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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]

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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]

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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,” http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117814/50-shades-grey-academic-study-feminist-point-view.

[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, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/20/men-stop-lecturing-women-about-reading-romance-novels/, 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,” http://www.vulture.com/2014/05/romance-novelist-eloisa-james-interview.html. [End Page 6]

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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]

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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]

 

 

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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]

 

 

 

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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]

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Review: The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film, by Sarah Rothschild

As I began outlining this review of Sarah Rothschild’s The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film, the cult of princess-hood appeared to have reached an all time crescendo. Previews for the live-action Disney release, Maleficent, featuring Angelina Jolie as the sinister fairy who curses Princess Aurora (otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty) began circulating. A month earlier, social media was dense with parent-produced viral videos of their children singing—even weeping—the lyrics to “Let it Go,” a song from Disney’s Frozen (2013), an animated princess film which chronicles the journal of two royal sisters, one of whom is cursed to freeze everything around her. The film is loosely based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. My own daughter received an invitation to a “princess party” where guests were asked to dress up in costume as their favorite Disney princess. The family that sent this invitation assumed (incorrectly, in our case) that all young girls must own a Disney princess gown, indirectly suggesting, perhaps, that the ownership of such garb is requisite to being an American seven-year-old girl. It might be tempting to suggest that such fantasy is the stuff of childhood, yet one of America’s oldest family-owned bridal companies, Alfred Angelo, boasts a Disney Fairy Tale Bridal collection so that adults may don bridal gowns which “reflect the style and sensibility of Disney’s iconic princesses,” and even The Walt Disney company itself offers an online service to assist engaged couples to plan and book “Disney Fairy Tale Weddings” as well as honeymoon experiences.

Sarah Rothschild is well aware of the enormous role that such royal fantasy plays in the lives of children and adults. As the mother of two girls, Rothschild writes that her impetus for The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film sprang from such “personal experiences with princesses” (2). “As … mother and a feminist,” writes Rothschild, “I wrestled with this: What was I allowing American culture (and Disney in particular) to teach them? Would they outgrow this phase? Would their future life decisions be impacted by their princess play?”(2). [End Page 1]

This series of questions introduces Rothschild’s five-chapter study, which is rounded off with a short conclusion. In order to frame her project, Rothschild first identifies what constitutes a “princess story,” ostensibly to make allowances for characters like Mulan or Ella of Ella Enchanted who are not born as princesses per se, but essentially become them over the course of their narrative arc. By Rothschild’s definition, princess stories articulated in films and in books and are “different from fairy tales, meaningful in ways that intentionally send messages to girls and women” (1). The stories, according to Rothschild, instruct the audience on “how to become a princess through modeling, through commentary, and often through actual princess lessons” (2).

Rothschild’s chapters progress in a roughly chronological fashion, studying the content and production of American princess stories (both in literature and film) contextualized by the three waves of feminism. The book begins with a study of Frances Hodgson Burnett, her ties to first wave feminism, and how such ideologies influence themes and decidedly feminist lessons in her novel A Little Princess (1905). Moving forward, chapter two traces the development of Walt Disney’s first animated princess stories: Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), respectively. Chapter three recovers what Rothschild describes as “ideologically intent” princess stories, citing a number of all but forgotten stories written during the second wave of feminism which promote feminist ideologies of gender equality. Chapter four itemizes and critiques latter Disney princess stories which, according to their creators, offer messages of female empowerment but essentially fail at this task. The films studied here include The Little Mermaid (1989) Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995) and the aforementioned Mulan (1998). Chapter five has the broadest range of analyses. It is dedicated to the study of an impressive number of examples of what Rothschild determines “third wave princess stories,” including mainstream films like The Princess Diaries (2001) and Ella Enchanted (2004) as well as a large number of lesser-known young adult princess books. The conclusion chapter briefly locates princesses in the genres of science-fiction and romance.

One goal of this study, according to Rothschild, who is Lead Faculty for English at the Art Institute of Washington, is “…to set out princess stories as a subgenre worthy of examination” (2). The lucidity of her focus is appreciated, yet it is relatively difficult to argue that princess stories in (film and fairy tale form) have not received scholarly attention. Many feminist scholars have studied such stories for decades, arguing, for example, that the ideological, phallocentric underpinnings of Disney princess films are problematic. Kay Stone makes many important points in 1975 in her essay titled “Things Walt Disney Never Told Us” (published in The Journal of American Folklore). Stone argues that Disney relies upon gender stereotypes and pigeon-holes the animated princesses into roles of domesticity and passivity. Such similar conclusions about the Disney franchise of princess films are echoed in both Rothschild’s second chapter (“Disney’s First Princess Stories)” and fourth chapter (“Disney’s ‘Feminist’ Princess Stories.”)

