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Afterlife of the Romance Hero: Readers’ Reproduction of Romance
by Fatmah Al Thobaiti

The Romance Hero

The hero is one of the main defining elements in the romance novel. Falling in love with him is the story. “The hero,” Mary Putney writes, “is the most crucial character in a romance, the linchpin who holds the story together” (100). Without the hero, there would be no story. Also, commenting on the significance of the hero in the romance novel, Wendy Larcombe notes that he provides “the tension, the excitement, the danger and the satisfaction” in the story (42). The hero, in other words, moves the plot of the romance novel forward. [End Page 1]

As in other types of narratives in genre fiction, the romance novel produces characters that are identifiable by professional critics and audiences as key to the genre. As Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis and Ralf Schneider note, genres produce characters that are familiar to the audience:

The occurrence of one typical element of a genre will […] trigger a complex set of expectations concerning the kind of characters to appear, the situations they encounter, the themes they are likely to be confronted with, their conception of flat or round, or static or dynamic, and typical constellations with other characters. (43)

Many aspects of the main characters of any given genre fiction, then, can be expected, even before one starts to read the text. Not only that, but also each of these characters is expected to have a certain function in the plot (Eder et al 42-43). In a typical heterosexual romance novel, the characters of the hero and heroine are expected to fulfil or enact distinctly delineated masculine and feminine roles in order to achieve their happy ending. Tania Modleski defines the function of the hero and heroine in the romance novel as follows:

a young, inexperienced, poor to moderately well-to-do woman encounters and becomes involved with a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man, older than herself by ten to fifteen years. The heroine is confused by the hero’s behaviour since, though he is obviously interested in her, he is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, often hostile, and even somewhat brutal. By the end, however, all misunderstandings are cleared away, and the hero reveals his love for the heroine, who reciprocates. (35-36)

Besides giving specific features for the hero and heroine of romance, Modleski outlines the ways by which they behave and interact with each other according to traditional gender roles, where the man holds more power than the woman. This unequal distribution of power leads to the submission of the heroine.

Robyn Donald explains that unequal distribution of power between the hero and heroine is an essential part of the love plot in the romance novel. Seeing that the heroine’s goal is to conquer the hero and gain his heart, his character must be constructed to test her skills and determination. The hero, in other words, must present “a suitable challenge” for the heroine because her power is measured by how successful she is in conquering him (81). Along the same line, Larcombe notes that the character of the hero has to be both “simultaneously desirable and threatening”, and herein, she believes, “lies the problem that women’s romance fiction continues to reconstruct – and redress”: while the hero must be powerful and threatening in order to provide a suitable challenge for the heroine, acquiring these features puts the heroine in a vulnerable position in the relationship (44). This challenge, according to Catherine Roach, helps women:

deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women. […] Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. (2)

[End Page 2] Masculine dominance and aggression in the romance novel, then, are eroticized on the one hand while viewed as problematic on the other.

Therefore, a number of feminist scholars have turned their attention to criticizing the romance hero for performing the traditional gender role of the dominant man. Susan Crane, for example, criticizes the way in which “romance implicates the dichotomy between masculine and feminine in a range of other oppositions between authority and submission, familiarity and exoticism, justice and mercy, public and private, with which the gender dichotomy suggestively interacts” (13). Repeatedly, Crane notes, the masculine identity in romance is constructed by alienating it from the traits assigned to femininity: “womanly timidity, passivity, and pity confirm the masculinity of bravery, initiative, and severity” (19). This type of hegemonic masculinity is normalized and idealized in the romance novel. Furthermore, as Jonathan Allan notes, it is “part of and contribute[s] to hetero-patriarchal-capitalism”, which critical studies of men and masculinity call into question (“Purity of His Maleness” 37). The romance hero’s embodiment of the ideal masculinity of heterosexism indicates a kind of homophobia behind the love plot of the novel. Indeed, Jayashree Kamblé notes that, “during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement […] the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman” (129). The character of the romance hero, then, is not only problematic because it puts the female character into submission, but also for the kind of masculinity it represents.

This article participates in this body of research that questions the character of the romance hero and the type of masculinity he embodies. It argues, however, that the production of the romance hero does not stop at the level of novel publication, but continues to appear, in various and complicated ways, in readers’ practices online. While many romance studies have long asserted that readers are not passive consumers of the genre—through ethnographic research, for example—readers’ ability to publicly voice and share their responses, creative recreations, manipulations, or critiques of the genre were rather limited before the digital era. In the 1970s and early 1980s, readers’ discussion and questioning of romance novels were not as easily accessible and visible as they are today. Therefore, the role of the romance reader as a co-producer of the genre, and the implications of taking this participatory role, have not yet received significant attention in romance studies. As Greenfeld-Benovitz notes, “while researchers like Regis address the derision directed towards romance and its readers, little has been done with respect to how members of the romance community deal with these issues” (203). In the age of digital media, romance readers’ active engagement with the genre is so exceptionally visible that it is no longer helpful to overlook or simplify it for the sake of argument. Unlike Radway’s reader, who “actively attributes sense to lexical signs in a silent process carried on in the context of her ordinary life” (8), readers today have the ability to share their engagement with texts widely.

This study aims to present a feminist reading of the ways in which the character of the romance hero unfolds differently across and as a result of readers’ participation in various activities on the internet. To examine the afterlife of the romance hero on the internet, this article looks at two types of readers’ practices on the internet: fanfiction and image-macro memes. By exploring readers’ reproduction of the romance hero through these practices, this study aims to answer the following questions: to what extent do readers’ practices redefine masculinity as a flexible, dynamic and participatory construction? To what extent do readers’ productive activities challenge the conventional formula of the dominant romance hero and participate in online feminism? And what do readers’ practices offer, not [End Page 3] only to the fans who read, celebrate, and critique the genre, but also to scholars who are interested in the cultural significance of the romance genre and online feminism?

