Posts Tagged ‘gender’
When Mitch Peatwick in What the Lady Wants (1995) tells Mae Sullivan that “the first rule in life is ‘everybody lies’,” he articulates one of the central motifs that runs through the majority of Jennifer Crusie’s novels (24). Lying forms a key part of many of Crusie’s narratives, and most of Crusie’s heroines lie. From the “unreal but not untrue” storytelling of The Cinderella Deal’s Daisy Flattery to the secrets all the characters conceal in Tell Me Lies to the cons of the Dempsey and Goodnight families in Welcome to Temptation and Faking It, characters twist, turn, and manipulate truths, half-truths, and lies with stunning verbal agility. Mitch’s favourite catchphrase, “everybody lies,” is a symptom of a hard-bitten cynicism brought on by one too many divorce cases. As the narrator notes, “Mitch’s take on humanity had deteriorated to the point where he assumed someone was lying if her lips were moving” (WLW, 22). But that the issue of lying appears with such regularity in Crusie’s novels suggests that it holds a greater significance than simply reflecting a misanthropic world-view. In What the Lady Wants, the narrator crucially genders Mitch’s lying “someone” as female. On one level, Mitch’s misogynistic outbursts echo the story’s noir roots, identifying Mae with archetypal femme fatales such as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and preparing the reader for Mae’s attempted manipulation of Mitch through the lies she tells. But such gendering of lying calls attention not only to the lies women tell, but also to the lies they have been told.
In her 1997 non-fiction essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real,” Crusie writes that romance fiction shows the reader “that a lot of the ‘truths’ that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies” (92). The relativism of truth and lies implied in this statement points to what is important about lying in much of Crusie’s fiction. Throughout many of her novels, Crusie questions absolutist notions of truth and lies in order to examine the contingent nature of the real. Drawing on a constructivist notion of identity, Crusie relates the telling of lies with the telling of stories, showing how different, sometimes opposing, versions of reality can be created through narrative manipulation. Within her fiction, storytelling is an explicitly performative act, one which is used by Crusie to show how creative power can lead to self-determination. This article will show how Crusie uses the structure of romance narrative as a way of challenging what she sees as ideological “lies.” These lies, however, cannot simply be equated with patriarchy, but are more broadly related to essentialist notions that come out of either patriarchal or feminist assumptions about what a woman should do, how she should think, and what she should be interested in. This article will argue that Crusie explores the ambiguity between truth and lies in order, she argues, to tell “the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is” (Ibid). The political function of the romance, she suggests, is embodied in its capacity to represent and imagine a variety of female identities that are distinct from the restrictive and limiting constructions that are conventionally afforded to female characters. In both “reinforcing” and “re-visioning” the real, the romance genre represents a degree of performative self-determination emerging from the fabric of everyday life.
In “Romancing Reality,” along with other non-fiction essays published in the mid- to late-1990s, such as “Now Let Us Praise Scribbling Women,” and “Glee and Sympathy,” Crusie mounts a vehement and politically-charged defence of the romance genre. In fact, a large proportion of the essays Crusie wrote in the late ‘90s argue against the critical derision and out-right dismissal that up until the mid-90s had formed the central academic response to the romance. Writing to the profession in the January edition of the monthly newsletter of the Romance Writers of America, Crusie announces her New Year’s resolution to make 1998 the year in which she would “improve romance’s image” and defeat the “anti-romance bias.” Though this was her stated goal for 1998, the exploration of the capabilities and responsibilities of the genre had concerned Crusie at least since she had begun writing her own romance novels earlier in the decade. The crux of Crusie’s defence in this article is her argument that the conventional romance narrative contains radical transformative potential. She bases her argument on a discussion of generic differences between romance fiction, identified here as women’s fiction, and “serious” literary fiction, which has most often been implicitly gendered masculine. The core of Crusie’s project here is to call into question the generic hierarchy that equates the conventional tragic ending of literary fiction with “reality” and the conventional happy ending of romance with “fantasy.” She argues, “it is as unrealistic to say that life is all tragedy as it is to say that life is all happy endings. . . [r]omance fiction, in choosing to show women readers the variety of possibilities in the real world of women’s lives, opts for the happy ending as more empowering” (“Romancing” 92). Crusie here gives the romance genre an important political function. By featuring narratives in a woman’s voice and from a woman’s point-of-view that offer positive depictions of women who take “active, intelligent control of their lives,” she argues, the romance novel can serve as an ideological antidote to the conventional masculine genres, such as canonical literary fiction or even fairy tales, which routinely depict the failure, punishment, and death of women who transgress established social norms (“Romancing” 84, emphasis in original).
Crusie’s focus on the “variety of possibilities” represented within romance narratives points to how she sees the political potential of the romance novel working at an even more fundamental level. In a move that echoes the social theory of “false necessity,” popularised by Roberto Unger in late 1980s and early ‘90s, Crusie identifies the romance narrative as a site of radical critique and transformative potential through its representation of multiplicity in women’s experience. Unger argued that institutional and large-scale social change can be reshaped through the realm of the local and the everyday, and embraced a pluralistic and experiential view of social reality. Thus, in the course of everyday life, individuals remain capable of creative responses within apparently repressive conditions. This perspective, Unger argued, “frees the definition of the radical project from unnecessarily restrictive assumptions about the possible forms of social organization and personal experience” (159-60). Crusie, writing at the same socio-historical moment as Unger, also engages with this positive philosophy for social change, but applies it specifically to what has generally been seen as a female form of narrative, the romance. Crusie argues that the romance genre, though often criticized for reinforcing social stability, has the potential to participate in a radical project for social change through the way it rewrites and “re-visions” what could be seen as restrictive assumptions. The best romance novels, Crusie suggests, are those that recast traditional stories which have routinely worked to silence the woman’s voice and reign in transgression. Such novels, she argues, which give their heroine the “capacity for action and power,” can be seen as a form of “feminist fiction” (“This is Not” 51-61; “Let us Now” 19).
Indeed Crusie, flying in the face of both critical and popular denigration of the genre, argues that there are few forms of fiction which address the possibilities for female agency more successfully and more boldly than the contemporary romance. But unsurprisingly, Crusie does not confine her defence of the romance genre to her non-fiction writing. In a number of novels written around the same time, she actively puts her theories about the capacities of the romance genre into practice. Focusing specifically on three novels written in the mid-‘90s, Strange Bedpersons (1994), What the Lady Wants (1996), and The Cinderella Deal (1996), this article will now examine the way in which Crusie explores alternative and subversive forms of storytelling, including the telling of lies, in order to construct her own version of the feminist romance novel.
As in her critical work, Crusie offers the romance plot throughout her novels as a corrective to the routine misrepresentation of everyday life found in the majority of implicitly masculinised literary genres. Throughout her early work, Crusie repeatedly presents popular, and oft-caricatured models of 1990s lifestyle in order to parody, critique, and reimagine them, fully exploiting the capacity of romance to open up new, previously unrepresentable, possibilities for her characters. For instance, novels such as Manhunting (1993), Strange Bedpersons, The Cinderella Deal, and Anyone But You (1996) question the socially constructed role of the literal-minded, career-driven male. In her representations of Alex in Anyone But You and Jake in Manhunting, she explores the pressures that are placed on men to conform to images of masculine, career-based success. Both characters shun high-paying, high-pressure, conventionally successful careers (cardiology for Alex and tax law for Jake) in order to pursue jobs that make them happy rather than rich. In doing so, they must resist, in varying degrees, the criticism and incomprehension of their families and friends and their own self-doubt about their choices. While Crusie shows through Alex and Jake the difficulty of resisting social expectations, in her characterisation of Linc in The Cinderella Deal and Nick in Strange Bedpersons, she explores the sterility of the life that Jake and Alex avoid by eschewing what Roos Vonk and Richard Ashmore designate as the “traditional masculine” role of the yuppie (263). This is most obviously reflected in Crusie’s description of their environment. The black-and-white colour scheme of Nick and Linc’s clothes and furniture reflects not only their lack of vibrancy and imagination, but also represents their narrow-minded sense of morality and social mores. Hemmed in by career obsession and concern for public opinion, Linc and Nick live ordered, controlled, co-ordinated lives. Even Linc’s fantasies do not rise above the prosaic. While interviewing for a job in the prestigious Prescott College, Linc, in a desperate attempt to please the dean, lies that he is engaged to be married, and the domestic life he imagines for himself represents his unquestioning reproduction of conservative patriarchal ideology. This picture, which “seemed so true while he’d been saying it” features “the idea of settling down with some elegant little woman and reproducing in a small town. The pictures had been there in his head, sunny scenes of neat lawns and well-behaved children in well-ironed shorts” (CD, 14). One imagines that this clichéd picture seems real to Linc because it reproduces so impeccably the conventional ideals of domestic fulfilment and social achievement.
In contrast to these masculine plots of career-based success, Crusie offers the plot of the romance as an alternative narrative of self for both Linc and Nick. This alternative plot is embodied in the characterisations of Daisy and Tess, who dress and furnish their homes in a colourful array of thrift-shop chic and bring chaos and disorder into the men’s lives. In both The Cinderella Deal and Strange Bedpersons the tension between black and white and “electric colors” is the central metaphor governing the complex world-views generated by her characters (CD, 2). While characters such as Linc and Nick begin the novels secure in their linear ambitions, they are led to understand that other lifestyles and models of success are available for use in their process of self-determination. Crusie’s point is not simply that these well-dressed representatives of yuppie culture require rescue from their own highly masculinised fantasies of fulfilment; what they need is to recognise these fantasies, among several others, as choices over which they ought to have some control. Daisy and Tess provide for these men an alternative world-view which disrupts their hitherto monochrome existence, giving them at least two, and potentially many other, life narratives to pursue. Crucially, though, the men also provide the same service to the women. In both novels, the ability to look outside comfortable life narratives provokes a good deal of anxiety and introspection in the characters, and this is what drives the romance plot forward. In part, this is manifested externally in the relationships between Linc and Daisy and Nick and Tess, but Crusie is also careful to represent the internal struggles they each experience. She creates in each character a central divide between the part of themselves which accepts and seeks to maintain social norms and the part which rebels against the social positions they have adopted. In Linc, this divide is indicated by the two different portraits of him that Daisy paints, a dignified one in black and white and a passionate one in orange and yellow. In Daisy, it’s the difference between her authentic identity as Daisy Flattery and the social role she plays as Daisy Blaise. In Nick, it is described by Tess as his Jekyll and Hyde personality. And in Tess, it is the difference between what Nick calls her Crusader Rabbit persona and her fear of turning into Mrs. Jekyll. In each of these internal conflicts, Crusie represents rebellion as the ability to recognize the constraints imposed by the restrictive world-view to which they had been dedicated.
As the representation of Tess makes most evident, rebellion is not equivalent to a notion of opposition derived from conventional gender politics. In a reversal of standard thinking, Tess argues that she prefers Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll because “Jekyll was the conservative guy” (SB, 93, emphasis in original). But, in fact, Crusie shows that Tess, in her condemnation of what she calls “that superficial social stuff,” is in some ways more conservative than Nick (SB, 180). Tess’s conservatism is described by her best friend Gina when she accuses Tess of being “bigoted”: “[I]f I shaved my head or decided to become a druid or told you I was a transvestite, you’d be there for me, no judgment, no argument. But because I want to join the mainstream, you’re going to bitch at me” (SB, 181). Gina charges Tess with being conventionally unconventional, blinded by her hippie upbringing to the variety of possibilities available to women and unable to accept a way of seeing the world that differs from her own. Her admonishment of Tess acts as a testament to Crusie’s argument that it is, in fact, a considerable mistake to assume that all women should think the same way.
Tess’s relationship with Nick, therefore, is as much about changing her preconceptions as it is about changing his. In fact, while she challenges his social position, tempting and cajoling him into rebellious acts against his better judgment—most notably sex in public places—her transformation is perhaps more fundamental. Though Nick decorates in black and white, Tess is the one who sees the world in stark terms of right and wrong, truth and lies. Coming to an understanding of Nick’s perspective, though, enables Tess to understand that lies and the truth are complex and mutable concepts. When, like Linc, Tess lies to get a job she really wants, she justifies her lie to herself, thinking, “It wasn’t really being dishonest. It was being tactful. Maybe Nick was starting to rub off on her” (SB, 137). Behind this conventional image of a couple growing closer by sharing character traits is evidence of what Crusie believes is a fundamental and empowering characteristic of good romance fiction. Crusie implies that in the best romance fiction characters do not grow closer because they are required to by the formal conventions of the love plot or the need for the author to create the requisite happy ending. Instead, the relationships that develop are based upon the mutual ability to recognise such ideological constraints in action and to see the relativity and multiplicity of life in the real world. One of the functions of the romance narrative, therefore, is to model how negotiation can occur between seemingly opposite and essentialised perspectives of identity and how alternative realities can be constructed through the process of imaginative storytelling.
For this reason, where storytellers appear in Crusie’s fiction, they appear capable of re-writing the life stories of those they encounter. The fairytale of CinderTess in Strange Bedpersons is one such story. CinderTess is a feminist reworking of the Cinderella story, which casts the princess as an active heroine who wins the prince’s love with the power of her political commitment rather than her beauty. Repeatedly told as a bedtime story to eight-year-old Tess by Lanny, a member of the commune Tess lived on in the ‘60s, Tess is profoundly influenced by its exaltation of the countercultural values of the hippie movement. Later, it underpins her strident protest against mainstream society. As she tells Nick, “basically Lanny taught me how to live my life with that story” (SB, 112). Tess uses this story as a blueprint for her life, blindly following its precepts and staunchly defending the values and world-view it promotes against what she sees as any form of encroachment, embodied most distinctly in the novel in the figure of Norbert Welch and his conservative Republican politics. When Welch satirizes the original tale and holds the values it advocates up to ridicule, Tess feels that the attack on the story is also an attack on herself: “It was her story, and he was degrading it, degrading her and everything she believed in” (SB, 107). In particular, Tess resents this reworking of the fairytale because it holds up to ridicule the model of feminist resistance she has embraced. However, while Lanny’s tale seems like a good lesson for Tess to have learned, Tess’s fury concerning the new version, especially the narrator’s comments that hearing it makes Tess “catatonic with rage” and “blindly incurious” about her surroundings, also suggests that she has been too single-minded in the way she has embraced this lesson (SB, 108). By following Lanny’s story so unthinkingly, she has been unable to develop a model of self-identity that actually represents the complexity of her own existence, or that enables her to think through and alter her trajectory.
Tess’s fear that Welch, in rewriting the story, will also rewrite her life exposes to her, and to the reader, the lack of control Tess actually exerts over her own life narrative. This is further heightened by the revelation that Welch is actually Lanny, who has transformed from a vibrant figure, who had been “so full of life and so . . . full of ideas and stories,” into an “aging neoconservative with writer’s block” (SB, 118, 112 emphasis in original). Welch’s extreme move to the right, like Tess’s entrenchment in the left, is also depicted as the result of his single-minded focus on one narrative and the failure of his ability to tell a multiplicity of stories. Tess’s final transformation from feminist stereotype to romantic heroine, therefore, is ultimately signalled in her demand to Welch that he re-write the story again, not to return it to its original form, but instead to make it more balanced, because, as she tells Welch, in presenting only one view-point it is just “too simplistic” (SB, 243).
As the representative of professional storytelling in the novel, Welch’s true crime is not his conservative politics or his curmudgeonly misogyny. In fact, even while he is most vigorously promoting his anti-feminist agenda, Crusie is careful to point out that, against her better judgment, Tess likes him. Welch’s biggest offence is the failure of his imagination. It is the job of the storyteller, Crusie suggests, to see a variety of possibilities available for the narrative’s trajectory. This particular talent of the storyteller is explored in The Cinderella Deal, when the pedantic perfection of Linc’s imagined life is countered by Daisy’s opinion that it was the worst story she had ever heard. Daisy, a professional storyteller, reinterprets his tale, and from her perspective Linc’s fantasy future appears more like a Gap ad than real life: “a woman in a designer apron and smiling, apple-cheeked children dressed in Baby Gap and a stuffy career in a stuffy town” (CD, 41). Daisy finds Linc’s story awful not only because it is based on the subordination of the central female character, but also because it is a one-dimensional story, a cardboard cut-out of a future resulting from a failure of imagination. In Daisy’s retelling of the story, Crusie exposes the assumptions concealed within this conventional picture of ideal domesticity by exposing the way in which patriarchal narratives of male social and professional achievement often rely on the relegation of the woman to the domestic sphere—encased in an apron and seemingly happy about it. Daisy’s recasting of Linc’s “elegant little woman” into a “woman in a designer apron and smiling” shows how such seemingly innocuous descriptions encode and naturalise the values and assumptions of essentialised social perspectives. The substitution of “designer” for “elegant,” for instance, moves Linc’s story from the realm of the aesthetic and the universal and exposes its socio-economic underpinnings.
Through this example of re-writing, Crusie offers a perspective on the radical project of the romance genre itself. In re-writing a conventionalised story of bourgeois normality and fracturing its monologic surface, Daisy’s revision transforms Linc’s narrative, in Crusie’s terms, from an ideological lie into a potentially productive story. But the troubled relationship between lying and storytelling is itself a point of contention. In discussions concerning lying, many contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists agree that different cultures, and even individuals within the same culture, have varying ideas about what does and does not count as a lie. Opinion over the social impact of lying is also divided. Whether seen as immoral and self-serving or as a necessary social skill, lying is a difficult concept to define. Crusie, however, offers her own definition in The Cinderella Deal that highlights the transformative potential of fictions of romance. While Linc thinks that telling the faculty at Prescott that he is engaged is a lie, Daisy offers a different perspective:
“It’s not a lie,” Daisy said. “It’s a story.”
Linc looked at her, exasperated. “That’s semantics. They’re the same thing”. . .
“Listen.” Daisy leaned forward and gripped his arm to hold his attention. “If you tell a lie, you’re deliberately telling an untruth. If you’d told them you’d published six books, or that you’d taught at Yale, or that you’d won the Pulitzer, that would have been a lie. You’d never tell a lie. You’re too honest.”
“Daisy, I told them I was engaged to you. That was a lie.”
“No.” Daisy shook her head emphatically. . . “You told them you wanted to get married and settle down in Prescott and raise kids.”
“Well, that’s a lie,” Linc said, but he could see where she was going. “I told them what they wanted to hear.”
“Yes, but it was what you wanted to hear too.” Daisy settled back in her seat. “Sometimes stories are just previews of coming truths. I bet you really do want that deep down inside your repressed academic soul.” (CD, 51-2)
Daisy’s idea of a lie is something that attempts to alter the facts of the past, while a story presents a vision of a desired present and future—something Linc wants rather than something he’s done. Presenting a version of reality as he would like it to be is therefore not a lie, but is instead a possible preview of coming truths, a story he created, which, though fictional, can be made real.
The process through which a lie can foreshadow and even promote real-world transformation can be illuminated by an observation by David Simpson in his essay on “Lying, Liars, and Language.” Simpson writes that “A lie is performed . . . and so succeeds as an act, if there is just mutual manifestation of the speaker’s apparent sincerity; that is, if there is uptake regarding the invocation of trust” (626, italics in original). The efficacy of the lie depends upon the attitude of its receiver, and especially on the development of trust relations with the speaker. For Simpson, the danger of lying is precisely the way that a lie “draws on and abuses the core of interaction and communality” (637), but for Crusie, it seems that some lies—the ones that are, in fact, “previews of coming truths,” as Daisy says—do not abuse interaction and mutuality, but rather offer the premises for a new understanding of reality. This new understanding does not always come easily, given the binary divisions that Crusie establishes between Linc and Nick’s worlds of black-and-white and Daisy and Tess’s worlds of color. Yet precisely because the lie (or story) provokes mis-communication between these characters, it also provokes a productive negotiation over whether or not something is, or is not, a lie. This negotiation moves both parties beyond the “apparent sincerity” and “invocation of trust” at the start of the lie (or story) to a deeper, actual sincerity and a state of mutual trust. The good kind of lie, in Crusie’s account, is a performative act, then, in a slightly different sense of the word: it makes something happen in the world, allowing both parties to shift their frameworks for understanding, and therefore to rethink their own life narratives. It is the storyteller’s role in revealing and resolving these problems of communication that enables the political potential of the romance genre to be expressed.
In both Strange Bedpersons and The Cinderella Deal it is the job of the storyteller to imagine a variety of possibilities and to tell a number of different stories, and though Welch is an exception, throughout much of Crusie’s fiction, storytelling, in particular, and creativity, in general, are most often associated with female characters. Professional authorship, for instance, is depicted in Charity’s foray into novel-writing with her autobiographical Jane Errs in Anyone But You. Tilda in Faking It is an artist, and Quinn in Crazy for You, an art teacher. Even women who don’t make a career of their art or storytelling are often shown to be involved in some form of creative activity. Jessie’s cakes in Manhunting, Sophie and Amy’s film in Welcome to Temptation, Margie’s cookies in Fast Women, Min’s shoes in Bet Me, and Andie’s baking in Maybe This Time all contain elements of creativity. This focus on female creativity in a number of Crusie’s novels recalls what Imelda Whelehan describes as the “creative energies” of the “feminist bestsellers” of the 1970s. In describing the elements that characterise these fictional counterparts of second-wave feminism, Whelehan notes,
[t]hat the women quite often are frustrated artists, writers, or would-be intellectuals makes the point that it is the life of the mind which domestic quietude so often quashes. Creative energies become symbolic of the power of self-determination. (7-8)
The representation of creative heroines such as Daisy positions Crusie’s fictional work in dialogue with these earlier novels in order to rewrite the narrative of the creative woman’s struggle naturalised by these texts. Whereas the heroines of the earlier feminist fiction prototypically saw their creative energies as under threat and stifled by the romance plot, the generic conventions of the romance narrative represent a position of strength rather than struggle for Crusie’s heroines of the ‘90s. The love relationships that develop in Crusie’s novels ultimately enable women to exercise their creative energies because, in coming to understand another’s point of view, they are led to challenge their dogmatic attachment to a single value system. The love match serves to radically unsettle their respective, highly naturalised life stories, and thus to expose the grander cultural narratives to which they have become subjected.
Crusie proposes that this kind of experiential challenge to stereotyped or routinised thinking is one of the principle aims of her conception of feminist fiction. Regardless of whether or not the choices these heroines learn to embrace appear relatively conventional, they are also learning basic principles of creative self-determination. Crusie’s characters are not merely subject to ideology, they are knowingly and willingly complicit with certain aspects of it because it is in their interests to be so. Such complicity is described by the sociologist Stevi Jackson as the “active participation” of the individual in the shaping of their subjectivity:
We create for ourselves a sense of what our emotions are, of what being in love is, through positioning ourselves within discourses, constructing narratives of self, drawing on whatever cultural resources are available to us. This perspective allows us to recognise the constraints of the culture we inhabit while allowing for human agency and therefore avoiding the “cultural dupe” syndrome, of admitting the possibility of both complicity in and resistance to patriarchal relations in the sphere of love. (58)
Crusie’s novels enact the potential for human agency that Jackson accords to all self-conscious participants in the sphere of love. It is this which makes lying such an important part of her fiction because, in many of her novels, what can be seen as a lie from one perspective can be seen as a story from another, and the concept of truth is shown to be relative. Through individual creative energy, represented in much of her fiction as the province of the heroine of the romance narrative, stories which are “unreal but not untrue” are naturalised and made real through a continual process of revision and rewriting that transforms pre-existing monologic narratives into negotiated and mutable constructions of alternative realities.
Crusie represents this process in detail in the developing relationship between Daisy and Linc in The Cinderella Deal. As they get their story straight before heading to Prescott to convince the faculty of their engagement, Daisy and Linc very consciously define the parameters of their relationship by negotiating the facts that will serve as the basis of the story of their life together—what kind of engagement ring Daisy should have, what sort of clothes she should wear, what house they would live in. Daisy, for instance, upon learning that Linc used to play football on a team named the Yellow Jackets, imagines, “We could live in a little cottage called The Hive” (CD, 34). By incorporating details they have experienced into their imagined life, Daisy and Linc distort the distinction between fact and fiction. Their subsequent sharing of their constructed story with the faculty at the college continues this process, further integrating and subtly transforming their individual realities. When Daisy, on a tour of the town, sees a house she loves and an art gallery that features new artists, she has to remind herself, “This is not your story.” But, the narrator comments, “it [was] too late . . . The universe was doing everything but dropping a big sign in front of her that said This is it, this is your next move” (CD, 58 emphasis in original). The transformation of Linc’s reality is signalled by the extent to which he internalises Daisy’s point of view. Though when he moves to Prescott, he thinks he will be there on his own, he holds imaginary arguments with Daisy, justifying his choice to paint all the walls white and to install his sterile and modern chrome and leather furniture in big Victorian rooms: “The really irritating thing about that hadn’t so much been that he caught himself doing it as it was that she’d been winning” (CD, 80). The real power of the storytelling here is not only that it creates new versions of reality, but that it does so by disrupting sterile narratives and introducing a process of internal, dialogic change.
In The Cinderella Deal as stories get continually repeated, they begin to work independently to effect change. Though both Linc and Daisy have their own stories—imagined realities that they invent about what they want their lives to be—they lose control of these individual stories when their mutual story, through its repetition, becomes naturalised. Both try to go back to their individual stories after Linc has got the job at Prescott, but their mutual story is sustained by the others who have heard it, most notably Chickie, the wife of the dean. In fact, the story they created to serve them is co-opted by Chickie, who inserts Daisy into her own story in order to create a version of the world that Chickie prefers. Chickie’s desperate desire for companionship thus surfaces in an imagined reality in which she and Daisy do things together like mother and daughter. Though Daisy doesn’t initially move to Prescott with Linc, Chickie carries on the story they began, convincing Linc to buy the house Daisy liked, leaving her notes about the best places to shop, and making plans for the future that involve her. Through her representation of Chickie, Crusie explores the potential of storytelling to transform the wider community through individual actions. It is Chickie’s own personal investment in the story, its ability to allow her reimagine her own life narrative and sense of self that furthers the integration of Daisy and Linc’s stories with each other and the larger, social narrative of the Prescott community.
The potential these stories have to change the gender politics of the Prescott community can be seen as radical in the way that they destabilize the authority of the lecherous and abusive head of the college, Dean Crawford. However, the effect of Daisy and Linc’s storytelling on the social structures of Prescott is shown to happen incrementally at the level of the everyday. In fact, on one level, the novel can be seen as rather conservative. For instance, the novel seems to enact what Pamela Regis defines, in her exhaustive survey of the elements that comprise the romance genre, as the typical marriage-of-convenience scenario, in which “the vows that the couple has taken create the appearance of commitment before heroine and hero actually commit to each other” (185). By putting the wedding before the declaration of love, Regis notes, the marriage often acts as a “barrier” in the relationship, that is, the “conflict in the novel which keeps the union of the heroine and hero from taking place” (14). Though on the surface, The Cinderella Deal appears to be just another marriage-of-convenience romance novel, again Crusie subverts the conventional or expected structure in order to re-vision the romance novel as a form of feminist fiction. The barrier that is created between Daisy and Linc is not the “appearance of commitment” that forms the stereotypical conflict in the marriage-of-convenience novel. In fact, the opposite is true as Crusie shows how the commitment to appearance makes the relationship real. Ostensibly, Daisy has agreed to live in Linc’s story, and she throws herself wholeheartedly into her role as Daisy Blaise, working hard to become the faculty wife Linc had imagined. But just through her day-to-day social activity, by being neighbourly, making friends, and generally living her life, she gradually begins to change his story, as well as the wider community more generally. As the narrator notes, “Linc wasn’t sure when he first realised he’d lost his grip on his story. The realization came gradually, built up in short encounters” (CD, 153). The marriage, therefore, facilitates the love declaration rather than impeding it and, again contrary to form, the love declaration takes place well before the end of the novel.
