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Archive for the ‘Issue 5.1’ Category

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

Review by Amanda Jo Hobson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review by Naomi Milthorpe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 4]


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

Review by Lynne Pearce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

_______ Meta-Reality. London: Sage, 2002.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 5]




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

Review by Pavitra Sundar

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]





An Interview with Susan Elizabeth Phillips
by Eric Murphy Selinger

When Susan Elizabeth Phillips began writing and publishing romance novels in the early 1980s, the American market was dominated by the blockbuster historical romances that followed in the wake of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower (Avon, 1972) and Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love (Avon, 1974) and by contemporary-set “glitz and glamour” sagas, a genre of women’s fiction with strong romantic elements associated with Judith Krantz, among others. Phillips’ first half-dozen novels—The Copeland Bride (written in collaboration with Claire Kiehl, under the pen-name “Justine Cole”), Risen Glory, Glitter Baby, Fancy Pants, Hot Shot, and Honey Moon—explored the conventions and possibilities of both genres, and all were well received, but her reputation in popular romance fiction rests primarily on the contemporary-set romance novels she began publishing with Avon in the mid-1990s. Beginning with It Had to Be You (1994), the first of her “Chicago Stars” novels centered around a fictional Chicago football franchise, Phillips has offered an innovative, influential mix of comedy, Americana, and nondenominational narratives of redemption through love. (Her novel Dream a Little Dream may be the only [End Page 1] one set in the allegorically-named town of Salvation, North Carolina, but themes of forgiveness and reconciliation recur across her oeuvre.)

It Had to Be You won the Romance Writers of America’s “Favorite Book of 1994” award, and since then, Phillips has won five more RITA awards from the RWA, as well as the organization’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. Her novels routinely appear on American readers’ and reviewers’ lists of the “best” or “top” romance novels, and her reception by the academy has also been warm.[1] In 1997 Bowling Green State University invited Phillips to give the keynote address at their groundbreaking conference on “ReReading the Romance,” and foundational romance scholar Tania Modleski singled out Phillips as “a true auteur” whose work she “enjoyed enormously.”[2] Papers on her work have been presented at several of IASPR’s international conferences on popular romance culture, as well as at the Romance Area panels of the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association’s national conferences.

When the PCA/ACA conference came to Chicago, near Phillips’ home, the chance to do a public interview with her was too good to pass up, and she very graciously accepted the invitation to speak with Eric Murphy Selinger and take questions from the audience.

Eric Murphy Selinger: In your essay “The Romance and Empowerment of Women,” published in the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology, you say that you started reading romance fiction in the early 1970s and that you fell under the spell of the historical romance novel. How did you go from being a romance reader to being a romance writer?

Susan Elizabeth Phillips: I was at home at that point, a former high school teacher with two little children. My best friend Claire [Lefkowitz] is two doors down the street. She has a degree in French, and she’s home with two little kids. This was when The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers’ books first came out. Claire and I had always been big readers and we read everything—literary fiction, popular fiction. When those historical romance books first appeared, we were just like, “Oh my gosh.” We couldn’t get enough.

Claire and I were both feminists, and those early books, you may remember, were the rape-and-pillage-of-the-heroine books. I still defend those books. I know this will horrify the younger people here, but I think some of you closer to my age will understand why I defend the rape fantasy in those stories. Claire and I were raised to be good girls. Neither of us had suffered from sexual abuse, so that whole idea of a hero taking you against your will meant “You’re still a good girl. It wasn’t your fault. You just happened to be so beautiful and desirable and meek and mild that he couldn’t help it.” It’s interesting to me, looking back on it: Claire and I both have strong personalities, and the heroines of those books are pretty wimpy, certainly compared to today’s heroines. Yet we were so drawn to them.

The Romance Writers of America used to say, “Please don’t go out and tell the public that you started to write romance novels because you read a bad one.” Yet that’s exactly what we did. I remember Claire came to the door one evening, waving a paperback romance that I’d lent her (I don’t know what the book was—I wish I remembered), and she said, “This is the worst book I’ve ever read. We can do better than this. We’re going to write a book.” That night I was unloading the dishwasher. I called her and said, “Claire, I know that we’re not going to write a book, but if we were, I love books where the heroine is [End Page 2] disguised as a boy, and I love the marriage of convenience…” We started writing purely from the viewpoint of readers, writing what we wanted to read. I had a real cranky two-year-old, and I’d put him on the back of the bike—no helmet, of course, in those days—and Claire would get on her bike, and we would just ride and talk about the plot.