Dynamism of the Romance Hero

Despite the rigidity with which the character of the romance hero usually appears in the romance novel, it is important to note that fictional characters are not finished products; they continue to live, and sometimes develop and change, with the audience. As Mary Springer explains:

character is not given to us like a gift in the hand, or like a picture on the wall, but […] it does in fact accumulate. This must make perfect sense since the story, unlike the picture of the wall, moves across time – we must turn the page in order to find out what else there is to know about the character, what new actions and choices there may be to expand or modify our knowledge, what decisions we are to make about whether the character is fixed or in change, individual or antithetical to another character, minor or main. (179)

A clear example of the continuity of acquainting oneself with fictional characters can be found in fanfiction. As Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse note, “the entirety of stories and critical commentary written in a fandom […], offers an ever-growing, ever-expanding version of the characters” (7). The alternative scenarios presented by fanfiction allow characters to transform, develop and embody different codes of behavior. Henry Jenkins notes that “though many fans claim absolute fidelity to the original characterization and program concepts, their creative interventions often generate very different results” (181). For example, the alternative scenario in fanfiction can force characters to take decisions that they were not forced to take in the source text, which reveals them in a different light. This change, Springer notes, brings us closer to knowing the character:

one rhetorical mode by which character makes itself known to us is a process of change, an action in which we accumulate our knowledge of character chiefly in the apprehension of a change – new decisions and acts of which the character was always inherently but not overtly capable. (181)

In fanfiction, one can find various examples of how readers fill the gaps that need to be explored in characters, examine potentials in the characters that go unexplored in the source text, and bring them to the fore. We can witness how characters exceed the limits of the genre and, by doing so, bring more flexibility and dynamism to its form.

As they spread, these flexible forms serve as paratexts to source texts.[1] Paratexts are narrowly defined by the literary theorist Gérard Genette as the productions that surround the text, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, or an illustration (1). “The paratext,” Genette writes, “provides an airlock that helps the reader pass without too much respiratory difficulty from one world to the other” (408). Expanding Genette’s definition, Jonathan Gray suggests that the paratext not only facilitates an understanding of the text, but [End Page 4] also violates its meanings. They “establish the frames and filters through which we look at, listen to, and interpret the texts they hype” (Show Sold Separately 3). What is more, Gray notes that paratexts are not only industry-created but audience-created as well. “[Audience’s] creative and discursive products,” he writes, “can and often do become important additions to a text” (Show Sold Separately 143). From here stems the importance of paying special attention to readers’ practices in studies of the romance genre. Readers’ prolific creation of paratexts—not only on the internet, but in their daily life as well—calls into question the type of meanings and challenges they bring to the romance hero and the genre in general. This study argues that the romance genre cannot be adequately understood without taking into account paratexts created by readers, which, as discussed above, have the ability to invade, interrupt and challenge the meanings of the source text and become part of it.

Significantly, as noted from analyzing readers’ practices on the internet, the paratexts created around the romance genre are not generated only by fans (regular readers of the genre), but also by antifans (people who dislike the genre), and nonfans (people who are not regular readers of it). A good example of this diversity can be found in discussions of Twilight, which are generated by three discrete groups: Twihards (fans of Twilight); Twihaters (antifans of Twilight); and Twilight nonfans (those who have a neutral position in relation to the text). This variation adds to the diversity of the paratexts created around the source text. Gray distinguishes between fans and antifans, and explains how the practices of each of these groups are different depending on how close they are to the source text. Fans, according to Gray, can certainly be categorized as close readers who analyze the text in order to derive its hidden meanings. In addition to close reading of the text, fans “actively look ‘outside’ the nucleus to intruders and intertexts, negotiating certain readings of the text, and they may well read over or in spite of it […], fitting text into personal or group context” (“New Audience” 69-70). Fans’ practices, then, combine both close reading of the text as well as reading across other texts and contexts. These different types of activities make fan-produced work a rich material to use for the investigation of the afterlife of the romance hero.

Compared to studies of fans, however, Gray notes that there is little work on either antifans or nonfans. Neglecting these groups, he argues, limits our understanding of how media messages are received and used by audiences. To fully understand audiences’ interaction with media texts, Gray suggests that we must explore the work of anti-fans and nonfans too (“New Audience” 68). Gray defines antifans as “individuals spinning around a text in its electron cloud, variously bothered, insulted or otherwise assaulted by its presence” (“New Audience” 70). They “strongly dislike a given text or genre, considering it inane, stupid, morally bankrupt and/or aesthetic drivel” (“New Audience” 70). Beside their dislike of the text, the significance of antifans’ practices is that a considerable amount of their knowledge of the text comes from media and other people’s discussions, rather than a close reading of the source text. Whether they have read it or not, Gray notes, “anti-fans construct an image of the text – and, what is more, an image they feel is accurate – sufficiently enough that they can react to and against it” (“New Audience” 71). Thus, in contrast to those who read the source text closely in order to derive its meanings, antifans’ knowledge of the source text comes from the paratexts surrounding it, another important source from which genre definition and interpretation can be derived. Lack of close reading, however, does not mean that antifans are not engaged with the source text. As Gray notes, “behind dislike, after all, [End Page 5] there are always expectations – of what a text should be like, of what is a waste of media time and space, of what morality or aesthetics texts should adopt, and of what we would like to see others watch or read” (“New Audience” 73). The investigation of antifans’ engagement with different issues in the source text helps us understand how the romance hero is perceived and defined from sources other than the source text, such as paratexts.

