Issues

ISSN: 2159-4473

Published in partnership with the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance

Posts Tagged ‘Eloisa James’

“Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels” by Jonathan A. Allan

Almost every major critic of popular romance fiction—and probably minor ones too—notes that in reading the romance novel, readers will encounter virgin heroines. “For most of the genre’s history,” Pamela Regis explains, “the romance heroine was depicted as a virgin” (35). Indeed, in the first wave of romance scholarship, the trope of female virginity was often presented as a necessary feature of the genre. “Virginity is a given here,” Ann Snitow thus declares in her influential early article, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different”:

The heroine is not involved in any overt adventure beyond trying to respond appropriately to male energy without losing her virginity. [ . . . ] [S]ex means marriage and marriage, promised at the end [of romance novels], means, finally, there can be sex. (309)

Snitow’s study was not based on a very broad sample of the genre—she only considers a handful of Harlequin romances—and it is tempting to dismiss her claims as dated, given the evolution of romance fiction since the 1980s.[1] But consider some recent Harlequin titles: The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride (Clair, 2009), The Spaniard’s Virgin Housekeeper (Hamilton, 2009), The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl (Kendrick, 2009), Capelli’s Captive Virgin (Morgan, 2009), Rescuing the Virgin (Rosemoor, 2009), The Virgin’s Price (Milburne, 2009), His Convenient Virgin Bride (Dunlop, 2010), Virgin on Her Wedding Night (Graham, 2010). And novels with female virgins in the title are not the only ones where such characters appear. Clearly, the virgin heroine is still a regular character in popular romance fiction.

Indeed, even if modern romance fiction no longer insists on “making heroines compulsorily intact and reifying a hymenal virginity,” as a more recent scholar, Jocelyn Wogan-Brown puts it, what she calls the “cultural performance” of female virginity, at least in some metaphorical sense, remains remarkably important to the genre (346). “Harlequin romances (within the many subgenres)” have come to “represent virginity not as an essentialized and mystical anatomical condition,” this scholar writes, “but as an interior state, produced by volition and emotion” (346-7). Bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, whose familiarity with the genre is far broader than most scholars’, concur: the “sexually unawakened heroine” who is “relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity,” remains “one of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica” (37), they explain in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance. “No matter what type she is,” they add, “she is definitely not the ho-type” (37).

What, though, of the sexually unawakened hero? Is there a “type” for the male virgin in popular romance? At first glance, this figure is perhaps a rarity, both in fiction and in scholarship. Many current studies of the popular romance hero, for example, focus on the “alpha male” hero, a figure who tends to be as sexually experienced as he is powerful, masterful, and—at least as the novel begins—emotionally reserved. In fact, as an anecdote from romance author Monica Burns reveals, the alpha hero may seem hard to square with the idea of male virginity:

A little more than a year ago, I was getting ready to write my March 2011 release Pleasure Me. My editor and I had talked at a conference, and she’d asked me to make the hero a virgin. My initial [response] on the outside was, ummm . . . sure, I supposed I could. Inside I was thinking WTF? I write alpha heroes. How in the hell am I going to write an alpha male who’s never been with a woman?

Even Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer’s discussion of the virgin romance hero, which appeared last year in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, finds oddly little to say about him: “Virginal heroes do exist in the genre,” they point out—but their discussion quickly moves on to cite a short questionnaire attached to the Mills & Boon edition of Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, which seems to play down this figure’s importance. “[M]any heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced,” the questionnaire explains.

In this article, I hope to move beyond merely acknowledging the virgin hero’s existence to a more complex, theorised understanding of him as a complex character within the genre of popular romance fiction. My argument is that male virginity in romance novels is worthy of a more significant study than it has thus far been afforded—in part because male virgins are treated so differently in these novels from the ways they appear in cinematic representations, and in part because studying the virgin hero allows us to revisit some of the most puzzling and provocative of Northrop Frye’s pronouncements on the “romance,” broadly considered: in particular, his claim that in “romance” there is a “magical emphasis on virginity, the fact that virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236), but that “this prudery [about virginity] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187). With Frye in mind, my approach to the topic will be anatomical; that is, I will anatomise various “types” of the virgin hero in modern popular romance fiction, with some exploration of how they overlap and relate to one another. I will close with an extended discussion of one recent romance novel, When the Duke Returns, by Eloisa James, to demonstrate how a single text can make use of several distinct tropes concerning male virginity and the quest-like narrative structure surrounding its loss.

To understand the construction of male virgins in popular romance, we might begin by turning to the burgeoning field of “virginity studies.” Unfortunately, this body of research so far only contains the scantest of mentions of male virginity. In Hanne Blank’s book, Virgin: The Untouched History, the most “untouched” of topics is the male virgin; and the culture surrounding male virginity is surprisingly peripheral to Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History. Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, however, offers us insights not only into the modern social realities of male virginity, but perhaps also into the silence surrounding it in scholarship. While “girls can be labelled ‘sluts’ if they have sex without love,” Carpenter reports, “boys can be labelled ‘wimps’ or even gay should they not have sex early enough in their adolescence” (12).[2] Male virginity not only must be lost; it must be lost as quickly as possible: if Virginia is for lovers, as the old advertisements used to proclaim, then (male) virginity is for losers. In Frygian terms, when the male is beyond the ‘normal age’ to lose his virginity, he becomes an alazon figure, the kind who serves as “an object of ridicule in comedy or satire” (CW XXII:331).

I am not the only scholar to make this connection between the male virgin in popular culture and the alazon. In his reading of the recent Hollywood comedy The Forty Year Old Virgin, Celestino Deleyto struggles to argue that Andy, the hero of the film, cannot quite be seen as “a ridiculous man or as an Aristotelian alazon” because of “other traits of his character [that] are more affirmative” (259). We might, however, reverse the argument, since those affirmative traits serve precisely to contrast and counterpoint Andy’s long-enduring virginity, which otherwise would indeed leave him simply “an object of ridicule” (Frye, CW XXII:331). He often seems like one in any case: as Deleyto himself notes, “one of the narrative and commercial goals of the centrality of Andy’s sexual innocence is its exploitative potential: it becomes the perfect excuse for the deployment of gross-out discourse on sexuality” (260). Inasmuch as the film moves beyond that “gross-out discourse” into telling an actual love story it proves itself to be a romance, rather than simply a sex farce, but it’s clear that the “Happily Ever After” of Andy’s romance plot requires him to lose his virginity to the film’s heroine, Trish—after which, we are assured, he will not only retain all those other, “affirmative” traits, but will put them to their proper use in the context of a truly “adult” (which is to say, sexual) relationship.

The Forty Year Old Virgin frequently invokes the discourse of ridicule that Carpenter describes surrounding male virginity: that is, the question of whether Andy is “a wimp” or “gay.” It does so for comic effect, notably in the film’s repeated bantering exchanges about “how I know you’re gay.” But one might well wonder how the representation of the virgin hero in this film, which was written and directed by men (Steve Carell and Judd Apatow), differs from the representation of the virgin hero in popular culture that is written by women, for example, popular romance fiction.

As Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak write in their introduction to Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000, several issues are at stake in the study of female-authored masculinity. The first of these arises from questions of power. As Frantz and Rennhak explain, feminist scholars have long studied the ways that male characters in female-authored texts serve as “catalysts for the subject-formation of the female characters, sparking in them emotional reaction and ideological resistance,” but this is not their only function. Rather, “the male characters of female novelists represent the authors’ negotiation with the ideologies of gender, class, and sexuality” (3) in their own right, with ideological and political issues playing out in the literary bodies and behaviour of a novel’s men. Fictional men are no more “natural” than fictional women; no character, in short, is created without an ideological potential.

But more than merely an interest in ideology should draw us to the study of female-authored masculinity. If, as Annette Kolodny observes, a male reader “in opening the pages of a woman’s book, finds himself entering a strange and unfamiliar world of symbolic significance” (174), part of that strangeness and unfamiliarity may lie in the degree to which issues of desire play out in the female construction of masculinity: desires that the male reader finds embodied both in “symbolic” ways and, sometimes, quite literally. As Frantz and Rennhak remark, “when women construct and write about men in fictional worlds, not only do they analyze the causes and effects of patriarchy, as Woolf does in A Room of One’s Own, but they also construct their own realities, imagining alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman’s perspective” (2). The male reader may thus confront an analytical, even diagnostic representation of masculinity at its patriarchal worst, or he may encounter an idealised representation of some “alternative masculinity” at its post- or anti- or reformed-patriarchal best—or even, most unsettling of all, he may face a male figure who somehow combines or moves between these extremes.

The romance novel, of course—particularly in its popular manifestation—has been predominantly theorised as being a genre written “by women, for women.” What, then, can we say about the virgin hero of the romance novel? How might he be read in political or ideological terms? Might he turn out to be one of those “alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman’s perspective”? Certainly the treatment of the virgin hero in romance fiction seems different, and generally more desirable, from the representation of male virginity seen in other media, fictional and otherwise, if only because the virgin hero tends to be a complex character, not a joke to be laughed at or a tragic figure to pity. Romance novels have been criticised and even discarded by the academy for the ways in which they unconsciously reinforce patriarchal norms, but when we read these novels with a particular focus on the virgin hero, we find that they are remarkably self-conscious about those norms, allowing us insights into both gender and genre.

In my study of virgin heroes, I have come across a variety of archetypes—by which I mean a “typical or recurring image” (Frye, CW XXII:91) in literary and cultural texts—of the male virgin in popular romance. The first archetype is the sick virginal hero: that is, the hero who was, for some specific period of time, too sick or too weak to lose his virginity, unable to perform sexually and therefore unable to “perform” adult masculinity as well. In Katherine Kendall’s First and Forever (1991), a Harlequin Temptation, we are introduced to a mature heroine, Laura Daniels (she is 35), who meets a younger man, 22 year old Alex Shaw, who happens to be a virgin. “I’ve never been with a woman, Laura,” he tells her forthrightly: “I’m a virgin” (136). The announcement of virginity seems to be one of the requirements of the male virgin romance novel: indeed, as far as I can tell, all virgin heroes at some point confess that they are virgins, as though this articulation were a defining feature of virginity itself, at least for a romance hero. The romance heroine’s virginity, by contrast, may be declared aloud, but it is often also “written” by her body in the form of pain during sexual intercourse, blood on the sheets, or other signs that the hero must read and respond to—and if he fails to see any signs, like the hero in Maureen Child’s atypical Last Virgin In California, this is a surprising twist on the trope. (“In every book she’d ever read, the hero always noticed a thing like that,” Child’s heroine thinks to herself, a little disappointed [156].)