Claire’s degree is in French, mine was in Speech and Drama. We were not products of the English department; and there was no RWA at that time, no romance writing seminars, so we were just writing the book we wanted to read. That was 1979, the book was The Copeland Bride. There have been several revisions to that book since. One of them involved taking out the sentence, “He raped her violently.” I remember I stole that sentence from—do you remember Anya Seton? I think it was The Winthrop Woman. I’m not sure. But I just thought, “Oh my gosh, what a sexy sentence.”[3]

Audience member: Wow.

SEP: [Laughing] I know! Don’t ever invite me if you don’t want honesty! And of course over the years that sensibility has changed so much, although I think what we’re finding in the whole erotica movement is the same kind of emotion and experiences that we good girls felt in the late ‘70s when we started reading historical romances.

ES: When Sarah Frantz Lyons talked with Bertrice Small at the IASPR convention in New York City, Small told us that when she was writing The Kadin, she had no idea that she was writing romance. She thought she was writing historical fiction—that the historical romance genre as we now think of it didn’t exist at the time she wrote it. It sounds like you started out right from the get-go with the sense that you were writing romance.

SEP: Historical romance. Bertrice was a real history buff, and while Claire and I liked history, I wouldn’t say our interest was centered on the actual history of the period. We just wanted that male/female conflict that gave us such a rush.

Bertrice was one of the original superstars when I was just starting to write, and I remember an RT convention when Bertrice took a few of us who were newbies up to her hotel room, which had this throne-like arm chair. We sat at her feet, and Bertrice told us, all the things to be careful of with our publishers, and all the things we needed to do. I still remember sitting at Bertrice’s feet like, “Feed me. Feed me.” Yeah, it was good.

ES: You mention the heroine dressed as a boy…

SEP:  The marriage of convenience, secret baby, all of those conventions! You can find them in my books, and I love them. I love them to this day, because there’s such strong built-in conflict to them. That’s the other reason I write the alpha hero. I don’t tend to enjoy romances with beta heroes, because there’s just not enough conflict for me. Usually if you’ve got a beta hero, you have to have a pretty neurotic heroine, and I like books that show the growth of the heroine. With a beta hero, I wouldn’t know how I would pull that off. Although Robyn Carr, a dear friend of mine, has a new book out—women’s fiction—called Four Friends. At the beginning, one of the women’s husband is having an affair. Robyn has this guy groveling for the entire book. What I love about him—a true beta [End Page 3] hero—is that he’s basically a chick in a man’s body. I devoured this book, and glowered at my husband the whole time.

I can’t pull that off, but oh my god, did Robyn ever do it beautifully.

ES: Your books began to come out right at the same time as the first big wave of academic scholarship about romance begins: Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation. Did any of those ideas from the academic discussion of the genre make their way into what you and other writers, authors were talking about? Did you know about them? Were you responding to them in any way?

SEP: Yes, we did know about them, and the truth is we grit our teeth. Now remember: we were extremely defensive. What we were hearing in some of the early scholarship was that women were reading romance because it helped them get through the dreariness of being wives and mothers at home with kids. We were also hearing that we were using clichés in romance and the language was so trite, because our readers were too stupid to understand great language. It became increasingly frustrating for us. So what happened?

One of the best intellects when it comes to romance, especially through the 1980s and the 1990s, is Jayne Ann Krentz. Jayne is very analytical, and after she plowed into the scholarship she gathered a number of us together said, “We are letting academics define us and what we do. We have to define ourselves.”

Jayne understood that if we went on record, writing our viewpoint about what we saw happening with the romance genre, and if this work was published by an academic press, then in all future work, the academics would have to take what we were saying into account. It was extremely calculated. When Jayne got us together, she gave us a simple charge. “Write an essay about the appeal of the romance.” That was it. She was not giving us specific assignments, she was not telling us what to write.

Now, of course, we have a lot of academics writing romance: Mary Bly/Eloisa James, Jennifer Crusie, just to name a few. But during the early ‘90s those women weren’t around. We had to look at what we were doing and figure out for ourselves what was going on both from the writers’ and readers’ point-of-view. Since we had so much face-to-face contact with our readers through letters and book signings, we understand why they were reading romance, and we could see that there was a lot more going on than a bunch of housewives who were picking up our books because they were frustrated with their kids.

When the essays arrived, Jayne has said she was thunderstruck because we all took different approaches. My approach was, as a feminist, to examine why I was responding to the books. For me, it was the idea that the heroine always won. I had to create that strong alpha hero, because that made her victory all the sweeter. So I wrote an essay about the empowerment of the heroine. Since then, honest to Pete, the word “empowerment” has been used for every stripper, every hooker, every… Well, at that time it was fresh.