Drawing on Gray’s argument, this study examines how the character of the romance hero is reproduced, negotiated and altered by readers with different levels of regard for, and involvement with, the source texts. Readers’ varying degrees of engagement with the source text, as we will see, result in a divergent—and even contradictory—reproduction of the genre, which further emphasizes its dynamism outside the confines of the source text. In order to account for readers’ various levels of engagement with the romance genre as theorized by Gray, this study does not assume an ideal reader of romance based on textual analysis alone, nor does it restrict itself to the investigation of practices performed by only fans or a limited group of readers. In its examination of the reproduction of the romance hero, it investigates different types of readers’ practices produced by fans and antifans. It is difficult, however, to affirm the position of the reader—fan, antifan or nonfan—from the practices he/she produces on the internet, especially because much of the work online is produced anonymously. In addition, readers’ position in relation to the texts is not fixed; they can move from being a fan to a nonfan and even to an antifan. Asking readers about their opinions of and position from the text is not helpful either because the aim of this study is to build a theoretical position from what is found on the internet; remaining open to influence rather than imposing a predetermined theory or questionnaire from above. Therefore, this study explores samples from what appears to be practices of different groups of readers, each of which, as argued above, bring different meanings and challenges to the romance hero. Examples of these different practices can be found in fanfiction and image-macro memes. While this study does not assert a certain position to the producers of any of these practices, this range of practices reflects different levels of engagement with the source text. While fanfiction reflects close engagement with the source text, image-macro memes reflect an anti-fan attitude towards it because of their satirical tone. Moreover, the jokes found in image-macro memes are built on each other, i.e. inspired by paratexts, which can be interpreted as an antifan attitude.

As a case study, this article submits to examination readers’ reproduction of the fictional character Edward Cullen from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, a paranormal romance series narrating a love story between a vampire and a teenage girl. Twilight is a suitable text for the investigation of the romance hero as a dynamic and participatory construction because of its huge popularity that is in direct relation to the hero. The investigation of fans’ activities shows that little attention is paid to Bella, the female heroine, in comparison to Edward. On the website The Twilight Saga, for example, while Team Bella has 7431 members only, Team Edward has 20005 members. The popularity of the text, which is in direct proportion to the popularity of its hero, provides us with excellent material for the exploration of readers’ reproduction of the romance hero because many people have left their responses and discussions on the internet, available for investigation and analysis.

Furthermore, Edward Cullen’s unconventional and multifaceted performance of masculinity provides rich material for readers to explore and opens up the opportunity for various and contradictory readings of his character. The character of Edward Cullen exemplifies the problematic paradox in the contemporary romance novel’s representation [End Page 6] of the hero, in which hegemonic masculinity—“which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell 77)—of the hero is challenged even as it is romanticized. The paradox of the character of Edward Cullen stems from his portrayal, which represents an intersection of two movements: the move toward the domestic vampire and the move towards the alpha male. On the one hand, describing this new type of vampire, Joan Gordon notes that while the traditional vampire found in horror movies is inherently evil and his “power over his prey is both extraordinary and cruel”, the new vampire is “sympathetic” and a “super-survivor” (230). The Cullen family in Twilight belongs to this new class of vampires. Even though they have supernatural powers and feed on blood, they do not harm humans and follow a “vegetarian” diet in which they drink animal blood only. Edward, as a member of the family, uses his power to save Bella’s life repeatedly from accidents and attacks. Furthermore, he is represented as a caring boyfriend: he carries her books, sings her lullabies, and completes her college applications and sends them for her. Tracy Bealer believes that, as a romance hero, Edward’s character challenges normative gender roles. “By situating Edward’s reluctant and fraught evolution from a patronizing and callous loner to an empathetic and vulnerable romantic partner in a supernatural context,” she writes, “the novels hyperbolize and thoughtfully address the trials of negotiating a progressive male identity in a masculinist world” (140). Chiho Nakagawa believes the Edward Cullen belongs to a new generation of men who “express their feelings often enough to avoid major misunderstandings […] always try their hardest to understand their girlfriends’ emotional lives, often putting concern for them ahead of their masculine code of behavior” (Nakagawa). On many occasions in Twilight, then, Edward Cullen represents a modified type of masculinity, where the man is emotional and caring.

On the other hand, however, despite the text’s portrayal of a groomed, sensitive and caring hero, power is still unequally distributed between him and the heroine, given that vampirism, as embodied by Edward, mirrors hegemonic masculinity and propels the human heroine, Bella, into an almost constant state of subordination. As Pramod Nayar affirms, Edward’s vampirism is used to emphasize his character as hegemonic (62). Jessica Taylor also asserts that “the inclusion of the supernatural [in Twilight] allows the depiction of an aggressive, even monstrous, masculinity” (393). Furthermore, studying common signs of an abusive partner, Melissa Miller comments that Twilight “promotes a dangerous and damaging ideology of patriarchy that normalizes and rationalizes the control of women by men” (165). We can say, then, that as an super-powerful vampire who is also generous and protective, Edward Cullen reflects features from different types of masculinity. In this sense, he represents a hybrid form of masculinity, or what Stéphanie Genz and Benjamin Brabon describe as “a melting pot of masculinities, blending a variety of contested subject positions” (143). Performing contradictory types of masculinity can partly explain the lack of critical consensus over whether the character of Edward Cullen is representative of hegemonic or more fluid forms of masculinity. The following analysis, however, shows how readers read between spoken and unspoken lines of the source text and use their interpretive power to challenge, undermine or reinforce the scope of the character of the romance hero and the type of masculinity he embodies. [End Page 7]