Rather than simply being subjected to the constructs of a standardized plot in which their relationship develops, both Daisy and Linc are shown to be actively involved in the process of plotting. These characters are not, in Jackson’s words, “cultural dupes,” but are perfectly capable of both comprehending and rewriting their own meta-narratives. As a professional storyteller, Daisy, in particular, is fully aware of the performative power of storytelling. In her life, as well as in her storytelling career, Daisy frequently invents stories that, like Linc’s, project an imagined and desired reality. Having quit her teaching job to concentrate on her art, Daisy often struggles to pay her bills, and whenever she gets too worried about money, she tells herself “the story of her new life, the one she’d been building for the past four years” in which “the next chapter would be her paintings finally selling, and maybe her storytelling career suddenly taking off too. And a prince would be good” (CD, 11). Though she wishes for a prince to rescue her, she also realises the emptiness of desires based on little more than culturally sanctioned ideals. “Forget the prince,” she tells herself. “Stories were all well and good, but princes weren’t stories, they were impossible” (CD, 12).
Daisy’s distinction between stories and princes is in fact a distinction between story and fantasy. As in her rejection of the critical hierarchy that associated the romance genre with fantasy in “Romance and Reality,” Crusie suggests in these early novels that the crucial difference between a story and fantasy is that stories can be made to refashion the world while fantasy is the expression of another’s desires. That is, a story is something which, though not immediately real, can exist at some point in the future because it represents an expression of an individual’s desires. A fantasy, on the other hand, expresses a cultural ideal, a universal “truth” that relies a monologic narrative. The danger of fantasy, Crusie implies, is that members of society may be led to commit themselves to abstract, isolated, narratives because they do not take an active part in constructing them. Crusie suggests instead a process through which an individual’s reality is generated by the perpetual process of telling and retelling stories about oneself. This is a creative, inherently messy process, one that is subject to constant re-visioning. After all, this is not a Cinderella story in which the heroine waits in the ashes to be rescued by the prince, but a Cinderella deal in which both characters rescue each other through a series of negotiations addressing and readdressing the various imagined realities of each.
Crusie explores this distinction between fantasy and reality in detail in the opening scene of What the Lady Wants. In this scene, she draws on idealised characterisation derived from two of the most strongly gendered of genres, noir and romance, in order to explore the viability of such exaggerated stereotypes. In order to do so, she introduces sharp, distinct changes in point-of-view that portray the same action from both Mae’s and Mitch’s perspective. Crusie’s long-standing interest in the gendering of narrative forms, attested to by her original PhD research on women’s narrative strategies and, more recently, by her collaboration with Bob Mayer on the novels Don’t Look Down (2006), Agnes and the Hitman (2007), and Wild Ride (2010) is fully exercised in this scene. The he said/she said structure sets up a gendered generic tension between noir and romance that is mirrored in the stereotypes that Mae and Mitch imagine for themselves and each other. In preparing for her first meeting with Mitch, Mae dons the costume of the hypersexual, hyperfeminine femme fatale. She dresses in a tight pink suit, mysterious veil, and stiletto heels, and imagines that the simple act of outwardly conforming to expected appearances will ensure the successful enactment of noir’s paradigmatic male/female relationship. In other words, “He’d patronize her because she was female. She’d play him like a piano” (WLW, 7). Similarly, Mitch imagines his own noir scenario in which, as the “Sam Spade of the nineties,” he takes advantage of the femme fatale’s sexual promise, but outwits her attempts to manipulate him (WLW, 9).
Before they actually meet, both characters create elaborate fictions about themselves and about each other based on generic expectations of the masculine narrative form of noir. But reality turns out to be much more complex as neither conform to the stereotypes they create. Mitch, the successful-stockbroker-turned-detective-on-a-bet, is not Sam Spade or the dumb, dead-beat loser Mae wants him to be. And though Mae looks the part of the femme fatale, her skirt’s too tight, her heels too high, and her veil is “dumb” (WLW, 8). More importantly, though, the noir fantasy is obliterated when Mae speaks. “If she’d just kept her mouth shut,” Mitch thinks, “she would have been perfect, but no . . .” (WLW, 11). The romance genre comes in for equal scrutiny when, in Mae’s initial assessment of Mitch, she describes him as “solidly male, with that broad-shouldered, non-gold-chain-wearing, let-me-lift-that-car-for-you-lady kind of doofus sexiness that made women think that maybe they’d been too hasty with the liberation movement” (WLW, 14). In this fantasy Mitch is the strong, take-charge, knight-in-shining-armour kind of a guy who is regularly imagined as the stereotypical romantic hero—the kind of guy Mae thinks she needs to help her find her uncle’s diary. However, her image of the romantic hero also evaporates when Mitch speaks, and she too wishes, “If he’d just kept his mouth shut. . .”(WLW, 15). In this effective parody of generic conventions, Crusie subjects the idealised constructs of openly gendered genres to “Reality. Nature’s downer,” and shows them to be incapable of withstanding the introduction of the actual voice (WLW, 11). When the person speaks—a moment in which he or she acts upon the world and other people that surround them—the fantasy dissolves. Fantasy, whether romantic or noir, is repeatedly shown to be untenable for Crusie’s self-determining protagonists as, time and time again, experiential reality intrudes, requiring them to revise their expectations.
Thus, while romantic and other fantasies become harmful when passively adopted, within Crusie’s fiction they are obstacles to be surmounted, and can be seen as one of the narrative resources that characters share, reject, and manipulate in the course of a complex process of self-realisation. Her characters become more rather than less anxious, more prone to self-doubt and internal conflict, because their experience of other people, and especially their potential partners, obliges them to reconsider established, essentialised, and naturalised conceptions of identity. The trick, for Mae, Mitch, and others, is to become comfortable with the contingency this introduces into their lives and adept at the dynamic and reactive processes of self-determination it induces. Sometimes, such as when Mae develops a plan to escape her uncles’ control, Crusie’s protagonists take a much more active responsibility for these processes. Mae’s plan, a paradigmatic example of feminist self-determination, is to use the money to escape the stifling control exerted upon her life by her three overbearing uncles. However, in the terms of the structure of the romance genre, it also serves as the basis around which the romantic relationship at the centre of the novel develops by bringing her to Mitch’s office. Thus, it provides the catalyst for legitimation of the existing social order through marriage, and therefore appears to reflect quite closely the criticism that romance novels serve the function of drawing transgressive female subject positions reassuringly back into the patriarchal fold. By ultimately leading to her marriage, her defiant attempts to control her own future, to escape the influence of her three domineering patriarchs, and to make her dream of self-reliant independence come true, are seemingly “placed within wider controlling narratives that normalise their deviance” (Fowler, 97).
But, as their forays into fantasy in the opening scene demonstrate, Mae and Mitch are shown to have an understanding of such narratives. Through this representation of self-conscious participation in narrative construction, Mitch and Mae exert control over the narrative of their romance and their own roles within it, avoiding the “cultural dupe” syndrome. Thus, Mitch’s assurance to Mae that “Everybody lies, Mabel. Everybody but us” is more than just a moment of sentimental closure in which Mitch and Mae set themselves apart from the world as a couple (WLW, 217). Crusie here holds up to scrutiny the critical commonplace concerning the romance genre which suggests that the consummation of the love relationship simply re-enacts a “truth” that has been obscured all along by the various plot obstacles, what Regis defines as the “barriers” between the heroine and hero (32). In Mitch’s revision of his favourite catchphrase, Crusie makes clear that he and Mae are not simply subject to fictional conventions that destine them to be together but throw up barriers against this outcome. They consciously adopt a perspective that switches the world-weary essentialism typified by the “everybody lies” motif, for one which acknowledges the constructed nature of the romance narrative. This is a point that Crusie has made repeatedly throughout these early novels; according her characters the expertise to interpret and rethink romantic conventions, she also gives them the opportunity to select their romantic narratives rather than simply become subject to them. On one level, Mitch’s moment of re-visioning reads as the clichéd enactment of an us-against-the-world mentality, but by recalling so deliberately Mitch’s earlier cynicism, Crusie transforms this romantic convention into a succinct iteration of the possibilities of a knowing and self-conscious understanding of such clichés. This is the great positive that Crusie draws from the romance genre: romance is enabling for those individuals who knowingly participate in it.
Thus, throughout this fiction, Crusie draws on the close kinship between lying and storytelling in order to project a new model of romance fiction as “feminist fiction.” By associating the telling of stories with the telling of lies, Crusie explores the way in which stories can retell and thus reorient essentialist and monologic social ideologies. In this way, many of her early novels from the mid-1990s form a coherent counter-argument to the prevailing condemnation of the romance genre that characterised critical writing of the 1980s and early ‘90s, especially such influential works as Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and Tania Modleski’s Loving With a Vengence. This is not to say that after the late ‘90s this disappears from her fiction. Right up to Bet Me (2004), her last single-authored text before she began her collaborative writing project with Bob Mayer, Crusie continued to explore the process through the rejection of an naturalised perspective could transform lies into stories. One small example will illustrate this. In Bet Me, the heroine, Min, participates in what she sees as the lie of Cal’s attraction to her because she wants to be with him, but she struggles to maintain this constructed reality:
Min stepped down off the platform and went to him, loving the way his arms went around her, trying not to think about how fat she must feel under his hands, and then he kissed her hard, and she sighed against him, grateful to have him even if she didn’t know why he wanted her.
Nope, never, that was not it, she believed in him. (Bet Me, 263-64)
Min’s understanding of the “truth” has been determined by a number of naturalised stories concerning her body. The principal one, that she is fat, has been repeatedly foisted upon her by the novel’s spokesperson for conventional female attractiveness, her mother. As one of the most influential women in Min’s life, her mother’s constant refrains, that if Min doesn’t lose weight, no man will ever be attracted to her and that certain hairstyles and clothes don’t suit her fat figure, have a controlling influence on how Min views reality.
In response to Min’s unquestioning acceptance of this narrow image of female beauty, Cal attempts to reorient Min’s physical identity by exchanging her negative euphemisms for “fat” for more positive expressions:
Cal put his fork down. “All right. Here’s the truth. You’re never going to thin. You’re a round woman. You have wide hips and a round stomach and full breasts. You’re. . .”
“Healthy,” Min said bitterly.
“Lush,” Cal said, watching the gentle rise and fall of her breasts under her sweatshirt.
“Generous,” Min snarled.
“Opulent,” Cal said, remembering the soft curve of her under his hand.
“Zaftig,” Min said.
“Soft and round and hot, and I’m turning myself on,” Cal said, starting to feel dizzy. (Bet Me, 126)
In retelling the story of Min’s “fatness,” Cal produces a positive response to repressive stereotypes concerning the female body by recasting it in linguistic terms. By locating the basis of Min’s self-image in the realm of language rather than the body, Cal helps Min see beyond the restricted and monologic world-view with which she has been inculcated. In revising and rewriting the story of her attractiveness, Cal and Min re-configure Min’s body and effect change through the process of storytelling rather than losing weight.
By dramatising the stories people tell and the means through which these stories can effect change, Crusie demonstrates the radical potential of active participation in the everyday and revisioning of the real. The promised marriage at the end of the novel, the “happily-ever-after,” therefore, does not signal the end of the story, but represents the integration of the negotiated relationship into the community. In Bet Me, when Min questions what happens after the happily ever after, Cal’s reply that “we’re going to take it one day at a time” signifies the continuing dynamism of the relationship (Bet Me, 333). Such dynamism is demonstrated in the reappearance of Tess and Nick from Strange Bedpersons in What the Lady Wants. Though Mitch comments that Tess and Nick’s marriage is like “Tinker Bell marrying Donald Trump,” Tess’s reply that “No, no, he’s doing better. . . He put his feet on the furniture the other day,” intimates the way in which the relationship continues to develop after the novel finishes (<WLW, 106). In recalling her earlier novel, Crusie playfully provides for the cynical, commitment phobic Mitch an exemplary model of what a healthy dynamic romantic relationship might look like after the “happily ever after.” In prompting Mitch to think that “Maybe commitment wouldn’t be so bad if it was like this,” the example of Tess and Nick demonstrates the positive lessons that can be derived from the best romance fiction (SB, 106). For Crusie, the representation of an ideal relationship has little to do with its adherence to cultural norms or to their active subversion and critique: genuine partnership takes place in the course of a perpetual interplay of beliefs, anxieties, and half-formed desires, whose resolution cannot and should not be hoped for.
Crusie, Jennifer. The Cinderella Deal. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.
—.“Defeating the Critics: What Can We Do About the Anti-Romance Bias.” Romance Writer’s Report 18.6 (1998), pp. 38-39.
—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women.” Inside Borders (March 1998).
—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997), pp. 81-93.
—. Strange Bedpersons. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 1995.
—. “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel As Feminist Fairy Tale.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Press, 1998.
—. What the Lady Wants. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 1995.
—. “You Go, Romance Writer: Changing Public Opinion.” Romance Writer’s Report 18.1 (1998), pp. 45-37.
Fowler, Bridget. “Literature Beyond Modernism: Middlebrow and Popular Romance.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995. 89-99.
Jackson, Stevie. “Women and Heterosexual Love: Complicity, Resistance and Change.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995. 49-62.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Simpson, David. “Lying, Liars, and Language.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (1992), pp. 623-39.
Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Vonk, Roos, and Richard D. Ashmore. “Thinking About Gender Types: Cognitive Organization of Female and Male Types.” British Journal of Social Psychology 42 (2003), pp. 257-280.
Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
 For a discussion of the critical rejection of the romance novel see Regis, esp. pp. xi-xii and 3-16.
 Interestingly, the way lies are represented in the co-authored fiction is very different. In the books co-written with Bob Mayer, lying is not ambiguous, but rather more straightforwardly wrong as it becomes associated with issues of trust.
“‘The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal’: Marriage and Gender in the Contemporary Greek Romantic Comedy” by Betty Kaklamanidou
Recent academic work on Hollywood romcoms of the past and present has demonstrated how such films encode significant meanings concerning gender politics, in their plots, characterization, structure, and point-of-view (Harvey, Evans & Deleyto, Beach, Glitre, and Abbott & Jermyn, among others). This paper takes a comparable approach to the Greek romantic comedy, a genre whose popularity in the new millennium coincided with a resurgence of the genre in Hollywood. In particular, I will look at the way ideologies of gender play out in the representation of weddings and of marriage—two linked, but not identical narrative elements—in the three most commercially successful Greek romantic comedies of the new millennium: The Kiss of Life (To Fili tis… Zois), 2007; Just Broke Up (Molis Horisa), 2008; and S.E.X. (Soula Ela Xana), 2009.
Before I proceed with the analysis, let me briefly shed some light on the virtually unknown landscape of the Greek romantic comedy, placing the discussion which will follow in a clearer context. (Greek cinematography in general has rarely been explored in the international scholarly bibliography, and the situation is even worse for this particular genre.) The apogee of the Greek romantic comedy took place during the heyday of the popular Greek cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. During this decade, films such as Maiden’s Cheek, Alice in the Navy, I Liza kai I Alli, Modern Cinderella, Miss Director, and Jenny, Jenny were constantly placed in the domestic box office top ten (Valoukos, 577-81). Most of these films were vehicles for the female stars Aliki Vougiouklaki and Jenny Karezi, but their female focus was hardly feminist; rather, the films served to perpetuate stereotypical images of femininity, upholding the social status quo. As Greek film scholar Athena Kartalou has argued, in films of this era “professional and gender identities of women interact with each other in such a way that good performance in one domain presupposes and/or imposes incompetence and/or crisis in the other” (4-5). If the stars of these romantic comedies appear as strong working women at the start of the film, in the end these women trade in that “good performance” in the professional world for a more appropriate “performance” of femininity in the context of romance, subdued by male authority in the form of love and a marriage proposal.
The emergence of the New Greek Cinema in the 1970s temporarily displaced the romcom as a genre. Films of this era were often explicitly political, and their experiments with form and narrative resisted the conventional (and commercial) appeal of Old Greek Cinema. Resisted it, one might say, all too successfully: unlike the popular films that preceded them, these new films did not manage to attract a comparable audience to the theatres, eventually sending the Greek film industry into something of a crisis. By 1989/1990, only six new releases made their way to the theatres (Valoukos, 594): an unsustainable situation, and one to which Greek filmmakers responded, in part, by reintroducing the romcom.
The second wave of Greek romcoms, which began in the mid- to late-1990s, started by taking a curiously tentative or resistant approach to the genre. As I have argued at length elsewhere, Olga Malea’s The Cow’s Orgasm, The Mating Game, and Rizoto, which reintroduced the genre to a Greek audience, offered a rather cynical take on love, going so far as to avoid the word “love” and the talismanic phrase “I love you” almost completely. As a result, they failed to exude an atmosphere of romanticism, fantasy and heterosexual companionship, which is a fundamental aspect of the genre (2011). (Perhaps this is part of the reason that Malea is still considered more an “auteur” than a commercial director, despite her box office success.)
The new millennium, however, has witnessed a return to more traditional, upbeat, and Hollywood-like romcoms–and, with them, a commercial renaissance in domestic cinematography. For the first time in decades, Greek films have managed to compete quite successfully with such heavily-promoted American “opponents” as Ocean’s Thirteen, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In the case of the Greek romcoms I will examine, this commercial appeal seems due to their ability to combine the main structural elements of the American romcom genre with details of plot, structure, and characterization that speak to the films’ specifically Greek social and cultural context—and, in the process, to issues of gender that are playing out somewhat differently in contemporary Greece than they are in the United States.
The Wedding Cycle
According to Rick Altman, a genre film is a narrative with specific semantic and syntactic elements that are shared, at least to a certain extent, by all the films that belong to the same “family.” The semantic elements may comprise common plots, key scenes, character types, familiar objects, or recognizable shots and sounds while the syntactic elements refer to plot structure, character relationships, or image and sound montage (224). If we apply Altman’s theory to the romantic comedy, we can easily recognize that the semantic “ingredients” include a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual male and a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual female, and an urban environment, while the syntax usually follows different versions of the notorious boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-in-the-end scenario. Naturally, these structural elements undergo changes according to the social context of any given film; as Altman jokes, genres did not “spring full-blown from the head of Zeus” (218). Contemporary Greek romantic comedies may keep the structural elements intact (the heterosexual central couple, the obstacles, and the happy ending), but they update the conventional formula by adapting to their specific social environment.
One set of adaptations centers on marriage, both as a lived social institution and as part of the cultural imaginary. Again, some background may be helpful, this time starting in the United States. American writer and actress Rita Rudner has quipped that “In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk,” but although this quote may ring true if we count the speed with which the vast majority of stars discard and/or change their legal spouses, contemporary Hollywood films often idealize the institution of marriage, perhaps even more so now than at some periods in the past. Romcoms that question what happens after the happily-ever-after end credits are rarer now than they were in the 1930s and 1940s, the heyday of what Stanley Cavell has called the “comedies of remarriage.”  And even films such as Just Married, Trust the Man, Marley & Me, and Couples Retreat, which highlight the ways that a couple in trouble tackles different obstacles within a marriage, end up offering robust, sentimental affirmations of marriage as an institution worth struggling for. This affirmation reflects what one might call an American return to marriage, since in the United States divorce rates “abruptly stopped going up around 1980” and have since fallen, particularly among college-educated women (Hurley). No wonder the climactic scenes of twenty-first century romcoms so often take place in front of the altar or in a Town Hall, with the films thus visibly affirming the public nature of what might otherwise be a private, couple-centered declaration of eternal love.
Between 2001 and 2010, many of the most commercially successful American romcoms took this emphasis on the public nature of marriage one step further. The plots of such films as The Proposal, Sex & The City, 27 Dresses, Made of Honor, Bride Wars, and Enchanted revolved, not just around marriage, but around a long-awaited or even unwanted wedding ceremony, a ceremony whose primary importance is not religious but consumerist, a matter of material culture. The central focus of these films seems as much about finding and/or showcasing the perfect venue for the reception, the right dress, or the right cake as it is about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right. Film scholars have explored how “cycles” emerge within a given film genre, a practice in which the industry capitalizes “on the (often unexpected) success of a film that offers a new twist on an old genre” (Glitre 20) by producing subsequent films marked by what Rick Altman calls “common features” such as “subject matter, character types, plot patterns,” thus gradually “associating a new type of material or approach with already existing genres” (60). In effect, the films I have noted mark the emergence of a “wedding cycle” within the romantic comedy genre.
Like cycles in other genres, the wedding cycle seems “influenced by the specific cultural situation—a moment at which a genre’s tropes seem particularly resonant” (Glitre 20). In these films, not only do love and marriage remain “indissolubly linked” (Evans & Deleyto 6), as has long been traditional in the romcom, but both of them are unmistakably linked to an idealized version of consumer culture. The perfect wedding that the wedding-cycle heroine longs for is the utopian site in which her individual agency as a liberal subject in the capitalist marketplace can be reconciled with her romantic selfhood as a woman in love. Sociologist Eva Illouz has argued that “consuming the romantic utopia” (as the title of her study calls it) is a characteristic ideal among postmodern lovers; the prominence of the wedding ceremony and reception in the wedding cycle romcom signals just how “resonant” (Glitre 20) these issues of choice, money, and female sociality now seem to be, at least in the American context.
What, though, of the contemporary Greek romcom, and the Greek context? The three films I wish to discuss, The Kiss of Life, Just Broke Up and S.E.X. might be said to belong to various “cycles” within the genre of romantic comedy—as, indeed one could also argue about the above-mentioned six American productions, since cycles are not exclusive entities). For instance, Bride Wars is about how two best friends (Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway) fight over the coveted venue of their wedding and can also be characterized as a “female friendship” film while Sex and The City can also belong to the emerging “mature cycle” of the Hollywood romcom genre since all of its heroines are in their early to late forties. How can the theorist, then, determine his/her object of analysis? Roman Jakobson’s theory of the “dominant” offers the answer to this theoretical dilemma. According to the Russian formalist, “The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components.” It is “the element which specifies a given variety of language [or any narrative element,] dominates the entire structure and thus acts as its mandatory and inalienable constituent dominating all the remaining elements and exerting direct influence upon them” (751).
Therefore, given how emphatically these films use marriage as a narrative cardinal function which “dominates” the whole plot—and given their shared emphasis on the significance of the wedding per se—I will consider them as Greek instances and transformations of the “wedding cycle.” In them, the desire for marriage and the obstacles which have to be overcome before the wedding proposal or the ceremony can be seen to comment on “resonant” tropes in Greek culture; in this case, gender representations which are well worth examining. Altman (26) underlines that “Film genres are functional for their society. Whereas producers and exhibitors see genre films as ‘product’, critics increasingly recognize their role in a complex cultural system permitting viewers to consider and resolve (albeit fictively) contradictions that are not fully mastered by the society in which they live.” In other words, the insistence of the three Greek rom coms on the importance of the institution of marriage may constitute a reflection, a justification, and/or a solution regarding specific societal “contradictions” in contemporary Greece.
One of these “contradictions” may have to do with the tension between the returning popularity of domestically-produced American-style romantic comedy and the actual facts of romantic life in Greece. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the divorce rate in Greece has been steadily on the increase, reaching 24% in 2005 from 8% in the 1980s. Not only does this mean that one in four marriages will eventually be dissolved in a courtroom; it means that the Greek trajectory (in terms of marriage / divorce statistics) is exactly the opposite of the American one, and has been for some time. It is not surprising, then, that the films I will explore take a more divided, even ambivalent approach to the “wedding cycle” than their American counterparts, mixing progressive and conservative elements in ways that make the endings of the films (which tend to be conservative) seem oddly in contrast with material elsewhere.
To Fili tis…Zois [Kiss of Life]
Consider, first, the contradictions at work in Kiss of Life. The Greek title of this romcom, To Fili tis… Zois, already signals one of the film’s central tensions. “Zois,” here, refers to the female heroine, Zoi (Katerina Papoutsaki), whose name is also the Greek word for life—but as the ironic ellipsis signals, the “kiss of life” here is also, potentially, a “kiss of death,” since Zoi/Life begins the film as a ruthless contract killer. Independent and uninhibited, Zoi does not like marriage since she “doesn’t want to share the bed with someone or have to sleep first not to hear him snore,” a multiple inversion of gender expectations. We see a similar inversion in the hero, Pashalis (Laertis Malkotsis), a sweet and harmless agriculturist who, as the film begins, is getting married in three days on the island of Milos. Pashalis accidentally finds himself on a boat to Sifnos with no way of getting back because of a strike and his fear of flying. The film depicts Pashalis as a kind and sensitive man who is not afraid to cry and lives to makes his future bride happy; when Zoi spots him on the boat to Sifnos, she sees him as the perfect cover she needs in order to assassinate the influential magnate Anestis (Themos Anastasiadis).
As the film proceeds, however, these initial reversals begin to shift, and the film’s ambivalent impulses become more and more evident. The first shift concerns Zoi. When her first assassination attempt fails, with Pashalis accidentally saving the magnate’s life, the two find themselves guests of Anestis and his beautiful wife Sofia (Zeta Douka). Zoi begins to feel attracted to the clumsy and naïve Pashalis, who is constantly trying to find a way to get back to Milos and marry Anthoula (Parthena Horozidou), his betrothed. The film invites us to attribute her willingness to succumb to a summer romance with Pashalis—a romance that could upset her professional plans—to several factors: the natural beauty of Sifnos and of Anestis’s house, which provides a utopian, liminal setting conducive to romance (see Illouz 142-45); to the apparently loving and companionate marriage between Anestis and Sofia, which seems, at least at first, to be an alternative to the negative model of marriage Zoi has espoused (Sofia shows her love by caring about her husband’s diet and health and Anestis treats her with understanding and affection); and, ultimately, to the alternative model of masculinity provided by Pashalis himself. In such contexts, the film suggests, even as hard-edged a woman as Zoi might well soften her stance against love.
However, as the film reaches its climax, this mildly progressive narrative breaks down. Zoi discovers that it was Sofia that had initially hired her to assassinate her husband as she (mistakenly) believed he was responsible for her father’s death. Their marriage comes into focus as the cliché of the rich man with a trophy wife, “recasting” Sofia, in a sense, as the classic noir film’s femme fatale. Sofia’s final apology and explanation to Zoi, although sincere and heartfelt, does not persuade the spectator that hers was ever a marriage based on mutual respect, trust and companionship: a failure that would seem to validate Zoi’s initial negative feelings regarding the institution. Yet rather than revert to that initial suspicion, Zoi remains committed to love—and the reason the film offers is that Pashalis, too, has changed. Kind and sensitive he may be, but the more we hear his fiancée, Anthoula, screaming and threatening him on the phone, furious that he has not found a way to return for their wedding, the more these qualities in Pashalis seem weak, repressed, and emasculated. He acts, we sense, more out of a sense of duty than out of love. We thus approve when he starts having feelings for the sensual and dangerous Zoi, the complete opposite of Anthoula—indeed, in the only scene where Anthoula appears, an aborted wedding ceremony on a little boat, she is a plain, overweight woman with not even a line of dialogue—and are meant to cheer when he finally becomes more properly “masculine,” decisively calling off his wedding to Anthoula by jumping off the boat in the middle of their ceremony, an act that also shows that he has overcome his earlier fear of the sea.
This newfound or restored masculinity is not, I hasten to add, accompanied by traditional alpha-male qualities. Pashalis remains a plain-looking, low-income, kind and sensitive man who simply wants to spend the rest of his life with Zoi. (Perhaps he has one alpha quality: a newfound willingness to claim what is “his.”) But the film presents Zoi as oddly eager to ascribe male “authority” to him, as though she fundamentally longed for a return to some properly “feminine” identity. Even though she does not accept Pashalis’ marriage proposal, she does agree to start a new life with him on the island where they first met, and the last scene finds the couple in front of a little church—a sign of their eventual formal, legal union. Even more telling, Zoi’s confession to the magnate’s wife, Sofia, that “once she met a bad guy who taught her a bad job” reduces her to a woman who was always already submissive to male authority, and never an independent individual in her own right. Zoi’s white dress in this final scene, which reminds us of the color of a traditional wedding dress, thus connotes her return to an innocent and honest life, a sort of metaphorical “virginity” that might have been taken from her by that “bad guy,” but has now been restored to her, just in time for her to step into traditional roles as wife and mother: roles implied earlier by Pashalis, and never refuted by her, and roles which make her unequivocally a figure of life (Zoi) and not death (a femme fatale).