In chapter two, Rothschild asserts that the early Disney princess films represent patriarchal viewpoints and the characters in the films counter many of the strides made by first wave feminists. Through close readings of scenes in the films as well as through her study of Walt Disney’s biography and attitudes regarding gender and women, Rothschild concludes that the early films employ chauvinistic attitudes and gender stereotypes such as depictions of docile, passive, princesses who are often relegated to domestic chores and [End Page 2] duties. The only women in the films who do exert agency, as Rothschild points out, are categorically evil and typically killed off. Very similar themes and content are present in later Disney princess films such as The Little Mermaid (1989) despite being marketed as being more progressive in regards to gender. Male characters still remain at the forefront of most of these later Disney films, and a variety of anti-female themes emerge.

Such conclusions about early and later Disney princess films (and the fairy tales used as their inspiration) are academically sound and well-written, but have been previously recognized by scholars like Stone, mentioned earlier, as well as many others over the course of several decades. Marcia Lieberman, for example, offers a feminist critique of fairy tales in her 1972 essay “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale”, and  two decades later in 1995, June Cummins criticizes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for encouraging “young viewers to believe that true happiness for women exists only in the arms of a prince” just as earlier Disney films suggested in previous decades (22). Others have pointed to the representation of white, middle-class values in Disney films, indicating their buttressing of normative sex and gender values, for example Clare Bradford’s chapter in The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past (2012), and Jill Birnie Henke, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith’s feminist readings of five Disney films in their essay titled “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine.” In addition to these essays and chapters, there are a number of other book-length projects which scrutinize princess culture and Disney films, notably From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture in Disney, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells (1995), Kill the Princess: Why Women Still Aren’t Free From the Quest for a Fairytale Life by Stephanie Vermeulen (2007), and Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein (2012)—to name three such studies.

Because Rothschild’s call for legitimatization of the study of princess stories, then, appears to be ex post facto since so many others have been studying princesses, in particular Disney versions, a much more innovative site of scholarly intervention is Rothschild’s objective in the project is to “link the changes in the American princess story to those sought and brought by the three waves of feminism” (3). Rothschild’s book traces the trajectory of such princesses in American popular culture whilst attempting to connect the thematic content of such stories with ideological content. “I use the princess story to examine the dialogic nature of feminism and patriarchy, forces for progress and forces for tradition” explains Rothschild (3). Forces, which according to Rothschild are “embodied by the first, second and third wave feminist princess stories on the one hand and by the Disney Studios’ princess story on the other” (3). Rothschild’s assertion that there are, indeed, feminist princess stories is where the book offers a new vantage point for studying such cultural productions, albeit a polemic one. Though Rothschild defines these stories as methods of teaching young girls how to be princesses, a question that remains is whether we should want our young girls to become princesses in the first place (which is arguably a different, yet related, project).

Because of the great number of Disney-focused studies, the chapters that are most engaging and innovative in Rothschild’s book are those which are focused upon princesses outside of the franchise. Chapter one’s analysis of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel A Little Princess as well as the study of Burnett’s private and public life ultimately serves to recoup Burnett, as well as the novel, as emblematic of the first wave of [End Page 3] feminism. Though Burnett is not typically categorized as such—not actively participating in the movement—Rothschild makes a compelling argument to demonstrate Burnett’s commitment to women’s empowerment through a variety of evidence, including a detailed plot analysis of A Little Princess and study of biographical details of Burnett’s own complicated life. To Rothschild, A Little Princess demonstrates “the prototypical princess story, representing…all that a princess story can be: the story of a bright capable heroine who learns about herself and about the world around her as she assumes the identity of a princess” (52).

Chapter three’s rediscovery of feminist princess stories is also inventive and encompassing, offering textual examples from a number of fairy tales produced for and by feminists that many readers are likely unfamiliar with. Rothschild describes several projects that Ms. magazine brought into fruition including the Free to Be…You and Me recorded album of stories and the Stories For Free Children, a regular feature of Ms., both of which presented stories with feminist messages. The goal of such texts, according to Rothschild, was “to change the stories which acculturate children in hopes of contributing to social change” (91). Most of these stories are all but forgotten for a variety of reasons including the fact that they were too narrow, too alienating, and became dated rather quickly (92).

