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Posts Tagged ‘patriarchy’

“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).

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“There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer

Modern romance novels written in English have a pedigree which stretches back to the eighteenth century:

Harlequins can be traced back through the work of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to the sentimental novel and ultimately […] to the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela is considered by many scholars to be the first British novel (it was also the first English novel printed in America). (Modleski 15)[1]

Defined as novels in which “The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (RWA) and which conclude with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA), romances constitute a genre which, despite being “so stable in its form” (Regis 207), has not remained unchanged: “Although the base plot […] remains constant, themes vary from decade to decade and author to author” (Dixon 8). With regard to the portrayal of sexuality in the genre, however, it has been suggested that although many modern romances “portray human sexuality more explicitly than in the past, […] assumptions about male sexuality […] have not altered as much as one might expect from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to one of last month’s Harlequin Romances” (Mussell 4). It has also been argued that “the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types — the sweet romance and the erotic romance — with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities” (Thurston 7). We have examined primary texts in English which span more than two centuries, and which include both “sweet” and more explicit romances, in order to explore some of the continuities and variations that exist in the interactions between the bodies of the “individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.”

Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock’s “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology” provides a framework within which many of the existing analyses of the physical appearances, social statuses, and sexual behaviours of the characters in romance novels can be pieced together to reveal differing models of romantic relationships. Scheper-Hughes and Lock’s essay, which draws on Michel Foucault’s theories about the body, can be summarised thus:

The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective […]. While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. (Kramer)

This tripartite approach to understanding the human body can usefully be applied to the protagonists of romance novels. We can think of them as individuals with physical bodies (the individual body), as representations of cultural identities (the social body), and as characters existing in a particular political context (the political body). Each character’s three bodies can be conceptualised and analysed separately, but they exist simultaneously and therefore, as we shall see, a description of a character’s appearance in the least sexually explicit of romances may nonetheless intimate much about the sexuality of his or her social body.

Since each protagonist has three bodies, there are six bodies in a monogamous romantic relationship. Although we will discuss all six bodies, our discussion will centre around some socio-sexual aspects of the social bodies and a few socio-political elements of the political bodies. We focus in particular on one configuration of the six bodies which is both extremely common in modern romances and has a long history within the genre, and then briefly discuss a few alternative configurations, some of which are relatively recent innovations and others of which have been present in romantic fiction for centuries.

The Individual Body

As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an “expectant canvas of human flesh” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 10). The individual bodies of heroines vary, and one may have “a pair of fine eyes” (Austen, Pride 73) while another has a “lush lower lip and unblemished skin” (Lindsey 65), but “some indication, however slight, of the heroine’s physical attributes has always been an important part of the romantic novel” (Anderson 85). Social beliefs are inscribed on the “expectant canvas” of the body as soon as value judgements are included in the description. A heroine’s appearance, for example, may be compared to particular ideals of feminine beauty and attractiveness:

Was he looking at her nose? ‘Strong’ was the euphemism that people tossed around but Grace knew what she saw in the mirror every morning. Her nose was too big for the perfect oval of her face, too distinctive. Like her height, another ‘advantage’ that she had been encouraged to flaunt rather than conceal. She knew without vanity that she was beautiful, but not in the classical sense of the word. Her features taken piece by piece were far from perfect — apart from her nose, her blue eyes were too widely spaced, her mouth too full — but together with her gleaming cap of midnight-black hair they formed a striking whole. Her beauty was ‘unique’ and in this era of mass-production uniqueness had an inflationary value. (Napier 6)

Ann Barr Snitow has suggested that “There are more descriptions of his [the hero’s] body than of hers [the heroine’s]” (248), and although

The body of the romantic hero may represent an ideal of masculine beauty, […] beauty here is the equivalent of physical strength, and physical strength itself becomes a sign of something more, a definition of authentic virility as a power that is always scarcely contained. (Cook 155)

Descriptions of a hero whose “Iron-hewed strength rippled from every muscle” (Lindsey 47), or whose “gold-blond hair had been cut military short, a style that looked both severe and sexy” (Mallery 19), certainly call attention to his strength (which may be a component of his socio-political body) and to the potent sexuality of his socio-sexual body.

