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‘Falling in Love Intelligently’: Eugenic Love in the Progressive Era
by Susan Rensing

On February 21, 1915, the Chicago Tribune ran an appeal to readers for letters describing their experiences falling in love. With the promise of $1 for every letter published, the newspaper asked its audience to describe what attracted them most to their beloved. “Was it a wayward curl, a roguish eye, a dimple or an alluring smile? …Was it the pies she made or the flowers he brought? …Was it the possibility of a eugenic ideal?” From a modern perspective, the last question seems at odds with the first two. While the former focus on the attractiveness of an individual, either by physical features or by deeds, the latter focuses on the appropriateness of the match. The former are whimsical in tone and allude to the mystery of romance; the latter is clinical in its presentation of love as a decision-making process guided by specific goals, principles, and values. Viewing eugenics as a sort of OkCupid of the Progressive Era might be a bit surprising, especially given the predominant focus of eugenics historiography on involuntary sterilization, race suicide, and immigration restriction.[1] But a closer look at the popular reception of eugenics in the [End Page 1] US reveals an early fascination with how eugenics would make love, romance, and marriage scientific.[2]

As Alexandra Stern notes in her history of the eugenics movement in California, “placing gender and sexuality at the center of the analysis reconfigures the history of eugenics, demanding substantial temporal and thematic revisions” (7). Eugenics entered the American popular discourse in the first decade of the twentieth century—a critical juncture of changing sexual attitudes and gender relations. As Kathy Peiss documents, white middle-class Protestants were concerned about the influence of working-class sexual mores, like petting, treating, and dating, that were becoming fashionable in urban centers. Many middle-class reformers recoiled in horror as young people danced the Bunny Hug and the Grizzly Bear. Mary Odem charts how reform efforts aimed at eliminating prostitution and venereal disease resulted in the policing and regulation of working-class women’s sexuality in the early twentieth century (96-98). As Wendy Kline argues, the eugenics movement was preoccupied with the reproductive decisions of “fit” and “unfit” women and sought to instill a “‘reproductive morality’ into the public consciousness” (2). Sterilization and segregation of women who were labeled feeble-minded were central features of the eugenics movement in the Progressive Era.

But, as Colin Johnson notes, much of the historiography disproportionately presents eugenics as a “one-sided attempt to exercise power over and against particular segments of society—the poor, the ‘feeble-minded, immigrants, people of color, and so on” (28). Instead, Johnson recasts the eugenics movement within the broader history of American sexuality as a robust public discussion about sex and reproduction that “enfranchised ‘normal’ Americans with the power and responsibility to ‘cultivate the race’ in the same way that they might cultivate a tomato plant” (28). Laura Lovett furthers this claim by examining how the rhetoric of ‘race suicide’ was used to push pronatalism for middle-class white women in the United States. This article adds to the historiographic exploration of eugenics and American sexuality by examining the discourse around love and romance in the eugenic vernacular of the early twentieth century.[3] As one proponent explained, “love can, among normal people at least, be ordered” (Eugenics, 178). In a cultural moment where many worried that love and courtship had become wanton, depraved, and libidinous, eugenics promised order, efficiency, and control.[4]

Steeped in the scientism of the age, Americans in the Progressive Era were expected to assert self-control and apply the dictates of scientific experts to all aspects of their lives. In the same way that Americans were encouraged to eat rationally based on the new insights of nutrition science, they were also encouraged to love rationally based on eugenic considerations.[5] Examining the eugenic vernacular reveals how eugenics was popularly understood as a sexual science, i.e. a program for changing the relations of the sexes in order to improve future generations of humanity.[6] Proponents of this view of eugenics were determined to instill a eugenic conscience in young people, particularly college-educated women. The focus on women’s role in mate selection connected eugenics in the public consciousness with the rise of the New Woman and the emerging feminist movement. This article breaks new ground by revealing the gendered anxieties underlying popular anti-eugenics sentiment.

In 1904, Francis Galton unveiled his vision of a new science of good breeding that he called eugenics at the newly founded English Sociological Society (Life, Letters 259). Americans were then introduced to eugenics through newspaper coverage of Galton’s talk [End Page 2] that originated with the London Express but was subsequently reprinted and paraphrased. These articles laid the groundwork for how the American public would come to perceive eugenics as a sexual science. One quote from Galton’s address became emblematic of the goals of eugenics. As the Anaconda Standard described it, “Dr. Galton, in explaining this science, which he may have said to have invented, said ‘The passion of love seems to be so overpowering that it may be thought folly to try to direct its course. But plain facts do not confirm this view. Social influences have immense power. If suitable marriages, from the eugenic point of view, were banned socially, few would be made” (“Society to Study Heredity” 2). The Montgomery Advertiser included discussion of the new “love-regulating science” of eugenics alongside other “Scientific Miscellany” such as improvements in microscope technology and experiments in nutritionally enhanced vegetables. Similar to the other news coverage, the Montgomery Advertiser explained, “It [eugenics] will strive to regulate the passion of love, absurd as this may seem, and much toward this is expected from placing a social ban on unsuitable marriages” (“Scientific Miscellany” 18). From the beginning, then, eugenics was presented as a scientific program for modernizing love and marriage. Romantic love needed to be shaped, controlled, and rationalized so that Americans would only marry and reproduce with suitable matches.

Further complicating the newspaper coverage of the new science of eugenics was the inclusion of George Bernard Shaw’s comments on Galton’s address to the Sociological Society. Both Shaw and H.G. Wells attended Galton’s lecture and offered support for his ideas as well as some measured critiques. Wells actually pointed out to Galton that eugenics was just a new word for stirpiculture and had been popular in America for decades, especially among sex radicals (Life, Letters 259). Shaw offered more unqualified support, enthusing that “there was now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization.” However, Shaw quickly moved beyond Galton’s rather modest reforms for encouraging ‘suitable’ marriages, boldly declaring “what we must fight for is freedom to build the race without being hampered by the mass of irrelevant conditions implied by marriage” (Life, Letters 260). But the quote from Shaw that was picked up for American newspaper coverage of eugenics was his quip about the haphazard nature of selecting spouses: “In spite of all the romances, men and women are amazingly indiscriminate in their attachments; they select their wives and husbands far less carefully than they select their cashiers and cooks. I am afraid we must either face a considerable shock to vulgar opinion in this matter or let eugenics alone” (“Society to Study Heredity” 2). Shaw was already well known in the US as a critic of the sexual double standard, institutionalized marriage, and American “Comstockery” (Shaw 5). Therefore, the inclusion of his comments alongside Galton’s served not only to reinforce that eugenics was a science concerned with reforming love and marriage, but also hinted that eugenics merged well with the ideology of sex radicals, who had for decades discussed how voluntary motherhood and free love would improve the race.[7] In fact, as William Leach documents in True Love and Perfect Union, late nineteenth century American feminists had been arguing for decades for a more rational approach to love as an alternative to what they saw as the pitfalls of Victorian sentimental culture (112). Because of this late nineteenth century context, eugenics was fused with the connotation of women’s empowerment, especially sexual selection of mates, from the beginning.[8] This explains why, when the word “eugenics” first appeared as an entry in the Century [End Page 3] Dictionary in 1904, the definition stated, “the doctrine of progress or evolution, especially in the human race, through improved conditions in the relations of the sexes.”

As it was described in American newspapers, eugenics was consistently presented as a scientific approach to love and relationships. The Duluth News-Tribune predicted that eugenics would eradicate the “reckless thoughtlessness of youth” and the “impulsiveness of love-at-first-sight” and replace it with “the wholesome influence of sober and thoughtful conscience in courtship” (“Science of Eugenics 6). Noting approvingly that the “new science of eugenics has therefore been evolved to direct and regulate the force of romantic love,” the article went on to envision a future where young men and women would carry around eugenic certificates that attested to their hereditary and physical fitness (6). Taking this to absurdist lengths, the article teased that the imagined couple might then seal their engagement “not by a microbic kiss, but by swapping documents” (6). Playing on this theme of sanitizing love and making sexual acts hygienic, a cartoon that was featured with an article on Wisconsin’s eugenic marriage law showed various methods for disinfecting kisses.

Illustration of germless kissing techniques.

The Macon Daily Telegraph also had similarly harsh words about love at first sight, calling it “always in error” (“Love at First Sight” 8). Eugenics, as the editorial explained it, [End Page 4] was not opposed to love, but would instead help set the “boundaries of love” by “forming new channels through which love may flow” (8). As examples of the eugenic boundaries of love, the article approvingly noted that “[p]eople do not tend to fall in love with those who are in racial respects different in contrast to themselves; they do not tend to fall in love with foreigners; they do not tend to be attracted to the ugly, the diseased, and the deformed; nor do they, as a rule, fall in love out of their own class” (“Love at First Sight” 8). The author insisted that it was important to get these eugenic ideals instilled so that people would “love in the right direction, if not at first sight” (8). For this author, eugenics functioned to reinforce existing social mores and to strengthen them with the imprimatur of science.

But for others, eugenic love was a brand new innovation for the modern age. Dr. David Allen Gorton was an 82 year-old doctor who was so enthralled with eugenics that he selected a woman to marry purely on her presumed fitness. Newspaper coverage of Gorton relied on a common Progressive Era trope of the scientist so invested in his research that he would sacrifice himself for the greater good.[9] Gorton became the father of “eugenic twins” and used his public platform to declare that Valentine’s Day would no longer be celebrated in the future. He pronounced the end of “love as we know it—the silly, unscientific love celebrated by penny romances and concoctions of lace paper and gauze ribbons.” In its place would be a “higher love, which will be born of the logical mind and not of the fluttering heart” (“No Valentine’s Day” 20). He minced no words by going even further, declaring that “romantic love leads to ill-considered unions and so is responsible for all the pauperism, for all the disease, and for all the crime that burdens the world” (20).

Illustration of Mr. and Mrs. Gorton each holding an infant.[End Page 5]

He then confidently predicted that “the breeding of children under a regime of scientific love, rather than a regime of redheart, paper lace love, will solve all our great social problems” (“No Valentine’s Day” 20). For Gorton then, eugenic love did not just reinscribe pre-existing romantic customs, but completely replaced an antiquated system that was irrational and dysgenic.

As Francis Galton had hoped, eugenics in America became like a new religion, with its own set of moral precepts and codes of conduct. Central to this movement was the development of a eugenic conscience among young people that would compel them to take into account hereditary fitness when choosing a mate. Eugenic experts who lectured at college campuses reinforced this vision of eugenics. In a collection of twelve university lectures given on eugenics from the 1910s, a consistent theme was the rationalization and control of love and romance. Harvey Ernest Jordan, in a lecture to the University of Virginia, dismissed criticisms of eugenics as “this perennial ‘human stock farm’ idea” and instead explained “[e]ugenics recognizes love of the highest and noblest quality…But it would have love intelligent” (Eugenics 111, emphasis in original). Arthur Holmes, speaking at Pennsylvania State College, stated that “[e]ugenics does not teach marriage without love, but it does suggest the Herculean task of commanding love” (Eugenics 178). Charles Davenport stressed the same point: “The general programme of the eugenist is to improve the race by inducing young people to make a more reasonable selection of marriage mates, to fall in love intelligently” (Eugenics 235).

Calls for an ordered love found strong support among women’s rights reformers, who saw in eugenics an opportunity to empower women with the power of scientific mate choice. Popular news coverage reinforced the notion that prominent women were leading the way to enact eugenic social reform. The Lexington Herald covered the founding of a new eugenics society endorsed by Washington society women, including “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Mrs. William Jennings Bryans, and Mrs. John Hays Hammond.” The new organization, called the National Society for the Promotion of Practical Eugenics, established several goals, including sex education for children and the segregation or sterilization of the unfit. Primarily, though, the founders of this organization emphasized that women should “have a voice in the selection of a mate” and that men should have not just “worldly capital alone, but biological capital” in order to be marriageable (“Eugenics Now Society Work” 2). Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton-Muncie, a sex hygiene lecturer for the New York State Department of Health, instructed young people to “love with their eyes open and their brains active” (“Won’t Banish Cupid” 4).

While presumably both men and women were expected to develop a eugenic conscience and to learn to fall in love wisely, popular eugenic literature emphasized that women, particularly college-educated women, must take the lead in this endeavor. Then, as Scott Nearing explained in Woman and Social Progress, “[a]s the demand grows, —and it is growing,—men will be compelled to meet the requirements of the college-woman standard” (113). Building on this vision of eugenics was La Reine Helen Baker, who wrote a popular treatment that had wide circulation. As she explained it, eugenics was primarily based on “the union of equality [between the sexes], two citizens joining together in love and wisdom” (97). Each of these popularizers, and several others, connected eugenics with the goals of feminism: namely, the equalizing of the marriage relation, the elimination of the sexual double standard, and, in many cases, voluntary motherhood. But none of these [End Page 6] popular writers had as much impact on shaping the eugenic vernacular as Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In 1910, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was considered one of the foremost American feminists.[10] In her magazine The Forerunner, she published Moving the Mountain, which she called a “short-distance utopia”, i.e. a novel that took place only thirty years in the future when the New Woman had taken over American society. As Gilman explained it, the world of the future where the New Woman ruled was thoroughly utopian, in large part because New Women were now empowered to institute a comprehensive system of eugenic reforms. The New Woman would revolutionize reproduction by making mating, pregnancy, birth, and child rearing scientific. The New Woman would no longer settle for a man of dubious genetic worth, but would instead claim the power of sexual selection to drive the species forward. Gilman’s work helped to solidify the belief that eugenics entailed the New Woman creating a new breed of man. The double standard of morals would be vanquished and men would be subject to a uniform eugenic standard.[11]

Thus, as it was discussed colloquially, eugenics was increasingly presented as part of a battle of the sexes discourse in the Progressive Era. Anxieties about the changing status of women became fused with fears of the presumed eugenic reforms that they would implement. Many traditionalist men and women spoke out against the sanitized trend in courtship and pleaded for a return to a more natural, or divine, order. They connected the demands of feminism with the calls for a more scientific approach to love, and accused feminists of treating men like livestock. The eugenic standard that the New Woman was expected to uphold was pilloried widely in fiction, film, and newspaper editorials.

Much of the anti-eugenic sentiment simply took the form of rejecting modern science by defending common sense and tradition from the intrusions of self-appointed Progressive Era experts. One man complained in an anonymous editorial that “[t]he professors of the new science of eugenics would have us believe that the custom of marrying for love is a mistake” (“Scientific Marriage” 3). He insisted that based on his observations, “the choice of a wife on philosophical principles is most certain to end in failure” (3). Rather than listening to so-called experts, he passionately argued that a man should trust his instincts. The poet Franklin Pierce Adams also mocked the idea that love should be ruled by scientists. In his poem “Eugenic Love Lyrics,” he satirized the decidedly unromantic vision of eugenic love with the refrain “Eugenevieve, Eugenevieve, The days may come, the days may go/But to each other we shall cleave, As long as Science tells us so” (120). The unhappy couple in the poem has a relationship built on clinical details, but no real emotions. The poem then concludes with the children of the couple rejecting the parents when they find out that they were merely the results of a breeding experiment. [End Page 7]

Illustration of a man and woman being introduced, a panel of them speaking to each other, then a panel of them coupled with other people.

An example of the resistance and mockery of eugenic experts is seen in the image above. The professors of eugenics try in vain to make a perfect match, but are thwarted by good old-fashioned love, which is haphazard and unpredictable. The man and the woman both wind up with people who are physically dissimilar to them, to humorous effect. Another frequently used trope was to pit eugenics against Cupid, or as the Morning Oregonian mused, “Is the magical touch of Dan Cupid…to run second fiddle to the betterment of the race?” (“Ascendancy of Eugenics” 8). In the popular discourse, Dan Cupid was depicted as the archenemy of eugenics, doing battle for the hearts of men and women in a cold-blooded scientific age. Still other critiques invoked the Divine in opposition to making love and marriage scientific. An anonymous editorial in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader declared that “[e]ugenics is a new name for an old folly…that men can be bred as animals are bred, by rules adopted by men.” What this vision left out, according to the author, was the divine spark that guided two people together. The author continued, “When two people love each other, God has said to them that their children are demanded…Romance may not be important to the professional mind, but the great peoples of the world are those to whom children are born as the culmination of romances” (“Eugenic Marriage” 18). And for others, ignorance was preferable to cutting edge scientific knowledge, especially when that knowledge was construed as sexual knowledge. A folk wisdom column from the Cincinnati Enquirer fumed, “They can teach eugenics in the public schools and get away with it. But the old-fashioned boy who believed in the stork until he was 16 years old always managed to make a pretty good citizen” (“Luke M’Luke Says” 6). [End Page 8]

While much of the anti-eugenic sentiment took these forms, eugenics was more commonly connected with women’s empowerment and both were critiqued together as two sides of the same coin. Much of this kind of anti-eugenics sentiment took on a sexist bent that connected eugenics to overbearing and masculinized women. An illustrated poem in the Salt Lake Evening Telegram entitled “A Eugenic Love Song” made this point with a young man enamored initially by the lovely Inez, his “fair eugenic dove” with whom he was excited to experience “cultivated, sanitated [sic], vaccinated love.” But soon the suitor realizes that Inez is too domineering and has even imprisoned a previous man who courted her. Implying that eugenic love entailed a subversion of gender roles, the suitor abandons Inez for fear that if he married her she “would be the boss” (11).

Lyrics to "A Eugenic Love Song" with cartoon images of a man and woman playing golf and a man walking away from the woman interspersed with the text.[End Page 9]

But perhaps the clearest example of the gendered nature of opposition to eugenic love and marriage is seen in The Gay Rebellion (1913), a novel written by Robert Chambers. Chambers, while most well-known for his 1895 collected volume of Gothic short stories, The King in Yellow, was one of the most popular writers of romantic fiction in the early twentieth century (Cooper 68). With a series of best-selling society novels that began with The Fighting Chance in 1906, Chambers earned a reputation for spinning stories that appealed to the modern woman, leading H. L. Mencken to dub him “The Boudoir Balzac” (Mencken 129). The Gay Rebellion is a satirical novel about a hostile feminist revolution in the United States. The feminists in the novel begin their revolution with the founding of the “New Race University and Male Beauty Preserve” (59). Hidden within the Adirondacks of New York State, the headquarters of the revolution is discovered by two male reporters, Langdon and Sayre, charged with investigating the disappearance of “four young and wealthy men who have…suddenly and completely disappeared” (12). Upon entering the forest, the two men discover messages carved on boulders saying “Votes for Women” (22).

Line drawing of two men in hiking clothes looking at a boulder with Votes for Women carved on it.[End Page 10]

After a few days without any further clues, Sayre spots a “young girl in full war paint and a perfectly fitting gown” named Amourette, who informs him that the men were captured by force, trained at the New Race University, and are now happily married to women as part of the eugenic revolution (27). Sayre scoffs with incredulity, claiming, “women don’t run men off like cattle rustlers. Man is the active agent in elopements, women the passive agent” (50). Rushing back to tell his friend Langdon, Sayre describes the New Race University as “a reservation for the—the p-p-propagation of a new and s-s-symmetrically p-p-proportioned race of g-g-god-like human beings! It’s a deliberate attempt at cold blooded scientific selection” (60). The objectives of this revolution, as explained by Sayre, illustrate the conflation of women’s empowerment with eugenic mating and improvement: “Their object is to hasten not only political enfranchisement, but the era of a physical and intellectual equality which will permit them to mate as they choose and people this republic with perfect progeny” (61-62). Sayre and Langdon forge a plan to capture one of these militant suffragettes by force, but the plan backfires and Langdon is netted and taken prisoner. His captor, Ethra, explains to him, “We women have now decided to repeople the earth scientifically. We shall pick out, from your degenerate sex, such physically perfect individuals as chance to remain; we shall regard our marriages with them as purely scientific and cold-blooded affairs” (87-88).

06-votes-women-2[End Page 11]

Langdon’s discomfort with this plan of eugenic breeding clearly stems from its subversion of men’s and women’s roles: “My position is undignified! Anybody’d think I was a prize animal. I don’t like this poultry talk! I’m a man! …And if ever I marry and p-p-produce p-p-progeny, it will be somebody I select, not somebody who selects me!” (89, emphasis in original). Langdon is assessed by the Regents and given a conditional yellow ribbon for his hereditary worth. When he protests, he is told by one of the Regents that “it is a scientific matter to be scientifically recorded—purely a matter of eugenics” (112). The Gay Rebellion revels in the subversion of gender roles to comedic effect, but the underlying fear of impending loss of masculine privilege is palpable. The novel is illustrated throughout with scenes of men being chased and attacked by women.

Drawing of women armed with parasols chasing one man across a blank page.

Close up drawing of a woman grabbing a man's coattails as he tries to get away.
[End Page 12]
A woman in a cocked hat waving a cat in an upraised hand chases a man in a uniform. The caption reads "Only one fleet-footed young girl remained at his heels."Line drawing of a man clinging to the trunk of a tall tree with a group of women gathered around the base below him reaching up.

As Chambers described it, “No young man who conformed to the standard of masculine beauty set by the eugenist suffragettes was safe any longer. Scientific marriage between perfectly healthy people was now a firmly established principle of the suffragette propaganda” (174). Tapping into broader anti-eugenic sentiments, the novel’s title page shows a devastated Cupid, with a frightened and enfeebled young man cowering behind him. [End Page 13]

Title page of The Gay Rebellion with drawing of Cupid with a hand over his face and nervous-looking man in glasses behind him.

But ultimately, Chambers ends his novel with the traditional gender order being restored when hordes of men and women who were declared unfit rebel against the new eugenic order and bring down the feminist revolution.

Chambers was not alone in expressing eugenic anxieties about the consequences of women’s newfound freedom and self-actualization. In a piercing essay entitled “The Blushful Mystery,” H. L. Mencken asked whether romance could “survive the deadly matter-of-factness which sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose?” (200). The Gay Rebellion illustrated a key facet of the eugenic vernacular in the 1910s: the concern that the New Woman would demand a better, more eugenic, man. In addition to the loss of masculine privilege in the realm of sexual selection, men would be subject to objectification and scrutinized for their health, vigor, and hereditary worth. Within this eugenic vernacular, it seemed that the balance of power in Progressive Era America was decidedly shifting to women.

