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“Ravished by Vikings”: The Pre-modern and the Paranormal in Viking Romance Fiction
by Kim Wilkins

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Maggie realized then, if she had not already, that this was not a modern man who did things according to politically correct rules. He was a Viking warrior with savage sexual appetites and barbarian ways of seduction. An uncivilized lover.

She would have him no other way. (Hill 4474)

The quotation above, taken from Sandra Hill‘s 2001 romance novel Truly, Madly, Viking, is exemplary in how it enacts a double meaning that is central to this essay’s argument about Viking romance fiction, a thriving subgenre of contemporary romance fiction. In this novel, Viking jarl Jorund time travels to modern-day Texas, where he finds love with Maggie, his psychiatrist. On the surface, “she would have him no other way” is a standard affirmation that she likes him just the way he is. The other meaning, though, is that she would not or could not “have him” unless he forced her with his “barbarian ways”. My contention is that the Viking in these romance novels is a symbol of the pre-modern, allowed to be a brutal dominator precisely because he is freed from the restrictions of rational modernity. Moreover, the persistence of the paranormal in these stories marks them as clearly existing outside the general consensus of reality. Socially unacceptable behaviour becomes reframed as part of a fantasy, pre-emptively defusing any criticism that the acts of rape within are meaningful in a contemporary real-world context. Vikings have long been associated with the twin terms “rape and pillage”, and while contemporary renderings of Viking “pillaging” may be a fairly straightforward proposition to discuss, a discussion of contemporary representations of Viking rape is compromised by the emotive nature of the topic of rape, especially male aggression against women. The discourse of “rape culture” across popular media, particularly popular women‘s media, potentially compromises or makes impossible the pleasure of reading about forced sex in literature. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue that such a pleasure should be allowable or condemned. Rather, I follow Angela Toscano’s lead in rejecting the impulse to evaluate such scenes only in terms of how they “affect or reflect the lives of real women”, which limits discussions to how they function as possible mimesis rather than as literary tropes (n. pag). While Toscano is interested in the narrative function of rape, this essay is interested more in the generic function of rape in a particular subgenre. When twenty-first century romance fiction resists twenty-first century feminist censure and self-censure, the subgenre of Viking romance fiction creates a “safe zone” for imaginings of male sexual aggression by representing the men as pre-modern and the context as paranormal.

I adapt the title of this essay from Delilah Devlin’s 2011 novel Ravished by a Viking, which signals male sexual aggression as a key pleasure of the text in large letters on the front cover. The title invites discussion about the term ravishment, pertinent here because it is a word that comes, like Vikings, from the Middle Ages. “Ravissement” at first meant “carrying off a woman” then later “carrying a soul to heaven” then the “secular, affective” meaning of “being ‘carried away‘ emotionally” and from there, carried away with sexual desire (Gradval 5). The word has always represented a slippage from “violent abduction to sexual pleasure” (Gradval 5), which may not be out of place with some medieval notions of love being likened to “a violent experience which happened to you—entered or penetrated you, took possession of you, corrupted your reason and imprisoned you, male and female—against your will” (Vitz 22). Rape and ravishment are expressions of what Gradval would call the same “trope”, that is, the trope of forced sex in literature, whether through forced marriage or trickery, or physical violence, or supernatural agency. In her title, Devlin has [End Page 2] made a conscious choice not to use the word most associated with Vikings and sexual assault (“rape”), but to emphasise the possibility of being swept away by pleasure, even in the experience of being threatened by sexual aggression and violation. In a sense, the semantic slippage performed by the title is also performed by the texts under consideration: sexual aggression does take place, but is constantly framed as a pleasure that exists outside of rational modernity.

Vikings, as noted above, also have their origin in the Middle Ages. They make their first appearance in English in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 787, which records the “first ships of the Danish men that sought land in England” and a welcoming reeve who is slain because “he knew not what they were.” They are called “pagans” and “barbarians” in Aethelward‘s Chronicle; are “seagoing robbers” according to Malmesbury; and known for “burning and plundering and manslaughter” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, early chroniclers also evidence admiring fascination with the Vikings: for example, with the exoticness of their ships and their perceived attractiveness to English women (Frank 23-27). In fact, Vikings might have been the first counter-culture heroes, an example of the commonly expressed sentiment that monsters of any kind exert powers of attraction as well as powers of repulsion: an idea that clearly underpins the entire paranormal romance genre. Of all the characters that history presents us with, there would be few, if any, better suited to represent both brutal, masculine danger and desire than Vikings.

The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages for a reason: in the narrative of progress and supercession to which  Western culture subscribes, it sits between the two “great” periods of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. It is in the middle: its function is to define and validate the two bracketing periods. When we reimagine the Middle Ages now, we are very much still saying something about the modern, the thing that has superseded and flattened it: the medieval, according to Fradenburg, secures “for modernity, its intelligibility to itself” (211). The ongoing cultural impulse to represent Vikings as an irrational pre-modern people allows us to compare ourselves favourably against them and be more certain of our rational modernity. As an example, think of the origins of the modern word “berserk”: the bearskins (literally “bear-shirt”) that some Viking warriors wore while in a battle frenzy. I note that an aspect of the berserker legend has always been the possibility that they were actually shape-shifters, an example of the blurring between historical fact and supernatural fantasy that I explore in more detail below.

According to Geraldine Heng, the medieval romance and the contemporary popular romance can both be recognised by the “structure of desire” that drives the narrative (3): an object is desired, and obstacles cause the deferral of resolution to that desire. More specifically, the chivalric romance usually centres around gender and sexuality as well as adventure, and features the idea of courtly love (longing for an object that remains forever out of reach). This idea displays a similar “pattern of desire” and “economy of pleasure” to the contemporary popular romance (Heng 5). Importantly for the argument I present here, the medieval romance often featured supernatural creatures and events. Heng argues that in contemporary representation, the medieval romance has become almost indistinguishable from the lived Middle Ages, to the point that the whole period is “characterised and depicted in later eras as if it were a romance” (2). In the romance, as in contemporary representations of the medieval, fact and fantasy “collide and vanish, each into the other” (2). [End Page 3]

The medieval romance genre that Heng cites above postdated the Viking age by several hundred years, but nonetheless the flattening of the Middle Ages that allows (or perhaps invites) superstition and the supernatural to colour its representation is also apparent when we consider how Vikings are represented across time. In 793, Norse raiders famously sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne on the English northern coast, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterises the attack as supernaturally monstrous, heralded by whirlwinds, lightning, and “fyrenne dracan” (fiery dragons) (my translation). The language itself is reminiscent of the apocalyptic language that describes Ragnarok, the mythological end times of the Viking gods: “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea / The hot stars down from heaven are whirled / …. fire leaps high about heaven itself” (Völuspá 57, trans Bellows 24). This elision between history and the supernatural turns up again in the contemporary fantasy novel Wolfsangel. As Vali waits aboard a longship for his first raid with his Viking colleagues, the berserkers begin to chant wildly and a series of images form in his mind: “Odin fighting the Fenris Wolf… gallows and slaughter, fire and blood” (Lachlan 77). Story and history slip in and out of each other from earliest records. The boundaries between historical events of the Viking age and Viking mythology are shown to be porous, tinged with a particular complexion of the supernatural: dark, menacing, apocalyptic. What we see, then, is a privileged relationship developing between brutal pagan masculinity and the paranormal, and it is this relationship that provides an engaging dynamic for the contemporary Viking romance novel. For example, in Tanya Anne Crosby’s Viking’s Prize (2013), protagonist Elienor is an unwilling prophetess who is cursed by paranormal dreams and haunted by accusations of witchcraft; in Sandra Hill’s Truly, Madly, Viking (2011), Jorund is a time-travelling Viking who eventually discovers other time-travelling Vikings, including his vanished brother; and Delilah Devlin’s Ravished by a Viking (2011) is set in the colony of New Iceland on a distant planet, where Vikings have been magically transported by the Norse gods via the mythological bridge Bifrost. It is interesting to note that complementing these traditionally published novels is a thriving subgenre of Twilight fan fiction that reimagines Edward as a Viking, and Isabella as his thrall. The nexus between Viking and vampire has already been explored in a sustained way in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series and is more fully developed in the television series adaptation True Blood through the character of Eric Northman. The Viking, like the vampire, is bound by a different set of cultural rules and expresses a different and dangerous set of drives. It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine these fan fictions as well, not the least reason being that (paradoxically) nothing paranormal takes place in them. But what this intertextuality between Viking romance and Twilight fan fiction may point to is the enduring popularity of romance that features submission, domination, and forced sex, and some of the generic conventions that can make those things more palatable to a twenty-first-century audience.