The speaking-aloud of the hero’s virginity often arrives, for the sick virgin hero, in the context of some explanation of his wounded, hence virginal, status. In the case of Alex Shaw, a car accident gets the blame: “I was seventeen. Guy hit me head on. He crossed the line and hit me. When I woke up . . . [ . . . ] It’s impossible for me to covey the pain, the horror—the goddamned fear” (135). Some of that “horror” spills over into the depiction of Alex’s recovery and his life after the accident. As he further explains: “While I learned a lot during that time, I managed to miss quite a few things about the real world. I feel so . . . different, so ignorant of life. I never really had any friends. I fell behind other people my own age” (136). What Carpenter says about virginity loss in everyday discourse—that it “represents a rite of passage, a process of transition from sexual youth to adulthood” (143)—thus seems true in this novel, since Alex’s transition to adulthood has been delayed (“I fell behind”). A later passage makes this issue quite explicit. “Alex was a boy,” the heroine thinks to herself. “He should be making out with girls in the back seat of a car at a drive-in. His first time should be a joyful adventure. Not a self-conscious performance where the only thing on his mind was the review he’d receive the next morning” (140-41). As a “boy,” Alex should lose his virginity in a boyish way, as part of an “adventure.” Although he is physically capable of “performing” sexually, he seems here too emotionally frail (which is to say, still too much like a child) to endure the rigors of a female “review” of his “performance,” which includes his performance of adult masculinity. This scene concludes with Alex being sent home by the heroine, still a virgin, in a cab—it’s as though he were even too young to drive, at least metaphorically speaking.

The construction of virginal Alex as a “boy” in First and Forever leads quite naturally into a second common archetype: the student virgin hero, with the heroine as his teacher. Kendall makes the most of the erotic potential built into this archetype, and of the power imbalance as well. When Laura arrives at Alex’s apartment, she promptly and playfully takes charge, and Alex is glad to go along with her mix of metaphor and role-play scenario:

“Time for night school.” Wordlessly she led him to the bedroom and stationed him next to the water bed. Kicking off her shoes, she turned on the lamp next to his bed.

“Lesson number one,” she began with a smile that put to rest any doubts about her talents at seduction. “Sometimes it’s better with the lights on.”

Alex returned her smile, intensifying it. “Should I take notes?” (163)

She continues elaborating a series of lessons:

Laura closed her eyes, fighting off the lush, lazy heat that threatened to drug her into speechlessness. “Lesson three,” she managed at last, opening her eyes. “Female anatomy.”

“I think I’m going to like this class.” (163)

As the scene comes to a climax, the power dynamic is reversed, with Alex assuming the generically-typical quality of sexual mastery. Although she begins by leaving the lights on, Laura eventually “couldn’t watch any longer, closing her eyes to the delicious things he was doing to her body. Things no man had ever been able to do to her body” (167). One thinks of Frye’s observation that, in a romance, “virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236)—and, perhaps, of the sharp contrast between Alex’s immediate sexual prowess and the Andy’s goodhearted, fumbling, and extremely brief first time in The 40 Year Old Virgin, which is played entirely for comic effect. Although it’s true that the two men both respond with boyish enthusiasm to their first sexual episode—“Wanna do it again?” Alex asks (169)—this parallel hardly cancels out the striking, generically-specific difference between them when it comes to satisfying the heroine, perfectly, right from the very first time.

In Bonnie Dee’s The Countess Takes A Lover (2009), we see a variation of the teacher/student motif, one common enough to be its own archetype. This time, the student is a genius, and in the genius virgin archetype, the hero has not had sex because he is simply too intelligent to be concerned with carnal matters. His mind has been elsewhere. In The Countess Takes A Lover, readers are told about a virgin hero of twenty-five years of age:

Science and reason had always been the guiding forces of his life. Animal impulses were for the uneducated, unthinking louts. There must be more to life than satisfying base lust with bestial coupling; otherwise the whole of society might as well run about in animal skins cooking shanks over open fires. (31)

The genius virgin hero gives visible form to an enduring dichotomy in patriarchy: that is, the association of men with intellect and the mind, and women with emotion, sex, and the body. In this line of thought, only men are fully human—and as we can see in that reference to “uneducated, unthinking louts,” within the category of “men,” some men are more fully human than others. Needless to say, the novel does not endorse this line of thinking—rather it introduces the dichotomy in order to undo it.

This process plays out even more vividly in Jo Davis’ Under Fire (2009). Here our virgin hero Zack Knight, 26, is a “so-called genius” (3), while the heroine, Corinne “Cori” Shannon, is an exotic dancer who works for private parties at night and—to trouble the patriarchal dichotomy—also studies during the day to become a nurse. Cori exudes sexuality: “she was sex incarnate” (75) and “she put the ‘voom’ in vavoooom” (11). Zack’s sexuality is alluringly present, but repressed, a duality that plays out nicely in the novel’s choice of career for him (he’s a fire fighter) and in his behaviour at the outset of the novel. “He’d never been good at relating to women on any level—pathetic, but true—” we learn, “and now he had to keep from staring like an idiot at the goddess standing in front of him” (2). But if being a “genius” makes him “like an idiot,” this doesn’t last:

Her big, white smile blasted him with a double shot of desire. Awakened his slumbering libido. She was sex incarnate, a treat he’d never sampled. He’d wondered if she’d believe his innocence, then reminded himself it didn’t make any difference. Even if he wasn’t a disaster zone, Cori was way out of his league. (75)

In this novel, as we’ve seen elsewhere, the hero has to articulate his virginity to the heroine, a moment that shifts the novel back into the student / teacher model we saw in First and Forever:

“I’m sort of . . . new at, you know . . . ”

Sitting up, she stared at him, processing what he’d said. Holy crap! “You mean, you’ve never gone down on a woman before?”

He groaned, slapping a hand over his eyes. “More than that. I’ve never had sex with a woman, period.” (143)

Following his virginal announcement, Cori begins to introduce Zack to the pleasures of sexuality and, of course, not only does he lose his virginity, but “the sex was pretty damned amazing” (149), not embarrassing, frustrating, or disappointing, to either party.

The discourse of male virginity in Under Fire also introduces us to a fourth common archetype: the virgin hero as commodity. “Good god,” Cori ponders at one point, “how on earth had she snared one of the last sexy male virgins over the age of twenty-one?” (143). Such a construction of female virginity is certainly not novel in any sense; female virginity has long been prized and required at marriage, reducing women to the status of commodities. The commodification of male virginity, by contrast, is rarely so reductive as female virginity—and when it is, when the male is now commodified and spoken of as an object, a virgin, rather than as a subject (who just happens to be a virgin), this reduction is often played for comedy. Consider Katherine Deauxville’s The Last Male Virgin (2002) in which we are introduced to Dr. Peter Havistock, “the author of the surprise bestselling book Determining Anthropological and Developmental Social Factors Among the Papua New Guinea Aborigines in the Antorok Valley” (6). Indeed, his celebrity is so popular that readers learn that “[t]he Harry King show called. They want me to be interviewed on CNN tonight” (23). Havistock, in this interview, explains how he survived a plane crash that killed his parents—a variation, perhaps, on the sick or wounded virgin motif—and how he subsequently spent a great deal of time in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Pressed by an interviewer, he has no embarrassment about his state: “I believe what you are getting at is that I’m still a virgin,” he says (39). For Havistock there is nothing out of the ordinary about his lack of sexual experience; for Harry King and his viewers, there is nothing but shock: “I’m sorry, Doctor, I’m told our lines are jammed, so we are going to have to answer some of these calls. It seems a lot of people would like to talk to you” (40-41). The question of why the phone lines are jammed is quickly answered: Havistock has become a fetishised commodity.

Deauxville clearly has fun, throughout the novel, playing with popular culture stereotypes and readers’ expectations. Havistock, for example, is utterly unfazed by his virginal identity, with no fear that it brands him as a “wimp” or as “gay” or as something less than an adult man. Indeed, he turns the tables on a woman who gives voice to those views:

Leslie snapped. “To many people in our society here in the U.S., and maybe to most of the world, a man who is twenty-nine years old and hasn’t had sex is . . . is . . . unnatural!”

He raised his eyebrows. “Hmm. You mean it’s assumed that at my advanced age I must simply be more interested in having sex with myself?”

Leslie couldn’t help a little shudder. “I don’t believe you know how unattractive that sounds.”

“Nevertheless, that’s what you implied. Damn. Is that what the majority of the citizens in the United States believe I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years?”

She hesitated. “Well, I know it sounds bad, but can you blame them for thinking it?” (89)

Playing with the usual Romantic-primitivist assumption that indigenous cultures are more sexually open than the West—Havistock’s book recalls Margaret Mead’s famous Coming of Age in Samoa, just as his name recalls that of sex researcher Havelock Ellis—our virgin hero explains that “[f]rustration and sexual repression have no meaning in their [Antorok] language; they don’t think of themselves that way” (Deauxville 93). In such a cultural context, many of the meanings of male virginity seem to fall away, leaving Havistock quite bemused by his effect on American women:

“And they [Antorok] would never understand why my saying I’m a virgin on television is evidently like a shot of Viagra to apparently hundreds of women.”

“Women don’t take Viagra! At least, I don’t think they do. But you’re . . . you’re an aphrodisiac, that’s for sure.” (93)

Although he shares some traits with the sick virgin hero and the genius virgin hero, Havistock’s openly announced “aphrodisiac” quality seems linked neither to a boyish arrested development nor to a charmingly awkward repression of the body. It’s all about his status as a commodity, a rare thing that can be desired, when it’s advertised on television, by hundreds of women at once.

In conclusion, I want to consider the ways these various archetypes come together in a particularly complex novel with a virgin hero, Eloisa James’s Regency historical novel When the Duke Returns. The novels of Eloisa James have a rather large number of male virgins; by my count, at least five of her novels incorporate them, and this repeated use of the trope suggests an effort to explore its narrative and symbolic possibilities. This novel tells the story of a duke, Simeon, who returns home to his wife, Isidore. The pair was married via proxy while he was travelling through exotic lands; upon his return the twenty-three year old bride-now-wife realises, to her disappointment, that her groom-now-husband (six years her senior) not only is a virgin, but intends to remain one. The first chapter emphasises this departure from the usual male-virginity trope:

“He’s a virgin.”