Chapter five moves into a critique of what Rothschild calls third wave princesses, arguing that the young adult princess stories produced in the last 20 years or so “took into account feminism and the new expectations of girls and women in American society,” and as such, “this combination of new expectations and old role models produced some very interesting works, illuminating the tension between traditional expectations and newer social expectations in a culture changed by the women’s movement” (169). Chapter five is well-researched and offers an impressive number of examples of princesses who defy sexist stereotypes about gender. In many cases, this new generation of princess shoots her own arrows and saves the prince from disaster rather than the other way around. According to Rothschild, these contemporary royals do not necessarily conform to conventional standards of beauty, and they often exert agency and control in their kingdom. The third wave princess, as Rothschild argues, is  far more independent than Disney’s insipid Snow White. That being said, the princess archetype still comes with thousands of years of patriarchal tradition. Though Rothschild claims that Disney made “subversive changes” (169) to the film adaptations of Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, not all feminists would agree that there can be a mainstream feminist princess story. Though the princesses that Rothschild describes are more enlightened than their predecessors, they still are princesses, and it will take some time to subvert centuries of sexist representations and signifiers such as weakness and passivity that are also often associated with the title.

The conclusion of the text also leaves room for further development; it seems far too brief in comparison to the other well-developed chapters. At the end of the book, Rothschild quickly summarizes princesses in both science fiction and romance in a mere eleven pages (when some of the other chapters are over 40 pages long) while suggesting the trajectory of princess stories to come. (It is surprising, also, that the chapter ignores one of science fiction’s most well-known examples of princess—Princess Leia of the Star Wars franchise—as she consistently transgresses stereotypical images of the passive princess in the span of three films). Finally, though Rothschild opens the project by citing [End Page 4] the difficulties American parents may encounter negotiating a path through princess culture, one leaves the text feeling that this tension remains unresolved—that is, it is unclear how Rothschild’s daughters’ or other girls’ “future life decisions [will] be impacted by their princess play” (2). Perhaps this is a vein of study that deserves speculation.

In the end, however, the book’s accessibility and Rothschild’s engaging writing style ultimately make it an appealing text to a very broad readership, extending beyond those academics who study gender, fairy tales, romance folklore, film to a general readership. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Bradford, Clare. “Where Happily Ever After Happens Every Day” The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past, Ed. Tison Pugh. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2012): 171-188.

Cummins, June. “Romancing the Plot: The Real Beast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 20.1 (1995): 22-28.

Lieberman, Marcia. “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale.” College English 34.3(1972): 383-95.

Henke, Jill Birnie, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith. “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine.” Women’s Studies in Communication. 19.2 (1996): 229-249. [End Page 6]

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Review: Romance: The History of a Genre, edited by Dana Percec

Dana Percec’s Romance: The History of a Genre is a collection of essays by Romanian scholars, which seek to explore the ‘genre of romance’ (viii). It is the second book in a proposed project exploring ‘the evolution and dynamics of a number of literary genres in today’s global culture’ (viii). The first publication as part of this project (published in 2011 in Romanian) was O poveste de succes. Romanul istoic astăzi, a collection of essays examining the historical novel. The editor notes in the foreword that the current volume grew out of an enthusiasm for ‘the equally popular – and even more controversial – genre of romance’ expressed by a number of contributors to the earlier collection (viii). Essays in the book include examinations of various subcategories of ‘romance’ literature, but also of film, television and social media.

The term ‘romance’ is a difficult one. In everyday usage, the word can refer to patterns of sentiment, emotion and behaviour in non-Platonic relationships – and to such relationships themselves – but also to idealizations, fantasies and fictionalizations that may have little to do with personal love. A ‘romantic relationship’ draws on subtly different valences to a ‘romantic view of the past’, for instance. In literature, the word becomes perhaps even more problematic. Romance originally identified language of composition; medieval ‘romance’ designated texts written in vernacular languages, specifically Old French, to differentiate them from those written in Latin (this usage survives in the designation of a group of European languages as ‘romance languages’). Soon after the first French ‘romances’ were written in the second half of the twelfth century, the term began to be used to categorize the content, rather than the language of such works of fiction. By the end of the Middle Ages, the word began to be associated with any work of fiction, but particularly those of a fanciful and fantastical nature, that was written with entertainment, rather than instruction, as its primary purpose.

Through early modern and modern writings, understandings of ‘romance’ began to diverge into roughly three categories (to use broad strokes): nostalgic fictionalizations of the past or of different cultures; fictional depictions of love relationships; and all fiction [End Page 1] (evident in the modern French word roman). These understandings are further problematized by the characterization of a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century school of poetry and thought as ‘Romantic’ – the term now coming to identify a particular mode of representing and relating to the natural world. In the twentieth century, ‘popular romance’ came to be recognized as a genre of print fiction, though ‘popular romance’ in this context has a different meaning to ‘medieval popular romance’ (verse or prose fiction, usually of a chivalric or fantastical nature, written in a vernacular other than Old French).