A great deal of scholarship of romance fiction takes as its objects past iterations of the genre. Given the romance genre, like all genres, is contingent and constantly shifting, criticism can easily become outdated (Vivanco 1061). As Luther has written, the standard trope of the rapist turned true love became far less common after the eighties and nineties (n. pag). Vivanco tells us that it is more likely that twenty-first-century romance novels will explicitly address “issues surrounding gender and sexual politics” (1085). Romance fiction now “at times reveal[s] an ardent, feminist awareness of the extent to which patriarchal societies can seek to control women” (1077). Ravished by a Viking’s protagonist Honora is a [End Page 4] smart and powerful spaceship captain who represents a complete subversion of the women’s roles her Viking love interest has come to expect: “Didn’t she know women were meant to be soft and yielding?” (68). Maggie, in Truly, Madly, Viking has a doctorate in psychology and Jorund must learn to hide his “show-vein-is” (i.e. chauvinist) tendencies around her (2831). Elienor in Viking’s Prize is the feisty heroine so valued by historical fiction: an “independent, strong, feisty, and passionate” woman, around whom the “silent rank and file” of unexceptional women exist. The feisty heroine “must be exceptional”; she “lives a life less ordinary” (Tolmie 146), and her feistiness is presented for a female audience’s reading pleasure. In many ways, these stories represent feminist values, and they do it quite naturally and smoothly: there is no sense that it is uncommon for twenty-first-century romance fiction to operate in this manner. However, the trope of ravishment is central to the erotics of every story. In each case, male aggression is presented as uninvited and insistent. Honora has to physically fight Dagr off: “she sputtered and slammed her fists against his chest” (Devlin 69); after Elienor tells Alarik, “You have no claim over me, nor shall I give you anything freely!” (895) he sexually assaults her while she sleeps: “he found himself undulating softly into the sweet warmth between her thighs” (Crosby 2134); and Jorund uses threats as foreplay: “You will bend to my will one day” (Hill 1896). The volume of scenes across this genre that operate as these do supports the idea that male sexual aggression is a key pleasure of the genre. The acknowledgement that reading pleasure is gained from representations of forced sex presents an undeniable conundrum for readers and theorists. As Katie Roiphe points out, such imaginings in popular fiction “seem to be saying something about modern women that nearly everyone wishes wasn’t said” (n. pag).

Paranormal romance author Anne Rice says that a woman “has the right to pretend she’s being raped by a pirate if that’s what she wants to pretend” (in Dowd, n. pag), co-opting the language of feminism (“has the right”, “what she wants”) to support her assertion. What is revealing about Rice’s proclamation is that she needs to say it at all. It is framed as a response in anticipation of the feminist censure that attends representation of rape fantasies, and fantasies of domination and submission. Certainly the widespread success of Fifty Shades of Grey aroused much popular consternation, exemplified in Frank Bruni’s article for the New York Times that took on the “post-feminist power dynamics” of both Fifty Shades and popular HBO television series Girls: “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess” (n. pag, original emphasis). Postfeminism is a term mostly used to refer to women “who are thought to benefit from the women’s movement” but “do not push for further political change”. The opening quotation of this essay, where Maggie explicitly expresses pleasure that Jorund is not “politically correct” exemplifies the postfeminist outlook. Postfeminists, according to Aronson, are seen by feminists as “depoliticized and individualistic” and these tendencies are associated with “the ‘death’ of feminism” (Aronson 904-05). Gill agrees that the tendencies of postfeminism work against the goals of the feminist movement, citing particularly the postfeminist “resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference” (158). Writing about romance fiction specifically, Harzewski also identifies “the pleasures of femininity” afforded “through the recognition of sexual difference” as an integral concern of postfeminism (Harzewski 3469). Not every theorist is as sanguine as Harzewski, with Gill [End Page 5] noting that the reinstatement of natural sexual difference serves to “(re)-eroticize power relations between men and women” with the end result that “discourses of natural gender difference can be used to freeze in place existing inequalities by representing them as inevitable and… pleasurable” (Gill 158-59). Bonomi, Altenburger, and Walton point to popular fiction’s role in representing as positive what they call “dangerous” ideas of abuse against women (733), while Philadelphoff-Puren implicates a certain strain of romance novels—those marked by a “consistently violent representation of heterosexual sex” (32) and the heroine’s “dissimulating ‘no’” (39)—in the low conviction rates of rapists, arguing that these novels have shaped “a legal-romantic imaginary which has material effects on the lives of women who charge men with rape” (38, original emphasis). These reactions exemplify what Roiphe describes as the “upstanding feminist tsk-tsking” about the choices postfeminists make about what to read and what to watch (n. pag). In this discourse, clear discomfort exists around the idea of male aggression as pleasurable to women. The genre of Viking romance fiction, then, creates a more comfortable space for reading pleasure by projecting rape into the past, and obscuring it with the veil of the numinous. The pleasure of ravishment is accepted more readily when it is represented within a context that is neither “modern” nor “normal”: rather, it is pre-modern and paranormal. The genre uses a number of observable moves, related to the pre-modern and the paranormal, to manage the transformation of a potentially guilty reading pleasure into a less-encumbered reading pleasure.

Essentialised sexual difference is a key feature of this genre. Vikings represent an unreconstructed masculinity that is almost fetishized, and which is presented as impossible for modern men to attain. The difference between the Viking male and the modern male is most clearly evidenced in Hill’s Truly, Madly, Viking because Jorund has time-travelled to present-day Texas, allowing for deep contrast. When Jorund sees men in fashionable cowboy boots, he says, “High-heeled boots on men! Are the men of this place demented? Do they not know how ridiculous they look? Do their toes not hurt and their ankles not ache at the end of a day spent in men’s work?” (Hill 664). Jorund’s default assumption is that men work with their bodies, and that anything that interferes with that is “ridiculous”; but in a way it echoes contemporary criticism of the “metrosexual” man as somebody who privileges fashion over traditional male pursuits. Modern man’s inability to match the essential masculinity of the Viking is exemplified when another male character dresses up as a Viking: “On his head was a long, blond wig that Jorund could swear he’d seen on a scullery maid just yestereve. On his upper arms were two makeshift bracelets formed from strips of tinfoil, a product used in modern kitchens to save food” (2018). The particular complexion of the humour in this description is not simply derived from the sharp difference between real Viking and make-believe Viking, but also from the way the dressed-up man is feminised by being associated with women’s accoutrements (wig, bracelets) and domestic work (maids, kitchens, food preservation). A similar strongly drawn image of the inability of the modern to be as masculine as the pre-modern is a scene in which a man dressed in a toga bends over to reveal “bare flabby buttocks” (2016). The modern man is not associated here with sexual aggression, rather with femininity and flaccidity. He is no sexual threat; in fact, he is barely sexual.

Even the modern day alpha male pales in comparison to the authentic masculinity of the Viking. Maggie’s ex-husband is a surgeon, arguably the top of the tree in modern masculine hierarchies. Maggie explains that he had aspirations as a thrill seeker: “He [End Page 6] wanted to …. [s]et a record for skydiving. Climb the highest mountains. Race cars. Scuba dive” (3144). Jorund, by contrast, finds the idea of seeking danger for empty reasons puzzling. In Viking times he had been close to death when “a Saracen horse soldier had… put a scimitar to his throat while dangling him off the side of a cliff.” This experience is presented as a genuinely fearful moment—“had not felt such fright”—an authentic male experience of battle with another authentic male (2871). The challenges facing Jorund’s performances of masculinity present real consequences; the modern thrill seeker’s are consequence-free.

