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Posts Tagged ‘desire’

“A Parody of Love: the Narrative Uses of Rape in Popular Romance” by Angela R. Toscano

The arguments surrounding the use of rape as a device in popular romance, within both reader and scholarly communities, have most often pivoted on the cultural or psychological significance of such scenes. Defenders and condemners alike are more interested in how and to what extent these scenes affect or reflect the lives of real women, readers of the genre in particular. But it is not the purpose of this paper to dredge up these old debates, primarily because these arguments focus on the effective or affective aspects of the trope, rather than the narrative function of the rape scene.[1] Questions regarding the cultural, psychological, and sociological resonance of rape scenes, while interesting and important, do not allot to the trope a literary significance beyond the purely mimetic. In fact, these questions have often regarded all instances of the romance genre, and rape within that genre, as a kind of field study of women’s sexuality. Problematically, there is an assumption that the representation of rape within romance mirrors directly the social and cultural problems of a patriarchal system. That is to say, rape and romance come to be viewed purely as windows into women’s sexual fantasies or as a representation of their complicity within a patriarchal system. Indeed, the inference that the recurrence of the rape trope within popular romance constitutes an instantiation of some fictive collective female consciousness (in which all women operate as a single affective entity, like the Borg) is one of the critical and popular prejudices regarding the genre which this paper seeks to undermine. In persistently talking about the rape trope particularly, and genre romance generally, as a single, unified object, the critical apparatus has systematically derailed the conversation about popular romance in such a way that it never approaches the text as literature. The insistence of early scholarly work in looking at the genre as an unvaried totality without regard to the particular deployment of narrative conventions or the singularity of text puts genre romance into a pink ghetto.[2] This paper asserts an entirely different analysis; it explores the function of rape and rape scenes as aspects of the narrative structure of romance.

The question explored in this paper is therefore strictly a narratological rather than a sociological one: what is the narrative function of rape in genre romance? When rape is referenced throughout this paper it means the rape of the heroine by the hero as a textual manifestation of a metaphysical and philosophical problem within the narrative.[3] It is not a reference to rape in general or in real life situations.[4] This limited usage is necessary to create a theoretical model in which to analyze the significance of the persistent recurrence of rape in popular romance: to show that it does not appear there to promote female submission, fantasy or sexual awakening, nor as a convention of the past—some black mark in romance’s history that has been overcome in the years since the publication of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower in 1972. Rather, its continued use has a narrative and structural purpose that can illuminate an understanding of the genre as a whole.

The narrative purpose of rape in popular romance is to serve, simultaneously, as bond and as obstacle, as the barrier and the attraction between hero and heroine. Like the violent piercing of Cupid’s arrows, rape serves as the external and fated event that brings the lovers together. Its violent and invasive nature mirrors the violent and invasive nature of love through which the Other is encountered, recognized, named, and known. In Entre Nous, Levinas characterizes understanding as a form of violence done to the Other; as a “partial negation” that “denies the independence of beings” (9). That is, the attempt to understand the Other requires the taking on of the signs and symbols of the Other in order to know her. [5] This attempt is a violation because understanding appropriates aspects of the Other into the Self. Yet, this very attempt is what characterizes the desire that lies at the heart of falling in love. Rape in popular romance serves to dramatize the encounter, the recognition, the naming, and understanding of the Other into a pivotal scene within the narrative.

Because it is never fully possible to know the Other, there is always a barrier to understanding, one that frustrates the desire of the lover to know the beloved. The rape enacts the attempt to discover, both ontologically and epistemologically, who and what the Other is and the frustration that follows. Rape in popular romance represents both the violence of love and the violence of understanding that attend the quest to know the Other. In many rape scenes, however, this quest is obstructed by the mistaken assumption that the Other is already known. This occurs because on some level the hero has already appropriated the heroine as an extension of his own desires, rather than having acknowledged her as a separate person. The rape is committed precisely because the hero wrongly believes that his knowledge of the heroine is sufficient and total. His certainty of the absolute authority of his knowledge—of his perception—allows the hero to behave as if the heroine had always already consented to the sex act. The rape reveals the inadequacy of this perception and exposes through its violence and its violation the false underlying assumption that one can know the Other by outward signs, by social role or public name, by the body and its presence, or (most elusive of all) by an access to the interior and singular self through discourse.

Of course all rapes do not operate precisely this way within individual texts. Different books depict different kinds of rape. But, broadly speaking, romance rapes can be divided into three types: the Rape of Mistaken Identity, the Rape of Possession, and the Rape of Coercion or “Forced Seduction.” These rapes are distinguished from one another primarily by how the hero perceives the heroine. Each of the three types of rape demonstrates that all of these signs fail to fully reveal the heroine to the hero.

The Rape of Mistaken Identity

In Rapes of Mistaken Identity, the hero is under the false perception that the heroine is actually someone else. This impression is usually rendered believable through the context in which the hero meets the heroine. In The Flame and the Flower (1972), Brandon mistakes Heather for a prostitute because his men find her wandering alone in a bad area of London, dressed like a high class courtesan. Signs that could be read as evidence of her true identity are betrayed by other indicators: her upper-class accent is belied by the signs of physical labor on her hands, and even her virginity is misread as her being a novice whore. Brandon rapes her despite her repeated resistance because he adduces her consent not from her words, but from her social role. Who she is, is entirely determined by her social context. Thus, because Heather is seen as a prostitute, Brandon presumes her a priori consent to the sex act.

A similar presumption occurs in Carolyn Jewel’s Lord Ruin (2002), where the heroine Anne stumbles on a staircase during a house party, turns her ankle badly, and for the duration of her recovery is forced to take the room usually occupied by Lord Cynssyr. Dosed with laudanum for the pain, Anne is unable either to give or refuse consent when Cynssyr appears late that night and assumes the woman in his bed to be a whore. Cynssyr’s misperception is based on the fact that he does not recognize Anne, that this is not the first time a whore has been provided to him by his host, and that there are no signs that a lady of quality is a guest in the room (the wardrobe has his clothes in it, not hers, there is no lady’s maid present, no chaperone, nor any of the objects a lady would have had in the room had it been assigned to another guest). Cynssyr assumes by these signs that the woman in his bed can be there for one purpose only. Anne, though not entirely unconscious, is so heavily dosed with laudanum that she is unable to give any true consent to the sex act. Her ready acquiescence and drugged actions further support Cynssyr’s assumptions that she is a whore.

Since Rapes of Mistaken Identity occur out of ignorance or misunderstanding, they are usually resolved fairly quickly in the plot. The heroine’s true identity and true role within the social order is often revealed during the sex act itself when the hero discovers that the person he thought she was—a prostitute—was in fact a virgin. However, in both The Flame and the Flower and Lord Ruin, the revelation of the heroine’s true identity comes with the presence or appearance of her family, who confirm her real social standing. In The Flame and the Flower, Heather becomes pregnant by Brandon and her family tracks him down and forces him to marry her. In Lord Ruin, Anne’s sister checks in on her only to discover Anne and Lord Cynssyr in flagrante delicto. It is the sudden intrusion of the family that re-contextualizes the heroine’s identity and re-establishes her social standing.

The Rape of Mistaken Identity nearly always occurs at the outset of the narrative to reveal that the social role taken alone is a false measure of the Other’s identity. Though it seems these scenarios justify rape when it happens to a prostitute, but not to a lady or a virgin, this is not true. Rather, they function to expose the mistake the hero makes in thinking that social role may serve as consent and point to the more profound notion that any prostitute may be a lady worthy of love and that any lady worthy of love may also be a prostitute. Thus, these rape scenes argue that one’s social role cannot serve as a sign of the interior self by which one may know and understand the Other. For this reason the Rape of Mistaken Identity must occur between strangers, rendering them unable to recognize one another in bed. It is a lack of recognition that makes this type of rape a “bed-trick”—an ancient and curiously enduring literary motif that illustrates the deceptive nature of appearance and what one scholar observes is “an argument against the visual: it demonstrates that we are wrong to judge by appearances. When two people look alike, we are forced to distinguish between them by searching for more subtle, more profound, signs of identity” (Doniger 337). Neither the bed-trick nor the Rape of Mistaken Identity is based on an intentional deception by either the hero or the heroine but rather on the hero’s assumptions about the heroine’s identity. Like the love potion in the story of Tristan and Isolde or the exchange of brides in folktales, the Rape of Mistaken Identity is a device intended to create an immediate intimacy and bond between the two protagonists while simultaneously placing an obstacle in the path of any future relationship between them. The heroine cannot but distrust and even hate the hero for his actions, while the hero cannot but distrust his own reliance on appearances. The moment of recognition or anagnorisis reveals not only the true social identity of the heroine, but also the inadequacy of the hero’s reliance on the signs by which he thought he could know another.