Readers’ Reproduction of the Romance Hero

A: Fanfiction

The fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” realizes the potential within Twilight to subvert the hegemonic masculinity of the romance hero and present instead a soft, caring and emotionally available hero, and takes these traits to a new level of significance. It creates a version of Edward who deviates completely from the masculine role required by the romance genre and plays instead the role usually ascribed to the female protagonist. It does so by rewriting the story of the source text with the genders of the two main characters switched: Edward’s role is played by a female character named Eliza and Bella’s role is played by a male character named Ben.[2]

The use of genderswap in this fanfiction works as a critical response to the source text’s representation of gender roles. The oddness of having the male protagonist play the role of the female, and vice versa, reveals the rigidness of these two roles in the romance novel, that, in most cases, reproduces men in the position of power and women as submissive. In doing so, genderswap fanfiction resembles the drag performances Judith Butler famously references when she discusses the notion of gender as “performative”. Butler argues that:

As much as drag creates a unified picture of ‘woman’ […] it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency. (175)

Drag performances, Butler emphasizes, make you ask, “is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?” (viii). Drag performances reveal an important point about gender, which is that it comprises the illusion that it is authentic while it is not. Akin to the drag performance, genderswap in “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” excavates the performative aspect of gender. By exchanging the genders of the male and female characters, while preserving roles and behaviors attached to them as they are represented in the source text, the fanfiction actively destabilizes the notion of ‘authenticity’ of gender roles and presents them as exchangeable. My focus in this article, however, is on the challenges presented to the role of the hero and his performance of masculinity. Through genderswap, a thread of male domination and control in the source text is thrown into relief, thereby revealing that despite the source text’s manipulation of conventional masculinity, its portrayal of the hero still maintains key aspects of traditional masculinity: dominance and control.

“Dusk: the Twilight Saga” illuminates various moments of masculine domination in the narrative of the source text and reworks them to a new significance when the gender of the two main characters are reversed. To start with, while both the male and female protagonists are represented as objects of gaze in the source text, gender reversal in “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” exposes that the type of the gaze directed at the male protagonist is different from the one directed at the female. Studying the function of the gaze and the [End Page 8] concept of scopophilia in Twilight texts and films, Kim Edwards notes that in Twilight, “the gaze denotes power and dominance, and the inability to see clearly indicates weakness and submission” (30). Nevertheless, Edwards argues that in Twilight, the power of the gaze is shifting between the hero and heroine. “The implied male authority of the gaze in fetishising an image as sexual stimulant,” Edwards notes “is reclaimed by Bella, and by extension, her empathizing audience” (29). In Twilight, Bella spends a lot of time describing Edward’s looks and body. For example, she says: “I looked up, stunned that he was speaking to me […] His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips” (Meyer, Twilight 37). Like the female protagonist, then, the male protagonist in Twilight occupies both positions: the desiring gazer and the desired object of the gaze.

Nevertheless, as Dodai Stewart suggests, there is a distinction between the type of gaze directed at men in popular films and that which is directed at women. She notes that, “the objectification of men is a false equivalency to the objectification of women, because what’s being fetishized is strength. […] ‘sexy’ images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child” (Stewart). As Stewart’s analysis indicates, the objectification of the male protagonist in Twilight cannot be equated with that of the female: while the objectifying gaze is directed at Bella’s physical weakness, it is directed at Edward’s physical strength, which means that, despite the “shifting” gaze between male and female characters, the male is still in possession of power. When Bella gazes at Edward in the source text, she usually talks about his powerful physical features and dominance. For example, she says: He had the long sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows, and his forearm was surprisingly hard and muscular beneath his light skin” (Meyer, Twilight 21). Using words such as “hard” and “muscular” to describe Edward suggests that what Bella finds pleasing in Edward’s appearance are frequently visual markers of his strength.

In “Dusk: the Twilight Saga”, Ben appears as an attractive, but fragile and weak man. The fanfiction starts by narrating Ben’s role of “being-looked-at-ness” in his first day at the new school: “Starting a new school in the middle of the year is not typically appealing, […]. The moment I walked into the hall I was the object of every kind of stare possible” (Mathews). More specifically, Ben is the object of the gaze of a girl named Eliza: “I glanced over my shoulder and sure enough Eliza was staring at me. Her dark onyx eyes fixated on me, like a predatory [sic] glaring at its prey” (Mathews). This scene stands in stark opposition to the type of gaze directed at Edward in the source text, in which his physical power is emphasised. The gaze targeted at Ben here resembles the gaze directed at Bella in the source text which, as Florian Grandena notes, is defined by her “to-be-spied-on-ness” (47); that is, by being under control of the watchful eye of her protective boyfriend. Similarly, in this fanfiction, Ben is looked at as a weak object and “prey” under the control of Eliza.

Ben’s submissive position in contrast to Edward’s is also developed in the fanfiction through the reversal of a common romance trope: the endangerment and rescue scenario, in which the heroine is depicted as someone who is in constant danger and in need of protection. In Twilight, Edward rescues Bella from being struck by a van, from rapists, and from a murderous vampire. Indeed, because Edward is a vampire and Bella is a human, she is conceived as essentially weaker than the male to as even greater extent than in romances in which the hero is a mortal man, which increases her need for his protection. Bella says: “It was against the rules for normal people — human people like me and Charlie — to know [End Page 9] about the clandestine world full of myths and monsters that existed secretly around us” (Meyer, Twilight 11). Eva Illouz explains that the weakness of women is:

acknowledged and glorified because it transfigured male power and female fraility into lovable qualities, such as ‘protectiveness’ for the one, and ‘softness’ and gentleness for the other. Women’s social inferiority could thus be traded for men’s absolute devotion in love, which in turn served as the very site of display and exercise of their masculinity, prowess, and honor. (8)

Following the same scenario, in Twilight, Bella’s human status naturalizes her weak position in the relationship and, in return, emphasizes and reinforces Edward’s powerful and protective role.