Jorund’s focus on manly physical activity colours his attitudes to the other patients in the psychiatric institution he finds himself in. He takes particular interest in paraplegic Gulf War veteran Steve: “Even those who live in those wheeled chairs should be working muscles that are still alive,” he says (1940). His interest extends to Steve’s mental state. Steve is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jorund explains to Maggie that he is aware of a kind of shellshock among his own people “after a particularly gruesome battle” (1629). This connection across time, however, is not completely shared: Jorund is quick to point out he speaks “not from personal experience” (1629). Within a few weeks, Jorund has instigated a physical activity program to help rehabilitate his fellow inmates, particularly employing the pre-modern activities of sword fighting and rock hurling as a way of helping these modern men reclaim their masculine agency.

The hypermasculinity of these characters functions to heighten the contrast between male and female characters. This eroticization of sexual difference is often focalised through the female viewpoint. Female characters in these scenes seem to lose control of thought and rationality when confronted with the erotic potential of this contrast. Maggie notes that when Jorund’s “maleness [is] pressed against her femaleness, sanity seemed to be lacking” (Hill 1846), and Elienor’s thoughts turn “against her will” to “the firmness of [Alarik’s] flesh beneath her palms as he’d carried her out from the kirken” (Crosby 141). Honora even loses control of her basic bodily functions when she reluctantly agrees to group sex with Dagr and his friends: she “imagined how she must look, her slight frame dwarfed by three large Vikings, and she grew so excited she gulped for air” (Devlin 152). Another pleasure that comes from this representation of contrast is that it allows women to see the desire available in pre-modern notions of feminine beauty: for example, Elienor’s “generous curves” (Crosby 626), or the “soft, full curves” and “ample breast” of Viking woman Tora, who serves as Dagr’s sex thrall (Devlin 37). These notions of attractive female bodies are offered as essentialised archetypes that the pre-modern man understands as perpetually desirable: Jorund notes that Maggie “thought she carried too much weight, but she was wrong. Men did not like skin-and-bone females…. On that issue, men were men” (Hill 3491).

Often, this eroticised difference between men and women is extended imaginatively to signify not just contrast, but conflict. Alarik from Viking’s Prize finds such conflict arousing when Elienor resists him: “Tightening his hold upon the woman’s hair, he rose from his stooped position, hauling her up against him as he came to his feet, and the feel of her soft body hardened his more fully” (559). In this quotation, contrast between masculinity and femininity (“her soft body hardened his”) shares the same space as aggressive domination (dragging Elienor by her hair). The conflict between male and female is at the heart of the sexual pleasure the main characters experience in Ravished by a Viking: “we battle every time we fuck”, Dagr tells Honora (Devlin 162), and his [End Page 7] internalisations during their lovemaking bear this notion out: “crushed beneath his weight” she “smack[s] his arm”, and he compares her protests to that of a “kitten”, which makes him “bark” with laughter (306). Even when not playing out actual physical resistance and domination, aggression infuses the language around lovemaking. “When I look at you, I want to make fierce love with you,” Jorund tells Maggie (3368), and shortly after he continues, “The only question in my mind is whether, this first time, I should woo you or conquer you” (3441); Alarik achieves orgasm with a “powerful thrust and a savage cry” (Crosby 3507); and when Dagr and Honora first have sex in Ravished by a Viking, it is described as “no gentle taking”, peppered with verbs such as “prodded”, “gritted”, “ground”, “growled”, “slammed”, and “clawed” (78-79).

The most common metaphors employed in this contrast/conflict of the masculine and feminine are the tools of pre-modern warfare. Jorund threatens to “teach [Maggie] with my callused hands and hard staff not to tease a fighting man” (Hill 3368), and Dagr describes his erection as “harder than the tempered steel of his father’s sword” (Devlin 80). Even the Viking lover’s face is compared to pre-modern weaponry: “His gaze fixed upon the horizon, his expression hard as unyielding steel. His features were well chiseled like that of his namesake’s, the hawk, and his pewter gray eyes had been likened to the silver of his sword, Dragvendil, for they could slice into the heart of a man with the ease of a fine gilt-edged blade” (Crosby 181). These tools of battle create a curious mix of responses in the female protagonist. “The lethal chill” of Alarik’s “silver-flecked eyes” sends “shivers down [Elienor’s] spine” in a moment of fearful apprehension (Crosby 1371). Later in the same novel, with the same man, it is desire that creates the same physiological response: “A chill raced down Elienor’s spine…. The possibility that Alarik might kiss her made her heartbeat quicken and her breath catch in her throat” (Crosby 1536). Ultimately, though, enjoyment is derived from this battle of the sexes: “By the blessed virgin, was it supposed to feel so good to be caressed by one’s enemy?” (Crosby 488). The playing out of surrender and conquest is invariably shown to be pleasurable.

The pre-modern is the particular place that these pleasures of sexual aggression can go because of the long-held association between Vikings and rape. In these novels, the impulse to ravish is shown to be cultural for Vikings, part of their inbuilt drive to dominate by force, and an essential aspect that makes them who they are. The texts bear this essentialism out in the frank acknowledgement about forced sex in Viking culture. Alarik’s aunt tells Elienor how she was married against her will and found happiness. Dagr’s brother Eirik reflects in a pragmatic way on the sex thralls in his culture that “act the whore” while restrained by metal cuffs (6). Jorund is frank about rape in his family: “My brother Rolf advocated never asking for permission first. He said ‘tis better to do the act, then apologize later, but he was probably talking about something involving sex” (Hill 3300). Such stories arouse Maggie’s horror, which Jorund shrugs off with the declaration, “That is life in my land” (3121).

The essential pre-modern drive to dominate is also represented in scenes of rape in its most direct sense of forced sex accompanied by violence: “female servants … screamed for mercy beneath the abusing bodies of …Northmen” on the same ship that Elienor is transported on (710). The Viking lovers are often shown contemplating rape. Jorund’s earliest reflections on Maggie include: “He could break her slim wrists with a snap of his fingers. He could lift her by the waist and toss her over his shoulder. He could press her to the bed, and…Well, he could do things to her” (903); while Alarik’s first reaction to the [End Page 8] feisty Elienor is to be “sorely tempted to lie [the] wench flat and ride her against her will” (627).  Importantly, this reflection is immediately followed by “But he would not.” Having established that the Viking lovers are Vikings (with the impulse to rape), the books then show these men performing self-restraint that indicates growing affection is present: Dagr’s sensitivity to Honora’s sexual needs “surprised her. She’d thought the savage marauder… [would]… force her quickly onto his cock” (Devlin 75). Nonetheless, the sex acts in these novels at the very least redefine widely held notions of what constitutes appropriate consent, and their pre-modern protagonists allow that perceived grey area of consent to be played out in a way that least offends modern sensibilities.

The ultimate symbol of Viking pre-modern (even animalistic) hypermasculinity is the huge erect penis that each love interest possesses, an extension of the “size and sinew” of the men themselves (Crosby 3974). Devlin calls it a “Viking-sized cock” (74), Jorund needs three attempts to wrangle his “bull-size erection” into Maggie’s vagina (Hill 3478), and Alarik notes he must prepare Elienor “for the size of him” (Crosby 3365). These men exist outside the realm of normal in a similar way to the heroes of the fornaldarsögur or legendary sagas of the Vikings. Sitting between the more realist style of the family sagas and the full-blown mythological retellings of the Eddas, the legendary sagas share with these Viking romance novels the blurring between realism and the supernatural. In some ways, the “Viking-sized” erection is supernature literalised. The Viking erection affords a connection between the hypermasculinity associated with the pre-modern and the rejection of realism associated with the paranormal. It is a clear mark of a superheroic body, a mythical giant phallus associated more with fantasy than with realistic representation.

As I have argued above, there exists a special relationship between Vikings and the paranormal, acknowledged by Jorund himself when pressed to explain how he rationalises his travelling through time: “Mayhap the Norse culture is more inclined to believe in the spectacular than yours. Mayhap, because of our harsh environment, we tend to have more hope in the gods” (Hill 1301). Note that he ties his belief back to his pre-modernity, citing the harsh environment he is native to, and his belief and faith in pagan gods rather than secular rationality. The paranormal is another way that rape is projected out of the here and now in these novels, making it safer or more comfortable to imagine and gain reading pleasure from.