Unlike The Flame and the Flower, Lord Ruin asserts more emphatically the inability of the hero to see the heroine beyond her social role. Its hero, Cynssyr, has met Anne prior to the rape. Yet, he cannot remember her, despite his attempt to do so in an earlier scene when discussing her with her brother-in-law and their friend, Devon: “A faint memory tickled at the back of his mind. He tapped his temple. ‘You mean the spinster, don’t you, Devon? The eldest. The one with the spectacles.’ ‘Blond hair, gray-blue eyes. Yay tall,’ Benjamin repeated. ‘What was her name?’ . . . ‘Gad. I still don’t remember her. Except for the spectacles’” (7-8). Cynssyr only remembers the spectacles; he does not recognize her without them when he encounters Anne, laid up in his bed with her badly twisted ankle. Though Cynssyr and Anne have met before, the meeting functions only to show that Cynssyr is utterly disinterested in Anne as a person or even as an object of his lust. He simply cannot remember her. Love at first sight is not possible in this context for Cynssyr sees, but does not recognize. He observes only outward signs: spectacles, plain face, the spinsterhood of an elder sister. Cynssyr is blind to Anne as a person and sees only the confines of her established position within the social order. He cannot suspect that he is destined to love her.

In popular romance, the moment of anagnorisis in these rape scenes, as in Greek New Comedy or in Shakespeare’s Romances, comes with the recognition of the heroine as worthy. However, in popular romance narrative, the anagnorisis is not part of the denouement, but rather serves as the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. Thus, the rape is the event with which the hero and the heroine will spend the rest of the plot coming to terms. It is only at the end of Lord Ruin, that Anne and Cynssyr are able to see one another:

“After all I’ve done to you? God, don’t answer that.” He touched her cheek. “You have my heart, Anne,” he said softly. “You know you are my heart.”

“And you are mine.” Her finger traced along his lower lip. “I do love you” (342)

Thus, the true moment of recognition comes when the hero and the heroine acknowledge their love for one another, usually by uttering the phrase I-love-you, for it is only by that act that they are able to see beyond the deceptive nature of appearances.[6]

The Rape of Possession

The Rape of Possession occurs when the hero, overwhelmed by desire and, oftentimes, an unacknowledged love for the heroine, attempts to possess her by force. Here, the hero’s fundamental mistake is not confusion of identities or conflation of personhood with social role, but confounding possession of the flesh with love; he assumes that the heroine’s body will satisfy his need for her reciprocal desire. Rapes of Possession are often fueled by jealousy and the hero’s conviction that the heroine is unfaithful or about to leave him. He rapes her physically because he cannot discern between the body and the will. He mistakenly assumes that the body is the essential person.

The Rape of Possession usually occurs between a hero and heroine who are already acquainted. They are not involved in a bed-trick or an act of mistaken identity. The misperception that accompanies this type of rape is based upon a material absolutism: the body, and by extension the physical world, is all that exists. Transcendence, even a transcendence as mundane as romantic affection,[7] is considered by the hero to be an illusion, an idealistic fantasy. These heroes cannot or dare not imagine a world beyond the flesh, because that would be tantamount to admitting that they are in some way lacking—that they, too, desire love and happiness. For example, in Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan (2007), the hero, Justin, sees his mistress as a toy, an object that offers succor and happiness, but never as a person. When Verity leaves him, he plots to get her back. Finally, after kidnapping her to a remote part of Scotland, he rapes her. But in the aftermath, he begins to understand what he has done: “Tumbling his mistress had always left him with an inner peace nothing else in life offered. When she’d gone, she had snatched away his only source of happiness. He’d been desperate to get it back, like a child who had lost his favorite toy and cried until it was restored. Well, he had his favorite toy back and he still felt like crying” (132). In this moment Justin begins to recognize that his desire is not only childish, but that his objectification of Verity is ultimately unsatisfying and can never bring him comfort.

Bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan outline in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms several of the most common explanations readers of romance give for the occurrence of romance rape scenes, among which is: “The fact that the hero Loses His Shit every time he’s around the heroine is an indicator of True Lurve instead of a True Need for a Restraining Order” (144). Although the Rape of Possession can signal the hero’s love for heroine, these rapes function primarily to demonstrate to the hero that physical and sexual power cannot make the heroine love him, even if they can make her body respond orgasmically. The Rape of Possession is about an exchange that requires the hero to acknowledge the heroine as her own person, to meet her on her own terms, to confess his wrongdoing—often in scenes of groveling apology—in order to allow the heroine to choose or to deny him as her lover.

In Claiming the Courtesan, Justin is not confused about Verity’s identity when he rapes her, even though he has until recently known her only by her courtesan’s name, Soraya. Rather, he perpetrates the rape assuming that by possessing and pleasuring her body, he can also possess her will. Knowledge of the Other here is based upon a false notion of ownership. Justin understands his relationship with Verity as a contractual one—literally, for they drew up a legal contract before he engaged her services as his mistress. Under that contract, he has ownership of Verity’s person for a set amount of time. When she leaves him at the end of that period, he becomes infuriated, believing that she has violated the spirit of the agreement by taking back possession of herself. The hero’s epistemological problem, then, stems not from a confusion of social role with personhood, but rather from a confusion of bodily possession with mutual desire.

Justin recognizes that despite a year together he knows nothing at all about Verity as a person: “Now, futilely, he wished he’d taken the time to find out more. But he had been so lost to his physical passion that he’d never paused to explore more than her body” (22). Yet, this recognition does not negate his assumption that he owns Verity. Justin does not recognize or acknowledge Verity’s personhood. He refuses to accept that Verity sees Soraya not as an aspect of herself, or even as a different person, but primarily as a defense mechanism to protect her true self from the indignities of her profession as a prostitute. By kidnapping and raping her, by refusing to distinguish between Verity and Soraya because they occupy the same body, Justin attempts to reinforce his false assumption that bodily knowledge of Soraya constitutes psychological or emotional knowledge of Verity and that his contractual possession of Soraya authorizes his contractual possession of Verity.

The confusion between Verity’s body and person mirrors Justin’s confusion regarding his own desires. He has conflated love with sex, desire for the body with desire for reciprocal love. Just as he fails to recognize and name Verity, so does Justin fail to recognize and name his own motivation: that what he desires is to be loved in return. It is his belief that love can be reduced to a contract (either as a written document or as a marriage) as well as his belief that possession can satisfy the desire to be loved, that renders him unprepared for Soraya’s departure and Verity’s resistance. Justin cannot see that in denying her former name and reclaiming her true one, Verity is claiming an identity that exists beyond the contractual bonds of their prior relationship. “Once more, the troubling idea snagged in his mind that she wasn’t the same woman she’d been then. And for the first time, he thought of her as Verity before he thought of her as Soraya” (87). Only when Justin acknowledges Verity, not Soraya, as the woman he loves, can he make amends for his violation.

Catherine Coulter’s 1994 version of Rebel Bride is a slight variation of this type of rape. Unlike Justin, the hero of this novel, Julien St. Clair, is fully able to acknowledge that he loves the heroine. In fact, he confesses this to himself quite early on by the standards of the romance genre. “It struck him forcibly that he wanted Katharine Brandon not simply as a summer idyll, to end with the coming of fall. No, he wanted her, all of her . . . He wanted her by his side until he cocked up his toes” (59). The misperception, then, comes not because Julien cannot acknowledge his own feelings, but because he is not able to acknowledge Katharine’s feelings. His refusal to see Katharine’s feelings as distinct from his own is manifested in the exposition by a persistent and problematic use of the conditional mood. When Julien thinks about Katharine, he uses the conditional to graft onto Katharine thoughts and feelings she has never expressed verbally. He uses the conditional mood to read her body like a text. The conditional enables him to interpret her actions as confirmation of his knowledge of her. It allows him to make the assumption that he can know what she feels for him through the signs of her body. “He was quite certain that when he entered the drawing room that morning that her eyes lit up at the sight of him, but he could not be sure that her obvious joy denoted a more serious sign of affection” (93).