“What!”

“He’s a virgin and—”

Your husband is a virgin?

“And he won’t bed me.”

Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont, sank into her chair with a look of almost comical dismay on her face. “Darling, if there were ever grounds for annulment, these are they. Or this is it,” she added with some confusion. “Is he some sort of monk?” (11)

The attention to language here, as Isidore’s friend Jemma wonders whether these “grounds for annulment” should be singular or plural, reminds us that the hero’s virginity, too, is partly a matter of language: in the romance novel, as I argued above, it must be announced and articulated to be real.

As this opening chapter continues, the female friends repeatedly discuss male virginity as an emasculating, even monstrous phenomenon. “What sort of man stays a virgin until he’s near to thirty?” Isidore demands. “That’s almost disgusting. How am I supposed to introduce him to the bedroom, Jemma? Men do this sort of thing on their own. Honestly, if he’s never used his equipment—well, who’s to say that it will function at all?” (13). In part, of course, this speech reveals her anxiety—Isidore, too, is a virgin, not an older, more experienced woman like Laura in First and Forever—and in part it reveals her frustration about being treated as a commodity, “Isidore, property of the duke” (10) rather than as a woman with her own emotional, social, and even sexual desires. Jemma’s agreement that “incapability lies at the heart of this situation” (20), however, as the conversation end, shows that the novel is aware of and informed by modern American discourse about male virginity as a sign of lack, something for wimps. Never, for example, do the women praise Simeon for having remained loyal for eleven years to his proxy bride; instead, he seems at fault for not having learned about “this sort of thing on [his] own” (13).

Given the elaborate explanations other novels have offered for the hero’s virginity, we might expect to find something comparable here, and we do. Simeon, it seems, spent his childhood “long[ing] to escape his parents’ pitched battles” (22)—a version of the sick virgin archetype—and as an adult he now aspires to “quell” any strong emotion and be instead a “follower of the Middle Way” (22), a vaguely Eastern philosophical discipline he adopts during three years of “rigorous solitude” in India. (57). The novel explicitly links this philosophy’s aspiration to mastery over emotions and the body with a particular construction of masculinity: he spent those years “learning endurance, manliness, the Middle Way,” we read; “he had learned to create an oasis of calm around himself, no matter what happened” (57). Clearly, then, Simeon is not just a version of the sick virgin, but also a version of the genius virgin as well, a man who embodies the patriarchal split between body and mind, alternatively disciplining or ignoring the former, “animal” side of himself and identifying only with the latter, “principled, thoughtful” side that makes him a “human being” (162).

In this novel, the genius virgin tends to pride himself not just on his intellect, but on his self-control. When his Indian teacher Valamksepa “used to recite the poetry of Rumi,” we learn, “Simeon had exulted because he was free from the embarrassments described by the poet,” particularly the way that “reason was powerless” in the face of desire (162). At one point, Isidore laments that “she had the remarkable bad luck to be married to the one man in control of his body” (206), but Simeon associates the absence of self-control with “violent tempests of emotion” (162) both inside himself and between members of his household, as he witnessed with his parents. This issue of control, or the lack of it, is crucial to the point in James’ narrative where both hero and heroine lose their virginities. “That was the wonderful thing about it—there wasn’t an ounce of composure about Simeon now, nothing of the controlled man,” Isidore marvels. “His face was alive with pleasure” (263). In this scene, self-control begins to take on a new meaning, redefined or displaced into the sexual act: “I can’t control myself much longer,” Simeon says as he makes love to Isidore, and to her delight “his voice sounded dark and anguished” (263). As the scene ends, the narrator locates us squarely in Simeon’s point of view: “[p]leasure was roaring in his legs, and Isidore was meeting him now, raising her lips in a way that made him want to bite her on the collarbone, act like a rampaging beast” (264). Finally during the orgasmic moment, we are told, “[h]e threw his head back and roared like a man who was never quiet, like a lion claiming his mate” (264): a clear signal that he has finally come to inhabit and “claim” his own animal nature.

With this turn, Simeon’s virginal journey might seem to be complete. However, unlike earlier novels considered in this study, the post-coital moments in James’s text are not spent considering the completion or perfection of the sexual experience; that is, the sex was not entirely satisfying, neither for Isidore (who has yet to climax, and who finds Simeon’s semen rather disgusting) nor for the hero himself. “‘We weren’t very good,’ he said propping himself upon an elbow” (267). Having both become sexual subjects, this couple must now learn to be ‘good’ at it: a remarkable displacement and revision of the teacher / student motif that I discussed earlier. Simeon is quite willing to act as both student and teacher, asking Isidore a series of questions about her sexual body and offering to demonstrate certain aspects and capacities of his. She finds the questions and offers startling: in response to his inquiry about how it feels to have breasts, for example, she initially replies “How does it feel? Simeon, do you think you’re a normal man” (267). The fact that she does so with “a delicious low gust of laughter,” however, shows that the novel does not consider being a “normal” man an entirely good thing, since it implies a lack of curiosity about women, or at least women’s sexual subjectivity.

The first time marks a juncture between having completed the necessary act of virginity loss and becoming a sexual subject; however, as we likely know, the first time is hardly ever a good time, let alone “pretty damned amazing,” as it was in Under Fire (149). But James’ novel does not simply distinguish between sexual activity (i.e. losing one’s virginity) and sexual happiness (which is to say, being “good” at sex, or making it both enjoyable and satisfying for both partners). It further distinguishes between sexual happiness and marital happiness, which requires much more than mere sexual compatibility. The final hundred pages of the novel focus primarily on how the couple arrives at the latter. But in an elegant turn, James frames the couple’s mutual struggle towards marital success in the same terms that shape their virginity loss and subsequent sexual education. The two forms of happiness cannot be reduced to one another, but the obstacles to both, and the lessons that must be learned to achieve both, are set in parallel. Control, vulnerability, respect, the desire to belong to a beloved and to possess him or her (not exclusively as a rare commodity, although not entirely not as a rare commodity): these topics and their key terms come up in each context.

The final moments of the novel offer a scene that embodies this parallelism. As the novel enters its closing chapters, there has been a constant, even growing tension about the success of the marriage; indeed, “the king has interested himself personally in the dissolution of [Simeon’s] marriage,” we learn, “on the ground of [his] insanity” (342). But after a series of melodramatic twists and rescues—and the novel itself calls them “melodramas” (346)—the couple find themselves ensconced in a sumptuous carriage, a vehicle metonymous with marriage, enjoying a passionate scene in which sex and love and companionate union are inextricably conjoined. “In the moments that followed, broken only by their whispered endearments,” we read, Simeon “realized something his heart already knew. They were partners” (363). And, as we learn in the novel’s two-part epilogue, their marriage is not only re-consecrated after this, but “a year or so later” the couple become the parents of triplets (371), each of them a “living, breathing, adorable source of chaos” (372). As Simeon thinks to himself in the closing lines of the text, “living in a clean tent on the banks of the Ganges river” leaves one with “no gummy smiles, no warm little bundles, no beautiful, impetuous wives, no responsibilities. . . . No life. Real life” (373). Isidore’s pregnancy and childbirth are thus metaphorically shared: the metaphorical virginity loss of their true, marital union (rather than of their first sexual encounter) has transformed each of them into a child-rearing, if not child-bearing, parent.

To close, virginity in popular romance fiction is never simple, even—or perhaps especially—for when the virgin is the romance hero. Romance authors do not simply treat the male virgin as an alazon or ridiculous character who is simply in need of sex, post-haste; instead, writers of romance treat male virginity as a topic worthy of serious consideration and sometimes quite elaborate exploration. No matter which archetypes he belongs to, the virgin hero can be read as a narrative trope, whether moral, structural, ideological, or as an opportunity to explore female desire. But more than that, in some contemporary popular romance fiction—as in the James novel—the male virgin asks us to read him through all of these lenses at once and by turns: a complexity that borders on the complexity of male virginity in real life, if one can still speak of “real life” in an academic context. Romance novels have been criticised and even discarded by many in the academy for the ways in which they apparently reinforce patriarchal norms, but when we read these novels with a particular focus on male virginity, we find that romance novelists are quite conscious of these norms, and they sometimes break new ground in both gender and genre. Male virginity may receive its most honest and most complete fictional treatment in the genre pervasively written “by women, for women”: the popular romance novel.

Works Cited

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Dir. Judd Apatow. Perf. Steve Carrell, Catherine Keener, Seth Rogen, et al. Apatow Productions, Universal Studios, 2005. Film.

Bernau, Anke. Virgins: A Cultural History. London: Granta Books, 2007. Print.

Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, USA, 2007. Print.

Burns, Monica. “Virgin Heroes and Experienced Heroines by Monica Burns.” Hannah Howell. 29 Nov. 2010. Web. http://hhowellauthor.blogspot.com/2010/11/pleasure-me-by-monica-burns.html

Carpenter, Laura M. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.

Child, Maureen. Last Virgin in California. Silhouette Desire #1398. New York: Silhouette Books,  Oct. 2001. Print.

Clair, Daphne. The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride. Harlequin Presents Extra #47. Toronto: Harlequin, March 2009. Print.

Davis, Jo. Under Fire. New York: Signet Eclipse, 2009. Print.

Deauxville, Katherine. The Last Male Virgin. New York: Dorchester, 2002. Print.

Dee, Bonnie. The Countess Takes a Lover. Macon, GA: Samhain Publishing, 2009. Print.

Deleyto, Celestino. “The New Road to Sexual Ecstasy: Virginity and Genre in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film. Ed. Tamar Jeffers McDonald. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 255-68. Print.

Dunlop, Barbara. His Convenient Virgin Bride. New York: Silhouette Desire, April 2010. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S. G., Katharina Rennhak. “Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000: An Introduction.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010. 1-10. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Vol. 22 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Alvin A. Lee, gen. ed., 29 vols to date. 1996 – . Print

Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance. Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2004. Vol. 15 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Alvin A. Lee, gen. ed. 29 vols to date. 1996 – . Print.

Graham, Lynne. Virgin on Her Wedding Night. Harlequin Presents #2915. Toronto: Harlequin, May 2010. Print.

Hamilton, Diana. The Spaniard’s Virgin Housekeeper. Harlequin Presents #2804. Toronto: Harlequin, March 2009. Print.

James, Eloisa. When the Duke Returns. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009. Print.

Kendall, Katherine. First and Forever. Harlequin Temptation #360. Toronto: Harlequin, July 1991. Print.