One way the paranormal is employed is to set the context of the story well beyond the realm of consensual reality. Jorund is transported to the modern world by a killer whale. With his pre-modern, supernatural-accepting mindset, he sees this method of transportation as heroic: “No doubt there would even be a praise-poem honouring Jorund, the warrior who rode in the cradle of a killer whale’s mouth and lived to tell the tale” (291). However, for the modern characters, Jorund’s story prompts them to lock him up in the Rainbow Psychiatric Hospital. The modern readers who belong to the same present are, by extension, implicated in a culture in which the irrational is punished by imprisonment and diagnosed and treated with medical science: law and medicine being two significant symbols of modern rationality. Jorund reflects on being forced to wear what he calls a “torture shert” and “ankle restraints” with “bars on his windows” while Maggie treats his delusions of time travel, insisting that he employ the very post-medieval psychiatric method of examining his own feelings: “How do you feel about that?” she asks during their treatment sessions of his resistance to being imprisoned (960). In a later scene, Jorund [End Page 9] breaks out of his straitjacket, a feat of superhuman strength that demonstrates the powerful dispositions of the pre-modern and the paranormal to erupt through the strictures of rational modernity (1348). This dynamic of attempted modern control being usurped by overwhelming Viking power is echoed in sex acts in the texts. Such eruptions of the pre-modern are presented as patently at odds with consensual reality, and so the sex acts too are projected outside the real, and into the realm of fantasy.

Another way that the paranormal works to consign the issue of rape to the outside of serious contemporary discourse is to play up the risible nature of the paranormal elements. Certainly, Truly, Madly, Viking veers often into a comedic tone, especially with regards to time travel: “Maggie put her notebook aside and rubbed at the furrows in her forehead with the fingers of one hand. ‘A killer whale brought you here… from Iceland? A killer whale with bad breath?’”(1097). Many of the paranormal elements of the romance genre could be seen as ridiculous or laughable if removed from their context. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the ways that genres work is that those on the inside (readers and writers) accept the reality presented within the texts without question: supernatural activity makes sense in the genre. From the outside, though, to a reader unfamiliar with generic conventions, the supernatural may seem ridiculous or even arouse contempt: “[i]t is easy to trivialise something that appears, on the surface, to be silly or childish” (Wilkins 274). When Maggie teases Jorund by comparing time travel to Santa Claus, Hill allows the possibility that the supernatural conceit is faintly ridiculous (3748). The erotics of the text, then, may also be framed as frivolous, a bit of harmless fun. The possibility that the supernatural elements allow the texts to occupy a space outside serious discourse is apparent in reader reactions as registered on sites such as Goodreads. One review for Ravished by a Viking starts with, “I HAD to buy this book, just because of the title and the premise of Vikings in space!!” As the reader goes on to note, this is not a text to be taken seriously: “I’m expecting a total cheese-fest” (Jeanine n. pag); while a review on the same site for Truly, Madly, Viking describes the book as an “[u]napologetically cheesy … very light, suspend-your-disbelief… time travel romance” (Yz the Whyz n. pag). The presentation of the paranormal elements means that the serious themes in the book, especially that of sexual violence, have been successfully reframed as too light and “cheesy” to be paid serious consideration.

Moreover, the paranormal elements can be seen as linked intrinsically to the erotic elements. As I wrote above, the Viking erection is the most obvious symbol of the conflation of pre-modern and paranormal with erotic pleasure. In Viking’s Prize, the otherworldly state of dreaming is also implicated in this conflation. Elienor has prophetic dreams, which she tries to hide because they open her to accusations of witchcraft, a crime for which her mother was executed. When she has her dream visions, they are unwelcome and unsettling: “The merest notion that she might meet the same fate as did her mother made her knees weak” (259). In one of these dreams, she sees the face of the Viking who eventually enslaves her, and on first sight of him while awake, she is shocked and horrified: “That face! Sweet Jesu—that face! She recalled it from her dream and shuddered” (480-91). However, it is through dreams that Alarik is able to show Elienor his ability to be gentle and sensitive, when he comforts her when she cries out in her sleep; and ultimately dreams allow her to see Alarik’s fate and save him from it. As well as their paranormal potential, dreams for Elienor have erotic potential. When Alarik touches her naked body without consent in the night and she half-wakes, she tells herself it is “naught but a dream… a [End Page 10] hazy… pleasant… dream” and reflects that she “never wanted to waken” (2139). In this example, unsought sexual contact is allowed to occupy the same place as patently non-real and paranormal prophetic visions. Elienor reflects on the reality or otherwise of dreams, both prophetic and erotic, in these terms: “In reality, how could she even be certain that her dreams were anything more than her own fancy, she reasoned” (2707). The evocative word pairs—reality/dreams, fancy/reason—function as a kind of manifesto for how the text should be read. To paraphrase: in reality, how could imaginings of rape and sexual violence be considered more than fantasy to a reasonable person? Another key word in this regard is the word “witch”, which appears as the designation of a particular kind of paranormal character (Elienor) but also features repeatedly in the word “bewitch”, used in its sense to mean an overwhelming attraction, which Alarik associates with Elienor: “what [was it] about her bewitching eyes that made him lose all sense and reason?” (1826). Once again, sense and reason (markers of the modern) are presented as things in opposition to the paranormal and in opposition to the sexually aggressive erotics of the text.

Vikings rape. It is one of the things that modern culture understands about Vikings, whether or not history supports the notion with detailed evidence. It is a notion that holds sway as tenaciously as the notion that Vikings wore horned helmets (they didn’t). Vikings also share a privileged relationship with the paranormal. Their gods have become our superheroes and even the gritty, realist mode of Michael Hirst’s television series Vikings (2013) is interspersed with supernatural visions of the gods and Valkyries. The trope of forced sex in romance fiction has found itself under scrutiny and pressure since the feminist movement, and even more so now as women’s media, especially e-media and social media, grow increasingly concerned with what is called “rape culture”. Popular blog-site Jezebel, for example, lists the term as one of its most frequent tags. Viking romance fiction, then, is the perfect genre for fantasies of forced sex to comfortably be represented. These scenes are patently not real and patently not of the here-and-now, and thus can function as a safe zone for pleasurable, imaginative fantasies about male sexual aggression. They can also function as a kind of resistance to the detractors who want to see the romance genre, as Toscano argues, “as a kind of field study of women’s sexuality”, often with a view to condemnation (n. pag). A post-script on the bottom of Edvard/Bella Viking/vampire fan fiction “My Viking” provides a lovely summation of my argument: “[N]o negative comments on Edvard being too forceful with Bella”, author sheviking writes, anticipating possible censure for the “savage sensation” represented within. “He’s a Viking after all”. [End Page 11]

List of works consulted

Aronson, Pamela. “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.” Gender and Society 17.6 (2003): 903-922. Print.

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: The American-Scandinavian Association, 1923. Print.

Bonomi, Amy E., Lauren E., Altenburger, and Nicole L Walton,. “‘Double Crap!’ Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey.Journal of Women’s Health 22.9 (2013):  733-744. Print.

Bruni, Frank. “The Beaker Sex.” NYTimes. 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 June 2014.

Crosby, Tanya Anne. Viking’s Prize. New York: Oliver-Heber Books, 2013. Kindle file.

Devlin, Delilah. Ravished by a Viking. New York: Berkley Heat, 2011. Print.

Dowd, Maureen. “She’s Fit to Be Tied.” NYTimes. 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 June 2014.

Fradenburg, Louise. “‘So that we may Speak of them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 205-230. Print.

Frank, Roberta. “Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol, Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England.” Representations 100 (2007): 23-33. Print.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-166. Print.

Gravdal, Kathryn. Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chicklit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Kindle file.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Hill, Sandra. Truly, Madly, Viking. New York: Love Spell, 2000. Kindle file.

Jeanine. Weblog comment. Ravished by A Viking. 20 Jun. 2011. Web. 14 Jun. 2014.

Lachlan, M.D. Wolfsangel. London: Gollancz, 2010. Print.

Luther, Jessica. “Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism.” The Atlantic. 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Philadelphoff-Puren, Nina. “Contextualising Consent: The Problem of Rape and Romance.” Australian Feminist Studies 20:46 (2005): 31-42. Print.

Roiphe, Katie. “Working Women’s Fantasies.”” Newsweek Online. 10 Jul. 2012. Web. 4 Jun. 2014.

sheviking. My Viking. 11 May 2011. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.

Swanton, Michael, trans. and ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. Print.

Tolmie, Jane. “Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine.” Journal of Gender Studies 15.2 (2006): 145-159. Print.