So that’s how that book came about. It was very deliberate, and it wouldn’t have happened without Jayne. She was the one who saw the big picture while the rest of us were going: “Ahhh, we need to get some respect.” Jayne had a much, much broader viewpoint than the rest of us did. [End Page 4]

We’re so appreciative of the academic work that’s being done now, because it’s so much more thorough and thoughtful than the early work, but that’s to be expected since I’m guessing many of the academics studying romance have grown up reading it. I do hope that current academics recognize Dangerous Men for the groundbreaking work it was.

Sarah Frantz Lyons: I’d like to ask a question about the period right after Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, in the mid-1990s.

In 1994 and 1995, within about eighteen months of each other, we get a bunch of novels published: your first Chicago Stars novel, It Had to Be You, Nora Roberts / J. D. Robb’s Naked in Death, Dream Man by Linda Howard, Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas, To Have and to Hold, by Patricia Gaffney. If you look at lists of “perfect romances” and the “best romance books of all time,” those books show up, year after year, and they all come together in 1994 and 1995. So you must have been writing them around the time that Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women came out. And your novel It Had to Be You (1994) was an obvious switch in your career. It’s a very different book from any of your other books. You started out with historical romance; you then moved to the kind of glitz and glamour epic sagas following generations like the ones Judith Krantz would write: Glitter Baby and Hot Shot and Honey Moon, the big, epic sagas.

Could you talk a bit about It Had to Be You as a turn in your career? How did you go about constructing that book in relation to the context when it came out?

SEP: My background was in theatre, and I am an actress looking for parts to play. So a lot of things that have happened in my career have happened accidentally. Nothing has been logically constructed.

After I did the three big books—Glitter Baby, Honey Moon, and Hot Shot—I wanted to write a shorter book; and for years and years I had this idea: What would happen if woman who knew nothing about sports inherited a professional football team. Remember: I had never written series romance; I had not been indoctrinated by Harlequin; I didn’t know that you were not allowed to write about sports. (You’re not allowed to write about sports, actors, or rock stars, apparently. I only found that out later on.)

By the time I finished It Had to Be You, my career had crashed. I had three books at Dell, then I had three books at Pocket. Pocket published Fancy Pants, Hot Shot, and Honey Moon. They had no idea how to package these books, because they were, fundamentally, big romances, and there was no precedent for covers or marketing. Claire Zion was editing me—just a brilliant editor—and she let me know that my numbers weren’t strong enough for It Had to Be You to get decent support from the publisher. Even though the book was under contract, she was kind enough to plant the seed that I needed to move houses.

So I had the manuscript of It Had to Be You, my agent sent it all over town, and we waited for the auction to start. I’d gone into New York and I remember being taken into a publisher’s big conference room where I was asked about my career plan. I was a schoolteacher at heart! I’d never sat around a conference table in my life! Oh my God, I was so traumatized, but I winged it. I’d already started Heaven, Texas, so I said, “Well, I’m going to write smaller books now and I’m going to be writing more humorous books and I’m going to write another Chicago Stars book.” I just made it up. [End Page 5]

So we had an auction. Nobody came. The first bids that came in—right now these numbers sound good—I remember $35,000 per book—but I had been making quite a bit more with the big books at Pocket, and oh my gosh, I still remember that sick feeling in my stomach. And I remember my agent calling me and saying, “We’re still waiting to hear from Bantam, we’re still waiting to hear from this publisher, we’re still waiting to hear from that publisher.” But they felt the book was too quirky. They didn’t know what it was—the book didn’t fit into their preconceived idea of romance. And then at the last minute, Avon, which was a train wreck at that point, came in and bid $100,000 for that book. “Okay, I’ll take it!” I said. All Avon had at the time was historical romance, and they wanted a book to anchor their contemporary line.

It Had to Be You ended up with a very small print run, but it changed my career forever because of my brilliant agent. He talked to my publisher and said, “Why don’t we give out a thousand free copies of this book at RWA?” Everybody does this now, but it was the first book that was the freebie in such a big quantity. And that’s when I was truly discovered and my career changed.

SFL: What we don’t realize as scholars, I’m now coming to understand, is how much of the history of the genre is about publishing decisions, how much of it is luck, how many books there were that broke out of genre conventions in similar ways and did similar things but just disappeared because they didn’t have the combination of luck and marketing smarts and all of this other stuff behind it.

SEP: There were a lot of authors, yes, who had a very strong vision and experienced more frustration than you can imagine as they strained against the boundaries of series romance.