Molis Xorisa [Just Broke Up]
It’s hard to get more old-fashioned, traditional, and conventional than the Valentine’s Day setting and release-date of Molis Xorisa [Just Broke Up]. As in the United States, this holiday has come to represent in Greece the pinnacle of romantic fantasy and promises of eternal love: the perfect setting for a romantic narrative, or for a narrative that will explore the mass culture of romantic love. This connection is reinforced by a plot device: February 14 is also the birthday of the film’s heroine, Electra (Zeta Makripoulia). Adapted from a successful stage comedy from 1999, Just Broke Up resembles a fast-paced seventeenth-century farce à la française, characterized like these by “a mixture of skillfully used doses of the comical and the real,” as well as an assortment of recognizable and stereotypical character types (Lagarde & Michard 181).
The opening sequence of the film introduces us to several of these farcical features. As the story begins, Electra has been with her DJ boyfriend Petros (Giannis Tsimitselis) for six and a half years. Stereotypically panicked regarding the prospect of marriage, Petros dreams he is married to Electra and has three children, waking up in a horrified sweat. His fears are not entirely unfounded, since Electra’s birthday starts, for her, with a positive pregnancy test: playing again to stereotype, the film renders this as something that makes her deliriously happy. As she waits impatiently to break the news to Petros in the club he works, she dreams of her future married life. Unbeknownst to her, however, Petros has decided to break up with her by leaving a message on their answering machine. When her friends and mother come over to throw her a surprise party, they inadvertently hear Petros’ message and comically try to prevent Electra from learning the truth.
The English title of Just Broke Up might well remind us of the American production The Break-Up, a film with rather somber overtones about relationships that deals in-depth with a break-up and its implications, in the tradition of such films as Breaking Up and The Story of Us. The Greek film, however, has no interest in social or romantic realism. Mixing verbal gags with an Almodovar-influenced set and costume design—a visual vocabulary characterized by the use of vivid and clashing colors, as well as extravagant and/or eccentric costumes—Just Broke Up is overtly stylized, extravagant, even almost campy in its deployment of gender roles and romantic tropes. From the start, for example, Electra is presented as a modern female control freak. She leaves notes to all her friends in the building dictating what presents she wants, she instructs Petros to dedicate a specific song to her on the radio and she walks around the streets of Athens fantasizing about her wedding day. Despite her being financially independent, she is portrayed as a “closeted” housewife who craves for a family more than anything else and states that if ever Petros left her she would jump off the balcony and onto the street. Indeed, when she finally hears the break-up message, she dresses in black and plays the part of the tragic heroine connoted by her name.
In what sense, then, does Just Broke Up belong to the “wedding cycle”? Certainly the film is structured by the viewer’s desire for Petros to realize that Electra is “the one” and by Electra’s desire, within the film, for the wedding that will give the same public, institutional, and conventional form to their relationship that Valentine’s Day gives to romantic love more generally. And, indeed, the film does move towards closure with that much-anticipated recognition on the part of Petros, with a final confrontation, and with the couple’s decision to wed in a highly public forum: one of the main streets of Athens. But the film reserves two surprises for its end sequence. Accompanied on the soundtrack by a new remix of a 1974 Greek hit song about the joy of an impending wedding ceremony, the audience witnesses all the characters getting ready for a wedding—but the married couple getting out of the city hall is not Petros and Electra but two gay friends of theirs, Mitsos and Vitor. This gay wedding—which is not yet legal in Greece—seems a welcome subversion in an otherwise conservative film: indeed, it reinforces our sense that there is something campy or queer about the heterosexual romance we have witnessed so far. What might potentially have been an interesting social critique of Greek conservatism, however, is abruptly interrupted when Electra shouts that she’s in labor, trumping the romantic union of Mitsos and Victor with the “real,” biological union of Electra and Petros. We may not actually witness the hero’s and heroine’s ceremony, but we are left with the expectation that this couple’s wedding will coincide with the Orthodox baptism of the child: a common practice in the domestic celebrity culture of the last decade, and a two-fold reinforcement of precisely the conservative values that might otherwise seem satirized by the film.
S.E.X (Soula Come Back)
Of the three Greek “wedding cycle” films, only S.E.X. centers explicitly on the heroine’s decision to wed. The initials in the title stand for Soula Ela Xana (Soula Come Back); in the film, Soula (Zeta Makripoulia) is a beautiful elementary teacher who lives and works in Spetses, an island near Athens. On her 30th birthday, Soula unexpectedly receives presents from four ex-boyfriends, each accompanied by pleas for her to resume the relationship. The four men represent four stereotypically flawed male figures: Manolis (Memos Begnis) is the traditional mamma’s boy, a type who is encountered in abundance in Greek society; Apostolis (Kostas Fragolias) represents the eternal Don Juan; Zisis (Manos Gavras) is the insanely jealous guy; and Tassos (Mihalis Marinos) the irritating scrooge. Unimpressed by the gifts (and the men they represent), she celebrates her birthday with her friend Vassilis (Tzortzis Mouriadis) with whom she shares rather skeptical views regarding marriage. Both find it oppressive and unnecessary, and both regard children a burden. Even as Vassilis leaves her to hit on a sexy woman, Soula seems content and self-sufficient, lighting the candles on her cake and blowing them out at a table surrounded by photos of her loved ones.
As in Kiss of Life, however, S.E.X. soon robs its heroine of her self-sufficiency. When Soula hears the take-out guy call her a spinster on the phone, she becomes obsessed with her need to get married: a reversal the film explains, in part, by having her re-read a set of letters she wrote to her deceased parents, in which she had promised to get married by the time she is thirty. Like Zoi, in Kiss of Life, Soula was thus originally a properly feminine subject, who needs only to be restored to that earlier status; she needs to “come back,” as the film’s full title suggests. However, like Electra, the control freak in Just Broke Up, Soula retains agency through much of the film, concocting a plan to take charge of her romantic life by inviting her four exes to the island, along with her two best girlfriends, in order to choose the man she will marry in two weeks. (She may have no choice in whether to marry, locked in by the past, but she ostensibly retains some choice as to whom she will marry, though even here the past plays what looks at first to be a determining role.)
For a substantial portion of the narrative, S.E X. makes an effort to present the modern Greek woman as an independent individual: one who stands in sharp contrast with the weak, irresponsible, naïve, and sexually confused lead and secondary male characters. The portrayal of these “flaws”—however exaggerated—that Greek masculinity entails should not be easily dismissed, nor should the attribution to female characters of traits mainly associated with masculinity. These include assertiveness, practicality, courage, inventiveness, and strength, but also sexual desire: a desire that the films seem to ascribe to the female members of their audience as well. Like Just Broke Up, that is to say, S.E.X. is not only narrated through a predominantly (here exclusively) female point of view, but that point of view is a desiring and even objectifying gaze, as the film contains numerous shots of half-naked and extremely fit male bodies for the heroine’s and viewer’s shared delectation.
As you might expect, the ending of S.E.X. unites Soula not with one of the four flawed “contestants,” but with her best friend, Vassilis: the man who shared her reservations about marriage at the start of the film. Soula goes to the church to call everything off once she realizes a simple game is not the way to find her life companion, only to find Vassilis waiting for her in front of the building. He’s confident she will not turn him down—which of course, she does not—but unlike the restoration of traditionally “masculine” confidence to Pashalis in Kiss of Life, which comes at a cost to Zoi, the end of S.E.X. emphasizes the commonality between the two, since as Vassilis stands waiting for Soula he holds her traditional bridal bouquet. The person Soula must “come back” to, in the end, is the one who was most like her at the start of the film, before the “spinster” insult, before her reading of the letters to her parents, and before her decision to marry someone for the sake of being married. It’s notable in this context that the wedding ceremony itself is never shown onscreen, as though it had been displaced as a telos, however slightly, by the union of two characters who started the film as skeptics about the institution.
I do not wish to be unequivocally positive about the sexual politics of S.E.X. There is, after all, something odd in the fact that Soula ends up with a man she has not so much as kissed throughout the film, who needs neither to court her or win her “contest.” But as the film ends, with all the characters singing and dancing happily during the end credits, it seems as though the film’s assertions of female agency and desire—again, admittedly a limited, heteronormative, and hardly radical form—are meant to seem integrated quite comfortably into the broader social order. In the film’s fantasy, precisely the characters who find marriage oppressive and unnecessary turn out to be its exemplary representatives.
As each of these films demonstrates, the ending of the contemporary Greek romantic comedy tends to reinscribe the genre’s generally conservative nature. The Kiss ends near a picturesque white little chapel, Just Broke Up closes with the heroine going into labor and S.E.X. completes its circle with a song performed by the cast during what seems to be the couple’s wedding reception: at a time of rising divorce rates, in these films religious marriage, procreative sex, and communal affirmation of the married couple are all, in some sense, affirmed. Yet if we take into account the full arc of each narrative, as I have tried to do, however briefly, here, we see that all three films also try to renegotiate gender identities. These efforts were not evident in Greek romantic comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s, nor are they the same engagement with “resonant” social and political issues that we see in contemporary American wedding-cycle romcoms, which tend to focus rather more on the relationships between romantic love and consumer culture.
Although romantic comedies are often discarded as escapist narratives with little depth, I subscribe to David R. Shumway’s assumption “that these fictional narratives do in fact teach readers and viewers even if they are often unaware of the lesson” (2-3). As I have already noted, “Film genres are functional for their society” Altman (26); in this case, the romcoms I discussed may well function by providing models of gender behavior and of relationships, which despite their fictional status may be consciously used by the spectator (see Anthony Giddens in Shumway 7). Certainly their happy endings validate the institution of marriage exactly at the time of its crisis in Greek society, and they do so by “teaching” (in Shumway’s sense) that marriage is on every woman’s agenda, however financially and emotionally independent she may be. Of course, as Shumway adds, “what individuals actually do with these various models [or relationships] differs” (5), and as yet, there are no ethnographic studies about how these film narratives are actually perceived. Still, it can be safely assumed that male and female spectators alike are invited to think about, revisit or even re-evaluate their own views regarding marriage and weddings, witnessing the joy that both the male and female protagonists exude in the final cinematic sequences. The contemporary Greek romcom can thus offer the scholar important insight regarding gender relations both diachronically and synchronically, and also a valuable window into how gender identities and romantic relationships are represented and negotiated cinematically in a transnational, twenty-first century context.
Abbott, Stacey and Deborah Jermyn (eds.). Falling in Love Again, Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema, UK: I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print.
Allinson, Mark. A Spanish Labyrinth. The Films of Pedro Almodóvar. UK: I.B. Tauris, 2001, 2005. Print.
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. USA: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.
Beach, Christopher. Class, Language and American Film Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.
Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson. Film History. An Introduction, US: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.
Buscombe, Edward. Cinema Today, New York: Phaidon Press, 2003. Print.
Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness. US: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.
Charsouli, Alkistis. Rev. of To Fili tis Zois, 2009. http://www.cine.gr/film.asp?id=709212&page=4. In Greek.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, 4th edition, New York: WW. Norton & Co., 2004. Print.
Delveroudi, Elisa-Anna. “H Politiki stis Komodies tou Ellinikou Kinimatografou.” Istorika, 14/26 (1997): 146-165. Print.
Evans, Peter Williams & Celestino Deleyto. “Introduction: Surviving Love.” Terms of Endearment. Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s. Eds. Peter Williams Evans & Celestino Deleyto. UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Print.
Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy. UK: Manchester University Press, 2006. Print.
Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988. Print.
Hurley, Dan. “Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think.” The New York Times. 19 Apr 2005. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/health/19divo.html
Jakobson, Roman. Selected Writings III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry, The Hague: Mouton, 1981. Print.
Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. U of California P, 1997. Print.
Kaklamanidou, Betty. “The New Millennium Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Charting a Genre’s History.” Gender and Genre. Eds. Kornelia Slavova & Isabelle Boof-Vermesse. Bulgaria: Sofia University Press, 2010. 167-178. Print.
—. “The Greek ‘American’ Dream: The Semiotics of the Greek Romantic Comedy.” Semiotics and ideo-logies. Eds. Grigoris Pashalidis & Eleni Hodolidou. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, in Greek. (forthcoming).
Kartalou, Athena. “Gender, Professional, and Class Identities in Miss Director and Modern Cinderella.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 18/1, (2000): 105-118. Print.
Lagarde, André & Michard, Laurent. XVIII siècle. Paris: Bordas, 1985. Print.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
Papamihos, Dimitris. Rev. Of Molis Horisa. October 14 2007. http://www.myfilm.gr/article1930.html. In Greek.
Paradeisi, Maria. “H Parousiasi tis Gynaikas stis “komenti” tou ellinikou kinimatografou.” To Vima ton Koinonikon Epistimon 11, (1993): 185-204. Print. In Greek.
Shumway, David R. Modern Love, Romance, Intimacy,and the Marriage Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Print.
Stassinopoulou, Maria. “Ti Gureyei h Istoria ston Kinhmatografo?” Istorika, 12/23, (1995): 421-437. Print. In Greek.
Valoukos, Stathis. Filmography of Greek Cinema (1914-2007), 3rd Edition. Athens: Aigokeros, 2007. In Greek. Print.
|27 Dresses (2008)|
|300 (2007)Alice in the Navy (1960)|
|Angels & Demons (2009) Because I Said So (2007)|
|Breaking Up (1997)|
|Bride Wars (2008)|
|Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)Enchanted (2007)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
I Am Legend (2008)
I Liza kai I Alli (1961)
|Iron Man (2008) Jenny, Jenny (1965)|
|Last Chance Harvey (2009)|
|Made of Honor (2008)|
|Maiden’s Cheek (1959)|
|Miss Director (1964)|
|Modern Cinderella (1964)|
|Molis Horisa (2008)|
|Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)Prime (2005)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
|Serious Moonlight (2009) Sex & The City (2008)|
|Shrek the Third(2007)Spider-Man 3 (2007)
The Break-Up (2006)
|The Cow’s Orgasm (1996)|
|The Dark Knight (2008) The Mating Game (1998)|
|The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End(2007)The Proposal (2009)|
|The Story of Us (1999)|
|To Fili Tis Zois (2007)|
Trust the Man (2006)
Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
 The three films were not only the most commercial romantic comedies in their respective year of release but the most commercial Greek films irrespective of generic categories at the same time, grossing $2,721,704, $4,587,030, and $2,151,669 respectively (boxofficemojo.com).
 Apart from the internationally acknowledged and awarded director Theo Angelopoulos, Greece is considered a country whose cinematography has little to offer. Suffice it to say that in Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s 778-page Film History (2003) the country is mentioned only once on page 559 in a larger segment of collective productions and militant films of the 1960s and early 1970s. The same reference is found in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996) while in Douglas Gomery’s Movie History (1991) Greece is not mentioned at all. Only in Edward Buscombe’s Cinema Today (2003) and David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (2004) does the mention in Greek Cinematography surpass the limits of a single phrase or one paragraph. Nevertheless, the domestic cinema has had a long history which is worth investigating. Drawing from Hollywood models but adapting them to the specific cultural context of each specific era, Greek filmmakers have dabbled in many genres (film noir, comedy, melodrama, musical, romantic comedy) while creating new genres that stemmed from unique socio-cultural roots. On the same note, it should also be mentioned that the Greek bibliography is also limited. The Greek romantic comedy, for instance, has not been the object of systematic scholarly examination with a few notable exceptions that mainly focus on films of the past (i.e. Maria Paradeisi (1993), Maria Stassinopoulou (1995), Elisa-Anna Delveroudi (1997), and Athena Kartalou (2000)).
 The three romantic comedies which constitute the focus of this essay were consequently placed in a difficult race. According to the boxoffice.mojo online database, in 2007, The Kiss had to compete with such blockbusters, as 300, The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spider-Man 3, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Despite the fierce competition, it placed in the 10th position surpassing Ocean’s Thirteen, and Shrek the Third, gathering a little less than 3 million dollars which is a significant number in the domestic landscape. Just Broke Up came in 3rd in 2008, surpassing such international successes as Quantum of Solace, The Dark Knight, I Am Legend, Sex and the City and Iron Man, while in 2009, S.E.X. came in 10th after Angels & Demons and Twilight, but “beating” Up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Watchmen. What these numbers prove is that despite the Hollywood supremacy, popular Greek films can easily attract the audience since they can relate to them on a more intimate level despite the mediocre reviews they usually receive by the Press which considers them unworthy of attention (see Dimitris Papamihos 2007, Alkistis Charsouli 2008, and Giannis Vassiliou 2009).
 In a corpus I have studied of approximately 200 romantic comedies from the new millennium, Did You Hear About the Morgans? and Serious Moonlight (both 2009) are among the few that belong to Cavell’s category.
 According to the boxofficemojo.com data, these six films grossed more than $1,453,000 worldwide which is an impressive number if we consider that the most expensive film in this group, Enchanted, cost $85 million.
 For instance, Glitre (20) argues that “the revival of ‘old-fashioned’ romantic comedy in the 1980s is hardly coincidental in a decade noted for its reactionary cultural and sexual politics (a situation exacerbated by the emergence of AIDS in 1981).”
 The new millennium romcom witnessed the birth of a new cycle which renegotiates gender roles through the representation of the mature “cougar” and/or divorced older woman. Films, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, 2003, Prime, 2005, Trust the Man, 2006, Last Chance Harvey, 2009, Rebound, 2010, among others, showcase how the mature female heroine enters a new life chapter, where romance is discovered, or re-discovered.
 According to ancient Greek dramaturgy, Electra the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra convinced her brother Orestes to kill their mother and her lover to avenge their father’s murder by the illicit couple.
In 1919 a romance novel by a little-known Derbyshire woman was published, featuring the story of an aristocratic but tomboyish English virgin who, in her travels through French colonial Algeria, is kidnapped by an Arab sheik and raped many times. She eventually falls in love with this “brute” of an Oriental “native” (whom her brother would have equated with a “nigger”) but then discovers—much to her surprise—that her beloved Arab rapist sheik is in fact the half-English, half-Spanish son of a peer of the British realm. As for the sheik himself, the violent and priapic Ahmed Ben Hassan is reduced to repentance and redeemed by his love for Lady Diana Mayo. He reverts to “civilized” standards of patriarchal European gender norms, presumably forsaking rape and promiscuity (though not necessarily his penchant for strangling evil Arab opponents when he deems this justified). The two live happily ever after in the desert, leaving the reader with the final specter of an aristocratic English couple “gone native,” it is true, but reigning imperialistically over the unruly Bedouin tribes of the Sahara in an area which was nominally under French colonial control. Edith Maud Hull’s The Sheik thus concluded with a reassertion of reactionary patriarchal gender relations as well as the fantasy of proxy British rule extended over French-colonized “natives”—a subtle display of one-upmanship in British imperial rivalry with the French.
2009 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Sheik. As is well-known, the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. In the U.S.A., the book went through fifty printings alone in 1921, and it was the first novel to appear on the bestseller list for two consecutive years (Leider 153). It was continually reissued in paperback throughout the 1920s to 1960s, while it sold 1,194,000 copies in hardback by 1965 (Blake 67). The New York Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seen The Sheik within weeks of the film’s opening in 1921. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France (Leider 167-8). The word “sheik,” originally a term of respect referring to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity in the West—before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931 (Edwards 50). The novel made a dramatic impact on the literary genre of Eastern love stories in Britain, reviving the popularity of the early twentieth century “desert romance” pioneered by novelists such as Robert Hichens and Kathlyn Rhodes, and spawning a series of forgettable imitations in other novels and short stories in women’s magazines. In the United States, the Tin Pan Alley hit “The Sheik of Araby” was composed in response to the film and rapidly became a jazz standard before being reworked by the Beatles in 1962. Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik (1925), and Valentino’s reprisal of his sheik role in the film version of 1926, brought the craze for all things romantically “Oriental” to its zenith in fashion and film.
Sheik fever died down by the 1930s, but its impact on western popular culture was already indelible, particularly as fodder for spoofs and satires. It did not take long for the first mockery to appear. The Shriek of Araby (1923) lampooned the abduction scene in The Sheik where Valentino rides across the desert sands and snatches Agnes Ayres from her horse, throwing her over his saddle and snarling, “Lie still, you fool.” In The Shriek of Araby, a hapless young theater employee daydreaming about The Sheik attempts a comically bungled abduction of a young lady from the back of a mule.
Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.
The horseback abduction scene was a rich source of mockery, especially for American cartoonists and illustrators such as Dick Dorgan, who wrote a satirical review of The Sheik for the film magazine Photoplay, accompanied by the above illustration. It sometimes seemed that in some quarters, merely to insert the word “sheik” incongruously into the title was productive of mirth, as was the case with Ukulele Sheiks (1926). The spoofs or sly references to The Sheik continued long after desert romance as a literary subgenre had petered out. In the midst of the Second World War, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Anthony Quinn were featured in The Road to Morocco (1942)—a film which satirized the fantasy of westerners being kidnapped and incarcerated in harems by featuring American men as the abductees, imprisoned in the Moroccan princess’s harem. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons made ridiculous references to abductions, harems, and even had the “wascally wabbit” dressed as a belly-dancer in one episode. References to The Sheik repeatedly cropped up in numerous comics and television shows as well (Michalak 7, 13-14). In 1984, John Derek’s film Bolero featured his wife Bo Derek playing a young, 1920s American flapper enamored with Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film begins with Bo Derek gazing up longingly at a poster of The Sheik. She travels to the Middle East, determined to lose her virginity to a sheik, but her plan goes awry when the sheik who has agreed to deflower her falls asleep instead.
Satires and spoofs, however, were not the only legacy of The Sheik throughout the twentieth century. Although the subgenre of the British-authored “sheik novel” had run out of steam by the late 1930s, the 1970s saw its revival, particularly in the form of the newly emerging erotic historical romance novel, produced primarily in the United States by authors such as Johanna Lindsey (1977) and Bertrice Small (1978). These historical romance novels found their counterparts in films and television shows of the 1980s such as the British television mini-series Harem (1986) or the Brooke Shields film Sahara (1983). By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the modern-day “sheik novel” was being produced by authors from various parts of the British Commonwealth and the United States. Australian and Canadian romance writers joined the British in producing contemporary Orientalist romance novels by the mid-1980s, but the subgenre became Americanized after the First Gulf War in 1991, growing steadily in terms of the output of American-authored publications and sales. The Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 saw no diminution in the popularity of these novels about love stories between white women and Arab or Muslim men. On the contrary, 2002 saw the peak of publications so far, with at least twenty-two different contemporary sheik romances published that year, and four historical harem romances. In 2005, an estimated fifty-one million Orientalist romance novels were consumed by readers, prompting ironic comment in some newspapers and Time magazine, while the years since have seen no abatement in the popularity of this subgenre. Indeed, several websites have been set up that are purely devoted to Orientalist romance novels. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik has thus had a remarkably far-reaching impact on western popular culture over the last century; an influence that persists to this day.
Since the 1970s, feminist, postcolonial, literary, and film scholars have paid intermittent attention to Hull’s novel. Anderson’s The Purple Heart Throbs (1974) was among the first to describe the rough lineaments of the desert romance novel epitomized by The Sheik, while subsequent scholars such as Melman, Ardis, Chow, Blake, and Gargano proceeded to analyze different thematic issues woven throughout the book, often reading it against other types of contemporary texts and cultural phenomena such as the New Woman novels, sex manuals, divorce laws, and the 1920s fascination with T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia.” Still others such as Hansen, Raub, Shohat, Caton, Eisele, Studlar and Leider devoted attention to the novel’s translation onto the silver screen, exploring the meaning of Valentino’s masculinity and his sexual and ethnic status, as well as analyzing the manifestation of a particular American-Orientalist discourse in the film. Such readings of The Sheik have insightfully emphasized its sexual and imperial politics, while sketching the historical context for its reception. Apart from Caton’s essay, however, none of the previous studies compares the novel and the film at length, and none takes into account the differences between British and American societies that underlie both the production and reception of these texts. It is important to tease out these differences because the silent film version arguably eclipsed the novel in influence and made the story famous world-wide, not just in English-speaking countries, yet the novel and the film differ in significant ways. This essay considers The Sheik as both a novel and a film, comparing their similarities and differences of plot and meaning through the particular historical contexts of their production and reception. It begins with a brief discussion of existing scholars’ work on the novel and the various historical contexts that they have mapped out before proceeding to look at how World War I shaped the production of E.M. Hull’s novel, and how the British context of a white imperial culture and its fear of miscegenation with colonized “natives” influenced both the production and reception of the novel.
To argue for a direct causal relationship between a text and its historical context is never easy at the best of times, and near impossible where extant documentary evidence is so scarce. Hull’s papers tell us little about what influenced her to write The Sheik, while definitive information about specific readers’ responses to the novel is non-existent because of the lack of reader surveys carried out. However, given the prevailing cultural concerns of the First World War and the 1920s, it is possible to infer the contemporary roots of Hull’s preoccupations in the novel, as well as readers’ likely responses. The same applies to the American reception of Jesse Lasky’s film production of The Sheik, even though more documentary evidence about the film’s production process and its reception exists in this case, and some comprehensive biographies have been written about Valentino that discuss his role in the film. With these limitations in mind, this essay argues that beyond the obvious differences arising from the changes to the plot or from technological considerations of the media of literature versus film, the differences between the novel and the movie arise from Britain’s experience of sexuality, violence, and the First World War; understandings of whiteness and imperialism in both Britain and the United States; the different historical experiences of gender, race, and ethnicity in the two countries—linked to the colonial context in Britain, but to anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and citizenship in the United States; and finally, the different traditions of popular Orientalist discourse in the two countries—anchored to a “realist” mode of representing the geopolitical situation of actual colonies in the case of Britain, and arising from fairground and merchandising fantasies of “Arabian Nights” Orientalism in the case of the U.S.
Feminist responses to the novel
The Sheik elicited a polarized and visceral reaction upon publication in 1919. Billie Melman (90) has claimed that its sales surpassed all other bestsellers at the time; yet while it achieved instant cult status among its mainly female readers, contemporary literary critics and the self-appointed guardians of social morality were appalled, dismissing it as “a typist’s daydream” and condemning it for its overt portrayal of sadomasochistic sexuality—a response that has been repeated by feminists throughout most of the twentieth century (Melman 90). However, the last two decades have seen a growing body of scholarship on The Sheik which have revised earlier hostile opinions, and which have grown increasingly sophisticated in analyzing issues of gender, power, race, and imperialism in the novel.
The earliest responses by feminist scholars to The Sheik echoed its contemporary reviews which condemned it as a “poisonously salacious” novel, in the words of the Literary Review of 1921 (Blake 69). Objections were not made on the grounds of its portrayal of Arabs and the Orient so much as on the grounds of its portrayal of sex and the treatment of white women. In one of the first book-length surveys of the genre of romance fiction, Rachel Anderson declared that:
The Sheik is the most immoral of any of the romances, not because of lewd descriptions of sexual intercourse […] but because of the distorting view Miss Hull presents of the kind of relationship which leads to perfect love, and the totally unprincipled precept that the reward of rapists is a lovely English heiress with a look of misty yearning in her eyes (188-189).
Melman described The Sheik as “a prudishly told tale of masculine dominance and complementary feminine masochism and passivity” (102), while Mary Cadogan argued that the novel was “not only […] an anti-feminist tract in which rapist behaviour is rewarded but a justification of racism” (131).
From the late 1980s onwards, however, scholars began reading the novel within its historical context, paying closer attention to issues of gender and sexuality. Melman’s comprehensive chapter on the “desert romance” in Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties was among the first to pay sustained scholarly attention to the novel and, along with Michael Diamond’s detailed discussion in “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940 (2006), it is still one of the most useful delineations of this subgenre. Melman pointed out that in addition to the “rape-cum-redemption” story, what caused the greatest outrage in the 1920s was not so much the “prurience” or “obscenity” of The Sheik and similar “sex novels,” but the fact that they were for women. These novels were regarded as “pornographic literature, manufactured by female writers for the consumption of a sex-starved mass female audience,” whose work experiences in the First World War and its aftermath had seen an increase in spending-power and leisure opportunities (Melman 92-93, 104). Underlying the outrage was a deep anxiety that traditional gender, sexual, and social mores were being subverted. The happy ending of the novel—such as it is—ultimately championed the idea that “the modern sexually emancipated woman can pursue pleasure without being punished for her presumption”; for unlike traditional novels, Diana does not die and is not destroyed by her rape or her subsequent enjoyment of sex (Melman 93, 102-3). In Melman’s eyes, despite whatever other crimes The Sheik might have been guilty of, it placed discussion of women’s sexual desires and sexual autonomy at the center of popular culture, thus contributing to a modern understanding and conversation about sex in the 1920s.