Martin Pernick has noted similar themes running through early American films that discussed eugenics. In the 1914 comedy Eugenics and the Bar ‘U’ Ranch (Selig 1914), the character named Martha is the eugenics enthusiast who heads out west to find a suitable male specimen. Similarly, in the same year, in Wood B. Wedd and the Microbes (Edison [End Page 14] 1914), the protagonist Wedd is told by the woman he wants to marry that he must first pass a rigorous series of eugenic tests. The tests included various poking and prodding, culminating in a three-hour steam bath, at which point he quits wooing her. The same theme runs through Eugenics versus Love (Beauty 1914), A Case of Eugenics (Vitagraph 1915), The Eugenic Boy (Thanhouser 1914), and A Foe to Race Suicide (Kleine 1912). Based on his survey of eugenic comedies, Pernick concluded that “eugenics is depicted as something imposed by emotionless professionals and rich fanatics, often women, in conflict with the feelings and choices of working-class men” (131).

The gendered anxieties about eugenics were not entirely unwarranted. Women’s reformers advocated vehemently for eugenic marriage laws during this period, requiring a medical certification of health before issuing a marriage license. Professional eugenicists derided these laws, believing them to be not eugenic at all because the medical examinations necessary for certification only tested for venereal disease. Charles Davenport tried in vain to insist that “eugenics is to be distinguished from sex hygiene” and even went as far as to suggest that these laws could cause “many young women of good stock to fear the consequences of marriage, to refrain from it, and so to fail to perpetuate their excellent traits” (Eugenics 1). Nevertheless, women’s reformers across the country eagerly lobbied for eugenic marriage legislation and saw these laws as a central component to women’s advancement. In 1913, Jane Addams was interviewed by a Chicago newspaperman who asked her what the most important women’s issues of the day were. She replied, “I favor strict eugenic marriage laws and woman suffrage.” (“Fashions Not Degrading” 9). Charlotte Perkins Gilman even volunteered to act as a judge in a eugenic marriage contest sponsored by the Medical Review of Reviews in 1915.

Significantly, a survey of the major anti-feminism screeds of the 1910s reveals a strong anti-eugenic sentiment. Benjamin Hubbard’s 1915 tract, Socialism, Feminism, and Suffragism: The Terrible Triplets, Connected by the Same Umbilical Cord and Fed by the Same Nursing Bottle devotes special ire to the eugenic endeavors of feminism: “They [feminists] have changed the word marriage to ‘eugenic mating’ and the bearing of children to ‘breeding’” (215). Similarly, Frederick Merckx’s Bolshevism of Sex warned of “the appointment of women inspectors of eugenics, who would have power to prohibit a man from procreating children, and would have him sent to prison, and his wife on the operating table, if he transgressed their orders…One may ask what has become of the manhood of the country if the nonsensical principles of WOMEN are written into laws” (185, emphasis in original). An editorial in the Waterloo Evening Courier explained, “A feminist state may be altogether just and perfectly eugenical. But it will be a hard scientific system from which love and loyalty will be lost.” This editorial went on to threaten that men would violently resist such an imposition: “Urge feminism too far, smash the home, bring your children up like brooded stock, banish love, and such a terrible masculinism may arise as we have not seen since cave days. The brutal fact is that man is the master of the sexes” (“Feminism Again,” 4). Felix Grendon described a character in his novel as a “young woman [who] seemed a walking embodiment of Votes for Women, Eugenic Marriages, Birth Control, Equal Incomes, Free Divorce, and other monstrous fruits of the unchecked growth of female madness in a feminist epoch” (107). Making love and marriage scientific for these opponents seemed a grave threat to not only the institution of marriage, but to the entire social fabric. That anti-eugenic sentiment was so closely tied to anti-[End Page 15] feminism adds a provocative new dimension to the emerging history of the First Red Scare.[12]

Whether viewed positively or negatively, modernizing and rationalizing love was understood to be one of the central goals of eugenics in the early twentieth century United States. The close examination of so many disparate cultural ephemera provides a finer-grained picture of how eugenics was woven into the public consciousness. Seeing eugenics as a sexual science highlights the ways that everyday Americans in the Progressive Era felt pressured to adapt their own romantic and sexual choices according to eugenic dictates. For some, eugenic love was embraced because it held the promise of a scientific match, guaranteeing life-long happiness and healthy children. For others, eugenic love was yet another intrusion of Progressive Era experts and reformers into their personal lives. And for many, eugenic love was part of a broader feminist social reform agenda that threatened to undermine masculine privilege in matters of love and marriage. Examining the eugenic vernacular not only confirms the existing historiography on the ubiquity of eugenic ideas in the early twentieth century, but also uncovers fresh insights into the complex interplay between eugenics, sexuality, and gender in America.

[1] For recent examples of this, see Mark Largent (2008) and Paul Lombardo (2010).

[2] In this article, I focus mostly on the concept of eugenic love, but I expand my analysis further to include eugenic marriage and reproduction in other research that is in progress.

[3] Katherine Pandora has developed the concept of vernacular science, which exists outside the bounds of professional scientific discourse and serves as an “intellectual commons” for everyday people (2001: 492).

[4] For an analysis of these themes in British fiction, see Angelique Richardson (2003).

[5] For a fascinating history of the rational eating movement in America, see Helen Zoe Veit (2013).

[6] For more on sexual science and women’s rights in the 19th century, see Cynthia Russett (1991).

[7] Jesse Battan (2003 and 2004) details the history of American sex radicals. For more on eugenic discourse among sex radicals, see Susan Rensing (2006) and Wendy Hayden (2013).

[8] Erika Milam (2010) traces the history of scientific debates about sexual selection.

[9] Rebecca Herzig (2005) explores the connection between science and sacrifice in the United States.

[10] There is a voluminous literature on Charlotte Perkins Gilman and feminism. A good starting place is Judith A. Allen (2009).

[11] For an analysis of Gilman’s feminist eugenics, see Susan Rensing (2013).

[12] For more on anti-feminism and the First Red Scare, see Erica Ryan (2015) and Kim Nielsen (2001). [End Page 16]


“Ascendancy of Eugenics End of Love?” Morning Oregonian 14 December 1913: 8. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Eugenics Now Society Work in Washington.” Lexington Herald 29 June 1913: 2. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Eugenics.” The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia. New York: The Century Co., 1904. Vol. 3: 2024. Web. 7 June 2014.

“A Eugenic Love Song.” Salt Lake Evening Telegram 5 July 1913: 11. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Fashions Not Degrading Women, Jane Addams Says.” Chicago Daily Tribune 26 September 1913: 9. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Feminism Again.” Waterloo Evening Courier 20 December 1913: 4. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Love at First Sight Always Is in Error.” Macon Daily Telegraph 1 December 1912: 8. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Luke M’Luke Says.” Cincinnati Enquirer 3 July 1913: 6. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“No Valentine’s Day in Future.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader 14 February 1913: 20. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

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True Love’s Kiss and Happily Ever After: the religion of love in American film
by Jyoti Raghu

[End Page 1]


In this article, I investigate romantic love in American film as a site for experiencing a divine presence in the immanent everyday experiences of love, marriage and family (Williams, Dante 6, 8, 40; Williams, Outlines 7, 9, 14, 17, 29).[1] To explore this theme I focus on the “kiss” in romantic love scenes in American films. To me the kiss in film is symbolic of a potential theological event where divine grace may infuse itself on the lovers, making their lives sacramental. I explore how the kiss can offer theological insight into how romantic love transforms into a window of grace, beauty and glory through which a divine light shines through the sacrament of love (Williams, Outlines 17, 29).

I shall draw theoretically upon several intellectual threads, including courtly love and romantic literature, Christian theology and theological aesthetics, and postmodern theory. Then, rather than look at romantic comedy per se, I shall focus on two different genres and film series, the action-adventure Matrix trilogy, and the Shrek quadrilogy of animated fairy-tales. I look at these films because I am interested in popular films of different genres where romantic love plays a substantial part. Furthermore, the kiss is central to the love plot in both film series and thus they offer good examples of how the kiss functions romantically and theologically. I shall finally briefly visit two romantic comedy films, The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Something’s Gotta Give, to see how religious discourse plays out in romantic films.

Before I begin, I note two qualifications. First, this article presupposes and is written within a Christian theological and religious framework, though not adopting or espousing a Christian worldview. I do argue, though, that this Christian framework has left its legacy on modern and postmodern Western culture, including on romantic love and film. Second, while also treating other religious traditions and other international film cultures would enhance this investigation, unfortunately my own lack of expertise in either field limits me to a discussion of Christianity, postmodernity, and romantic love in American film. I hope, however, that this article may spur those with expertise in other traditions and cultures to take on similar investigations.

Courtly Love, Christian mysticism, and romantic theology

In his now dated work The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis writes of a “religion of love” as one aspect present in the European medieval genre then called courtly love literature, which, according to Lewis, is the precursor of romantic love literature (18).[2] He notes that this religion of love, as well as other aspects of the courtly love tradition, have informed and still inform our conceptions of love and romance, particularly in art and literature (Lewis 1-3). A glance at American film, past and present, would seem to validate Lewis’ idea. Not only is romantic comedy an ever-popular film genre, but romance seems to play its part in many American films. The search for true love, a soul-mate and a happily ever after, sometimes as the telos and summum bonum of life, seems to be an idea which dominates popular culture and which plays itself out as the preoccupation of many films. Moreover, this experience of love, in popular culture and in film, bears almost a sacred, salvific quality. [End Page 2]

According to Lewis and other noted scholars, courtly love literature, and the religion of love within it, has not been derived from the Western Christian tradition nor the mystical tradition, where mystics use erotic language and the sentiments and experiences of human, romantic love to describe divine encounters and the soul’s relationship with God (Boase 35, 85, 109; Lewis 18, 40). Courtly love and romantic literature from the medieval and early modern period only borrow the language and sentiments of Christian discourse for use in a completely different and profane direction (Boase 109-11; Perella 89-90). The two literatures are not analogous, partly because they differ in the object of love, one of which is human, and finite, the other which is divine, and infinite (Boase 83-85, 109-11). Moreover, the medieval Christian Church had no interest in promoting passion or romance within or outside marriage, while a staple of courtly love literature is passionate expression and desire (Lewis 13-17). Indeed, sometimes courtly love literature could be sacrilegious, extolling the virtues of secular love and erotic or sexual delight while mocking religious chastity and ascetic devotion (Lewis 18). According to this theory, courtly love or the religion of love and the Christian religion run counter to each other.

No doubt there is truth to this thesis. We need only to glance at the plethora of romantic comedy films to recognize this. A good majority of them do seem to worship and venerate this ideal of romantic love, particularly as the acme of human experience and fulfillment. Nevertheless, it would also do us good to question if that is all there is to it, or if there is some connection and relevance to experiences and discourses that have taken place within the Christian tradition, and even more so, if they might not bear some theological meaning and value.

For example, there are striking similarities between courtly love and early modern love poetry and Christian mystical discourse (Perella 85, 268-69). In Christian mystical discourse, as stated above, mystics often not only use erotic language and imagery, but also the sentiments and experience of human, sensual love to describe their experiences of God, from the biblical Song of Songs to the ecstasies of Saint Theresa (Perella 38-40). There is talk of love, sensual delight, passion, and ecstatic union with the beloved, which is here God or Christ (Perella 34-36). Moreover, in figurative art there is the same ambiguity, where representations of divine love or the soul’s relation to God are depicted in human amatory fashion (Perella 33). Since the two discourses existed side-by-side, and scholars acknowledge that the courtly love tradition may have borrowed language and sentiments from Christian discourse, is it not possible that when these sentiments are “secularized” within a human, romantic framework, that they might not bear a remnant or a surplus of meaning of the tradition from which they have borrowed? Likewise, could Christian mystical discourse not also bear a remnant of human erotic experience as well, insomuch as the two might appear more similar than believed in both cases? Why could the influence not flow in both directions? Why could courtly and romantic love literature not have influenced religious thinking, and why could it not become a bearer of actual religious meaning and experience?

Within the romantic love tradition itself some Christian writers do correlate human and divine experiences of love. One may help to lead to or understand the other, and they are inseparable in meaning under a Christian conception of love (Lewis 35, 41; Perella 86-90, 261). In the works of medieval authors such as Andreas Capellanus, for example, courtly love was a chaste and ennobling discipline, whose end was grace bestowed by the lady, grace that elevated the knight to blessedness (Lewis 33; Perella 100). But this [End Page 3] blessedness was not just in a secular sphere, or for secular delights or ends, but was a complement to Christianity: without Christian virtue and practice one could not attain the lady’s benediction. Service to the lady was also thought to develop Christian virtues, such as humility, faith, and devotion (Perella 116-20).

The exemplum of the fusion of human romantic and divine love, however, would be Dante. According to twentieth century English (Christian) writer and poet Charles Williams, there is a theological tradition of romantic love, or a romantic theology, present in poets and artists, of which Dante is the greatest figure (Williams, Dante 91-93; Williams Outlines 7). For Williams, due to the Incarnation of Christ in the world and in the flesh, all human experiences bear a spiritual significance; through Christ’s presence, they become possibilities of divine manifestation and an infusion of grace (Williams, Outlines 9, 15). For Williams this is particularly acute in romantic experience, including sexual love, particularly in marriage (Williams, Outlines 7-9). The experience of this love-feeling has a sacred aura to it that leads to God. There is something about the encounter with the human beloved that facilitates not only divine encounter, transcendence and grace, but also spiritual growth, devotion, and holiness. Williams writes:

The heart is often so shaken by the mere contemplation of the beloved that it is not conscious of anything beyond its own delight. The whole person of the lover is possessed by a new state of consciousness; love is born in him….But in this state of love he sees and contemplates the beloved as the perfection of living things: love is bestowed by her smile; she is its source and its mother. She appears to him, as it were, archetypal, the alpha and omega of creation…the first-created of God. (Williams, Outlines 16)

Moving from Dante’s experience of Beatrice and the medieval experience of romantic love where passion, even sexual feeling, can be ennobled to a spiritual vision of beauty, the profane here is rendered into a beatific vision, where the two loves meld and mix into one.

Moreover, this vision has the capacity to see the human transformed to the divine, while remaining as it is. Williams continues:

Not certainly of herself is she anything but as being glorious in the delight taken in her by the Divine Presence that accompanies her, and yet is born of her; which created her and is helpless as a child in her power. However in all other ways she may be full of error or deliberate evil, in the eyes of the lover, were it but for a moment, she recovers her glory, which is the glory that Love had with the Father before the world was. (Williams, Outlines 16-17)

Just as in the Eucharist the material bread and wine come to bear the flesh and blood of Christ, so the beloved through love becomes a theophany or window to the divine, remaining what she is yet also being more than this. She becomes sanctified and becomes the locus of sanctification through an experience of divine beauty. He finally explains this romantic theology:

This experience does at once, as it were, establish itself as the centre of life. Other activities are judged and ordered in relation to it; they take on a dignity [End Page 4] and seem to be worthwhile because of some dignity and worth which appears to be inherent in life itself—life being the medium by which love is manifested. A lover will regard his own body and its functions as beautiful and hallowed by contact with hers….His intellectual powers will be renewed and quickened in the same way. And—if Romantic Theology is correct—his soul itself will enter upon a new state, becoming conscious of that grace of God which is otherwise, for so many, difficult to appreciate. (Williams, Outlines 17)

As in the Incarnation or God coming to the world and flesh through Christ, so these everyday experiences of love and marriage are the very site through which life can be experienced as having a deeper divine reality; indeed, without the Incarnation or these divine hierophanies in the everyday, we would not really understand the divine at all. There is a religious spirit in love, to which poets, especially Dante, have born witness (Williams, Outlines 56). Interpreting Dante’s writings, particularly The New Life and The Comedy, through the lens of romantic theology, Williams again asserts the possibility of romantic love experience as a means of Christian grace. He notes that Dante’s first visions of Beatrice awaken a caritas and agape or Christian charity and love in him, and inspire a beatitude (Williams, Dante 94-97, 108). In The Comedy, she leads him not only to divine contemplation, but also to redemption and salvation because she inspires holiness and virtue within him, an in-Godding or taking of the self into God (Williams, Dante 107-08).

The important things to note about Williams’ romantic theology is that he finds the sacred in a common everyday experience, here of romantic love, and finds this also to be a means of sanctity and redemption (Williams, Dante 111). He writes that “holiness may be reached by the obvious ways as well as by the more secret.” (Williams, Outlines 46). If we neglect the spiritual meaning of these experiences, then according to him, we neglect a way of sanctity (Williams, Dante 111). Furthermore, since according to Christian tradition marriage is a sacrament of the church, it bears the possibility of bestowing grace, and of experiencing other sacraments, including the Eucharist (Williams, Outlines 36-37). Through married life, a couple may experience not only Christ’s manifestation and grace, but may relive the sacred experiences of Christ’s life through their marriage (Williams, Outlines 14). However, while they experience this transcendence and grace, the experience also remains human and immanent. It is not an allegory, or merely symbolic; as Beatrice, it remains what it is, two human beings living together, as well as something more (Williams, Dante 109).

This theme of romantic love and the intertwining of sacred and profane can also be found in Robert Polhemus’ treatment of 19th and early 20th century British literature in his work Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H Lawrence. Though I would disagree with Polhemus’ thesis that erotic faith in the British novels of this period is primarily a “religion of love” at odds with and supplanting traditional Christian faith, Polhemus’ work highlights the continuance of the courtly and romantic love strain in literature, and also the inextricable links in this literature between eros or erotic faith and religion, religious experience, and religious language (1-6, 22-24). For Polhemus the novel itself is a trajectory of the erotic and erotic faith (3). Though Polhemus characterizes this erotic faith in love as tenser, more complex, more uncertain, and less positive than the “happily ever after” trajectory of romantic love in American films which links them to themes of grace and redemption, nevertheless Polhemus’ work also attests to the power of [End Page 5] this erotic faith and belief and desire in the power of love, particularly to redeem and save (or damn in its absence), and its inextricability with traditional Christian theological ideals such as salvation and martyrdom (1-6, 47, 169). Whether it be the chastening and spiritualization of the erotic in Jane Austen (ch.2), the romantic passionate desire for ecstasy and union in Emily Brontë (ch.4), the attempted melding of the romantic, erotic and Christian in Charlotte Brontë (ch.5), the cult of domesticity and family in Victorian novelists such as Dickens (ch.6), the intertwining of the erotic with Christian themes of sacrifice in George Eliot (ch.7), the interconnection of the vulgar and holy in Joyce (ch.10), or the proclamation of the holy in the erotic and sexual in D.H Lawrence (ch.11), Polhemus underlines the importance of erotic love and desire in the lives of the characters, its ennobling and salvific (and sometimes dangerous) potential, particularly for the male, and its tensions with traditional Christianity (1-6, 10-12, 15, 47, 128, 249). Thus Polhemus’ work further supports and attests to this legacy of the intertwining of theological and erotic discourse, which carries over into romance in film.

We may ask at this point what all this has to do with romantic film. I draw upon these authors and traditions simply to assert that there also has existed a Christian tradition from Dante onwards that did not see human romantic love and divine love as contradictory, but as part of the same continuum, or that may have fused the two experiences. It not only used erotic imagery and love sentiments to describe divine encounters, but saw in the human experience of romantic love a shadow of the divine and a means of grace. This tradition, instead of disavowing passion, eroticism, and devotion or sublimating it to divine being, exalts this passion and eroticism within human relationships as a means to the divine; in other words, eros is also a part of the Christian way to salvation (Williams, Dante 111). Indeed, as theologian Richard Niebuhr has explained in his work Christ and Culture, within Christian history and tradition, there have been positive understandings of the relationship between Christ and human culture and society. In these views, human culture has its positive value, worth and goodness, where one sees within the human something of the divine, and where the human can become a bearer of divine meaning and significance.

This deeper meaning to romantic love still exists as a remnant and possibility in modern representations, including in romantic film. Though we exist in a secular or post-secular era, Christianity has left its legacy on culture and in art and literature. This deeper religious meaning in romantic literature is one legacy that can be observed in romantic film as well. Moreover, I think this becomes even more relevant in our (Western) postmodern era, where a focus on and an exaltation of everyday life and experience, sometimes to a sacred level, becomes possible. After the “death of God” (particularly a Christian, transcendent God), Western religious discourse has to be displaced to a human, immanent, secular level. Because of this courtly love tradition and its connection with Christian discourse, and this theology of romantic love that also runs through it, romantic love in our postmodern era, particularly in film, has become a bearer onto which religious discourse has been displaced. In reverse of the original situation, human, secular language and sentiment now may be used to describe religious experience and to engage in religious discourse. [End Page 6]

 A Theological Aesthetics of Popular Culture and Romantic Love

Theological explorations of religion and film often treat issues such as theodicy, suffering, sin, evil, the demonic, or alienation; or they often explore themes of larger relevance such as oppression, injustice, war, violence, and gender.[3] Treatments often deal with alienation and religious or spiritual experience as occluded, particularly in postmodernity (Coates 17-18). Often scholars hold the view that theologically relevant films must be those that unsettle us from complacency and force us to confront the complexities, i.e. evils, in human existence (Jasper 242-44; Deacy, Faith 23-24, 26). Films that provide entertainment and pleasure, or make us happy, are sometimes judged as mere “wish-fulfillment” fantasies, considered too “trivial,” escapist and illusory to warrant theological and academic inquiry (Deacy, Faith 25-26, 30-31).

Yet, as is the case with the courtly love tradition, Christian mystical discourse, and romantic theology, there is also another side to Christian theology, one that explores goodness and beauty, and sees in the humanly good and beautiful an expression of the divine in the human. According to this theology, to dismiss the beautiful, or here joyous, as something unimportant is to make life miserable, mean, and barren (Häring 338). This view contrariwise explores God’s goodness and love in His relation to human beings and the universe.

