship itself [End Page 3] entails processes of selection, classification, and cutting, often due to length and time, the same considerations that motivate many filmmakers’ editing choices.

Quite apart from the theoretical and historical contributions noted above, I am taken by the humility and the clarity of Mehta’s voice in this book. What she offers is not just an excellent model of interdisciplinary scholarship, but also writing that is as kind to its readers as it is rigorous in its critique of power and knowledge.

Sangita Gopal’s Conjugations: Marriage and Form in New Bollywood Cinema takes off at the historical point at which Mehta ends her analysis, the post-liberalization period. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Indian government introduced a number of changes to its fiscal and economic policies in an effort to attract private and foreign investment. The impact on public culture was as rapid as it was dramatic. Along with changes to the financial operations and industrial organization of the Bombay film industry came transformations in the technological, aesthetic, and thematic concerns of this cinema. A fundamental contribution of Gopal’s book is to delineate the complex of material, social, and institutional forces that give rise to a new kind of cinema in the post-liberalization period. She calls this novel cinematic order “New Bollywood Cinema.”

So what is “new” about New Bollywood cinema? For one, it focuses squarely on the “post-nuptial” couple. Whereas Hindi films of the past spent most of their three-hour running time constituting the romantic couple and helping the lovers wend their way through social and familial obstructions, New Bollywood takes the heterosexual romantic unit as a given. So secure is this couple formation that these new films typically begin a few years after marriage—hence the title of the book, Conjugations. This is not to say that contemporary films do not reveal strains on romance or marriage: far from it. Gopal has a whole chapter discussing how the very structure of the “multiplot film,” one of several new genres to emerge in the last decade, allows New Bollywood cinema to explore the diverse experiences and dynamics of couples across social strata (Chapter 4). Still, the fact remains that “unlike Hindi films of the past, these films assume the right of the couple to form a private union based on romantic love” (Gopal 147). This simple yet startling insight is Gopal’s starting point and the lens through which she explores how cinematic form is linked to the social and material realms of the Mumbai film industry. By tracking transformations in Hindi cinema’s couple formation—specifically, changes in the formal means of representing romance and couplehood—she shows us how Bombay cinema turned into New Bollywood, and how it re-imagines and reconstitutes citizenship, desire, and modernity in its new iteration.

Gopal’s emphasis on form is one of the strongest features of this book. Not only does it yield very compelling close readings, it also trains our attention on the new technologies and organizational structures that enable particular cinematic representations. Consider an example from Gopal’s excellent chapter on the “New Horror” genre (Chapter 3). The emergence of horror as an “up-market” genre is a recent development. Gopal proposes a link between the urban, middle-class audiences now addressed by New Horror and the increasing use of relatively new technologies such as Steadicam and Dolby sound in this genre. While most contemporary Hindi films evince a slicker style and more technological finesse than films of the past, what is significant here is the way these new technologies help secure the interiority of the characters and establish the couple’s distance from the broader social realm. Extensive use of point-of-view shots and multi-layered sound evoke the psychological experience of horror; the terror is further heightened by the camera’s [End Page 4] careful cataloguing of chic interior spaces and everyday technologies (cell phones, elevators, blenders, television sets) used by the upwardly mobile nuclear couple. For Gopal, these and other formal features of New Horror posit a new kind of subjectivity making it “the post-liberalization genre par excellence” (115).

In Chapter 2, attention to form and conjugality helps cast a familiar genre in new light. Here, Gopal discusses the NRI (non-resident Indian) film, as exemplified by the “KJo” brand, i.e. films directed by Karan Johar. The NRI film is the best known of New Bollywood’s genres for it is this kind of film that revitalized the film industry in the mid-1990s. KJo films contain all of the features U.S. audiences have come to expect of Bollywood: big budgets, spectacular production values, extravagant song-and-dance sequences, and family melodrama. Scholars agree that the affluent, transnational utopia these films project are indicative of a post-liberalization imaginary. As attractive and beloved as they are, it is easy to dismiss these films as regressive, given their exclusionary class dynamics and their idealization of patriarchal Hindu culture (which comes to stand in for “Indianness”). But Gopal gives us a different way of understanding these films’ “love affair with the family” (67). She first gives an impressively detailed description of the industrial changes that have professionalized and corporatized the industry’s longstanding family-enterprise model. Then, in what is perhaps the boldest move of the book, she proposes that KJo films enact a similar, thoroughgoing transformation of the family. In these new films, parents are no longer aligned with the “law”: they are instead “facilitators of desire” (80). In the process, representational strategies that were critical to the staging of romance in older Hindi films come to seem outmoded. Melodrama and song-and-dance sequences thus become “excessive” gestures, citations of the past that allow New Bollywood to stage a break from older versions of itself.