The exact historical period when women’s sexual desires were legitimated has been a subject of some debate. For Ann Ardis, The Sheik did not so much herald the radical legitimization of female sexual desire in the 1920s as perpetuate an “advanced” view of sexuality that dated back to the New Woman novels of the 1890s (287-296). Ardis focused particularly on the androgynous figure of Diana Mayo. Whereas Melman interpreted Diana as an interwar flapper, Ardis argued that Diana was actually a New Woman and, like so many other New Women in novels of the 1890s, she initially rejects heterosexuality, marriage, and domesticity. The periodization of the novel has received little attention apart from Ardis’s work. As it turns out, however, Melman’s and Ardis’s views are both plausible. Ardis has reason to date the work as an early-twentieth century novel, but this is only made clear in Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik, where references are made to German espionage in French North Africa and the implications for the coming Great War. In the film of The Sheik, however, the setting, clothing, and hairstyles date it as a contemporary 1920s story. Both authors nevertheless agree on the importance of The Sheik in legitimizing female desire in the 1920s as well as
legitimizing the female adventure plot […] for the operant fantasy here is not just about having an erotically satisfying relationship with an early twentieth-century version of a New Age sensitive and virile man; it is about galloping with him across the desert or hunting wild apes with him in the Sub-Saharan jungles. In the context of post-war efforts to redomesticate women, Hull’s romances insist upon women’s continued access to the public sphere, albeit in an extremely privileged way (Ardis 294).
Feminist critics in the 1990s thus began to move away from reading The Sheik as a reactionary narrative of sadistic patriarchal lust visited upon a masochistic, victimized woman suffering Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, they looked at the radical and potentially liberating aspects of sexual representations and attempted to descry Diana’s empowerment. Although Patricia Raub acknowledged that “in some respects, The Sheik can be read as an object lesson to young women who attempt to be too independent and self-reliant,” she agreed that “Hull was the first to celebrate sex from the perspective of the female partner” and she went on to argue that the novel demonstrates Diana’s access to power (120 and 122). Drawing on Jan Cohn’s Marxist-feminist thesis in Romance and the Erotics of Property (1988), Raub argued that Diana achieves wealth, status, and power over the sheik’s tribesmen via her relationship with Ahmed, while the sheik’s exercise of power over Diana is overturned by the novel’s end: “Almost against his will, the hero is himself captured by the heroine; he acknowledges his love for her. The heroine has been able to ‘remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love’” (Raub 126).
Such an argument is not without its problems. As Karen Chow has noted, although the sheik repents of his earlier autocratic treatment of Diana, he is equally dictatorial and disregarding of her wishes when he decides to send her away in order to make amends. Her attempts to seduce him fail, and it is only when she takes the drastic step of trying to shoot herself that he relents and gives way to her desire to stay with him. Diana may be empowered by forcing Ahmed to love her tenderly, against his will and prejudices, but this is a limited transformation. As he himself admits, and as his actions and the few instances of her fear of him in The Sons of the Sheik demonstrate, he cannot change what he is; indeed, he warns her that “you will have a devil for a husband” (296). For Chow, however, the novel fulfilled its function of empowering women readers and filmgoers, if not Diana herself. Chow argued that “ultimately, it is not Diana the character but the woman reader, writer, and filmgoer in the material world who is liberated by reading these steamy passages and creating a sex symbol in the figure of Rudolph Valentino” (73).
Although these scholars recognized the imperialistic background to The Sheik and mentioned Hull’s seemingly radical transgression of racial boundaries in the sheik’s rape of Diana and her love for an Arab, little was made of these aspects of the novel beyond passing comment. As Melman read it, the revelation of Ahmed’s “real” identity as a European, followed by Diana’s insistence that she cannot think of him as other than an Arab, are “gratuitous” since they occur so late in the novel (102). The work of Susan Blake and Elizabeth Gargano over the last few years, however, has focused more attention on the racial and imperial themes of the novel through postcolonial readings of the plot. Gargano argued that “The Sheik enacts an apparently transgressive erotic daydream, which first questions and then ultimately reaffirms the Englishman’s capacity for domination” (175). For her, the novel explores the crisis of masculinity that beset British culture in the wake of the First World War. Significantly, none of the European or American men are able to woo Diana successfully because they “embody a demoralized post-war passivity” in the face of the masculinized modern woman (176). The hypermasculine, violent, primitive, sexually potent sheik succeeds where “civilized” but emasculated modern western men have failed. But the sheik is of course a European, and Gargano compares his disguise with that of the famous “white sheik” of the war years and its aftermath: Colonel T.E. Lawrence. Both Englishmen are presented as “‘better’ Arabs than the Arabs,” and this serves to underline the fact that “an Englishman, raised under the same conditions of unimpeded freedom, absolute power over his subordinates, and constant physical activity, is still superior,” thus reaffirming Britain’s imperial mission and providing a suggested cure to enervated postwar British masculinity (Gargano 182).
Where Gargano argued that The Sheik was indeed an example of Orientalist colonial discourse perpetuating racial stereotypes, Susan Blake allowed for more heteroglossic and contrapuntal interpretations. Blake’s innovative and sophisticated reading of The Sheik against contemporary issues of race and divorce led her to conclude that the novel presents two competing stories about imperialism, gender, race, and miscegenation—told respectively by Raoul de Saint Hubert (the French novelist who is the sheik’s best friend) and Diana. What readers conclude about these issues at the novel’s end ultimately depends on whose voice they choose to listen to (Blake 75). For Blake, the central puzzle to be solved in the text is how:
[I]n a culture that divided humanity into biologically fixed and hierarchically ranged races, The Sheik creates a character who “is” both Arab and English. In a culture terrified of miscegenation, it permits an English lady not only to fall in love with a man she believes to be Arab, but to continue to think of him as Arab after his “real” identity is revealed and to settle into implied marriage with him in an Arab environment. As a popular novel, The Sheik necessarily supports the prevailing ideology of its time, but the nonconforming facts raise the question of what else it is doing (70).
Blake contended that in Saint Hubert’s story—a story by no means without its own internal contradictions—the understanding of race is biological. Saint Hubert tells the tale of the sheik’s European parentage that permits Diana to love and remain with Ahmed without the taint of miscegenation. This story thus supports conventional ideas about class, gender, imperialism, and race, because at its close an aristocratic British couple, both performing traditional gender roles, rule over a tribe of Arab “natives”. In Diana’s story, however, the sheik remains an Arab and she loves him for being an Arab. Blake suggested that Diana’s understanding of race is cultural rather than biological, which is why she is able to continue regarding Ahmed as Arab (75-78). Diana needs Ahmed to be Arab rather than English because in this novel, violence is twice associated with the English: first with the sheik’s father, the Earl of Glencaryll, whose abuse led his wife to flee their marriage; and then with the sheik himself, who wreaks vengeance on the English because of his father’s domestic violence. Diana’s story thus subverts two interconnected and strongly-held imperial and patriarchal tenets about race, gender, and sexuality at that time: namely, “that sexual threat comes from the Other and protection from the English,” particularly within the shelter of the family and the domestic sphere (Blake 79). The novel, Blake argued, is “double-voiced” in every way, hinging on the “race” and subsequent identity of the sheik. “Raoul’s identification of the Sheik yields to the pressure of imperialist discourse to identify any Other as inferior […] Diana’s insistence that the man she loves is ‘Arab’—Other and equal, if not superior—resists that pressure and thus functions as a counter discourse” (Blake 78). However, I would argue that Orientalist discourse and the very text of The Sheik itself pose limits to the effectiveness of this counter discourse. Being Arab does not save Diana from domestic violence, for the novel confirms in one incident after another that Arabs are a brutal, cruel people who show a “callous indifference to suffering” (Hull 137).
Nevertheless, this body of insightful scholarship has illuminated The Sheik in many ways and explained both its popularity as well as its widespread appeal. It is particularly important to recognize that readers—both then and now—do not simply respond to a straightforward, univocal, monolithic story whose meaning is predetermined and closed-off to varying interpretations. Different or changing ideas about acceptable gender behavior, sexual curiosity and titillation, fantasies and fears about race and miscegenation, and differing attitudes towards imperialism, can all be accommodated within this text—albeit some more easily than others. Thus far, however, this body of scholarship has focused principally on the reception and cultural impact of the novel in the 1920s. Little consideration has been given to its actual moment of composition. Moreover, there has also been a conflation of British and American attitudes towards The Sheik, and towards imperialism, race, and miscegenation. In what follows, I want to explore more carefully the specific imperial, national and racial histories of Britain and the United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and then to compare the British novels with the American films in order to tease out variations in the plots and characters that created different meanings in the British novels and the American films of The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik.
E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and World War I
Edith Maude Henderson was born in 1880, the daughter of a New York shipowner and his Canadian wife. As a child she traveled widely with her parents, even visiting Algeria—the setting of her sheik novels. In 1899 she married Percy Winstanley Hull in London, and the couple moved to Derbyshire in the early 1900s where Percy Hull became an agriculturalist. After the publication of The Sheik, the press would run descriptions of Hull as “the shy wife of a Derbyshire pig farmer,” because the image seemed so incongruous with the shocking sex and exotic setting of the novel. Percy Hull did indeed breed prize-winning pigs, among his other agricultural pursuits, but he had begun his professional life as a civil engineer. During the First World War he served in the armed forces. It was this absence that prompted Edith Hull to begin her literary career. She began writing The Sheik “not with any idea of it being published, but rather as a means of distraction at a time when I felt very much alone” (Hull papers). The particular circumstances of the novel’s composition—probably in the later years of the war since it was published in London in 1919—are significant in shedding light on certain features of the novel: namely, its focus on sex, violence, and the Middle East.
Many scholars have pointed to The Sheik’s literary heritage of abduction and rape motifs from Richardson’s Clarissa, to Gothic novels and Victorian melodramas. The “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 had also given rise to a spate of rape novels within the British colonial context, as Jenny Sharpe and Nancy Paxton have shown. As Sharpe argued, however, “rape is not a consistent and stable signifier” in either British colonial or metropolitan discourse, “but one that surfaces at strategic moments” of cultural or political tensions (3). In the case of Anglo-Indian writing, as Paxton noted, the rise and circulation of “rape scripts” after 1857 served to consolidate British explanations and justifications for increasing imperial control in the colonies, especially India, as well as to attempt a remasculinization of British domestic politics at a time of increasing female independence (112). Novels featuring violence against women—especially middle- or upper-class women—were few and far between in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The New Woman novels and other sensationalist pre-war “sex novels” such as Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907) were more concerned with establishing women’s sexual desires and sexual identities, or debating the merits of sex outside marriage when ennobled by love—“the one motive which makes a union moral in ethics,” as Glyn explained in the introduction to the American version of her novel. Glyn’s Slavic “Lady” in Three Weeks certainly articulated the idea of sadomasochistic sexual love found in The Sheik, telling her young lover Paul Verdayne:
[A] man can always keep a woman loving him if he kiss her enough, and make her feel that there is no use struggling because he is too strong to resist. A woman will stand almost anything from a passionate lover. He may beat her and pain her soft flesh; he may shut her up and deprive her of all other friends—while the motive is raging love and interest in herself on his part, it only makes her love him the more […]
However, the lovers in Three Weeks did not actually enact such a scenario, because what the Lady loved about Paul was—in Glyn’s own explanation of the novel—his “straight and true” manhood, while their love influenced him toward “vast aims and noble desires for future greatness” (Glyn “Introduction”).
It was during the First World War that sex, violence, and rape came to the forefront of British culture and consciousness in a most dramatic way. A number of wartime developments was responsible for this: the onset of “khaki fever” among young women at the start of the war; tales of German atrocities in occupied Belgium and France that were used by the British government for propaganda purposes; and the return of war-traumatized veterans which was not only attended by mental illnesses and physical disability, but also by an increase in public and domestic violence.
The first of these occurrences problematized young women’s overt display of sexual desire in British society. As Angela Woollacott has shown, the outbreak of war in Britain was accompanied by an “epidemic of khaki fever” whereby, according to the press, adolescent girls and young working women flocked to military camps, sexually propositioning and harassing soldiers in towns and cities (325). In the nineteenth century, the open display of sexual desire or sexual behavior was associated with prostitutes. When the “amateurs” or “free-lance” girls succumbed to khaki fever in 1914, they were perceived to be sexually aggressive and shameless in their pursuit of soldiers, just like prostitutes. Even more shamefully than prostitutes, however, the “amateurs” did not do it out of a need to make a living. Furthermore, they displayed an independence of mind and spirit that was much deplored. As such, they “threatened a subversion of the gender as well as the moral order” (Woollacott 326). In response to this, the middle-class Women Patrols Committee and the Women Police Service were established to patrol gender and sexual behavior in public spheres. Middle-class women patrolling the streets took it upon themselves to censure and separate “couples thought to be embracing too closely, following those they suspected might be about to embark on unsavory courses of behavior, and warning youngsters of the dangers of overly casual behavior” (Levine 45). Khaki fever died down by mid-1915 when women were co-opted into war work and other forms of patriotic contribution to the war effort, but concern over women’s sexual behavior and the spread of venereal diseases meant that middle-class women continued to police working women’s sexuality in public places throughout the war (Woollacott 331).
If khaki fever brought to public consciousness an uneasy awareness of young women’s dangerous sexual desire and autonomy, then tales of German atrocities trickling back from the continent introduced rape and sexual violence into public discourse. The German invasion of neutral Belgium on August 4, 1918 had been Britain’s ostensible casus belli to declare war on the Central Powers. In making the case for war to the British public, complex legal arguments about obligations incurred by Britain under the 1839 Treaty of London were soon replaced by simpler, sensationalist accounts in newspapers, war pamphlets, and posters of German atrocities—particularly the rape, abuse, and torture of women and children. The raped Belgian woman came to symbolize the violated borders of Belgium itself in many propaganda posters. Artwork in these posters graphically portrayed the “innocent, virtuous Belgian or Frenchwoman violated. Belgium became a frail and ravished jeune fille, weeping and broken on the floor as the uhlan, the helmeted German cavalryman, leaves the bedroom” (Harris 180).
A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her…” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.
Other artists depicted a female Belgium stripped, bound, and raped. These images acquired more force as stories of rape and violence were amassed in Lord Bryce’s official Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, and they were widely repeated and believed at the time (Gullace 714, and Ward 29). By 1916, the British were compiling documents about the abduction of women and children for forced labor—including sexual labor—in The Deportation of Women and Girls from Lille. The bishop of Lille appealed emotively to a British and American audience, telling them that “promiscuity […] inevitably accompanies removals en masse, involving mixture of the sexes, or, at all events, of persons of very unequal standing. Young girls of irreproachable life […] have been carried off” (Gullace 742).
Even as stories of German sexual atrocities circulated in Britain, the “rape of Belgium” was also used as propaganda to try to persuade the United States to enter the war. When it did in 1917, at least two US war posters (below) referred to the raped Belgian woman, demonstrating just how widely this image had spread in popular culture.
American World War I Liberty Bonds poster
American World War I recruitment poster
In all these accounts, violence towards women and children was depicted as typifying the behavior of the German “Other.” The behavior of English soldiers, by contrast, was supposedly characterized by “honour, decency, rightness, and fair play” (Harris 29). This notion of honorable English or British masculinity and the chivalric treatment of women and children became more problematic in the later years of the war and its aftermath because of increases in domestic violence in all belligerent nations (Thébaud 68).
As is well known, the Great War had a traumatic effect on a whole generation of young men. Literature on the war and demobilized soldiers have usually portrayed these men as either shattered, shell-shocked neurasthenics or angry young men nursing bitter grudges against those who sent them to war (Adams 1990 and Fussell 1975). Demobilization was always going to be a difficult experience for men. If soldiers were discharged during the war, it was probably because of physical or psychological injuries. After the war, men had to face the problems of “finding a job, resuming family life, and curbing aggression” that they had been encouraged to develop and display during the war (Nye 430). The effects of the war on men’s lives were visible not only through the large number of amputees in public spaces after the war, but also in the behavior of demobilized soldiers. Men suffering from “shell shock” displayed their trauma through a “shivering, shuddering, fainting, halting, ‘mincing gait’” that distressed those who witnessed these symptoms (Leed 99). Such behavior undermined the “manliness” of shell-shock victims because of the prevailing belief in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe that a “true man” was one who was in control of his passions and his body (Mosse 101). If the “shivering” neurasthenic veteran symbolized the trauma of war, so too did the embittered and violent veteran—often said to be of working-class origins—who could not control his passions.
As soon as the guns fell silent in November 1918, members of the ruling classes and the British press began to express fears of “brutalized” working-class soldiers turning to violence and theft. According to The Times in May 1919, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police “feared that a battle-hardened husband might now murder his wife rather than, as before the war, administering ‘just a clip under the ear’” (Emsley 175). Meanwhile, as Clive Emsley has noted, the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs
believed that a significant minority of front-line soldiers had returned seriously altered by their experiences: They were subject to queer moods, queer tempers, fits of profound depression with a restless desire for pleasure. Many of them were easily moved to passion when they lost control of themselves. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening. They had gone through “an intensive culture of brutality”. Equally, and this he implied had prompted sexual assaults, “sexually they were starved. For months they had lived out of the sight and presence of women” (Emsley 175).
Emsley has argued that by and large, these moral panics about the return of a whole generation of psychologically-scarred, brutalized men failed to materialize, and that the statistics for indictable assaults show no significant increase in the postwar years. It is probably true that the majority of soldiers returned to the private life of what Alison Light has termed “Little Englanders” who eschewed imperial masculinity and politics for the quiet pleasures of tending their gardens, smoking a pipe, and doing crossword puzzles (Light 1991). There is currently insufficient research into the First World War and domestic violence in Britain to warrant any detailed or conclusive statements about the rate of increase in wife and child abuse, and it is certainly worth noting that nations on the losing side experienced the greatest political, social, and domestic violence (Nye 431). However, Susan Kingsley Kent’s work on the increase of violence against British women during the war and Elizabeth Nelson’s work on the First World War and domestic violence in Australia both suggest a correlation between war trauma and increased rates of wife abuse; while Simona Sharoni’s study of gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has likewise documented an increase in male violence against women and children during military conflicts which legitimize the brutalization of society. The fact that divorce rates in Britain rose after the war suggests increases in both adultery as well as “cruelty,” or wife abuse, because while men could petition for divorce solely on the grounds of adultery, until 1923 women had also to prove abuse in addition to adultery (Blake 81). An increase in male domestic violence would be unsurprising because as Nye has observed, returned soldiers felt “resentment at those who had stayed behind, including their wives, and the traditional patriarchal obligation to control one’s wife was a particularly exigent aspect of militarized masculinity” (430).
This social and sexual context of wartime and postwar Britain is important to The Sheik in obvious ways. It explains why female sexuality is so fraught with confusion and contradiction in this novel, and why passion is intermeshed with violence. In the New Woman novels of the 1890s and 1900s, the heroines exploring their sexual identities are middle class. In The Sheik, the aristocratic Lady Diana Mayo has an obviously passionate, sexual nature, but for her to be aware of this at the start of the novel would be to degrade her in terms of class as well as sexual morality, since wartime anxieties about young women’s sexual behavior were directed towards working-class and lower-middle-class women. Middle- and upper-middle-class women were the ones who patrolled and tried to regulate young women’s behavior, just as in the novel Lady Conway tried to uphold the rules that governed acceptable British behavior—like the stereotype of the imperial memsahib abroad. As others have pointed out, rape performs the function of permitting Diana to experience sex while absolving her from all responsibility, thus maintaining her status as a virtuous and virginal heroine. Not only does Diana endure rape, she actually comes to enjoy sex and to participate in it, thus transforming rape into consensual sex and even the suggestion of a modern, companionate relationship with the Sheik. As her months of captivity wear on, and despite the Sheik’s occasional reversion to cruelty, she comes to treasure the late nights when Ahmed “told her all the incidents of the day’s visit to one of the other camps, and from his men and his horses drifted almost insensibly into details connected with his own plans for the future, which were really the intimate confidences of a husband to a wife who is also a comrade” (Hull 283). The confused attempt to reconcile romantic, companionate love with sexual passion and violence within the home must have resonated with readers whose male family members had returned from the frontlines traumatized and, unable to cope with the transition to domesticity, sometimes prone to violence.
That Hull should have conceived of abduction and rape as a central plot device in the novel is therefore scarcely surprising, since rape stories were in wide circulation in British society at that time. The problem, of course, was that rape was associated with German wartime atrocities and there was no way that rape in a European context could possibly be anything but horrifying. Not until American troops began arriving at the Western Front in huge numbers after April 1918 did the tide of the war begin to change decisively in favor of the Allies. In fact, it is possible that when Hull was writing the novel, the outcome of the war was still undecided, with Germany tipped to win after the collapse of the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. Hull side-stepped these problems to a large extent because she formulated her plot within the subgenre of the desert romance novel, and this solved many of the dilemmas created by the war.
The Middle East was the only arena where fighting during the First World War in any way resembled glamorized ideas of noble heroes testing themselves on the field of blood. Where the static war on the Western Front diminished soldiers and often left men in the “feminine” position of cowering passively in the trenches, helpless in the face of heavy bombardment before being mowed down by an enemy they could not see, the war in the Middle East—particularly the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and the Arab Revolt—was active and mobile, and featured cavalry charges that conjured pre-modern images of chivalric warfare. In particular, the Arab Revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein ibn Ali in mid-1916 brought Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence to prominence as a result of the sensationalist reportage of the American journalist Lowell Thomas. Thomas’s dramatic war film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia—in which Lawrence featured famously as the “white sheik” who, together with Sherif Hussein’s sons Feisal and Abdullah, led the Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire—debuted in London in 1917 and ran for six months. It is impossible to know whether Hull ever saw this film, or whether the “white sheik” in all his ambiguously-gendered, quasi-feudal, Orientalist glory inspired Hull’s English aristocratic white sheik, but the parallel is certainly there: the Englishman masquerading as an Arab, who alone is capable of uniting and leading the unruly tribes of the desert.
Gender, whiteness, and imperialism in the Middle East
The Middle East not only invoked the plethora of ideas about the Orient that had been circulating in Britain for the last few centuries; in Britain, the North African desert also conjured ideas about noble Bedouin as “true” Arabs (in contrast to their much-derided town counterparts) as well as memories of European women who had found in the desert a space to be free from European conventions and sexual and social behavior. In the scholarship on women’s travel writing, much has been written about the constraints of nineteenth-century femininity upon women’s travel writing and their behavior abroad (Foster, 3-25, and Mills 1991). Despite these well-documented constraints, however, European women traveling abroad were certainly aware of the possibility of sexual liaisons with “Oriental” men. A few women even acted upon their sexual desires and entered into long-term relationships with non-western men. These were not technically illegal relationships. At no time did the British government actually pass legislation forbidding interracial unions within the United Kingdom or in its colonies. This distinguishes interracial relations in Britain from those in the postbellum United States, where miscegenation was prohibited in various states and only gradually repealed state-by-state, until the US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Yet perhaps it was because of the porousness of these racial boundaries that British popular literature at the turn of the twentieth century became obsessed with interracial sex, the mysterious and fatal attraction “Oriental” men had for British women, and the horror of miscegenation. Without legislative barriers against interracial unions between white women and non-white men (unions between white men and non-white concubines were tacitly accepted), the full weight of social opprobrium was brought down upon the practice in popular culture. In The Sheik, if Diana will not or cannot save herself and embrace her traditional literary fate—death—resulting from rape, let alone interracial rape, then Hull the author must save her through the timely revelation of the Sheik’s English and Spanish parentage (albeit with an uneasy hint of Moorish blood in his heritage), thus shoring up the boundaries of white racial identity to appease her readers and potential critics.
From the start of The Sheik, readers are reminded that this is both an Oriental and an imperial tale. Diana is a representative of the white race and of British imperial prestige; her gendered behavior is a reflection upon the rival merits of the British and French mission civilisatrice that accompanied and justified colonial expansion in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Intermittently throughout the novel, then, British and French culture and colonial successes are subtly compared. French colonial control over Algeria is shown to be sadly wanting when Diana’s desert party is ambushed by Arab raiders. Moments before she realizes the seriousness of her situation, just before she is swept off her saddle and abducted by the Sheik, “Diana’s first feeling was one of contempt for an administration that made possible such an attempt so near civilisation” (48). It is precisely the feebleness of such an administration that permits the fantastical ending: the British aristocratic couple extending feudal rule over warrior-like Bedouin tribes in French colonial Algeria. In this novel, it seems that the French are mainly lauded for their loyalty to the British protagonists: the Sheik’s faithful valet, Gaston, is French, as is his best friend Raoul de Saint Hubert, who helps the romantic couple realize their love for each other (a fitting role for the Frenchman in the British imagination!), and who chivalrously sacrifices his own love for Diana in order to facilitate her relationship with the English Ahmed Ben Hassan.
Because Diana is cast as a victim through much of this novel, there is limited opportunity for her to undertake the usual role of imperial women in the colonies: as the memsahib organizing expatriate domestic life and policing the boundaries of sex and race (Stoler 2002); as the maternal missionary or social reformer shouldering what Antoinette Burton has called the “white woman’s burden,” rescuing helpless, downtrodden native women from their Oriental plight (Burton 1994); or as the intrepid woman traveler traipsing insouciantly into villages where no white woman has ever been, the amused cynosure of all eyes and the compassionate dispenser of medication and cheap trinkets (Teo 1998). Nevertheless, Diana’s imperial identity is established through the fact that as a white British woman, she has traveled widely throughout the world and even gone tiger-hunting in India. Imperial prestige (and behind it, the threat of imperial violence) enables her to embark on a journey into the desert by herself, unaccompanied by any other European and dressed in “manly” riding clothes without any regard to local custom or sensibilities. Diana’s powerful imperial identity is further emphasized through her intimidating use of her “imperial eye” to subjugate cowering natives—their eyes waver and fall before her haughty gaze (Hull 36 and 212), whether in India or in the North African desert. In fact, Hull is at pains to tell us that there was only one “native” whose gaze did not fall beneath hers—the Sheik, who is of course English. When Diana first stands before Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan—a figure formed in the image of the Gothic villain with “the handsomest and cruellest face that she had ever seen”—his “fierce burning eyes […] swept her until she felt that the boyish clothes that covered her slender limbs were stripped from her, leaving the beautiful white body bare under his passionate stare” (pp.56-57). Since she (and the reader) believes him to be Arab at this point, a clichéd trope of colonial relations is inverted here: the all-seeing, all-commanding gaze of the imperial eye gives way to the predatory, penetrating gaze of the supposed “native,” whose hungry stare consumes her whiteness—here transformed into a sign of her gendered vulnerability.
There are repeated references to Diana’s whiteness throughout the novel: the sheik’s lascivious glances at her “beautiful white body” (Hull 57), for instance, or the villain’s awareness of the “white woman who was Ahmed Ben Hassan’s latest toy” (196). Whiteness scarcely matters to Diana at first, yet although she is careless of this at the outset, her experiences in the novel teach her racial solidarity. Facing a greater danger from the bandit sheik Ibrahaim Omair later in the novel, with only the French valet Gaston at her side, Diana becomes aware of the overriding importance of white identity against the stratifications of class. At the moment when she and the French servant had faced possible death together, “all inequality of rank had been swept away […] they had been only a white man and a white woman together in their extremity” (211). While Diana’s aristocratic British imperial identity is important, therefore, it can also be subsumed within a broader white European identity, within the context of colonization and resistance or danger from non-white “natives.”
If Diana’s whiteness establishes her sexual desirability to all men—white and non-white—it also confirms the significance of her rape, since the only rape which counted in western imperial culture was the rape of a white woman by a non-white man; the far more common historical scenario of non-white women’s rape by white men received little comment throughout this period. If rape has broken her down, it is Diana’s interaction with social and racial inferiors within the colonial context which restores her sense of identity. It is her “childish” Bedouin maid Zilah who “in some indefinable way gave back to Diana the self-control that had slipped from her” (Hull 62). It is the French valet, Gaston, who serves her as devotedly as he serves the sheik, who returns to her a sense of what is due to her as an aristocratic Englishwoman (277). Yet any such sense of recovered status fluctuates. Over the next month of constant rape, she comes to realize that “her life was in [the sheik’s] hands, that he could break her with his lean brown fingers like a toy is broken […] She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless” (78).