Toscano, Angela R. “A Parody of Love: The Narrative Uses of Rape in Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies. 2.2 (2012). Web. 21 Dec. 2013.

Vitz, Evelyn Burge. “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections.” Romantic Review 88.1 (1997): 1-26. Print.

[End Page 12]

Vivanco, Laura. “Feminism and Early Twenty‐First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060-1089. Print.

Wilkins, Kim. “Popular Genres and the Australian Literary Community: The Case of Fantasy Fiction.” Journal of Australian Studies 32.2 (2008): 265-278. Print.

Yz the Whyz. Weblog comment. Truly Madly Viking. 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 14 Jun. 2014.

[End Page 13]



Vulnerable Bodies: Subverting Masculine Normativity in Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s Boquitas pintadas
by Assen Kokalov

Director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson enjoyed an intimate connection with Argentine cinema from a very early age: his father, Leopoldo Torres Ríos, and his uncle, Carlos Torres Ríos, were two of the most important filmmakers of their country during the first half of the twentieth century. Following in their footsteps, Torre Nilsson began his film career at fifteen when he was enlisted as an assistant director for two of his father’s productions, Los [End Page 1] pagarés de Mendieta (1939) and La luz de un fósforo (1939). When he was barely twenty-four, Torre Nilsson directed his first short, El muro (1947), and three years later released a full feature titled El crimen de Oribe (1950). For the next thirty years, until his death, he produced, directed, and scripted a vast array of movies, some of which became hallmarks of Argentine cinema.

Most critics agree that Torre Nilsson’s films reveal an intricate knowledge of his country’s middle and upper classes and tirelessly subvert social norms, particularly in terms of gender and gender-based behavior (Amado, España, Esplugas, Maranghello). The plight of women, the gendering of the body, and the implicit rules that govern collective order are some of the most common issues his productions exposed and criticized throughout his more than three decades of filmmaking. When discussing Torre Nilsson’s career, it is imperative to underscore the importance of his life and work partner, Beatriz Guido, whose novels and scripts conditioned most of his movies. Their creative relationship is aptly summarized by Claudio España, who claims that the esthetic mannerism developed by Torre Nilsson exists in perfect harmony with Guido’s steadfast efficiency in demolishing the establishment through her literature (40).

Within such a context, it is not surprising that the collaboration between Torre Nilsson and another important Argentine writer whose works aim to destabilize social and gender conventions and rules, Manuel Puig, inevitably produced a work that exposes, parodies, and critiques social, class, racial, and gender power relations in a society obsessed with sexual desire and the culturally mandated need to repress it. Puig wrote his novel Boquitas pintadas (translated into English as Heartbreak Tango) in 1969; the homonymous film was released five years later with a script coauthored by Torre Nilsson and Puig.[1] The bulk of the movie’s storyline takes place in the 1930s, an important historical period for the director. Gonzalo Aguilar points out that throughout his career, Torre Nilsson adapted several eminent Argentine novels that take place during that specific time period (Boquitas pintadas, Roberto Arlt’s Los siete locos [1929], and Adolfo Bioy Casares’ Diario de la guerra del cerdo [1969]) as well as several real-life events. The critic also draws attention to the fact that in his Fin de fiesta (1960), Torre Nilsson explicitly elaborates on his belief, reflected in all his movies portraying the 1930s, that the origins of the political violence that reverberated in Argentina until the end of his own life can be traced back to that very decade (Aguilar 24).

Boquitas pintadas revolves mainly around the lives of five women from a small village in the interior of Argentina who reminisce, via letters, about their youth back in the 1930s. Growing up in a close-knit community, they went to the same school despite belonging to disparate social classes. Their social differences are deftly used to depict the oppression from which women suffer as a result of patriarchal norms. In her study of the film, Claudia Esplugas argues that Torre Nilsson uses melodrama and parody to expose patriarchal power structures and their subjugation of women (n/p). The film does not stop at presenting traditional female oppression, however. It also portrays normative gender roles and androcentric romance while effectively subverting them in a series of acts that destabilize both femininity and masculinity, and the latter’s most cherished values of power and dominance. My aim here is to examine the ways in which the film challenges and subverts traditional masculinity by engaging the male body—its health, visibility, and vulnerability—and by defying the traditional patriarchal expectation that men control all social and economic power. [End Page 2]

The male body is one of the main symbols of masculinity within traditional Western society. George Mosse traces this idea back to the seventeenth century and to the works of Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz, who argue that body and soul form an essential unity. Their concept of a union between the two spurs the rebirth of the ideal of a male corporeal image based on the ancient Greek model,  in which “real” men possess healthy, strong, and muscular bodies (Mosse 24-25). R. W. Connell also affirms that “true” masculinity is thought to originate within the male body, which is in charge of a set of actions that establish the privileged position of those men who are considered inherently masculine for being what is traditionally deemed “able-bodied.” In his further analysis on the subject, Connell focuses on the materiality of the body and on the different tasks and actions that it is able to perform or not. Due to its material nature and consequent vulnerability, the body also offers a way to subvert patriarchal masculinity and gender in general. For example, points out Connell, when performance cannot be sustained as a result of a physical disability, injury, or illness, what follows is the subversion or outright deconstruction of traditional gender norms (45-66). Within the general Latin American context, Lorraine Nencel affirms that men are afforded “the entire panoply of power” through the deep-rooted tradition of machismo, as long as they are “healthy” and heterosexual (many conventional epistemological systems conflate the two categories) (56-58). Similarly, Kristi Anne Stølen argues that man is “portrayed as the bearer of physical strength, rationality, and authority” within the region (167). In the particular Argentine context, the importance of bodily strength is considered crucial for the establishment and preservation of masculinity as well. Eduardo Archetti points back to the writings of some of the country’s most notable intellectuals, Lugones and Borges, who associate dominant models of masculinity with the courage and physical strength of figures typically linked to manliness, such as the gaucho and the urban compadrito. Furthermore, the critic emphasizes the “importance of physical-muscular power” as an “exemplary role” of paterfamilias’ masculinity (Archetti 51-52).

In Boquitas pintadas, the five main female characters recall their relationships with two men who embody traditional masculinity and whose early deaths arguably destabilize it. The first one is Juan Carlos, lover of three of the women (Nené, Mabel, and Elsa) and brother of another (Celia). The announcement of his premature demise in 1947 functions as a catalyst for the entire plot. Upon seeing his obituary in the newspaper, Nené, who is already married to another man, enters an early midlife crisis. She experiences a deep sensation of sadness bordering on depression and deals with it by sending a letter to her ex-lover’s mother. In her letter, she reminisces about the past and her intimate relationship with Juan Carlos. When he was her boyfriend, the two of them spent many nights in front of her house in a typical rural, middle-class courtship. What becomes clear from her initial letters is that Juan Carlos, despite being a handsome and successful young man from a relatively well-established family, suffered from one crucial physical flaw: he had tuberculosis, a disease still practically incurable in the 1930s.[2] One of the first indications of his ailment was a slight but persistent cough, which he tried to conceal while talking to Nené in front of her house. In a conspicuous manner he ignored the symptoms, following a set of behaviors prescribed by the patriarchal tradition of men not showing concern for their own physical health, as any admission of problems could be perceived as a possible weakness. Sylvia Chant confirms the fundamental role of this behavior by indicating that Latin American men “typically delay their visits to medical personnel until their conditions [End Page 3] are quite advanced” (“Gender and Health” 121). Hence, the first ones to become preoccupied with Juan Carlos’ cough were his sister and his mother, who swiftly blamed his girlfriend for keeping him out in the cold late at night.

Soon enough, Juan Carlos’ condition starts to worsen and his social status deteriorates accordingly in a process wherein illness and subversion of masculinity converge, as indicated by Connell (45-66). For Juan Carlos to be allotted what Nencel calls “the entire panoply of power” within Latin American patriarchy, he needs to be perceived above all as a healthy man (56). When the village doctor receives his X-rays and medical test results, the entire town takes notice. Once it becomes clear that Juan Carlos is in fact infected, his situation becomes the main topic of conversation. Chant indicates that in 1930s Latin America, prior to what today is labeled “the epidemiological transition,” communicable respiratory illnesses were a leading cause of death (“Gender and Health” 99). There is no doubt, therefore, that the inhabitants of Vallejos are very much aware of the dangers presented by the contagiousness of the protagonist, who shortly thereafter is forced to leave town in a first step towards social marginalization. Initially, he is interned in a rather comfortable upper-class sanatorium near the mountains, where his health and state of mind start to improve. Thus, he is not immediately deprived of all of his masculine advantages. Nonetheless, there are several crucial moments during his stay in the sanatorium that imply that his status as a privileged man is being compromised due to his failing health and the social perceptions surrounding his ailment.