Since sexual desire is such an important part of romantic relationships, it is unsurprising that even in “sweet” romances, or in scenes which involve non-sexual activity, descriptions of the protagonists’ individual bodies are often overlaid by references to their socio-sexual bodies:

Harlequins revitalize daily routines by insisting that a woman combing her hair, a woman reaching up to put a plate on a high shelf (so that her knees show beneath the hem, if only there were a viewer), a woman doing what women do all day, is in a constant state of potential sexuality. (Snitow 249)

Bodies are more than flesh, blood, and bone: the social and political bodies co-exist with, and are written on, the individual body.

The Social Body

The social body can be thought of as the way in which the individual body relates to its cultural context. Descriptions of the protagonists’ clothing and adornments can be particularly helpful in revealing the social body. In Johanna Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, for example, we are told that the hero’s preference for “simple attire said a lot for his character” (274). His avoidance of ostentatious dress reveals his lack of vanity and is a culturally approved masculine behaviour, albeit perhaps a historically anachronistic one for a novel set in the Middle Ages.[2] Clothing may thus assist both in distinguishing between male and female individual bodies and in increasing or decreasing the former’s masculinity and the latter’s femininity, for although “The ‘naturalness’ of gender is constantly invoked, […] masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the body that require work” (King 33). Women, for example, are expected to construct their social bodies through how they dress and adorn themselves. In turn, “Cultural constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19), and women’s fashion has been deemed problematic by many feminists because it can reinforce negative images of women:

Turning woman into an ornamented surface requires an enormous amount of discipline and can cause discomfort, not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. […] Female styles over the years have also served to confirm myths about woman: as duplicitous, over-sexualised temptress; delicate and weak or narcissistic, frivolous and obsessed with trivialities. (King 36)

Culturally constructed “ideas about men and women, their appropriate behaviors and attributes, and their relations to each other” are called “gender ideologies” (Blackwood 240-41). Despite the fluid nature of gender across cultures, each culture’s ideologies about gender tend to assume that gender is natural, inherent, and determined by a person’s sex at birth. For example, “the social sciences in the postwar period […] posited women as expressive (emotional) and men as instrumental (pragmatic, rational, and cognitive)” (Gutmann 388). Cross-cultural studies have found that

most societies hold consensual ideas — guiding or admonitory images — for conventional masculinity and femininity by which individuals are judged worthy members of one or the other sex […]. Such ideal statuses and their attendant images, or models, often become psychic anchors, or psychological identities, for most individuals, serving as a basis for self-perception. (Gilmore 208)

Masculinity can be defined as “anything men think and do to be men” (Gutmann 386, emphasis added). In many societies, perhaps even all cultures, “there is a constantly recurring notion that real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness” (Gilmore 208) and that manhood must be earned or achieved in particular ways. After his first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, a rare virginal romance hero tells his heroine that “I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood” (Napier 133). Zilbergeld suggests that sexuality is an area in which men feel under particular pressure to earn and demonstrate manhood:

One of the cornerstones of the masculine stereotype in our society is that a man is one who has no doubts, questions, or confusion about sex, and that a real man knows how to have good sex and does so frequently. For a man to ask a question about sex, thereby revealing ignorance, or to express concern, or to admit to a problem is to risk being thought something less than a man. (5)

Manhood, then, is a status which once achieved must be maintained, and it therefore appears to be a status more easily lost by males than womanhood is by females. Jo Beverley’s Cyn Malloren, for example, must frequently fight to maintain his manhood because his individual body constantly calls it into question:

Despite all evidence to the contrary people would persist in seeing him as fragile, even his family who certainly should know better. […] As a boy he’d believed age would toughen his looks, but at twenty-four, a veteran of Quebec and Louisbourg, he was still disgustingly pretty. He had to fight duels with nearly every new officer in the regiment to establish his manhood. (6)

As Gilmore has observed,

femininity seems to be judged differently. It usually involves questions of body ornament or sexual allure, or other essentially cosmetic behaviors that enhance, rather than create, an inherent quality of character […], femininity is more often construed as a biological given that is culturally refined or augmented. (208-09)