Christian theological aesthetics delves more into this theme. It concerns itself with the relationship of God with art and beauty, and with God as perceived and experienced through beauty and art. It often speaks of God’s glory, which includes and is inseparable from God’s beauty, and joy; glory is beautiful, the beautiful is full of joy, and a theology without joy is impossible (Barth 316-19). Beauty points to fact that being is in essence joyous (Viladesau 363). Pleasure and enjoyment are also experienced with God’s beauty (Moltmann 334). To believe in any finite beauty is to believe in the reality of the Absolute, or God; otherwise, joy becomes groundless and illusory (Viladesau 363). Without beauty, we lose our way to God, which makes us miss God’s glory here and now (Chittister 366). Indeed we must surround ourselves with beauty because beauty brings out that the best in life really possible (Chittister 367). Likewise, this beauty is more than just pleasant. Theologically speaking, divine beauty is often linked with truth and goodness (Häring 338-339). What is beautiful is also true, is also good.

Gratitude is likewise integral to the enjoyment of this presence of beauty, which manifests God’s glory (Moltmann 334). Gratitude for beauty and openness to its message are of utmost importance in the sacramental (Christian) life (Häring 341). Anyone who allows the beautiful in knows that life is a meaningful, wonderful gift, a gift of divine grace (Häring 342). God’s gifts of grace transform and enable us to see all things in light of beauty (Navone 358). Furthermore, since nothing exists that we have not been freely and lovingly given, in all creation is a motive for gratitude (Navone 356). God’s gifts manifest God’s will which is God’s love (Navone 357). Eros, a more intimate passionate love and desire than agape, is integral to our worship of God, religious life, and religious commitment, and also integral to God’s love for us (McFague 346-47; Balthasar 322). Without this passion and intimacy, love, human and divine, becomes cold and sterile (McFague 347).

Christian theological aesthetics often link art as the locus for experiencing this divine glory and beauty, and also link (human) beauty and pleasure (in the work of art) [End Page 7] with the divine. Works of art becomes sites for theophanies, where the divine manifests itself; the art form thus remains itself yet becomes more than itself (Bird 3).[4] This often manifests as an event, an encounter in which the divine presence reveals itself to us through itself.[5] The human representation in its finitude thus becomes a sign and symbol of something more beautiful and divine, expressed humanly through art (Balthasar 320). The real and original experience of beauty and joy in the work of art becomes analogous to a higher and more comprehensive experience of divine beauty and joy (Rahner 220-21).

Film can also be a very good medium for manifesting the divine. Experiencing pleasure in film images can open the viewer up to experiences of the beautiful, which lead to experiences of the good and true (Verbeek 172-177). Moreover, film is a total experience, operating on multiple levels. It works on us on a semi-conscious level that viscerally affects us as an embodied experience (Plate 59-60; Marsh 95-101). Emotion, sentiment and mood color our experience of film (Tan and Frijda, 51-55; Marsh 87-95; G. Smith 111-117). It affects us through images which cause emotional reflection (T. Martin 120). This emotional, immediate experience links it with all art in making it amenable to divine encounter (O’Meara, 213). It is a more totalizing experience than other forms of art (T. Martin 46), which may make it easier to experience the beautiful, which we are to experience in the totality of our being (Häring 338). Films also make us see in new ways through the more careful lens of the film experience (T. Martin 139; Plate 57), which may allow us to see the holy, or divine goodness present within them (Johnston, Reel n. pag.).[6]

When film becomes a site for divine manifestation, it shows us the divine possibilities for God’s manifestation anywhere and everywhere in a world-affirming way, including in everyday life (Greeley 92, 93, 95). Popular culture can be important theologically because it shows us how people may be experiencing the holy in everyday life. In an era of postmodernity (or post-post), popular culture in embodied life is the medium with which most people relate, and the site in which groups such as Generation X are having religious experiences (Lynch, After 96-102, 112-121). It can allow the divine presence through images which a postmodern audience may perceive and understand as potentially sacred.[7] What is necessary is a theological aesthetics of popular culture that relates it to everyday life in order to explore how popular cultural forms may enable transcendent experiences of encounter and also beauty, pleasure, and joy (Lynch, Understanding 189-194).

Furthermore, in the postmodern era, the divine encounter may be displaced, represented and manifested differently through popular culture, in secular or human forms that bespeak the same reality and experience in a form more comprehensible and authentic to a postmodern, secular audience (Eliade, “Artist” 179-80; Deacy n. pag).[8] With the focus on personal experience of the self and the aesthetic inner life in postmodernity, theophanies that flow through human forms and narratives in film may be more effective art forms (Lynch, “Sociology” n. pag.). [9] Pop or rock music may work better than classical, and embodied narrative styles than the abstract.[10] Most importantly, exploring divine manifestation through forms of everyday life allows us to view this life sacramentally, to see it possibly in a higher light as a manifestation of God’s beauty, joy, love, and glory infused with grace (Greeley 17, 92, 93, 95).

Popular films are an extension of the theological value of popular culture. In postmodernity, Hollywood and popular film also can provoke religious experience of the sacred (Graham, “Theology” 36, 41; Johnston, “Theological” n. pag.).[11] Romantic love, [End Page 8] because of its history with the courtly love tradition, Christian mystical discourse, and romantic theology, seems to be one bearer of this remnant of Christian theological aesthetics, where a divine beauty may be perceived to manifest itself in the forms of everyday life in film. The love of a divine Other may be held to manifest and represent itself through love of a human other. Indeed, as in romantic theology, in an era where Jesus struggles with temptations of marriage and family in The Last Temptation of Christ and where he is married in The Da Vinci Code,[12] romantic love, marriage, family, even sex, are not perceived as antithetical to or precluding manifestations of God’s presence in film. Moreover, discourse on love in film sometimes may stand in for discourse on religion. This shows us that the love story in postmodernity can sometimes bear the remnants of the former Christian story about grace and redemption.

The Sacramental Kiss in Romantic Films: The Matrix and Shrek

According to early Christian scholars, the kiss did hold meaning in Greco-Roman society. Often erotic and shared privately within the family, public kissing for reasons of friendship and reconciliation was also practiced (Klassen 126-27; Penn 6, 10; Phillips 5-6). But with early Christianity the kiss took on new meaning and importance, being not only practiced but discussed in the writings of Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Clement, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine (Penn, passim). From New Testament origins in St. Paul’s writings, the kiss finds itself in the Christian liturgy or worship service by the second century. Begun as a greeting among Christian brethren at church, by the fourth century it also found its way into the Eucharist and into Christian baptism (Perella 17-18; Phillips 7, 16-17, 27). It could thus be viewed as a means of the infusion of grace (Perella 43; Phillips 30). The kiss was also known as the kiss of peace, or pax, and thus was viewed as a form of communion, reconciliation, and forgiveness; the kiss of peace established concord and unity (Klassen 135; Penn 43-47). Moreover, from Greco-Roman times the kiss was thought to contain a magical-mystical meaning, thought of as a means of spiritual exchange; in Christianity it signified an exchange of souls (Penn 20, 37, 40-41; Perella 5, 26-28; Phillips 5). In Christianity the kiss thus also obtains a pneumatological significance; a kiss was a way of exchanging Christ’s spirit, and also of sharing the Holy Spirit (Perella 15-19; Phillips 8-11). The kiss must also arise from the heart in true affection; if it did not, then it could become the Judas kiss of betrayal, instead of the kiss of peace (Penn 65, 112-18; Perella 28). Though Christian authorities attempted to regulate the kiss’s erotic possibilities, at one time banning the kiss between members of the opposite sex (Penn 13, 80, 110-12; Phillips 24), a certain eroticism may have still remained, particularly evidenced through the use of the dove as the symbol of the kiss of peace and the Holy Spirit transferred thereby, since the dove also held erotic connotations in Greco-Roman culture (Penn 48-49; Perella 253-57).

In the Christian mystical tradition and in courtly love and romantic literature, the kiss conceit also continues. The erotic kiss could symbolize the kiss of God to the human, or the embrace of the soul with God (Perella 31-38). The kiss could also represent the completion of mystical experience, or illumination and an infusion of grace (Perella 43-45, 52-58). In medieval courtly love literature, while the kiss becomes profane, and perhaps [End Page 9] more erotic, it still appears, partially in the idea of a union of hearts or souls, and exchange of spirits (Perella, 90-91, 95-96). The kiss could also exemplify the telos of the devotion, and could signify a bestowal of grace or benediction, this time by the lady (Perella 101, 116). This idea of an exchange of hearts or souls in the kiss, and the kiss as an ecstatic moment, continues into love poetry during the Renaissance and Baroque periods (Perella 181, 184, 189).

 The Matrix trilogy

The kiss is central to the Matrix films. This kiss theme is more than just romantic; it is salvific, having a resurrecting power. In the first movie of the trilogy, when it appears as if agent Smith has killed Neo, Trinity tells Neo:

I’m not afraid anymore. The oracle told me that I would fall in love and that that man, the man that I loved, would be the one. So you see, you can’t be dead, you can’t be, because I love you.

Then Trinity gives him a kiss, and his heart revives. Getting up again, Neo suddenly is able to fight the agents without effort. He can stop bullets; as Morpheus says, “He’s beginning to believe” that he is the One, and acts accordingly. He is able to defeat the agent by going into his body and causing the agent to implode.

It is love that gives Neo the power to be the One, love as expressed through the kiss. This kiss thus is more than just a kiss; it confers a supernatural power. Moreover, Trinity’s name, as a representation of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, must be significant here, as it is Trinity’s love that repeatedly saves Neo. But the kiss is pivotal as the symbol through which this resurrecting power of love occurs. The kiss is thus salvific, and transforms Neo into the One.

This romantic love through the kiss develops further in the next film, The Matrix Reloaded. First, since Trinity and Neo’s love has already proven salvific, the erotic love scene between them shows us the importance of eros, intimate passion and desire, in romantic love, but also perhaps in something deeper, in our religious devotion and experience. It shows eros as a necessary aspect of human and divine love (McFague 346, 347; Greeley 165). This passion, since it is expressed by Neo the Savior, is not just a human passion but perhaps also a divine one (Balthasar 323).

In The Matrix Reloaded, the Merovingian, the dastardly Frenchmen, also acts as one foil to Neo. He explains his philosophy of life thus:

Causality—there is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why… why is the only real source of power. Without it you are powerless and this is how you come to me…another link in the chain.

What the Merovingian represents is a mechanistic universe of necessity, of rational and logical calculation, control, and manipulation. It is not only without eros, but without joy, [End Page 10] beauty, or love, and thus without goodness or truth. Neo, contrariwise, acts out of love and passion, here exemplified by his love for Trinity, which is what makes him a savior. Persephone, the Merovingian’s wife, and symbolic in her namesake, the Greek goddess who inhabits the underworld, is willing to help Neo if he gives her a kiss, that is, if he brings that passion, love and beauty back into her life and resurrects her. She explains:

You love her [Trinity]; she loves you. It’s all over you both. A long time ago I knew what that felt like. I want to remember it, I want to sample it. That’s all.

She also tells Neo that he has “to make me believe I am her.” The first kiss is terrible, but then Neo gives Persephone a long kiss as if she were Trinity, and she agrees to help them.

Neo then enters the Matrix and meets the architect. The architect also tells Neo that all the previous five anomalies were created to be attached to humanity, but declares that “while the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific vis-à-vis love.” The architect refers to love as

an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason, an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth—she is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

He also calls hope “the quintessential human delusion.” Yet Neo chooses the door back to the Matrix, rushes to Trinity, and catches her just in time. Though she appears to die, Neo says, “I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.” This time, he resurrects her. She says, “I guess this makes us even,” and they kiss.

The architect, similar to the Merovingian, is interested in logic and reason, control and balance, not in love, joy or desire. What is missing in this technological means-end world is beauty and joy; here we value efficiency instead (Chittister 366). But Neo, as the sixth anomaly, is different, because he does love, and in a passionate, intimate way, exemplifying this love and passion in a way that shows how grace and love transcend this world of efficiency and utility, filling it with delight and lifting spirits (Häring 338, 341). Moreover, this love is once again salvific: contrary to the architect’s predictions, Neo is able to resurrect Trinity from death through the power of love, this time again consummated and exemplified in the kiss.

In the last film of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, the kiss does not play as central a role, but we do find a religious discourse taking place in the name of romantic love, where this love bestows a semi-sacredness to everyday life and the human sphere, bestowing (Christian) religious virtues. Rama-Kandra, whom Neo meets in the nether-subway world at the beginning of the film, explains why he is trying to save his daughter Sati:

I love my daughter very much. I find her to be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. But where we are from that is not enough. Every program that is created must have a purpose. If it does not, it is deleted.

Neo remarks that he has never heard a program speak of love, and thinks of it as a human emotion. Sati’s father answers: [End Page 11]

It is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?

Neo replies: “Anything.” Sati’s father also remarks that he is grateful for his wife and daughter, and that they are gifts. What is interesting here is the ability to appreciate everyday life and its beauty and goodness, here the beauty of a child and family, in an almost sacrosanct way which almost seems to appreciate them as gifts of grace. This also runs very counter to the technological, mechanical world of the Matrix.

Likewise, when Trinity is dying, she is grateful for the love Neo and she shared, without regret and fear. As she is dying, Trinity explains how much she loved him, and says:

How grateful I was for every moment I was with you, but by the time I knew how to say what I wanted to it was too late, but you brought me back, you gave me my wish, one more chance to say what I really wanted to say.

She asks Neo to kiss her one last time, and dies. Gratitude, often an integral part of divine grace, helps Trinity see the nature of life in an almost sacramental way, infused with (divine) goodness.     Thus, in the Matrix trilogy we can see a romantic love discourse that bears the remnants of a religious discourse, of salvation, of grace, of beauty, goodness, and of gratitude. Moreover, this discourse becomes heightened in postmodernity. There are certainly religious themes present in the Matrix, including Christian ideas, concepts, and symbols, and these link together with the love story in a meaningful way. We see this most clearly through the motif of the kiss.

 The Shrek Quadrilogy

At first glance, the Shrek quadrilogy does not seem to merit theological relevance. Yet these animated tales do play with love, romance and the kiss in such a way that also evidences remnants of religious discourse and experience within the romantic love story. In the first movie, Shrek, princess Fiona is waiting for “true love’s first kiss” which will release her from a spell that turns her into an ogre at night, and then she will take true love’s form. After she meets her true love, Shrek the ogre, they embrace and then comes their true love’s first kiss. Fiona is lifted up into the air amid light and sparks and comes down again in ogre form. She does not understand why she is not in love’s true form and says: “I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be beautiful,” but Shrek tells her: “But you are beautiful.” Then it is happily ever after.

Of course, this tale cleverly plays upon the fairy-tale ideal of romantic love. Yet, at the same time, “true love’s kiss” not only shows the influence of the romantic love ideal and literature derived from the courtly love tradition, but also evidences the importance of the kiss. The kiss is not only the completion and attainment of “true love,” but also bestows a grace, and inspiration, and gives a sanctity and blessedness to Shrek and Fiona’s love. The kiss takes place in a church, in front of a clergymen, and the sparks and lifting in the air show that there is something magical, supernatural to it. Being in a church, the kiss takes [End Page 12] place as the consummation of the marriage ceremony, which can be taken as sacramental. Yet, Fiona and Shrek remain the same; what this signifies is that the grace and blessedness bestowed on them, while transfigurative, is also something that can be found within their human lives and human experience of marriage.

In Shrek the music often helps to convey the mood and experience of falling in love.[13] The theme song for the movie is “I’m a Believer,” which starts with:

I thought love was
Only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else
But not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seems
Disappointment haunted
All my dreams

And then I saw her face
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her
If I tried.

We need only to think of Williams and Dante and their romantic theology to see how a vision of the beloved transforms experience and makes ready an acceptation of the good. The language also recalls religious discourse; the man becomes “a believer” or begins to have faith after this vision.

These themes, and the kiss motif, continue through the next three Shrek films. In Shrek 2, we have the evil Prince Charming trying to replace Shrek as Fiona’s rightful husband. In order to compete with him Shrek steals and drinks the potion called “Happily Ever After” which promises “beauty divine” to whoever drinks it, and becomes a hunk. Yet though Fiona has changed back into human form and Prince Charming pretends he is Shrek, a love potion does not work on Fiona, and Charming’s kiss to wed himself to Fiona is not effective. When Shrek finds Fiona and offers her his new and improved human form if they kiss before midnight, Fiona prefers the old Shrek. After midnight is their true love’s kiss as ogres with light, magic, and sparks. Fiona’s parents also accept Shrek now and again we end in a happily ever after.

Going back to the Christian theology of the kiss, we should remember that a kiss not from the heart, not with true affection, and not full of faith cannot have effect, cannot bestow the holy spirit or confer unity and peace, cannot knit the souls of the kissers; it becomes a Judas kiss instead. That is why Charming’s kiss cannot work. But since Shrek and Fiona are “soul-mates,” that kiss will always be effective in bestowing love and grace, and in transforming the lovers. [End Page 13]

Shrek 2 continues a postmodern religious discourse through this legacy of a Christian theological remnant and hyper-meaning within this romantic love tradition. For example, Shrek’s potion “happily ever after” promises him “beauty divine.” But in the end it does not really work. The theological significance that this could bear is akin to grace and mystical discourse. Mystics cannot make a divine encounter happen, cannot transform themselves into divine beings or experience divine union. God must “kiss” them, must do the initiating. The same holds true with grace; its infusion is something God bestows, not something we can attain by our effort. Romantic love often works in the same way in film; it is something that happens and that we cannot control, and which transforms us unexpectedly. Here, this theme is present not only with Shrek’s potion, but in the story of Prince Charming. He cannot make Fiona love him or manipulate the circumstances of love and happiness through his own efforts. Here one cannot make love happen, just as one cannot make beauty, goodness, or truth happen. The theme song of Shrek 2 is the Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love.” Some of the lyrics read: “Well I didn’t mean to do it; but there’s no escaping your love.” It is thus not for humans to control or decide but something that happens to one as a gift of grace.

The religious discourse through the romantic love story also continues in the third film, Shrek the Third. A disgruntled Prince Charming gathers an army of disgruntled fairy-tale villains who desire their own happily-ever-afters, and again unsuccessfully try to make them happen. Yet here a young King Arthur convinces these fairy-tale villains to repent and reform, while Shrek tells Charming to seek his own happily ever after, after which Charming is killed by a tower prop. Arthur tells them:

A:        You’re telling me you just want to be villains your whole lives?

V:        But we are villains; it’s the only thing we know

A:        Didn’t you ever wish you could be something else?

When they reply discouragingly, Arthur quotes Shrek’s speech to him:

Just because people treat you like a villain, or an ogre, or just some loser it doesn’t mean you are one. The thing that matters most is what you think of yourself. If there’s something you really want, or someone you really want to be, then the only person standing in your way is you.

The villains lay down their weapons and ponder other professions, such as growing daisies or opening spas. In other words, they have seen the error of their ways, have repented, and are redeemed and reformed of their wickedness.

We also see in Shrek the Third the repeated theme of “happily ever after,” not only in the plot ending, but throughout the film as a motif and desire. The “happily ever after” scenario in romantic comedy can be a romantic ideal, but understood theologically, it could signify (Christian) hope in life and in divine redemption and salvation (Greeley 108, 112; Brown 219) to be experienced on a human as well as divine level. Bringing back Williams and his romantic theology again, it helps us link the good, or even wondrous, in human experience with a divine goodness. Moreover, in these films, happiness is something that is constantly lost and must constantly be regained; read theologically, this could also symbolize the sacrament of marriage, which constantly bestows a grace that renews the [End Page 14] difficult or dull moments by bringing that grace or experience of love (Williams, Outlines 53). It is likewise salvific or redemptive; it constantly rescues Fiona and Shrek from evils and tribulations, and is sealed by the kiss (Williams, Outlines 47).

The last film, Shrek Forever After, ties everything together. Though Shrek is happily married with ogre triplets, he finds this life dull and monotonous. Because he cannot be grateful for his life, he nearly loses everything. Without his love story with Fiona, he ends up in a dystopia. Yet again the answer is “true love’s kiss,” which Shrek must receive by midnight. Though in this dystopia Fiona has no interest in love and dislikes Shrek, Shrek slowly restores her faith and makes her fall in love with him again. Though true love’s kiss does not work the first time, it works in the end, just in time, and reality is restored to normal. Shrek goes back to his children’s birthday celebration, grateful for all that he has, and we have the final happily ever after.

What stands out to me in this last movie as regards romantic discourse as a bearer of theological meaning and religious experience is the romantic theology of love, marriage and family as sacramental, holy experiences that can lead to redemption. Shrek lives in a state of ingratitude at the beginning of the film. He has forgotten to see his life as a gift of grace. After he has lost it all, Shrek realizes this. He states that “my life was perfect and there’s no way to get it back. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.” He now sees all the good to be had in his everyday life, and is grateful for it. He tells Fiona: “You’ve already done everything for me Fiona. You gave me a home and a family.” Upon their true love’s kiss, Shrek tells Fiona: “You know what the best part of today was? I got the chance to fall in love with you all over again.” At the end of the story, he likewise remarks to Fiona: “I always thought that I rescued you from the dragon’s keep.” Fiona replies: “You did.” Shrek then answers: “No, it was you that rescued me.” He thus has seen his life in a new sacramental way, which has bestowed beauty and light upon it and has redeemed it and redeemed himself.

In this dystopia, we also see Fiona’s redemption from skepticism, and restoration of her faith. Fiona is cynical, faithless, and loveless. After Shrek kisses her and nothing happens, Shrek remarks:

S:         I don’t understand. This doesn’t make any sense. True love’s kiss was supposed to fix everything.

F:         Yeah, you know that’s what they told me too. True love didn’t get me out of that tower. I did. I saved myself. Don’t you get it? It’s all just a big fairy tale.

S:         Fiona don’t say that. It does exist.