At this point in the narrative, Julien is still capable of doubting his own reading of Katharine. However, when she responds to his kiss only paragraphs later, her physical response solidifies his interpretation of her body; it allows Julien to conflate Katharine’s body with her will. This in turn enables him to affirm what he has long wished to believe about her: that Katharine loves him back. However, this reading of the kiss ignores as many signs as it testifies to. Julien dismisses Katharine’s strange behavior just prior to the kiss as well as her sudden withdrawal from their embrace as unimportant and unconnected. As these actions do not fit into the interpretation of Katharine that best benefits Julien’s own desires and longings, he chooses to ignore them:

But his buoyant spirits wouldn’t let him long dwell upon the unusual incident. In all truth the experience paled beside her response to him when he’d kissed her. As her husband, he would, of course, have her trust and her confidence. She would willingly tell him whatever he wished to know. She would be his wife. She would be his, all of her (97)

It is the “of course” in conjunction with the “she would” that eventually results in the rape. Julien assumes that he knows Katharine’s feelings better than she knows them herself. What he has yet to discover about her, Julien assumes will be “of course” revealed through marriage to her; he assumes that marriage will give him final and complete access to Katharine’s interior self. This assumption is predicated upon the same underlying misperception as Justin’s rape of Verity: it presumes that to possess the woman is to know the woman. The “of course” also explains the dramatic change in Julien’s behavior once Katharine rejects his suit. He cannot admit that he read her wrong, that he privileged her body as the total sign of her personhood. He sees only what he wants to see, and this sight blinds him to other aspects of Katharine’s self. He characterizes her as a shrew, taking for his model Shakespeare’s Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and consequently behaves as if he were Petruchio. As such, Julien rapes Katharine because he is determined to prove to her that his original reading of her was correct despite the fact that she has told him it was not. Yet the rape fails to prove his original reading. Rather, it reveals to him the sheer inadequacy of his knowledge. He not only has utterly misperceived Katharine, but he inadvertently discovers that Katharine herself was not fully privy to her own history and person. This revelation is made when Katharine flashes back to a childhood memory of being gang raped, a memory which she has totally repressed. The sudden knowledge this event brings rewrites all of Julien and Katharine’s prior interactions. It forces Julien to take responsibility not only for his rape of Katharine, but for how he has erased her personhood in his insistence on the body as the absolute measure of her identity.

Yet even prior to the discovery of Katharine’s past, Julien’s horror at what he has done underlines the core misperception under which he has been operating. “He’d raped her, Jesus, he hadn’t intended that, no never that, but he had. He’d planned so carefully to teach her pleasure, to force her to realize that she was a woman with a woman’s passions” (252). His assumption has been that because he is her husband and thereby has access to Katharine’s body, he can then “force her to realize” something about herself that she does not know. Ironically, he does indeed force her to realize something about herself that she does not know. But more importantly, the rape forces Julien to realize something he does not know: Katharine. It compels him to acknowledge his misperception, to admit that he read her body as if the thoughts and feelings he grafted onto her were hers and not his own suppositions.

Julien, then, must spend the remainder of the book making amends to Katharine for his appropriation of her body. However, these revelations—of Julien’s rape of Katharine and her past sexual assault—are not enough to atone for the harm Julien has caused through his assumption that he knew Katharine better than she knew herself. Julien is only able to win Katharine’s love when he fully acknowledges Katharine as a separate person, one whose reactions he can neither predict nor manipulate. It is only when Julien accepts that he might never have Katharine and then leaves her alone that is she able to forgive him and finally return his love.

Thus, the anagnorisis in the Rape of Possession comes not in the recognition of a noble or gentle birth, but in the recognition that the body alone can never fulfill the hero’s desire for the heroine; that mere possession of the heroine whether it is through marriage, contract, or rape fails to create reciprocity. Justin must realize “that after all these years of studying Soraya, of hunting her as his grandfather had hunted the glen’s deer, he didn’t understand her at all. And until he knew what made her the way she was, he’d never completely possess her” (143), whereas Julien must finally acknowledge and act on Katharine’s wishes even when they are contrary to his own desires. It is in seeing, finally, the heroine as a separate and distinct person, as more than a body that can be read and possessed, that the hero is redeemed. Both Rapes of Mistaken Identity and Rapes of Possession require the resolution of the core misperceptions that cause them to occur before the hero and heroine can reach their happily ever after.

The Rape of Coercion, or “Forced Seduction”

However, the third type—the Rape of Coercion or forced seduction—is not predicated upon an epistemological misunderstanding, but is committed in order for the hero to gain knowledge about the identity of the heroine. The violation occurs not from ignorance of the Other or a misconstruction of the Other, but more distressingly from the hero’s desire to know the heroine, ontologically as she is beyond her body, appearance, or social role. In this type of rape, the hero wants a reaction from the heroine, a response from her not just physically but verbally. This desire is encapsulated in the term “forced seduction” which has long been used in genre parlance to euphemistically indicate any rape of the heroine by the hero. However, my restriction of the term to this third and final type of rape rests on the concept of seduction as primarily being a discursive act. The idea that one can force a seduction suggests that there are seductions in which no force is necessary. It implies that seduction is akin to temptation and, therefore, a kind of persuasion. The connotation of this is that both seduction and temptation are actions made through discourse and require the complicity of the person being seduced. Forced seduction, then, is not simply to rape, but to compel an interaction between two speaking persons; to lead the Other aside or astray using persuasive language; to make the Other complicit with her own violation. Seduction is a dialogue between seducer and seducee. In the Rape of Coercion, the hero wants a response from the heroine because it is in her dialogue with him that her identity is revealed. But instead of waiting for her freely to speak to him the hero forces the heroine to respond to his sexual and verbal assault.

Thus the term “forced seduction” refers to the dialogic aspect of this type of rape scene not just as it functions in the plot, but as it functions on a mythic level[8] as an answer to the epistemological and ontological questions that romance narratives perpetually ask: Who is the Other? And how can I know her? If these questions cannot be addressed in terms of social contexts and their associated performative acts (attire, accessories, or social roles) or in terms of the purely material and physical realm of flesh with its objective proofs (the sexual responsiveness of the body, the likeness of the body to other bodies, etc.), then how are they to be answered? I contend that the questions of identity and being that romance asks can be answered only through the exchange of language, as language is the only means by which the hero can engage the heroine’s identity. Without her articulated response, the hero is trapped in a world of appearances where the only signs of the heroine’s identity are those very misperceptions on whose basis the former two types of rape are committed. She must speak to him so he can know who she is.

In Anne Stuart’s contemporary romance Black Ice, this exchange of language is manifest both in the physical act of rape and the exploitation of that rape to force a confession of identity from the heroine. In this story the hero, Bastien Toussaint, is a spy. When he encounters the heroine, Chloe, he cannot believe that she truly is as she appears—a totally innocent woman, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, he believes that she, too, must be a spy and sets out to extract from her a confession of her true self. Bastien does this through sex because “Hurting her would get him nowhere—she’d be trained to withstand pain and she’d give up nothing she didn’t want to give up. But there were other, much more pleasurable ways of finding out what he wanted to know” (111). For Bastien, truth is located in the body, but it is not the body. It is a confession of identity gained through the bodily act of sex. Not torture,[9] but sex serves to break down the barriers between himself and Chloe, rendering her unable to do anything but reveal the truth to him. Bastien rapes Chloe in order to push her past her limits, to force her to tell him the truth. The moment of her sexual climax annihilates her ability to deceive him so he can discover who she really is. The repeated question “Who are you?” (116-118) is central to the rape scene in Black Ice, a repetition evidencing that this type of rape is neither about power nor lust, but rather about the desire to know the Other.