ES: Moving away from the chronology now to thinking about bunches of books together, many of your books are set in what I think of as iconic American settings. You’ve got Chicago, you’ve got Hollywood, and you’ve got small towns in Texas and rural Michigan and Tennessee. And they feature iconic American characters: a shady TV Evangelist (or at least his widow), star quarterbacks, star golfers, a fifty-year-old rock star who has the perfect symbolic name—

SEP: Jack Patriot.

ES: Jack Patriot! And in The Great Escape, the heroine, Lucy, is the adopted daughter of a former president and the novel’s hero is a combat vet who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So I’m wondering, do you think of your books as being particularly American romances?

SEP: Absolutely. If I had to describe myself in one word, it wouldn’t be writer or wife, mother, grandmother, it would be a Midwesterner. Despite eleven years in New Jersey where I was a fish out of water, I am a Midwesterner through and through. My family roots go way, way, way back. And I love the small town Midwest. The Hollywood settings I hate doing. I’m not comfortable with them. I want to write the Midwest. I want to write Michigan, although I’m pretty happy writing about Texas and the south, too. [End Page 6]

But what I find really fascinating is that 50% of my income is coming from foreign sales. The books are published in thirty languages now, and I get a lot of email from all over the world, and they love the Chicago Stars books. They love the Wynette, Texas, books. The more American the book is, the more the international audiences respond to them.

I’ve now toured in Germany, I’ve toured in Slovenia, in Croatia—and I’m telling you, romance readers are the same everywhere. I can’t tell you how easy it is talking to readers everywhere. They are the same. They’re responding to the same kinds of emotions, and it’s the same demographic. You’ve got students, you have academics, you have doctors, and you have moms at home with small kids. It’s exactly the same in Europe as it is here.

ES: So are the American settings for them are like, say, Regency England or Scotland for American audiences: settings we tend to think of as being somehow intrinsically “romantic.” Is Chicago like that, elsewhere?

SEP: I don’t think so. I think what appeals is American popular culture, more than the fantasy of a particular place.

ES: I want to talk about one of the Chicago Stars novels: Natural Born Charmer. I’ve taught that book six or seven times at DePaul, including one ten-week seminar on it–

SEP: What the hell do you talk about for ten weeks? [laughing]

ES: We read the book really slowly. We read it a couple of chapters per class day and we would come in and talk about them. And the fun thing was—here, I have a bunch of nicely trained seniors, senior English majors, and I said to them, “All right, you’re smart, you’re English majors, you know what to do with a book. Here’s a book! Do it!” Most of them had no idea where to begin: they didn’t realize that they could do the same things they do with any other book. They could read it closely, they could pay attention to the characters and symbolism and ideas and looking at, you know, pacing and looking at how different scenes play off against each other—all the stuff that they do with any other book. I also sent them over to your website. I said, “Hey, romance authors have websites. Romance authors have Facebook pages. You can communicate with them. You can find out more.” This is a whole other way of being an author than the kind of literary figure that they are used to.

SEP: Especially in romance. I mean, no other genre connects with readers quite the way we do. We love it.

ES: One of the things that I always talk about when teaching Natural Born Charmer is the fact that Blue Bailey, the heroine, is an artist. She’s a painter. She does murals. She does portraits. And it’s always seemed to me that there was some connection between what you say about her paintings and career as a painter and what it is that you’re doing as a romance novelist. Is that connection something you were thinking of as you wrote the book?

SEP: Some of it is just technical. I need occupations for heroines where the hero and heroine can spend a lot of time together. That’s really tough when she’s got an eight-to-five [End Page 7] job, so I do have a lot of artists and people like that. Also, I am an art lover, and I’d much rather write a heroine who’s doing something that I’m passionate about, interested in, than a heroine who’s not, like tracing the history of the personal computer industry as I did in Hot Shot.

I was also influenced by a bunch of things I’ve seen Jennifer Crusie do. And—what was Jenny’s series romance—oh my gosh—it’s one of her early books and I’ve forgotten the name—she described the art work of the heroine so beautifully and that was—

ES: The Cinderella Deal.

SEP: It was always in my head. And I love the idea that Blue’s drawings were domestic, they were almost fairytale—and she was such a tough little critter.

ES: There’s an early scene with Blue and Dean where she presents him with two sketches of him. The first sketch that she gives distorts his features just a little bit—

SEP: —[in sync with ES] just a little bit.

ES: —in a way that gets him thinking. And the second one presents him as he actually looked, and that also gets him thinking, because he looks at it and thinks, “Boy, I look kind of sleazy and slimy in here.”

SEP: He wants the drawing where she’s distorted his features, doesn’t he?