The first moment is directly related to the issue of the male body as a symbol of masculine prowess, and it takes place in a scene that shows Juan Carlos swimming naked in a deserted river nearby. The style of his solitary swim is highly reminiscent of Isabel Sarli’s notorious soft-porn productions from the same period. In some of her most widely-recognized scenes, the erotic star appears swimming naked in what she believes are solitary lakes and rivers with her breasts and legs clearly visible—not only to the camera and the audience, but also to the occasional peeping Tom who incarnates the male spectator and shares in the pleasure of the epitomic male gaze. In his study on the actress and her films, David W. Foster maintains that Sarli’s body can be seen as a symbol of masculine exploitation due to her complete lack of power in regard to all artistic decisions (those were made exclusively by her husband and director, Armando Bó) and to the uncritical exposure of her naked breasts in what the critic calls “muchos baños fílmicos” (“Las lolas de La Coca” n/p). Her films affirm these dynamics as her characters are typically at the control of male protagonists who use Sarli’s overly sensual and nude body (Ruétalo 207-08). In the case of Boquitas pintadas, the exposed body that occupies the gaze of the audience is male and its nakedness and sickness transform it into a vulnerable entity, a position reserved exclusively for the female body within traditional film and within traditional male/female structures of power throughout most of twentieth-century Argentina.

Another crucial moment that destabilizes Juan Carlos’ masculinity during his illness-imposed stay in the sanatorium is related to his unsuccessful efforts to attract and seduce women. These attempts are important because they strive to rebuild his sense of manliness and to prove that he still has what it takes to be an Argentine macho. The woman he finds most attractive and most valuable as a conquest is a young and beautiful fellow patient. After a few short and encouraging conversations, though, she suddenly disappears. Upon inquiring whether she has left, Juan Carlos is informed that she has passed away from the [End Page 4] disease they have in common. The fact that such a healthy-looking woman with a pleasant appearance could succumb so quickly to the illness they share emphasizes Juan Carlos’ own mortality and the fact that tuberculosis does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, or physical attractiveness. His body, that until now he has perceived as a solid defense against the ailment due to its youthfulness and virility, becomes a very real liability in his fight against the disease.

The final key element that surfaces during Juan Carlos’ stay in the sanatorium has to do with his connections to the outside world, established through letters he writes to and receives from people he left behind. He is advised by some of the older and more seasoned patients that the more time he spends there, the less he will be remembered and the less correspondence he will receive. A significant number of those with whom he exchanges letters are women with whom he has been intimate. To them, he is first and foremost an attractive body. In fact, during a conversation between Mabel and Nené after his death, the former affirms that his most praised feature was his large penis. Thus, when Juan Carlos receives an ever-diminishing amount of mail, it becomes clear that women are assuming that his body can no longer perform its most important manly function—and is incapable of providing them pleasure. All of these developments that occur during his initial stay at the sanatorium prove the importance of a healthy body in the construction of a successful model of masculinity within traditional patriarchy. When Juan Carlos’ health begins to decline, the foundations of his masculine privilege begin to crumble and the vulnerabilities of his body start to translate into direct hits on his manliness and on his position of power within society.

The other important male character in the film is Juan Carlos’ buddy Pancho. He belongs to a lower social class, but Juan Carlos, before he goes to the sanatorium, takes him under his wing to teach him how to seduce women from within his own class. The first target of such training is La Raba (the fifth main female character), who is selected by Juan Carlos because of her connection to his wealthy lover, Mabel. La Raba is about to become a servant in Mabel’s house and Juan Carlos wants La Raba to spy on her. Under the expert tutelage of his friend, Pancho is successful in his pursuit of La Raba, whom he abandons once she becomes pregnant. It is important to underline that the class difference between the two pairs, Juan Carlos-Mabel and Pancho-La Raba, is clearly emphasized by their racial dissimilarities as well: the actors who portray the latter couple are visibly darker-skinned than the former.

A paradigmatic change in Pancho’s situation takes place when Juan Carlos has to leave the village. At this point, he finds himself in a position in which he can try to replace his mentor and to occupy, at least partially—due to his darker skin and consequent inferior social status—some of the privileges left vacant by the other man’s departure. His perfectly healthy body allows him to assume a certain position of masculine privilege in a power vacuum created by the disappearance of his friend. The first step he takes to solidify his position is to enter the police academy in Buenos Aires. Upon his eventual return to the village, he swiftly becomes a noncommissioned officer. The uniform that comes with the rank affords him a level of social recognition and transforms him into a man who embodies state-sanctioned power.

An important feature of “real” heterosexual men within traditional Latin American macho culture is their role as penetrators. As Annick Prieur points out, “Value is given to the male who penetrates women or other males, and never lets himself be penetrated. His [End Page 5] defence of his own bodily boundaries and his attack on other men’s bodies may mirror and symbolize the social competition among men” (83). In a similar fashion, Claudio Lomnitz-Adler argues that “[t]he value or aesthetics of ‘closedness’ is a kind of idiom of power where ‘penetration’ stands for domination and ‘impenetrability’ stands for power” (259). In Boquitas pintadas, Pancho follows this set of prescriptions by sexually penetrating and impregnating La Raba. To be able to even better occupy the position left vacant by Juan Carlos, he chooses to penetrate another woman: one of his mentor’s lovers, Mabel. In a highly suggestive scene, he finds himself standing on the stone fence surrounding Mabel’s house fixing an antenna while proudly displaying his police uniform. The young woman is in the garden, pruning flowers, when she asks him to pick some figs from a tall tree next to the fence. In a brief sequence of scenes, the audience is allowed access not only to the words of the two characters, but also to their inner thoughts. They are strongly attracted to each other and give clear indications to that effect. Pancho asks if and when he can visit Mabel and she informs him that her parents go to bed early, suggesting that he come to her room that night. At the same time, the scene offers an initial subversion of Pancho’s masculinity and the couple’s androcentric romance. Mabel’s thoughts illustrate the way she objectifies his body sexually, a behavior typically reserved for males. She thinks of him as “un negro grande” with big hands who represents the primal and savage sexuality she craves. His portrayal as a lower-class, darker-skinned, sexualized being is highlighted as he is presented as the forbidden fruit that prevalent social structures at the time do not allow Mabel access to.

Later that night, they have intercourse that presumably includes the sexual penetration of the female body. This establishes Pancho’s position as a penetrator and, as Prieur points out, vests him with masculine privilege from a patriarchal point of view. Once the act is concluded, the woman becomes conscious of the advantage she has afforded Pancho and orders him to leave her room. He complies only after roughing her up and indicating that now that he has penetrated her, he can choose to stay or leave at his own will. The next sequence of scenes reveals the subversive character of Torre Nilsson’s film in regard to Pancho’s masculinity. Once he leaves Mabel’s bedroom, the young woman hears a piercing scream which signals her lover’s violent demise: he has been stabbed to death by La Raba, who still works as a servant in the house. His body has been physically penetrated with a big kitchen knife, as the mother of his child takes revenge on him for seducing and abandoning her, as well as for cheating on her with her employer. He is unable to defend his bodily boundaries, penetrated by a woman in an act that ends up costing him his life. Ultimately, then, he fails to occupy the space left open by Juan Carlos’ departure and joins the other man in an early death. His unsuccessful bid to reincarnate traditional masculinity by penetrating several women and donning a police uniform reveals the vulnerability of patriarchal definitions of masculinity and emphasizes the role of Boquitas pintadas in explicitly deconstructing gender relations. The final blow to his role as a penetrator is the fact that La Raba is not charged with murder. Following Mabel’s advice, she claims that she killed him in self-defense when he was trying to rape her. In front of society she is the one capable of defending her own body against a forceful penetration while transforming the penetrator into a mortally penetrated/wounded man.