The rape in Patricia Gaffney’s historical romance To Have and To Hold is likewise entwined with language and identity. The heroine, Rachel Wade, released after ten years in prison for murdering her husband, finds herself with nowhere to go and is consequently charged with vagrancy. At her arraignment before the magistrates of Wyckerly County, she meets the hero, Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D’Aubrey, who makes Rachel his housekeeper to prevent her re-incarceration. This seeming act of charity, however, covers his true intentions, which “might be murky, but one thing was certain: they had nothing to do with kindness or generosity” (26). Rachel is perfectly aware that the price of this charity is sex with Sebastian, a condition to which she neither consents nor objects. Indeed, it is a condition never articulated by either of them. From the moment he brings her home, Sebastian wants to know Rachel, but she is frustratingly silent. Rachel is repeatedly characterized as a “non-entity” (22) as a “blank” (20, 42): “Mrs. Wade has simply erased herself” (24). It is this blankness, this erasure of self that Sebastian finds compelling. From the moment he sees her, he must know her. Once they have returned to his manor, Sebastian begins to question Rachel, to interrogate her about herself and her past. “‘What?” he demanded softly. “Tell me what you’re thinking’” (37).

The physical rape functions as an extension of this questioning. When Sebastian finally comes to Rachel’s room, the sex itself is a “cool controlled act” (125). What makes it brutal are Sebastian’s many attempts to invade Rachel’s memories and identity: “What did he do to you?” “Did he hurt you, always?” “Was there never any pleasure for you?” (125). Both in Black Ice and To Have and To Hold, the rape is inquisitional. In the latter narrative, Rachel does not respond either physically or verbally, leading Sebastian to realize that she will never answer him. It is the initial failure to garner a response from her through physical rape that leads to a verbal rape. The discursive nature of the Rape of Coercion is what differentiates it from the Rape of Mistaken Identity and the Rape of Possession, in which the rapes reveal to the hero his lack of knowledge about the heroine’s identity and, more importantly, his desire to know her. For this reason the first two types leave the heroine’s core selfhood inviolable, even while her body is violated. This seeming contradiction occurs because the bodily rape is not of her, but of who she seems to be, thus allowing the heroine to function as a virgin in the text where virginity is not defined by the heroine’s lack of sexual knowledge but by the impenetrability of her identity. The Rape of Coercion, rather, occurs precisely because the hero is aware that appearances are deceptive. Instead, he uses the rape to probe the heroine’s identity both physically and verbally.

Thus, Sebastian’s physical rape of Rachel does not function in the text as the true rape scene. That scene occurs not through sexual intercourse but through verbal discourse involving the silent Rachel and Sebastian’s cruel friends, whom he invites to his manor to interrogate her—an interrogation that leaves him feeling violated. By having to speak to her, by questioning her, he makes himself vulnerable. Her silence exposes his own emptiness. By exposing her to the ruthless questioning of his reprobate acquaintances, he not only pushes Rachel to the limits of her identity, he pushes himself to the limits of his. His friends are able to achieve what Sebastian cannot: “horror after horror, she enumerated for his jaded friends, forced admissions of constant hunger, petrifying monotony and despair” (156). It is only when Sully, the Grand Inquisitor of this little game, asks about her husband that Rachel leaves the room, unable to utter that final horror. Yet, despite the rapacious nature of the conversation, Rachel later confesses to Sebastian that “I hated it but deep down something in me was glad to answer. Glad because I was being made to speak finally” (179).

Sebastian, too, is altered by the inquisition of his friends. He recognizes “his own soft, mocking tone in Sully’s despicable cadence” (157). When Rachel flees the room and Sully pursues her, Sebastian “felt the tear down the middle of himself widening and that was wrong; it should have been narrowing. He’d just done a thing to make himself whole again” (198). Sebastian commits the verbal rape by agreeing to have his friends visit, knowing full well that this would be the result. Yet, what it accomplishes is not to shift him back to his old self as he had hoped. Rather, it only acts to shatter Sebastian’s former sense of personhood. When Sebastian follows Sully out of the room, they fight. Sebastian is shot, Sully gets his nose broken. He retreats to his bedroom for days, and what follows is Sebastian’s descent into an internal hell, like the dark night of the soul in a hagiography. The fight is the culmination of this verbal rape, which has functioned as the point of ritual death in the text. For Sebastian, it is the blood and the shot that serve as a death, just as the inquisitional rape is what acts as a death for Rachel. Death is a necessary prelude to resurrection and when Sebastian tells Rachel, “They sent you to an early grave . . . but I’m going to dig you out of it and resurrect you” (192), he is acknowledging that what he has desired all this time was Rachel, but Rachel transformed from the silence that has characterized her.

The rape, then, forces Rachel to speak, but it also breaks Sebastian’s own sense of selfhood. In the romance text, the Rape of Coercion reveals that love is a version of death. In “The Solar Anus,” Bataille discusses love and violence as connected, possibly inseparable concepts. As such, the violating hero cannot remain untouched by his violence and, like the heroine, suffers a kind of death by his assault upon her. When Bataille says: “I want to have my throat slashed while violating the girl who I will have been able to say: you are the night” (9), he is expressing that falling in love with the Other is an imitation or mimicry of violence. For Bataille, the world is parodic: language is a parody of desire, and desire is a parody of crime. Love is not structured as an elevated experience outside of the material world; but rather love descends into the body, where it becomes part of the material world, neither separate from the body nor accessed through the body, but entwined with the corporal world and subject to its degradations. In the moment of violating Rachel via language, Sebastian himself suffers a ritual death along with her. The crime and debasement Bataille associates with love serves to transform identity. Sebastian’s crime against and debasement of Rachel also enacts his own violation—“slashing his own throat”—thus transforming both his former self and Rachel’s blankness.

The rapist of coercion, the forcing seducer, wants his victim to tell him, “I am here with you, I want you, I love you.” The Rape of Coercion then serves in the text as the “point of ritual death,” but I use this term in a slightly different way than either Northrop Frye (who coins the phrase in Anatomy of Criticism) or Pamela Regis (who uses it in A Natural History of the Romance Novel). Here, the point of ritual death is physically manifested in a corporeal rape of the heroine that is concomitant with the death of identity through the corporal body of both heroine and hero. The forced seduction, then, is not simply the moment at which the story seems to be veering towards tragedy or the separation of the lovers, but rather the rape, both physical and verbal, becomes the ritual through which the identities of both heroine and hero die in order to be reborn. The rape or “forced” seduction functions not as partial negation, but as total negation, not just of the Other, but of the Self. The rape’s interrogative aspect reveals the desire both for the annihilation of the Other and the annihilation of the former Self.

Sebastian’s desire to push Rachel to her limits is not a desire to possess her but to break her down, to bring her to a threshold beyond which there is something other than a blank and silent woman. He wants to make her fully present through language. As Terry Eagleton elucidates, the self that is born through language signifies a simultaneous death of the physical and a refiguring of identity: “If the sign is the death of the thing, that death is nevertheless redemptive: through its troubling blankness the body is resurrected into a presence more radiantly authentic than the unrisen flesh” (45). Without language, Rachel’s body has neither identity nor subjectivity. Rachel’s words are what hold Sebastian’s interest. Thus language, confession, and revelation become the locus of the rape, whether physical or discursive; it is a forced intercourse in the other sense of that word. The Rape of Coercion is a ritual death of the heroine’s identity and the hero’s own subject position, one that invokes ritual sacrifice. However, ritual cannot rely solely on language. It must also be enacted and manifested physically through a performance. Ritual does something through and to its participants. It has a purpose that goes beyond mere event; it has a communal meaning that can be used to assuage guilt, to seek divine favor, to allow the community to cohere or rally against a common enemy. In the case of the Rape of Coercion, ritual is performed to solidify individual identity as well as to bind the couple together. It serves as a sometimes violent fortunate fall—a fall out of isolation (as represented by Rachel’s imprisonment) and alienation (as represented in Sebastian’s libertinism).