This self-conscious use and transformation of “old” cinematic elements is not limited to contemporary NRI films. In the very first chapter of Conjugations, Gopal offers a persuasive account of the work that song-and-dance sequences performed in the first decade of the “talkies” in India. She compares this narrative and ideological work to the functions of these sequences in New Bollywood cinema. Her analysis of romantic duets from three early sound films—Chandidas (1934), Achhyut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl, 1936), and Admi (Life Is for Living, 1939)—shows how the song sequence became a space for the articulation of desire (especially desire coded as transgressive in the narrative domain) as it related to modern, national identity. If the primary function of song in the 1930s was to constitute the couple as a legitimate, private entity, then that role becomes obsolete in the post-nuptial world of New Bollywood cinema. As the industry moves towards what Ian Garwood has called “the songless Bollywood film,” the song-and-dance sequence has fallen onto “couples that are out of joint—the poor, the old, the queer” (Gopal 58-9).

In her fifth and final chapter, Gopal pivots from New Bollywood to one of its putative others, the “regional” film industry of West Bengal. Focusing on the film Chokher Bali (Sand in the Eye, 2003) directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, she argues that New Bollywood serves as a “technology” that allows Bengali cinema to translate itself into a globally recognizable form. The film’s lush aesthetics, its revisionist stance towards history, and its focus on the desiring female body all signal a shift away from the tradition of “quality cinema” so dear to the middle-class cultural elite of Bengal. Despite Gopal’s impeccable cinematic analysis and historical acumen, this is the one chapter that feels [End Page 5] somewhat out of place to me. This is perhaps because it is hard to shake off the feeling that Bengali cinema becomes a derivative of New Bollywood cinema in this chapter. Still, this does not take away from the ambitious and sophisticated argument constructed in Conjugations. This is an important book for anyone interested in understanding the complexity of contemporary Bollywood cinema.

Reading Mehta’s and Gopal’s books alongside each other drives home the importance of feminist interdisciplinary approaches to cinema. While the methods, sources, and scope of these two monographs are quite different, both illuminate the operations of the Bombay film industry and link them to the form of the cinematic text. Brimming with historical insights and excellent close readings, both books succeed in challenging existing frameworks for interpreting representations of love, sex, and romance in Bombay cinema. [End Page 6]

Works Cited

Foucault, Michele. History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Garwood, Ian. “The Songless Bollywood Film,” South Asian Popular Culture 4.2 (October 2006): 169-183. Print.

[End Page 7]





Review: Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture, by Lisa Zunshine

Lisa Zunshine’s Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture rests on a fascinating assertion: that the appeal of popular culture relies on its ability to engage us in the practice of theory of mind (ToM), “the evolved cognitive adaptation that makes us attribute mental states to ourselves and to other people” (xi). Zunshine claims that we are “a culture of greedy mind readers” (11) ever eager to exercise our innate ToM abilities, and since real life proves an inadequate supplier of sufficiently complex occasions we turn to fictional texts.

Chapter 2, “I Know What You’re Thinking, Mr. Darcy!”, discusses in detail what Zunshine terms “embodied transparency”: those moments in fiction—especially important to romance narratives—“when characters’ body language involuntarily betrays their feelings, particularly if they want to conceal them from others” (23). Zunshine claims that in order for moments of embodied transparency to be effective and satisfying, three conditions must be met. First, the character’s transparency must stand in stark opposition to other characters’ relative lack of transparency or to his or her own lack of transparency moments before or after (the rule of contrasts). Second, moments of embodied transparency must be brief (the rule of transience) in order for the transparency to be believable as well as to prevent us from becoming uncomfortable from observing emotional nakedness for too long. Lastly, characters become transparent through their very effort to hide their true feelings (hence, the final rule of restraint).

Having laid out these important concepts, Zunshine then spends the following chapters either exploring a caveat of embodied transparency, demonstrating how a popular culture text or genre is reliant on such moments, or both. In Chapter 3, for instance, Zunshine briefly discusses “sadistic benefactors”: characters who are not content to wait for moments of embodied transparency but who force others into those moments. In chapter 4, Zunshine points out how certain arenas, like theaters, were once treated as spaces in which someone’s true feelings could be observed; it is this belief, after all, that prompts Hamlet to stage a play in order to gain definitive evidence of Claudius’s guilt. And [End Page 1] when Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman is moved to tears at the opera, this moment of embodied transparency helps us see that although she may not have the polish of the upper classes, she has something they lack: authentic emotion. As Zunshine points out, however, once the word is out that people are using a cultural activity to observe others and gauge their true natures, these events then become prime opportunities to engage in false shows of emotion that can be used to manipulate the onlooker. Thus, Richard Lovelace affects to be affected by a moving drama in order to fool the naive Clarissa.