In a direct reversal of the protective role of the traditional man, in “Dusk: the Twilight Saga”, Ben does not define himself as a superior, a decision-maker or a controlling lover. He is represented as a weak and fragile victim who is in need of constant watch and protection from the heroine. The fanfiction identifies several moments in the source text in which Bella is represented as a victim and Edward as her rescuer, and rewrites them with these roles reversed. For example, Eliza uses her vampire power to save Ben from a car accident. She also rescues him when a vampire tries to kill him: she “grabbed him by his arm, turned her body, throwing him out of a window. She rushed towards me, picking me up fireman style” (Mathews). Ben’s passivity is further emphasized by being carried like a child. Akin to the female protagonist in the source text, Ben’s status as a human makes him essentially weaker than Eliza and therefore in need of her protection. Genderswap in this fanfiction thus emphasizes that power is enforced from the outside and can be exchangeable. In the source text, vampirism provides an alibi for male dominance; giving that power to Eliza distinguishes the two and reminds readers that they aren’t interchangeable. That is to say, associating power with vampirism, but not with masculinity, challenges fixed gender roles as represented in the source text and depicts them as inauthentic.

Even though this fanfiction is not fully representative of the massive amount of fan works inspired by Twilight, it provides significant insights into patterns of readers’ participation in the reproduction and manipulation of the romance hero. While it does not ideally represent an equally powerful hero and heroine, Ben’s performance of a feminized version of the romance hero invites readers to question the extent to which these traits seem natural when attached to the heroine rather than the hero, as they are in the source text. Simultaneously, the forced and artificial gender-remapping in this fanfiction challenges essentialist notions of gender as they usually appear in the romance novel. While traditional gender roles are less visible when naturalized—that is, when they are attached to the “normal” gender— they are more obvious when exchanged. Whether intentionally or not, this fanfiction mirrors important arguments against essentialist notions and definitions of gender and masculinity and presents them in a romance narrative. Through its creation of a “feminized hero”, the fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” gestures toward the introduction of alternative types of masculinity into the romance novel. It suggests that the hegemonic masculinity of the romance hero could be replaced by a more emotional and less oppressive means of being a man. By doing this, it participates in what Illouz asks for when she writes: “Instead of hammering at men their emotional incapacity, we should invoke models of emotional masculinity other than those based on sexual capital. Such cultural invocation [End Page 10] might in fact take us closer to the goals of feminism” (247). Likewise, Bealer asserts that one of the feminist goals is to “unhing[e] the social symbols of power from the male body, and imagin[e] new ways of inhabiting a masculine identity that do not reflect and encourage the emotional hardness and impenetrability associated with masculinist domination” (140). “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” participates in the discourse that tries to redefine, and accept, the category of masculinity in broader and more inclusive ways. Ben is not punished for challenging gender roles; on the contrary, Eliza approves of his version of masculinity and he achieves his happy ending. This interpretation and reproduction of the romance hero reflect readers’ yearning for a type of masculinity that is not restricted to the traditional image of the patriarchal man.

As I have discussed earlier, however, Edward’s embodiment of multiple types of masculinity apparently prompted readers to engage these different, and sometimes contradictory, forms and try to make sense of them. While the fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” situates the character of the romance hero in the place conventionally occupied by the heroine, the fanfiction “One” recreates the hero in accordance with hegemonic masculinity and exaggerates his role as a superior and a protector. As in the feminized version, however, this reading of Edward’s character is not originated by the fanfiction, but rather is derived from the source text. As discussed in the introduction, despite its manipulation of some aspects of traditional masculinity, Twilight does not present a real challenge to the conventional theme of male dominance found in most romance novels. As Melissa Miller notes, the “Twilight narrative […] promotes a dangerous and damaging ideology of patriarchy that normalizes and rationalizes the control of women by men” (165). In Twilight, Edward appears more like a father figure in Bella’s life than a lover. As Anna Silver notes, the relationship between Edward and Bella is portrayed as a “parental” one (124-125). Edward and Bella’s relationship, it often seems, is not between equal and similarly aged adults, but between a father and a child. Bella tells us: “Edward had scooped me up in his arms, as easily as if I weighed ten pounds instead of a hundred and ten” (Meyer, Twilight 83). On another occasion, she says: Edward “reached out with his long arms to pick me up, gripping the tops of my arms like I was a toddler. He sat me on the bed beside him” (260). In fact, Edward himself refers to Bella as “an insignificant little girl” (Meyer, Twilight 237). These moments emphasize Edward’s quasi-paternal role in Bella’s life.

The fanfiction “One” explores Edward’s role as a lover and a father in Twilight and reveals the patriarchal ideology operating in the text by making Edward literally Bella’s legal guardian. It narrates a love story between Bella, a sixteen-year-old teenager, and her adopted brother, Edward, a twenty-one-year-old man. After the death of their parents, Edward becomes Bella’s legal guardian. The attorney tells Edward: “It ultimately is your decision whether or not you want to oblige to your parent’s wishes and become her legal guardian” (ForeverJupJewel). Resonating with the way the source text establishes the relationship between Edward and Bella as unequal—one of them is a vampire and the other is a human— “One” narrates a story in which the male protagonist is a mature man, who has the choice to be Bella’s “legal guardian” or not, and a female minor, who has no choice but to follow her guardian’s decision. Edward agrees to be Bella’s guardian and become the legal equivalent of her father. As her elder brother, and only guardian, he becomes responsible for her money, which allows him to interfere with her choices.