Another important function of the male body within traditional discourse is its invisibility. Rosalind Coward affirms that Western society and culture have worked hard to convert the collective body of men into a “dark continent” (227) while Peter Lehman [End Page 6] argues that the invisibility of men’s bodies serves the needs of a civilization that cherishes male privilege (5). Furthermore, Lehman insists that the only way to decentralize masculinity is by turning the lights on and exposing the body that symbolizes it. The critic asserts that the biggest danger is to ignore men’s bodies “since that is what patriarchy wants us to do and has, in fact, been quite successful in bringing about” (Lehman 5-6). The critic focuses his attention mainly on the penis, which has been conspicuously absent from film throughout history. Shot during a period of a strict censorship, Boquitas pintadas does not expose any of the characters’ genitalia, yet it is successful in exposing the male body with all its weaknesses and defects in order to demystify it and to challenge the patterns of traditional masculinity.

Even though in 1970s Argentina it was completely unthinkable for a film to reveal a naked penis on film, the audience is still able to observe much of the semi-naked bodies of Juan Carlos and Pancho. In a scene mentioned earlier, the former appears swimming naked in a river near the medical facility where he is being treated. He strips in front of the camera and jumps in the warm waters. The camera shows him splashing happily around and on a few occasions catches quick glimpses of his bare buttocks. A more intriguing scene that reveals the man’s body takes place earlier on, when he is still intimate with Mabel. He comes to her room in the middle of the night and, prior to intercourse, appears sitting on the bed while his lover is hugging him from behind. The undressing of the man in this scene is initiated by his partner, who undoes his belt and exposes his crotch (still covered by underwear) to the audience. Soon, his body is completely nude and even though all that can be seen is his naked upper torso, the material shape of his male body is made very visible. Pancho’s body is equally exposed. After coitus with Mabel, he lies naked in bed, holding a cigarette in one hand. His other hand is resting up behind his head and his leg closer to the camera is folded up, cutting off the view of his penis but revealing his naked chest and abdomen down to his dark pubic hair. The position of his body is extremely revealing and presents his vulnerability at a moment when Mabel orders him to leave. The exposure of the two men’s naked bodies reinforces the subversive character of the film and is instrumental in destabilizing the traditional norms of masculine representations by exposing the so-called “dark continent” and turning it visible.

While the first half of the film exposes and objectifies Juan Carlos’ body, the second half presents it as ever more fragile and increasingly ostracized. One day, he is informed by the director of the sanatorium that his family is no longer able to cover his costs and he needs to leave immediately. His social marginalization only deepens upon his return to Vallejos. Nené, the last woman who still sends him letters, refuses to kiss him and her father bans him from seeing her. The older man understands that Juan Carlos has become a severe liability to his daughter’s future, since she still has time to find a respectable and a healthy husband—unlike Juan Carlos—as long as she is not infected. Next, the former playboy loses his job because his employer believes that he will be unable to return to work without an unacceptably long sick leave, if at all. Seeing Mabel is out of the question as well. At this point the only person outside his family who is still willing to spend time with him is Elsa, the elderly widow with whom he had an affair prior to his internment. This sudden, yet not unexpected, shift in fortune transforms Juan Carlos from a desired and thriving young male into an outcast viewed with suspicion and avoided by the rest of mainstream, “healthy” society. He is rejected by Vallejos’ inhabitants and has to abandon the town, retreating into a small pension that Elsa purchases near the mountains to accommodate his [End Page 7] medical condition and their continuing, clandestine love affair. This last development is important, considering the central role that economic autonomy plays in reinforcing male privilege, and I will return to it later.

The ailment, vulnerability, and visibility of the main male character’s body—as well as its resulting marginalization—can be examined from a queer perspective as well, especially bearing in mind that the film is based on one of Puig’s works and he was also one of its screenwriters. The novelist’s use and criticism of medical and scientific discourses—which have been employed by heteronormative institutions to oppress and exclude the “other,” particularly those whose sexuality and eroticism do not fit well-established social norms—are crucial in some of his other works, above all in his most famous, El beso de la mujer araña (1976). That novel contains a series of footnotes that seemingly strive to explain, from a medical and psychoanalytical point of view, the causes and consequences of non-heterosexual desire. In his detailed paratextual study of the notes in question, Daniel Balderston points out that Puig invents some of the pseudoscientific sources he quotes while twisting others with the explicit purpose of subverting, denouncing, and rebuking the use of antiquated scientific arguments that aim to disparage and condemn the queer subject (227-30). Considering Juan Carlos’ illness—and its effects on his body, sexuality, and social status—as a queer element, one that undermines the paradigms of traditional masculinity, we can see how his demise fits into the mold of a well-established trend in queer criticism to search for unorthodox gender and bodily representations.

Julia Erhart traces this tendency back to Ruby Rich’s 1981 study on Maedchen in Uniform (1931), where Rich does not scan the film for images of openly queer practices as we understand them today, but rather for historical representations of gender and sexuality, such as, in the particular case of Maedchen, spinsterhood, independent women, and bachelorhood (Erhart 166). The critic goes on to affirm that “queer” has the capacity to explore not only practices that involve non-heterosexual erotic acts, but also “non-homosexual imagery that [falls] outside of hegemonic representation, such as representations of s/m sexuality, intergenerational sex, or interspecies sex” (Erhart 174). In her study, Erhart also turns her attention to Alexander Doty’s seminal book Making Things Perfectly Queer (1993) and agrees with his radical reevaluation of “queer,” which he recognizes as a fluid category that can insert itself not only into the content or the message of a given cultural production, but also into the perception of such a production by the audience. For example, an audience can construct as queer a film, an actor/actress, or a TV show not originally intended to be viewed as such by its producers or creators (Erhart 175).[3]

Within similar epistemological paradigms, it is feasible to consider Juan Carlos’ ailment as an event that strikes at the foundation of his marked heterosexuality and queers the film in general. His condition as a man suffering from tuberculosis places him in a marginalized position and forces his exclusion from the rest of society. It is important to underscore that the purpose of this analysis is not to liken queer subjectivity in an uncritical fashion to any type of physical or mental disease. On the contrary, the aim is to demonstrate that the film functions as a successful subversion of patriarchy and repressive scientific and medical discourse precisely because it exposes the way in which personal degradation and exclusion are frequently created by indiscriminate applications of arbitrary (and sometimes erroneous) health-related diagnoses, and the mass panic that these are capable of creating among a poorly-educated public.[4] What happens to Juan [End Page 8] Carlos in the film is a prime example of the effects of this type of hysteria, which creates a sort of “border-crossing,” following Nicola Rehling’s definition of the term. In his study on white heterosexual masculinity on screen, Rehling claims that identity is always a “multifaceted affair” and, as a result, “crossing over from one identity category to another affects the other identities that a given body inhabits (however incompletely), and always impacts on normative white masculinity, which discursively positions itself as the universal structuring norm and locus of origins” (138). In the case of Boquitas pintadas, the shift from healthy to unhealthy identity changes all the other facets of the male protagonist’s identity and positions his masculinity into a space of severe crisis. There is no doubt that his ostracism is similar to the one experienced during the historic period in question by openly homosexual subjects, who were also considered sick, dangerous for the well-being of society, and even contagious.[5]

In Gayle Salamon’s reading of the transgendered body, the critic engages with Judith Butler’s and Elizabeth Gorsz’s writings and convincingly concludes that there is no such a thing as a “natural” body, only one that has already been cultured with the express intent to present it as “organic” or “natural.” Additionally, continues the scholar, “sexual difference, which is often located at this same level of the natural or biological, is similarly constructed and just as dependent on cultural mediation” (Salamon 148). In the first part of Boquitas pintadas, Juan Carlos’ body is portrayed as “organic” or “natural,” and it seems to possess all the characteristics required from a young man who is in control of his own destiny and sexuality. His body is inscribed with male-dominant privilege and represents the power that white heterosexual men “biologically” have access to. He has a well-paying job, a girlfriend, two additional female lovers, and male friends who look up to him for advice. Once his body starts to experience the consequences of tuberculosis, however, it is clear that the power vested in it is not the result of some natural predisposition but of social conventions, and thereby dissipates quickly when the body no longer satisfies societal expectations. The sickness that transforms Juan Carlos into a pariah also exposes the fact that the materiality of the body and its place in society are not connected to any natural characteristics; rather, they depend on the fashion in which they are conditioned and perceived by the rest of society.