To understand the full impact of the depiction of interracial desire and miscegenation in this novel, we need to remember that the nineteenth-century British Orientalist writings of men such as James Cowles Prichard and Richard Burton conflated Arabs, Africans, and animals as savage “creature[s] of instinct, controlled by sexual passions, incapable of the refinement to which the white races had evolved” (Kabbani 63). As Michael Diamond has shown, novel after novel from the 1890s to the First World War raised the specter of an Arab man attempting to “compromise” a white woman, only to be strongly rebuffed. In William Le Queux’s The Hand of Allah (1914), those English who “knew Africa, who knew the Arab” hated “the taint of black blood. To such men the sight of their own women introducing their daughters to that oily Egyptian sickened them” (Diamond 77). The heroine in Robert Hichens’s Barbary Sheep (1909) nearly succumbs to an Arab spahi while her husband is engrossed in game hunting, but she realizes in time that the Arab cavalryman is purely mercenary and “the peculiar disgust which so many white-skinned people feel towards the dark races of the earth suddenly rose up in her” (Diamond 78). A.J. Dawson’s Hidden Manna (1902) ends with the heartfelt exclamation: “God save us all from mixed marriages, I say!” (Diamond 78). In some cases British men, rather than God, save their women from mixed marriages; in many other cases women save themselves by drawing back from crossing racial boundaries.
In none of these pre-war novels did an Arab man actually have sex with a white woman. This was why The Sheik was such a bold and subversive novel for its time, despite its reactionary conclusion. Pre-war novels set in the Orient required white women to police their own sexual desires and uphold the imperial, racial, and bodily integrity of the white race. However, The Sheik broke with this convention to depict “proud Diana Mayo who had the history of her race at her fingers’ ends” (Hull 275) refusing this duty of the white race, choosing instead to abase herself before her love and sexual desire for the Arab man she believed the sheik to be. Fortunately for her, then, the sheik is actually European, a British peer of the realm. This racial legerdemain was an important plot maneuver for it excused Diana’s inexplicable attraction to the supposed “native,” dissipated the horrible specter of miscegenation, and provided the means of Ahmed’s repentance and redemption and consequently, the novel’s happy ending. Moreover, it meant that Diana would remain British in nationality, for the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act stated that “the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien,” losing the rights and privileges of British nationality. Not until 1948 could women from the United Kingdom retain their own nationality regardless of whom they married (Baldwin 522).
Hull returned to the themes of miscegenation, imperialism, love, and rape in the sequel The Sons of the Sheik (1925); but this time, the strictures against miscegenation were more pronounced, uttered by the sheik himself when he discovers that his son Ahmed has raped a Moroccan woman (who of course turns out to be the daughter of a French aristocratic family). The truly radical moment in The Sons of the Sheik occurs at the end of the novel after the heroine (by that stage pregnant with young Ahmed’s child) is abducted and savagely raped by the German villain. In the final pages of this novel, Ahmed decides that the heroine’s rape does not matter to him because his love for her is worth more than the fact that she has been violated by another man. This must surely be one of the first such episodes for a mainstream novel, whereby the rape of a woman by a man other than the hero is not punished by her death, and which still concludes in the union of raped heroine and hero. Significantly, at the end of The Sons of the Sheik, Hull finally presented readers with the rapist Hun of British wartime propaganda, whose brutality makes that of young Ahmed’s pale by comparison. Yasmin is in fact presented in the typical posture of the raped Belgian woman: “Crouched half naked on the ground, bearing all the marks of a desperate struggle, with her unbound hair streaming over her bare shoulders, she lay moaning and writhing in agony, her face hidden against the crumbling wall” (Hull, Sons of the Sheik, 358).
While Hull flirted with the specter of interracial sex between a white woman and an Oriental man in The Sheik, she would recoil strongly from the suggestion of miscegenation in The Sons of the Sheik and her subsequent novels. What had happened in the interim? If Arabs and other colonized peoples were “noble savage” allies during the war, their cause personified and glamorized by T.E. Lawrence, things changed rapidly after the ceasefire. In 1919—the year Hull’s novel was published in Britain—the Amritsar massacre, in which nearly four hundred anti-colonial protesters in the Punjab were gunned down by the British Indian Army, exacerbated colonial anxieties about race relations in the Indian sub-continent and revived Mutiny-era narratives of Indian rape of English women (Sharpe 123). After the Paris Peace Talks, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which replaced it, saw much of the Ottoman empire in the Middle East carved up and placed under British and French control as League of Nations mandatory states. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914. To Britain’s growing empire in the Middle East was added Palestine, the Transjordan, and Iraq. From the start, the assertion of British power in place of Ottoman suzerainty was strongly resisted in its newly acquired Middle Eastern territories. In 1920, fourteen thousand British and Indian troops stationed in Iraq put down an Arab uprising at the cost of four hundred fatalities. In Somaliland in 1920, the British bombed Muslim encampments when a Muslim leader rose up against British rule. In Iraq, where the British had installed Sherif Hussein’s son Feisal as a puppet king, revolts broke out sporadically throughout the 1920s and were met by Royal Air Force bombings before the British mandate was ended in 1932. Anti-colonial sentiment throughout the 1920s must have reverberated uncomfortably through the Orientalist romantic fantasies of novelists and readers, probably leading to its decline by the 1930s when it was replaced by the growing popularity of adventure stories about the French Foreign Legion inspired by P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste trilogy.
Meanwhile, domestic events in Britain brought home fears about “reverse colonization” and interracial unions. A sizable “black” (including Arabs and South Asians as well as Africans) population had lived in London and other British port cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff for a few hundred years, but these numbers increased during World War I, when colonial workers and seamen were recruited to make up shortfalls in British manpower (Tabili 9). Just as women’s contribution to the British war effort saw them gradually enfranchised after the war, so did colonized men’s contribution lead to a demand for citizenship rights, and a sense of entitlement as subjects who had sacrificed for the British during the war. In such an environment, interracial boundaries began to be breached. The postwar years saw incidents of black men marrying white women. As Lucy Bland has argued, for white Britons this was a case of returned servicemen finding black men in their jobs, housing, and beds, partially contributing to the outbreak of race riots in Cardiff, Liverpool and London in the first half of 1919 (34). Newspapers screamed of “The Black Peril” (indeed, they had been doing so since 1917) and blamed black men for taking white men’s jobs and white men’s women (Bland 35 and 37). In response, the British parliament passed the Aliens Order in 1920, restricting non-white immigration (Caton 111).
Arab men then became a specific focus of concern in 1923 during the murder trial of Madame Fahmy, a thirty-two year old Frenchwoman who had married a wealthy Egyptian prince ten years her junior, and who subsequently murdered him. A connection was made between the trial and the immense popularity of “sheik” romances, as the Daily Mirror’s editorialized regarding the Fahmy case:
Too many of our women novelists, apparently under the spell of the East, have encouraged the belief that there is something especially romantic in such unions. They are not romantic, they are ridiculous and unseemly; and the sensational revelations of the trial […] will not be without their use if they bring that fact home to the sentimental, unsophisticated girl (Bland 47).
Indeed, Fahmy’s defense barrister argued in his summation: “Her greatest mistake—possibly the greatest mistake any woman could make—was as a woman of the West in marrying an Oriental” (Bland 46). Therefore, although Britain had no legislation against interracial unions, public sentiment regarding miscegenation was abundantly clear.
These events, both domestic and foreign, undoubtedly had an impact on both the production and reception of Hull’s output in the 1920s. Her subsequent novels such as The Sons of the Sheik (1925) and Captive of the Sahara (1931)—like those of her fellow desert romance novelist Kathlyn Rhodes—insisted on the impossibility and outright danger of interracial unions between Europeans and Orientals. Prolonged intercourse of any sort was detrimental to one or the other—usually the Oriental. The most dangerous figure in these later stories was the hybrid male: the Arab or Egyptian who was half-white, or who was culturally white. Occupying the status of both hero and eventual villain, the sheik who affected whiteness would inevitably reveal his dark desires and his degenerate Oriental self. According to novelists such as Hull and Rhodes, despite the sheik’s desire for racial and cultural whiteness, he was helpless to control the baser instincts resulting from his biological race. Relinquishing his desire for the white woman, or even sacrificing his life for her, ultimately constituted his one heroic act. In Hull’s Captive of the Sahara, the Bedouin sheik—who falls in love with the English heroine and who invites her to his desert stronghold, the City of Stones, only to imprison her there when she refuses to marry him—ends up dying to protect her. This, and the fact that he (an actual Arab, unlike Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan) never forces himself upon her, are his only virtues in a tragic tale of unrequited love and misguided anti-colonial ambition. The “native’s” love for the white woman threatens her reputation and destroys him. Whatever timorous gestures The Sheik had made towards breaching the boundaries of the white imperial race through the body of the white woman, therefore, the vast majority of English novels in this subgenre during the 1920s and 1930s reverted to the argument that it was the white woman’s responsibility to uphold this boundary and to police ruthlessly her own dark desires for the sake of all “races.” Interestingly enough, however, none of these storylines was ever as popular as the prospect of the taboo interracial union initially played out in The Sheik.
The specific historical circumstances of E.M. Hull’s novels thus shaped the contours of her plot and changed the social taboos she was willing to test or break. Where she was prepared to challenge social attitudes towards women’s sexual desire and the significance of rape for women in The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik, miscegenation was not a boundary she was ultimately willing to breach. However, when her story of The Sheik was translated into an American film, the permeability of white boundaries—gendered, corporeal, social, and political—was once again challenged, as was the meaning of whiteness itself. Across the Atlantic, on the far side of the American continent, Hollywood began to develop an alternative understanding of whiteness in the desert romance, and of white women’s relationship to non-white, but not-black, men. Through Hollywood, and particularly through Rudolph Valentino’s role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, “ethnic” Americans, who occupied a precarious position within the polity, vaulted over the bodies of Africans and Arabs to consolidate their position as white American citizens.
The Sheik in America
Even before the publication of Hull’s The Sheik in the United States, American popular culture was already well-acquainted with a commodified, consumable Orient that was paradoxically modern in its love of exotic primitivism. As Holly Edwards has shown, American artists began to incorporate Middle Eastern themes into their paintings from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many were no doubt influenced by the French school of Orientalist painting, but in the United States Orientalism served two different purposes in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It connected American Protestant narratives of a Chosen People in a Promised Land to the biblical landscapes of the Middle East; and it also expressed nostalgia for a pastoral or frontier ideal that was vanishing, replaced instead by an increasingly urban society characterized by the commodification of consumer goods, sexuality, physicality, and the exotic Orient (Edwards 17). The 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago was especially significant in this transition. Not only did the Fair align and affirm American visions of the Orient with European imperial hierarchies of ethnographic difference and cultural inferiority through the condescending display of Oriental villages from Egypt and Algeria, for example, but it also situated the Orient within the modern idiom of salacious sexuality through Sol Bloom’s concoction of the scandalous but popular “hoochy-coochy” Oriental belly dance (Edwards 39).
From the turn of the century onwards, Oriental material culture served as department store and advertising backdrops for selling sensuous luxury items, cigarettes (Mecca, Medina and Omar, and the famous Camel brand), home furnishings, fashion, and film. This was the paradox of Orientalism: exotically primitive and inferior, Orientalism was also a playful discourse through which modern Americans could indulge the pleasure of the senses and experiment with alternative forms of sexuality, gender relations, and mystical rituals. Orientalism was used to explore and transform how Americans related to each other, and this explains the popularity of masquerade balls and the use of Oriental motifs in freemason and other occult male societies at this time. These Oriental role-plays offered “the opportunity to try on surrogate identities and taste illicit pleasures while protected by disguise. People moved across class and ethnic boundaries to dabble in what were perceived to be risqué behaviors” (Edwards 40). Because the United States had no formal sustained imperial relationship with “the Orient” at this time, and because British and French interests successfully blocked the expansion of American oil interests in the region until after World War I (Little 2002), American Orientalism in the early twentieth century was not so much about the justification and extension of imperial power as about the Orient as an imaginary space for American “pleasures, fantasy, and escapism, in the mode of the Arabian Nights.” For Americans, “the Orient represented the option of luxury and self-indulgence, far from the rigors of a humdrum desk job” (Edwards 23). Therefore American Orientalism, as William Leach has argued, “was symptomatic of changes taking place within western society—and especially in cities—that had little to do with imperialism or with the desire to appropriate somebody else’s property, but that symbolized a feeling of something missing from western culture itself, a longing for a ’sensual‘ life more ’satisfying‘ than traditional Christianity could endorse” (105).
This understanding of the Orient as an exotic commodity that could satisfy a more sensuous age was further strengthened by the spectacular use of Oriental imagery in the Broadway production of Hichens’ The Garden of Allah, which premiered in 1907. That the play opened in New York, popularly known as “Baghdad on the Hudson” for its commerce and seedy immigrant life, was particularly apt. The Garden of Allah featured live camels, technological feats producing whirling sandstorms on stage, and meticulously researched recreations of Algerian scenery (Edwards 44). The visual spectacle of the Orient soon overshadowed the play’s narrative content, which was confusing and soon forgotten. It ushered in a pre-war vogue for Garden of Allah tie-ins, with hotels and restaurants being decked out in furnishings reminiscent of the stage play, while all manner of consumables were associated with the phrase “Garden of Allah”—from women’s perfumes to table lamps. As Edwards observed, the “migration of Garden of Allah imagery from story to product epitomizes the process whereby the Orient was constructed and then disseminated in forms that conformed with American dreams and patterns of consumption” (45).
This is distinctly different from Orientalist discourse in Britain at the same time, which was more artistic, literary, and anchored in travel narratives or scholarly treatises on the Orient. This is not to suggest that the British Orientalist discourse was more “authentic” or “true” to “the Orient” than the American variant. As Said has argued persuasively, the discourse of Orientalism was never simply a more or less accurate representation of “the Orient;” it was a discourse which actively “Orientalized” the Orient, investing it with the qualities that made it seem inevitably “Oriental” to Europeans. In any case, as Timothy Mitchell has shown with regard to Egypt, European colonial authorities sometimes restructured the physical space of Orient so as to render it comprehensible within the pre-existing discourse of Orientalism. Villages, army barracks, and towns were reorganized along the lines of the replicas constructed for world fairs or exhibitions, exemplary of certain “political truths” about the colonized (Mitchell 1988). The discourse of European Orientalism was thus not necessarily more “authentic” or “true” than the discourse of American Orientalism.
Nevertheless, despite this active “Orientalizing” of North Africa, the British (and French) relationship with the Orient was still constrained by the geopolitical realities of colonialism: different types of political relations with local rulers; the lucrative provision of financial services; trade, investment, and the building of infrastructure; administration of the civil service; control over the military and containment of anti-colonial activities; and the existence of sizable expatriate European populations in key colonial towns and cities (as well as tourists traveling through lands rendered safe by the assertion of political dominance and military power). To this extent, then, British Orientalism differed from the extravagant and glamorous Orientalist fantasies peddled by American business and the entertainment industry to whet consumer appetite for new fashions, furnishings, and a new, more sensuous “national dream life for men and women” (Leach 107).
It was little wonder, then, that the novel should have enjoyed the same success in America as in Britain, although perhaps for different reasons. Indeed, its fame spread even further afield when the secretary of an entrepreneurial Hollywood mogul, Jesse Lasky (of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount), urged her boss to cast Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role of the film (Leider 152). Hollywood had shown an early fascination with the East, and the Oriental film was one of the most popular genres in the first two decades of the twentieth century, beginning with George Méliès’s The Palace of A Thousand and One Nights (1905). The filtering of the East through the “Arabian Nights” meant that from the start, Hollywood productions of desert romances differed from their British counterparts in terms of the attempts to recreate the “authentic” Saharan desert—something on which British filmmakers often prided themselves. It may have been that British cultural familiarity with the region through the writings of its novelists, travelers, Orientalist scholars, and the realism characteristic of the paintings of artists such as Ludwig Deutsch and John Frederick Lewis, laid a greater expectation of “naturalism” and “authenticity” on British filmmakers.
Famous Players-Lasky was bound by no such considerations. Neither George Melford, the director, nor Lasky were much interested in historical or geographical verisimilitude. Melford certainly took advantage of the setting and the story to film some dramatic long shots of Arabs riding en masse across the rolling desert dunes, while Pathé Company footage of actual Algerian town scenes were spliced into the film for exterior crowd scenes (Leider 155). However, the interior shots made no attempts at realism. They were often staged within arched doorways or framed by opulent draperies and awnings, creating a proscenium-like effect throughout the film that distanced the audience from the action on-screen, forcibly reminding audiences they were watching the elaborately staged realm of Hollywood Oriental fantasy (Caton 116). This was the “Arabian Nights” Orient of advertisements and hotel, restaurant, or department store designs. Melford’s habit of using a “keyhole” effect to frame certain sequences within a black circle reinforced this fantasy, and was also reminiscent of the French artist Gérôme’s tondo of his Orientalist harem fantasy, Le Bain Turc. Again, no attempts at “authenticity” were made with Valentino’s sheik costume or the interiors of the sheik’s tent. Rather, they were the fashionable confections of his partner, Natacha Rambova (Leider 156-158). This, then, was never an attempt to represent the “real Orient” (or what westerners perceived it to be), but to indulge what were clearly American fancy-dress fantasies of the Orient, and the story was filmed in a way to emphasize this (Leider 155-156).
The film of The Sheik differs from the novel in many significant ways, perhaps the most crucial being the characters of Diana (played by Agnes Ayres) and Ahmed Ben Hassan, and the initial encounter between them. In the film, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is at a hotel casino where the sheik is allowed to display a chivalrous, gentlemanly side to his nature (in the novel, of course, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is his abduction and rape). The sheik spots Diana as he is entering the casino, which has been closed to other western guests. Diana, angry at being kept out of any public place by “a savage desert bandit” is told by a French officer that the sheik is a “rich tribal prince who was educated in Paris” and in Biskra, “his slightest wish is law.” Like the novel, then, the film downgrades the authority of the French in colonial Algeria. The French permit colonial relations to be overturned, so that Arabs are able to keep Europeans out of a space within a hotel owned and inhabited by Europeans. Diana veils herself, masquerades as a dancer, and gatecrashes the sheik’s party, but her white skin gives her away. In their exchange, Diana is shown to be haughtily rude while the sheik displays an ironic courtesy towards her. She is positioned as an arrogant imperialist, telling the sheik that she intruded because “I wanted to see the savage who could bar me from this Casino.” Unlike the novel where Diana is a passive victim of the sheik’s lust, unwittingly drawing his attention because of her beauty, in the film it is Diana’s own discourteous action in failing to respect social and racial boundaries at the hotel that brings her to the attention of the sheik. She is not without power or agency in their initial encounter either. When he unmasks her in the casino, exclaiming “The pale hands and golden hair of a white woman,” she draws a revolver on him. Her act mimics in miniature the conquest and colonization of the Middle East—at the barrel of a gun, a gun that she loses in the desert at the moment of her abduction and the loss of her power as an imperial subject. The man who abducts her, however, is not a complete stranger to her but one whose attention she has deliberately courted. This is important in ameliorating the shock of the abduction.
The abduction scene proceeds according to the novel, but the rape scene is again different. For one thing, rape is deferred a number of times. The sheik forces Diana to change out of her riding clothes and dress for dinner, then she tries to escape by running out into a sandstorm. She is brought back by the sheik who then kisses her. This kiss, which leads to the rape in the novel, is interrupted in the film when the sheik himself has to head out into the sandstorm to rescue the men’s horses. When he returns, he sees Diana on her knees beside the divan, her hands clasped in desperate prayer and a jeweled cross displayed prominently on her chest (in the novel there are no references to Diana’s Christian religion). He approaches her stealthily, one hand outstretched and ready to debauch her, but he is conscience-stricken at the sight of her weeping prayers. Head bowed in dejection and perhaps in remorse or pity, the sheik then leaves the bedroom and sends the Arab maid Zilah to comfort and tend to Diana. What happens next is open to interpretation. Those who were familiar with the novel inferred the rape because the following caption, “Through the dull slumber of despair—until morning tempts back a desire to live” seemed to suggest the same plot as the novel, as did Diana’s subsequent costume as a subdued Arab woman. In Kansas City, the widespread understanding that Diana had been deflowered led to the film’s ban locally (Leider 166). However, other audiences concluded that Diana was not raped.
This ambiguity in interpretation was very much due to the fact that Lasky wanted the film to evade the censors so that it would be as “mainstream” and popular as possible (Leider 162, 167). As Steven Caton has argued, the film can be interpreted as a shift from rape to romantic courtship. Caton noted that the scene where the sheik leaves Diana sobbing in the maid’s arms is in fact full of symbols of phallic detumescence: the sheik’s upraised right hand drops in dejection as he leaves, and the lit pipe or cigarette that the sheik habitually holds in his hands are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, both the sheik and Diana are fully clothed the following morning, Diana wakes alone, and the sheik places a rose on Diana’s breakfast tray, signaling an intent to court her in the traditional western manner. Leider noted that:
Many of the original reviewers of The Sheik complained that the movie, in toning down the rape, changed what had originally been the story of a woman overpowered by a man into one about a woman having her way with a compliant male. They argued that Hull’s tale had lost its spine in the process of being adapted from book to screen. […] Woundingly, they used the language of castration, speaking of the movie version as “mealy, emasculated” (167).
A review in a film magazine, for example, castigated the censors for “patting ‘The Sheik’ into a decorous mood mild enough for the most tender mind. His fierceness—which so delighted the gentle spinster readers—is all gone […] and his attitude toward the kidnapped heroine is that of a considerate and platonic friend rather than the passionate, ruthless lover” (Pictureplay 1922).
The sheik’s emasculation is complete at the film’s conclusion. Where the novel ends with the sheik wresting a pistol away from Diana’s grasp before she shoots herself, the film ends with the wounded sheik waking from a coma to hear Diana offering her life to God in return for his recovery. The two are reconciled in a way which emphasizes the vulnerability of the sheik. While Diana is upright, watching over him and playing nurse, the sheik is weak and bedridden. It is a final image not dissimilar to a World War I Red Cross poster featuring a nurse as “the greatest mother in the world,” cradling a wounded soldier whose head is bandaged. By the film’s end, the sheik’s turban—symbol of his Oriental Otherness—has been replaced by a stark white bandage around his forehead, while the clothes he wears seem no different from a European man’s. The transformation that his love for Diana effects in him—from savage Bedouin sheik to wounded white European man—is encapsulated in his final words: “the darkness has passed and now the sunshine.”
Under Melford’s direction, Diana reprises the role of the white woman in the imperial mission, bringing Christianity and European civilization to the Orient, and rescuing Ahmed from his racial and cultural apostasy at the film’s end: “Pray God, dear friend, to save his life,” she says, “Oh, if He would only accept my life in exchange for his!” Even prior to this, she brings civilizational “light” to the Oriental tents of the sheik: dressing for dinner, reading books, and engaging in “cultured” behavior, especially when the French novelist Raoul de Saint Hubert visits. These activities—the upholding of ruling-class European standards of behavior—are by no means insignificant. From the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, any white woman who immigrated to the colonies and married a white man was deemed to have fulfilled her duty to the empire. This was because white women—especially middle-class women—were seen as civilizing influences who would prevent white men from “going native,” taking indigenous concubines, and undermining the hierarchical racial structure on which British colonialism was based. As Adele Perry has shown with the case of British Columbia in the 1870s, for example, the population was considered to be lacking in white women’s influence of culture, gentility, morality, and piety. Without white women’s presence, white Canadian men were dangerously exposed to the temptations of “all the evils of heathendom” and “risked becoming a disgrace to the English race itself” (Perry 501). English literature set in the colonies around this time similarly emphasized that the role of an Englishwoman was to marry and be a helpmeet to an earnest Englishman whose life was dedicated to the service of the empire—whether in the form of involvement in the colonial bureaucracy, the army, or in public works such as building railways or dams. After marriage, a wife’s service to the empire took the form of creating a pleasant home environment for her husband and serving him (Teo 2004).
The film thus follows the novel’s imperial agenda, as did many other Hollywood films of the interwar years. So many Hollywood films were based on British imperial adventure novels, that in 1939 The Daily Express praised Hollywood for “glorifying Britain’s empire” and noted that “the British empire need not worry for propaganda while Hollywood does its imperial publicity” (Webster 63). Where the novel of The Sheik emphasized the role of white men in extending and controlling the empire in the Middle East, however, the film gives equal emphasis to Diana’s role as a white woman within this imperial project. Moreover, because of the film’s ending, Diana retains her spirit and sense of agency—tempered by love and tenderness—whereas in the novel she is crushed and driven to self-destruction. Where the British novel condemns and destroys the New Woman, replacing her with a more traditional “womanly” woman—passive, submissive, helpless, and even suicidal—the American film applauds modern, feminist-influenced femininity. Indeed, a few years earlier Jesse Lasky had requested Cecil B. De Mille and Jeannie Macpherson to “write something typically American that would portray a girl in the sort of role that the feminists in this country are now interested in […] the kind of girl that dominates […] who jumps in and does a man’s work” (Leider 165).
The imperial civilizing mission, and the role of the white woman as enlightened as well as enlightening in every sense of the word, is visually expressed through the aesthetic use of film lighting technology to “privilege and construct an idea of the white person” (Dyer 84). Diana’s whiteness is first emphasized when she enters the sexualized space of the Oriental casino where the sheik and the other Arabs are engaged in the “marriage gamble where brides are won on the turn of a [roulette] wheel.” She stands out from the other veiled women and is unmasked because of her whiteness. When the sheik takes her hand, his hands are colored and shown to be much darker than hers. Film is of course a technology of light, and in these films light is literally used to convey stark messages about the civilizational light brought by western women into the benighted lands of the East. As Dyer has explained, early film stock tended to show white people as dark-skinned unless lighting was used strategically to highlight skin and to eliminate shadows. During the 1920s, Hollywood developed a convention of using the key light, the fill, and backlight to keep the white figure “separate from the background as well as creating, when wanted, the rim and halo effects of heroic and glamour lighting” (Dyer 87). In The Sheik, the whiteness of the heroine’s skin, and the effect of light on her, around her, or flowing from her to the hero, is carefully created. Although Agnes Ayres —like Diana in the novel—is not blonde in this film, her clothing often reflects the light, and her hair is backlit in such a way that she is radiant with light. This accorded with the developing traditions of cinema lighting, whereby “idealized white women are bathed in and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls onto them from above. In short, they glow” (Dyer 122).
In the era of black and white silent films, colors and clothing were crudely symbolic. The villains in American Westerns wore dark clothes and a dark hat, whereas the Western hero was symbolized by his white hat. The same symbolism can be seen in The Sheik. When Diana is abducted, she wears light-colored riding clothes and a topee—the costume of European imperial authority that is also worn by Raoul de Saint Hubert. Forced by the sheik to change into a dark evening dress, the symbol of her white European, Christian identity then rests in the large cross that is seen prominently around her neck. However, clothing is more ambiguous for Arab men, particularly the sheik. In the opening scenes, he and the other Arab men are dressed in white robes. By the time he has Diana in his power, however, his white robes have given way to darker, multi-layered, richly textured striped or patterned garments of white, black, and other shades. In the final sickbed scene, when the sheik, through Diana, reclaims his whiteness and literally sees the light, he is simply dressed in a nondescript pale shirt and breeches. Without his characteristic turban, he is indistinguishable from a European man.
The scenes of conflict between Ayres and Valentino in The Sheik emphasize the contrast between his darkness and her light. Valentino’s hands were artificially darkened so that they would stand out against her skin and her clothing whenever he held her. Although his face is darker than hers—as was the tradition for all white men juxtaposed against white women in film at the time—his face nevertheless appears white when he is not in close proximity to Ayres. Leider noted that as a southern Italian, “Valentino’s dark complexion might have been highlighted as an asset, since he was playing a hot-blooded, charismatic Arab chieftain.” However, given widespread racial fears of miscegenation and nativist sentiment about white purity, and given the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the 1920s, “the producers played it safe: only in the posters and lobby cards, especially those in color, does Rudy’s skin look tan or even black. On-screen, his face appears white, but his hands show darker” Leider 159). This schizophrenia of lighting and coloring reflects the ambivalence of Americans towards racial and ethnic others, and towards citizenship and even whiteness itself.