F:         And how would you know? Did you grow up locked away in a dragon’s keep? Did you live all alone in a miserable tower? Did you cry yourself to sleep every night waiting for a true love that never came?

S:         But, but I’m your true love.

F:         Then where were you when I needed you?

She has lost faith not just in love, but in the good and beautiful in life, especially as freely given gifts. Everything now depends on her own human effort and will against a cruel world. That is why the kiss did not work; she no longer believes, or loves. [End Page 15]

Yet even here, there is still a ray of hope. After one of Shrek’s failed attempts to connect with Fiona, Puss remarks:

I am not believing what I have just witnessed. Back there—you and Fiona, there was a spark. A spark inside her heart I thought was long extinguished. It was as if for one moment Fiona had actually found her true love.

It is thus up to Shrek to restore her belief and faith in love through love. Through the sacrifices Shrek makes to save Fiona, Fiona comes to believe in Shrek and the power of love again: in the power of goodness, and in beauty and happiness. When Shrek apologizes for not having been there for her, Fiona says that it does not matter, that he is here now. Her life and her past are beginning to be redeemed through this experience of love, and her faith and hope are renewed. Then comes true love’s kiss, in which both Shrek and Fiona find redemption, and a renewal of the sacramental grace bestowed upon their love. Moreover, here true love’s kiss transforms the world and restores it to its rightful order as well, showing the power of love to renew the phenomenal world, exemplified in the married couple (Williams, Outlines 32). Without that love, in a world of cynicism, faithlessness, and disbelief, everything is a dystopia. With the grace and beauty of love, it is beautiful and joyous again, showing how love repeatedly renews the world (Williams, Outlines 32).

In the last movie, we see clearly the analogous relation of romantic love and religious faith, and how this romantic love narrative and discourse could stand in for that of religious faith, showing once again the transposition of Christian theological themes into romantic discourse. We can read the love story again as more than just a romantic love story, as that through which in postmodernity, due to the historical relation of romantic and Christian discourse, discourse on religion, God, and faith take place, albeit in a secularized, human form.

 Love as Religious Discourse in Romantic Comedy

In postmodernity the genre of romantic comedy also becomes a site in which religious discourse takes place, where discourse about love can be read as discourse about religion. What these romantic comedies show even more clearly than the above films is how the love story in film acts as a foil to the modern secular story of hedonism, value-neutrality, scientific rationality, skepticism, cynicism, and disbelief. Romantic love acts as a site which challenges this secular viewpoint by allowing for an experience of love which contains the possibility of a deeper significance as a divine, religious experience.

For example, in the 2009 comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Connor Mead is a New York City playboy, cynical about love and marriage. When refusing to give the toast at his brother’s wedding, he states that:

To me marriage is an archaic and oppressive institution that should have been abolished years ago. [End Page 16]

He goes on to say about love:

Love, it’s magical comfort food for the weak and uneducated. Yeah, it makes you feel all warm and relevant but in the end love leaves you weak, dependent, and fat.

Continuing on a little later, he says:

I wish I could believe in all this crap. I do. I also wish I could believe in the Easter Bunny….I am condemned to see the world as it really is, and love, love is a myth.

We could substitute religion, faith, or God very easily here for the word love, and probably marriage, and we would probably recognize this speech as the modern, secular, skeptical view of religion.[14] In the film, Connor seems jaded, cynical, and shallow, enjoying the swinging bachelor’s life. His moral reformation begins when his deceased lecherous uncle Wayne visits him, warning him to repent of his ways. This movie is playing upon Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is warned to repent of his life and ways. The connection signifies religious and moral meaning, requiring the repentance and reformation of Connor. Connor does see the error of his ways, and begins a new life, a life of committed love.

Likewise, in the 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give, Harry Sanborn is a sixty-three year old New York City bachelor also enjoying the hedonistic single life. He meets Erica Barry, the divorced mother of his girlfriend, and while he is convalescing in her home from a heart attack, they develop a special romantic relationship which turns into love. When they first make love, it is as if they have both experienced something new and wondrous in their lives, an openness and vulnerability but also passion and elation. That was the first night either of them had ever slept eight hours. We can chalk it up to just sexual desire, but something happens that also transforms their lives. Erica, repressed, uptight, and unemotional, can then not stop weeping, which finally helps her overcome her writer’s block and enables her to write her next play, and which opens her up to a relationship with another younger man. She appears happier than ever, and explains to her daughter it was because she let love in, even if it did not work out. Meanwhile Harry attempts to go back to his former playboy life, but to no avail. He is unhappy, and every time he sees Erica he has an anxiety attack which he fears is another heart attack. Realizing he needs to change, he goes back, tries to find every woman he has ever wronged, and makes amends. He looks for Erica in Paris, but finds her with another man. Yet she returns to him. When Erica tells him she’s still in love with him, Harry says: “If it’s true, my life just got made.” Harry then remarks: “I finally get what it’s all about. I’m 63 years old, and I’m in love, for the first time in my life.” And we have a happily ever after.

Erica and Harry’s first night together was a transformative experience, akin to a moment of grace. Whether realized before or not, it brought something missing from their lives into it, love, passion, or wonder, that changed and transformed them. They had to change their lives for the better: in Erica’s case learning to let go of control, open up and let love in; in Harry’s moral reformation and responsibility. Harry’s comment that he is in love [End Page 17] for the first time at 63 can be read as the possibility of redemption at any age and stage, which has been a part of the Christian message as well.


The kiss and romantic love in film can operate religiously and theologically. They have the capacity not only to bear a theological significance, but to offer an opportunity for divine encounter and transformation, as well as containing the possibility of a religious discourse. This is due to the origins of medieval courtly love and its relationship with Christian theological discourse, where medieval courtly love borrowed the sentiments and language of Christian discourse, particularly mystical discourse. Moreover, something of the humanly erotic also remained within sublimated mystical discourse, fusing the two experiences and making it more difficult to distinguish one from the other. This paved the way for romantic love, the descendent of courtly love, to contain the possibility of this deeper theological meaning and religious experience within it. In postmodernity, where God is dead, and where transcendence has been displaced onto immanence and the divine onto the human, this dormant religious and theological possibility of romantic love in culture and art can sometimes be activated, and can become pregnant with meaning. This holds particularly true in film. Moreover, in postmodernity romantic love in films can sometimes stand in for and represent religious experiences of God or for religious discourse. Therefore, I contend that romantic love in film can be one style, form and representation through which religious experience and reflection are taking place in postmodernity. It thus shows the religious and theological possibilities of popular culture and popular cultural manifestations.

Finally, I hope looking at romantic love in film in this light, in relation to theological aesthetics, contributes to opening up and freeing theology and film studies, which seldom treats the theme of romantic love as theologically or religiously pertinent. Theology and film studies should welcome more often these positive engagements with film and religious studies and popular culture. To quote the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf:

I see happiness as a right. I think that it is a human right to be joyful. The person who makes a dark, realistic film in India is wasting his time….Many things must yet change in India before the people’s lives become better…So why should the people be depressed by movies like that? They must be allowed to have some pleasure in life. The person who has had to sell his body for a morsel of food – you want to make a film for him about social justice? What is he supposed to do after seeing that film? (92)

Going on to speak about his profession, he says that “we filmmakers are here only to illuminate, to bring joy to life. All I seek is that, after seeing a film of mine, a person feels a little happier, and acts with a little kindness towards the world” (93). Like Makhbalhaf, we can aim to take seriously those filmmakers who by treating romantic love desire to bring a little more happiness and joy to life and to the world, and consider such a goal a legitimate [End Page 18] enterprise. We can also appreciate films (and scholarly work) that reveal and point us toward this joyous side to life, and realize their value.

I close with a discussion of the ending of Cinema Paradiso. At the end of the story Salvatore/Toto, who is now a famous filmmaker in Rome, watches the film his old friend and father-figure Alfredo left for him upon Alfredo’s recent death. The film is a composite of all the love and kissing scenes that Toto’s hometown’s Catholic priest had censored out of the movies. The film brings tears to Toto’s eyes, perhaps for the memories of his youth and the love for film that has made him rich and famous, perhaps for memories of Alfredo and how he changed his life, perhaps for remembering the past that he left behind. But it signifies something else as well: the kisses signal passion, wonder, beauty, ecstasy and joy, treated in courtly love and romantic literature, but also having origins in Christian mystical discourse and the Christian sacrament of the kiss. I hope this kiss can begin to be understood as that which sometimes graces life, not just in romantic love, but in all our everyday moments, and which may be read and understood as a symbol of human or divine goodness, not to mention the hope, faith and belief in the good, the beautiful and the true, and perhaps the happily ever after of romantic love or Christian redemption. Let us hope that we, unlike the priest, do not censor this out of film or religion, its study, and certainly not out of life.

[1] Though Willliams, as an Anglican, more clearly identifies the romantic love in the sacrament of marriage with the Incarnation and the life of Christ, I translate that here also to mean a divine, sacramental presence in romantic love and marriage.

[2] For readers not familiar with it, the courtly love literature and tradition is thought to have arisen in the 12th century in the Provence region of France, and was popular during the high Middle Ages. It concerned a knight’s love for and devotion to a lady of superior social standing, usually married, and consisted not only of a description of the knight’s passionate devotion, but also his service and humiliation to the lady. There existed also a system of rules and observances which must govern this service.

[3] See for example Zwick, Graham, May, Deacy Faith, and Deacy and Ortiz.

[4] The idea of a hierophany stems from religion scholar Mircea Eliade; a hierophany is an eruption of the sacred into the mundane or profane realm, where the sacred manifests itself into something profane, making that something both what it is and something more. A theophany is the same idea only with the eruption of God or the divine into the mundane. For more information see Eliade, Sacred.

[5] French philosopher of religion Jean-Luc Marion has written extensively about the event of God’s manifestation, sometimes called the saturated phenomenon, a revelation that gives itself from itself to a human subjectivity, and that human beings cannot control but are controlled by. The revelation can also often manifest itself through a work of art, as an encounter; it entails the revelation through the work of art to a passive subjectivity. Most of the writings of Marion are a propos to this phenomenon, but in particular Being Given may be of use in explaining this idea.

[6] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 2 and 3 of section 2, entitled “Seeing life.”

[7] For a discussion of the use of postmodern styles in relation to theology, see Detweiler, and Detweiler and Taylor. [End Page 19]

[8] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 5, 8, 12 and 14 of section 3, entitled “Cupitt and Bonhoeffer meet the Kranks.”

[9] Again this is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the relevant passages can be found in paragraphs 7-14 of section 2, entitled “The Subjective Turn in Modern Spirituality,” and in paragraphs 2-3 of section 3, entitled “Reading Film in the Context of the Subjective Turn.”

[10] See Detweiler and Taylor.

[11] This is a Kindle edition of the book without pagination, but the citation can be found in paragraphs 1 and 2 in section 5, entitled “Finding God in the movies.”

[12] Though I reference the film, I actually have not seen The Last Temptation of Christ, but am just depending on what I have heard about the film.

[13] See J. Smith and Taylor.

[14] Ben-Ze’ev and Goussinsky consider the “ideology of romantic love” as an unattainable, unrealistic transcendental ideal that under certain circumstances can lead to fanaticism and violence, much in the way many modern intellectuals view religion, particularly fundamentalism (xii-xiv). [End Page 20]

 Movies Cited

Cinema Paradiso. Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Perf. Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin. Miramax (US), 1988. Online download.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas. New Line, 2009. Online Download.

Shrek. Dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy. Dreamworks/Universal, 2001. Online download.

Shrek 2. Dir. Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Dreamworks/Universal, 2004. Online download.

Shrek Forever After. Dir. Mike Mitchell. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Paramount 2010. Online download.

Shrek the Third. Dir. Chris Miller and Raman Hui. Perf. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas. Paramount, 2007. Online download.

Something’s Gotta Give. Dir. Nancy Meyers. Perf Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

The Da Vinci Code. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan. Columbia, 2006. Online download.

The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Barbara Hershey. Universal, 1988. Online download.

The Matrix. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 1999. Online download.

The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

The Matrix Revolutions. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne. Warner Brothers, 2003. Online download.

Music Cited

Counting Crows. “Accidentally in Love.” Shrek 2: Motion Picture Soundtrack. Dreamworks/Geffen, 2004. CD.

Diamond, Neil. “I’m a Believer” lyrics. STLyrics. n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.

Duritz, Adam, Dan Vickrey, David Bryson, Matt Malley, David Immergluck. “Accidentally in Love” lyrics. Elyrics. n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.

Smash Mouth. “I’m a Believer.” Shrek: Music From the Original Motion Picture. Dreamworks, 2001. CD.

Works Cited

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ed. Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. New York: Cross Road, 1995. Print.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. 1 Seeing The Form. Trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Ed. Joseph Fessio and John Riches. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982. 117-127. Excerpt in Thiessen 320-325.

[End Page 21]

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 2 The Doctrine of God. Eds. G. W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957. 650-659. Excerpt in Thiessen 315-319.

Ben-Ze’ev, Aharon and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Bird, Michael. “Film as Hierophany.” Religion in Film. Eds. John R. May and Michael Bird. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. 3-22. Print.

Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977. Print.

Brown, Stephen. “Optimism, Hope, and Feelgood Movies: The Capra Connection.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 219-232. Print.

Chittister, Joan. “Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light.” Religious Life Review 40 (2001): 178-180. Excerpt in Thiessen 366-367.

Coates, Paul. Cinema, Religion, and the Romantic Legacy. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003. Print.

Deacy, Christopher. Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005. Print.

— — —. “From Bultmann to Burton, Demythologizing the Big Fish: The Contribution of Modern Christian Theologians to the Theology-Film Conversation.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 12. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

— — —, and Gaye Ortiz, eds. Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. London: Blackwell, 2008. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 1 March 2012.

Detweiler, Craig. “Seeing and Believing: Film Theory as a Window into a Visual Faith.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 1. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

Detweiler, Craig, and Barry Taylor. A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 30 March 2012.

Eliade, Mircea. “The Sacred and the Modern Artist.” Criterion 1964 (Spring): 22-24. Excerpt in Apostolos-Capadona 179-183.

— — —. Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. Print.

Gilkey, Langdon. “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, IL. 17 May 1981. Keynote Address. Excerpt in Apostolos-Cappadona 187-192.

Graham, David John. “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 87-95. Print.

— — —. “The Uses of Film in Theology.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 35-43. Print.

Greeley, Andrew. God in Popular Culture. Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1988. Print.

Häring, Bernard. Free and Faithful in Christ. Vol. 2 The Truth Will Set You Free. Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1979. 102-109. Excerpt in Thiessen 338-343.

[End Page 22]

Jasper, David. “On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response.” Explorations in Theology and Film. Ed. Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz. Oxford, Blackwell, 1997. 235-244. Print.

Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 4 March 2012.

— — —. “Theological Approaches.” Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. Ed. John Lyden. London: Routledge, 2009. Chapter 17. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 15 March 2012.

Klassen, William. “The Sacred Kiss in the New Testament: An Example of Social Boundary Lines.” New Testament Studies 39.1 (1993): 122-135. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. Print.

Lyden, John. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic book. 2 February 2012.

Lynch, Gordon. After Religion: ‘Generation X’ and the Search for Meaning. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002. Print.

— — —. “Film and the Subjective Turn: How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 5. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

— — —. Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. London: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Makhmalbaf, Mohsen. “Once Upon a Filmmaker: Conversation with Mohsen Malkhmalbaf.” Interview by Hamid Dabashi. Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present, and Future. London: Verso, 2001. Excerpt in The Religion and Film Reader. Eds. Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate. London: Routledge, 2007. 92-94. Print.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.

Marsh, Clive. Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004. Print.

Martin, Joel W, and Conrad E Ostwalt Jr. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. Print.

Martin, Thomas M. Images and the Imageless: A Study in Religious Consciousness and Film. London: Associated University Presses, 1981. Print.

McFague, Sallie. Models of God, Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. 133-135. Excerpt in Thiessen 346-348.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology and Joy. London: SCM Press, 1973. 58-64. Excerpt in Thiessen 334-338.

Navone, John. Toward a Theology of Beauty. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996. 77-82. Excerpt in Thiessen 355-358.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951. Print.

O’Meara, Thomas Franklin. “The Aesthetic Dimension in Theology.” Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. Ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. New York: Cross Road, 1995. 205-18. Print.

Penn, Michael Philip. Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Print.

Perella, Nicolas James. The Kiss Sacred and Profane: An Interpretive History of Kiss Symbolism and Related Religio-Erotic Themes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Print.

[End Page 23]

Phillips, L. Edward. The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship. Cambridge, UK: Grove Books, 1996. Print.

Plate, S Brent. Religion and Film: Cinema and the Recreation of the World. London: Wallflower, 2008. Print.

Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

Rahner, Karl. “Theology and the Arts.” Thought 57 (1982): 24-29. Excerpt in Thiessen 218-22.

Smith, Greg M. “Local Emotions, Global Moods, and Film Structure.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 103-126. Print.

Smith, Jeff. “Movie Music as Moving Music: Emotion, Cognition, and the Film Score.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 146-167. Print.

Tan, Ed S., and Nico H. Frijda. “Sentiment in Film Viewing.” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 48-64. Print.

Taylor, Barry. “The Colors of Sound: Music and Meaning Making in Film.” Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Ed. Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Chapter 2. Kindle for PC Version. Electronic Book. 11 March 2012.

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. Print.

Verbeek, Marjeet. “Too Beautiful to Be Untrue: Toward a Theology of Film Aesthetics.” New Image of Religious Film. Ed. John R. May. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. 161-177. Print.

Viladesau, Richard. Theological Aesthetics, God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 210-213. Excerpt in Thiessen 361-366.

Williams, Charles. Outlines of Romantic Theology. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005. Print.

— — —. Religion and Love in Dante. Westminster: Dacre Press, 1970. Print.

Wright, Melanie. Religion and Film: An Introduction. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Zwick, Reinhold. “The Problem of Evil in Contemporary Film.” New Image of Religious Film. Ed. John R. May. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1997. 72-91. Print.

[End Page 24]


“Charm the Boys, Win the Girls: Power Struggles in Mary Stolz’s Cold War Adolescent Girl Romance Novels” by Amanda K. Allen

Here was what she’d been waiting for. Not something—someone. Here, as so often in the daydreams, Douglas Eamons was talking to her. Doug . . . in college now, emptying the vast high school when he left, leaving the crowded corridors, the wide classrooms empty, taking the flicker of promise from lunch hours, when she might see him, stripping the crisp, vivid pageant of football to nothing but bands, color, battle, and hundreds of people. (Stolz To Tell 15)

So begins Mary Stolz’s first teen girl romance novel, To Tell Your Love (1950), the story of seventeen-year-old Anne Armacost’s summer of first love, wrapped in the arms (and popularity) of Doug Eamons. From the outset, Anne knows that her meeting with Doug is critical: “She was a girl well used to charming and captivating boys. But this time, she told herself, I must be very careful. This time it’s very, very important” (16). In the world of post-war/Cold War adolescent girl romance novels—what I call “female junior novels”—Anne is right. Her meeting with Doug is important, for if Stolz follows the major tropes of the genre, Anne’s future happiness—and social status—is entirely dependent on her ability to “captivate” Doug.

Female junior novels were a new genre of adolescent romance literature, published between 1942 and 1967, and aimed at the freshly-minted American teenage girl consumer. Written by authors such as Betty Cavanna, Anne Emery, Rosamond du Jardin, Amelia Elizabeth Walden, and Mary Stolz, these novels showcased the brave new world of malt shops and high school clubs, as well as eagerly narrating the first loves, dances, and class rings that formed the teen girl realm. While Maureen Daly’s 1942 novel, Seventeenth Summer, provided the wellspring for the genre, hundreds of novels quickly followed over the next two decades, all eagerly imparting stories of female maturation through romance. Simple, pleasurable, and often formulaic, the female junior novels divided those working in the newly emerging field of literature for adolescents. Although they were initially welcomed by many practitioner-oriented critics (such as librarians and educators) as “wholesome” because of their capacity to show girls “how to approach the problems of dating with common sense” (Edwards 465), the texts were often simultaneously derided by then-contemporary academic critics. Richard Alm, a professor at the University of Hawaii,[1] was clear in his emphasis on the pejorative positioning of the female junior novels:

most novelists present a sugar-puff story of what adolescents should do and should believe rather than what adolescents may or will do and believe. [ . . . ] Their stories are superficial, often distorted, sometimes completely false representations of adolescence. Instead of art, they produce artifice. (315)

Of course, the division between the two types of critics was not entirely clear-cut, and even the practitioner-oriented critics had their reservations about these texts. Margaret Edwards, for example, head of young adult services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and arguably the most staunch supporter of the female junior novels, also admitted that “the warmest defender of these stories would not recommend them for the Great Books list nor ask to be marooned with them on a desert island, but they have their good points” (465).

While now-contemporary critics have a tendency to be just as condescending toward these texts as our academic forebears, I believe that to continue to neglect these novels is to do a disservice to the fields of both young adult literature and popular romance studies. Indeed, the female junior novels may be “sugar puff” stories, but they also highlight competition, machinations, and general manipulations involved in the girl protagonists’ attempts to “land” the perfect boyfriend, thereby revealing the social structures that force the protagonists to think, feel, and behave in pre-established manners. This paper focuses on texts written by one prolific author in this genre, Mary Stolz, and suggests that the heterosexual romance plots within her novels mask complex female power struggles within an adolescent social hierarchy—struggles which further suggest the possibility of a surprising female-focused alternative to patriarchy.