ES: Oh, he’s fascinated by it. But one of the things that came up in the class discussions—you asked what we did with this—was that my students said, “Well, there should really be a third picture, because there’s one that’s worse than reality and there’s one that is the reality—there should be one that’s better than reality, to round out the set.” And that then turned into a really interesting discussion of the way that Blue’s later paintings are a vision of the way things ought to be.

SEP: And she could not have done that at that point in the story. She could not have created that ideal—or envisioned what the future looked like—yes. That was definitely planned.

ES: Nailed it! Which leads to a second question, this time spanning of a variety of books, also focused on romance and the way things “ought to be.” I know that you are not an inspirational romance novelist as such—that is, someone marketed as writing Christian books—and your books don’t go into Christian theology or terminology in an elaborate way. Still, you set one novel, Dream a Little Dream, in a town called Salvation, North Carolina, and you don’t have to be an English professor to get that one. And in The Great Escape a lot of the novel takes place on “Charity Island.” There’s a lot of discussion particularly in the secondary romance in that novel about forgiveness, about redemption, about what it means to live with faith. I’m just curious if you see a connection between the thematic material that interests you in your novels and Christian themes or Christian ideals. [End Page 8]

SEP: You think? I’m attracted to popular fiction because I want people to follow the rules. I want justice. I want fairness. All those ideals that popular fiction delivers. I was the little girl who in fifth grade went up to the new teacher and told her she wasn’t teaching reading right, because she didn’t have reading groups as we’d always had. I like rules and I like order. I was raised in a liberal Presbyterian church, and although I’m not conventionally religious now, I very much believe in redemption. I believe that love is the most powerful force. All that sappy stuff, I believe with all of my heart.

My husband is your white male country club golfer. Got it? We had gone to the accountant to do our taxes. And the accountant pointedly told us how many thousands of dollars we were paying specifically for Obamacare. Pointedly. “So you know this.” And we walked out of there and Bill looked at me—my white, golfing, country club husband—and said, “If that helps somebody, I don’t mind paying it one bit.” That’s why I’m married to him.

So those themes, which are common not just to Christianity, but to all the world’s great religions, are definitely part of my worldview. I don’t like religion that hems us in; I want religion that reaches out, that broadens out. Religion that is love and respect for all people. So those themes will always be in my books—it’s the reason I have trouble writing villains. It would be so much easier to have villains in my books, but I’m not that interested in characters I can’t redeem. That’s why, in Dream a Little Dream—you know, the creepy televangelist, he’s been done a million times. I was more interested in Rachel, his widow, who is basically a healer, yet who totally denies it! Completely denies it, even at the end of the book.

ES: In the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology there’s an essay by Laura Kinsale which famously says, “The hero carries the book.” This was a huge shot across the bow of academic criticism, which had up until then, largely assumed the idea that female readers were reading to identify with the heroine and that the hero needed to be an enigma and so on and so forth. So I wanted to ask you about heroes. Your latest book is called Heroes Are My Weakness. What kinds of heroes do you most like to write? Are there certain kinds of heroes that you’ve never tried writing but like to read? Do you have a favorite romance hero either from your own books or from the wide world of romance?

SEP: I’m not sure I completely agree Laura on that. I don’t think you can say, “The hero has to carry the book.” Sometimes the heroine has to carry the book. It really depends, sometimes even on the scene you’re writing. In Call Me Irresistible—this is the book with Teddy Beaudine where Lucy has run away from the wedding at the beginning of chapter two and it’s Meg and Ted’s book. I got a lot of flak from readers because I don’t go into Ted’s viewpoint until about three hundred pages into the book. And I wanted to say, “Duh!” The minute you go into his head, the book is over. The book is over. Do you remember in the early days of romance you didn’t go in at all? What was that? In the 70s, 80s? It was all in the heroine’s viewpoint. You never went into the hero’s viewpoint. And making those decisions about point of view on heroes is really tough. If you go into his head at the wrong time, you suck all the tension out of the book. But the readers have gotten so used to having that hero’s point of view presented early some of them had a hard time with the fact that I didn’t do it.

In terms of hero types, I’m always going to write an alpha hero just because that’s the only thing I know how to do. In my books the internal conflict between the hero and [End Page 9] heroine is driving the story. It’s not going to be the serial killer. It’s not going to be so many of the other elements that you have in romantic suspense, so I pretty much have to use the alpha hero unless I want to make my heroine crazy, which I don’t want to do

ES: Although in Natural Born Charmer, to me at least, the great love story there is Dean and his mother April finally reconciling. That turn is crucial to his character development, but also to hers, and to the love story between her and Jack Patriot.