The adopted brother-Edward in “One” uncannily resembles the lover-Edward from Twilight in the way he treats Bella. Narrated from Bella’s point of view, the fanfiction [End Page 11] describes her relationship with him throughout her childhood in a way that highlights these similarities. Like Edward from the source text who stalks Bella and questions her friends, in this fanfiction, Bella recounts: “As we both grew in age, his possessiveness over me leveled to new heights when I was thirteen. He rarely let me be alone […]. Always hovering over me. He always questioned the friends I would hang out with. Ultimately, he made me question myself” (ForeverJupJewel). As in the source text too, Edward’s protective behavior in this fanfiction can be justified; she is young and weak and he is her guardian and older brother. She narrates: Edward “would help me through whatever I was going through. Wouldn’t get upset when I would stumble into his room late at night, awakened by a nightmare. He would hold me and tell me everything was going to be okay, lull me to a good night’s sleep in his arms” (ForeverJupJewel). As they grow up, Edward’s controlling behavior drives him to be overprotective of Bella’s sexuality too. He tells her: “please tell me you’ve never done anything physical with another boy? […] I’ll kill him” (ForeverJupJewel). When Bella assures him that she did not sleep with anyone, he tells her: “Bella, please don’t speak so lightly about your virginity. It’s serious. Once you lose it, you can never get it back again” (ForeverJupJewel). Stating that woman’s loss of virginity is a “serious” issue replicates the source text’s insistence on the notion that female virginity is “breakable”. As Melissa Ames writes, the Twilight series is “hostile to female sexuality” and “overly concerned with the purity of [its] female characters” (50). In Twilight, Edward refrains from sleeping with Bella until they get married, even though this is not her preference. His refusal to sleep with Bella is not only because he is worried that his sexual desire for her might evoke his desire for her blood, but also because he wants to protect their virginity until marriage. He tells her: “it’s not possible now. Later, when you’re less breakable. Be patient, Bella” (Meyer, Eclipse 411). Despite his love for her, Edward will not sleep under the same cover with Bella.

While Edward’s control and protectiveness in the source text—and also Bella’s virginity—follow the conventions of the romance novel, the virginity of the hero is an inversion of these conventions. As Jonathan Allan notes, the romantic virgin hero is “perhaps a rarity, both in fiction and in scholarship” (“Theorizing Male
Virginity”). “One” not only exaggerates Edward’s parental role in Twilight, but also reforms his character to match the traditional romance hero, who is hardly ever a virgin. It portrays Edward as a man who, unlike the virgin Edward from the source text, has many sexual experiences. While he is protecting Bella’s sexuality, he himself is indulging in sexual relationships with women. When Bella finds out about his ex-fiancé Tanya, he explains: “we started a more, um, physical relationship I guess you could say, two months into our relationship, […] our relationship turned to be only physical, there was nothing emotional about [it]” (ForeverJupJewel). Thus, unlike the fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga”, in which the male protagonist deviates from the conventional portrayal of the romance hero, the fanfiction “One” reforms areas of deviation in the source text and recreates the hero in accordance with the traditional alpha male. It might be said that through this reformation and exaggeration, this fanfiction draws the reader’s attention to the patriarchal ideology that still operates in the source text despite its manipulation of some of the generic characteristics of the romance hero.

Indeed, the fanfiction’s resistance to the patriarchal ideology operating in Twilight is evident in the way in which it alters the heroine’s reaction to Edward’s controlling behavior from acceptance to objection. Unlike Bella in the source text, who, as discussed above, accepts Edward’s controlling behavior and finds it attractive, Bella in this fanfiction refuses his control over her life and does not see it as romantic. In “One”, despite Bella’s feeling that [End Page 12] she needs Edward’s care, she makes it very clear that she does not want him to control her life. Consider the following conversation between her and Edward, for example:

‘Edward,’ I asked softly.

‘Yeah Bella.’

‘Promise me something,’ I said.

He glanced over to me, ‘Anything.’

I took a deep breath, ‘Promise me that whatever happens, you’ll let me live my life after this. You’ll let me go. Promise me.’ (ForeverJupJewel)

Compare the above lines with the following conversation from the source text:

‘Don’t leave me,’ I begged in a broken voice.

‘I won’t,’ he promised. ‘Now relax before I call the nurse back to sedate you.’

But my heart couldn’t slow.

‘Bella.’ He stroked my face anxiously. ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right here as long as you need me.’

‘Do you swear you won’t leave me?’ I whispered. I tried to control the gasping, at least. My ribs were throbbing.

He put his hands on either side of my face and brought his face close to mine. His eyes were wide and serious. ‘I swear.’ (Meyer, Twilight 410)

The piece from “One” seems to be directly talking back to the dialogue from the source text. Unlike Bella in the source text, who asks Edward to stay and never leave, in “One”, Bella asks him to leave her alone and let her live her life. She also asserts her right to choose for herself and not to let Edward control her choices: “Edward, you are not my dad. Hell, you’re not even my real brother, so you have no right over me. Leave. Me. Alone” (ForeverJupJewel). The reader who is familiar with the source text can immediately recognize the sharp contrast between Bella’s response to Edward’s controlling behavior in Twilight and the response suggested by this fanfiction.