In the Rape of Coercion, the underlying question of romance narrative transforms from “How do I know the Other?” to “Who are you?” The only answer to this question is “I am.” In other words, it is only possible to gain an answer to the question of identity through the verbal response of the Other confirming her presence. If rape functions within romance narrative as the means by which the hero interrogates the heroine’s identity, then the response to this physical and verbal assault is not found in the heroine’s sexual climax but in the progress of their dialogue, culminating in the declaration of love. This is manifested in the I-love-you uttered at the end of these novels.[10] I-love-you declares not just an emotional state held by the “I” but an existential one. When the hero tells the heroine he loves her, he is making himself fully present to her while concurrently querying for her presence. The earlier violence that defined his interrogation of the heroine is no more. Rather, in uttering I-love-you the hero calls to the heroine, awaiting her response as both a declaration of her personhood and as an expression of her emotion. The phrase thus serves as an answer to both the question of identity posed in the encounter with the Other and as an answer to the violence of intercourse, enacted in the verbal and physical rape of the heroine. It does this because I-love-you recognizes in its structure the need for the Other’s presence, ontologically (being) but not epistemologically (knowing). Barthes observes that, “the subject and the object come to the word [to love] even as it is uttered, and I-love-you must be understood” as a single word-phrase (147); that is, the Self and the Other are united by the narrative arc into a single, uttered phrase where both “I” and “you” are present. Subject and object are joined by the verb, to love, yet maintain their distinct positions within the sentence. This parallels the structure of the plot in which the hero and heroine are joined by love over the course of the story, yet remain distinct persons united by mutual choice. More significantly, the hero and the heroine exchange places as they exchange the phrase I-love-you, each occupying both the subject (“I”) and object (“you”) position. The hero becomes the object in the heroine’s utterance, as she becomes the subject of her own speech, and vice versa. “I-love-you . . . is the metaphor for nothing else” (Barthes, 148) or nothing outside of the phrase because in it both the Other and the Self are fully present as simultaneously speaking persons. There is no outside referent. I-love-you marries not only the Self and the Other, but also the body and the soul, the tongue and the speech, the concrete and the abstract.

Regardless of type, rape scenes in popular romance serve to unify language and sexuality. They insist upon the acknowledgment of an identity or personhood that is more than flesh, more than body and yet one that is materialized through flesh and body. In these scenes, copulation is not just sex, but also the copulation of linguistic terms where the ineffable is made manifest through physical and verbal intercourse. That is, the rape forces the revelation of the Other to the Self. In the words of Bataille, the result is that “the copula of terms is no less irritating than the copulation of bodies. And when I scream I AM THE SUN an integral erection results, because the verb to be is the vehicle of amorous frenzy” (5). Identity—to be—is at the root of desire. It is in the copulation of linguistic terms, as it is in the copulation of physical bodies, that the violence required for the transformation of the hero and heroine’s identities is found. Language is violent; it yokes together contradictions; it splits action and existence. And in romance it serves as the vehicle of metamorphosis from the isolation of asceticism and hedonism—two opposite, complementary representations of very different fallen selves, each trapped in an identity at odds with itself, one that has been shattered into disparate and scattered pieces. Language, but specifically interrogative language, deals the final, breaking blow to the Self and the Other. And it is, again, through language—“the vehicle of amorous frenzy”—that these identities are re-integrated. It is in the semiotic and somatic copulation of terms, the violent joining together hero and heroine in the rape, that these identities become whole. The climax literally comes when, in the amorous frenzy, the full self is revealed in response to the question of “who are you?” But language—spoken or written—is not the goal. The goal is the revelation of the Other as the beloved; what is desired is the “unconditionally singular covenant, the mad love between” the One and the Other (Derrida 156) which is finally fulfilled in the declaratory phrase, I-love-you.

The appearance in popular romance texts of any of the three types of rape reveals that the true violation is not the rape at all, but the act of falling in love. In these rape scenes, it is not that “[c]oitus is the parody of crime” (Bataille 5), but rather that crime—rape—is the parody of love. It is the revelation that there is violation in every act of falling in love. For love itself requires that one’s personhood be invaded by the presence of another. Rape in romance is the physical manifestation of what all love is about: the intrusion of the Other into the Self and the death that must precede their harmonious unification.


Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. Print.

Bataille, Georges. “The Solar Anus:” Ed. Allan Stoekl. Visions of Excess. Trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.

Campbell, Anna. Claiming the Courtesan. New York: Avon, 2007. Print.

Coulter, Catherine. Rebel Bride. New York: Topaz, 1994. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Willis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

Dodd, Christina. A Well Pleasured Lady. New York: Avon, 1997. Print.

Doniger, Wendy. “Speaking in Tongues: Deceptive Stories about Sexual Deception.” The Journal of Religion. 74.3 (July 1994): 320-337. Print.

—. The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. The Rape of Clarissa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. Print.

Ferguson, Frances. “Rape and the Rise of the Novel.” Representations. 20. Special Issue: Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy (Autumn, 1987): 88-112. Print.

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

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976. Print.

Gaffney, Patricia. To Have and To Hold. New York: Topaz, 1995. Print.

Janet. “Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance.” N.p., 2010. Accessed 30 Nov. 2010. Web.

Jewel, Carolyn. Lord Ruin. New York: Leisure Books, 2002. Print.

Kenaan, Vered Lev. Pandora’s Senses: The Feminine Character of the Ancient Text. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other. Trans. Michael Smith and Barabara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Print.

—. Humanism of the Other. Trans. Nidra Poller. Introduction Richard A. Cohen. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Print.

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

Stanford, Stella. The Metaphysics of Love: Gender and Transcendence in Levinas. London: The Athlone Press, 2000. Print.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. God Between Their Lips: Desire Between Women in Irigaray, Bronte, and Eliot. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994. Print.

Stuart, Anne. Black Ice. New York: Mira, 2005. Print.

Tan, Candy. “Talking about the R Word.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. N.p., 2005. Accessed 30

Nov 2010. Web <


Weisser, Susan Ostorov. Women and Romance: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Print.

Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2009. Print.

Woodiwiss, Kathleen E. The Flame and The Flower. New York: Avon Books, 1998. Print.

[1] With every publication of a new romance novel in which such scenes of a “forced seduction” appear, debates about the trope are renewed. For an earlier perspective on these issues, Helen Hazen’s Endless Rapture (1983) explores several different aspects of the debate. Current discussions of the issue are primarily held at online communities such as Dear Author <>and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books <>.

[2] See most famously Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: women, patriarchy and popular literature (1984); Tania Modeleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (1982); and Krentz’s Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992). However, the discourse on the genre has begun to shift to different theoretical approaches since the late 1990s as exemplified by Pamela Regis’ 2003 A Natural History of the Romance, and Lisa Fletcher’s 2008 Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity.

[3] Although the opposite rape, by the heroine of the hero, does occur as well. See Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ This Heart of Mine, for example.

[4] The necessity of this clarification is due to the fact that unlike other genres of literature, popular romance scholarship has, in the past, often made the mistake of implying a cause and effect relationship between the plots of the novels and the lives lived by readers themselves. This is the case in Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.

[5] Despite romance being a genre written by women for women, I presume that the Other is still female. This is because romance operates within the larger Western tradition where the Self or I is by default male. The narrative struggles with the question of how to create and maintain female subjectivity within the patriarchal order. And it is in this order that the hero has placed and identified himself when he encounters the heroine. In short, he sees her as the Other. It is in this context that the rape can occur.

[6] In her book Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, Lisa Fletcher discusses the phrase I-love-you as a performative speech act whose repetition is a sign of historical romance’s failure to stabilize its terms. I take an opposite position to Fletcher, seeing the repetition of I-love-you not as a failure to stabilize its terms but rather as a kind of ritual language whose utterance is transformative because of its repetition. However, the differences between these interpretations are beyond the scope of this present paper.

[7] It is my assumption that all romance, whether of the Greek, medieval, or paperback variety, is inherently a genre of transcendence. I am influenced in this view by the work of Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bahktin.

[8] In this reading of the mythic structure of romance, I am primarily influenced by Northrop Frye’s work in The Secular Scripture.

[9] See the discussion about Black Ice on Read, React, Review <> for further commentary on the body as the locus of truth.

[10] See note 6, above.


