Posts Tagged ‘genre’
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.
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Delveroudi, Elisa-Anna. “H Politiki stis Komodies tou Ellinikou Kinimatografou.” Istorika, 14/26 (1997): 146-165. Print.
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|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.