This outline of some – though not all – of the usages and understandings of the term ‘romance’ is intended to highlight the challenges facing Percec’s project. The book’s subtitle – the ‘history of a genre’ – implies a focus on ‘romance’ as it applies to literature (and, later, visual and social media), but also a sense of the development, divergence and continuity of the term. An immediate problem is encountered: what continuity exists? Is romance a ‘genre’ that can be defined and delineated? And does this definition and delineation bear historical scrutiny? Surprisingly few critics have turned their attention to this challenge, and few cross-period analyses exist. The relationship between contemporary popular romance fiction and, for instance, twelfth-century Old French verse romances has been given little critical attention and, as such, a ‘history’ of the term (or genre) of ‘romance’ has rarely been attempted. A notable exception to this lack of cross-period focus is Barbara Fuchs’s Romance (2004; reviewed in JPRS 3.2), which seeks to explore continuities in fiction from the classical to the modern periods.

Percec’s collection is therefore both ambitious and unusual in its proposed scope. It is clear from the foreword that the editor’s intention is to take a wide view, but also to begin with some assumption of continuity. She notes: ‘Romance is a genre which, after ups and downs over the course of its thousand year history, now holds a leading position in the international publishing market.’ (viii-ix) However, this statement, while ostensibly giving some sense of the scope of the collection (and the implicit focus on the contemporary publishing market), introduces the first of several problems with Romance: The History of a Genre. The seemingly throwaway reference to the genre’s ‘thousand year history’ lacks a secure grounding in literary history – the eleventh century is rarely associated with the ‘birth’ of romance and, in fact, contradicts Percec’s point a few lines later that ‘early forms of romance’ were found in ‘classical antiquity’ (ix).

As Percec’s foreword continues, the history and definition of romance becomes more confused. She notes, for example, that the second section of the book will explore ‘gothic romance’, describing this as ‘a subgenre which is gaining more and more popularity today’ (x). Further comment reveals that ‘gothic romance’ is to be understood as including ‘the Gothics and Charles Dickens’s romance of Merrie England’, as well as Don Quixote. Notwithstanding the lack of clarity regarding the works classed as ‘the Gothics’, and the somewhat unorthodox characterization of Dickensian fiction as ‘Merrie England’ romances (unless this is intended to evoke his Christmas tales), categorizing these texts alongside a seventeenth-century pastiche of earlier chivalric fictions results in a conflation and collapsing of categories, rather than an interrogation.

Though the book’s foreword is somewhat disappointing, the introduction that follows presents a clearer attempt to engage with the vexing questions of ‘genre’ and ‘history’. Nevertheless, the same issues begin to arise. Percec begins with a quote from Valerie Parv’s The Art of Romance Writing (2004) noting some of the judgements and [End Page 2] condemnations heaped on (here unspecified) romance fiction and its readers (2); this is followed by a brief outline of some statistics testifying to the popularity of romance fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Drawing on the work of Jayne Ann Krentz and the ‘Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ website, Percec gives an overview of some of the ways in which contemporary popular romance fiction is dismissed and classified a ‘lowbrow genre’ and a ‘mass cultural product’ (2).

The initial paragraphs of the introduction imply a focus on a subgenre of contemporary fiction publishing and its readership, affirmed later with a lengthy quote from Janice Radway’s 1991 study. However, this is immediately belied by a return to ‘[e]arly romance’, here described as beginning with ‘Plato’s influence’ (2). Percec makes reference to the Old French word romanz – using Helen Cooper’s work on medieval and early-modern romance (2004) to define this term – but misunderstands the context in which Old French began to supersede Latin as a language of poetry. Obscuring the nuances of secular and aristocratic culture in the high and late Middle Ages, Percec suggests that the use of languages other than Latin meant that fiction was ‘accessible to both male and female, lay and clerical, upper and lower classes’, before asserting a common misconception that medieval romances were ‘circulated in oral form’ and were thus accessible to ‘both the literate and the illiterate’ (2). Due to a slight – but significant – misunderstanding of Cooper’s use of the word ‘vernacular’ (in Cooper’s work, as is usual in medieval studies, ‘vernacular’ is used to distinguish between authoritative and non-authoritative written languages, not to imply oral or colloquial forms of communication), Percec associates ‘early romance’ with ‘the stories everybody grew up with’ (2), creating an image of medieval romance as a far more democratic and populist genre than is strictly accurate.