The Sheik was produced in a context of increasing white American concern over immigration from southern and eastern Europe that eventually resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924—the Johnson-Reed Act—which included a “national origins quota” system for Europeans, limiting immigrant numbers to 2% of the existing population group in the 1890 census. As Matthew Frye Jacobson has argued, the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. The response of newly arrived European immigrants—Irish, Italians, Poles, and Slavs—or their descendants was to scramble for inclusion into and consolidation of a catch-all white “Caucasian” identity, constructed at the expense of black Americans then migrating from the agrarian South to the urban and industrial North and West (Jacobson 7-8). The crucial test for belonging was, of course, naturalization and citizenship, restricted since 1790 to “free white persons,” and later amended in 1870 to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Rather than challenging the racial basis of citizenship, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries instead saw a raft of legal attempts to have certain marginal groups declared “white” (Gualtieri 52-53).
Significantly, in contrast to Britain—where Arabs were associated with “blacks” until the Second World War—in the United States, Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, and Turks were declared a “white” race under the landmark 1915 Dow v. United States ruling by the Circuit Court of Appeals. The “fact” of Levantine whiteness was established in a series of naturalization cases heard in federal courts between 1909 and 1915. Syrians such as George Dow and his supporters deliberately constructed themselves as white, appealing to a shared sense of Christian entitlement, their ancient civilization, and the Semitic roots they shared with Jews who were considered racially white (Gualtieri 42-46). For the new immigrant groups, however, whiteness was unstable and precarious. To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks. Inclusion into white identity and white society was provisional, dependent upon their occupations, associations, and behavior. They were only white as long as they upheld the “white man’s code.” It was possible for these groups to slip into blackness if, like Italians in Louisiana, they worked alongside blacks, maintained business relations, or even intermarried with them—in which case they would be treated as blacks (Jacobson 57). In New Orleans, eleven Italians were lynched by the White League in 1891 while in Tallulah, Louisiana, five Sicilian storekeepers were lynched in 1899 (Jacobson 56-58). Levantine immigrants were not exempt either. Syrians were the targets of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, while in Florida, the lynching of Nicholas Romey shocked the Syrian community, who were not only outraged but “bewildered” that he had not been recognized as a white man. In the words of the Syrian-American newspaper ash-Shaab:
The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation (Gualtieri 47).
Valentino’s role as the pseudo-Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik must be contextualized within this history of competing versions of whiteness and citizenship in the United States, as well as within discourses of American Orientalism. Rudolph Valentino, born Rodolfo Guglielmi, emigrated from southern Italy to New York in 1913, where he worked at a number of odd-jobs and made a living as a “taxi dancer”—a professional dance partner in popular dance halls—before heading west to Hollywood in 1917. As Leider has observed:
He didn’t set his sights on romantic or heroic roles. Physical traits determined casting choices and he knew he looked foreign, which meant he would be typed as a villain. Ethnic and racial stereotypes were still rigidly fixed, and moral qualities attached to skin tone and hair color, as well as nationality. Blonde women tended to be cast as virgins, brunettes as vamps. To American directors and producers, and much of the audience, dark skin implied contamination. The most popular leading men of the moment were all clean-cut, square-jawed, all-Americans […] like Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lockwood, and Wallace Reid. (87)
Films featuring Italians—such as The Criminals (1913), which focused on the Mafia kidnapping of a child, or D.W. Griffiths’ Italian Blood (1911)—pathologized them and called their whiteness into question (Leider 50). Griffiths dismissed Valentino as “too foreign looking” for anything but villainous roles, and Valentino, accepting the inevitable, advertized himself in Motion Picture Studio Directory as “a New Style of Heavy.” In the end, it was white American women—actresses like Dorothy Gish and Carmel Myers, or screenwriter and Metro executive June Mathis—who persuaded male directors to cast Valentino in leading roles. Through these women’s assistance, Valentino became Hollywood’s first swarthy romantic hero, helping to “redefine and broaden American masculine ideals. Only after Valentino could a blonde leading lady accept and return the ardent kisses of a screen lover with dark coloring” (Leider 4). Even so, he did his best to stay out of the sun, recognizing that he had a propensity to tan and fearing that he would become “like a Negro” and “too black for pictures” (Leider 162).
In The Sheik, then, the spectacle of Valentino the Italian immigrant representing Ahmed Ben Hassan the Arab raised questions about white identity, civic belonging, and social acceptance—represented by the right to marry a white woman. In the context of contemporary debates over whiteness, immigration, and citizenship, Caton has argued, the revelation of Ahmed’s mixed parentage “has a precise correlate in the contested notions of whiteness and non-whiteness […] Could Italians in America (Valentino, for example) claim to be white?” (Caton 114). Could, then, the Jewish Americans who flocked to and dominated Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry? Caton contended that the “immigrant who is neither white nor black but confusingly in-between could become a ‘bourgeois’ citizen of the country with the helping hand of the patronizing white woman. […] Libidinal attraction to a dangerous type is justified and legitimated for the sake of a national melting pot, paid for by the exclusion of the black man” (116).
Originally non-white-but-not-black, Valentino/Ahmed Ben Hassan can become white through his love of a white woman, who tames and redeems him through Christian courtship and marriage. This process of conversion and redemption is in direct contrast to the novel, where it is Diana’s feminist-inflected, modern femininity which is tamed and crushed by Oriental rape. In the film, Diana’s second abduction and attempted rape by the evil robber Sheik Omair takes place after Ahmed Ben Hassan, under the Frenchman Saint Hubert’s influence, has reluctantly agreed that because he loves Diana, he must send her back to her own people. From this point on, Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man takes place at the expense of darker others. His initial “otherness” is now displaced onto the villainous Omair, who is not only much darker in complexion but who also associates with Africans, in contrast to the Frenchmen with whom Ahmed surrounds himself. Sheik Omair is guarded by a giant Nubian and surrounded by the classic Hollywood iconography of African otherness: nearly-nude dancing girls and tom-toms. In the act of rescuing Diana, Valentino/Ahmed survives a near-fatal attempt on his life, whereas black-affiliated Omair and his Nubian guards die. Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man thus takes place at the expense of villainous black men. In the final scene, as I have mentioned before, he is stripped of the outward symbols of Oriental otherness—his thobe and his turban—and left only with his shirt and breeches, while Diana kneels by his side and lays her head on his wounded breast. As Caton remarked, this is “allegorically significant in the context of American race relations,” for “it offers the dream of a partnership between white and ethnic other, implied by the handclasp of Diana and Ahmed before the final fade-out” (Caton 116). To American women, the film thus offered a potentially different message of racial, ethnic, or cultural incorporation than did the British novel.
However, Valentino’s—and, hence, other ethnic heroes’—acceptance as a white man was gendered and conditional. While many women idolized him as the “perfect lover,” for some others, as for a Photoplay reader, he looked “wicked […] maybe because he is not an American” (Studlar 299). In point of fact, Valentino never became naturalized as an American citizen because he was torn between his roots as an Italian and the country which had made him famous but which also consistently questioned his masculinity and his racial heritage. He was famously reviled by American men who “feared that American women, duped by immigrants—especially those, like tango pirates, who achieved a masquerade of good breeding—would bear offspring who would inherit the ancestry of their dark foreign fathers, an ancestry that was considered to be tainted” (Studlar 299). Just as Arabs could be represented and displaced by a more acceptable “white ethnic” like Valentino, in time, swarthy but romantic ethnic heroes in Hollywood would be represented and displaced by “Anglo-Saxon” actors such as Ronald Colman (The Night of Love), John Gilbert (The Cossacks), Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Baghdad and The Gaucho), and Richard Barthelmes (The White Black Sheep). As Studlar has noted, “such stars could temporarily satisfy female desire for erotic exoticism without threatening either American men or the nation’s Nordic/Anglo-Saxon purity” (Studlar 301). This sequence of the colonization and displacement of the exotic ethnic/Arab figure by an indisputably “white” man echoed uncannily the displacement of the Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan by the white Earl of Glencaryll in The Sheik, but it also served to emphasize that these white heroes were at their most erotically charged when masquerading as non-white men. This is of course the paradox of Orientalism: a discourse which creates and propagates images of inferior “others,” it simultaneously expresses the consciousness of a lack on the part of the western self/culture, and a yearning for the exotic other.
The Sheik was one of the most important popular cultural artifacts produced in the twentieth century, a text whose influence is still evident today in countless songs, romance novels, films, television series, comics, cartoons, and in the very transformation of the connotations associated with the word “sheik” itself. Today, however, what remains of the text in popular memory is the image of a white woman abducted by a swarthy Arab man in flowing robes, perched on a galloping steed thundering over desert dunes. Meanwhile, the Arab-turned-English sheik himself has become inextricably intertwined with, and perhaps even lost in, the image of the Italian-turned-Arab-turned-American matinee idol Rudolph Valentino, whose death soon after the completion of The Son of the Sheik denied him any opportunity to sever his eternal association with the sheik by playing other subsequent roles. Both images—the horseback abduction and Valentino as the sheik—simultaneously evoke fun and fantasy, ridicule and romance; and perhaps that is why relatively little attention has been paid to both the novel and the film in comparison to other popular novels and films throughout the twentieth century.
Scholars in film and literary studies have certainly redressed this neglect over the last two decades, but apart from Caton’s work, discussions of the film and the novel do not generally overlap. Furthermore, although Hull’s novel, in particular, has been read within a plethora of different historical contexts pertaining to the 1920s, the circumstances of its production in the midst of World War I and its subsequent reception arising from the different imperial, ethnic, racial, and Orientalist contexts of Britain and the US have received little mention. This is not to suggest that the film and novel did not overlap, or were radically different in meaning and reception in Britain and America respectively. This is clearly not the case. The foregrounding of Diana’s desire for adventure, passion, and the exotic Orient is shared by both novel and film; as is her arrogant confidence arising from her position as a white imperial subject who has the power, ultimately, to rescue the European male “gone native,” and restore him to his white self. Where the novel crushes her and reduces her to submissive passivity to the sheik, however, the film celebrates her spirit and shows her triumphant over a somewhat debilitated sheik at the end. Still, the Hollywood film shares the novel’s imperial assumptions and obligingly confirms the novel’s insinuation that the French are weak colonizers who are best cast as adjuncts to the plot and to the British protagonists, even though the setting is in French colonial Algeria. Both novel and film condone the role of violence in romance—even though the film subsequently cloaks the novel’s rape scene in coy ambiguity—and, of course, both exalt the figure of the sheik as a menacing, mesmerizing, sexually potent, Oriental romantic hero. These things, and many other lesser details, the two texts have in common.
Yet the differences are equally significant. The first point of differentiation between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film is the tradition of Orientalist discourse incorporated into each text. Like many of her fellow “desert romance” novelists in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Hull drew from a tradition of Orientalist literature concerned with historical accuracy, “authenticity,” naturalism, and verisimilitude, seemingly conscious about how well her descriptions of notable tourist destinations—Biskra or the North African desert—matched the descriptions in British travel accounts. Indeed, she herself would go on to write a travel book, Camping in the Sahara (1926). Moreover, British Orientalist discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was grounded in concerns about colonial matters in the East. Said is surely correct in arguing that during this time, Orientalism served to justify European domination of its colonies. Hull commented on, or wrestled with, actual or potential colonial or racial problems in The Sheik and her subsequent desert romances. The justification and extension of British imperialism, especially in contrast to the French, is a significant part of the novel.
However, coming from a specifically American tradition of fairground and department-store Orientalism, Lasky’s film was less concerned with verisimilitude or the depiction of actual geopolitical regions, and more absorbed in creating a fantasy “Arabian Nights” space which emphasized the visual, spectacular, commoditized exotic: Oriental curtains, rugs, draperies, cushions, lamps, furniture, clothing, headwear and cigarettes. In this and subsequent sheik or desert romance films, Orientalism and “Arab-face” offered American men a way of experimenting with alternative masculinities that indulged the senses and reveled in “feminine” commodities such as exotic clothing, while combining this with a dangerous and violent ideal of the heroic lover. This ideal, first propagated by the British novel, had a very particular and poignant resonance for British audiences in the 1920s.
Hull’s novel was produced during a period of trauma: the constant reports of defeats, stalemates, and heavy casualties arising from the First World War—a war in which her own husband was involved; the stories of German atrocities trickling back from Belgium and amplified by the British government; the upheaval of social and sexual mores on the home front; the trauma of returned soldiers—often shell-shocked, neurasthenic, or embittered—trying to adapt to civilian life; and the domestic violence meted out against both strangers and loved ones that sometimes ensued. This must have influenced Hull to conceive the violent rapist hero whom the heroine could still fall in love with, because his Oriental otherness, brute strength, arrogance, confidence, and sexual prowess—part of his hyper-masculinity—were no doubt attractive in an age dominated domestically by what Sonya Rose has called the “temperate hero” (2003).
The Sheik was then received within a context of backlash against women. Although women over thirty received the vote in 1918, this limited victory for female suffrage was offset by the retrenchment of women from the workforce to make way for returned soldiers, and by hostility against young working-class women for taking men’s jobs or, in large port cities, for consorting with other men, especially “black” men. Women were certainly not passive in the face of this backlash. Many young women defiantly celebrated what gains were left to them after the war: access to the public sphere and to the new forms of consumerism and public entertainment that swept Britain in the 1920s—shopping, dancing, and movie-going, where they consumed Hollywood fare such as The Sheik. These were entertainments which celebrated and gave expression to female sexual desire, including the desire—fulfilled in fantasy if not reality—for dangerous “black” men, among whom Arabs and South Asians were included. In the end, Hull indulged women’s sexual desire but firmly reined in their interracial fantasies, diverting them instead to the figure of the heroic British man in “Arab-face.”
In many ways, the United States shared the same historical memories as the British; after all, Lasky’s film was released merely two years after the publication of Hull’s novel. However, the historical circumstances, and therefore the meaning, of these events differed in small but significant ways for Americans. For example, the American experience of the war was signally different from the British. The same motif of German atrocities in Belgium was used as American propaganda after the US declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, but the American public had not been bombarded with such stories for years as had the British public. For the Americans, the war was of a far shorter duration and lesser impact in terms of the war-wounded and the dead. Four million men were immediately mobilized but the first troops only made it to France a year later, at the end of March 1918, and these troops only experienced one victory after another from then until November 1918. The casualty rate for mobilized American soldiers was eight per cent, compared with forty-four per cent for the British. Whatever the war traumas experienced by individual soldiers, American society as a whole was not traumatized by World War I. Consciousness of the war was not part of the context in which the film was either produced or received.
The same broadly shared attitude towards race which nonetheless masked significant variations can also be seen in Britain and the US, which were both hostile to interracial relations between white women and non-white men. Despite the lack of any legal prohibition against interracial relations in Britain and its colonies, such unions between white women and non-white men were treated with deep revulsion and condemnation, because the boundaries of the imperial race and its inferior colonized subjects were being breached—something that British society strongly objected to especially after the 1857 Indian “Mutiny.” Arabs were generally placed on the same footing as Africans in this imperial hierarchy of race. In the US, however, anti-miscegenation laws were aimed squarely at African Americans and sustained by the myth of the black man raping the white woman (while ignoring the actual reality of white men raping black women). Arabs, while not quite securely “white,” were nevertheless differentiated from African Americans, and in the early 1910s, consolidated their citizenship rights as Americans on the basis of not being “black.” Here, the history of immigration plays into the construction of racial and white identity. For the British, racial questions held their greatest significance in the empire; within Britain itself, apart from the pockets of non-white populations in port cities, subjects were white precisely because they were British. In the US, however, European immigration from the postbellum era onwards raised the question of who could be considered white and, therefore, a potential citizen. The boundaries of “whiteness” were gradually extended to include the Irish, eastern and southern Europeans, Jews, and eventually Arabs—all of whom combined to form a “Caucasian” race which again differentiated itself against black Americans.
When George Melford directed The Sheik, the same process of incorporating the Italian/Arab Valentino into white society can be seen. Arabs are “white” enough to be played by Italians who, in turn, have become “white” enough to represent Englishmen (albeit with a hint of Spanish-Moorish blood). “White” Arabs associate with white people like the French. Unlike the degenerate bandit Omair, the white sheik distances and differentiates himself from indisputably “black” people like Nubian slaves. The racial and white ethnic logic of this film only makes sense within the context of the history of American racial, immigration, and citizenship policies of the early twentieth century: a history in which black people are constantly represented in servitude of some sort, but where non-white/not-black people can be assimilated into the body politic as citizens if they distance themselves from blacks.
In the end, we cannot determine how many readers and film-goers were attentive to the various nuances and differences between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film. Contemporary reviews of the film in magazines such as Photoplay or Pictureplay seemed to latch on to one overwhelming difference: the emasculation of Ahmed Ben Hassan in the film. This they blamed, not so much on Valentino for his portrayal of the sheik, as on the producer and director for choosing a film that would inevitably “give the censor’s knife full play” (Pictureplay 1922). Regardless of how cognizant audiences were of these differences, they are important because they show the various ways the Orient became “Orientalized” for two different audiences in the early twentieth century, and they indicate the different purposes that a heteroglossic Orientalist discourse could serve: as escapist entertainment, certainly, but also as an intervention by a previously unknown woman writer into British imperial matters as well as into the wartime and postwar debate about women’s sexual desire, and as a medium of exploring American racial identity and inclusion into full citizenship. Finally, whatever else The Sheik did or did not do, it placed women at the center of Orientalist discourse as both producers and consumers of the novel and the film, thereby making them complicit in its legacy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
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 This essay assumes that “the Orient” is a Western discursive construct rather than existing geopolitical reality but, for ease of reading, will omit scare quotes from the terms “Orient” or “Oriental” in subsequent references.
 For example, Lady Jane Digby and Margaret Fountaine.
 Women over thirty were given the vote in 1918. It would be another decade before they were enfranchised on the same terms as men.
“There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer
Modern romance novels written in English have a pedigree which stretches back to the eighteenth century:
Harlequins can be traced back through the work of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to the sentimental novel and ultimately […] to the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela is considered by many scholars to be the first British novel (it was also the first English novel printed in America). (Modleski 15)
Defined as novels in which “The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (RWA) and which conclude with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA), romances constitute a genre which, despite being “so stable in its form” (Regis 207), has not remained unchanged: “Although the base plot […] remains constant, themes vary from decade to decade and author to author” (Dixon 8). With regard to the portrayal of sexuality in the genre, however, it has been suggested that although many modern romances “portray human sexuality more explicitly than in the past, […] assumptions about male sexuality […] have not altered as much as one might expect from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to one of last month’s Harlequin Romances” (Mussell 4). It has also been argued that “the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types — the sweet romance and the erotic romance — with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities” (Thurston 7). We have examined primary texts in English which span more than two centuries, and which include both “sweet” and more explicit romances, in order to explore some of the continuities and variations that exist in the interactions between the bodies of the “individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.”
Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock’s “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology” provides a framework within which many of the existing analyses of the physical appearances, social statuses, and sexual behaviours of the characters in romance novels can be pieced together to reveal differing models of romantic relationships. Scheper-Hughes and Lock’s essay, which draws on Michel Foucault’s theories about the body, can be summarised thus:
The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective […]. While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. (Kramer)
This tripartite approach to understanding the human body can usefully be applied to the protagonists of romance novels. We can think of them as individuals with physical bodies (the individual body), as representations of cultural identities (the social body), and as characters existing in a particular political context (the political body). Each character’s three bodies can be conceptualised and analysed separately, but they exist simultaneously and therefore, as we shall see, a description of a character’s appearance in the least sexually explicit of romances may nonetheless intimate much about the sexuality of his or her social body.
Since each protagonist has three bodies, there are six bodies in a monogamous romantic relationship. Although we will discuss all six bodies, our discussion will centre around some socio-sexual aspects of the social bodies and a few socio-political elements of the political bodies. We focus in particular on one configuration of the six bodies which is both extremely common in modern romances and has a long history within the genre, and then briefly discuss a few alternative configurations, some of which are relatively recent innovations and others of which have been present in romantic fiction for centuries.
The Individual Body
As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an “expectant canvas of human flesh” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 10). The individual bodies of heroines vary, and one may have “a pair of fine eyes” (Austen, Pride 73) while another has a “lush lower lip and unblemished skin” (Lindsey 65), but “some indication, however slight, of the heroine’s physical attributes has always been an important part of the romantic novel” (Anderson 85). Social beliefs are inscribed on the “expectant canvas” of the body as soon as value judgements are included in the description. A heroine’s appearance, for example, may be compared to particular ideals of feminine beauty and attractiveness:
Was he looking at her nose? ‘Strong’ was the euphemism that people tossed around but Grace knew what she saw in the mirror every morning. Her nose was too big for the perfect oval of her face, too distinctive. Like her height, another ‘advantage’ that she had been encouraged to flaunt rather than conceal. She knew without vanity that she was beautiful, but not in the classical sense of the word. Her features taken piece by piece were far from perfect — apart from her nose, her blue eyes were too widely spaced, her mouth too full — but together with her gleaming cap of midnight-black hair they formed a striking whole. Her beauty was ‘unique’ and in this era of mass-production uniqueness had an inflationary value. (Napier 6)
Ann Barr Snitow has suggested that “There are more descriptions of his [the hero’s] body than of hers [the heroine’s]” (248), and although
The body of the romantic hero may represent an ideal of masculine beauty, […] beauty here is the equivalent of physical strength, and physical strength itself becomes a sign of something more, a definition of authentic virility as a power that is always scarcely contained. (Cook 155)
Descriptions of a hero whose “Iron-hewed strength rippled from every muscle” (Lindsey 47), or whose “gold-blond hair had been cut military short, a style that looked both severe and sexy” (Mallery 19), certainly call attention to his strength (which may be a component of his socio-political body) and to the potent sexuality of his socio-sexual body.
Since sexual desire is such an important part of romantic relationships, it is unsurprising that even in “sweet” romances, or in scenes which involve non-sexual activity, descriptions of the protagonists’ individual bodies are often overlaid by references to their socio-sexual bodies:
Harlequins revitalize daily routines by insisting that a woman combing her hair, a woman reaching up to put a plate on a high shelf (so that her knees show beneath the hem, if only there were a viewer), a woman doing what women do all day, is in a constant state of potential sexuality. (Snitow 249)
Bodies are more than flesh, blood, and bone: the social and political bodies co-exist with, and are written on, the individual body.
The Social Body
The social body can be thought of as the way in which the individual body relates to its cultural context. Descriptions of the protagonists’ clothing and adornments can be particularly helpful in revealing the social body. In Johanna Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, for example, we are told that the hero’s preference for “simple attire said a lot for his character” (274). His avoidance of ostentatious dress reveals his lack of vanity and is a culturally approved masculine behaviour, albeit perhaps a historically anachronistic one for a novel set in the Middle Ages. Clothing may thus assist both in distinguishing between male and female individual bodies and in increasing or decreasing the former’s masculinity and the latter’s femininity, for although “The ‘naturalness’ of gender is constantly invoked, […] masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the body that require work” (King 33). Women, for example, are expected to construct their social bodies through how they dress and adorn themselves. In turn, “Cultural constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19), and women’s fashion has been deemed problematic by many feminists because it can reinforce negative images of women:
Turning woman into an ornamented surface requires an enormous amount of discipline and can cause discomfort, not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. […] Female styles over the years have also served to confirm myths about woman: as duplicitous, over-sexualised temptress; delicate and weak or narcissistic, frivolous and obsessed with trivialities. (King 36)
Culturally constructed “ideas about men and women, their appropriate behaviors and attributes, and their relations to each other” are called “gender ideologies” (Blackwood 240-41). Despite the fluid nature of gender across cultures, each culture’s ideologies about gender tend to assume that gender is natural, inherent, and determined by a person’s sex at birth. For example, “the social sciences in the postwar period […] posited women as expressive (emotional) and men as instrumental (pragmatic, rational, and cognitive)” (Gutmann 388). Cross-cultural studies have found that
most societies hold consensual ideas — guiding or admonitory images — for conventional masculinity and femininity by which individuals are judged worthy members of one or the other sex […]. Such ideal statuses and their attendant images, or models, often become psychic anchors, or psychological identities, for most individuals, serving as a basis for self-perception. (Gilmore 208)
Masculinity can be defined as “anything men think and do to be men” (Gutmann 386, emphasis added). In many societies, perhaps even all cultures, “there is a constantly recurring notion that real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness” (Gilmore 208) and that manhood must be earned or achieved in particular ways. After his first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, a rare virginal romance hero tells his heroine that “I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood” (Napier 133). Zilbergeld suggests that sexuality is an area in which men feel under particular pressure to earn and demonstrate manhood:
One of the cornerstones of the masculine stereotype in our society is that a man is one who has no doubts, questions, or confusion about sex, and that a real man knows how to have good sex and does so frequently. For a man to ask a question about sex, thereby revealing ignorance, or to express concern, or to admit to a problem is to risk being thought something less than a man. (5)
Manhood, then, is a status which once achieved must be maintained, and it therefore appears to be a status more easily lost by males than womanhood is by females. Jo Beverley’s Cyn Malloren, for example, must frequently fight to maintain his manhood because his individual body constantly calls it into question:
Despite all evidence to the contrary people would persist in seeing him as fragile, even his family who certainly should know better. […] As a boy he’d believed age would toughen his looks, but at twenty-four, a veteran of Quebec and Louisbourg, he was still disgustingly pretty. He had to fight duels with nearly every new officer in the regiment to establish his manhood. (6)
As Gilmore has observed,
femininity seems to be judged differently. It usually involves questions of body ornament or sexual allure, or other essentially cosmetic behaviors that enhance, rather than create, an inherent quality of character […], femininity is more often construed as a biological given that is culturally refined or augmented. (208-09)
Even if she chooses not to augment her femininity but instead performs actions and behaviours associated with masculinity, a heroine may do so without losing her womanhood. In E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, for example, Diana Mayo’s “boyish directness” (6) and the fact that she is “far more at home” (14) in “smart-cut breeches and high brown boots” (13) than in “pretty dresses” (14) are the result of having been “brought up as a boy” (9). Nonetheless, “Diana Mayo, with the clothes and manners of a boy, was really an uncommonly beautiful young woman” (17), and one who at a ball can be found “ten deep in would-be partners” (3). By contrast, cross-dressing heroes are extremely rare, and if a hero acts in ways which are associated with femininity, this will tend to be dealt with circumspectly, so as not to impugn his masculinity. Cyn Malloren may disguise himself as a woman for a time, but he does so to play “knight-errant” (Beverley 25) to a “damsel in distress” (28). He is an experienced soldier, and the reader is aware that beneath the feminine dress he has chosen to wear, his individual body bears witness to his masculine socio-political and socio-sexual bodies: “He had a scar across his chest which it seemed no woman could ignore. It came from a minor wound, a long shallow saber cut, but it looked dramatic” (31). The scar is described in considerable detail while Cyn is dressing in “female garments” (58) for the first time and the reader is again told that women find it irresistible, thus emphasising the masculinity of Cyn’s socio-sexual body: “All the women who had been favored with a glimpse of it had been impelled to touch it, […] some with a finger, some with their mouths” (58). It also provides information about his socio-political body: seeing the scar convinces the heroine that “you really are a soldier” (59). In addition, even in disguise “His jaw was a little too square, his cheeks too lean. He carefully applied rouge to them, and was heartened to realize that for once he looked too masculine” (65). In another romance, analysed by Mary M. Talbot, it is the hero’s choice of profession which poses a threat to his masculinity since
Artists are assumed to be male, but at the same time there is some sort of problem with having an artist as hero. There is a shadow of doubt cast on the gender identity of artists. Being artistic is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. He is made ‘whole’ by the label Anna attaches to him: ‘He’s a portrait painter’. The hero […] is established as artist but reassuringly masculine, meaning heterosexual. (93)
Sexualities of the Social Bodies
Gender ideologies create, and are simultaneously created by, beliefs about human sexuality. There are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about the differences between male and female sexuality (Kane and Schippers). A clergyman in Richardson’s Pamela, for example, attempts to excuse Mr. B.’s abduction and intended rape or seduction of Pamela on the grounds that “’tis what all young Gentlemen will do” (135). These differences, however, may not all have biological causes: “Foucault […], Tiefer […], and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses” (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755). Far from being entirely innate,
sexual potential takes its form through a number of social processes, including ideologies of religion or ritual, ethnicity, class, gender, family, and reproduction, as well as the material and social conditions of everyday life. These processes provide the interpretive context for sexual feelings, desires and longings. (Blackwood 237)
Women have long been constructed as sexually “feeble and passive, literally a receptacle for the desires of the male” (King 31). This may explain why so many romance heroines, particularly in older romances, are virgins who are initiated into sexual activity by a romance hero, although thereafter they may enjoy sex immensely. Romance author Doreen Owens Malek argues that the heroine’s virginity is important because
virginity is a gift that can only be given once, and it is ideally bestowed on a woman’s great love. This giving of virginity adds an immeasurable element of drama and power to the story. It changes the heroine, of course, but in romance novels it also changes the hero. (118)
It is significant that Owens Malek only discusses the virginity of female characters. Virginal heroes do exist in the genre, but as acknowledged in a short questionnaire which Mills & Boon appended to Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, “Many heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced.” In Owens Malek’s description of virginity there is no suggestion that the hero might be a virgin whose virginity would be considered a “gift that can only be given once” and would change the heroine. Napier’s virgin hero, Scott Gregory, does, however, use this kind of language:
‘Couldn’t you tell, Grace? Was my gift such a paltry thing? I thought one’s partner could always tell.’ […]
‘What gift? T-tell-what?’ she stammered […]
‘Why, that it was my first time, of course.’ (133)
If we reword the quotation from Talbot which we cited earlier in the essay, so that “artist” is replaced by “male virgin,” we can say that this gender reversal casts
a shadow of doubt […] on the gender identity of [male virgins]. Being [a male virgin] is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. (93)
Grace, in her attempt to reconcile Scott’s claim of virginity with the knowledge that he has “been out with lots of women” (139), eventually asks “Are you homosexual?” (140) but Napier has already defused most of the suspicions about Scott’s sexuality and masculine identity by ensuring that the revelation occurs after Scott has lost his virginity and demonstrated that in all other respects his sexual behaviour is identical to that of a great many other romance heroes. Having literally, as well as emotionally, chased the heroine until she surrendered to him:
His desire […] had proved insatiable. And, although the second and third time they made love it was not with the stunning speed of the first, it was still fiercely, gloriously energetic. […] He made her feel unutterably sexy […]. In short, he was every bit the fantastic lover. (131)
By taking the lead in initiating sex, ensuring that his partner experiences hitherto unknown heights of pleasure, and demonstrating the stamina necessary to repeat the experience several times in one night, Scott has proved that he is indeed a man.