This article is organized into four main parts, each of which corresponds with four overarching factors that contribute to the possibility of the female alternative to patriarchy: i. girls’ conformity, ii. use of “boy capital,” iii. establishment of a female dominant society, and iv. recognition of the prom queen as the object of her own desire. Thus, in the first part I focus on female conformity, and suggest that it is necessary for the protagonists’ romantic success and acts as a measuring rod against which female maturity can be measured. In the second section I draw on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of distinction as a lens through which to study the girls’ use of “boy capital” to raise their positions in the teen society. While the society in Stolz’s novels is patriarchal, it is paradoxically run—and regulated—by the popular girls. Luce Irigaray’s theory of the commodification of women is therefore my dominant tool in the third part, and I employ her ideas to suggest that Stolz’s novels incorporate a kind of all-female commerce, subordinate to and reliant on male characters, but functioning based on the protagonists’ desire to be recognized, accepted, and codified as one of the popular girls. Finally, in part four, I examine girls’ homosocial / homoerotic desire through Stolz’s use of a female gaze, in which the female protagonists watch the most popular girls, and in which the girls’ yearning for social dominance becomes visible. In their moment of prom crowning, the popular girls become not only the object of other girls’ desire, but the object of their own. They therefore somewhat remove themselves from male commodity exchange, and instead entrench their status as governing figures within the adolescent society. In doing so, they reveal that the romance plot at the heart of Stolz’s novels ultimately creates and masks complex female power struggles within a highly regulated adolescent social hierarchy.

Female Conformity in Female Junior Novels

I take as the starting point for my argument a quotation from the preface to Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel, in which Regis states:

The [romance] genre is not silly and empty-headed, as mainstream literary culture would have it. Quite the contrary—the romance novel contains serious ideas. The genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. (Regis xiii)

The concept of women’s freedom—or, at least, a hint of the possibility of such freedom—is what underscores many of Mary Stolz’s female junior novels, although its presence is not always obvious. Indeed, the majority of current criticism of the female junior novel genre positions its texts as reinforcing a kind of female bondage or lack of agency. As girls’ literature critic Anne Scott MacLeod states regarding female junior novel protagonists:

More striking [ . . . ] is the pervasive leveling pressure in these novels. In dozens of ways, implicit and explicit, the literature counsels acquiescence, acceptance, and adjustment to undemanding prospects. Ambition is decidedly not “part of it”; in fact, fictional girls often reduce their already meager choices by adopting further, and self-constructed, boundaries. [ . . . ] Whatever else she may consider doing, a girl must conform to conventional ideals of feminine attractiveness and behavior, even if it means putting her own tastes and aspirations aside. (MacLeod 60-61)

If one focuses on the heterosexual romance plots of these novels, MacLeod’s statement is absolutely correct: the female protagonists are repeatedly taught to conform, particularly when it comes to the behavior and trappings of a 1950s femininity aimed at luring future husbands. Moreover, for some protagonists that conformity is not only necessary for romantic success, it is desired and actively sought.

Before I detail this conformity in Stolz’s texts, I should include a brief caveat: Stolz’s novels are representative of the female junior novel genre because they incorporate many of the typical tropes and concerns of the genre, not least of which are the four that provide the foundation of my current analysis: conformity, “boy capital,” the female dominant society, and the crowning rite of the popular girl/prom queen. While Stolz’s novels share these characteristics with other texts in the genre, however, they are also very different in a multitude of ways, particularly when it comes to quality of writing and age of readership. Thus when I state that Stolz’s texts are representative, I hope that the reader will accept that “representative” does not necessarily equate with a sense of “all female junior novels are completely like this.” Indeed, Stolz was often singled out from the other female junior novelists by academic critics like Alm, who declared Stolz to be “surely the most versatile and most skilled of that group” (320), and one who “writes not for the masses who worship Sue Barton Barry” (320). Practitioner-based critics similarly separated Stolz from the other authors of the genre, although this separation was sometimes to Stolz’s detriment. Margaret Ford Kiernan, for example, observed in her Atlantic Monthly review of Stolz’s In a Mirror (1953) that

[In a Mirror] is as penetrative and analytical as anything [Mary Stolz] has ever done. But is it a teen-age book? I confess I bogged down for a minute while I went through it because, as a stream-of-consciousness journal of a present-day college girl, it would surely have Henry James looking to his laurels. [ . . . Well-balanced teenagers] could handle it and would thoroughly enjoy it, no doubt, but for the more immature I think it is too introspective and somehow disturbing. (547)

Still, although the level of writing sophistication within Stolz’s texts may separate them from the other female junior novels, they still share the fundamental tropes of the genre, including an actively-sought conformity. Jean Campbell, in The Sea Gulls Woke Me (1951) watches all the other girls in her class “producing by sleight of hand the little colored combs that were as much a badge as the white, everfresh turned-up socks they wore” (2). Jean, whose hair, “braided and heavily hairpinned in the morning, required no further care till evening” (2) looks “with accustomed and unhopeful longing at the sleek shining caps of the girls around her” (2). Later, in a moment of adolescent rebellion, Jean visits a department store in New York City to have her hair cut. This act leaves her feeling “divinely content,” (37), and she joyfully exits the hair salon “in an access of the poise that comes, at sixteen, from looking exactly like everybody else of sixteen” (37). Interestingly, this act of conformity is not celebrated by the adults in the text who, with the exception of Jean’s father, all seem disappointed by the loss of Jean’s hair. Mr. Armando, her hairdresser, mourns: “Mr. Armando walked around her, lifting the unbound locks, hefting them. His face was brooding. ‘Glorious,’ he murmured, almost reluctantly. He sighed” (36). Similarly, when Jean asks her Aunt Christine if she likes the haircut, Christine replies:

“Oh, very much,” said Christine, who thought it was a great, if understandable, pity. “I suppose there aren’t many girls of your age with long hair.”

“I was the only one left in the United States.” (55)

Jean’s haircutting act may appear trivial, but it is one of many seemingly superficial acts within Stolz’s texts that demonstrate the sheer joy that her female protagonists experience whenever they are able to behave or appear like “everyone else” (or, in other words, like the popular girls). As Amy Pattee notes in Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel, “in the adolescent novels of the mid-century, the ‘question of maturity’ was successfully answered by the hero or heroine who succeeded in adhering to and maintaining dominant scripts” (11). Jean’s act of conformity not only establishes her desire to be part of the group, it also hails the beginning emergence of her maturity—a maturity that will be further established as she slowly develops her first love affair.

In many of the female junior novels, looking and acting like everyone else is, of course, the key to attracting a boyfriend. Once the girls achieve that, their conformity ensures that they will fulfill their gendered roles and pass through the prescribed checkpoints of their burgeoning heterosexual relationships: from the promise indicated by a class ring, to engagement, and finally to marriage (and, one would assume, to the eventual production of a family). Although the majority of female junior novels end with a token of the future relationship (through a pin, a class ring, or a kiss), rather than an actual engagement or marriage, the longevity of the couple is assumed. An exception to this trope, however, may be seen in Mary Stolz’s secondary characters, such as Nora in To Tell Your Love, who “loved her baby and longed to be free of him” (174), who act as cautionary tales regarding the danger of too-early marriage and children.

In the majority of these texts female maturity is not just tied to conformity and the establishment of long-term heterosexual relationships, it is implicitly founded on such factors. Indeed, there is an obvious pattern in hailing male characters as “men” while female characters remain “girls” until they become married “women.” Still, although the elements that determine the heterosexual romance plot within these novels—the focus on clothing,[2] dates, dances, and first kisses—suggest a pressure on female conformity, they also mask complex machinations that point not to female bondage, but rather to the potential for the kind of women’s freedom that Regis ponders. Indeed, as the next sections of this article will demonstrate, the very elements that may appear most conformist and superficial (dates, dresses) are the same elements that allow the protagonists to form their own semi-autonomous female society, hidden in the plain sight of heterosexual romance.

“Boy Capital” and Gatekeeping

The potential for female autonomy emerges from the structure and functioning of the adolescent society in which the girl protagonists reside. On the surface, the female characters in Stolz’s novels dwell in a kind of hieroglyphic world, in which possession of the right dress, the correct “slang,” or the proper seat in the malt shop all determine one’s place within a firmly entrenched adolescent social hierarchy. While the ability to follow social codes regarding what to buy or wear implies a common democratized culture, the adolescent classes are predicated on more than simple economic ability.  Rather, they function according to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital, which extends traditional notions of economic-based capital to include other forms (including social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital), all of which work to define a person’s position within a multidimensional social space. In other words, capital acts as a kind of resource that enables a person to gain or to maintain a position within a status-based social hierarchy. Although economic capital may seem to be the dominant form in a capitalist society, Bourdieu notes ways in which different categories of capital can be exchanged and transformed into each other. Such conversion, however, requires the complicity of all people. Part of this complicity stems from the habitus, which is a residue of one’s inherited class past (functioning below one’s consciousness) that shapes one’s present perception. The complicity is also based on the impact of the habitus on a person’s drive or desire to acquire symbolic capital. This symbolic capital, moreover, can manifest itself in any form that is recognized through socially-inculcated classificatory structures.

In Stolz’s female junior novels, that symbolic capital takes the form of what I call “boy capital:” a girl’s ability to date—that is, to accumulate—multiple dominant-class boys. The more higher-ranked boys who are willing to take a girl to the movies, or the malt shop, or—and this is the really important, Cinderella-creating event—the prom, the more dominant a girl becomes within the adolescent social hierarchy.

To understand the girls’ use of “boy capital” in these novels, one must first recognize the gendering of Stolz’s teen societies. Considering the time period in which they were written, it is likely no surprise that they appear to function within a patriarchal paradigm. As Linda K. Christian-Smith notes in her study of what she hails as Period I adolescent romance novels (1942-1959, the period that coincides with many of Stolz’s female junior novels):

romance is about learning how to relate to males and the importance of this. [ . . . ] What [the female protagonists] learn is that the ability to “get along” is primarily worked out within romance, a set of relations of power and control, that do not favor feminine power and initiative. The novels contain no mention of female and male parity. Rather, the romance situates girls within a set of relations whereby they are the ones that must compromise and change. (375)

Indeed, as Betty Wilder in Stolz’s And Love Replied (1958) remarks concerning the gendered social division around her:

It was, as Carol frequently complained, a man’s world. And in this man’s world, Betty thought now, a girl has to take what she can get by wiles, subtlety, coercion, or blandishment. But she can never, not ever, say simply, honestly, and aloud, This is what I’d like. (51-52)

Like Betty, many of Stolz’s female junior novel protagonists profess Bourdieu’s “that’s not for the likes of me” slogan, which Leslie McCall characterizes as “the dominated classes’ practical consideration of their lack of opportunity to join in the cultural and economic life of the dominant classes” (849). McCall adds that these “social divisions appear obvious and self-regulated by individuals and social groups” (849), and thus most Stolz female characters rarely question this gendered social arrangement.

Still, while I agree with Christian-Smith that these adolescent societies are patriarchal, I would complicate her analysis by suggesting that they are—paradoxically—ruled by females, not males. That is, male and female characters rarely struggle for dominance against each other; they only battle against characters of their own gender. The lack of struggle between the genders is predicated on the seemingly automatic dominance of the males. Although boys are powerful in Stolz’s teenage societies, their power is that of accessories to legitimation: they are not legitimizers themselves—and this is where the paradox emerges. The boys exist somewhat above the social hierarchy, in a kind of super-terrestrial twilight where their presence affects the lives of the girls, but where the girls have less effect on them. Consequently, while dating a boy can help a girl to gain the necessary symbolic capital to climb the hierarchy, it is the girls on the top rung of the ladder who ultimately determine each social climber’s place, not the boys who help them. Or, as Betty Wilder eloquently phrases it, “boys might be kings, but it was the girls who ruled the court” (And Love 123).

This queendom becomes obvious in the way in which Pris and Madge, two girls who possess the most boy capital in Stolz’s Because of Madeline (1957)—and who therefore hold the highest ranks in their adolescent society—refer to their boyfriends. Rather than using their given names, the girls refer to the boys by the names of the boys’ prep schools: “Exeter was in town last week end. Woodbury Forest was coming all the way up from Virginia for the Junior Assembly. They weren’t seeing Choate any more, he was just too darn fresh, and if he thought for a minute [ . . . ]” (Because 36). Although they decide to drop Choate for being “too darn fresh,” Pris’s and Madge’s language makes it clear that the boys’ individualities matter far less than which prestigious preparatory school they attend. The boys are simply forms of capital, to be collected and used at the Junior Assembly or some such social gathering, then disposed of when they become bothersome.[3]

While Pris and Madge know how to seek and wield their boy capital, it is Dody Jenks, in Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember (1954), who becomes the most trenchant example of a girl whose ability to brandish boy capital in manipulating her adolescent society rivals that of the Marquise de Merteuil or, in a more contemporary analogy, Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf. Dody may come from a working-class background, but within her adolescent society she is still “the high school girl who would incontestably be elected Snow Queen that year” (39). Stolz makes it apparent that the reason for Dody’s social success is her ability to manipulate boy capital:

But there were other girls, as pretty, a good many with more pleasing backgrounds . . . more clothes, better manners, homes to which they could freely and without embarrassment invite people. None of this had prevailed against Dody, who knew by instinct how to charm boys. And, she had told herself simply, charm them and the girls will have to like you, whether or not they do. (40)

Dody is masterful in charming men, and acknowledges it as an inherent talent:

how had she known that directness was the lure which would bring Ben to her side? [. . .] She simply knew, as she knew Roger liked vivacity, Mr. Newhall a sort of ingenious coquettishness, the young policeman at the corner a bright-eyed dependence. (56)

This seemingly inborn knowledge of how to attract men exists in almost all of Stolz’s popular characters. Lotta Dunne in Who Wants Music on Monday? (1963) purposely looks at a boy with “an oblique and fetching glance—a practiced glance, one that had not yet failed her” (207); Honey Kirkwood in Hospital Zone (1956) knows how to “lift her head in the way she knew was winning” (174) and to “look into his eyes a fraction of a second longer than an introduction demanded” (174); and Betty Wilder knows how to enter a room with

the quick sweet smile, the airy walk, the heightened sensibility that automatically took possession of her in the new presence of any young man. [. . .] You held your head so, you moved and lifted and dropped your eyes thus, you put into your voice something it was innocent of in the sole presence of your family, say, or of Carol. If the boy was dull, or obviously chartered by someone else, if no slightest current moved between you and him, why, you tucked the whole pleasant pantomime away, not because it was artificial, but because it served no purpose. (And Love 18)

While Stolz’s popular girls seem to have no difficulty in attracting their male counterparts, it is important to note that possession of boy capital does not automatically equate with entry into the ranks of the social elite. Although Dody Jenks is partly correct in suggesting that the dominant girls are forced to accept an outsider if she dates a dominant boy, possession of too much boy capital risks the danger of a reputation of promiscuity. These are, after all, postwar teen romance novels. In Rosemary (1955), Rosemary Reed attempts to gain social mobility through a dominant class boy, Jay, but unknowingly pushes her possession of boy capital too far:

She was aware of talking a little too much, a little too loudly. Aware, too, that many of these boys were holding her closer than they should, but she laughed with them excitedly, and thought how Jay would certainly have to be proud of his date, his vivacious, popular, sought-after-date. [. . .] She danced endlessly, and though the girls at the table ignored her more pointedly than they had earlier, Rosemary assured herself she didn’t care. (24)

Whereas Rosemary’s date with Jay has the potential to pave the way into the dominant society, her attempts to appear popular by gaining more boy capital ultimately create a barrier to that movement.

While Rosemary’s failure demonstrates the danger of too much boy capital, it also highlights the fact that boy capital is only helpful when it is recognized—even reluctantly—by dominant girls. The girls—not the boys—are the gatekeepers to teen popularity. An obvious example of this gatekeeping can be seen in Stolz’s The Sea Gulls Woke Me, in which Jean Campbell, an unpopular girl, hides in the lavatory during the school dance, and overhears Sally Gowans and a few other popular girls mocking both her dress and her date, Rhet Coyne. When Jean steps out of the lavatory, the rest of the girls, “giggling a little through nervousness, or perhaps remorse, ran out, looking at one another as they fled” (26). Sally, however, stays, and attempts to apologize. In that moment, Jean realizes that Sally’s sympathy for her could be her entrée into the popular crowd:

Jean thought later that she probably had her chance there to escape through the dark mirror into the Wonderland of acceptance. This girl was Sally Gowans, acknowledged leader of the school. [ . . . ] But Jean, at the moment she might have received help, was too numbed by the evening to realize it. (27)

The fact that Jean fails to accept Sally’s help does not negate the fact that it is Sally’s judgment of Jean, more than the influence of Jean’s date, Rhet, and certainly more than Jean’s own opinion of herself, that establishes Jean’s place within the social hierarchy.

The Female Dominant Society

In Stolz’s texts, then, female control of the adolescent society suggests not only the partial subversion of traditional forms of (patriarchal) dominance, but the emergence of a semi-autonomous female society—what I call the “female dominant society”—which functions within patriarchy, yet still remains somewhat separate from it. In acknowledging the contradictory nature of the heterosexual romance plot for female junior novel protagonists, Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that the process of romantic recognition

creates young women themselves as terms in a circuit of exchange where their value is acquired through affiliation with males. Romance is one of the sites for the learning of gendered relations of subordination and domination. The code of romance is ultimately about power: who has it and who may legitimately exercise it. (375-376)

Christian-Smith’s suggestion that these girls act as “terms in a circuit of exchange” is reminiscent of Luce Irigaray’s theory of women as commodities, in which Irigaray suggests that the foundation of heterosexual society (as we know it) is based on the use, consumption, and circulation of women. Women function exclusively as “products,” in that “men make commerce of them, but they do not enter into any exchanges with them” (172). Instead, women’s otherness stimulates men’s exchanges of other forms of “wealth” while simultaneously smoothing the relations between men. In terms of women’s relations with other women, Irigaray states: “uprooted from their “nature,” [women] can no longer relate to each other except in terms of what they represent in men’s desire, and according to the “forms” that this imposes upon them” (188).

Still, Irigaray questions: “But what if these ‘commodities’ refused to go to ‘market’? What if they maintained ‘another’ kind of commerce, among themselves?” (196). In Stolz’s texts, this other kind of commerce is the “female dominant society.” While it may be subordinate to and reliant on male characters, its power stems from female desire. That desire functions as related forms of longing: to be recognized, to be accepted, and ultimately to be codified as one of the popular girls. Thus Betty Wilder spends much of And Love Replied falling in love with Clifton Banks, but spends an equal amount of time pining to be accepted—perhaps even loved?—by the dominant girls in her new high school:

One morning , when a couple of girls whose names—Ginny and Rowena—she knew, and whose place—at the summit—she knew, passed her in the hall and waved pleasantly, not slowing their steps, and called, “Hi, Betty, how are you?” not waiting for her reply, she stood rooted, looking after them. A girl named Eleanor, whose command was queenly in these halls, gave her a queenly nod and sailed by among her cohorts. The cohorts glanced quickly to see who’d been favored, but pressed in so as not to get out of the royal train.

Take a chance on me, Betty cried in her mind. You’d like me if you knew me. . . . Oh, please! (And Love 120)

Rosemary Reed, similarly, dreams of membership in the female dominant society. In her mind, girls from the college “would stop by of an evening for a Coke and gossip” (Rosemary 8). Her craving to belong is almost entirely female-oriented:

She wanted to sit, on a winter’s night, as girls must be doing this moment, pajamaed ridiculously like the girls in ads, crowded into one lovely bedroom, eating things out of bakery boxes and drinking coffee and talking, talking. [. . .] Rosemary, want some more cake? Rosemary, could I borrow your yellow jacket? Rosemary . . . Rosemary . . . Rosemary . . . (122)

This scene of the “pajamaed” girls-only sleepover is repeated in multiple Stolz novels,[4] and in each the emphasis is on a kind of female communication and understanding that seems to be absent from the protagonists’ interactions with boys. In Stolz’s Good-by My Shadow (1957), Barbara Perry experiences a daydream that is similar to Rosemary’s, only Barbara’s dream is fixated on a single popular girl:

She pictured herself and Margaret Obemeyer, spending the night together at one of their houses, doing their nails perhaps, and talking things over. They’d be such good friends that they could discuss anything . . . not just boys and sex, though those would certainly form a part of their evening’s communication . [. . .] Yes, she could hear herself, going on and on, confident of understanding. (Good-by 74-75)

As Barbara’s dream suggests, the girls’ desire in each of these instances is not simply to be accepted by the female dominant society, but to be fully understood and valued.

The Gaze and the Prom Queen

Of course, while Betty’s and Rosemary’s hopes focus more on the female dominant society as a group, Barbara’s intense concentration on Margaret as an individual suggests a possible move from the homosocial to the homoerotic. Situations that can be read as indicative of both homoerotic and homosocial desire are actually quite common to girls’ interactions within the female junior novel genre.[5] For the majority of Stolz’s female protagonists, however, the underlying cause of either type of longing remains the desire for social status.

The merging of homosocial/homoerotic desire with a yearning for social dominance becomes visible through Stolz’s use of a female gaze, in which the female protagonists watch the most popular girls in the female dominant society. By the end of Good-by My Shadow, Barbara has achieved enough social status that when Randy Lawson (or Boy Capital) takes her to a party at Margaret’s house, Barbara is able to relax and enjoy watching Margaret:

Margaret was beside her, saying in her slightly husky voice, “How’re you, Barby? I’m so glad you could come.”

Barbara looked at her, at the short springy hair, the direct bright eyes, the fine bones and animated posture. Margaret had always given her the impression that she could, if she wished, merely leave the floor and sail from one point to another. She listened to the throaty, friendly voice, and the tension within her loosened. She could almost feel it flowing away through her fingertips, as she said, “I’m glad, too.” Did she dare to call her Margy? “Margy.” (Good-by 197)

While this passage has the potential to be read as Barbara’s homoerotic desire for Margaret, it can also be read as Barbara’s desire to be Margaret, in terms of wielding Margaret’s power to be “everybody’s dream girl” (116), or the most dominant of the female dominant society. Barbara’s impression that Margaret can “leave the floor and sail from one point to another” (197) suggests a level of social ability that Barbara still lacks, but ultimately desires (although her date with Randy Lawson and inclusion in the party suggests that she, too, will soon gain social dominance).