Thus, we can say that, on the one hand, “One” takes the dominant side of Edward’s character and exaggerates it in a way that conforms with traditional patriarchy in order to dwell on its implications. Exaggeration, as a narrative tool, could suggest that the fan writer is attempting to transcend the patriarchal system operating in the source text by knowingly and consciously partaking in it. On the other hand, by making Bella refuse Edward’s controlling behavior, “One” criticizes the romance novel’s portrayal of the hero’s control as [End Page 13] romantic. Through its portrayal of the heroine’s objection to the hero’s control, this fanfiction manifests a type of resistance to the patriarchal ideologies found in the source text.

B: Image-macro memes

Creating and sharing image-macro memes on the internet are important ways by which readers participate in the construction of a dynamic romance hero. Twilight image-macro memes are widely popular among audiences, especially antifans of the text or those who call themselves “Twihaters” (Gibron). In order not to restrict the search for image-macro memes to one website, my research strategy was to conduct a Google search on the phrase “Twilight memes” and look through the images suggested from different websites. I narrowed my search down to image-macros that responded to the character of the hero, Edward Cullen. The image-macro memes examined in this section are not representative of all the material produced on the internet. They are only examined as examples of the ways in which romance readers participate in the reproduction of a dynamic romance hero through their creating and sharing of image-macro memes.

Image-macros are multimodal memes, created by the combination of a picture and a text. What distinguishes image-macro memes from fanfiction is the ease by which they can be created and shared. As an easily created and accessed type of paratext, image-macro memes are expected to deliver their messages faster and more widely than other types of fan-practices, which means that, despite their simplicity, they form an important type of participation in the genre. The analysis of eight image-macros (divided into three groups) targeted at Twilight’s portrayal of the hero enabled me to identify two main forms of resistant reading: (1) revealing the text’s hidden messages, and (2) questioning and mocking the text’s portrayal of masculinity and the vampire figure.

The first group of image-macros build their humor on exaggerating implicit messages in the source text and making them literal or explicit. Image-macro 1 shows a picture of Edward holding Bella in a protective/controlling way. The caption on the picture, which is supposed to be Bella’s words, is divided into two lines: “how long will he make decisions”, and “for me?”. Separating Bella’s question into two parts highlights the latter as the joke—or the “punch line”—and, thus, absurd. Edward’s body language and Bella’s question together blatantly brings the viewer’s attention to this thorny side of their relationship, in which Edward plays the role of the controlling lover who takes decisions on behalf of his girlfriend. In image-macro 2, we see Edward and Bella’s faces, with a dialogue bubble next to Edward’s head saying “I like children”, referring to the age gap between the two: Edward is 100 years old and Bella is only 17. In the source text, Bella does not ask “how long will he make decisions for me”, nor does Edward say, “I like children”; however, their actions, as discussed in the previous section, imply these meanings. By making the text’s problematic and implicit messages explicit, these image-macros present a serious critique of the text’s portrayal of the hero. The generic aspects of the romance hero, such as being older than the heroine and having control over her, are being highlighted and mocked.

The second group of image-macros directly questions and pokes fun at Meyer’s construction of the vampire figure and masculinity. Image-macro 3 shows Dracula’s doubtful face, from the film Dracula (1958), with the caption “Dracula’s face when he first saw Twilight”, to suggest that he does not recognize Edward as a vampire. By referring to other [End Page 14] texts and putting Edward in opposition to Dracula, this image-macro achieves two effects: it draws attention to Edward’s failure to be a vampire and makes general claim about how the vampire figure should look and act like. In a comic-like strip, image-macro 4 too rejects Meyer’s interference and subversion of the traditional image of the vampire and expresses a desire to keep the vampire figure form being collapsed into the romance hero. It ridicules Meyer’s manipulation of the vampire by giving Edward white, feathery wings, and making him say “I am a fairy”.

The third group of image-macro memes shows a resistance to instances in which Edward deviates from traditional masculinity. Drawing on connections from a different film, image-macro 5 depicts Bella telling Edward, “I know what you are”, combined with a picture of a girl from the movie Mean Girls (2004), failing to disguise as a mouse, but insisting on it by saying “I am a mouse, DUH!”. Drawing on the same joke of ridiculous disguise, image-macro 6 depicts a picture of a small girl, with glitter all over her face, saying “I am a vampire”. Besides mocking Edward’s vampirism as false through the use of ornaments, such as the headband and facial glitter, the use of girls’ pictures in both image-macros suggests a rejection of the type of masculinity Edward performs in the source text. The implication is that Edward’s vampirism as well as masculinity are fake; he is nothing more than a dressed up girly-girl. Along the same lines, image-macro 7 compares Edward’s “fake masculinity” with the hyper-masculine hero from the film series Rambo (1982-2008), which, according to the caption, is how “real men” should be.

Not all reproductions of the romance hero, however, express a desire to retain traditional images of masculinity. Image-macro 8 comments on Edward’s over-rated beauty and charm by using his face as a model for make-up advertisement. This image-macro might be speaking to slash fanfiction communities which reproduce queer narratives of Twilight. Besides providing a safe space for the exploration of sexuality, queer narratives, as Lucy Neville explains, offer women “the chance to experiment with the power of their own gaze and to explore their sense of sexual orientation and gender identification” (204). Queer reproduction of the romance hero also challenges traditional forms of masculinity. As Sharon Hayes and Matthew Ball note:

the performance of masculinity in slash fan fiction is almost never stereotyped. Rather, masculinity is often depicted as a delicate balance of emotional, physical, and sexual interactions between the characters and as such is as varied as there are numbers of stories in fandom. (225)

The same thing can be said of image-macro memes in which the character of the romance hero is reproduced in ways that deviate from traditional masculinity. As a face for a makeup advertisement, Edward is represented as an object of gaze. Furthermore, gender is thrown open to interpretation in this image-macro, with Edward wearing makeup and demonstrating “feminine” attributes.