When Juan Carlos becomes the marginalized “other” and is banished from his community due to his illness and the way such illness is viewed by his fellow townspeople, he ends up sharing a similar destiny with any openly queer subject in 1930s Argentina. At that time, any deviation from strict heterosexuality was considered a disease, and the homosexual body was deemed easily identifiable and inscribed with pathology. In his historical analysis of homosexuality’s criminalization in modern Argentina, Jorge Salessi draws attention to the first “scientific” observation of a homosexual, which was done by Francisco de Veyga, a founding father of the country’s Medical Forensics. In 1902, de Veyga describes the subject of his study as an easily recognizable “invert” due to his effeminacy and “rectal hyperesthesia.” In addition, the young man in question, N. N., is diagnosed with tuberculosis—a disease intrinsically linked to sexual inversion in the study (Salessi 156-60). Thus, the prevailing scientific discourse in the first half of the twentieth century, established by the likes of de Veyga, portrayed the homosexual body as inherently marked by disease while explicitly suggesting that privileged, heterosexual masculinity inhabits a naturally healthy vessel. The transformation of Juan Carlos’ body throughout the film subverts the notion that the heterosexual body is essentially healthy and gives a strong [End Page 9] indication that any body, regardless of its “natural” features, can eventually be marked as undesirable by society and shunned as a source of transgression under the right circumstances. Juan Carlos’ death shows his body to be as vulnerable as any queer one from that time period and demonstrates that it possesses no “biological” characteristics to protect it; the materiality of all bodies is constructed and deconstructed by society depending on its current needs and politics. This way, Boquitas pintadas succeeds in proving the permeability of dominant heterosexual masculinity and undermining its claims to organic supremacy and permanence: any human can be queered, marginalized, or rejected under certain conditions.

Discourse about traditional gender roles and masculinity within Latin America is also grounded in the male body’s ability to produce economic value and power. In her study on different class and ethnic groups in early 1970s rural Argentina, Stølen affirms that among the dominant classes, “sexual division of roles [grants] men control over the most crucial material and institutional resources of the community, and limits women’s opportunities for influence, movement, and action” (173). The critic finds this type of attitude among rural, light-skinned upper and middle classes very similar to the one to which Juan Carlos, Mabel, and Nené belong. Regarding the more general Latin American context, Marit Melhuus argues that men are traditionally seen as economic support for the family and their chief responsibility is to maintain it. The value placed on this social expectation is so high that when a man is “unable to provide for his family, or is dependent on a wife for an income, [he] is called a ‘mantenido’, literally a maintained man, which is regarded as very unusual” (243). Initially, Juan Carlos is portrayed as a man who fulfills the patriarchal requirement to produce economic value: he holds a steady job that allows him a privileged position within the village’s social order. In addition, he has a girlfriend, Nené, whom he is inclined to marry at some point in the future and to support financially. A wedding between the two would be a natural development within the context of their native Vallejos, as both pertain to the same social class and their union would serve to procreate and perpetuate the traditional economy of heteronormativity within their environment. Nené is very conscious of her position as a future wife and mother. She defends her virginity relentlessly, preserving it for her wedding night and rejecting all attempts made by Juan Carlos to consummate their relationship before such a time. To satisfy the excess of sexual energy that as a Latin American macho man he is expected to possess and exercise,[6] Juan Carlos has sexual relationships with two other women, Mabel and Elsa.

The nature of his affairs provides an additional opening for the subversion of androcentric romance, traditional masculinity, and man’s role as the main producer of economic value: Mabel and Elsa are from a higher socioeconomic class than their common lover, who ends up using them, with different degrees of success, to improve his own fortune. Every time he is in bed with Mabel, he asks her to persuade her fiancé to hire him as an administrator in one of his ranches. Due to his illness and the ultimate dissolution of Mabel’s engagement—a result of the failed business partnership between her father and her future husband—Juan Carlos does not reap any economic benefit from his affair with the young heiress. His relationship with the elderly widow, however, turns out to be more profitable. Once his family is unable to pay for his stay at the sanatorium, Elsa sells her house in Vallejos and purchases a modest boarding house in the mountains where she supports him until his death. As a result of this arrangement, Juan Carlos becomes the type [End Page 10] of “mantenido” man to which Melhuus refers in his study. The social stigma of his position is made clear in the film, and once his mother becomes aware of it, she sends his sister Celia to demand that the widow do everything in her power to conceal her relationship with Juan Carlos and the fact that she is his financial support. In both of these relationships, the young man essentially assumes the role of a gigolo who maintains purely sex-based liaisons in exchange for lucrative benefits. The class difference between him and the two women—and the fact that he depends on one of them financially—means that he is unable to fulfill his function as producer of economic value.

Juan Carlos’ situation produces clear fissures in traditionally male-centered, romantic interactions, as patriarchal epistemology shows that in heterosexual relationships, men must control all sources of power, including money and economic standing. Chant explores a number of studies which conclude that in the second half of the twentieth century, market-driven economic changes within Latin America undermined men’s ability to fulfill their duty as “economic providers” for their immediate kin, which in turn led to a crisis of conventional “masculine identity” (“Gender, Families, and Households” 165). Boquitas pintadas portrays this dynamic through the class and pecuniary characteristics of Juan Carlos’ affairs, and places traditional Latin American masculinity once again in a space of instability. It is important to remember that even though most of the story in the film takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, the script was written in the 1970s, when many free-market economic policies were introduced throughout Latin America, including Argentina. It was the beginning of a period of transition when men and women started transgressing “norms and values in their everyday practices,” a time when they “emerged out of their new realities […] in the process of rewriting their scripts, while weaving new social relations” (González de la Rocha xx). Boquitas pintadas illustrates this rewriting of patriarchal scripts by placing economic power and the responsibility for financial support in the hands of Elsa when she decides to “maintain” her younger lover. The nature of the transgression that their relationship signifies is made obvious not only by their ostracism by Juan Carlos’ family, but also by its tragic end when the young man dies despite living in a healthy, clean-air environment.

Boquitas pintadas is an extraordinary example of a subversive cultural production created during a period of strict censorship. The film destabilizes traditional masculinity by engaging the male body, by undressing it and exposing its deficiencies, and by portraying it as fragile, diseased, and socially and economically defunct. The two main male characters experience a series of life-changing events that deprive them of their traditionally privileged positions within patriarchal society. They are unable to defend their own bodily limits against circumstances that defy the power with which masculinity has been typically endowed. Their early deaths signal a new social landscape that emerged as a result of violent political and economic shifts in twentieth-century Latin America. The events portrayed in the film also challenge the heterosexual masculine body and open fissures within its supposed naturalness. This process allows for new queer possibilities that reveal the unstable character of any construction of power. Torre Nilsson’s production seizes the opportunity to employ an effectively deconstructive discourse on gender, and to create a space that disrupts heteronormative masculinity and one of its most cherished symbols, the male body. [End Page 11]

[1] Even though this study makes several references to the literary text from which Torre Nilsson’s film is adapted, the analysis centers on the film adaptation as a wholly autonomous work. A number of adaptation studies critics such as Robert Stam have clearly established the independence of cinematographic adaptation, which needs to be examined as an independent object of cultural research. For more details, see Stam’s “Beyond Fidelity” (2000).

[2] The first significantly successful cure for tuberculosis, the antibiotic streptomycin, did not become readily available until 1946.

[3] A good example of such a dynamic in Doty’s book is his analysis of The Jack Benny Program and its host, Jack Benny, whom the scholar identifies as “America’s favorite feminine straight man” (63).

[4] Ironically enough, upon his death in 1990, Manuel Puig himself was the victim of such panic. Many insinuated that his demise was the result of another epidemic, AIDS, which produced a substantial amount of hysteria among the middle classes. It was later confirmed that he was not HIV positive.

[5] For more details on homosexuality and the treatment of homosexuals in Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century, consult Osvaldo Bazán’s Historia de la homosexualidad en la Argentina: De la conquista de América al siglo XXI (2004) and Jorge Salessi’s Médicos, maleantes y maricas (1995).

[6] For more details on this last point, consult Foster, Queer Issues 24. [End Page 12]

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