This focus on the (perhaps) minor misapprehensions of literary history in the opening pages of the collection are not intended to be an exercise in scholarly point-scoring. Rather, I wish to address the apparent impossibility of the task with which the book concerns itself. Considering medieval romance, Kevin Sean Whetter (2008) argues that ‘modern criticism has consistently failed to agree on romance’s essential generic features’ (47); he further points to Ad Putter’s assertion that critical vagueness about the genre is ‘a natural reflection of the vagueness of the term in the Middle Ages’ (48). Reflecting on contemporary popular romance, Pamela Regis characterizes the genre as ‘ill defined’ (7). Given the lack of definition and the ‘vagueness’ of romance as a ‘genre’ – as well as the sustained inconsistencies in how the term is employed and understood throughout history – a cross-period, cross-cultural ‘history’ of romance seems an almost insurmountable challenge.

And this problem of ‘vagueness’ permeates throughout Romance: The History of a Genre. Percec’s introduction goes on to refer to romance as an early-modern ‘narrative form’ distinct from poetry and drama (4); early-modern ‘popular retellings of English medieval heroic tales’ (4); an escapist ‘mode’ of writing favoured by historical novelists (5); an ‘umbrella term’ employed ‘to include subgenres such as Gothic’ at the end of the nineteenth century (5); periodicals and cheap novels of the 1890s (6); a type of ‘Victorian adventure’ fiction, exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stephenson (5); ‘the modern, consumerist equivalent of the fairy tale’ (6); and a general term for a ‘romantic story’ (6). These shifting usages are employed uncritically, with an assumption of continuity and common ground. [End Page 3]

More dramatic, perhaps, are the inconsistent – and, on occasion, incompatible – understandings of ‘romance’ in the essays collected in the volume. The first chapter is Codruţa Goşa’s ‘Sex and the Genre: The Role of Sex in Popular Romance’, which begins with an unequivocal definition of what constitutes a piece of ‘romance’ fiction; this definition is cited directly from the Romance Writers of America website and from the personal website of Jennifer Crusie (15). Goşa’s chapter thus considers ‘romance’ to be a contemporary classification of fiction based on publishing categories; it goes on to consider the representations of sexual behaviour in a very small subset of such fiction – three US novels (published in 1989, 1993 and 1999), chosen due to their availability in Romanian translation, which is taken as an indication of their international popularity (17). Based on this selection, the author suggests that she can ‘safely argue’ for the construction of a conservative reader who ‘does not like to work hard in order to grasp what is going on’ (27). The complex issues raised by the use of works in translation – as well as consideration of the respective conservatism or creativity of the translations used in the study – are not addressed in the chapter.

Despite some issues with evidence and methodology, Goşa’s chapter at least seeks to offer some framework for understanding its subject matter as ‘romance’. However, the chapter that follows – ‘In a Facebook Romance, but it’s Complicated’ by Andreea Verteş-Olteanu – depends on a somewhat different interpretation of the r-word. In this essay, ‘romance’ is employed to mean a non-Platonic, love relationship. Examining some of the means through which relationships are developed, presented and mediated by social networks – specifically Facebook – Verteş-Olteanu considers ‘romantic love’ and its communication as a sociological and interpersonal phenomenon, which seems to be at odds with the book’s claim that it is exploring a ‘genre’ (presumably of fiction or art). Again, there are problems with methodology with this chapter, and the author makes numerous conversational asides assuming a reader complicit with the particular characterization of social media presented: ‘Above all, everybody shares pictures from their holiday!’ (33)

The section of the book devoted to ‘Gothic Romance’ begins with Ana-Karina Schneider’s essay ‘“Time to Call an End to Romance”: Anti-Romance in the Contemporary British Novel’. The author here attempts to draw a distinction between ‘romance’ and ‘the novel’, arguing that ‘[n]ovels deploy a varied repertoire of strategies that distinguish them from romance’ (69). It is clear in a reference to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that late eighteenth-century Gothic fictions are to be understood as ‘romances’ rather than ‘novels’, and that the former category is fundamentally associated with the sensational and the sentimental. This distinction is complicated by references to ‘comedy’ as a separate mode of writing – drawing both on older delineations of modes of fiction, and on the work of Frederic Jameson – and the chapter ultimately fails to give any concrete sense of either generic categorization or characterization. This is further compounded by a subsequent essay – Daniela Rogobete’s ‘The Twilight Saga: Teen Gothic Romance Between the Dissolution of the Gothic and the Revival of Romance’ – in which ‘the sensational novel’ and the ‘Romance’ are figured as both opposing modes of writing and ‘unexpected allies’ (112).