Even if she chooses not to augment her femininity but instead performs actions and behaviours associated with masculinity, a heroine may do so without losing her womanhood. In E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, for example, Diana Mayo’s “boyish directness” (6) and the fact that she is “far more at home” (14) in “smart-cut breeches and high brown boots” (13) than in “pretty dresses” (14) are the result of having been “brought up as a boy” (9). Nonetheless, “Diana Mayo, with the clothes and manners of a boy, was really an uncommonly beautiful young woman” (17), and one who at a ball can be found “ten deep in would-be partners” (3). By contrast, cross-dressing heroes are extremely rare, and if a hero acts in ways which are associated with femininity, this will tend to be dealt with circumspectly, so as not to impugn his masculinity. Cyn Malloren may disguise himself as a woman for a time, but he does so to play “knight-errant” (Beverley 25) to a “damsel in distress” (28). He is an experienced soldier, and the reader is aware that beneath the feminine dress he has chosen to wear, his individual body bears witness to his masculine socio-political and socio-sexual bodies: “He had a scar across his chest which it seemed no woman could ignore. It came from a minor wound, a long shallow saber cut, but it looked dramatic” (31). The scar is described in considerable detail while Cyn is dressing in “female garments” (58) for the first time and the reader is again told that women find it irresistible, thus emphasising the masculinity of Cyn’s socio-sexual body: “All the women who had been favored with a glimpse of it had been impelled to touch it, […] some with a finger, some with their mouths” (58). It also provides information about his socio-political body: seeing the scar convinces the heroine that “you really are a soldier” (59). In addition, even in disguise “His jaw was a little too square, his cheeks too lean. He carefully applied rouge to them, and was heartened to realize that for once he looked too masculine” (65). In another romance, analysed by Mary M. Talbot, it is the hero’s choice of profession which poses a threat to his masculinity since

Artists are assumed to be male, but at the same time there is some sort of problem with having an artist as hero. There is a shadow of doubt cast on the gender identity of artists. Being artistic is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. He is made ‘whole’ by the label Anna attaches to him: ‘He’s a portrait painter’. The hero […] is established as artist but reassuringly masculine, meaning heterosexual. (93)

Sexualities of the Social Bodies

Gender ideologies create, and are simultaneously created by, beliefs about human sexuality. There are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about the differences between male and female sexuality (Kane and Schippers). A clergyman in Richardson’s Pamela, for example, attempts to excuse Mr. B.’s abduction and intended rape or seduction of Pamela on the grounds that “’tis what all young Gentlemen will do” (135). These differences, however, may not all have biological causes: “Foucault […], Tiefer […], and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses” (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755). Far from being entirely innate,

sexual potential takes its form through a number of social processes, including ideologies of religion or ritual, ethnicity, class, gender, family, and reproduction, as well as the material and social conditions of everyday life. These processes provide the interpretive context for sexual feelings, desires and longings. (Blackwood 237)

Women have long been constructed as sexually “feeble and passive, literally a receptacle for the desires of the male” (King 31). This may explain why so many romance heroines, particularly in older romances, are virgins who are initiated into sexual activity by a romance hero, although thereafter they may enjoy sex immensely. Romance author Doreen Owens Malek argues that the heroine’s virginity is important because

virginity is a gift that can only be given once, and it is ideally bestowed on a woman’s great love. This giving of virginity adds an immeasurable element of drama and power to the story. It changes the heroine, of course, but in romance novels it also changes the hero. (118)

It is significant that Owens Malek only discusses the virginity of female characters. Virginal heroes do exist in the genre, but as acknowledged in a short questionnaire which Mills & Boon appended to Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, “Many heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced.” In Owens Malek’s description of virginity there is no suggestion that the hero might be a virgin whose virginity would be considered a “gift that can only be given once” and would change the heroine. Napier’s virgin hero, Scott Gregory, does, however, use this kind of language:

‘Couldn’t you tell, Grace? Was my gift such a paltry thing? I thought one’s partner could always tell.’ […]

‘What gift? T-tell-what?’ she stammered […]

‘Why, that it was my first time, of course.’ (133)

If we reword the quotation from Talbot which we cited earlier in the essay, so that “artist” is replaced by “male virgin,” we can say that this gender reversal casts

a shadow of doubt […] on the gender identity of [male virgins]. Being [a male virgin] is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. (93)

Grace, in her attempt to reconcile Scott’s claim of virginity with the knowledge that he has “been out with lots of women” (139), eventually asks “Are you homosexual?” (140) but Napier has already defused most of the suspicions about Scott’s sexuality and masculine identity by ensuring that the revelation occurs after Scott has lost his virginity and demonstrated that in all other respects his sexual behaviour is identical to that of a great many other romance heroes. Having literally, as well as emotionally, chased the heroine until she surrendered to him:

His desire […] had proved insatiable. And, although the second and third time they made love it was not with the stunning speed of the first, it was still fiercely, gloriously energetic. […] He made her feel unutterably sexy […]. In short, he was every bit the fantastic lover. (131)

By taking the lead in initiating sex, ensuring that his partner experiences hitherto unknown heights of pleasure, and demonstrating the stamina necessary to repeat the experience several times in one night, Scott has proved that he is indeed a man.