SEP: When you can do a secondary plot with older characters—readers love that. And they’ll frequently say, “Why didn’t you use the older characters for your main story?” Well, the courtship story and the discovery of love is kind of my core story—it would be hard for me to do that. And I never get the feeling that my secondary love story is quite strong enough to carry the whole book. But I have two grown sons, so Dean and April’s story was just catnip to me. I love that story so much. And Jack Patriot, who’s modeled after Bruce Springsteen…though I get email all the time with all these different rockers saying–

ES: Throw a little Keith Richards in there and a little Bob Dylan in there too.

SEP: Yeah, well, maybe. It was Bruce.

ES: But it’s a Telecaster Custom Jack plays—

SEP: My son picks out my instruments. You know, he was probably reading Life [by Keith Richards] at the time. I was reading it too. Uh, did I answer the question? I forget what it was. Heroes.

ES: Heroes. Any favorite hero by someone else?

SEP: I love the hero in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. He does drive the book. But, you know, these alpha heroes are just kind of one big blur in my head—I love them all.

ES: One of the things I do when I teach your book, when I teach any romance novel, really, is send my students over to the author’s website, and to look at Twitter feeds and Tumblrs and anything that might give the students a sense of how the author’s presenting herself. Could you say something about how being on the web, how the social media side of being an author changes things? Also, on your website you have a few things that are right there on the splash page—when readers land—you know, one of them is right under your name, it says, “Life’s too short to read depressing books.”

SEP: [in sync with ES] “Life’s too short to read depressing books.”

ES: And then you have a little letter to the reader that says, you know, “I know some things about you—you look for a sense of recognition and you want a tear.” So say a little if you will about what happened as you made your way into having to have a web presence, having to [End Page 10] interact with readers there. How has it changed things for you? How has it changed things for other writers?

SEP: It’s changed everything.

Over the course of my career, I’ve lived through the time when the publishers controlled everything in terms of publicity and promotion. Now we’re pretty much expected to do that. Truly, half of my work time is business, social media, and half is actually writing. Guess which is more fun?

Authors have to think about how to use social media well. When I first started to use Facebook, I noticed that writers were using it as a promotion device 100%, and I wanted to make it much more personal. So we’ve discussed my difficulties wearing a bra long-term, and Mr. Bill is now a familiar character to everybody. (He’s not on Facebook so he doesn’t know half the stuff I put on there!) I feel a personal connection with the readers, and Facebook nurtures that connection.

At the same time, I need those email addresses, because the publisher is not going to be doing all that. So I’m running contests, I’ve started this “member’s lounge”: It’s all a huge, huge, huge time sink. We know our readers better now, one-to-one, and we have made personal friends with them through these long-term contacts, like my old website message board and now the Facebook page. Avon is amazing with their social media technology now, but when they first started, this might have been ten years ago, they had a meeting at the RWA conference for all of their authors. They started the meeting by telling us how to use the Internet. We laughed them out of the room! They were very good-natured about it, but we laughed them out the room. It’s like, seriously dude? We have been doing this a lot longer than you have. They have now made leaps and bounds over us in terms of the way they collect data and deal with it, and they’ve helped us with all of that. But yes, it’s just a whole new ballgame.

Keep in mind, within the course of one year all of my fan mail stopped. It all went to email. It happened so quickly that I complained to my editor. I said, “Something’s going on in your mailroom. I’m not getting any of my fan mail.” I didn’t understand. It happened that fast. And I’m just so grateful for every reader I have. I’ve had a career collapse on me, and I know how precious every reader is, so I want them to know that. I talk about the sense of recognition in my splash-page letter, and that is the emotional recognition they get with the books.

Academics are not seeing our reader email—so I’m going to try to fill that hole without just drowning you in it and let you see this emotional connection the readers have with the books. And that is what I’m referring to when I talk about the sense of recognition.

ES: “Life’s too short to read depressing books.” Say more.

SEP: You know, that’s certainly an overstatement—and oh my gosh, some people love Nicholas Sparks. They love, you know, that good cry. But in some literary novels, every drop of juice has been sucked right out so, God forbid, the writer doesn’t use the dreaded “purple prose.” Well, there’s a reason for that purple prose. It’s a coded language. It produces an emotional response on the part of the reader. If you haven’t read the essay in Dangerous Men that Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz did—they take a back-cover copy, [End Page 11] rewrite it plainly, and then present it in purple prose, and you just see right there where the emotion is coming from. In so much of literary fiction, you have to enter the book intellectually, as opposed to the romance novel where you’re entering the book emotionally.

ES: Speaking of which, time for a little emotional or intellectual interaction! Questions from the PCA house?