Later chapters are devoted to particular genres. Chapter 5 explores key scenes from Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946)and Stephen Frear’s The Queen (2006), among other films, in order to illustrate that the need for restraint in moments of embodied transparency arises “not because restraint is good in and of itself but because restraint may be used as a means for interestingly complex embodied transparency” (85). Chapter 6 very briefly takes on cinéma vérité, photography, and the comedian Andy Kaufman, but its most interesting point relates to the UK series The Office (2005-2013), particularly its penchant for making us uncomfortable by encouraging us to gawk at others during moments in which they are uncomfortable; relishing others’ negative moments of embodied transparency is often considered rude and so we feel we are misbehaving. In Chapter 7, Zunshine briefly investigates reality television, arguing that its appeal has to do with our assumption that those we watch are ordinary people and not actors, and that their moments of embodied transparency are therefore putatively more authentic. Chapter 8 considers how songs in musicals can (but do not necessarily) function as moments of embodied transparency.

The book closes with an examination of painting. Chapter 9 begins with a discussion of “absorptive” paintings, a genre that depicts subjects who are “not aware of the presence of the beholder” (146) and thus would seem to offer premier examples of embodied transparency. Zunshine points out, though, that it is not only the subjects of a painting upon whom we may exercise our ToM abilities. We may also try to analyze the mind of the artist who created the painting or perhaps scrutinize the reasons behind our own emotional response to the work of art. Chapter 10 contrasts the “proposal composition” with “problem pictures.” The proposal composition, a compositional pattern common to later nineteenth-century European painting, focuses on a woman’s ambiguous response to a man’s proposal to advance their relationship. Such paintings give the impression that male intentions are transparent while women’s require interpretation, a tendency we might assume expresses contemporaneous anxieties about the inscrutability of women. But Zunshine notes that this presumption is complicated by the fact that the proposal composition overlapped in time with problem pictures. These ambiguous paintings show both men and women absorbed in thought, yet neither gender is more readable than the other.

The appeal of Zunshine’s book results from the general usefulness of her theoretical framework; embodied transparency is obviously a key aspect of popular culture, and one need not accept Zunshine’s sweeping claim that “no cultural form will endure unless it lets us attribute mental states to somebody or something” (12) in order to see the pertinence of her claims and the applicability of her concepts. Scholars of popular romance, I think, will find the ideas she details especially relevant to their studies; after all, romance frequently relies on miscommunications, manipulations, and missed cues between characters which the reader/viewer can see through with an often agonizing clarity. [End Page 2]

In addition, Zunshine’s prose is more lively, personal and funny than one might expect from a formal academic study involving such heady concepts as theory of mind. Each chapter begins with a humorous summary of what’s to come. The opening synopsis of Chapter 2, for example, reads as follows:

In which a new concept is introduced; a phobia is revealed; a four-letter word makes a bold-faced appearance (but the French take the blame); Frederick Wentworth betrays himself; Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Darcy; Bridget Jones triumphs over a rival; Tom Jones can’t see what’s in front of his eyes; and the author admits that she has no clue what her nearest and dearest are thinking. (20)

The stylistic frivolity of this passage is characteristic of Zunshine’s prose, yet the flippant tone in no way dumbs down the reading but instead makes the ideas seem more relevant and relatable.

My major complaint about the book is that it does not satisfy the promise of its title: this is not really a book about popular culture. Although it gestures toward some truly popular texts like The Office and reality television, Getting inside Your Head primarily deals with classic literature and film and other genres more highbrow than low, such as musicals and painting. The problem that results is not simply a matter of inaccurate titling. Rather, the omission of the most popular and contemporary forms of popular culture from the study—including, say, advertising, graphic novels, video games, and current genre fiction—raises the question of whether Zunshine’s claims regarding the centrality of ToM hold true within popular culture’s ‘lowest’ forms. Perhaps embodied transparency is simply a penchant of high culture. Perhaps, in fact, appeals to ToM are used to distinguish high culture from low. At any rate, I found myself wishing Zunshine had turned her incisive gift for analysis toward culture truly meant for the masses. [End Page 3]