Kendrick, Sharon. The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl. Harlequin Presents #2843. Toronto: Harlequin, August 2009. Print.

Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997. 171-90. Print.

Milburne, Melanie. The Virgin’s Price. Harlequin Presents Extra #39. Toronto: Harlequin, Jan. 2009. Print.

Morgan, Sarah. Capelli’s Captive Virgin. Harlequin Presents #2829. Toronto: Harlequin, June 2009. Print.

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

Rosemoor, Patricia. Rescuing the Virgin. Harlequin Intrique #1128. Toronto: Harlequin, April 2009. Print.

Snitow, Ann. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women Is Different.” Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.

Vivanco, Laura; Kyra Kramer. “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010): n.p. Web. http://jprstudies.org/2010/08/there-are-six-bodies-in-this-relationship-an-anthropological-approach-to-the-romance-genre-by-laura-vivanco-and-kyra-kramer/

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

Wogan-Brown, Jocelyn. “Virginity Always Comes Twice: Virginity and Profession, Virginity and Romance.” Miastresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholar. Eds. Louise D. D’Arcens & Juanita Feros Ruys. Turnhous: Brepols, 2004. 335-69. Print.


The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and of the Romance Writers of America.

[1] For further contextualization of Snitow’s place in the canon of critical theory of romance, see Pamela Regis’s “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” in this issue.

[2] My study does not attend to matters of queer or gay virginities in popular romance; however, there is much to be said about this concern. Queer virginities are problematic precisely because they define themselves in contradistinction to the overarching heteronormative definitions of virginity, which are dependent upon penile/vaginal penetration as a deciding factor. In male/male romance, for instance, the presentation of virginity loss is not always dependent upon penetration (either actively or passively). As such, this study brackets this area of concern as another space wherein the polemics of virginity in m/m romance can be further discussed and developed. What does seem certain is that the tripartite process discussed in this article does, for the most part, hold true. However, there is one striking difference that must be attended to in a study that would consider virginity in these textual spaces; that is, there is often a necessary recognition of the epistemology of the closet and a surrendering of the previous, closeted, identity. But, it must further be acknowledged that this is not always the case; likewise, sometimes heroes of these novels have had sex with women. Clearly the matter of virginity in male/male romance is complicated and deserves to be studied further.

Share

“Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?” by Sonya C. Brown

On July 26th, 2008, the website “Smart Bitches Trashy Books,” which reviews romance novels and related genres, featured a post from Smart Bitch (SB) Sarah, who pondered whether romance novels featuring so-called “plus-size”[1] heroines were “GS v. STA” (“good shit” as opposed to  “shit to avoid”). SB Sarah’s concerns are threefold: Problem 1) The heroine diets her way to her Happily Ever After, or HEA, which undercuts the idea that a “plus size” woman can have one; Problem 2) The fat character is a “plucky, plump sidekick,” who does not get an HEA; and Problem 3) The so-called “plus size” heroine gripes about her weight/size throughout the book only to reveal that she is really a size 10 “or some shit like that,” well within the range of “regular” sizes for American women. Over the next two days, readers responded in enough bulk to cover over 100 pages of 8.5” x 11” inch paper when printed out. Readers like the idea of seeing “plus size” heroines in romance, yet feel dissatisfied with nearly all the current examples thereof. Their posts reveal ambivalence not only about the novels, but also about the acceptance of “plus size” people, fictional and real.

The idea of diversifying romances to promote size acceptance by featuring heroines whose bodies may not conform to slender ideals seems praiseworthy enough. Using genre literature for social commentary is not unusual. Science fiction writers (Herbert, Heinlein, F. Paul Wilson, etc.) use alternate realities and futuristic societies to critique contemporary ideologies. Romance authors also tackle social issues at times, as when Suzanne Brockmann includes a gay couple in her “Troubleshooters” series. “Plus size” romances challenge social expectations regarding women’s body sizes and weight to advance the acceptance of real women’s bodies that are larger than the current slender ideal, and whose potential as romantic subjects is typically ignored in popular media.

Though few television shows or movies include women of average size, much less larger than average size, size acceptance is a cultural movement, one with which readers of romance posting in response to SB Sarah seemed to have varying degrees of familiarity. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, nonfiction size acceptance narratives were published in numerous popular media outlets (Brown), and recent issues of the fashion magazines Allure and Glamour (2009-2010) have included “plus size” models, tips for dressing “at every size,” and fashion advice for women whose size typically excludes them from designer fashion. Susan Stinson, novelist and author of “Fat Girls Need Fiction,” writes eloquently to justify fiction for the purpose of size acceptance:

When I say that fat girls need fiction, I mean that we need to read and encourage the writing of a wide range of fiction about subjects both close to our various hearts and past the edges of our far-reaching imaginations. Beyond the desire to see our own lives and experiences reflected in fiction, we need those habits of mind and heart that deepen empathy with others and broaden our sense of both the just and the possible. (233)

Reader reactions to SB Sarah’s post, as well as the post itself, suggest that though most readers like the idea of extending the range of heroines’ sizes upwards—not an insignificant goal—truly fat women as romantic protagonists are currently “past the edges of” most readers’ imaginations.

The term “plus size” itself is vague and euphemistic, but allows readers to avoid using the “f-word,” fat, and the unpleasant medical term obese. Terms like obese and morbidly obese seem not only fact-based but immutable, when they are instead challenged and changeable. In 1998, for example, the American government changed the Body Mass Index (BMI), and millions shifted categories and became “overweight” or “obese” overnight. Twelve years later, the outcry over that move is mostly forgotten by the general public, but an increasing quantity of research in fat studies from a variety of disciplines suggests that fatness may often be wrongly demonized as a threat to health and longevity (see books by Kolata, Bacon, Campos, and Gaesser for a few examples). Other studies suggest that people whose BMI puts them in the current “overweight” category may actually live longer, in general, than those who are “underweight” or “normal” (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/87934.php). Many argue that the real threat to fat persons’ health is the widespread prejudice against them, including within health services, and the yo-yo dieting they frequently undertake as a result. A movement towards Health at Every Size (HAES) proposes that fitness and good nutrition are keys to good health, as opposed to weight loss for its own sake. At least one woman posting to the Smart Bitches thread (spinsterwitch) specifically argues from an HAES perspective, and another (Suze) mentions Campos’ book to disagree with equating fatness, high mortality rates and illness. Such voices represent a minority, however. The typical romance reader, based on evidence from reader posts to this thread, seems torn between an emergent HAES perspective and the entrenched rhetoric that certain sizes or weights designated overweight, obese and morbidly obese are always detrimental to one’s physical health and longevity.

Thus, though SB Sarah expresses disappointment that heroines who complain throughout the narrative about being “fat” are revealed to be “a size 10 or some shit like that,” characters who are truly fat are rare in romance novels as well as chick lit. As Lara Frater suggests:

[S]ize 16 is a magical number. It is the maximum socially permitted size of a fat character….Size 16 protects the character, the readers, and the author from the dreaded size 20, where the character has to shop (gasp) at Lane Bryant and won’t find anything at the Gap. Once a character reaches size 20, it seems that they are past the point of self-acceptance and are now considered unhealthy. (236)

As in chick lit, so in romance and on this thread: very few people claim to be larger than a size 20, and even fewer characters in recommended books are described as such. Characters who begin their romance novel at high weights may be perceived as “unhealthily” fat—even if those same characters are not described as exhibiting symptoms of physical impairment or disease based in their weight. Such characters’ weight loss is sometimes seen as self-improvement, a necessary feat to gain their HEA’s. Similarly, many readers mention that they have personally deliberately lost weight or decreased their clothing size.

The term “plus size” makes it unnecessary for an author to delineate a size, a refusal or evasion that SB Sarah praises. One critical poster reveals, in a to-the-point comment that several others agree with, that “[m]ost readers (not all, but most) don’t want to encounter heroines beyond a size 12 any more than they want to encounter heroes and heroines beyond the age of 40” (Wryhag, 26 Jul 2008). Thus some readers put the blame for authorial failure to portray fat women (or older women) squarely on readers’ shoulders.

Authors can’t win for losing. If their characters are truly fat (beyond Frater’s “magical size 16”), many readers may automatically imagine them as unhealthy and/or unattractive and therefore unworthy of a hero’s romantic interest. If their characters are not truly fat, they seem unable to satisfy other readers’ desires to read about characters that break the slender mold. By refusing to mention the exact size of a character, an author allows her readers to imagine whatever they wish to about the heroine’s size, but doing so does not help readers do as they seem to want the novels to do, which is, in Stinson’s terms, “broaden [their] ideas both of the just and the possible.” Many readers no doubt wish to challenge beliefs about fatness, health, and sexuality; readers are also at various stages in the process of accepting or rejecting size/fat acceptance ideals. This forum presented an opportunity to explore pros and cons towards real-life size acceptance via discussion of fictitious size acceptance.

At the very least, romance novel readers live in a society that stigmatizes fat women. Research demonstrates that fat people suffer from prejudicial treatment in the workplace and in social life, including romantic relationships (Baum; Bordo; Joanisse and Synnott; Lerner; Lerner and Gellert; Paulery; Register; Solovay). Indeed, research suggests that men may prefer women who struggle with drug addiction over their larger peers (Sitton and Blanchard). In the corporate world, men whose romantic partners are fat women may be judged badly as potential employees in contrast with men whose partners are slender women (Hebl and Mannix). As a result of this stigma, Samantha Murray puts it succinctly: “We do not talk about fat and sex. The two appear as mutually exclusive” (239). The inclusion of larger women in romance novels addresses and perhaps, as Stinson suggests, helps fight very real fears that readers’ own bodies may render them undesirable in the sexual marketplace or liabilities to male partners.

Yet those same societal constraints make it difficult for readers to imagine fat women (as opposed to women size 16 and under) as romantic heroines. As one reader commented about another reader’s desire to read about a happy, confident fat woman as heroine, “Considering I’ve never met a plus-sized, ‘average,’ or fat woman who isn’t obsessed or concerned or worried about her weight and society’s perceptions about her, I don’t know how realistic this heroine would be” (Jana 26 Jul 2008). Size acceptance novels, in theory, offer readers an opportunity to read about just such a woman, enjoying her body within the context of a faithful heterosexual relationship—a woman who enjoys her body regardless of the fact that it does not meet, or to put it in a more optimistic light, is not constrained by, social expectations about women taking up space and limiting their appetites in order to seduce men. The absence of this heroine from size acceptance literature is revealing about the ambivalence of publishers, authors and readers towards size acceptance and HAES, as well as towards what size acceptance might mean about norms that continue to affect heterosexual relationships, such as the function of women’s bodies as pleasing to men rather than as vehicles of the woman’s own pleasure.