The group of cultural beliefs about masculine sexuality known as the
male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway […]. Zilbergeld […] identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman’s responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. […] included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, “romance,” the cultural notion that when two people “fall in love,” sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56)
With the possible exception of ideas surrounding contraception, since modern romance heroes often take responsibility for providing condoms, these beliefs about gendered sexuality frequently appear to underlie the sexual behaviour of characters in the romance genre. However, although “both men and women perceive men’s sexual drives as greater than women’s” (Kane and Schippers 655), there is
a clear and consistent pattern of gender differences in beliefs […] related to sexual power […]. Women are much more likely to see men’s sexual power as greater than their own, while men are much more likely than women to hold the view that women’s sexual power is greater. […] In terms of value judgments regarding power differentials, both men and women are likely to see the other group as too powerful. (Kane and Schippers 655)
In the romance genre, however, perhaps because it often offers “a fantasy of female empowerment” (Phillips 55), the heroine will tend to possess “an unrelenting and absolute power […] over the hero’s mind and body. The conventional line is often literally ‘No other woman had affected him like this before’” (Johnson-Kurek 127). It is possible for a hero to resist the power of the heroine’s allure. He may even seek to deny the possibility of any attraction, as Darcy does when he states that “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, Pride 59). He cannot, however, resist indefinitely and Darcy eventually confesses to Elizabeth Bennet that “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (221). If she is aware of the attraction the hero feels towards her, a heroine may exult in it:
his mouth, hard and hungry, fell upon hers, dragging over her lips as though to punish her.
But what Jessica tasted was victory. She felt it in the heat he couldn’t disguise, and in the pulsing tension of his frame, and she heard it clear as any declaration when his tongue pushed impatiently for entry.
He wanted her. (Chase 160)
Madeline has a similar response to the evidence of her hero’s desire:
She’d seen the desire that flamed in his eyes when he held her. She’d felt the tremors in his arms and heard the pounding of his heart. A heady sense of feminine power shimmered in her veins. It thrilled her that she could cause such a reaction and made her eager to test her power over him once again. (Lovelace 133)
The Mighty Wang
Each of these heroines has aroused her hero’s Mighty Wang. The term “Mighty Wang” (Wendell and Tan 36) was coined by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan as a humorous way to describe the extremely large and effective sexual organ possessed by many a romance hero. The Mighty Wang (MW) can also be thought of as a symbol of the male sexual drive discourse: it is a penis functioning as a symbol of the ideal masculine socio-sexual body. The term “MW,” as it is used in this paper, will refer not to the individual body’s penis, but to the hero’s socio-sexual body. The appropriation of the name of this particular body-part to refer to the whole of a hero’s socio-sexual body seems particularly apt given that in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle.
When the MW performs acts which are common to the male sexual drive discourse, he is giving a demonstration of the socio-cultural attributes of masculine sexuality. Although Austen is so discreet about these matters that the reader is left to surmise what she or he will about the precise ways in which “the utmost force of passion” (Pride 228) might be expressed physically, many of the more explicit modern romances take the reader into the bedroom to observe the MW in action; it is not uncommon for the hero’s penis to be, if not quite “Two Feet Long, Hard As Steel, And Can Go All Night,” as described in the title of Zilbergeld’s chapter on “The Fantasy Model of Sex,” at least unusually large, hard, and possessed of immense stamina. Although Zilbergeld was writing in 1978, his comment that “Much of the explicitness of recent […] fiction serves only to give more detailed presentations of the same old myths” (53) continues to ring true in relation to the romance genre. The size of Ranulf’s penis, for example, is implied when, prior to his second sexual encounter with Reina he partially reassures her by reminding her that “you have withstood my size once without dying” (Lindsey 177) and Dain fears that his immense organ will damage his virgin wife: “His lust-swollen rod strained furiously against his trousers, a great, monstrous invader that would tear her to pieces” (Chase 223).
The MW exists “in a state of constant hornytoad” (Wendell and Tan 84) and Wendell and Tan have noted its immense stamina:
There is a concept of recovery time that never really affects the romance hero, and thus casts mortal men with normal turgid boners in a shameful light, because immediately after having a great orgasm, real men need at least a half hour before they can think about going another round. (167)
Another of the characteristics of the MW as it appears in more explicit romances is that it can “Elevate sexual intercourse to near heavenly experiences, one orgasm at a time” (Wendell and Tan 84). During Clare’s first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, she experiences “passion without subtlety: a primal, desperate need for union that swept them both into the heart of the storm” (Putney 292). This, however, is merely “a synopsis” (300), and “the unabridged version” (300) which follows is so intensely pleasurable that afterwards Clare murmurs “This could make someone forget about God, for it is hard to imagine that heaven can offer anything more” (301). If the heroine is sexually experienced, she has generally never had sex quite as good as the sex she has with the MW. In Merline Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, Madeline, despite “Having twice been wed, […] was yet a stranger to the feeling that suddenly coursed through her at the sight of this tall, broad-shouldered man” (29-30) and the contrast is even greater once they actually reach the bedroom:
her first lord, as gentle as he’d been with her young innocence, had lacked either the skill or the stamina to hold himself in check. And in his eagerness, her second lord had all but spilled himself afore he got his braies off. But Ian had wrung responses from her she’d never dreamed she was capable of. (226)
In less explicit romances, the description of the MW’s kisses may seem to foreshadow the even greater delights still in store for the heroine. Germaine Greer once sarcastically commented of a Barbara Cartland romance that “when handkissing results in orgasm it is possible that an actual kiss might bring on epilepsy” (178). Cartland did not, of course, write a scene in which handkissing literally resulted in orgasm but she did use hyperbolic language to describe the intensely pleasurable sensations experienced by her heroines while kissing:
his mouth came down on hers […] and it was even more wonderful than she had thought it could be.
She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive. (Cartland, Problems 138)
The heroine of Beverly Jenkins’s Josephine experiences similarly intense sensations while being kissed by a MW:
Her whole world seemed to have come alive in response to his kisses. Now she understood how a girl could become overwhelmed and allow a boy to take liberties he shouldn’t. The soaring sensations and rising emotions were so exciting, Jo didn’t want to stop.
They had to, however, and they both knew it. (227)
In Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, the pleasure and power of the MW’s embrace almost render the heroine unconscious:
He had caught her in his arms so fiercely that the breath was almost crushed out of her. His dark face swam before her eyes for an instant, then his mouth was locked to hers, in a kiss so hard that her lips felt bruised. She yielded, carried away half-swooning on the tide of his passion. (277)
Another way in which the sexual potency of the MW may be revealed is via a description of the hero’s sexual history: Richardson’s Mr. B. has an illegitimate child by a woman he seduced; Cartland’s Duc de Savigne has had many liaisons with “women whom he takes up on an impulse and apparently without any consideration for their feelings, discards […] as soon as they bore him” (Love 8); and another hero, prior to meeting his heroine, “took what the wenches threw at him, never doubt it” (Lindsey 223). While multitudes of former sexual partners can serve as a demonstration of the MW’s allure, this can also be expressed via descriptions of women who find the hero attractive but who may not have had direct experience of his sexual prowess. Mr. B., for example, “is admir’d, as I know, by half a dozen Ladies” (Richardson 41) while Adam Morgan is “a young man accustomed to having young ladies jump at his beck and call” (Jenkins 176) who has “never had a young lady throw my interest back in my face” (188). Given the number of willing females available to him, it takes a very special woman to capture the MW’s permanent attention: a woman with a Glittery HooHa.
The Glittery HooHa
Although the term “Glittery HooHa” (GHH) “emerged at the internet discussion board Television Without Pity” (Vivanco) between 2004 and 2006, authors have long been describing heroines as glowing, sparkling and glittering. Pamela has “speaking Eyes” which can “overflow” with tears “without losing any of their Brilliancy!” (Richardson 186) and we learn of Syrilla that
there was something more than mere beauty about her, he thought, which made her different from other women.
It was the fact that she was so intensely alive, and that when she was animated she seemed almost to sparkle as she spoke, while her eyes shone as if they had captured the sunlight. (Cartland, Love 81)
A more recent example of a glittering heroine is Jo Best, whose “dark unblemished skin glowed with health and beauty. She was by far the most radiant young woman he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing” (Jenkins 123).
The GHH is a symbol of the female socio-sexual body and in particular of female sexual allure. Its glitter indicates the desirability of the heroine’s socio-sexual body. When Mr. B. states that Pamela is “so pretty, that go where you will, you will never be free from the Designs of some or other of our Sex” (Richardson 87), he is revealing that he himself has some quite definitely sexual “Designs” upon her GHH. Austen is much more reticent about sexual matters and Darcy has no immoral “Designs” on Elizabeth, but when he notices “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (Pride 70) and is “forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing” (70), it is evident that despite having initially “looked at her only to criticise” (70), he is unable to deny the growing attraction he feels towards her GHH. As is demonstrated by Pride and Prejudice, there is no need for a heroine to be either the most beautiful woman in the novel, or one whom all men find irresistible. What matters is the special effect her GHH has on the hero:
A woman with a hooha as glittery as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Our Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the Glittery HooHa to snare him forever. […] For yea, no matter how many hoohas he might see, never will there be one as glittery as hers. (Crusie, Stuart, and Rich 237)
The heroine’s GHH is not merely sexually alluring; it is powerful enough to render a MW monogamous. Even while the attraction remains unconsummated and the hero’s physical penis (which is part of his individual body) has not penetrated the “hooha” or vagina (which is part of the heroine’s individual body), it is not uncommon for the hero to realise that his MW is no longer attracted to other women and their less glittery GHHs. Cyn Malloren “found he had difficulty imagining being aroused by any woman other than this one” (Beverley 68). In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the hero sets up a date with a woman who is not the heroine. She kisses him, and “In the old days, that would have set the fires burning. But not tonight” (85). That, and his inability to concentrate on anything except the heroine, enable the woman to reach an accurate diagnosis:
“Poor man,” she sighed. She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I guess we all meet our Waterloo someday. Looks like this is yours.” […] That same thought was only beginning to form in his own mind. He smiled sheepishly. (86)
In romance, then, it is often “the heroine’s task to remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love” (Cohn 30) and her success is made possible by her GHH.
Not all romance heroes need their sexuality to be “remade” in the same way. Some heroes have repressed, rather than hyperactive, MWs. Heyer’s Simon the Coldheart, for example, states that “There is no place for women in my life, and no liking for women in my breast” (16). In this case, the GHH regulates the MW by bringing forth a “new-born passion” (298). In Napier’s Secret Admirer, the hero’s sexuality was affected by his step-mother who, when he “turned fifteen […] decided that it was time I was taught the facts of life … on a practical basis” (154). Sent to a private boarding school by his father as punishment for what was assumed to be the attempted rape of his step-mother, Scott found that his “guilt and revulsion about sex in general was reinforced by the crude boastings in the dorm” (156). After that, he “never felt so strongly attracted to any one […] that I was willing to allow myself to be vulnerable” (158), but the heroine’s GHH changes his attitude towards sex. Whether hyper-sexual and promiscuous, or repressed and underused, the MW is attracted to, and then regulated by, the GHH.
Although the GHH is irresistible to the MW, the MW is also extremely attractive to the GHH. In some cases “The hero’s proximity alone can send the blood pounding through her veins, make her hands tremble, deprive her of speech and reason” (Douglas 26). In Anne Herries’s Captive of the Harem, the heroine expresses this attraction in terms of magic:
The sweetness of that kiss had surprised her, and aroused a longing for something that she did not understand, robbing her of the will to resist him. She had felt as though he cast a magic spell over her by some sorcery — was it this that made so many of the harem women eager for his notice? (99)
The heroine, who is generally unaware of the extent of her GHH’s power over the MW, may initially fear the “magic spell” cast by the MW. Such fears are not unfounded. In Barbara Samuel’s The Love Talker, in which the hero is quite literally a magical being, we are given a description of the full extent of the damage a MW can cause to women whose GHHs are not glittery enough to tame it:
The Love Talker is a fixture of Irish faery lore, a seductive and dangerous being indeed, a conscienceless faery who ravishes the senses of unsuspecting women and leaves them to pine away to their deaths. In all the poems and stories, he is the King of Rakes, a libertine of unholy power. (195)
This reflects the way in which male sexuality is culturally constructed as an active, unemotional, possibly dangerous part of masculine behaviour.
In a romance novel, the sexual desires and activities of a hero and heroine often reveal their growing emotional attachment, but how, when, where, and with whom the protagonists have sex, as well as the ramifications of their sexual activity, can express socio-cultural ideologies about what constitutes “ideal” sexuality.
The Political Body
Sex is not simply an activity engaged in by individual bodies: “Cultures are disciplines that provide codes and social scripts for the domestication of the individual body in conformity to the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). These codes and scripts are often translated into law, making it illegal to go against the cultural definition of normality. One of the most significant differences between the social body and the political body is that while the social body may be subjected to cultural sanctions, such as being socially marginalised, the political body may be disciplined by the state, especially through imprisonment.
Romances, however, generally conclude with the political bodies of the protagonists being rewarded. One of the key narrative elements of a romance is the “betrothal,” a “scene or scenes” in which “the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts” (Regis 37). Marriage, or even the promise of marriage, gives both cultural and legal recognition to their relationship and legitimises the joining of their social and political bodies as well as of their individual bodies. In romances the pairing of the hero and heroine’s individual bodies, and of the MW and GHH, is complemented by the pairing of their socio-political bodies, which we shall call the Phallus and the Prism.
The Phallus in Romance
Teresa Ebert has described the romance hero as the personification of the Phallus:
The phallus […] is ideologically disguised as a full, embodied presence. […] Harlequin Romances, for example, are saturated with representations of the male anatomical organ. These representations take the form of tropic substitutions for the penis, as in such descriptions of the hero as “straight and tall, as brown and unbending as the monster trees rearing … behind him,” and “the erect masculine figure astride the horse”; or, more directly, “the thrusting weight of steel-hard thighs and hips.” These images […] reify the penis and thus mystify male power, sensuality, and sexual difference as physical and natural, while concealing the production of the phallus as signifier as well as the construction of male prowess and privilege in signification behind the naturalized penis. (34)
Perhaps the conflation of the Phallus with the penis occurs because while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,
The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)
In this essay the “Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.
At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero abducts the heroine on another man’s behalf before marrying her himself, and in Napier’s Secret Admirer the hero poses a threat on a business level because he’s “powerful enough to destroy us if he wants to — he’s done it before to other companies” (22). Not infrequently the heroine is wary of the Incomplete Phallus, and rightly so, since he may attempt to use his power and authority to imprison or coerce her. In Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, the hero is convinced that the heroine is nothing more than a GHH to be controlled and has her confined within an isolated castle. In other romances the MW and Incomplete Phallus may work in conjunction, through rape or sexual assault, to assert their dominance over the heroine. This is the case in Richardson’s Pamela, in which the hero attempts to rape the heroine, and in E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which the hero succeeds in such attempts. More recent romances do not tend to include rapes of the heroine by the hero, but one can still find “ritual” versions, such as a punishing kiss which serves to demonstrate the social status and/or physical power of the Incomplete Phallus, and the sexual potency of the MW.
The Incomplete Phallus tends to have obtained his power and authority from one or more typically male-dominated cultural areas. He frequently has high social status (e.g. Duke, Sheik), wealth (billionaire, tycoon), or both. With or without wealth, he usually displays fighting skills or at least physical strength (SEAL, warrior, cowboy). In his most obviously patriarchal guise he has the ability to regulate society by enforcing the law (police officer, sheriff), or he may try to perfect society by fighting a corrupt system (outlaw, spy, private detective). There are, of course, other professions open to heroes, but many of them seem to involve power in forms strongly associated with masculinity.
Many Incomplete Phalluses lack emotional connection to others, but this lack can manifest itself in a number of different ways. A hero with a very strong MW and a very Incomplete Phallus may be a rake who spends much of his time engaging in sexual activity, as Dain does in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels:
He lusted for virtually every attractive female he saw. He had a prodigious sexual appetite […]. If he lusted for a whore, he paid her and had her. If he lusted for a respectable female, he found a whore as a substitute, paid her, and had her. (49)
In slightly less extreme cases this type of hero may be a “passionate, romantic figure with a past, perhaps most familiar in Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester” (Mussell 119). Sometimes rakish behaviour is ascribed to a deep emotional pain suffered by the hero:
He had deliberately set out to defy the conventions, to shock decent men and women, to become a by-word for everything that was debauched and immoral.
He had succeeded, but strangely enough it had not eased the hurt which had caused him to behave in such a manner, and the wound within himself had not healed. (Cartland, Love 84)
Although a rake generally acts in response to the demands of his MW, particularly where the heroine is concerned, his Phallic attributes may be considerable. Richardson’s Mr. B., for example, is a landowner, Justice of the Peace, and Member of Parliament and Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan states that “The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me” (Hull 63).
A second type of Incomplete Phallus may be identified by his devotion to his work (often in one of the typically Phallic professions listed above) and his avoidance of family ties. This type of hero’s Incomplete Phallus tendencies thus take precedence over those of his MW. Often this behaviour too is shown to be an imperfect coping mechanism developed in response to emotional trauma. Napier’s business “piranha” (22), for example, has been “taking over electronics companies, and offering preferential deals to anyone who has business with RedWing” (97) as part of his plan to destroy his father’s company in revenge for the way his mother was treated:
My mother died because she couldn’t afford a life-saving operation. […] She asked him for money and he told her that she had made her bed and now she could lie on it … but he meant die on it. […] my father had no humanity. (97)
He may be an emotionally wounded warrior, like Susan Mallery’s Rafe, whose “‘[…] folks died when I was four. There wasn’t anyone else. I became a ward of the state.’ […] He’d learned to take care of himself and never need anyone” (183). Diana Palmer’s Tony, a “professional soldier” specialising “in counterterrorism” (41), was physically abused by his father, who also “started doing things to my little sister, when she was about eight. […] My mother caught him at it […] She stabbed that knife up to the hilt in his stomach, all the way to the heart. […] I never saw so much blood” (70-71). Then, “When my sister and I went into foster care, it was like the end of the world. Especially when they separated us. […] She killed herself” (57). As he acknowledges, “I’ve got a past that’s going to make it hard for any woman to live with me on a permanent basis” (74). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero is an emotionally damaged, illegitimate, mercenary knight who has
no home, but it was his burning ambition to correct that lack. It was his only goal, yet it was an all-consuming one. It was all he worked toward, hiring out to any man no matter the task, no matter the difficulty, no matter his own feelings in the matter. His ambition did not allow for scruples. (15-16)
This particular ambition, and his authoritarian attitude towards his followers, put him on the brink of transforming into a third type of Incomplete Phallus.
This type manifests the incompleteness of his Phallus by the way in which he assumes his patriarchal authority and family duties. Although he may work hard, be a (phallic) pillar of the community, and a devoted father or brother, he tends to be an authoritarian patriarch who is emotionally flawed in some way. Darcy is an example of this kind of hero, since he has both high social standing and wealth, his father is deceased and he therefore stands in loco parentis to his younger sister, and he is declared by one of his servants to be “the best landlord, and the best master […] that ever lived” (Austen, Pride 270). This patriarch’s flaw, the evidence of his emotional lack, is his pride. Simon the Coldheart embodies, as far as that is possible for a human, the qualities of justice — “If it was a question of judgment or arbitration men found Simon relentlessly, mercilessly just” (Heyer 19) — and of omniscience:
‘[…] God alone knows what will come to this poor land!’
‘Nay, not God alone,’ the secretary said. ‘My lord knows also.’ (97)
God-like in his own domain, Simon is omnipotent and one might say he “Suffer[s] the little children to come unto” (Mark 10:14) him because he “dost love children” (Heyer 114). In general, however, he seems incapable of feeling warmer emotions: “something he seemed to lack, for with all his assets and attainments, he was cold as stone, almost as though some humanising part of him had been left out in his fashioning” (130).
The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism. The word appears in the rakish Marquis of Vidal’s mocking designation of Mary Challoner as “Miss Prunes and Prisms” (Heyer, Devil’s Cub 49), a phrase which characterises her as prim and disapproving. The term “Prism,” as used in this essay, also draws on Jayne Castle’s Orchid, set in a futuristic society in which many individuals are “talents” but only a few, including the heroine, are “prisms”:
talents […] possessed a specific type of paranormal power that could be actively used. […] The psychic energy that talents produced endowed them with a sixth sense. But unlike the other five senses, it could not be accessed except in brief, unpredictable, erratic bursts without the aid of a prism. […] In them, paranormal energy took a different form. Prisms possessed the ability to focus the powers of a talent for an extended length of time. (3)
Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.
The Prism embodies the Mother aspect of femininity and the Incomplete Prism’s motherliness tends to manifest itself in differing combinations of two different qualities. The first is nurturing tenderness, and the second is feistiness, which may also be thought of as an incomplete version of maternal authority and
the lioness aspect of the female personality […]. It’s acceptable for a woman, socially, to be outspoken and rude when defending her children — everyone knows not to get between a mother bear and her cub. (Wendell and Tan 59)
With the decline in the number of virgin heroines there may have been an increase in the proportion of heroines who are biological mothers, but childless heroines have long been given opportunities to display the nurturing aspect of their Prisms. Such heroines may often be found caring for children, either due to their jobs or because they have responsibility for younger siblings or abandoned infants. Slightly less blatant demonstrations of the Prism’s nurturing motherliness include expressions of love and care for animals or vulnerable friends. As Wendell and Tan declare in their humorous “ten commandments of heroine conduct” (36):
Thou shalt have a nurturing streak larger and warmer than the South China Sea. Thy desire for children shall be unquestioned […]. And shouldst thou choose to remain child-free, thou freak of nature, verily thou shouldst display your nurturing streak with animals. (36)
Elizabeth Bennet’s mother is so incompetent a parent that Elizabeth attempts to provide her sisters with both maternal care and authoritative maternal guidance. When her older sister Jane is “very unwell” (78), it is Elizabeth, not their mother, who feels “really anxious” (Austen, Pride 78) and tends to her during the illness. Furthermore, “Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement?” (241). In Cartland’s The Problems of Love, the heroine has taken on the role of mother: “I now have the family to look after, because my mother died five years ago” (11). On this heroine’s wedding day it also becomes apparent that in some respects she resembles the hero’s mother: “I was thinking in Church today when we were married that you were like the lilies that were arranged on the altar. I have never felt that about any other woman with the exception of my mother” (145). In some romances, the heroine may express motherly feelings towards the hero. Mary, the heroine of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, recognises that
it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake.
‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’ (110)
Similarly Jessica sees “the lonely little boy in” Dain (Chase 269), and understands that he needs “love […] he needed it far more than many, because, apparently, he hadn’t had so much as a whiff of it since he was a babe” (269). In some romances this motherly nurturance may take a very literal form: Sarah S. G. Frantz has written of one romance hero that his
desire to suckle (to be suckled) at his wife’s breast, when read against his whole character, can be read as the desire to return to the mother’s nourishment that he never received as a child, as his need for his lover to embody his mother and his mother to be his lover. (25)
Gentle maternal qualities are not the only traits demonstrated by Prisms, for as the Rev. Mr. Villars instructs Evelina, “Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men” (Burney 242). The Prism’s feisty “fortitude and firmness” may be displayed on behalf of others, as when Elizabeth Bennet angrily rejects a marriage proposal from Darcy, “who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister” (Austen, Pride 222), or in self-defence, often against either an untamed MW or an Incomplete Phallus. Pamela, for example, although only a servant, constantly expresses her resistance to her master’s designs upon her virtue:
when you forget what belongs to Decency in your Actions, and when Words are all that are left me, to shew my Resentment of such Actions, I will not promise to forbear the strongest Expressions that my distressed Mind shall suggest to me; nor shall your angriest Frowns deter me. (Richardson 211)
In Devil’s Cub, Mary goes so far as to shoot and injure Dominic when his untamed MW is about to rape her (Heyer 102).
In the end, displays of feisty strength in the heroine tend to bring forth positive characteristics in the hero, but as Incomplete Prisms differ in their type of feistiness and Incomplete Phalluses vary in the qualities they lack, each heroine will bring out slightly different personality traits in her hero: Pamela’s feistiness is focused on preserving her virtue, and she therefore stimulates her hero’s piety; Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self-aware and kind; Margaret “stole what men thought was not there to steal. Thy cold heart” (Heyer, Simon 300) and so teaches Simon to love; and Josephine is “a beautiful, headstrong woman” (Jenkins 100), and so the “man who marries you will have to have patience, a strong mind and an even stronger wit” (100).