Audience Question: I’m from Mississippi, and I’ve read many, many books set in the south that are very cringe-worthy, but your Ain’t She Sweet isn’t, at all.

SEP: Ain’t She Sweet is an interesting book, because you don’t think you can redeem this heroine. I mean, she’s accused the hero of rape—she’s done all these horrible things. That’s my very favorite kind of book, because you can really do the redemption arc.

Audience Question: I had a question about the changing relationship with readers. My instinct is just to embrace this as a completely positive thing, but I was wondering: are there ways in which being responsive to the readers might make it feel harder to branch out and do something new or something you suspect they might not like?

SEP: Yes. It messes with your head like crazy. So do Amazon reviews. Jayne tells me to stay off Amazon. And, you know, every once in a while I disobey and almost get sick. Writers never remember positive reviews, and any book you write is going to hit somebody’s hot button. So I have to consciously get that out of my head.

My favorite reader story was this: I’d written Heaven, Texas, and I loved it. Bobby Tom Denton was one of the easiest heroes I’ve ever had to write. I felt like he was channeled. After that I went on to write Kiss an Angel, and I decided, you know, “My career’s over. This book’s going to kill my career,” which would become a repeating theme in my head. So Kiss an Angel comes out and all I can think about is, you know, “It’s not as good as Heaven, Texas—it’s not as good as Heaven, Texas.” I go to my first signing and this reader comes up to me and she says, “Oh, I just loved Kiss an Angel.” She says, “I didn’t love that Heaven, Texas book, but this one I love.” And I went, “Ohhh. Thank you.” And that’s where I learned the most important lesson of my career. No matter what book I write it’s going to be someone’s favorite and someone’s least favorite. I always have to remember this, stay off Amazon, and write the book I’m going to write.

Those reviews can wear you down after a while. It’s not coming into my reader email. I get hardly any negative email. But some of the romance websites are nasty—they’re just nasty. And I’m not talking about myself—some of them aren’t even reviewing me. I know the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into a book, and to watch these lame-ass critics dismiss a book and dismiss a human being’s work… I would be a terrible reviewer because that kind of negativity makes me nuts. I want to send out into the world words that make people better, that make them grow, that nourish people. Ugly reviews don’t do it. [End Page 12]

Audience Question: I have a question about volume. How much fan email do you get? Can you quantify it all? Like in an average day, there would be—

SEP: It depends on how close I am to having a book come out, if a newsletter is going out, etc. Ordinarily there’s going to be one or two every day. But when a book comes out or a newsletter goes out, there could be ten or twelve, something like that, every day. It’s a lot of volume. I try to type a personal message in addition to a form response, but it does take away from the writing.

Audience Question: Do you do that personally?

SEP: I have an assistant who helps.

Audience Question: I have a question about the publishing side. Has there been any particular issue or character arc that an editor or publisher has been cautious about your doing, or about what it’s going to do in term of your career or your readers?

SEP: I have never sold a book on proposal. I’ve never written a proposal, so for example, when I was going to write the golf book, I didn’t have to say, “I’m going to write a book about golf.” Instead, they got the beginning of the book, a hundred some pages, so they could see what I was going to do. After that, they pretty much let me have free rein. I’ve heard horror stories from some of my friends who write series romance. Some of them have had great relationships with editors, but with others, it’s been: “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” If I had said ahead of time that I was going to write about football, golf, a rock star, an actor, I would have been discouraged from doing it. I’ve been fortunate not to have to deal with that.

Audience Question: Your new book has a combat vet in it, and I know that since the Iraq war there have been a lot of combat vet heroes in popular reading. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little about writing a combat vet.

SEP: There’s not a lot of reference to it in the book. There are a couple of sentences here and there, and you’ve got the scene with the shrink at the end who’s also a combat vet. I’ve done PTSD in my novels—I did that in Glitter Baby early on, and everybody’s doing it now. But I needed the wounded hero. I tried every other way I could think of to approach his character, but the traumatized vet really did work. And I like the idea of the psychiatrist who could specifically identify with wounded vets because I have read about the difficulty of these guys coming back with PTSD and working with a shrink who has never been in combat. That was interesting to me.

Audience Question: Every time I read—I can’t remember the title—but Molly and Kevin—

SEP: Yes, This Heart of Mine. [End Page 13]

Audience Question: Every time I read about Molly’s stories about the bunnies—I keep thinking, “You should turn these into children’s stories.”