“The Comic, the Serious and the Middle: Desire and Space in Contemporary Film Romantic Comedy” by Celestino Deleyto

Romantic comedy is a genre that promotes and celebrates romantic love. This commonsense description may be more problematic than it seems at first sight. Indeed, the equivalence between romantic love and romantic comedy is not historically tenable. Romantic love as a specific Western concept consolidated itself in the eighteenth century and only became a dominant discourse in the nineteenth century (Giddens 39). By then, romantic comedy had already been in existence for several centuries, since its beginnings in sixteenth-century Italy and its artistic consolidation in Shakespeare’s plays. Even though the two concepts share the adjective “romantic” it is unclear that such an adjective means exactly the same in both cases. In the sixteenth century this new type of comedy incorporated a then radical view of love as a spiritual force, a beneficial feeling capable of making people happy and of becoming the engine of a new social organization. At the same time, however, the new genre partly retained love’s medieval associations with physical passion and its destructive potential (for men). In Shakespeare’s plays, for example, love is both an ideal union of minds and physical desire, except that now desire becomes more positive, something to celebrate rather than fear. But there is as much sexual energy as there is spiritual well-being and social integration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night. Since then, however, love in the Western world has undergone a process of desexualization that reached its peak in Victorian times (Seidman 7). Even though the twentieth century brought about a resexualization of love and, later, an elevation of sex parallel to the one that occurred in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (65-66), the popular discourse that separated romantic love from sex, and defined them as predominantly female and male experiences respectively, has remained very much at the center of our ways of thinking about intimate matters. This discourse has survived two waves of feminism, a sexual revolution, the relative normalization of homosexuality and various other vicissitudes during a century that brought about drastic changes in people’s attitude towards love and sex. It has also affected the evolution of romantic comedy and both popular and critical attitudes towards the genre to the extent that romcom has become both in popular and critical discourse a privileged example of a non-sexual attitude towards romantic love.

This discursive separation between love and sex is based on a simplification of the concept of romantic love and a generalized disregard of the complexities and potential of romantic comedy. In an influential study of the genre in the cinema, Tamar Jeffers McDonald rightly places sex at the centre of the history and the conceptualization of romcom and decries those periods and specific movies in which sex is downplayed in favor of a vague spiritual intensity (97). Sexual desire and erotic pleasure were indeed the engine of the structure of Shakespearean comedy and have remained very much at the heart of the meanings articulated by the genre. For Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare created these plays in order to convey some of the excitement and beauty of sexual attraction. Since he could not represent sexual intercourse directly on the Elizabethan stage he replaced it by verbal friction: “Dallying with words is the principal Shakespearean representation of erotic heat” (90). For Greenblatt, the heated arguments between apparent rivals were a transposition onto the stage of what could not be directly shown. The strategy of showing lovers quarrelling has remained a staple of the genre to this day and some of the most memorable moments in its history are constituted by such scenes. In them it is not so much that initial incompatibility leads to final compatibility. Rather, the friction itself represents sexual compatibility: it is a metaphor for it, not a prelude to it. These comic fights are not interesting because they show moments of crisis, dysfunctions and contradictions in interpersonal relationships but because they produce sparks of electricity between those who, in the fictional worlds of the genre, are destined for each other. Fights in romcom are happy occasions, moments to savor and celebrate, experiences to envy. What is important for my argument here, however, is the notion that in romantic comedy, although censorship has not always been an issue, desire, sexual attraction, and sexual heat tend to appear in a displaced manner and hardly ever directly. Explicit sex may be seen occasionally but it is far from a staple of the genre, and obvious eroticism and display of the sexual body finds a more natural home in other generic contexts. In many contemporary instances sex, when it does appear, is more often than not an object of ridicule, something to be laughed or giggled at. Yet, at the same time, the films are very much about the central place occupied by desire in our lives. Since Shakespeare’s times, other strategies have been added to the charged dialogues that have shaped the genre as a prime producer of erotic energy and have allowed it to play a prominent role in cinema’s endless production of desire.

For these reasons, I would like to suggest that romantic comedy is not, as earlier critics have asserted, primarily a genre that celebrates marriage, monogamy and compulsory heterosexuality (for example, Krutnik 138). Rather, what is most characteristic and unique about it is that it offers, through its specific generic configurations, love and sexual desire as endless sources of pleasure and as the most powerful dimension of human experience. The view of romantic love to which it is committed is openly sexual, as much nowadays as it was at the beginning of its history. Like all other genres, romantic comedy exists in history and, as the very old genre that it is, it has experienced important changes. Within the history of cinema, it has not only reflected but also contributed to shaping interpersonal relationships, intimate matters, and sexual protocols in the course of a packed century. More recently, since its commercial boom in the mid-1980s, it has consolidated itself as one of the most industrially viable and successful genres, and, at the same time, as one of the most universally despised by the critics. One of the reasons for this has been excessive attention to the convention of the happy ending (Neale and Krutnik 12-13). According to this dominant view, since all romantic comedies have a happy ending, they all have the same conservative ideology and they are all very similar to one another. There is no denying the importance of romcom’s endings, although it could be argued that these endings are often considerably more complex and more interesting than they are given credit for. More importantly, however, there is much more to romantic comedy than the happy ending: in narrative terms, the middle of the comic narrative is just as important. It is often in the middle that we find variety, contradiction and complexity. It is also in the middle that we are most likely to encounter cultural nuance and historically relevant discourses on intimate matters. Finally, it is also in this middle section that the energy and exhilaration produced by sexual desire is displayed with greatest power and complexity.

All genres and all films employ their own mechanisms to convert experience into fictional worlds. I would like to propose the concept of the comic space as a way of understanding what is special about this genre and, more specifically, how the lovers are encouraged to fulfill their desires. This is not a new concept: it comes close to Northrop Frye’s “green world,” the forest or foreign city to which Shakespearean lovers escape in their quest for a new identity and more mature sexuality. Frye, for whom “green world” comedy and romantic comedy are synonyms, finds this trope central for an understanding of Shakespeare’s and later comedies (1957 and 1965). More recently, Deborah Thomas starts her discussion of the filmic categories of the comedic and the melodramatic with a discussion of space and argues that, unlike melodrama, comedic films present a single space, the social space, which, in the course of the narrative, is transformed into something better. This space is benevolent and sheltering for the couple (14). Thomas is referring to something larger than romantic comedy—a filmic mode that she calls the comedic, although at certain points of her discussion she seems to slip into the more specific territory of romcom. In any case, this sheltering space acquires particular resonance in the case of this genre.

I have described elsewhere the particular details of this comic space, and a brief summary of that longer argument may be useful here. As I argue in The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy, romantic comedy’s fictional worlds are very close to the real world of intimate protocols and therefore immediately recognizable by the spectator. Yet, unlike in our real lives, here lovers are protected in their amatory pursuits and encouraged to shed their inhibitions and oppose the social and psychological obstacles that we all tend to fall prey to in our daily experience. Because we recognize the comic space as very close to our own, we are attracted to a genre that allows us to believe in the unstoppable power of desire, and makes us confident that an alternative regime of feelings, not governed by social law, personal inhibition and constant frustration, is possible (30-38).

A great deal of the creative energy of the filmmakers goes towards the construction of this comic space. In films, we find not only the verbal sparring theorized by Greenblatt but also formal elements related to mise en scène, actor performance, use of the soundtrack and more. Among the most important of these formal elements is humor. Humor may have a variety of functions in romantic comedy but it is very often part of the displaced manner in which sexual desire is transferred onto the screen. This is another striking fact about the genre: in its verbal confrontations, in its frequent gags and jokes, in its apparently frivolous attitudes to intimate matters, it seems to court attacks of superficiality and irrelevance, of failure to tackle important matters very seriously. Yet romantic comedy, like all comedy in general, is deceptive in this respect, too. Intimate matters constitute, for the genre, the core of our humanity and the genre is very earnest in its defense of those privileged human beings who put love and desire before anything else. The fact that it deals with its subject matter through jokes, gags, ridicule, irony, and often general hilarity should not make us forget its seriousness. In this sense, it is a very demanding genre: it requires us to laugh and to take it seriously at the same time—to take laughter and humor seriously (Palmer 1). This paradox is partly the essence of the magic space that romantic comedies deploy in their middle section. In the rest of this article, I would like to explore the workings of this comic space and its displaced representation of sexual desire in two films from the year 2009, The Ugly Truth and (500) Days of Summer.