The visual climax of the desiring female gaze is revealed in the culminating event of many of the female junior novels: the prom. For dominated girls within Stolz’s novels, this is the instance when the struggle for dominance ceases momentarily, and the apotheoses of the female social elite—those beautiful and popular sovereigns, the prom queens—are watched and celebrated in all their glory. These are the girls who, according to Lotta Dunne’s Aunt Muriel in Stolz’s Who Wants Music on Monday (1963),

sail lightly along the surface of their youth, never suspecting the existence of undercurrents, riptides, rapids. The cheer leaders, the prom and hop belles, the flirts, who look forward to the next date, the next dress, anticipate college as a more glamorous extension of high school and marriage as a state of being adored by a perfect man. (54)

In that fateful moment of prom crowning, these girls, the most dominant of the female dominant society, become not only the object of other girls’ desire, but the object of their own. In Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory, Catherine Driscoll examines the role of the bride in popular culture. She notes that the bride can be understood as both the object of patriarchal desire and as an instance of identified passivity, but she also suggests that “the desire to be the bride that looks at the bride is not a desiring gaze defined by this standard heteropatriarchal narrative, and perhaps contains no narrative of sexualized possession at all” (187). The same, I suspect, may be said of the prom queen within the female dominant society. She is no longer a commodity passed between men, although she may view her position as a sort of commodity in itself, since it entrenches her as a governing figure in the adolescent society. Still, even if she holds that view, she is the only one who enacts the possessing. Her prom king or date—for there has to be a male figure to provide her with the appropriate boy capital to enable her to gain her position—is simply an accessory; as Driscoll explains, the bride (prom queen) “is her own ideal and love object, and any groom (the one who loves me) is a means to that idealization” (187). Thus although Dody Jenks plans and implements a social coup to secure her date, Ben, in Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember, Ben is completely forgotten in the instant of her social crowning. Instead, the moment becomes solely about the rightful homage that must be paid to Dody Jenks, Snow Queen, most dominant member of the female dominant society:

The music changed to Strauss, the big doors swung wide, and Dody, with the faintest of smiles, surveyed her domain. As at home, there was complete silence, except for the music, and then a long breath of capitulation [. . .] as they all stared. [. . .] There had been lovely queens in Plattstown High other years, but without question, Dody Jenks, in her frosty green sheath with the rhinestones sparkling like icicles against her hair, was a Snow Queen from a fairy tale. (121)

Irigaray’s vision may not be completely fulfilled, but the female dominant society of Stolz’s texts—and her prom queens, in particular—certainly express a possible alternative to a society in which women are exchangeable commodities in relations between men. They may still exist under the ultimate rule of patriarchy, but their paradoxical power within the teen society suggests a kind of hope for the protagonists, regardless of whether or not the reason behind that hope—the establishment of “‘another’ kind of commerce, among themselves” (Irigaray 196)—is truly possible.[6]

As this article has attempted to articulate, the elements that form the romance plot of Stolz’s specifically 1950s style of female junior novel—the female conformity, “boy capital” and girls’ attempts to gain social dominance by dating boys, pajama parties and the emergence of the female dominant society, and, of course, the recognition of the prom queen as the object of her own desire—may seem “sugar-puff” or “saccharine,” but they ultimately create and mask complex female power struggles within a highly regulated adolescent social hierarchy. Perhaps Betty Wilder’s observation, which feels both suffocating and combative in its surface reading, may actually suggest a course of action, and a hope: “boys might be kings, but it was the girls who ruled the court” (And Love 123).

Lingering Questions

The first question that inevitably arises following an analysis of Stolz’s novels through the lens of either popular romance or young adult literature is this: to what extent did the teen girl readers recognize the female struggles hidden within these stories of first love? My answer is, unfortunately, necessarily inadequate: we cannot know. The teenage girls of the 1950s and 1960s have long since grown up, and very little record remains of their relationships with these novels.

There are a few studies available regarding the use of Stolz’s texts in relation to educational and psychological theories of their day.[7] The most notable of these is Cynthia Frease’s 1963 dissertation, in which she examines Stolz’s texts in terms of bibliotherapy and R.J. Havighurst’s developmental tasks. In 1950 David Russell and Caroline Shrodes created the dominant definition of bibliotherapy, or therapy through reading, as:

a process of dynamic interaction between the personality of the reader and literature—interaction which may be utilized for personality assessment, adjustment, and growth . . . it conveys the idea that all teachers must be aware of the effects of reading upon children and must realize that, through literature, most children can be helped to solve the developmental problems of adjustment which they face. (335)

Connected to educational bibliotherapy was psychologist Robert J. Havighurst’s concept of a developmental task, which he defined as “a task which arises at or about a certain period in the life of an individual, successful achievement of which leads to his happiness and success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by the society, and difficulty with later tasks” (6).[8] Frease’s dissertation uses these connected concepts to focus on “the popularity of the Stolz books with adolescents,” “the recognition by adolescents of the novels’ literary merits,” and “the help received from them by teen-agers striving to master the developmental tasks of adolescence” (206). Thus we know from Frease the assumed popularity of Stolz’s novels,[9] whether or not the girls recognized the texts’ literary merit (as defined by Frease),[10] and whether or not the girls thought that the novels helped them to mature successfully.[11] We still do not know, however, how the girls actually read these texts, or what they thought about them.

Fan letters to Stolz (from 1967 onwards), preserved in the De Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, record some of the girls’ thoughts. One letter-writer was Gail Morton, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who read A Love or a Season for her English class and informed Stolz that “the characters seemed so real and the way it was written made me feel as if I were a part of it” (Morton). Eleven-year-old Kim Richardson, from North Versailles, Pennsylvania, similarly noted that “I liked your book Ready or Not because I felt that I could just go around the corner and meet the characters” (Richardson). Her favorite part was when “Morgan was telling Tom that she loved him. And guess what I was doing! Crying. When things are really happy I get all filled up inside a [sic] cry.” The tone and content of many of these letters are similar: the majority of the girls seem to feel that Stolz’s characters are realistic, and that they can empathize with them. They (sometimes effusively) express great joy when the protagonist achieves her “happy ending” with her boyfriend. One may speculate, however, whether these girls’ sensations of realism are predicated solely on Stolz’s mimetic abilities, or whether they recognize—however hazily—Stolz’s articulation of both acknowledged and unacknowledged codes and rules of feminine adolescence.

Some letters suggest that these girls perceived something existing behind the love plot. Carol Piascik, from Cleveland, wrote to Stolz regarding her experience of reading about Anne Armacost in Stolz’s To Tell Your Love. Notably, that text is one of Stolz’s female junior novels that does not include a happy ending, in that the boy Anne loves—Douglas Eamons—ends up with another girl, Dody:

Well, this is the way it happens. You don’t believe it, but it does. All this time, underneath all the ache, I’ve been thinking there’d be a day that he’d come back, a day when he’d explain, and it would be all right again. He isn’t going to explain. He’s never going to tell me one word of a reason. And he doesn’t have to . . . because I know. He’s afraid of me. He’s worked too hard, he and his father, for him to go to college, and that’s all he wants right now. So Dody was smarter than I was. I loved him too much, and he didn’t love me enough, and neither of us knew what to say. . . . (242)

As Piascik stated: “it was sad in a way how things worked out for her. It gives a person who’s reading the story a funny feeling.” This “funny feeling,” of course, may simply be a kind of sadness for Anne’s heartbreak. I wonder, though, if it may also be a response to the complex layers and struggles present in Stolz’s texts—a sense of “not rightness” that is greater than the loss of the happily ever after ending.

The second question that seems to arise when studying Stolz’s novels—and which I again cannot answer—is once more directly related to the issue of readership, and particularly to adolescent readership. Are these books “good” or “bad”? Implicit in this question are anxieties that lie at the heart of both the field of children’s and young adult literature, and the field of popular romance studies. Responding to the good/bad debate in children’s literature, Peter Hunt suggests that:

instead of saying ‘better/worse’, or ‘suitable/unsuitable’, criticism would be more profitably employed in saying ‘This text has certain potentials for interaction, certain possibilities of meaning.’ If nothing else, we would escape from the present confusion of ‘good’ with ‘good for.’ (83)

In the difference between “good” and “good for” lies the relationship between the major disciplines that participate in the fields of children’s and young adult literature: English, Education, and Library Science.[12] The power imbalance involved in creating texts for younger and seemingly less powerful (although such positioning is debatable) readers, coupled with the interdisciplinary nature of the fields, causes the questioner of whether Mary Stolz’s books are “good” or “bad” to contemplate numerous other questions and suppositions, most of which are unanswerable. Such questions might include: how do we determine what is “good”? Who determines “good”? Does “good” change over time? Is “good” affected by readership? How does “good” relate to any of the following: literary value, helpfulness in promoting literacy, helpfulness in creating literacy, helpfulness in navigating life events, etc.?

The seeming need to assess texts as “good” or “bad” also lies at the heart of stigmatized fields. The popular romance field, like the field of children’s literature, has traditionally addressed the question in an effort to bolster its validity as a scholarly field, as if empirical evidence that its texts are “good” (or, at least more than “not bad”) will promote its legitimacy to those prejudiced against it—both readers and scholars alike. In their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S.G. Frantz trace the “generations” of popular romance scholarship, starting with the foundational studies that argued against judgments of popular romance fiction as escapist, formulaic, or trivial. Instead, these early studies focused on the ideological complexity within the genre to suggest that “what seemed like formulas were, in fact, a ritual struggle with ‘very real problems and tensions in women’s lives’” (3), and that “beneath the trivial exterior lay ‘elements of protest and resistance,’ a ‘hidden plot’ of ‘buried anger or hostility’; far from an escape, these novels encoded ‘anxieties, desires and wishes which if openly expressed would challenge the psychological order of things’” (3-4).[13] Selinger and Frantz note the usefulness of this early attention to the subtexts of power, but further suggest that

The ideological focus of that first generation of scholars, for example, had its uses—but it also implicitly framed their work as an updated, feminist version of a very old, patently moralizing question: “Are these books good or bad for their readers?” [ . . . ] Only with popular romance fiction [ . . . ] do otherwise sophisticated academics continue to treat this question seriously, whether raising it in the context of political debates or fretting over the practical, empiricist exigencies of how “to measure and understand the actual consequences of romance reading.” (5)

Thus, I choose not to state whether Stolz’s female junior novels are “good or bad.” Rather, like Hunt, I suggest that these texts have certain fascinating possibilities of meaning. In fact, I like to hope that, with all their underlying tales of girls’ struggles and attempts to wield power, the female junior novel genre, with Stolz’s texts as representatives, fulfills the possibility inherent in Pamela Regis’s earlier statement: “the genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The [female junior novel] is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom” (xiii).

Works Cited

Alm, Richard S. “The Glitter and the Gold.” The English Journal 44.6 (1955): 315-322, 350. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Cart, Michael. From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Christian-Smith, Linda K. “Gender, Popular Culture, and Curriculum: Adolescent Romance Novels as Gender Text.” Curriculum Inquiry 17.4 (Winter 1987): 365-406. JSTOR. Web. 24 May 2011.

Donelson, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 7th Ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005. Print.

Driscoll, Catherine. Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.

Edwards, Margaret. “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” English Journal 46.8 (Nov. 1957): 461-469, 474. Print.

Enciso, Patricia, Karen Coats, Christine Jenkins, and Shelby Wolf. “The Watsons Go to

NRC—2007: Crossing Academic Boundaries in the Study of Children’s Literature.” 57th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference. Oak Creek, Wisconsin: National Reading Conference, 2008. Print.

Frease, Cynthia. “Mary Stolz, Junior Novelist: An Analysis of the Literary Characteristics and the Concern with Developmental Tasks of Adolescence in the Stolz Junior Novels and the Reactions to Them of Professional Critics and Adolescent Girls.” Diss. Greeley, Colorado: University of Northern Colorado, 1961. Print.

Havighurst, Robert James. Developmental Tasks and Education. New York: Longmans, Green, 1948. Print.

Hunt, Peter. Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Irigary, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Kiernan, Margaret Ford. Rev. of In a Mirror, by Mary Stolz. “Mary Stolz (1920-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Eds. Dedria Bryfonski and Gerald J. Senick. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 547. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 8 December, 2009.

Lambert, Janet. Candy Cane. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1943. Print.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Print.

Morton, Gail. Letter to Mary Stolz. 7 March, 1967. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder . De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

McCall, Leslie. “Does Gender Fit? Bourdieu, Feminism, and the Conceptions of Social Order.” Theory & Society 21.6 (1992): 837-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 October 2009.

Pattee, Amy S. Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011. Print.

Piascik, Carol. Letter to Mary Stolz. 12 March, 1967. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder. De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

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

Richardson, Kim. Letter to Mary Stolz. 16 January, 1969. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder. De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

Russell, David H. and Caroline Shrodes. “Contributions of Research in Bibliotherapy to the Language-Arts Program I.” The School Review 58.6 (Sept. 1950): 335-342. JSTOR. Web. 4 September 2008.

Selinger, Eric Murphy and Sarah S.G. Frantz. “Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012.

Stolz, Mary. And Love Replied. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958. Print.

—. Because of Madeline. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

—. Good-by My Shadow. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

—. Hospital Zone. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. Print.

—. Pray Love, Remember. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954. Print.

—. Rosemary. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955. Print.

—. The Sea Gulls Woke Me. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951. Print.

—. To Tell Your Love. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. Print.

—. Who Wants Music on Monday? New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.

[1] Alm was also a member of the Committee on Senior High School Book List of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), as well as an editor of the English Journal.

[2] For a closer examination of the use of clothing in the female junior novels, and how it relates to girls’ attempts to climb their social hierarchies, please see Amanda K. Allen, “The Cinderella-Makers: Postwar Adolescent Girl Fiction as Commodity Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn 33.3 (Sep. 2009): 282-299.

[3] Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that, in each period of her 1942-1982 study of teen romance novels, “sexuality constitutes a troublesome element of romance as far as girls were concerned. [. . .] Although girls understand that sexual favors are one element of exchange in romance, they are by no means happy about it [. . .] one is expected to pay for an evening’s entertainment with kisses” (373).

[4] Other texts that emphasize either the pajamaed sleepover scene or the desire for it include The Organdy Cupcakes (1953), In a Mirror (1953), and Hospital Zone (1956).

[5] In Janet Lambert’s Candy Cane (1943), for example, Candy’s recollection of her first meeting with Anne seems quite ecstatic:

Anne was golden-brown and black. Black hair like Barton’s, brown eyes that danced, and a smile—Candy felt faint from joy because, oh miracle, Anne’s smile was for her. Anne had come to see her. [. . .] Candy clasped her hands around her thin little knees and sat looking at Anne like a thirsty flower in a warm spring rain. (36-37)

[6] Indeed, although I view the presence of this semi-autonomous female society as positive, the protagonists’ use of boy capital does cause me to wonder just how far these characters may actually invert Irigaray’s theory of exchange, to the point at which the male characters could become the new objects of exchange intended to soothe relationships between women (although still, paradoxically, within a patriarchal society).

[7] Such studies include Cecile Magaliff, The Junior Novel: Its Relationship to Adolescent Reading, (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P., 1964); Mary Quarles Whitehurst, “An Evaluative Bibliography of Adolescent Fiction by Rosamond Dujardin, Jackson Scholz, Mary Stolz and John Roberts Tunis,” (Diss. Washington, Catholic University of America, 1963); and, more generally, Dwight L. Burton, Literature Study in the High Schools (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).

[8] Havighurst included his first list of tasks in his 1941 publication, Adjusting Reading Programs to Individuals, but developed the concept more clearly in Developmental Tasks and Education (1948) and Human Development and Education (1953).

[9] Summarizing her findings, Frease notes that:

the Mary Stolz junior novels are well represented in the large secondary-school libraries in Colorado; that they are checked out frequently in a majority of the schools queried; that grades eight, nine, and ten are the ones in which Stolz novels seem to be most in demand; that the Stolz novels are noticeably less popular at the junior-high level than junior novels by other prominent authors but are in the category of one of the most popular at the senior-high level. (216)

[10] Frease states that the girls’ judgments “correspond fairly closely to those of the professional critics and the writer’s own, especially in the recognition of virtues” (223).

[11] Frease seems almost disappointed in these particular findings:

Students recognize that they have received help in mastering the developmental tasks of adolescence from reading the junior novels by Mary Stolz. The evidence is not so marked as the writer had anticipated, however, nor are the tasks which the writer’s own analysis of the novels indicated the books would be most helpful with exactly the ones the students found more usefully presented. Perhaps the students are still too close to some of their reading experiences to be able to judge exactly what benefits they have received from them. (228)

[12] As Patricia Enciso, Karen Coats, Christine Jenkins, and Shelby Wolf describe in their analysis of the three major disciplines that study children’s literature, as they relate to Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963:

In Library and Information Science (LIS) courses, Curtis’s novel raises questions of its historical significance in relation with other Civil Rights era narratives. In education courses, students discuss how they will mediate children’s responses and how they will develop critical, intertextual insights across this story and other novels, poems, and curricula. While English professors might address all of the questions considered by education and LIS scholars, they focus primarily on theoretical frames to interpret the story’s narrative structure, character development, extended metaphors, and imagery. (219)

[13] As they state in their book, Selinger and Frantz are drawing their observations of the foundational studies from three watershed texts in particular: Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, and Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction (3).


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rape of Mistaken Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rape of Possession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rape of Coercion, or “Forced Seduction”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 2010. Web <


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] See note 6, above.


Review: Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying

As romance readers and scholars both know, the sexual ethos of the popular romance novel has changed over the years. Regnerus and Uecker’s book Premarital Sex in America (2011) provides a sociological context for some of those changes. Exploring the ways in which sexuality has changed and how it functions in contemporary American society, this work contributes to a growing body of scholarship on “late-adolescence” or “delayed adulthood,” or as Regnerus and Uecker prefer to call it, “emerging adulthood.” “Recently,” they write, “we heard, in the span of just a few hours, claims both that ’13 is the new 18’ and ’21 is the new 16.’ Confused? That’s understandable. But this is the conundrum of emerging adults, the group of Americans about which this book is written” (5). More specifically, the focus is on “Americans between 18 and 23 years of age” (6) which is now part of this “emerging adulthood” wherein one is, by the standard of “being 18” an adult but at the same time one does not self-identity (yet) as an adult. Clearly, at least within the realm of scholarship, there is a growing interest in a new liminal stage, located somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. This marks a pronounced shift in age studies, which previously, or more traditionally, had seen adolescence as the liminal stage between childhood and adulthood.

The book oscillates comfortably between statistical analysis and personal, and at times, anecdotal narratives from interviewees. The authors explain that “[t]o use only national survey statistics to answer our questions would be farsighted: it would give us the big picture, but could encourage all manner of misinterpretations of the data” (9) and that “[w]hile personal anecdotes may not matter much to social scientists, they often mean everything to our interviewees. Stories of what happened to them and the people they know carry exceptional weight in their own understanding of sex and relationships” (9). The methodology here is important because it allows for both a “big picture” overview of broad sociological changes and an engaging focus on specific cases, stories that end up meaning much more to the reader, given their relationship to the national survey statistics, than they otherwise might.

The authors often turn to examples from popular culture for context as well. “Hannah’s method lends itself to pregnancy scares—and to the real thing,” one anecdote explains, adding, “Had they ever had such a scare? Of course. It was like a scene straight out of the film Juno” (48). This work thus has the potential to influence the field of popular romance studies, because it already refers to and engages with relevant texts, particularly romantic comedy films. (The Forty Year Old Virgin thus “portrays a collective effort to rid the main character of a trait that he’s socially supposed to have lost about two decades earlier” [18].)  Scholars of romance in other media will find it a helpful model for bringing sociological data to bear on their chosen texts.

One of the many engaging things about this work is its historical emphasis, much of which seems relevant to the changing representation of sexuality in popular romance. For instance, Regnerus and Uecker speak of the ways in which the “sexual repertoire” (31) has changed, noting that, “[o]ral sex and other types of sexual activity are common within the sexual repertoire of emerging adults” (32) and then later concluding that “[a]nal sex is not in the repertoire of most, at least not yet. Its place is not yet clearly defined and may never be. Given that most Americans, especially women, strongly prefer vaginal or oral sex to anal sex, its practice could well wane in popularity or remain a ‘tried that once and that was enough’ sort of activity. Before then, however, anal sex may grow in popularity simply for the novelty attached to it and online porn’s disproportionate coverage of it” (39). One thinks here of the memorable discussion of anal sex as “the new oral” in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan—and of the contrast between that discussion, which focuses on erotic romance, and the fact that anal sex only appeared in a Harlequin Blaze, Private Sessions by Toni Carrington, as recently as 2010.[1] (It remains to be seen whether, in an imprint as wide and varied as Harlequin, anal sex will turn out to be something of a ‘tried that once and that was enough.’)

The longest chapter in the study, “Inside Sexual Relationships,” seems particularly useful to scholars of popular romance. In this chapter, the authors consider the economics of sexual relationships, observing that “[s]exual markets are like economic markets: we all inhabit them, and they affect everyone” (52). The book discusses the common motif of sexuality (and virginity) as a “gift” that one gives to another, chiefly women to men—a trope that recurs in popular romance film and literature—the persistence of what they call “the stubborn double standard” (62-65), and the rise of new terms and motifs in sexual culture, like “friends with benefits” (65). “Most young adults don’t actually use the term ‘friends with benefits,’ at least not when they describe such relationship for themselves,” the authors conclude (65-66):  it is a term more often ascribed than subscribed to, which suggests the enduring influence of cultural norms that link sex with romantic love. The authors’ economic discourse sometimes frames those norms in rather cold-eyed terms, as when they note that “romantic relationships last longer and are a far more stable source of sex” than more casual, less emotionally-invested interactions (72). But they also cast a refreshingly cold eye on the anxieties about young adult sexuality that periodically crop up in popular culture.  “Students are certainly having sex,” they observe in a later chapter, “but more sex occurs within romance relationships than all the media chatter about hooking up has led us to believe” (134.)