There are some strong essays in the collection. One highlight is Irina Diana Mădroane’s ‘Watching Celebrity Selves on Reality TV: Class Transformation and Viewer (Dis)Empowerment in a Romanian Reality Show’. Here, Mădroane examines reality TV shows documenting the life and fortunes of Romanian celebrity Monica Columbeanu, as well as giving some attention to the critical and popular response to the show. In a [End Page 4] relatively short essay, Mădroane considers the class and gender implications of Columbeanu’s constructed celebrity, as well as the anxieties revealed in various commentaries. Undoubtedly a thorough and careful study, I question the inclusion of this essay in a collection on the genre of romance. Aside from a couple of brief references to Columbeanu’s relationship with her partner, their marriage and subsequent divorce, there is little in this chapter that relates to any of the (albeit conflicting) definitions of ‘romance’ presented elsewhere in the collection.

Perhaps more clearly situated within the scope of the project is Reghina Dascăl’s ‘Raj Matriarchs: Women Authors of Anglo-Indian Romance’, which contrasts the novels of Maud Diver and Flora Annie Steel within the context of ‘Victorian imperial authority’ in ‘post-mutiny India’ (179). Drawing on contemporaneous anxieties of race, gender and class, the author examines the divergent ways in which Anglo-Indian romance fiction negotiates identity politics, Victorian and post-Victorian social mores and responses to colonization and colonialism. In its careful attention to both content and context, Dascăl’s chapter potentially comes closest to addressing the book’s proposed concerns regarding ‘the versatility of the literary genre of romance’ and ‘its potential for controversy’ (11).

Overall, Romance: The History of a Genre does not offer a strong intervention in the field of literary romance studies. While the intention behind the project is a bold one, the essays assembled in the collection (as well as the introductory material) ultimately fail to address the underlying challenge of such an endeavour. Without a secure and consistent ‘history’, a definition of a ‘genre’ or generic continuity will always raise more questions than it answers. These questions are valuable and, as yet, have received little critical attention. What is ‘romance’? Is there a coherent history and development of the term and its employment? What is the relationship between medieval romance, early novels, the Gothic, historical novels and contemporary romance fictions? Percec’s collection promises an examination of these questions, but they remain, sadly, unanswered. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Helen Cooper (2004), The English Romance in Time. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Barbara Fuchs (2004), Romance. London: Routledge

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

Kevin Sean Whetter (2008), Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance. Farnham: Ashgate [End Page 6]

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Review: Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema. Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple, by James MacDowell

Not only do we know how it will end, but we know it will end well. Boy gets girl, or girl gets boy, and they live happily ever after. The happy ending depicting the union of a couple is synonymous with Hollywood cinema. Fritz Lang (1948) described the happy ending as the following:

The traditional happy-ending is a story of problems solved by an invincible hero, who achieved with miraculous ease all that his heart desired. It is the story of good against evil, with no possible doubt as to the outcome. Boy will get girl, the villain will get his just desserts, dreams will come true as though at the touch of the wand. (26-27)

James MacDowell suggests that a majority of film scholars have assumed the prevalence of ‘the’ happy ending or simply a happy ending, and as a result have not attempted to investigate it more deeply. A key figure in film studies and a scholar of Hollywood cinema, David Bordwell claims “of one hundred randomly sampled Hollywood films, over sixty ended with a display of the united romantic couple” (1986: 159 as cited by MacDowell, 2013, 2). The happy ending is standard, necessary, typical, usual, formulaic, and so on and so forth. Indeed, MacDowell begins his query with a long list of descriptors pulled from the texts of key figures in film studies used to describe the happy ending. For MacDowell, the presumed happy ending of all Hollywood films is a false reputation that has been largely assumed. In his Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliche, Convention and the Final Couple, MacDowell offers an over-due book-length examination of the Hollywood happy ending.

Taking on this monolithic topic, James MacDowell’s text does well to muscle its way between the giants of film studies. Through unexpected pairings and meticulously detailed analyses of films, MacDowell dismantles this “agreed matter of common sense” (3). [End Page 1] MacDowell focuses specifically on films that deal with romantic love which end with the “one especially famous feature associated with the ‘happy ending'” (1): “boy gets girl” (Lang, 1948) or the uniting of the romantic couple. The designation MacDowell gives to the happily ever after twosome is ‘the final couple’, a nod to slasher genre theorist Carol Clover’s final girl. MacDowell’s intention is to approach the topic broadly so as to “permit a better view of what the ‘happy ending’ can be and mean, as well as provide some alternative theoretical groundwork that may serve either to supplement, qualify or revise existing scholarly commonplaces” (14) so that, eventually, “individual assessment must replace automatic pronouncements stemming from assumptions about the feature’s inherent homogeneity” (55).