These two films, while clearly remaining within the realm of romantic comedy, have very different registers. In (500) Days a balance is struck between subdued comic moments and more melodramatic ones in order to depict the ups and downs of a relationship which is ultimately not blessed with the stylistic display of energy that the genre usually reserves for the couples it protects. Humor, whenever it is present, tends to be reserved for secondary characters or to all-too-brief moments of the action. The Ugly Truth integrates its comedy much more thoroughly within the dynamic established from the beginning between the two protagonists. A magic space is constructed around the humor of their exchanges and interactions. This space transmits to the spectator the sexual energy that cements their relationship, and this relationship, in turn, is protected by the comic space. What is instructive about these two instances is how their different uses of the comic space produce different degrees of sexual energy and different approaches to the genre.

Visually and structurally, (500) Days of Summer is a very distinctive film which uses some of the strategies of so-called independent cinema to tell the story of the relationship between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). He falls head over heels in love with her but she is not looking for a meaningful relationship and, although they have a few months together, their affair soon fizzles out. In the course of the film Tom voices a more or less conventional attitude towards love and relationships whereas Summer has a more cynical outlook. When the external narrator says in the prologue that this is not a love story, he is partly equivocating. It may be an imperfect love story, but Tom’s belief in “the one” person, in spite of his disappointment in Summer, remains part of the film’s intimate discourse: as Summer tells him when they meet again at the end of the film, it is not that she did not believe in the special person—rather, Tom wasn’t her special person. However, since the bulk of the film focuses on their relationship, the emphasis is less on the power of desire when it exists than on the frustrations it causes when it is unrequited.

The film’s most distinctive formal characteristic is its scrambled narrative structure. Although the manipulation of chronological linearity is not as radical as it may seem at first sight, the overall effect is a feeling of loss and disenchantment: even the moments of happiness from the early days of the relationship are immediately followed in the film’s timeline by moments of frustration, and awareness of the outcome from the beginning prevents the spectators’ trained hope that they might still end together. Narrative structure, therefore, constantly denies compatibility while conveying a feeling of fragmentation and loneliness. The soundtrack is peppered with numerous pop songs that comment on the various stages of the relationship, but the central theme is a low-key whistled rendition of “Moon River”, which evokes the melancholy atmosphere of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and its elusive protagonist Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Music and narrative structure construct a playful mode in the narration, which is complemented by home-movies footage, faux-documentary black and white sequences, and parodies of European films from the 1950s and 60s. Tom’s job, as a greeting card writer, also explains the frequent drawings that sometimes replace the action, including the main motif, a “naïf” rendition of Angelus Plaza, the protagonist’s favorite spot in downtown Los Angeles.

All of these devices contribute to the construction of the film’s fictional and affective space but none of them help to transform it into a magic space where desire may reign supreme. In fact, they are there to constantly reject such a transformation. As a consequence of this, the strong sense of place we get throughout (500) Days of Summer does not turn downtown LA into a space of romantic comedy. Rather, the city tends to expressionistically reproduce here the wistfulness and longing of the frustrated lover. The one exception to this mood is the musical scene when, after a happy night with Summer, Tom goes back to work the next morning. This musical number is the most exuberant moment in the film, with all the passers-by turning into participants in the communal dance that conveys his momentary but deep exultation. But even this musical fantasy is not a shared moment, as we would expect it to be in the comic space. There is no sign of Summer amongst the dancers, no indication that she might be enjoying a similar fantasy at the same time. When Tom finally gets to the office, not only does the fantasy disappear but the film cuts from a shot of him going into the lift to a similar one, many days later, when Summer has already left him and he feels desperately lonely. Not only is the musical fantasy incomplete but the energy it promises is cut short by the text before we begin to harbor any serious hope.

(500) Days of Summer is not lacking in moments of humor or a comic outlook on human experience. Through its comic perspective the text asks us to accept disappointments in love with humor and equanimity, and also with a certain cool detachment, as pertains to the world of independent cinema in which the movie inscribes itself. However, the film’s very inventive gags and comic moments never contribute to the formation of a comic space; in fact, they tend to undermine it. Consider, for example, the use of split screen at a crucial point in the narrative. Sometime after their break-up, Summer invites Tom to a party at her new apartment. When he arrives, the screen splits in two and two simultaneous actions start to take place, one defined by the title “expectations” on the left and the other by “reality” on the right. As the scene develops, the two actions drift further and further apart, Tom’s dream of a romantic reconciliation contrasting bitterly with the reality of Summer’s polite but offhand attitude towards him, topped by the moment when, with Tom as an unnoticed witness, she shows her engagement ring to another friend. The scene is funny in its visual inventiveness, but its humor, rather than contributing to the protection and liberation of the lovers, revels in the gaping distance between them and underscores the male protagonist’s misery and frustration. Once the split screen disappears, as Tom runs away from the party and finds himself walking alone in the middle of the street, the live action is turned into one of the greeting-card drawings that the film has used before, which, in this case emphasizes the unbearable loneliness of those whose desire is not returned.

(500) Days of Summer proves that for the lovers to be protected by the comic space they must be ready and willing to let themselves be driven by their desire, even if, as happens often, at the beginning of the story they may not yet be aware that they are. In this movie, it is not so much that the text fails to provide the generic context for the fulfillment of desire. Rather, the incompatibility between the two protagonists prevents the comic space from materializing. The text itself, on the other hand, shows obvious potential for the construction of such a space. The sunny appearance of downtown Los Angeles, a place hitherto little exploited by romantic comedy (another recent exception being In Search of a Midnight Kiss, 2007), and, particularly, the two scenes in Angelus Plaza suggest the familiar presence of desire in the Californian air. However, this desire, like the narrative itself, is excessively one-sided: both scenes are central to the romantic structure of the film but they are both equally dominated by Tom’s dreams and hopes, with Summer little more than a reluctant appendage. This diminutive park in the middle of the old and new skyscrapers of the financial district has always been his magic space, but as we learn in the film’s final turn, he has been looking in the wrong direction, missing the woman who is, in fact, his romantic destiny. Within this logic, the film’s final turn is not a gratuitous bid for an undeserved happy ending but the confirmation that the text shares the ethos of the genre and that its magic space only needed to be activated.

Having decided to quit his job and to pursue his initial vocation as an architect, Tom meets another woman, Autumn (Minka Kelly) in the final scene while both of them are interviewing for a position at an architectural firm. She recognizes him because she has seen him before at Angelus Plaza, also her favorite spot in town. Absorbed as he was with Summer all those past months, he never noticed her. Now, however, things may be different and the film ends on a hopeful note. There is some light positive humor in their brief dialogue but what most decisively suggests that something has changed is the distinctiveness of the physical space in which the action takes place: the Bradbury Building, one of the most famous sites in downtown LA and certainly one of the most familiar presences in earlier movies. Best known as the most recognizable location in Blade Runner (1982), it had also featured prominently in many others, including classical films noirs Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1950), and the more modern horror Wolf (1994). Because of these and other films, the beautiful late nineteenth-century building has mostly been associated with genres related to the thriller but (500) Days of Summer effortlessly reverses the connotations and immediately turns it into the central element of the protective atmosphere that now envelops these two potential lovers. The scene shows the power of romantic comedy to transform both real places and locations from earlier movies into a distinctive space where desire can flourish.

In (500) Days the comic space only materializes in the final scene, making it coincide with a wary happy ending. In most romantic comedies, however, this comic space is, as has been argued before, firmly in place much earlier and it becomes not only the environment for the lovers to prosper but also the site in which the various intimate discourses and the film’s sexual ideology are articulated. Romantic comedy has always employed the compatibility of the lovers and the obstacles to their union to put forward certain attitudes towards gender relationships, sexual politics, and intimate matters. Both the vicissitudes of desire and the textual ideology are most forcefully displayed in the middle section. This is as much the case of (500) Days as of The Ugly Truth, the second film that I want to explore in this essay. If in the former, downtown LA is the unusual location of a very imperfect love story, in the latter Sacramento is an equally unexploited town for a more successful relationship, although another film of the same year, All About Steve, also takes place in this city.