Problem One: Heroines Who Diet Their Way to HEA

The book mentioned most often in response to SB Sarah’s first objection that a heroine must diet her way to her HEA is Susan Donovan’s He Loves Lucy. Donovan’s book was a best-seller published three years prior to the Smart Bitches 2008 post, making it fairly current. The eponymous Lucy works in advertising and public relations. To promote her client, a local gym, she agrees to work with a physical trainer there to lose 100 pounds and to have her weight loss chronicled in the media.

Some readers praised the book because, although Lucy loses a substantial amount of weight, they perceived that Theo, the gorgeous personal trainer hero, falls in love with Lucy before she reaches her target weight:

I’d like to see plus-sized being an ok HEA too, w/o losing weight. But I think at least LUCY addressed some of the issues and insecurites [sic], and did a better job than most books do. It was good for a few chuckles, too, which never hurts. And at least Theo loved her long before she lost the weight, which is more than can be said for a lot of plus-sized books. (Anonym2857 26 Jul 08)

Other readers were not so pleased: “He Loves Lucy was one that angered me because she didn’t get her HEA until she lost weight” (Lori 26 Jul 08).

Textual analysis reveals that Theo gradually falls for Lucy, as she loses weight:

That’s when [Theo] saw an attractive woman seated on the edge of a table, talking on a cell phone, one leg bent, her hair falling in glossy waves…

Lucy.” Her name came out like a gasp. Theo sat very still, realizing with confusion that his pulse was tripping.

Well, of course it was. He was just surprised. That was all. He was looking at the cumulative effect of a good balance of freestyle, cardio, and core strengthening along with lean protein, complex carbs, and fruits and vegetables.

He was merely reacting to all the changes in her numbers made visible. Her body fat mass was down. Her lean muscle mass was up. She’d lost a bunch of pounds and a bunch of inches from her upper arms, chest, hips, waist, thighs and calves. (Donovan 78)

Though Theo attempts to calm himself by putting Lucy’s startling new attractiveness in numerical terms, and Donovan maintains the humorous tone that keeps her books popular, it is easy to see why some readers would be disappointed. Theo’s attraction to Lucy surprises him, indicating that her body prior to weight loss did not attract him. Also, changes in her body prompt the newfound attraction, not her personality or shared experiences. Theo does not suddenly become attracted to Lucy because she is smart, kind, and funny—Donovan depicts her as all three—but rather because her appearance changes. This scene, arriving well into the book and well after Lucy (and through her, the reader) has noticed Theo’s attractiveness, undercuts the goal of having a “plus size” heroine who attracts the hero. Up until this point, Theo has been concerned that poor Lucy has been making “doe eyes” at him, when he was in the relationship for purely professional reasons.

So, readers who notice that Lucy doesn’t merit the lust of the hero or her HEA until she loses weight are correct. Donovan attempts to address this concern in the final pages. Theo and Lucy discuss their future when she shares her fear: If Theo didn’t love her when she weighed 230 pounds, how can she be sure his love will hold true should she regain the weight? Theo replies:

I liked you back then. You intrigued me. You made me laugh. But I didn’t know you well enough to love you, and you changed so fast that for me to love you at your starting weight it would have to have been love at first sight . . . . Luce, I just love you. You have to trust me on this. I mean, hey, how would it sound if I told you I was worried that you’d leave me if I started going bald? Or when hair started to grow out of my ears like with Uncle Martin? (332)

The narrative deflects from the issue of the “plus size” woman and the potential rejection she faces in romance real and fictitious, onto the bodily quirks that might someday appear on the heretofore-perfect body of the hero. Theo also never says he was attracted to her fat body. Lucy remains dissatisfied with Theo’s answer until he proves he intended to propose before she lost all of the weight. Meanwhile, Theo continues to appraise Lucy’s body right up to the final lovemaking scene: “[H]e loved her gorgeous ass and the two little dimples at the base of her spine, and her shoulders—so straight and strong—and the way her waist curved in just at the flare of her hips” (329). Borrowing from Laura Mulvey, we might say that the novel focuses on Lucy’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” rather than primarily on Lucy’s pleasure in her own sexual feelings. He Loves Lucy reinforces the notion that, even to have the pleasure of being enjoyed, women must achieve an ideal slenderness.

By reassuring Lucy—and the readers who may identify with her fears—that Theo both loved and will love Lucy regardless of her size, the book gives some hope to real-life “plus size” readers and may thereby have staked its claim to popularity. The book also, however, reassures readers that weight loss like Lucy’s is possible and desirable. Though readers may readily identify with Lucy’s body image concerns and the trouble inherent in changing one’s body so radically, He Loves Lucy hardly seems to advance the cause of accepting “plus size” women as heroines in romance. By the end of the novel, there is no “plus size” heroine. At best, Donovan’s novel asserts that “plus size” women can fulfill their fantasies on all three romance novel accounts: the achievement of being beautiful (at least to the hero); a satisfying romantic/sexual relationship; and the career success that is the contemporary romance answer to marrying the hero of historical romances, who so often possesses wealth, if not an aristocratic title. Yet the book suggests that they may do so only by first losing weight.

Problem Three: Whiny Heroines Who Aren’t That Big

Although SB Sarah mentions a second problem, that the fat character is only a friend to the heroine, no reader remarks on that topic on the list. Many readers do respond to the third issue of the heroine who complains excessively about her weight, especially when readers perceive that the character is of average rather than larger-than-average size. One romance mentioned by three separate readers as an example of a good “plus size” romance was Cathie Linz’ Big Girls Don’t Cry. Linz’ novel features Leena Riley, who has returned to her hometown after failing to be successful as a “plus size” model. Although such models are usually really a size 10 or 12 (still one size smaller than the average American woman’s size 14) and so fall into the category SB Sarah laments, Leena is perceived by other characters in the book as larger than average. One female character even viciously berates Leena for her body shape and calls her “fat” each time they meet.

Despite the fact that Leena now works at the front desk in a veterinarian’s office, her putative success as a model seems to make all her female relatives and friends eager to discuss body image as a pressing social problem. One conversationalist mentions that she “read a recent study that showed eighty percent of ten-year-olds worry about their weight . . . Society does that. These kids view celebrities who are painfully thin and think that’s what they should look like. Skeletons. It’s so unhealthy” (163). While it is not unrealistic to imagine women discussing the effects media images have on children, especially considering the overwhelming response to this thread on “Smart Bitches,” a well-informed discussion is replayed almost every time Leena’s career is mentioned, making body image woes central to the novel. This tactic seemed to annoy some readers. One woman who mentioned it as a good book still noted that the novel “irked [her] because [she] felt like [Linz] banged the reader upside the head with the ‘love your body’ message, but it was refreshing to see a plus-sized heroine in a romance novel” (Aubrey Curry, 28 Jul 2008). Clearly, any social message about diversity must be more obviously subservient to the goal of entertainment and fantasy-fulfillment for this reader.

Even as conversations about the importance of representing “plus size” women in the media build Leena as a heroine whose body and would-be career challenge the slender ideal, Leena herself seems constrained by body image issues in ways that restrict the sensuality of the novel. She sneaks food, a potential sign of disordered eating. She also agonizes during lovemaking:

She liked focusing on him. It prevented her from worrying about her own body and what he might think of it. She wanted to come to him as an all-powerful Goddess of Love, but the reality was that confidence was still something she faked sometimes. Like now. He sure helped matters by being so irresistible.

What woman could turn away? Which got her thinking about the other women . . . whom he’d seen naked. All of them probably skinnier than she was.

She took a step away. (253-4)

Leena’s self-doubt, while perhaps realistic, inhibits her enjoyment of the sex that the genre promises will be fantasy-fulfilling, interfering with readers’ potential pleasure in the novel. Linz’ novel realistically depicts the difficulty Leena has in her role as “plus size” heroine, but simultaneously calls into question the legitimacy of feeling beautiful and sexy at any size, or even at a slightly less than average size. Like He Loves Lucy, Big Girls Don’t Cry focuses on the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the heroine rather than her pleasure in her (big) body.

Readers’ personal examples confirm that Leena Riley’s thoughts accurately reflect the body image concerns of real readers. They also tend to confirm that having fat or “plus size” women in romances, enjoying the pleasures promised by the genre, would help many real women feel better about their own bodies during sex. For instance, when Jana opines that

If women are looking to their fiction to feel better about themselves, and they need “average” looking women to attain that—that’s a problem. You can have all the fat women you want in a book or movie happily fucking away with no regard to their appearance, but that won’t actually make anyone feel good about their own bodies or lives if they didn’t already have that confidence to begin with. (26 Jul 2008),

other readers quickly disagree, including Esri Rose, who believes “[i]t would be great if our confidence about our looks were completely separate from what society considers attractive, but I don’t know of any culture where it is. I think [the scenario you describe] would make a huge difference” (26 Jul 2008). Jana’s comment not only dismisses size acceptance in romance novels as a viable route to size or self-acceptance, but also seems to equate being fat to having “no regard to” one’s appearance, which suggests typical stereotypes of fat people as being lazy. Other posts suggest that women claiming “plus size” status care very much about their appearance as well as health. The online conversation among real women about “plus size” heroines thus parallels the fictional conversations and self-doubts in Linz’ novel, where female characters have different degrees of size acceptance, and therefore different reactions to Leena’s body and heroine status.

Readers also debate popular beliefs about fatness, which some, like Gail, hold as true. Gail argues that the novel He Loves Lucy initially depicts Lucy as unhealthy, and posits that there are healthy “curvy” bodies and “unhealthy fat” bodies. She likes Donovan’s book because it seems to her that Lucy’s quest is for greater control over her life overall, which is manifested initially through her desire to lose weight (Gail 26 Jul 2008). Other readers use physical descriptions of themselves as evidence to support the opposing argument that people can be classified as “overweight” and be both sexy and healthy. These readers cite their own height and weight statistics, defend themselves as healthy, and claim to be in fulfilling sexual relationships, to argue that “plus size” romances are realistic, not mere fantasy or wish fulfillment, and therefore are worth reading when written well. One woman even posts “pictorial proof” that her measurements don’t equate to a perception of fatness (Angelia Sparrow 26 Jul 2008).