The book’s inaugural chapter, “The ‘Happy Ending’: The Making of a Reputation” works to lay MacDowell’s critical foundation. As mentioned, MacDowell begins with the claim that film studies has largely treated the Hollywood ending like a Platonic Ideal: ‘the’ happy ending, rather than a happy ending. Indeed, these quotation marks are a device upon which MacDowell relies heavily to mark the distinction between a presumed fixed concept and a flexible signifier. MacDowell strategizes to undo the allegations that all Hollywood films end happily, that we know what a happy ending is, that the happy ending is ideologically conservative, and that the happy ending brings closure (an inherently ideologically conservative mode of narration). The book is then divided into four sections that cover homogeneity, closure, unrealism, and ideology.

In “The ‘Happy Ending’ and Homogeneity”, MacDowell’s first task is to trouble the assumption that all Hollywood films end the same way: with ‘the’ happy ending. This simplification, for MacDowell, is due in part to what Hollywood cinema culturally represents: a mass-produced form of escapist entertainment — a prejudice lingering from the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer. In order to trump these critiques, his analysis begins with the romantic melodramas of the Classical Hollywood period (1939-1950), an era that is believed to be the most highly codified period of Hollywood film production due to the restrictions mandated by the Hays Code. Many of these films end with the “culmination of a courtship or a romantic reunion” (MacDowell, 23-24), but their happiness is not untroubled. MacDowell lists films such as Remember the Night (1940) and I’ll be Seeing You (1944), in which the final couples are separated by the woman’s incarceration, and The Clock (1945), in which a couple meets and is married less than 48 hours before the male protagonist is shipped off back to war. The final couple has attained love: a love that is understood to persist even if the couple is not together, and even if their happiness is not troubled. Love, under the sign of marriage and not happiness, is the ultimate triumph of these films.

Having argued for variation in the Hollywood ending, the second chapter, “‘Happy Endings’ and Closure,” works to dismantle the association between the final couple, the happy “ending”, and narrative closure.  MacDowell defines closure as the creation of an appropriate sense of finale for the audience. The relative aperture of the narrative determines whether the ending will feel happy, and feel like an ending. While the final couple is a feature of the ending, “the convention will serve varying closural functions depending upon the varying needs of different films, and that these functions will be dictated not by the final couple’s mere presence, but by its employment” (96). He discusses Sleepless in Seattle (1993) as an example of a film that builds toward unifying the couple, but remains open rather than offering closure: the ultimate moment of the story is [End Page 2] the beginning of the couple’s romance. Similarly, he refers to The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Graduate (1967) as films that remain ‘open’. Thus, Hollywood films do not always end happily, nor do they always completely end.

In Chapter 3, “‘Happy Endings’ and Unrealism,” MacDowell analyzes the Hollywood ending as a sort of wish fulfillment, and argues that Hollywood’s presumed optimism need not be tempered with pessimism, but an “inevitable uncertain future” (131). MacDowell cleverly notes that even Hollywood films often refer to the Hollywood ‘happy ending’ as a way to suggest that reality is tough. “If you want a happy ending,” Judah (Martin Landau) says in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), “see a Hollywood movie”. What is unreal about the Hollywood happy ending is that ” life contains its share of happy moments, but not the overwhelming majority share repeatedly granted by the conclusions of Hollywood films” (100). MacDowell argues that films such as Pretty Woman (1990) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) demonstrate a nuanced approach to romance, which includes complications, change, and impermanence. For MacDowell, Pretty Woman concludes with a realistic attitude towards its own unrealism, thereby acknowledging that the couple’s happiness is neither permanent nor secure, and Eternal Sunshine’s ending suggest that the couple is satisfied with trying for happiness, despite their already experienced heartbreak.