There are frequent disagreements between the lovers in (500) Days but little friction, which should alert the romcom-savvy spectator that things can never go well between these two. In The Ugly Truth Mike Chadway’s (Gerard Butler) ultra-sexist attitude towards gender relationships, apart from fitting in with the intensification of female objectification and openly anti-feminist diatribes to be found in other contemporary romcoms—especially of the grossout and hommecom variety (see Jeffers McDonald 108-12)—guarantees abundant friction with professionally successful but personally lovelorn Abby (Katherine Heigl). The starting situation, with a “liberated” man who has taken to the wild side and a woman whose dedication to her career has taken its toll on her “femininity,” is almost textbook 1980s New Men-inspired backlash. Much more than in (500) Days, as corresponds to a mainstream Hollywood vehicle, star personae are crucial to the sexual dynamic established between the protagonists. Butler’s ruggedness and gruff demeanor are put at the service of his ridiculously macho showman. Heigl, through the parts played in Knocked Up (2007), 27 Dresses (2008) and this film, has successfully followed up on her popularity in Grey’s Anatomy (2005-) to become a considerable romcom presence. In this film she combines her image of healthy and strong girl-next-doorness with a readiness to submit to post-Cameron Díaz gross-out situations, here most notoriously illustrated by the vibrating underwear episode. She has succeeded in making the combination of post-feminist sophistication, romantic aspirations, and embarrassing physicality that has become a regular convention of twenty-first century romcoms seem natural. It is to the credit of this apparently conventional narrative and of the two actors’ performances that the sparks are almost visible when these two unlikely lovers come together.

A great deal of the humor in the film revolves around their charged exchanges, and while the comic rallies between them generally tend to ridicule Abby’s uptightness and obsession with control and celebrate Mike’s relaxed and confident masculinity, they simultaneously convey the growing attraction between the two, an attraction that will also make him more vulnerable. To these comic dialogues, which gradually begin to reveal the growing affinity between the future lovers, is added the powerful presence of a setting equally made up of real and constructed spaces. This setting comprises the television station where Abby and Mike work, assorted places in Sacramento and a hotel in Los Angeles where they spend an evening and the following night. All of these are part, to a greater or lesser extent, of the comic space, with the LA hotel, and particularly the elevator when they go up to their bedrooms, as the most openly protective corner of this space. But an apparently less relevant but very recurrent setting is equally important for our understanding of the workings of this convention: the garden area in the middle of the block of apartments where both Abby and Colin (Eric Winter), her doctor boyfriend, live. Shots of this space punctuate the narrative and chart the evolution of Abby’s character toward sexual maturity, but at least two important scenes take place here.

In the first of these scenes, the magic quality of the garden, an echo of the Shakespearean “green world,” is emphasized. Always suffused in an artificial yellow light, always seen in the evenings, this space defines the female protagonist as somebody looking for love and amenable to change in her attitude towards intimate matters. As the scene gathers pace, the comic space becomes more prominent, both in terms of the delineation of the nature of desire and of the specific textual attitude towards sex. The cat that is responsible for starting the comic action is a symbol of the animal nature that on the one hand is so lacking in Abby’s life and on the other can be glimpsed, lurking just underneath the surface and waiting to be tapped by the right person. The incident starts with the cat smashing a vase and upsetting the immaculate order in the lifeless apartment as Abby is getting ready for bed. The cat leads Abby to her first, if displaced, confrontation with her own sexuality at the top of the tree where she has followed it. Once there, and while wondering how to get down again, she sees through a conveniently open window her extremely good-looking new neighbor coming out of the shower, surrounded by steam, like an apparition. His beautiful body makes Abby gasp with admiration, not so much because of its sexual attraction as because it complies with her ideas of physical perfection in a man. What really excites her, though, is the fact that he flosses, again in accordance with her very demanding code of personal hygiene. In the meantime, the magic space is in full swing and it is now her turn to display her body, but in a more embarrassing pose, as a branch breaks under the weight of her floss-related excitement, and she ends up hanging upside down from the tree, with her slip round her upper body and her comfortable knickers in full display. Her upturned position suggests that her values and desires are soon going to change drastically, but also the long shot of her body in this ridiculous position anticipates, in comic terms, that she is ready for this change, and that she will eventually become a worthy comic lover, no matter what type of underwear she is donning right now. In this respect, of course, the trajectory from the ample knickers to the black vibrating panties openly reflects the evolution of Abby’s attention to the centrality of sexual desire in her life.

Dutifully reacting to Abby’s screams, Colin comes to the rescue, still only wrapped in his bath towel, and Abby, looking for something to hold on to, pulls the towel off and is suddenly faced with an upside down close-up of his genitals while the spectators have to make do with a brief glance of his bare buttocks. Although, after a second or two, both automatically use their hands to recuperate a minimum of decorum, it is interesting that after the cut an ellipsis takes us to the inside of Colin’s apartment where, in the next shot, Abby is still apparently looking in the direction of his crotch with an expression of girlish excitement but also lack of inhibition. Although a reverse shot discloses that what she is actually looking at is her own foot, as he expertly bandages her ankle, Abby is obviously impressed with what she has previously seen. When telling the story to her friend Joy (Bree Turner) the next morning, the highest compliment she can pay him is that he is “symmetrical” (“you have no idea” [how symmetrical he is]), but the brief comic scene has shown Abby’s romcom potential and also the transitory nature of her present inhibitions. That these inhibitions are closely connected with her post-feminist identity are part of the ideological work of the text but in any case what the committed spectator wants is to see her shed those inhibitions as soon as possible. The impression we get from this scene is that the stage is set for such a change and that the comic space is fully in place to help her through her discovery. The unobtrusive tracking shot with which the scene started almost invisibly has transported us to this magic space in which those values that are incompatible with “true” desire are given a comic bent in order to reveal her adaptability. Colin, who will become the traditional wrong partner (Neale 288-90), is here mostly part of the magic space, as are the colors, the camera movements and certainly Abby’s underwear. As with Tom in the previous film, she still has not learned to look in the right direction but her unconscious readiness to submit to the dictates of desire is both emphasized and protected by the comic space.

The same comic space is in full force in her constant arguments with retrograde, less than symmetrical and most likely no-flossing Mike. Its constant presence and influence on the narrative development allows the spectators to understand that both Abby and Mike, in spite of appearances to the contrary, will become ideal subjects for the genre (unlike Colin, whose professional status, political correctness and physical symmetry are coded as boring and deadly). As usual, the lovers are the last to realize that they are attracted to one another but in this film this comes as a revelation to both of them, as a shock that, as in Shakespeare’s best comedies, will forever change their lives and, gregariously, reinforces the willing spectators’ belief in the supremacy of desire over all earthly things. Conversely, the happy ending is, in this as in many other films, rather deflating. Abby and Mike’s literal reconciliation and final clinch takes place in a hot air balloon, a space more openly magic and “special” than the more realistic locations of the rest of the movie, but the clumsy and too-obvious rear projection employed in this last scene may work, with many spectators, to break the illusion and distance us from the powerful magic atmosphere of the middle section.

The magic space of romantic comedy and its presence in the middle section of many examples of the genre is so powerful and spectators have internalized it to such an extent that it can sometimes produce unexpected effects. In another movie from 2009 also set in Los Angeles, I Love You Man, the magic space is firmly in place even though sexual desire often becomes a secondary part of the action and is generally subservient to male friendships and what Eve Sedgwick calls male homosocial desire. The strong articulation of a magic space in a film which is very much about the relationship between two heterosexual male friends energizes that friendship and gives it an uncanny intensity to which we are unaccustomed in our culture. The conventions conjured up by the film in order to construct this space are the usual ones in romantic comedies, but the relationship that this magic space protects and celebrates is openly not sexual. A text like I Love You Man that celebrates friendship through the same mechanisms that romcom has used for centuries to celebrate desire is still so unusual that it puzzles even as it fascinates. What it proves, in any case, is the lingering power of the comic space in the genre and its endless potential to guarantee the continuing evolution and the unacknowledged variety and complexity of romantic comedy.[1]


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[1] Research towards this article was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (project. nos. HUM2004-00418 and FFI2010-15312). I would also like to thank the two anonymous readers for their comments and suggestions.