The nature of a thread like this is that some readers will respond to particular posts on particular issues, and ignore others, perhaps because those other posts did not appear online until after she had already begun a reply/post, or for any number of reasons. However, it becomes clear as one reads the posts on this topic, in order, that those who argue that fat is unhealthy and those who argue from an HAES perspective do not respond to each other equally. For example, Cat Marsters writes:

I’m not generally a fan of the plus-sized heroine, because quite often it just seems to be a shorthand for saying it’s okay to be fat.  Well . . . again this depends on your definition of fat, but hands up who actually thinks it’s a good idea?  Any doctor will tell you it’s unhealthy.  Unhealthy and sexy are really unmixy things. (27 Jul 2008)

Other posts later react against her post and similar ideas, using personal evidence to the contrary, but Cat Marsters and other similar posters do not reply to defend their anti-fat views. When Jennifer Armintrout claims to be a fat woman (not “plus size” or “curvy”), only others like spinsterwitch who espouse an HAES perspective seem to reply.

Other than a vocal and not-to-be-ignored minority who already had a pro-size-acceptance mentality, then, authors and readers alike generally—though not universally—accept moving the range of accepted sizes for heroines up, but not embracing fat bodies above a certain point. While doing valuable work for women in a range of sizes, such reader narratives of personal size acceptance still, perhaps paradoxically, marginalize other, fatter women.

In “Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body,” Jana Evans Braziel theorizes that the fat female body is “defined by a benign asexuality that is marked by a paucity of representation and exists as the unrepresentable, or near-representable (that which is located on the margins of representability), because of an exclusion that [she] calls the corporeal mark of absence . . . [This] is difficult to grasp, because it renders visible what does not appear to be present at all” (232-3). Braziel suggests that the absence of images of the fat female body actually “evoke[s the fat female body] as outside the frame of signification and representation, while remaining structurally present” (233). Braziel illustrates by describing a lean cover model on a magazine promoting a diet plan; a fat woman’s body is present as an absence justifying the idea of dieting to look like the thin model. A recent issue of Fitness magazine (July/August 2010) provides a real-world example. A lean woman in a bathing suit smiles at viewers while bold black type proclaims “Slim. Sexy. Confident!” The (absent) fat woman is the opposite of the thin woman’s body and, one must assume, every adjective used to define her. For viewers/readers of the magazine, desiring to be(come) like the slim woman by adopting methods recommended within the magazine’s pages is a simultaneous rejection of the absent, unrepresented fat female body—the body they want to be(come) unlike, the body that does not merit anyone’s gaze.

Fat women’s bodies are similarly at the edge of the discussion on “Smart Bitches,” as when SB Sarah laments fictional women who complain about their size but are really only a size 10. Because few women escape body image consternation and fear of fat, a size 10 still isn’t big enough to be viewed as fat, it still isn’t even the average woman’s size in the US, much less the kind of fat that finds ridicule and disgust in the public sphere. Size 10 doesn’t break what Frater calls the “size 20 glass ceiling” (240). Here, contrast may be useful. In “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Female Body,” Samantha Murray opens with personal narrative that describes her feelings as a fat woman listening to a story of the brutal gang beating of another fat woman:

I sat in the audience, listening to this story in horror. I suddenly became acutely aware of my own fat bulges and folds. I imagined every eye in the room on me, shaking their heads in pity, revulsion and even morbid curiosity. I pulled my shirt surreptitiously away from the bulges of my belly and my hips, trying to separate the appearance from the reality. I shifted in my chair, and felt my cheeks burn hot and my stomach churn. I was angry, so angry, so humiliated for the fat girl who had suffered . . . she was just a girl, a girl like I was and had been, and she had been made into a ravenous, libidinous, ridiculous creature. And yet I was ashamed. I was aware of the disgust my body inspired, its complete unacceptability and invisibility in the sexual domain, apart from as a figure of ridicule. (238)

Murray’s argument is similar to Braziel’s: the fat woman is expected to be asexual and therefore unrepresented; when she dares to become sexual, her sexuality may be viewed as hypersexual, her appetites for pleasures, both alimentary and sexual, grotesque. By describing her conflicted feelings and describing her body itself, Murray places herself in the category of the fat woman. Very few who post personal information to the thread about “plus size” romance are similarly staking a claim to that category and arguing that their fat bodies, replete with “bulges and folds,” are attractive and healthy. Instead, they reject the fat female body by leaving it unvoiced, or by refusing to respond to voices claiming it, even to argue against those voices. Their silence confirms what Murray goes on to argue:

We do not almost plough into the car in front of us as we ogle a billboard displaying a fat woman in lacy lingerie. We do not gaze lasciviously at a bulbous bottom in tight jeans. We do not fantasize about the fleshy jiggles and wobbles of a fat body in the throes of sexual passion.

Some of us might. But most of us do not. Or at least we know we are not supposed to. (239)

The comparative “silence” that greets most of the posts from women who use the word fat to describe themselves without indicating regret or an intention of losing weight bolsters Murray’s assertion that to believe a fat female body is sexy is to transgress social norms.

The minority of fat-positive readers posting to the list are, on the other hand, extremely “vocal.” Several express frustration with arguments that fatness necessarily equates to unhealthiness. In particular, such readers argue with WandaSue, who describes her different experiences and reading habits and implies that others’ posts are mere bravado. WandaSue notes that she used to be a diabetic size 16 at 5’0”, but is now a happier, healthier size 6. She indicates that she formerly read “plus size” fiction but now refuses to spend her time and money on such novels. Several readers reply directly to WandaSue. One, Stephanie, suggests that WandaSue has missed the point: “[w]e don’t care what size you are. We care what books you read.” And WandaSue suggests in turn that Stephanie has missed the point: readers read and enjoy romances based partly on what they wish to identify with and hope for:

When I was a Size 16, there existed inside of me a very wistful and hopeful Size 6 . . . but if anybody asked me, I’d deny it til [sic] I was blue with indignation. I told myself—and anybody patient enough to care—that I was “happy” and “content” and “secure” being fat. (Deep inside, I wasn’t).

So I’d read the “Plus size” heroine romances to feed that sentiment, and searched high and low for a heroine with whom I could identify—and who could validate my fatness. It fed the fantasy OF THAT TIME IN MY LIFE. (Emphasis hers, 27 Jul 2008)

WandaSue’s comments are perceived as hurtful to the many others who have described their own bodies (Spider 27 Jul 2008; Stephanie 27 Jul 2008). WandaSue’s comments refute not only the boldest “fat = sexy and healthy” claims. She also denies the many others who identify with “plus size” heroines the (sexy, confident) status of the Fitness cover model they covet and claim. She implies by her example that many other readers inwardly acknowledge their kinship with the unrepresentable and unrepresented fat woman whose absence and asexuality underlie their desire to ally themselves with the smaller, thinner women who grace the covers of magazines and romance novels alike. Reading “plus size” romances, she seems to say, makes other readers look fat.

The covers of “plus size” romances also refuse to depict the large(r) female body, more evidence for the ambivalence of readers and publishers towards those bodies. The absence and veiling of women’s bodies in size acceptance literature is actually typical (Brown 248), suggesting that reading about and discussing “plus size” women is one thing, and looking at them is another, more difficult thing to do. Some novel covers depict what appear to be standard cover models, despite the description offered within the narrative of a heroine with a larger-than-typical-cover-model body. The model depicting Josie of Eloisa James’ Pleasure for Pleasure, for example, is not distinguishably “curvier” than the models used to depict Josie’s sisters on their novels’ covers. Other covers depict only images or cartoons of women’s feet or calves, and these body parts are never obviously those of a “plus size” woman. Some cartoons, like the cover for Julie Ortolon’s novel Too Perfect, depict nearly the entire body, yet suggest a slender rather than a “plus size” body. Despite the fact that He Loves Lucy focuses on the heroine’s dietary restrictions, the cover features cupcakes.

To be fair, many contemporary romance covers avoid physical representations of the heroine altogether and instead suggest the feminine focus of the story through use of pastel colors, fonts whose curlicues suggest femininity, and/or images of accessories, such as shoes.

The disappearance of couples on the covers of romances is a trend that predates the emergence of the “plus size” romance subgenre. It seems the desire to escape the “bodice ripper” image of previous generations of romance novels has led to fewer images of heroines on the book covers overall. The message sent by the covers of “plus size” romances is therefore ambiguous, suggesting in some ways that the “plus size” romance is no different than a typical romance but simultaneously suggesting that a “plus size” woman could not sell a romance novel if she appeared on the cover. Similarly, only about half of the plot summaries on the back covers or inside flaps of “plus size” romances suggest that the heroine is a “plus size” woman.

Good for the Gander?

SB Sarah’s post about “plus size” women in chick lit and romance prompts a related reader concern, the issue of whether “plus size”[2] heroes would be welcome, and therefore whether or not readers who prefer “plus size” heroines are holding up a gendered double standard. AnimeJune is the first to pose the question: “Should we have fat heroes then?” The double standard question becomes a key point that many posts revolve around, as readers struggle to recall heroes who were not tall, muscular and/or lean, and handsome, regardless of the size and shape of the heroine. Very few heroes are recommended as such, though many readers claim they have physically imperfect but sexy male partners themselves in real life and would be happy to read about the same in romance novels.

Among the books surveyed for this project, from a variety of romance genres including contemporary, historical, romantic thrillers, and paranormal, none of the heroes could remotely be described as “plus size.” Over and over, the hero is tall and muscular, with chiseled features and a full head of hair. The only variations in mainstream heroes tend to be chest hair (yes or no), scars (yes or no), hair length, and hair and eye color.[3] Just to prove the point, here are a trio of descriptions of heroes in romances with “plus size” heroines, beginning with an excerpt from an Eloisa James’ Regency romance: “[B]efore she could say anything, he stripped off his shirt as well . . . He was all smooth, sharp-cut muscle, beautifully defined” (Pleasure for Pleasure 92).