Having argued for variation, ambiguity, and complication in the Hollywood ending, MacDowell finally examines the socio-cultural meaning of the happy ending in “‘Happy Endings’ and Ideology”. MacDowell draws upon theorists such as Stuart Hall, Anne Swidler and Janice Radway to offer brief commentary on how the romance is read and understood by its audience, and employs what he terms ‘romance-focused media theorists’ to address the shifting socio-cultural meaning of marriage and love. The cliché of the happy ending carries the ideological import of life-long monogamy in a romantic relationship, values which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Sunrise (1995) circumnavigate and engage with before deciding on their own (un)happy ending. MacDowell’s reading of the film renders the ending open, yet more deeply pessimistic than I understand it, and dismisses the continuation of Jesse and Celine’s navigation of happiness and monogamy in the following two “Before” films: Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). MacDowell concludes his vindication of the Hollywood happy ending with a reading of the Indiewood film Shortbus (2006), and lauds the ending for featuring both narrative closure and a happy ending. Shortbus‘ happy ‘subversion’ occurs, for MacDowell, when the final couple’s happiness is secured not in each other, but through intimacies with strangers, proving the happy ending’s “capacity for great ideological flexibility” (187). Despite his reading of Shortbus, MacDowell concludes that the happy ending as a “convention itself appears to be so relatively flexible, no ‘subversion’ is necessarily required in order to create ‘happy endings’ which are complex, ambiguous, or in some other way simply distinctive” (192).

As scholars of the popular romance, it is redundant to argue for the acknowledgement that popular romantic texts are more nuanced, varied, and critical than some might allow. While MacDowell’s intention is shake loose the confines attached to the happy ending, at times the text becomes too polemic, and it seems that MacDowell is guilty of indulging in hyperbole in order to get his point across. For example, MacDowell criticizes Lang for his acceptance of the sweet solution, while ignoring Lang’s proviso that sugar “is more nourishing and far safer than arsenic” (cited in Bordwell, 1982, 2), and fingers [End Page 3] Bordwell’s work as dismissive, yet without noting that Bordwell too takes on the question of closure in Hollywood cinema (see Bordwell, 1982).

While MacDowell attends to unpacking ‘the’ happy ending and the happy ‘ending’, little attention is given to the ‘happy’ ending. Despite the recent affective turn that has inflected various disciplines including film studies, MacDowell has forgone a theoretically engaged discussion of happiness, and the happiness of the happy ending. For example, Sara Ahmed’s (2010) work on happiness emphasizes the role that socio-cultural evaluation and judgment take in determining happiness. In order to more fully understand an endings’ happiness it is first necessary to attend to whatever the dominant cultural has valued and has assumed as bringing and causing happiness. For example, the happy ending of The Clock may be dampened by impending difficulty. However, not only has the final couple had good fortune or ‘hap’ that has brought them together, but they have also attained a culturally valued status (heterosexual marriage) that, in turn, assures their happiness.

Save for the final chapter, MacDowell holds off on any socio-cultural analysis. Bracketing questions of changing socio-cultural values and meanings has allowed MacDowell to narrow his concerns to the functioning of the narrative. However, in doing so, he has likewise voided the narratives of engaging in more significant meaning-making, and has ignored any development in genre formation. The work of Barry Keith Grant, for example, whom MacDowell references, argues that “genre movies allow for an economy of expression through conventions and iconography” (2007, 8) — a line of inquiry that MacDowell skirts. As Grant (2007) emphasizes, genre conventions undergo change, whether through evolution or development. The happy ending evolves through its relationship to a changing socio-cultural ethos. The Graduate, for example, ends not by affirming the married couple but by beginning a new couple as Elaine (Katherine Ross) escapes with Ben (Dustin Hoffman) on a public bus they’ve managed to flag down. As MacDowell references, a deeply romantic reading of the film, like that by the protagonist of 500 Days of Summer (2009), believes in Ben’s happily ever after, instead of wondering “what the hell now?” (90). MacDowell’s emphasis on closure and Ben as the focus of the narrative ignores any discussion of the changing cultural values around marriage and women’s agency — Elaine after all has just been married to another man and simply ran out midway into her ‘I do’s’. Similarly, the evolution of the happy ending to be inclusive of other kinds of happiness and romantic formations as evidenced by Shortbus could provide an alternate way to discuss the progression of the convention.

Overall, however, MacDowell offers an engaging and critical examination of the Hollywood happy ending — a topic that has been overlooked for too long. The discreet chapters offer clear and focused argumentation, and the introduction does well to situate the clichéd position of the happy ending. This accessible text would make a valuable addition to any course reader on popular romance or Hollywood cinema. [End Page 4]

References

Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bordwell, D. (1982). ‘Happily Ever After, Part Two,’ Velvet Light Trap, 19, pp. 2-7.

Grant, B.K. (2007). Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. London, UK: Wallflower Press.

Lang, F. (1948). ‘Happily Ever After,’ in Roger Manvell (ed.) Penguin Film Review 5, pp. 22-9. [End Page 5]

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