In the past year there has been considerable “media chatter” about the impact of pornography on young (and older) Americans—in particular, about the impact of porn consumption on the sexual desires and expectations of heterosexual men.  Premarital Sex in America explores the messages men may receive from “sexualized media,” from pornography to newsstand men’s magazines, in particular the current focus of these media on what they call “odd sexual requests” (86).  (These requests, one should note, they recognise as being “probably as old as humanity” [86].)   “One of the most common topics in American men’s magazines like Maxim,” they observe, “is unorthodox sexual positions and locations, even though another common topic—what women want—is largely inconsistent with these practices” (86).  They also attend to sexualized media aimed at women, noting, for example, that even if Sex and the City never “directly made anyone do things they might not otherwise have done,” the television show succeeded in “popularizing [. . .] the narrative of the very eligible, single white female who pursues sex and romance on her own terms” (127). A good deal of additional research remains to be done, however, by sociologists and others, in the representations of “unorthodox” sexual behaviour of female desire in romance media produced primarily by women, notably chick-lit and erotic romance fiction.

Although its focus is on premarital beliefs and behaviour, Premarital Sex in America also considers marriage, which it presents as an institution in limbo.  “A distinctive fissure exists in the minds of young Americans,” the authors argue, “between the carefree single life and the married life of economic pressures and family responsibilities. The one is sexy, the other is sexless. In the minds of many, sex is for the young and single, while marriage is for the old. Marriage is quaint, adorable” (172). Indeed, Regnerus and Uecker conclude that “[t]here can be no doubt that the ‘institution’ of marriage is in the throes of deinstitutionalization” (204). The chapter “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Relationship Norms in a Divided America” considers whether this “deinstitutionalization” is playing out differently in conservative “red states” and more liberal “blue states” (for readers outside the USA, the colors signify Republican and Democratic dominance at the polls, respectively). Some differences emerge from the data:  for example, somewhat ironically reds “romanticize relationships and marriage, and often experience more of them—and at earlier ages—than blues do” (234-35).  However, readers subsequently learn that young people in both sets of states “share much in common, including their commitment to serial monogamy and romantic individualism, two ubiquitous narratives among emerging adults” (236).

In the closing chapter of Premarital Sex in America, the authors theorise the importance of stories and narrativising sexuality.  “Stories,” they write, “tend to issue in sets of particular scripts. [ . . . ] Sexual scripts specify not only appropriate sexual goals—what we ought to want—but they also provide plans for particular types of behaviour and ways to achieve those sexual goals: the right thing to say at the right time, what not to do, who leads, how to hook up, where they should go, who should bring the condom, what is too much to ask someone, etc.” (237). Clearly, as the authors write, “sex is complicated” (250)! As we critics read and engage with popular romance texts—texts that may supply, or at least document, some of these “scripts”—we need to keep these complexities in mind, to problematise sexuality, rather than treat it as an ahistorical or transparent phenomenon.

If there is one drawback to this book, it is that despite its sweeping title, Premarital Sex in America only deals with heterosexual premarital sex. The authors acknowledge this limitation at the start of the volume.  ”Some will label our focus as heteronormative—that is, privileging heterosexual expression to the neglect of alternative sexualities—” they note, “but the primary reason for avoiding an extended treatment of different sexual forms and identities is that it would have to be a much longer book in order to pay adequate attention to other patterns, to say nothing of the dynamics by which they form and the courses they take” (7-8). One hopes that other authors and studies will fill in this significant gap, and that scholars who draw on this volume will not assume that its conclusions about straight “emerging adults” in the United States can be transferred in any simple way to LGBTQ Americans, or to young people in other countries, whatever their sexual orientation.

Despite its boundaries, this illuminating study makes a helpful case for seeing sex as “complicated,” in writing about it, theorising and historicising it, and indeed, living it.  Premarital Sex in America shows how sex is given meaning in both the social sciences and the humanities, and it reminds us that the complex nature of sexuality continues to haunt our critical and cultural imaginaries.

[1] For a greater discussion of this “first time” in popular romance, see Sarah Wendell’s review of the book at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:


“Romancing the Past: History, Love, and Genre in Vincent Ward’s River Queen” by Roger Nicholson

There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.
(W. G. Sebald. ‘An Attempt at Restitution’)

I fell in love with Ngoungou, for he was a very fine looking Maori indeed, and he took me to be his wife according to Maori custom. There was feasting to celebrate our union.
(Caroline Perrett, ‘My Life Among the Maoris’)

Hayden White argues that history supplies its truths in forms of narrative, “mapping the limits of the imaginary and the real which begins with the invention of fiction itself” (Content of the Form 45). This paper tests those limits by focusing on two specific couplings of historiography and “fiction itself”: history and film, history and romance. My concern is with the impact of such blending, when romance seems to disturb the settled terrain of the historical record, as it often does in film, refiguring an established historical sequence of events and altering the cast of known actors. Romance, film scholars tend to say, figures in such a case because of its capacity to coerce the attention of the viewing audience, at some cost to that audience’s comprehension of events or relations between them (Toplin History by Hollywood 19). For Hayden White, however, the blending of “history” and “fiction” is structural, involving narrative modes derived from a common, cultural repertoire. Emplotment, in this account, orders understanding: “[narrativization] does not reproduce the events it describes; it tells us in what direction to think about the events and charges our thought about the events with different emotional valences” (Tropics of Discourse 85). White’s argument implies that fiction’s shaping work plays out in the context of a single fictional genre, a single “direction.” I argue, however, that tensions between and within genres bear significantly on the viewer’s sense of the historical past. Romance, for example, may be inherently hybrid: an impure genre (or tissue of genres) that may in fact lend itself, in a filmmaker’s hands, to the critical and revisionist project of historiographic metafiction.[1]

My primary case for this discussion is River Queen, a recent film (2005) by the New Zealand director Vincent Ward, where a remarkable love story is built into an equally sensational history of colonial warfare, as if the one both demanded and explained the other. Ward’s film begins, in effect, with competing texts: a diary and a map. The former is insistently personal, since the author—Sarah O’Brien, who is not known to history, but has historical foremothers—speaks of this record of her days as confessional and therapeutic; furthermore, since this introduction anticipates the final frames of the film, the diary has the force of testimony, as if this private, intimate history were the history that counts, a tale of exceptional suffering and heroic devotion, but also of romantic passion. The map works differently. As an aerial shot of the territory across which Sarah’s questing romance will range, it signals more immediately the public, geo-political dimensions of the colonial history into which her life is bound. A screen note briefly details this larger historical situation—the defining mid-nineteenth century period of the New Zealand Wars, when imperial and colonial government forces engaged in a string of battles with Maori tribes over issues of land and sovereignty. The very final action of the film is to acknowledge “with respect,” in the credits, the historical figures whose lives provided models for the film’s main protagonists, the questing Sarah, but also the insurgent Maori chief, Te Kai Po. The map and these framing screen notes, then, appear to define the film’s work as quasi-documentary, re-presenting an historical moment, even as the narrative that plays out between them focuses as much on a love story as it does on a political conflict.

We might conclude, then, that Ward’s film illustrates Pierre Sorlin’s familiar, broad conclusion—“Historical films are all fictional”(38)—in redrafting the historical record as an invented text of personal experience. “It is very seldom,” Sorlin writes, “that a film does not pass from the general to the particular, and arouse interest by concentrating on personal cases; this is one of the most direct forms of the appeal to identification” (38). More is involved, however. No matter whether a film aims to present a strictly historical narrative or just to tell a tale that has historical valency, presentation of historical action at a personal level inevitably produces a “distorted image of society” (41), at least insofar as large, social conflicts are played out as if they depend on the will and virtue of the individual, historical actor. Furthermore, the story of the individual actor—hero or heroine—means that the historical narrative is “arbitrarily shaped by the conventions of the genre”; genre places limits on “the course of events,” since it “requires a fixed organization of the story material” (41-42). In the filmic text, then, genre is the sign of fiction’s interference with the historical record.

This generic organization is not hard to see in River Queen. The film’s representation of the New Zealand Wars may centre loosely around one exemplary, historical engagement, but as the film progresses, continued military action devolves into a set of skirmishes, minimally explained, lacking the definition of a campaign. Ward makes narrative, intelligible sense of this otherwise shapeless history by threading it on the remorseless linearity of romance, since the film begins with the heroine, Sarah O’Brien, and lasts long enough for her to discover love, suffer in its cause, and finally settle into a happy future, the demands of passion finding a complex but conventional resolution. The film thus seems clearly to illustrate Hayden White’s argument that historical emplotment is a kind of “performance,” with “the choice of the story type and its imposition on events” serving to “endow them with meaning” (Content of the Form 44).[2]

Yet in River Queen the coupling of history and romance is demonstrably no easy relation, largely because romance is, itself, impossible to reduce to a single “story type.”[3] Before it proves to be the generic vehicle for a familiar passion, the film’s romance-as-love-story catches into itself other, equally enduring versions of romance as a genre, and in the process, other, more dangerous histories. River Queen employs the venerable traditions of the quest romance, and specifically a quest romance that revolves around the recovery of a lost child: a motif that goes back through Shakespeare to ancient Greek Romances and which is also a politically-charged antipodean tale, in fantasy and in fact (Pierce). And even the love history itself—the romance within the romance—must negotiate the erotic and cultural ambiguities of the captivity narrative, a romance subgenre that flourished in colonial societies, itself a striking instance of the interweaving of history and fiction. To say that history is “arbitrarily shaped by the conventions of the genre” (Sorlin 41) cannot do justice to the kind of internal variety and sophistication we see in River Queen, where there is no one “fixed organization of the story material” (42). Rather, history here is shaped by the tensions that form between the film’s distinct narrative genres and subgenres, and those tensions—as well as those genres—give the film’s version of history its affective turn.

Recovering the historical moment.

The historian Robert Brent Toplin, surveying the popular historical film, sees Hollywood’s deployment of “elements of romance” in such films as a way to “enhance audience interest”—and, by extension, to increase profits (19). Such an approach, however, ends up treating a film’s un-historical elements simply as instances of conventional storytelling, the stuff of emotional or ideological manipulation. It cannot account for the internal dynamics of a film’s constituent genres, nor for the artistic and intellectual subtlety achieved through the interplay between various genres and subgenres in an impure, generically blended text like River Queen. Indeed, the generic complexity of River Queen properly suggests not a commodified history-making, but a sustained effort to call a privileged historical account into question—the grand narrative of colonialism and its well-disciplined practices—in line with the textual activity that Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction. A film’s play between narrative orders may not be standard academic historical practice, that is to say, but it can call familiar interpretations of the past into question and draw attention to other, unobserved centres of sympathy, triggering perceptions that do not accord with standard understandings of the historical moment. Showing love in history, for example, when historiography is seldom interested in the question of love, may give to private and emotional life—and, although these are by no means identical, can give to a woman—what public national ‘history’ so seldom gives to any of these, the larger part.

In his own comments on River Queen, Ward has claimed that a primary objective was to produce a “woman’s film,” in the sense that the woman was to be the leading figure, not limited by or to the actions and activities conventionally assigned to women. [4] In truth, part of the ethos of nineteenth-century colonial romance fiction (including adventure stories, colonial love stories, and tales of settlement) was the independence, the enlarged range that it awarded to its young women, a reflection of the real world demands made of their mothers, whose workaday responsibilities seldom stopped at the front door, but took in much that related to the larger economy of the rural homestead. River Queen reflects this earlier, colonial model of the resourceful wife and mother, although the scene within which the enterprising woman acts is radically altered, turning from the orderliness of the homestead, where conflict is essentially personal, to the site of armed hostilities—not the normal territory for a Victorian woman, even in the colonies. Ward’s sensitivity to colonial gender relations, nevertheless, shows in the skills he allows to his heroine, as healer and nurse, but not surgeon; nursing did give women a role close to battle.[5]

Like other popular histories, River Queen tends to compose a narrative out of the competing desires of its leading characters to bring history into line with their wills: oppositions that are more immediately personal than political. Nevertheless, at the very outset, Sarah is placed by her relation to the land and to the colonial contest for land; in a sense, the action of the film is to give her the right to settle. The film initiates this action by opening up into a significant space, with an aerial view of a great river, Te Awa Nui, winding through the land, but laid out before us, as if a territory or domain is being mapped, as I have already noted. This camera’s gaze descends to the level of the river itself; space contracts into gorges and the winding river is suddenly peopled. The gorges wall the river, as if they mark the main path through this wilderness, but also construct an extraordinary set of fortifications.[6] The visual sensibility that Ward displays here seems completely in line with his painterly reputation; the combination of the establishing shot and the abrupt introduction of his leading characters also suggest the narrative economy of romance. And more is involved, it must be said, for a local audience, for whom the beauty of these scenes is creased with anxiety: the film was actually shot on the most symbolically fraught of New Zealand rivers, the Whanganui, a site of deep loyalties and intense hostilities, guilt and tapu.[7]

Much of the violent contest that makes up the spectacular action of the film, played out between the opposing hosts of British invader and Maori indigene, is organised in terms of upriver and downriver. It is also played out over the body of the young woman, Sarah (Samantha Morton), daughter of an army doctor, stationed in a frontier garrison some distance upriver. According to Sarah herself (in the voice-over that registers her role as diarist, war historian, and first-person narrator), the garrison is the most remote in the British Empire, fixing the border between the territories of Maori and Pakeha (the English settler).[8] As war breaks out, Sarah, having fallen in love with a local Maori youth (who has died from the “choking sickness”) and having given birth to their child, now hunts for her lover’s father, since, seven years on, he has captured her son, to be brought up in his own family. The war, historians tell us, was about land and sovereignty, but here the war is also about who gets to keep the child—and since no limits are set on Sarah’s search for her son, it is also about which community finally gets to hold the body of the woman: white settler society or Maori tribe.

The film thus plays on the familiar trope by which the woman’s body represents the colonial domain, and from the anxious, settler point of view, Sarah’s quest puts her at risk of being slaughtered or sexually violated. More, though, is at stake than the threat to Sarah. Rather, Ward emphasizes, there is also threat from Sarah’s actions, which embody the coloniser’s horror of going native. Major Baine (Anton Lesser), the commander of the British colonial forces, describes women who take Maori husbands as committing a crime, in a time of war, tantamount to treason. Sarah’s engagement with the enemy manifestly calls into question the legitimacy of British rule and colonial government, and it exposes the racist antipathies that undergird imperialism. “White woman join the rebels? Can’t allow that,” Baine says. Indeed, in order to take her search for her son into regions that would normally be barred against her, crossing the line between Pakeha and Maori, Sarah responds to a summons made by Wiremu Katene (Cliff Curtis), her son’s uncle, to employ her notable skills to treat the ailing Maori chief and war-leader Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison), an act which might well be considered treasonous. As Sarah travels upriver on this double mission, she is blindfolded, and the camera stays very close to her, emphasizing at once her powerlessness and her indomitable will.

Men’s bodies, too, are at issue in the film. Cinematic passages show off Maori bodies, in battle and in battle challenge—the haka—and the camera never awards the opposed forces of the colonial government anything like the same desirous gaze. This gaze has its historical antecedents: like the Zulus, the Maori resisted the mid-nineteenth century expansion of British imperial dominion with a prowess and tactical intelligence that gave them a reputation as a warrior people, not easily subdued (Belich); in the case of the Zulu, this inspired a period fetishism of black bodies.[9] Historical references to haka as war-dance likewise warrant its presence in the film, although it surely functions here primarily as a global sign of Maori-dom, displaying a theatrical aesthetics, compounded of ceremony, muscularity and monstrous wit. Like other popular media of historical reenactment, then—from sophisticated, quasi-theatrical performances to popular reality television programs like Colonial House, Frontier House, 1900 House, etc.; in Australia and New Zealand, The Colony, Outback House, Pioneer House (West)—Ward’s film mixes spectacle with experience, offering viewers an affective, embodied engagement with the past. As Ricoeur says of the affective historical text, in this film the audience can “imaginatively ‘enter’ a reconstructed past world as an attempt to grasp the feelings and decisions that instigate historical events” (Ricoeur 54),[10] here including “feelings” that are distinctly erotic, inspired by the camera’s attention to male Maori bodies. We are invited, that is to say, into an edgy confederacy with the vital forces of Maori insurgency, a confederacy that mixes moral judgement on colonial aggression with both fear and desire.

The complexity of our response to the Maori insurgents plays out most vividly in the film’s portrayal of two men: Wiremu Katene, Ward’s romantic protagonist, but also a leading Maori insurgent in the film (as in fact), and Te Kai Po, who, in the real world of the historical past, was Titokowaru, a brilliant general and a significant political strategist. For the film, as for the citizens of colonial Wanganui, terror finds a sensational source in the latter, who taunts his opponents—in history and in the film—with the most fantastically dreadful of endings:

“I have begun to eat human flesh and my throat is constantly open for the flesh of man. I shall not die; I shall not die. When death itself is dead I shall be alive.” (Belich 57)

Titokowaru despatched this warning on June 25, 1868. When it is restated in Ward’s film, it charges the fictive colonial moment with the full force of its original mix of violence and apprehension. Ward has spoken of his interest in investigating such sites of resistance to imperial power in territories that Europeans sought to dominate in the late nineteenth century, from Japan to Africa, from North America to New Zealand. This was, he says, “a volatile time, full of unique contrasts” (“Inspiration”). Titokowaru’s war was indeed extraordinarily “volatile,” not least in the shifting alliances that saw certain Maori tribes support Titokowaru, while others, known as kupapa,[11] opposed his ambitions, supporting instead the colonial effort to destroy his armed resistance to European expansionism. Caught between cultures, Wiremu Katene— the only one of the film’s central characters to retain his historical name—participates in the partisan flux performed in and between the battles staged in the film, just as he did in fact. As a Maori warrior, he embodies the constant threat felt by settler society, but as the film’s darkly impossible lover for Sarah, he embodies the eroticism of the Other, and thus the tensions, divisions, and barriers that conventionally spark passion in the love-story romance. Fashioning and refashioning his problematic identity, he is, like Sarah, a figure of unsettling possibility.

Through the film’s quest romance and love story plots, then, Ward presses romance (in multiple senses of the word) into a compact with history, retrieving and restaging moments of possibility from the tangled, even contradictory historical record. For example, if Titokowaru’s war backs the film’s narrative—offering both an historical analogue for the film’s action and the useful coherence of a known campaign—the film invites us to recall that Titokowaru’s relationship with settler society began in peace, before he became a warrior, and it ended when, undefeated, if not victorious, he progressed from battles into renewed commerce with the settlers. [12] His extraordinary life furthermore included, in legend at least, a curious incident following his Taranaki campaign. He fell ill and called on the services of an English woman, Ann Evans, who had been a nurse before migrating to New Zealand, where she married and eventually settled as homesteader and “healer” in Waihi—in the middle of the territory across which Titokowaru had waged his war (Belich 281). Ann, like Sarah, was brought blindfolded to Titokowaru’s sickbed. Ward couples this event to a second, largely unconnected narrative, concerning the abduction of a young Pakeha girl, Caroline Perrett, and relocates these stories to the very centre of the action, braiding them together with the historical campaign report to produce the charged, personal narrative of Sarah O’Brien’s quest.[13] Heroism ends up located in the play of feeling between boundary-crossing lovers or between mother and child, and not in the brutal, male clamour of conquest and resistance that makes up both public history and another genre that bears on the film, the epic.

Romance in captivity: the problem of culture.

Ward’s own comments on the fictions he most values—the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf—suggest the filmmaker’s interest in epic, and River Queen has been read by other scholars in this context.[14] Certainly there is an epic scope and agency to the film’s unusually active heroine, crafted out of local memories of the extraordinary lives of two women. My sense, however, is that epic ultimately defers to romance in River Queen, just as official history gives way to local legend. These shifts in emphasis connect the film less to the cinematic genre of the “woman’s film” than to a much older literary antecedent, the captivity narrative. This frontier genre gained tremendous currency in the New World, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, especially in America, but it was also widespread elsewhere: the early, historical publication of Caroline Perrett’s life among the Maori is one of many instances in Australasia.[15] From its earliest instances, this genre mixed fact and fantasy, public and private history, spiritual and ideological virtues and traditions, as a rule in service of demonstrating, at least on the surface, the virtues of white settler society.[16] Aesthetically, the captivity narrative combined “the large-scale, panoramic and global, with the small-scale, the individual, and the particular” (17): a strategy that Ward echoes in the interlocking campaign and quest histories of River Queen.

In Ward’s adaptation of the captivity narrative, captivity itself remains occluded, in that Ward refigures this history as the quest of a mother for her lost child. Yet as I have noted, Sarah’s quest begins with her being ferried upriver, blind-folded, which robs her of freedom and places her in the power of a boatload of (in the genre’s terms) “savage” warriors.[17] Captivity narratives, including Caroline Perrett’s, commonly provided quasi-ethnographical observations; here Sarah’s dealings with Te Kai Po, Wiremu Katene, and her son mean that we learn a great deal about Maori tribal society, especially at war. Sexual threat, a recurrent feature of the genre, is present too, but represented obliquely; it is in her time in Te Kai Po’s pa (a fortified village), that Sarah’s interest in Wiremu Katene is aroused and, indeed, gets noted—even by her son—in a context where sexuality is by no means over-ruled by seemliness. Where male captives might develop sexual and familial alliances with women among their captors, the women who do so in the genre are few, exceptional, and largely condemned: Sarah belongs in this company. To borrow a phrase from Kate McCafferty, a scholar of modern American captivity narratives, the whole production proves to be a “palimpsest of desire” (43-56). Beneath the public, military history, with its conflicting political desires, lies a layer of romance, marked by eroticism and private longing, but beneath the integument of romance lies the tangle of desires characteristic of capitivity narrative, xenophobic and xenophilic, reactionary and progressive, political and private.