Completing the Phallus
The Incomplete Prism’s feistiness poses a challenge to the Incomplete Phallus’s authority and its nurturance gentles him, bringing into focus his softer qualities. Many romances conclude with the hero “endowed with maternal qualities; he is not simply the phallus but also the maternal phallus: the ideal mother and father” (Treacher 80). However, since the Father also has nurturing qualities it should not be assumed that a Completed Phallus is an androgynous parental figure. The transformed hero is “the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too” (Radway 97). In becoming a Completed Phallus the hero suffers no loss of his culturally ascribed masculinity: he will still tend to exert control and power over others, but he is more likely to take the heroine’s views into account, and protectiveness will take the place of jealousy and aggression. Johanna Lindsey’s Ranulf, for example, becomes the Lord of Clydon and his military prowess ensures the safety of Reina, her lands, and dependants. The Completed Phallus’s Prism-inspired paternal care for the wider community may also be expressed politically. As the Marquis of Osminton declares:
I had never expected a woman to think seriously as you do on social and political questions, which have always been left to men. […] It will help and inspire me to make a greater effort in that direction than I have done in the past. (Cartland, Problems 144)
If he couldn’t before, he will now be able to express his feelings and often becomes an emotionally involved father. In Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example, Dain could initially only think of his illegitimate son as an “unspeakable thing” (293) which “was as foul inwardly as it was hideous outwardly, […] there was not a scrap of good it could have inherited from its depraved monster of a sire” (293-94). Dain’s own self-loathing has clearly affected his perception of the child who looks so much like him, but Jessica forces him into a situation in which he cannot help but realise that his son is indeed “just like his father, he needed someone […] to accept him” (340). Jessica’s conviction that Dain is not “a monster, impossible to love” (339) alters Dain’s perception of both himself and his son, and enables him to accept love for himself and show it to his child. In much less traumatic circumstances the Marquis of Osminton, too, is reconciled to the idea of fatherhood and confesses that
Once, before I knew you, […] I thought that children might disturb my well-organised life and perhaps be destructive, but now, because I love you, my darling, I can think of nothing more wonderful than to see you holding my son in your arms. (Cartland, Problems 146)
If he had feelings of loneliness or uncertainty about his role in life, these will be resolved by the Incomplete Prism. Barbara Samuel’s Galen is a faery cursed “to wander between the mortal and faerie realms, never to cross to either,” and so experiences a “loneliness so vast ‘twould make stones cry” (Samuel 199). His suffering lasts for 285 years, until he meets Moira who feels the allure of his MW, but is able to resist it in order to break the curse. As a heroine with a strong Incomplete Prism, she “wanted to protect him, protect him from the despair she’d glimpsed on his face […], protect him from having to return to the lost world of his exile” (247). Clare Morgan may not have to break a faery curse, but she is “the one Marta foresaw […] who would heal her Nikki’s heart” (Putney 346). It is thanks to Clare that “Nicholas Davies, the Gypsy Earl of Aberdare” (12), a man who says he doesn’t “give a damn about anyone or anything” (17), becomes involved in his local community, is reconciled with an estranged best friend, finds himself emotionally “free” (377) from his dead wife’s betrayal and his deceased grandfather’s hatred, and “can believe in my childhood again” (376).
The final transformation of the Incomplete Phallus may take place in a dramatic, emotionally charged scene. In Susan Mallery’s The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess, Rafe is an emotionally-wounded warrior hero who has power and status but is clearly an Incomplete Phallus because he has no desire to become the head of a stable family unit: “Rafe had told her that she was a marriage-and-kids kind of woman and that he wasn’t a marriage-and-kids kind of guy” (158). Zara intuits the reason behind this stance: “she knew. She read it in the pain in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders. After a lifetime of people turning away from him, he wasn’t about to trust her with something as fragile as his heart. Not before he knew that she would be willing to stay forever” (247-48). By demonstrating that she is indeed “willing to stay forever,” the Incomplete Prism transforms Rafe into a Completed Phallus:
The thick, angry barrier around his heart shattered and blew away. […] He knew then that he had to believe her or lose her forever. That he was nothing without her. That he had finally found a safe place to belong.
“I love you,” he told her. […] “[…] I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please do me the honor of marrying me.” (248-49)
In a way that parallels the GHH’s regulation of the MW, the Incomplete Prism completes the Phallus, making him a happier, better man than he was without her: “till within these few Days, I knew not what it was to be happy. […] I hope, from her good Example, […] in time, to be half as good as my Tutoress” (Richardson 308).
Completing the Prism
As with Incomplete Phalluses, there is variation in what is lacking in Incomplete Prisms. Some extremely feisty Incomplete Prisms are described as having a boyish appearance or behaving mannishly. Diana Mayo, for example, “looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy” (Hull 2). It is said of Lady Margaret that she “fights at the head of her men” (Heyer, Simon 135) and when she “don[s] boy’s raiment” (196) in an attempt to escape from Simon she looks like “a slim stripling” (198) and declares “In man’s clothes I stand, and a man will I be” (216). Feistiness taken to the point of mannishness is depicted in these two novels as a characteristic of which the heroine must be broken, at least insofar as she relates to the hero, so that she can become a Completed Prism. Diana Mayo’s sheik adopts particularly violent methods:
with a greater arrogance and a determination stronger than her own Ahmed Ben Hassan had tamed her as he tamed the magnificent horses that he rode. He had been brutal and merciless, using no half measures, forcing her to obedience by sheer strength of will and compelling a complete submission. (Hull 226-27)
She comes to think of him as “A man of men. Monseigneur! Monseigneur! Mon maître et seigneur” (245) and Lady Margaret murmurs “Stern, merciless conqueror! Simon, mon maître et mon seigneur!” (Heyer, Simon 299).
Another way in which heroines may demonstrate their feisty nature is by engaging in “Too Stupid To Live” (TSTL) behaviour. This type of behaviour was “first recognized […] at romance supersite All About Romance” (Wendell and Tan 31) but AAR’s Laurie Gold has clarified that the term
tstl, or too-stupid-to-live […] actually came from a very well-known author who wrote me about it in 1997 and asked to remain anonymous. A tstl heroine does things like going […] where specifically told not to by the hero and ends up endangering both with her foolishness.
In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the heroine knows that “some crazy person is trying to kill me” (48), and she has been told that her apartment “is a death trap […]. […] Easy entrance and exit right outside the door, no dead bolts, a perfect line-of-sight aim for anybody with a high-powered rifle with a scope” (48). Her safety can only be assured if she moves in with Tony, whose professional skills will enable him to act as her bodyguard. She does so, but after an argument with him she decides to prove to him that she “wasn’t a doormat. No way was she staying in here to listen to him cavorting with his girlfriend! No way!” (82). Unfortunately, and rather predictably, the hit man “was watching and followed her home” (93). Tony only just arrives in time to save her. TSTL behaviour on the part of the heroine thus gives the hero an opportunity to display his manly prowess, and may demonstrate the extent to which the heroine needs the protection of a Phallus.
Removed from the context of TSTL behaviour, and described in terms which are more flattering to the heroine, this protection could be thought of as a benefit which accrues to the heroine once she has taken indirect control of his Phallus: “his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command” (Phillips 58). Once the heroine of Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart marries Ranulf, for example, she is safe from attacks by other males intent on usurping her wealth and power. Regardless of whether one views this outcome as evidence of the heroine’s lack or of her triumph, the end result is that the Completed Prism falls under the protection of the Completed Phallus.
Marriage to the Phallus may also enable a Prism to enter the socio-political elite or, “Put more polemically, popular romance tells the story of how the heroine gains access to money — to power — in patriarchal society” (Cohn 3). Millie, a woman who “came from a poor background, and lived on a meager budget” (Palmer 58), marries Tony, who is “rich” (62). In Richardson’s Pamela there is an even more marked elevation in the social status of the heroine: the landowner hero marries “his Mother’s Waiting-maid” (261) and “She was regularly visited by the principal Ladies in the Neighbourhood; who were fond of her Acquaintance” (499). In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet, though not noted for her intelligence in other matters, perceives the material benefits which will accrue to Elizabeth upon her marriage to Darcy: “how rich and how great you will be!” (386). By the end of Devil’s Cub Mary, a commoner, is engaged to the Marquis of Vidal who is “one of the biggest prizes on the matrimonial market” (Heyer 14).
Increased access to money and power may give the Completed Prism greater opportunities for displaying the nurturing aspects of the Prism. After her marriage to the Earl of Aberdare, Clare may have had to give up
being a full-time teacher, but […] now that she had Nicholas’s deep purse to plunder, she was able to help people on a broader scale. There were no more hungry children in Penreith, and the valley was becoming the prosperous, happy place she had dreamed of. (Putney 379-80)
Similarly, whereas Richardson’s Pamela as an Incomplete Prism, having received a charitable gift, exclaimed “O how amiable a Thing is doing good! — It is all I envy great Folks for!” (18), once she has been transformed by marriage into a Completed Prism she is able to reward her new servants, take Mr. B.’s illegitimate child into their home, and display “a diffusive Charity to all worthy Objects within the Compass of their Knowledge” (499).
The conclusion of Richardson’s novel also reveals that Pamela “made her beloved Spouse happy in a numerous and hopeful Progeny” (499), and in the epilogue to Thunder and Roses we learn that Clare “was almost sure that the next Gypsy Earl was on the way” (Putney 380). Dain and Jessica require no such epilogue for although they have only “been wed five weeks” by the end of Lord of Scoundrels, “It is easy enough to calculate. One fertile marchioness plus one virile marquess equals a brat” (Chase 373). Given the increase in recent decades of premarital sex in romances, it is now not uncommon for the virility of heroes and the fertility of heroines to be demonstrated long before either their wedding or the end of the novel. The heroine of His Lady’s Ransom, for example, falls pregnant after one night of “wild, prolonged and very thorough couplings” (Lovelace 273) with the hero; they marry a few months later, and in the final chapter their baby lies “in a basket on the table, gurgling” (353). Regardless of the method by which romance authors impart the information, it is common for them to provide evidence that the Completed Phallus and Prism, secure in their domestic bliss, have produced, or will produce, a suitable number of offspring.
The Alchemical Model of Relationships
In the model of romantic relationships outlined above, the processes of transformation are complex and involve the protagonists’ individual bodies, a GHH and MW, and an Incomplete Phallus and Incomplete Prism. Frantz suggests that a heroine who gives her breast milk to a supplicant hero is “appropriating patriarchal power for herself, but she is also then generous enough to return some to the hero, who continues to embody patriarchal power” (27). In such scenes, the individual bodies of the protagonists perform actions which can be read as symbolising the changes that are occurring to their socio-political bodies: the Incomplete Prism becomes a Completed Prism through her relationship with the Incomplete Phallus, and does so in a way which renders him Completed too. The GHH tends to be the catalyst for the transformation, because by ensuring that the MW desires union with this particular GHH, the hero’s Incomplete Phallus is brought into contact with the heroine’s Incomplete Prism. The Incomplete Prism then transmutes the glitter of sexual attraction into the gold of a socially sanctioned relationship between a Completed Prism and Completed Phallus. This, then, may be termed the alchemical model of relationships and it has been summarised by Mr. B., who admits to Pamela that “after having been long tost by the boisterous Winds of a more culpable Passion, I have now conquer’d it, and am not so much the Victim of your Love, all charming as you are, as of your Virtue” (Richardson 341); or, put more succinctly, “her Person made me her Lover; but her Mind made her my Wife” (474). Here “your Love” and “her Person” seem to refer to what we might term the heroine’s GHH, whereas her “Virtue” and her “Mind” are aspects of her Prism.
It is only because the heroine possesses both a particularly glittery GHH and an Incomplete Prism that she is able to have a transformative effect on both the MW and the Incomplete Phallus; as Janice A. Radway observed with regard to Alaina McGaren, the heroine of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, “It is […] the combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or of admitting dependence” (127). A GHH unaccompanied by an Incomplete Prism will be unable to effect the transformation of the Incomplete Phallus, as is demonstrated in Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man in which, as the heroine is aware, the hero has frequently found other women sexually attractive and “the brassier they are, the better you like them” (50). These women, however, appear to have lacked Incomplete Prisms, for as the hero explains:
“Those glittery women are fine for a good time. You don’t plan a future around them.”
He was insinuating that they were fine for a one-night stand. (60)
The brassy glitter of these promiscuous women is very different from the special glitter of the heroine, who is “illuminated” (59) and displays a special “radiance” (59) when in the presence of the hero. Her GHH is so closely associated with her Incomplete Prism that, like Mr. B.’s Pamela, she “would never go to bed with a man she hadn’t married” (58), and both novels conclude with the hero and heroine safely united in matrimony. Cartland’s Syrilla also has a glitter which is quite clearly inextricable from her Prism: “she had a radiance in her face that was not of this world” (Love 87), and since for the hero she “brought back dreams […] of a woman who could be innocent and pure and inspire a man spiritually as well as physically” (152), she may serve as a reminder to the reader that where some heroines are concerned, marriage is definitely Holy Matrimony.
The initial fear that many heroes experience in response to their overwhelming desire for the heroine can therefore be understood not solely in sexual terms (as a fear of a monogamy caused by a desire so strong and so specific for the GHH that the MW can barely feel attraction towards any other woman), but also as a fear of the gentling which will occur as his Incomplete Phallus is focused by the Incomplete Prism. The way in which the heroine’s GHH binds the hero to her, enabling the Incomplete Prism and Incomplete Phallus to act on each other and become Completed, has been described by Cook as
a bargain: his love for her sex. […] He finds pleasure in the confession of love because love is something he has learned to deny and fear, often as the result of a terrible experience in earlier life. She finds pleasure in the confession of sex because she can give freely to the hero what he has brought about in her and not fear the ruin of her identity. The formula of the bargain creates a kind of symmetry, a pretence of equality. The father of desire meets the mother of love and they exchange gifts. Each makes the other complete in a fantasy of total union.
But the bargain is also, on the heroine’s part, about attaching desire to social convention, to propriety, to marriage. It is part of her traditional role that she should represent virtue. […] Her function is to […] reassure us that, in the end, desire and the law are compatible. (157)
There can be no better representative of the “traditional role” than Pamela, whose would-be seducer is so thoroughly reformed by his interactions with her Prism that he becomes “the best and fondest of Husbands; and, after her Example, became remarkable for Piety, Virtue, and all the Social Duties of a Man and a Christian” (Richardson 499).
Some Alternative Models
Although the alchemical model of relationships, in which a GHH regulates a MW, an Incomplete Prism focusses an Incomplete Phallus, and an Incomplete Phallus completes an Incomplete Prism, has been present in the genre for centuries, there are alternative models of how the six bodies of romance protagonists can interact, some of which also have a very long literary history. It would be impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of all of these models in the space available, and this section therefore provides only a very brief overview of just a few of the alternative models to be found within the genre.
One of these alternative models offers the reader a hero who, at the start of the novel, already embodies masculine perfection. His MW needs no regulation and almost all he requires in order to become a Completed Phallus is a wife. Marriage is necessary in order to comply with the demands of heteronormativity: as Fulk tells the young Simon, “a man must take a wife unto himself” (Heyer, Simon 115), or, as Austen somewhat satirically observes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride 51). Among these near-perfect heroes are Frances Burney’s Lord Orville, who is depicted “as a fully formed paragon of male manners from his first appearance” (Hamilton 429), and Austen’s Mr. Knightley. A more recent example may be found in Heyer’s The Nonesuch. Sir Waldo Hawkridge, the novel’s hero, is known by this nickname which
means perfection! […]
‘A paragon, certainly.’ […]
‘[…] they say the Nonesuch is a clipping rider to hounds too. […]’ […]
‘Sir Waldo is first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance, besides being very handsome, and hugely wealthy!’ (20)
Sir Waldo, who “commanded as much liking as admiration” (169), is also a philanthropist and a responsible and caring role model to his younger cousin. This kind of hero is “the more conventional, sensitive, mature and competent husband-lover” who “has great strength and stability and seems particularly solid and trustworthy” (Mussell 119-20). He can be found in the novels of Betty Neels, which jay Dixon recalls reading “to fill my need for a knowledgeable and calm father-figure” (35). As Mussell observes, such heroes
appeal […] because of their implicit stability, their self-knowledge, and the status they can confer through marriage. If this figure seems more mature and sensitive than other men, and more attractive and intelligent, he offers an assurance of sexual fidelity because he knows his own mind in choosing the heroine. […] His strength and power derive from self-assurance, self-control, and uncompromising moral principles. (124)
Since his MW is already perfectly regulated, and he already manifests the full range of qualities required to be a Completed Phallus, the heroine’s GHH and Prism function solely to attract him and assure him of her suitability, but there is no need for them to effect a major transformation of his personality. She, however, may be taught by him, as is the case in Austen’s Emma, or enjoy the benefits which, as described above, generally accrue to a Completed Prism. In The Nonesuch, for example, Ancilla Trent is saved from life as a governess and restored to the social circle from which her father’s death had distanced her. In addition, Sir Waldo’s philanthropy will give her ample opportunity to manifest the charitable, caring aspects of the Completed Prism, particularly as his “mother […] will welcome you with open arms, and will very likely egg you on to bully me into starting an asylum for female orphans” (275).
Many modern “inspirational” romances feature an explicitly Christian version of this near-perfect type of hero. His possession of a MW may be implied via descriptions of his individual body: “The heroes’ physical stature and good looks reinforce their virility and attractiveness to heroines” (Neal 149). In Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, for example, Samuel Hart is “broad-shouldered” (13) and although “It was inappropriate that she should notice his well-defined cheekbones or his recently shaved, firm, square chin, […] she had. Even his deep, rich voice arrested her attention” (15). The use of the word “inappropriate” suggests that Josie, the heroine, is not merely cataloguing the features of Samuel’s individual body: despite his status as “a widower, a father and a preacher” (109) he has “a fluid agility and masculine grace” (109) — in other words a MW — which “she couldn’t help but appreciate” (109). That the ideal Christian romance hero’s MW is pre-regulated and incapable of succumbing to uncontrollable lust is made very clear in the guidelines provided by some publishers. In Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired romances, for example, “Any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality” (eHarlequin). Similarly, the guidelines for Barbour Publishing’s Heartsong Presents stipulate that:
Physical tension between characters should not be overdone. Do not be overly descriptive when describing how characters feel in a particular romantic moment, for example, kissing, embracing, and so on. It has been our belief from day one that we can tell a great love story without going into excessive physical detail. People can easily imagine the desires and tensions between a couple who are blossoming into love. Kisses are fine (no tongues or heights of arousal, please).
One consequence of the sexual restraint demonstrated by this near-perfect Christian romance hero is that he poses a challenge to some aspects of the “male sexual drive discourse” so often present in the mainstream romance genre’s depiction of heroes’ socio-sexual bodies. In addition to having a well-regulated MW he
retains all the rugged individualism, toughness, and power of secular heroes but combines this traditional masculinity with gentleness, patience, and attention to female needs, from snuggling to child-rearing. (Barrett-Fox 97)
He, like the near-perfect secular hero, is thus in possession of a Phallus which can become fully Completed without the need for major personality changes. However, despite the strong similarities between the near-perfect Christian hero and his secular counterpart, there is one very significant difference between the processes by which their Phalluses, and the Prisms of their heroines, become Completed: “The transformation that seems ‘magical’ in secular romances is explained by divinely sparked spiritual growth in their evangelical counterparts” (Neal 5). Returning again to Samuel Hart, we find that he has an almost perfect Phallus, “He represented everything that was good and perfect about fathers and husbands” (St. John 157), but he does occasionally make mistakes and “Whenever he overlooked the obvious, whenever he let pride get in the way of what was best, God graciously pointed his foolishness out to him” (209).
The “beta” hero presents a challenge to the gender roles underlying all of the previous models because his Phallus is never Completed: he is never transformed into an authoritative, patriarchal figure. He is “More playful and relaxed,” “More of the ‘boy (or man) next door’ type,” “Considerate of his heroine’s feelings and opinions” and “The sort of man that a reader can actually imagine meeting, falling in love with, marrying — and being able to live with!” (Walker 100). Jayne Ann Krentz scornfully describes him as a “neurotic wimp” and “a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking ‘modern’ man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start” (109). It is indeed true that “you don’t get much of a challenge for a heroine” (109) from such a hero, if that challenge is understood in terms of demonstrating the power of her Prism and GHH. He brings into question the role of the heroine in the alchemical model because he tends not to need her to tame, gentle, domesticate or regulate his bodies.
Although Krentz attributes the beta hero’s appearance in romance to “a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing” (107), he is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is
too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (49)
Like the more recent “beta” heroes, he has been found wanting by some readers:
There is a strong tendency among critics to disparage Edward Ferrars as romantic hero. […] I suspect that Edward’s gender dissonance has stymied even professional readers. […] Edward […] lacks aggression altogether: for the most part he is retiring, he is passive, and he is as backward a lover as ladies are enjoined to be. […] As to society, Edward lacks ambition and the desire to be somebody in the world […]. Against the grain of the affluent gentry’s model for men, but consonantly with the female model, he aspires to nothing higher than a happy domestic life. (Perkins 5-6)
This “beta” hero is favourably contrasted with an “uncommonly handsome” (75) rake, as is also the case in Heyer’s Cotillion, in which she “was teasing her fans […] by making ineffective Freddy the hero rather than handsome Jack Westruther” (Aiken Hodge 91). Jack is “a tall man” (Heyer, Cotillion 110) with “powerful thighs” (110), whereas Freddy is “a slender young gentleman, of average height and graceful carriage” (36), and this smaller, less physically powerful individual body is matched by a less attractive socio-sexual body and a very socially acceptable but non-dominant socio-political body:
He was neither witty nor handsome; his disposition was retiring; and although he might be seen at any social gathering, he never (except by the excellence of his tailoring) drew attention to himself […] he was too inarticulate to pay charming compliments, and had never been known to indulge in the mildest flirtation. But a numerous circle of male acquaintances held him in considerable affection, and with the ladies he was a prime favourite. The most sought-after beauty was pleased to stand up with so graceful a dancer; any lady desirous of redecorating her drawing-room was anxious for his advice. (108-09)
Many “beta” heroes are neither shy nor sexually inexperienced, but as a type the “beta” hero, because of his lack of a Completed Phallus and the fact that he often possesses character traits more often associated with femininity, challenges the way in which particular groups of traits (such as those which are characteristic of the Prism) tend to be assigned only to individuals of one biological sex.
Although the Phallus is firmly associated with masculinity and the Prism with femininity, psychologists have long acknowledged that no individual is exclusively imbued with qualities ascribed to only one gender:
In every human being, Freud […] remarks, “pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture.” […] It is now generally accepted […] that masculine and feminine principles are not inherent polarities […]. Still, […] there exists a recurrent cultural tendency to distinguish and to polarize gender roles. (Gilmore 214)
Sexual, social, and political power are expressed in highly gendered ways when the MW and Phallus are strongly associated with heroes and their male individual bodies, while the GHH and Prism are strongly associated with heroines and their female individual bodies.
Elizabeth Bevarly’s Dr Mummy challenges such gender roles, but unlike romances featuring “beta” heroes, it does so by reversing the biological sex of the characters who, by the end of the novel, possess the Prism and Phallus. Perhaps in order to neutralise the threat to the hero’s masculinity which might result from this departure from the usual configuration of the six bodies, the transformation is not revealed until the epilogue, long after the hero’s “appealingly rugged, startlingly handsome […]. And big. Really, really big” (24) individual body has been established as being in conformity with the masculine ideal. The relationship between Nick and Claire’s socio-sexual bodies also conforms to romance conventions: “Nick’s hot, unyielding body before her, and the sense of his overwhelming possession thrilled her in a way that nothing else could” (117). The transformations undergone by their socio-political bodies, however, are anything but conventional. Nick begins the novel as an Incomplete Phallus: law enforcement is a typically Phallic profession and he works as a “narcotics detective” (15). Years before the start of the novel he had wanted to marry Claire and become a Completed Phallus:
He’d wanted them to have a half-dozen kids, just as his folks had done. He’d […] wanted Claire to stay at home with the kids, had wanted to work himself to death to take care of the family financially. […] And Claire just couldn’t see that happening. She hadn’t wanted to give birth to and care for six children — or even one child. She hadn’t wanted to be a homemaker — she’d wanted to be a doctor. (48)
Nick’s dream of having a large family with Claire is achievable, but only by abandoning traditional gender roles. By the end of the novel he has been transformed into a Completed Prism, a homemaking, stay-at-home parent who is “in charge of the bake sale this year” (184) and certain that “the job I have now is so much more important than the one I had before” (185). Claire, initially an Incomplete Phallus who had resisted parenthood, dedicated herself to her highly paid professional job, and who “had always had difficulty revealing any honest emotion” (56), becomes a Completed Phallus as the family’s only wage-earner.
Romances featuring protagonists of the same sex may also offer new dynamics between, and depictions of, their six bodies. Phyllis M. Betz states that in a lesbian romance “The very fact that two women have determined to pursue a passionate relationship contravenes traditional social norms and expectations” (105), and as Paulina Palmer has observed, “By placing characters who identify as lesbian in a heterosexist frame and highlighting the tensions this generates, they alert the reader to the ideological limitations of the romance genre and the social codes which it inscribes” (203). Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park, for example, opens as Lady Joanna Sinclair is walking and daydreaming about romances, and so it is while “half expecting to find Ivanhoe” (2) that she first encounters Lady Diana March and “instead of a knight in shining armor there was a fair damsel […]. She was […] dressed in brown turkish trousers” (2). Lady Diana’s individual body is female, but her socio-political body has traditionally masculine attributes, as indicated by her attire and the comparison with Ivanhoe. Her “excellent birth […], her friends at the highest level of English society, and her vast fortune” (164-65), as well as the role she plays in rescuing Joanna from familial oppression, mark her as the possessor of an Incomplete Phallus. As the more sexually experienced of the two, her socio-sexual body can be thought of as a MW. For her part Joanna, who despite having been married has “never been in the throes of a Grand Passion” (111), has a GHH and as the mother of a young daughter and a woman in need of protection, she is clearly an Incomplete Prism whose love will heal Diana’s emotional wounds. In many respects, then, Pembroke Park tells the traditional story of how a GHH and Incomplete Prism work together to gentle and complete a MW and Incomplete Phallus, but because that MW and Incomplete Phallus belong to a person with a biologically female individual body, Diana “flagrantly sidestep[s] every rule of social decorum!” (4).
Romance novels, because they deal so explicitly with sexuality and men’s and women’s roles within sexual relationships, are cultural agents (primarily for women) for the transmission of gender ideologies. Gender ideologies, in turn, “construct men’s and women’s sexualities” (Blackwood 240). Although we have stressed the degree of continuity that exists in the depiction of the alchemical model of heterosexual romantic relationships, the genre has responded to changes in social attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. In addition, despite the fact that all romances feature protagonists with three bodies (individual, social, political) there are some romances which offer alternatives to the pairing of a female protagonist’s individual body, GHH, and Prism with a male protagonist’s individual body, MW, and Phallus. Such romances provide alternative “guiding or admonitory images” (Gilmore 208) regarding ideal masculinity or femininity. Due to the diversity that exists within the genre, the many bodies of romance heroes and heroines may be sites of reinforcement of, or of resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies.
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 For a more detailed analysis of the genre’s history, see Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel.
 Simplicity in men’s apparel was not unknown in the medieval period but, “In the Middle Ages, the norms regarding clothes were based on the nearly timeless precept that differentiations in social structure should be recognized by means of dress, hair and beard. However, at the same time – thanks to Christianity – clothes were endowed with a number of moral-symbolic interpretations […] controversy was caused on the one hand by the fashions prevalent at royal and aristocratic courts, and on the other by the symbolic attire of the ascetic religious movements, which opposed in equal measure the opulence of the Church and of the laity” (Klaniczay 52). It is only in much more recent centuries that simple fashions for men have been widely adopted by the aristocracy: “Clothing historians have labeled the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the era of ‘the great masculine renunciation,’ a period of increasing modesty and simplicity in middle- and upper-class men’s dress” (Kuchta 54).
 Unusually, this description is given from the point of view of a gay male, Theodric, who also observes the hero’s “tight, exquisitely curved arse” (47).
 Regis acknowledges that “In romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century marriage is not necessary as long as it is clear that heroine and hero will end up together” (37-38).
 Rape may also function, as Kate Saunders has observed in her introduction to The Sheik, as a way to ensure the heroine “is morally off the hook, in an era when female sexual desire on its own was shameful and improper” (vi).
 Another indication of his near omniscience is that “No matter how softly one might creep up to him, he always knew of the approach, and needed not to see who it was who drew near” (111).
 With regard to the “pretence of equality,” Cohn suggests that “the belief that a fair bargain has been struck between two parties when one offers rank and wealth and the other, moral improvement is the kind of pious wish-fulfillment called on to mask social relations that are far less benign” (140).
 Another significant difference between Christian romances and many secular romances is that characters in Christian romances have a fourth, spiritual, body. The existence of a spiritual body is explicitly mentioned in Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, in which the reader is informed that a minor character’s “physical body lay beneath the lush grass in the fenced-in cemetery behind the tiny white church. His spirit had gone on to be with the Lord” (7).