We can say then that image-macro memes’ reproduction of the romance hero is multifaceted. In some cases, they show a kind of homophobic attitude and a desire to revert to orthodox masculinity that requires a man to be aggressive and not to take care of his looks. In this sense, they assert Jonathan Allan’s argument that there is an “institutional homophobia” lurking in the background of the romance novel, “in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not feminine, queer, and homosexual” (“Purity of His Maleness” [End Page 15] 35). On the other hand, however, there are image-macro memes that reproduce a queer image of the romance hero and present a direct critique of traditional masculinity. This army of impassioned responses attest to the extent to which Edward’s character represents a complex blend of different types of masculinities that leaves audiences uncomfortable and feeling the need to intervene and make sense of these contradictions. What remains consistent, however, is the degree to which readers’ reproductions of the hero of romance, in accordance with traditional masculinity or otherwise, remain open to endless reinterpretations and revisions, which contributes to the genre’s dynamism.

It is true that most image-macro memes are created and shared for entertainment purposes; however, as we have seen, when we examine the ways by which they respond to the source text, different forms of interpretation and critique surface. In the context of popular fiction, the analysis above suggests that image-macro memes use satirical humor in order to expose and criticize what they see as failures in the source text. While criticism of Edward’s controlling behavior and age is implicit in the fanfiction, it is openly addressed in the above image-macro memes. In the context of humor, image-macro memes are more direct and blunt in their criticism of the source text. The simple fact that many internet users create and share image-macro memes that criticize or protect the image of the romance hero is in itself an important finding because it shows that readers are eager to engage with and participate in the construction of this image. The construction of the romance hero and the type of masculinity he embodies, then, continues even after the publication of the source text. This continuous construction plays an important role in fostering the dynamism of the romance hero and destabilizing the image of ideal masculinity.

This article has examined the character of the romance hero as a dynamic and participatory construction. To examine this proposition, it has investigated the afterlife of the romance hero, Edward Cullen, as it has appeared in different types of readers’ practices on the internet. Either in the form of fanfiction or image-macro memes, this article has argued that these practices participate in fostering and complicating the dynamism of the character of the romance hero, and simultaneously, the type of masculinity he embodies. This manipulation of the romance hero and traditional masculinity promotes feminist ideas, and from here stems its importance in romance genre studies. This study does not argue that power is ultimately in readers’ hands in the romance genre production. However, even if readers’ practices do not really change the romance genre at the present, they can be considered as means to highlight its different issues. Writers and producers can get invaluable feedback and content from readers’ practices to consider for their future work. This is especially remarkable given that readers’ reproductions of the romance genre, as this article has shown, are multiple and contradictory.


[1] The term ‘source text’ will be used throughout this study to refer to texts that are professionally published by novelists.

[2] The word ‘switched’ is not used here to imply or reinforce the binary model of gender as either/or. It is used merely to explain the fanfiction. [End Page 16]

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Grandena, Florian. “Heading Toward the Past: The Twilight Vampire Figure as Surveillance Metaphor.” Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, edited by Marina Levina and Diem-My Bui, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 35-52.

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Hayes, Sharon, and Matthew Ball. “Queering Cyberspace: Fan Fiction Communities as Spaces for Expressing and Exploring Sexuality.” Queering Paradigms, edited by Burkhard Scherer, Vol. 1, Peter Lang, 2009, pp. 219-240.

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List of Image-macro Memes

Image-macro 1, Twilight Meme, Everyday Feminism, 2012, http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/07/admiring-emotionally-abusive-relationships/. Accessed 11 May 2014.

Image-macro 2, Twilight Meme, Meme Centre, http://www.memecenter.com/search/twilight. Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 3, Dracula is Disgusted, Gagaholism, http://gagaholism.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2013-01-25T08:34:00-08:00&max-results=1&start=5&by-date=false. Accessed 24 October 2019.

Image-macro 4, Meme, 2012, https://me.me/i/bella-i-need-to-tel-you-something-seree-junkies-what-dca24505820f42cc835bb8646c75aa41. Accessed 24 October 2019.

Image-macro 5, Twilight Meme, We Heart It, 2014, https://weheartit.com/entry/76255918. Accessed 11 May 2014.

Image-macro 6, Twilight Meme, Meme Centre, http://www.memecenter.com/search/twilight. Accessed 14 May 2014.

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“Tell Me Lies: Lying, Storytelling, and the Romance Novel as Feminist Fiction” by Patricia Zakreski

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

The bet.

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.

Works Cited

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.


[1] For a discussion of the critical rejection of the romance novel see Regis, esp. pp. xi-xii and 3-16.

[2] 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.

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“‘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.[1]

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.[2]) 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.[3]

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.” [4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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).[7] 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.[8] 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,”[9] 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[10]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.[11]

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.

Works Cited

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.

Vassiliou, Giannis. Rev. of Soula Ela Ksana, 2008. http://www.cinemanews.gr/v5/movies.php?n=6317www.boxoffice.mojo

Filmography

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)

Rebound (2010)

Rizoto (2000).

S.E.X. (2009)
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)

Twilight (2009)

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Up (2009)

Watchmen (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)


[1] 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).

[2] 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)).

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] This observation is based on a corpus which includes more than 150 romantic comedies produced in the U.S.A. and released domestically and/or worldwide from 2001 to 2009 (Kaklamanidou 167-178).

[7] 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).”

[8] 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.

[9] All translations of dialogue, from this and the other films, are mine.

[10] For more on the unique use of color, décor and costume in Pedro Almodóvar’s body of work, see Mark Allinson (158-193).

[11] 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.

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