The genre of the captivity narrative is far too large and far too American to be discussed here in detail. It is worth remembering, however, the scale of captivity and narrativisation at stake in the genre’s development worldwide: captivities in their thousands, producing narratives in their hundreds. [18] Numbers like these support the foundational, prototypical importance of the genre, especially in the American tradition, even as they suggest the impossibility of settling on a single definition of it or of the cultural work it performed. Certainly the captivity narrative changed over time, as white settlement spread from Puritan New England to the West, across the American plains, with the captivity narrative called on to answer to new cultural needs and fashions (Kolodny 187). Yet even if, as Kay Schaffer and D’Arcy Randall argue, these narratives are properly viewed as “cultural artefacts that helped to produce rather than reflect asymmetrical hierarchies of gender, race and class,” they also encode counter-narratives, alternative histories or resistant facts (109).[19] In particular, despite the fact that women are so often the victims, or get called on to collude in the male’s passion for domination, the captivity narratives constantly, collectively, turn their gaze upon women who, one way or another, are busy changing the scene. As June Namias puts it:

In this literature, white women participate fully in the so-called rise of civilization. In fact, what is significant about the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century representations of this material is that women are not only there, but they are frequently at the center of stories, histories and illustrations (23).[20]

Long before the “woman’s film,” the captivity narrative offered a genre in which to tell a heroic woman’s story in a surprising place, where women were subdued, suffered from a fundamental loss of community and close family and maybe survived, or even flourished, by virtue of accepting enforced marriage or sexual alliance: all elements central to River Queen.

Since American captivity narratives are so numerous, it’s tempting to conclude that its prominence is a sign of American exceptionalism: a reflex encouraged, perhaps, by the conventions of American captivity narrative itself. But comparable narratives were composed and published elsewhere, where other settlers were locked in conflict with other indigenes.[21] The Australian ‘Eliza Fraser’ narrative, for example, is quite as complicated, in content and publication history (including film), as any of the major American stories.[22] More to my immediate purpose, some one hundred and forty cases of captivity were recorded in New Zealand, several of which were turned into narrative (Bentley 11). Vincent Ward may well have been influenced by examples of filmed captivity narrative, like Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans;[23] it is quite as likely, however, that, in discovering Caroline Perrett, he also came across other New Zealand examples, a few of which include enforced marriage of some kind.[24] He could indeed have found fictional examples in nineteenth-century novels like H. A. Forde’s Across Two Seas, where, for instance, the four year old daughter of a settler family is abducted by a Maori band.[25]

River Queen both echoes and revises the conventions of captivity narrative—or, to be more precise, it draws on multiple narrative and political possibilities already existing within the genre. As her seven year quest develops, for example, Sarah is by turns both captive and rescuer. When she rescues her son, she finds that he has identified fully with his Maori family and is obdurate in his resistance to being returned to Pakeha society, and she decides to stay with him and join the Maori community, in order to maintain her family. As a result, Sarah is again made captive, and needs to be rescued—but the “captors” this time are those who would “rescue” and return her to Pakeha settlement, so that she must now be freed not by but from the colonial forces. If this twist foregrounds Sarah’s refusal to accept white society’s expectations of white women, in particular with regard to love, sex and marriage, subtexts within the captivity narrative back up this move. Overtly, these texts tend to condemn the woman who takes a man across racial lines; but they also repeatedly accommodate such transgression, affirming the priority of a woman’s choice of life in a different, opposed society. The last of the New Zealand captivity stories, Caroline Perrett’s, seems particularly relevant in this context (Bentley 212-35).

Lost in the bush as an eight year old child in 1879, Caroline was in fact abducted by a Maori tribe, apparently in revenge for her father’s desecration of Maori burial sites (as in River Queen). She was not rescued until 1926, when family recognised her for who she was by birth. In effect, she had lived her entire life as Maori, possessed indeed a Maori sense of difference from Pakeha; she loved and married Maori husbands, twice, with whom she had several children; in the event, she was by no means willing to give up her Maori life and family.

Love’s triumphs: new worlds.

The history of women captured, but choosing to live with their captors, taking lovers and husbands from among them—a history that already, itself, partakes of romance—helps Ward negotiate the sometimes conflicting demands of historiography and love story in River Queen. Clearly it supports the final turn in this story, when Sarah takes her Maori lover, Wiremu Katene, and chooses for herself a Maori family. Hers remains, however, an exceptionally difficult romance: unlikely on the face of it, threading its way through other, more pressing affairs, including both the military business that surrounds and interrupts her love story and her persistent, equally complicating effort to regain her son. Again Caroline Perrett comes to mind, for whom the declaration “I love you” seems to have been momentous, even if she can barely speak the words, since there is so much else to do, as wife and mother in her tribal community. Sarah, too, finds a great deal to be done, and although the demands on her are not so flatly domestic as they seem to have been for Perrett, they do tend to crowd her sexual passions from the screen, and even to undercut the popular romance genre’s conventional emphasis on a betrothal or marriage. Sarah does momentarily play at being a bride, but she perversely acts out this game with a mortally wounded Irish soldier, her father’s erstwhile companion Private Doyle, not with Wiremu Katene; for Sarah to say “I love you,” however, demands that she abandon Doyle, if only for a time, in order to meet Wiremu Katene, still in her theatrical gown, and to join him in a rough coupling that certainly shows their attraction, their sexual chemistry, but hardly serves as a climactic betrothal or marriage.

Indeed, the portrayal of romantic love between Sarah and Wiremu Katene in River Queen is mostly covert, a matter of glancing agreement, not fully acknowledged until very late in its history and, even then, not declared, as both society and the romance genre expect, in an explicit pledge of love. [26]What are we to make of this decision, on Ward’s part, to play down (at least in its tone) the love relationship that is otherwise so crucial to the film’s narrative structure?

One answer may lie in Ward’s negotiation between the different ways that the emotion of love is coded in different narrative genres, and the risks that are run when those genres are combined. In academic history, love is virtually invisible, requiring representation in legitimating social relations (e.g., marriages), if it is marked at all. In popular romance, by contrast, the need for affirmation of mutual feeling is paramount, but love is coded first in conventional forms of action that give it duration and a certain dynamic: quest, misunderstanding, exile, discovery, declaration, reconciliation, etc. The emotion of romance, that is to say, is inseparable from the actions of romance, the passion from the narrative. And if, as John Cawelti observes, “the moral fantasy of romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties” (41-2), a more dramatic staging of “love triumphant” at the end of the film might have the effect of reducing everything before it—the immediate dangers of battle, Sarah’s conflicting sympathies, Maori suspicion, and her violent pursuit by colonial troops—to nothing more than a set of “obstacles” she has had to overcome, the disasters that romance, as a genre, requires in order to defer love’s consummation. Love’s triumph would subsume the film’s military and political narratives into the “moral fantasy” of romance; it would, that is to say, romanticize not just history, but war itself, drawing our attention away from the savagery of military action—and the military action in River Queen is, by contrast, resolutely and unromantically portrayed as frightening.

Ward also may be drawing on another dynamic within romance itself: one identified not by Cawelti, but by another American scholar, Pamela Regis. In her Natural History of the Romance Novel, Regis identifies a characteristic movement in the genre from “a state of bondage or constraint to a state of freedom” (15) in which the novel’s protagonists, united at last, represent in microcosm a “new community” (38). This final happiness is frequently preceded by what Regis, following Northrop Frye, calls a “point of ritual death”: a moment in which a tragic conclusion is threatened but ultimately deflected by the romance’s larger comedic action, so that the freedom and new community with which the novel ends represent, in effect, a victory of life over death. Unlike Cawelti, however, Regis does not see this victory as necessarily complete. “Romance novels are a subgenre of comedy,” she explains, but although “the freedom won for the comic hero is total,” the freedom achieved by the romance novel’s heroine remains “provisional” and “constrained” (16). Indeed, she writes that “the heroine’s freedom in the form of her life, her liberty, or her property may be in doubt not only in the original society [ . . . ] but also in the new society at the end of the work” (16), so that the “new society” may seem an improvement over the old, but hardly a perfect wish-fulfilment or utopian ideal.

Regis’s nuanced description of the “new society” promised in the romance novel may help us understand the muted close of River Queen. On the one hand, Sarah O’Brien’s romance plot sees her suffer a “ritual death.” In the film’s final action, she is shot by colonial troops and tumbles into the great river, which then washes her away—but because this is a romance and not a tragedy, to fall into the great river is not to die, but to be carried into a second life downriver, in Castlecliff, at the river’s mouth. Our last sight of Sarah is in a three-cornered embrace with her grownup son and the man whom she loves and with whom she lives in this second life, Wiremu Katene. Their embrace does possess something of the force of a wedding, and it marks the visible emergence of a “new community,” Sarah’s own family, which is separated from a demanding, larger society.

But Ward ensures that we see both the freedom and the lingering constraints upon this community, the complexity of its liminal position vis-à-vis both Maori and Paheka societies. On the one hand, Sarah bears the moko (the chin tattoo) that marks her as both renegade and Maori by adoption. Taking charge of her own body, after the fashion of modern popular romance heroines, she has removed herself decisively from European society, settling with her family in a Maori community on the margins of the larger Pakeha world.[27] But neither Wiremu, her lover, nor Boy, her son, displays the tattoos that signal Maori identity, and we learn that Boy makes his way both confidently and profitably in a Pakeha world—as, in fact, an entrepreneurial tattooist. The defining signs of ethnic identity, then, are employed in the film’s final moments to separate this small community from the race and culture groups to which, at the beginning of their history, they were tied by birth and/or breeding, but also to hint at potential new configurations of connection, signified not just by Sarah’s heroic, maternal quest across racial and cultural lines, but also by Boy and his tattoo business.[28]

Although it is true that romance thrives on transgression, the family tableau of Sarah, Wiremu, and Boy hardly seems reducible to an odd-looking instance of boundary-crossing romantic love. It has the air of ideological allegory, as though miscegenation—New Zealand’s favourite, fraught, national myth—ruled here as the seed of future social and cultural harmony, the symbolic marker of a national cultural identity that refuses to give credit to race differences. (This is not simply a New Zealand phenomenon. As McCafferty points out, in the fictional captivity narratives of modern popular romance, a cross-racial sexual alliance is clearly the norm.) Perhaps, in fact, the point of the embrace lies in the way it signals the hybridity of historical romance itself, a once-colonial narrative mode now affording nostalgic pleasure as it imagines a moment in the national past when, however awkwardly, social and cultural difference could be resolved at the personal level. Historical romance, in this instance, offers a backwards-looking but future-oriented gaze; its future anterior tense, so to speak, at once resets the national clock, recuperates the past, and prefigures the arrival of Aotearoa—a new New Zealand, where whiteness is no longer a guaranteed virtue. It offers, in short, a quasi-magical solution, won by art, for the release of social tensions: a cultural fantasy that speaks poignantly, if indirectly, of the deadening, oppressive reality for which it serves as a form of compensation.

Film, Historiography, and Feeling

The Australian historian Mark McKenna notes the “sheer force of frontier history” that leads writers to feel “they cannot understand the country in which they live without first confronting the history of dispossession.” He argues that “there is never one moment when the past dissolves completely, leaving a new landscape in its wake” (106) It is difficult to resist the feeling that Ward was vulnerable to that kind of pressure and this impossible ambition, to compose just such a “new landscape.” Yet, whatever else he sought to do in this film, he certainly presents with impressive sharpness the material reality of some of the historical events it describes—and judges history by reference to values that orthodox, academic histories would barely recognise. The generic fracturing that makes it possible to locate in his film not only military history and love romance, but also quest, memoir, documentary record, captivity narrative and symbolic vision, suggests that he employs this range of narrative modes in the interest of prosthetic, communal memory (Burgoyne). As “cinematic history,” the film does indeed function as historiographic metafiction, critiquing existing accounts of the past and opening up new versions and visions.

The economy of film as a medium seems to demand compromises with a verifiable, historical truth. At the same time, however, such fictionalised history may generate a sense of the significance of past events, honouring them by giving them the kind of presence where the past is known on the senses, as if it were indeed a collective memory. Hayden White claims that the “value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (‘Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’ 24). His point about the coherence, but also the fullness sought in historical narrative is fundamental to discussion of relations between history and romance, and peculiarly important in the case of film. Furthermore, in line with the affective turn in historiography, when historical narrative takes the form of romance, for all its limiting concentration on a singular set of characters, it constitutes an argument for a specific, but also intensely engaged apprehension of the past. Film in particular, it is widely acknowledged, offers an historiography that has a power and efficiency that academic history cannot match. It does large-scale action well—battle—it also puts place on show—battle-fields, but also perilous river gorges.[29] It also can deliver intimacy, which, outside such frames, seldom finds expression, or, indeed, even a moment in modern history. Whatever one thinks of its conclusions, The River Queen offers these access routes to the past, perhaps composing what Pierre Nora calls “living history”—which correlates with memory—a more or less public, but personally felt history (7-24). For Raphael Samuel, likewise, this kind of history, which he identifies as “unofficial knowledge,” is the antithesis of hierarchical, esoteric, academic history, that which is written. For him, the critical act in this theatre of memory is testimony, and testimony is capable of working in many forms, from diaries to family photographs. In effect, with all its resources for the making of image and narrative, film may renew testimony and revive memory, with a force and an economy that the printed historical text cannot manage.

In this regard, an emphasis placed upon the value of historical narrative that gives us access to the “structure of feeling” of some moment in the past is particularly useful for an appreciation of the work done by the affective, historical romance, even when the history is told at a remove (Williams 132). Fictional construction of the past, in conveying to us that most radical dimension—feeling—may deliver to us the kind of knowledge that one might argue history cannot do without. Perhaps there is more. W. G. Sebald claims, in taking account of writing about the past, that “only in literature [ . . . ] can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of fact and over and above scholarship” (McKenna 99).[30] My own claim, here, is a good deal smaller: we do not understand this recovery of the past, nor the need for it, if we fail to recognise how the complexity of the literary or filmed history is the consequence of its resources as textual representation. In particular, love’s history, love in history, is bound to be mediated by the complicated operations of embedded or framing genres—including the impure, but powerfully affecting narrative moves of romance.

Works Cited

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[1] See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, passim. See also Amy Elias’s revisiting of Hutcheon in Sublime Desire: History and Post 1960s Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), where metafiction expands—and splinters—into varieties of “metahistorical romance.”

[2]See also, Paul Ricoeur, ‘The Interweaving of History and Fiction,’ Time and Narrative, Vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 181]

[3] For pointed commentary on romance, see the introduction by Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia to Doubled Plots: Romance and History (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003): “History and romance trope each other” (xxv). For film, see White: “if it turns out to resemble a ‘historical romance,’ it is not because it is a narrative film, but rather because the romance genre was used to plot the story that the film wanted to tell.” (‘Historiography and Historiophoty,’ in American Historical Review (93 (1988), 1195)

[4] See Ward’s description of his ‘Inspiration’ in his comments on his website for the film: Also his interview with Clint Morris:

[5] It is also worth noting, perhaps, that Nightingale nurses arrived in the New World, Sydney, in 1868, toward the end of the New Zealand Wars; for some discussion, see Sioban Nelson, Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns, and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). One of the models for Sarah O’Brien, Ann Evans, was a nurse; see below.

[6] In his ‘Director’s Notes,’ Ward writes about working in dense bush, where he had to turn difficult circumstances to his advantage: “The hills around us would become our major sets. Why create period townships when we have seen so many clichéd in every western and period film and when the land herself has so much more power conveying a people who lived hard and survived subsumed by it.” (

[7] Tapu indicates sanctity and, in consequence, restrictions on use.

[8] The term is more broadly used now, for white New Zealanders of European descent. It is worth noting that there were in fact no riverbank garrisons of the kind Sarah describes; see maps in James Belich, ‘I Shall Not Die’: Titokowaru’s War, New Zealand 1868-1869 (Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1989), especially pp.12-13.

[9] See Gail Ching-Liang Low, ‘His Stories?: Narratives and Images of Imperialism,’ New Formations 12 (1990), 97-123; also White Skins/Black Masks: Colonialism and Representation (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), especially chapters 2 and 3. For white interest in black bodies in Australia, see Margaret Maynard, ‘Staging Masculinity: Late Nineteenth-century Photographs of Indigenous Men,’ in Journal of Australian Studies 66 (2000), 129–37.

[10] Compare Ricoeur’s vision of what a historical text might do with Vanessa Agnew’s account of historical reenactment culture as “a body-based discourse in which the past is reanimated through physical and psychological experience.” Vanessa Agnew, ‘Introduction: What Is Reenactment,’ Criticism 46.3 (2004), 330.

[11] Maori allies of the colonial forces, often greater in number than the government troops, in this campaign; see Belich, ‘I Shall Not Die’, passim. See also Ward’s notes, briefly arguing that the Wars saw, in the mass, Maori fighting Maori, rather than Maori tribe battling colonial government.

[12] For discussion of the uncertain reasons for the Titokowaru’s abandonment of his pa at Tauranga Ika, in particular the sudden breakup of his alliances because of loss of mana, prompted by his sexual predatoriness, see Belich, ‘I Shall Not Die’, 242-46. In the film, Sarah, reflects in her diary on Te Kai Po’s abandonment of hostilities at precisely the point when victory seemed most in prospect; his perverse behaviour stems not from some fault of character, but rather from his conviction that this loss would design for his people a future other than the disaster he foresaw for them, a river of blood.

[13] Ward appends a note to the film, paying tribute to Titokowaru, but also to Ann Evans and Caroline Perrett.

[14] For a brief, but valuable reading of the film in the context of other New Zealand films on the Maori Wars, as epic, see Bruce Babington, ‘Epos Indigenized: the New Zealand Wars Films from Rudall Hayward to Vincent Ward,’ in The Epic Film in World Culture, ed.Robert Burgoyne (New York: Routledge, 2011), 235-60.

[15] See Trevor Bentley, Captured by Maori: White Female Captives, Sex and Racism on the Nineteenth-century New Zealand Frontier (Auckland: Penguin, 2004); for Perrett’s story, in particular, see pp. 212-235. Ward notes Caroline Perrett’s nick-name, ‘Queenie’; he also has Te Kai Po, inside the film, invest Sarah with Caroline’s nick-name, after she has cured him. In doing so, Ward connects Sarah to the riverboat that travels up and downriver, the ‘River Queen’, modelled on the PS Waimarere.

[16] See Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 (Westminster, MD: Knopf, 2004), on the varieties of routes these narratives might take to publication, including spoken texts, presented in court, or testimonies offered in support of pleas for charity; “But the most complex and comprehensive testimonies of overseas capture . . . were . . . substantial accounts usually written in the first person and completely or in part by a one-time captive, but sometimes dictated to others” (13).

[17] Blindfolding is relatively uncommon in the American tradition, although frequent in modern captivity narratives. It is mentioned nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, in Australasian instances, although ritual humiliation, a likely purpose, is common in New Zealand captivity narrative.

[18] For the wider history of this genre, see Linda Colley, Captives.

[19] Also see Rebecca Blevins Faery, Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, & Sex in the Shaping of American Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 8-9, where she speaks of “cultural work” done by “representations” of “white women’s Indian captivity and of Pocahontas figures.”

[20] For New Zealand, see Trevor Bentley, Captured by Maori, 15, for very similar recognition that “female captives were not just central to the printed material, they were at the centre of events.”

[21]Gordon Sayre calls for this kind of comparison, even as he describes the genre as “unique to the English literature of America.” See American Captivity Narratives (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 4. Annette Kolodny usefully notes that the captivity narrative is “the single narrative form indigenous to the New World,” but we may need to expand that Eurocentric term to include not just the Americas, but also Australasia. See Annette, Kolodny, The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 6. Linda Colley, in Captives, would not accept even these expanded limits.

[22] See Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), for this and other tales, including Rolf Boldrewood’s fictional captivity narrative, War to the Knife (1899), set in New Zealand, during the New Zealand Wars (53-8); Boldrewood was influenced by Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

[23] See Patrick Brantlinger, ‘Forgetting Genocide: or the Last of The Last of the Mohicans,’ in Cultural Studies 12.1 (1998), on Cooper’s echoing “countless captivity narratives,” to create a novel where the erotic is “both interracial and racist”, only to have this large cultural offence compounded by Mann in the film, where sentimental racism disappears in a blitz of whiteness.

[24] He may have found Perrett’s story in the useful anthology by Bentley, although the history of the film’s production makes this unlikely; the story, however, was first published in a local newsletter, Historical Review, in 1966.

[25] When she is returned to her family, she has been stripped of her Pakeha clothes, wearing instead a Maori mat; later a local chief proposes marriage between young Daisy and his nephew. For discussion, see Claudia Marquis, ‘Romancing the Home: Gender, Empire and the South Pacific,’ in Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture, ed. Beverly Clark and Margaret Higonnet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999), 61-2. More typically, of course, in New Zealand as in America, children were abducted with their mothers, a circumstance that emphasised the precious circle of domestic virtue, even as it defined the fragility of European culture in frontier society.

[26] See, in particular, Lisa Fletcher’s Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity (Ashgate, 2008), which shifts discussion of modern romance by its insistence on the central place of this performative utterance. See also Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 22.

[27] For Ward’s aliveness to tattoo, see The Past Awaits: People, Images, Film (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010), especially pp. 124-30. Comparison with The Last of the Mohicans is instructive, firstly because of the racial prohibitions signalled by skin and mixed ancestry, as James Fennimore Cooper played them out, but also for the way that Michael Mann ironed out Cooper’s difficulties, draining away Cora’s mulatto heritage, leaving her dark, but very European and, in the person of Madeleine Stowe, fit for love. For Cora’s skin, see Janet Dean’s brilliant essay, ‘Romance and Race in The Last of the Mohicans,’ in Doubled Plots: Romance and History, ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: University of Mississipi Press, 2003), 45-66. also Patrick Brantlinger’s provocative review article, ‘Forgetting genocide.’

[28] Although the traditional, maternal quest romance is very different, I think here of Geraldine Heng’s Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): “[A] nationalist imaginary at key junctures requires figures of maternity and family to instantiate concretions of feeling and thought” (207-8).

[29] Robert Rosenstone: “Film lets us see landscape, hear sounds, witness emotions as they are expressed with body and face, or view physical conflict between individuals and groups … altering our very sense of the past” (‘History in Images/History in Words,’ American Historical Review, 93 (1988), 1179).

[30] For an online text of Sebald’s speech, see