The group of cultural beliefs about masculine sexuality known as the

male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway […]. Zilbergeld […] identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman’s responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. […] included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, “romance,” the cultural notion that when two people “fall in love,” sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56)

With the possible exception of ideas surrounding contraception, since modern romance heroes often take responsibility for providing condoms, these beliefs about gendered sexuality frequently appear to underlie the sexual behaviour of characters in the romance genre. However, although “both men and women perceive men’s sexual drives as greater than women’s” (Kane and Schippers 655), there is

a clear and consistent pattern of gender differences in beliefs […] related to sexual power […]. Women are much more likely to see men’s sexual power as greater than their own, while men are much more likely than women to hold the view that women’s sexual power is greater. […] In terms of value judgments regarding power differentials, both men and women are likely to see the other group as too powerful. (Kane and Schippers 655)

In the romance genre, however, perhaps because it often offers “a fantasy of female empowerment” (Phillips 55), the heroine will tend to possess “an unrelenting and absolute power […] over the hero’s mind and body. The conventional line is often literally ‘No other woman had affected him like this before’” (Johnson-Kurek 127). It is possible for a hero to resist the power of the heroine’s allure. He may even seek to deny the possibility of any attraction, as Darcy does when he states that “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, Pride 59). He cannot, however, resist indefinitely and Darcy eventually confesses to Elizabeth Bennet that “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (221). If she is aware of the attraction the hero feels towards her, a heroine may exult in it:

his mouth, hard and hungry, fell upon hers, dragging over her lips as though to punish her.

But what Jessica tasted was victory. She felt it in the heat he couldn’t disguise, and in the pulsing tension of his frame, and she heard it clear as any declaration when his tongue pushed impatiently for entry.

He wanted her. (Chase 160)

Madeline has a similar response to the evidence of her hero’s desire:

She’d seen the desire that flamed in his eyes when he held her. She’d felt the tremors in his arms and heard the pounding of his heart. A heady sense of feminine power shimmered in her veins. It thrilled her that she could cause such a reaction and made her eager to test her power over him once again. (Lovelace 133)

The Mighty Wang

Each of these heroines has aroused her hero’s Mighty Wang. The term “Mighty Wang” (Wendell and Tan 36) was coined by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan as a humorous way to describe the extremely large and effective sexual organ possessed by many a romance hero. The Mighty Wang (MW) can also be thought of as a symbol of the male sexual drive discourse: it is a penis functioning as a symbol of the ideal masculine socio-sexual body. The term “MW,” as it is used in this paper, will refer not to the individual body’s penis, but to the hero’s socio-sexual body. The appropriation of the name of this particular body-part to refer to the whole of a hero’s socio-sexual body seems particularly apt given that in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle.[3]

When the MW performs acts which are common to the male sexual drive discourse, he is giving a demonstration of the socio-cultural attributes of masculine sexuality. Although Austen is so discreet about these matters that the reader is left to surmise what she or he will about the precise ways in which “the utmost force of passion” (Pride 228) might be expressed physically, many of the more explicit modern romances take the reader into the bedroom to observe the MW in action; it is not uncommon for the hero’s penis to be, if not quite “Two Feet Long, Hard As Steel, And Can Go All Night,” as described in the title of Zilbergeld’s chapter on “The Fantasy Model of Sex,” at least unusually large, hard, and possessed of immense stamina. Although Zilbergeld was writing in 1978, his comment that “Much of the explicitness of recent […] fiction serves only to give more detailed presentations of the same old myths” (53) continues to ring true in relation to the romance genre. The size of Ranulf’s penis, for example, is implied when, prior to his second sexual encounter with Reina he partially reassures her by reminding her that “you have withstood my size once without dying” (Lindsey 177) and Dain fears that his immense organ will damage his virgin wife: “His lust-swollen rod strained furiously against his trousers, a great, monstrous invader that would tear her to pieces” (Chase 223).