The following is a description of the hero of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s supernatural romance, Night Play: “Oh, dear heaven! Bride couldn’t breathe as she had her first look at his bared chest. She’d known he had a great body, but this . . . It exceeded anything from her dreams. His broad shoulders tapered to a washboard stomach that could do enough laundry for an entire nation. Forget six-pack, this man had eight, and they rippled with every breath he took” (39). Finally, Lisa Kleypas’ historical romance heroine in Suddenly You views the hero nude for the first time:

Devlin was as sleek and muscular as the black-and-gold tiger she had seen on exhibition at the park menagerie. Divested of his clothes, he seemed even larger, his broad shoulders and long torso looming before her . . . . His midriff was scored with rows of muscle. She had seen statues . . . of the male body, but nothing had ever conveyed this sense of warm, living strength, this potent virility. (103)

While the time period and narrative style of these novels varies, the hero’s requisite physical leanness remains the same. Intriguingly, not all the criticism of this aspect of the books is aimed at the obvious double standard, but is instead launched at its believability. JenB writes, “I’m plus size, and I don’t see the ‘plus size girl gets the super mega hottie’ storyline as realistic” (26 Jul 2008). She also suggests that the truth is that attractiveness in heterosexual couples is usually the reverse, with the female partner being more attractive than the male.

In typical romance novels featuring heroines with slender figures, the hero’s requisite height and muscularity is often juxtaposed against the heroine’s fragility or delicacy. In the “plus size” romance, the hero’s muscularity is similarly juxtaposed against the heroine’s softness. She is “all woman—with sexy curves” (Linz 50) and “abundant pink-and-white flesh” (Kleypas 325), while he is rigid and powerful. Such opposition parallels sexual organs during arousal, a synecdochal way of implying both partners are physically aroused without necessitating terms for body parts that may make some readers of mainstream romance uncomfortable. Such complementary body part descriptions (soft/hard, abundant/lean, curvy/rigid) make the heroine and her hero right for each other, as authors are quick to point out in scene after scene. Thus the heteronormative assumption that, for successful pleasure, male and female bodies ought to have complementary rather than similar physical characteristics is maintained into the “plus size” romance subgenre.

Perhaps no novelist makes clearer exactly how inappropriate the paunchy hero is for his role than Eloisa James. James’ novels deliberately feature diverse heroine body types, from the slender and small-breasted to the plump and well-endowed.[4] Enter Josie, the heroine of Pleasure for Pleasure, whose tendency to dress her plump body unwisely in fashionable corsets earns her the nickname “the Scottish sausage” on London’s aristocratic marriage market—until, that is, the Earl of Mayne, who thinks of her as “ripe and delicious as a peach” (147), teaches her to dress her figure seductively and use her voluptuous body to flirt. Josie fits into the category of the woman who whines about her size—through several books featuring her elder sisters no less—but she isn’t really fat if a change of garment can miraculously render her irresistible to so many men. While helping Josie learn the seductive arts, the Pygmalion-like Mayne predictably falls for her. Mayne, however, is lean. His body is repeatedly described as elegant but muscular, sleek and hard; he features in several of James’ novels as a sought-after bachelor before finally meeting his match in Josie.

By contrast, two characters in other James books demonstrate the problems associated with fat male characters. The first of these is Rafael, the Duke of Holbrook, the guardian of Josie the Scottish Sausage and her sisters throughout the series of four books that detail the sisters’ romances. Initially, Rafe—as the duke obligingly allows his friends to call him—drinks to mask his pain at the death of his older brother. Grief-stricken, he overlooks his duties and appearance, as his flabby gut attests and threadbare clothing implies. Rafe’s interest in life is renewed when he must care for his four female wards, including Imogen, with whom he is destined for romance. In The Taming of the Duke, Rafe realizes he must resist the temptation to drink heavily. He begins to exercise by horseback riding and other activities, and he loses the gut. Finally sober and appropriately muscled for a duke of such wealth, he woos Imogen, who believes herself in love with the Duke’s illegitimate younger brother:

Imogen stared at Rafe. He had the same dusting of black stubble that he always had by noon, but the skin of his cheeks was pink and healthy, and his eyes didn’t have that half-awake, hooded look that he used to have. He shook back a fall of chestnut brown hair, smiling up at the sky . . . . He was a beautiful man . . . .  [S]he couldn’t help noticing the way his old shirt pulled free of his trousers as he leaped. What happened to that gut that used to hang over his trousers? Could it have disappeared in a mere few weeks? Because now that body looked as lean and hard as his brother’s . . . even more so, perhaps. (265)

Rafe merits the sexual regard of his paramour only after a physical and mental transformation. Though Josie needs only to work with her curves more adeptly through fashion and flirtation, Rafe must make physical alterations to earn his HEA. While Josie’s softness is revealed to be feminine and therefore appropriately sexy in the heteronormative world of these novels, Rafe’s initial physical softness is inappropriate and marks him as weak.

In another novel, Duchess in Love, James experiments with another fat male character, here not the hero. Miles is the husband of a secondary heroine, Esme Rawlings, whose real romance will occur in a later James novel. Miles and Esme agree their sex lives are better fulfilled elsewhere. Miles has a mistress whom he loves, and Esme has several affairs, earning her the nickname “Infamous Esme,” yet both want a legitimate heir to Miles’ estate. The fat Miles’ physical repulsiveness to Esme is the subject of much query in the book. She wonders if she can bear to have him on top of her long enough to get through the sex act. Finally, they manage intercourse that goes completely undescribed; sex with a fat man is as unrepresentable as the fat female body. When one of Esme’s admirers bolts into the boudoir after the coupling is complete, Miles dies, his fragile heart unable to bear the strain of intercourse followed by the shock of an intruder entering at night. Like Rafe’s, Miles’ fatness is a sign of physical weakness and of his obvious unsuitability to be the hero. This unsuitability justifies Esme’s sexual affairs with unnamed other men when ordinarily the heroine of a romance is expected to maintain chastity unless and until her hero claims her. Visible fat, for men in a romance novel at least, is a sign of something mentally and/or physically wrong, whereas the “curvy” and “lush” heroine is a creature on the brink of seductive discovery.

Although none of the readers posting to “Smart Bitches” comments on this, the virtual nonexistence of the fat hero even in “plus size” romance may stem not merely from women fantasizing more readily or often about heroes with six- (or eight-?) pack abs and a full head of hair. Indeed, many readers describe in their posts that they find their own lovers’ and husbands’ “flaws” sexy. It is difficult not to argue that another reason fat or merely chubby heroes are absent is the hypocrisy, if not of readers, then at least of authors and/or publishers. Heroes with “a gut” are absent even in books by Elizabeth Hoyt, whose trilogy of romances (The Raven Prince, The Serpent Prince, The Leopard Prince) are noted by “Smart Bitches” readers for containing not-so-handsome heroes, including a pock-marked, big-nosed Earl.

This absence stems partly from perception of the hero as trophy. A traditional HEA, from fairy tale to Jane Eyre to Disney cartoon to contemporary romance novel, includes true love and passion, as well as a resolution of whatever issue provided the other narrative element in the book (such as a mystery), plus career satisfaction and/or wealth. Generally, the hero is expected to aid in the resolution of other narrative issues while providing the love/passion and at least some of the money. If a “plus size” heroine were to receive a hero who could be perceived as somehow less than the typical hero, then the “plus size” heroine may be perceived by readers as correspondingly less deserving than the dainty lasses on the cover of most of the books. Such deficiency might undercut the social goal of including a diversity of body types in the first place. However, viewing a lean hero as the only possible physical specimen who can be a trophy for the heroine betrays a size-ist bias.

Conclusions: Everybody Loves Crusie

One book seemed to please nearly all the readers on this thread who mention it: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. Why so beloved? Crusie’s novel sidesteps nearly every trope discussed and denigrated by SB Sarah and the readers of “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.”

Heroine Min Dobbs is halfheartedly trying to lose weight to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress for her sister’s wedding, an attempt lamented by every character in the book with whom readers are encouraged to relate, and advocated by characters readers are encouraged to dislike, including Min’s controlling mother and her unappreciative ex-boyfriend. If Lucy in Donovan’s novel seems expected to lose weight to earn her HEA, Min is expected to realize that she is sexy as is to earn her HEA.

No specifics of Min’s size, such as weight or height, are offered, only varied characters’ opinions on whether Min is voluptuous or fat. Min seems to occupy the border territory many readers are concerned with pushing into the country perceived as healthy, sexy and confident. The debate over Min’s size grounds the novel in a reality most of the readers who post to “Smart Bitches” can appreciate, in which the range of acceptably sexy body sizes is under debate and subject to change.

Crusie’s novel completely avoids any hint that her heroine must or even should lose weight to earn the hero’s sexual attention. The (gorgeous, lean) hero, Cal, is a gourmand with a friend in the restaurant business. Cal is in no way put off by Min’s body or appetite, but rather thoroughly aroused by both, and put off instead by her grumpiness. Readers know what Cal doesn’t: Min’s grumpiness stems from having overheard Cal make a bet with Min’s ex that Cal can easily get Min to go to bed with him. Cal, the perfect mate for Min, redresses her grumpiness by offering her food—the good stuff—once he learns that doing so not only appeases her short temper but also arouses him by causing Min to sigh and swoon suggestively. Crusie’s narration emphasizes all forms of pleasure. When Min’s attempt at cooking a low-fat version of an Italian classic goes predictably awry, Cal scoffs and brings her a proper dinner they both enjoy.

By encouraging Min’s dietary as well as sexual desires, and enjoying her body and her pleasure, Cal validates feminine desires often seen as taboo or subjugated to patriarchal norms. In contrast, books like He Loves Lucy and Big Girls Don’t Cry present a less feminine-centered view of pleasure. Readers themselves sigh and swoon over a scene in which Cal feeds Min a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Although the narration is at this moment from Cal’s perspective, the scene allows readers to interpret Min’s physical feelings while glimpsing Min as desirable through Cal’s eyes:

[H]e popped another piece of doughnut in her mouth and watched as her lips closed over the sweetness. Her face was beautifully blissful, her mouth soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears. The rush became a whisper—THIS one—and he breathed deeper, and before she could open her eyes, he leaned in and kissed her, tasting the chocolate and the heat of her mouth, and she froze for a moment and then kissed him back, sweet and insistent, blanking out all coherent thought. He let the taste and the scent and the warmth of her wash over him, drowning in her, and when she finally pulled back, he almost fell into her lap.

She sat across from him…her dark eyes flashing, wide awake, her lush lips parted, open for him, and then she spoke.