SEP: I’ve gotten so many requests Molly is a children’s book author with the Daphne the Bunny series. Molly is really Daphne, and Kevin, the hero, is Benny the Badger. I thought about writing an accompanying children’s book, but my editor wasn’t enthusiastic because that’s a whole different publishing animal Children’s books are tough! Everybody says, “Oh, I always wanted to write a children’s book.” But it’s a lot harder than people think. Still, This Heart of Mine should have had a companion children’s book, for sure.

SFL: From the publishing point of view, now, we would look at that and say, “Absolutely. Go right ahead. It would be perfect.”

SEP: A children’s book division is completely separate from a publishing company’s adult division. I don’t know if you know much about children’s book publishing, but it is a bunny-eat-bunny world. It takes forever to get things through, and coordination would have been very difficult. Plus, I’d have had to write the darned thing, and I’m not sure I could have.

Audience Question: Have any of your books been auctioned for a film or a television show?

SEP: There have been numerous requests. Early on I would get so excited about that. But as I’ve watched what’s happened to authors who’ve had their book turned into film—in most cases it’s brought them nothing but grief. Readers want a film of the book that’s in their head, but they’re such different media. So now I just say, “No, no, no, no.” The only one I’ve agreed to sell is when Bollywood bought This Heart of Mine. When Bollywood called and said, “We’d like to buy This Heart of Mine,” it was a reputable studio, they were going to pay decent money, and I thought, “This is perfect, because it’s Bollywood. Nobody is going to expect the exact book.” I don’t know exactly what the timing is, but they did give me production money.

Audience Question: I taught First Lady this year—

SEP: Did you?

Audience Question: They adored it. They really adored it. They were surprised to get sucked into what struck them as too much of a “family” romance. The thing they’re falling in love with in the book is the family that’s going to be created. That’s the happy ending they’re hoping for—that beautiful family.

SEP: The end—you noticed how I tried to straddle political parties in there—

Audience Question: That did come up in discussion.

SEP: That was deliberate. We’re so fragmented politically—no matter what side I chose, it was going to be a mess, so I took the coward’s way out and I’m happy I did. [End Page 14]

SFL: Suzanne Brockman sometimes has an unhappy love story in her books, or an arc that goes through six or seven books so that the characters have a series of unhappy encounters and finally get their HEA six books later, and she says that the tragedy helps to highlight the beauty of the other story. All of your secondary romances end happily, and they mirror and foil the primary relationship—

SEP: I always say, “If one love story is good, two’s better.” Why not? Plus, I get to write about a non-traditional couple. An older couple. In Dream a Little Dream, I’ve got Ethan, the minister and his little clerk, his assistant. There wasn’t enough conflict to carry that through their own book, but I loved writing that story.

SFL: Have you thought of doing a different type of non-traditional couple? Same-sex couple?

SEP: Um, same-sex couple? Well, yeah. The Great Escape. But that’s kind of a spoiler alert. Spoiler alert!

[1] See, for example, the All About Romance reader poll from 2013, in which she has eight novels listed (, or the 2015 National Public Radio list, drawn from readers’ nominations and curated by romance bloggers and authors, which includes her seven Chicago Stars football romances—each a standalone volume—among its “swoon-worthy” romance recommendations (

[2] See Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Writer,” originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 4, no. 9 (1998); reprinted in Old Wives’ Tales and Other Women’s Stories (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 71.

[3] On investigation, the sentence turns out to be adapted from Seton’s Avalon (1965): “And then he raped her brutally.” Anya Seton, Avalon (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965; 1993), 128. [End Page 15]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix I.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 17]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is, after all, the point.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forging a Fictional Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture Clash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler Alert! Cultural Tensions Resolved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[4] For a complete list, see, accessed 5 July 2015.

[5], accessed 13 December 2014.

[6], accessed 14 December 2014. [End Page 17]

Works Cited

“Desert Rogues: Susan Mallery Book List.” N.p., n.d. Web. 27 January 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 18]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 19]



Chick Lit in Historical Settings by Frida Skybäck
by Helene Ehriander

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

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

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

Chick lit in historical settings

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 Historical novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People are the same through the ages

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

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

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

Role play in a historical setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 12]


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

[End Page 1]


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

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

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

Courtly Love, Christian mysticism, and romantic theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 A Theological Aesthetics of Popular Culture and Romantic Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sacramental Kiss in Romantic Films: The Matrix and Shrek

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

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

 The Matrix trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Shrek Quadrilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F:         Then where were you when I needed you?

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

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

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

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

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

 Love as Religious Discourse in Romantic Comedy

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

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

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

He goes on to say about love:

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

Continuing on a little later, he says:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] See Detweiler and Taylor.

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

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

[13] See J. Smith and Taylor.

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

 Movies Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Cited

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

[End Page 21]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 22]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 23]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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