More,” she breathed and he looked into her eyes and went for her. (90)

Min first gets what she wants without asking and then asks for what she wants and receives it. By contrast, Leena Riley’s timid passion for her hero, and desire to please him in order to feel worthy, come across as tepid; her frequent, guilty snacking when she is alone and depressed seem decidedly lacking in fantasy fulfillment when viewed against Cal’s intimate feeding of Min. Similarly, Theo’s surprised internal description of the lower-fat version of Lucy seem less likely to evoke reader pleasure than Cal’s besotted description of kissing an impassioned Min. The emphasis on how things feel versus look in this passage is typical of the book overall, which avoids portraying Min’s body mostly as object “to be looked at” by Cal. There is something to be said in favor of the alternative strategy, which would be representing the fat(ter?) body through description as a challenge to the imagination and willingness to represent that body, though given the responses on “Smart Bitches,” such a strategy may be received as too transgressive to be popular.

Still, Crusie’s novel does persuasively suggest that Min is a larger than average woman who does not lose weight yet enjoys sex. There is never a doubt that Cal desires and deserves Min. Readers know what Min doesn’t: he never wanted to make the bet about bedding her, and isn’t trying to win money by so doing. He really just wants her, which is the stuff that romance is made of.

The novel acknowledges Min’s social situation as a potential fat person through unique situations rather than endless inner turmoil for the heroine or endless discussions of how morally improving it is to see a larger-than-average woman’s body in the media. Cal likes Min and thinks she’s attractive, while observing in a confused way that other people don’t necessarily find her so. He discusses his perplexity with his lesbian neighbor, Shanna. These conversations are held out of Min’s earshot—but well within that of readers, of course. Shanna helps Cal understand Min’s insecurities about dating a man who is considered as physically desirable as Cal, and Shanna simultaneously provides a second sexual character who sees how outrageously sexy Min is but does not vie with Cal for Min because Min is heterosexual.[5] Those conversations combine romantic ideals (Cal doesn’t see Min as in any way lacking) with reality (Shanna, a woman, understands Min’s social situation). In this way, readers overhear someone in the novel explain that the dating world does unfortunately work against plump women, but it isn’t Min lamenting the cruel world and thus risking heroine status by becoming too whiny, or by putting herself too firmly in the category of fat woman.

Bet Me also avoids over-reliance on physical opposition and instead stresses that both hero and heroine have complementary personality traits, traits that others perceive as flaws. Both Cal and Min stand up for each other against families who don’t appreciate their assets. In Min’s case, Cal insists that she dress to reveal rather than conceal her shape, despite her mother’s wishes that Min would camouflage her body. His appreciation of Min in these new clothes helps Min feel sensual rather than tyrannized anew in her wardrobe selections. In return, Min stands up against Cal’s uptight, wealthy parents in defense of his choice not to go into the family legal practice.[6] Thus, Crusie shrewdly avoids featuring Cal as the hero who rescues Min from a sex-less fate as a “plus size” woman, because Min also rescues Cal. The reciprocity seems emotionally more satisfying to readers than reliance on typical descriptions of the soft female body pressed against rigid masculinity. In fact, Crusie’s descriptions of the couple’s sexual interaction avoids describing their bodies in physical detail while focusing instead, as in the quote above, on gestures, reactions, and feelings.

Finally, the book is full of women thinner and/or younger, but unhappier and far whinier and less virtuous than Min, who possesses confidence and smarts, as well as the traditional Cinderella-like virtues of patience, generosity, and self-control, which all earn her the eventual pleasure and security she feels in her relationship with Cal. The book seems to have just enough body image paranoia and family/friendship issues to feel realistic, and enough allusions to fairy tales and enough sexual attraction overcoming insecurity to put it in the realm of fantasy. As one reader concluded, “I think Bet Me has become my major comfort novel when I think the whole world is being crappy to me” (Vivian, 26 Jul 2008).

Crusie’s novel suggests a “plus size” romance that is successful with readers will find ways to sidestep the tropes identified and bemoaned by SB Sarah and the many readers who commiserated. Not only was Bet Me celebrated on this thread, but it is also included in lists of good “plus size” romance created by enamored readers on Amazon.com and elsewhere. Finding new ways to avoid similar authorial missteps may therefore be key to any novelist hoping for economic success in this sub-genre that promotes Happily Ever Afters for women of size.

As Kathleen LeBesco points out, it may not be possible to change social standards of beauty without “producing [a] subset of unthinkable, unlivable and abject bodies” (5). When readers of magazines targeted towards “plus size” readers called larger women “real women,” for example, there were occasional outcries that petite and slim women were also “real.”

Frater, in her discussion of chick lit, argues in favor of its efficacy for fat acceptance, despite the “size 20 glass ceiling” and other failures. For one thing, she notes, fat bodies are virtually invisible everywhere else in the media (240). “Plus size” romance novels similarly adhere to problematic tropes, in part because their readers seem unready to accept truly fat bodies, female or male, as sexual bodies. Yet these novels still promote the health and attractiveness of bodies larger than those of the slender models and actresses whose images are so ubiquitous in popular media. The eager responses to the “Smart Bitches” post suggest, too, that in the reading and considering these novels, women of many shapes and sizes are encouraged to stake claims to being sexy and confident and healthy, and to imagine pleasurably inclusive possibilities.

Works Cited

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: Benbella Press, 2008. Print.

Baum, L. “Extra Pounds Can Weight Down Your Career.” Business Week. Aug 1987: 96. Print.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Braziel, Jana Evans. “Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness

and Transgression.” Ed. Braziel, Jana Evans and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001: 231-54. Print.

Brown, Sonya. “An Obscure Middle Ground: Size Acceptance Narratives and the Body Photographed.” Feminist Media Studies 5.2 (2005): 246-9. Print.

Campos, Paul. The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Penguin/Gotham Books, 2004. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Donovan, Susan. He Loves Lucy. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.

Gaesser, Glenn A. Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 2002. Print.

Frater, Lara. “Fat Heroines in Chick-Lit.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009: 235-40. Print.

Hebl, Michelle R. and Laura M. Mannix. “The Weight of Obesity in Evaluating Others: A Mere Proximity Effect.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29.1 (2003): 28-38. Print.

James, Eloisa. Pleasure for Pleasure. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

—. The Taming of the Duke. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

Joanisse, Leanne and Anthony Synnott. “Fighting Back: Reactions and Resistance to the Stigma of Obesity.” Interpreting Weight: The Social Management of Fatness and Thinness. Ed. Jeffrey Sobal and Donna Maurer. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999: 57-8. Print.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Night Play. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Kleypas, Lisa. Suddenly You. Rockland, MA: Wheeler Publishing, 2001. Print.

Kolata, Gina. Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—And the Myths and Realities of Dieting. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

LeBesco, Kathleen. Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Print.

Lerner, R. M. “The Development of Stereotyped Expectancies of Body Build Behavior Relations.” Child Development 40.1 (1969): 137-41. Print.

Lerner, R. M. and E. Gellert. “Body Build Identification, Preference and Aversion in Children.” Developmental Psychology 1 (1969): 456-62. Print.

Linz, Cathie. Big Girls Don’t Cry. New York: Berkley Sensation, 2007. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6–18. Print.

Murray, Samantha. “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Woman.” Social Semiotics. 14.3 (2004): 237-47. Print.

Paulery, L. L. “Customer Weight as a Variable in Salespersons’ Response Time.”  Journal of Social Psychology (1989): 713-4. Print.

Register, C.A. “Wage Effects of Obesity Among Young Workers.”  Social Science Quarterly 71

(1990): 130-41. Print.

SB Sarah. “GS vs. STA: The Plus Size Heroine—The One Who’s Well-Adjusted.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books website. Web. 26 Jul 2008.

Sitton, S. and S. Blanchard. “Men’s Preference in Romantic Partners: Obesity Vs. Addiction.” Psychological Reports 77.3 (1995): 1185-87. Print.

Solovay, Sondra. Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight-Based Discrimination. Amherst, New York: Promethus Books, 2000. Print.

Stinson, Susan. “Fat Girls Need Fiction.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sandra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009: 231-4. Print.

Works Consulted

Brockmann, Suzanne. Hot Target. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

Foster, Lori. Too Much Temptation. New York: Zebra, 2007. Print.

Fox, Elaine. Guys and Dogs. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

Green, Jane. Jemima J. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. Print.

Hoyt, Elizabeth. The Raven Prince. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2006 Print.

James, Eloisa. Kiss Me, Annabel. New York: Avon Books, 2005. Print.

—. Much Ado About You. New York: Avon Books, 2005. Print.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Fantasy Lover. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.

Kinsale, Laura. Seize the Fire. New York: Severn House Publishers, 1990. Print.

Lee, Marilyn. Full-Bodied Charmer. Ellora’s Cave Publishing, 2008. Web.

Medeiros, Teresa. The Bride and the Beast. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. Print.

Ortolon, Julie. Too Perfect. New York: Signet Eclipse/Penguin, 2005. Print.

Weiner, Jennifer. Good in Bed. New York: Washington Square Press, 2001. Print.


[1] The term “plus size” usually refers to women’s clothing sizes (American) above the range of 0-16, but there is some overlap between “regular” and “plus” sizes; for example, the “plus size” clothing store Lane Bryant sells sizes 14+, and many “regular” department store sizes go up to 16 or 18.

[2] Women who respond to this blog maintain the term “plus size” to describe men, but clothing stores typically refer to men whose sizes fall above those considered “normal” as “big and tall.”

[3] At least one reader mentions The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt (Grand Central Publishing, 2006), in which the hero is described as ugly and pock-marked, with a large nose. The heroine, though not fat, is also described as an average-looking rather than beautiful woman. The hero, however, is in every other way a typical hero: tall and muscular and has a full head of dark hair.

[4] James posts monthly updates to her website section of “Books to Love.” Her September 2005 post praises two books on body image issues, including a romance by Elizabeth Bevarly entitled You’ve Got Mail. In her post, James writes “I’m tired of perfect heroines. Surely I’m not the only one? I love romance; I really do. But if there’s one thing I don’t like about it (other than the manifest truth that my marriage doesn’t seem as perfect as the ones I create in fiction), it’s all these perfect women. Perfect teeth. Perfect waists. Perfects breasts — that goes without saying” (http://www.eloisajames.com/pillow.php?id=84).

[5] Shanna’s presence as lesbian is not only non-threatening to Min and Cal’s relationship, but also may be Crusie’s nod to the lesbian community’s generally more accepting attitude toward women with diverse body shapes. A few readers also note that lesbian romances seem to include more body size diversity with less anxiety than a heterosexual “plus size” romance.

[6] Cal is also dyslexic, which disturbs his family though of course Min is untroubled by it and explains how the condition, combined with being a younger son, would make Cal less likely to pursue his father and brother’s profession.

Share