The MW exists “in a state of constant hornytoad” (Wendell and Tan 84) and Wendell and Tan have noted its immense stamina:

There is a concept of recovery time that never really affects the romance hero, and thus casts mortal men with normal turgid boners in a shameful light, because immediately after having a great orgasm, real men need at least a half hour before they can think about going another round. (167)

Another of the characteristics of the MW as it appears in more explicit romances is that it can “Elevate sexual intercourse to near heavenly experiences, one orgasm at a time” (Wendell and Tan 84). During Clare’s first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, she experiences “passion without subtlety: a primal, desperate need for union that swept them both into the heart of the storm” (Putney 292). This, however, is merely “a synopsis” (300), and “the unabridged version” (300) which follows is so intensely pleasurable that afterwards Clare murmurs “This could make someone forget about God, for it is hard to imagine that heaven can offer anything more” (301). If the heroine is sexually experienced, she has generally never had sex quite as good as the sex she has with the MW. In Merline Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, Madeline, despite “Having twice been wed, […] was yet a stranger to the feeling that suddenly coursed through her at the sight of this tall, broad-shouldered man” (29-30) and the contrast is even greater once they actually reach the bedroom:

her first lord, as gentle as he’d been with her young innocence, had lacked either the skill or the stamina to hold himself in check. And in his eagerness, her second lord had all but spilled himself afore he got his braies off. But Ian had wrung responses from her she’d never dreamed she was capable of. (226)

In less explicit romances, the description of the MW’s kisses may seem to foreshadow the even greater delights still in store for the heroine. Germaine Greer once sarcastically commented of a Barbara Cartland romance that “when handkissing results in orgasm it is possible that an actual kiss might bring on epilepsy” (178). Cartland did not, of course, write a scene in which handkissing literally resulted in orgasm but she did use hyperbolic language to describe the intensely pleasurable sensations experienced by her heroines while kissing:

his mouth came down on hers […] and it was even more wonderful than she had thought it could be.

She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive. (Cartland, Problems 138)

The heroine of Beverly Jenkins’s Josephine experiences similarly intense sensations while being kissed by a MW:

Her whole world seemed to have come alive in response to his kisses. Now she understood how a girl could become overwhelmed and allow a boy to take liberties he shouldn’t. The soaring sensations and rising emotions were so exciting, Jo didn’t want to stop.

They had to, however, and they both knew it. (227)

In Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, the pleasure and power of the MW’s embrace almost render the heroine unconscious:

He had caught her in his arms so fiercely that the breath was almost crushed out of her. His dark face swam before her eyes for an instant, then his mouth was locked to hers, in a kiss so hard that her lips felt bruised. She yielded, carried away half-swooning on the tide of his passion. (277)

Another way in which the sexual potency of the MW may be revealed is via a description of the hero’s sexual history: Richardson’s Mr. B. has an illegitimate child by a woman he seduced; Cartland’s Duc de Savigne has had many liaisons with “women whom he takes up on an impulse and apparently without any consideration for their feelings, discards […] as soon as they bore him” (Love 8); and another hero, prior to meeting his heroine, “took what the wenches threw at him, never doubt it” (Lindsey 223). While multitudes of former sexual partners can serve as a demonstration of the MW’s allure, this can also be expressed via descriptions of women who find the hero attractive but who may not have had direct experience of his sexual prowess. Mr. B., for example, “is admir’d, as I know, by half a dozen Ladies” (Richardson 41) while Adam Morgan is “a young man accustomed to having young ladies jump at his beck and call” (Jenkins 176) who has “never had a young lady throw my interest back in my face” (188). Given the number of willing females available to him, it takes a very special woman to capture the MW’s permanent attention: a woman with a Glittery HooHa.

The Glittery HooHa

Although the term “Glittery HooHa” (GHH) “emerged at the internet discussion board Television Without Pity” (Vivanco) between 2004 and 2006, authors have long been describing heroines as glowing, sparkling and glittering. Pamela has “speaking Eyes” which can “overflow” with tears “without losing any of their Brilliancy!” (Richardson 186) and we learn of Syrilla that

there was something more than mere beauty about her, he thought, which made her different from other women.

It was the fact that she was so intensely alive, and that when she was animated she seemed almost to sparkle as she spoke, while her eyes shone as if they had captured the sunlight. (Cartland, Love 81)

A more recent example of a glittering heroine is Jo Best, whose “dark unblemished skin glowed with health and beauty. She was by far the most radiant young woman he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing” (Jenkins 123).

The GHH is a symbol of the female socio-sexual body and in particular of female sexual allure. Its glitter indicates the desirability of the heroine’s socio-sexual body. When Mr. B. states that Pamela is “so pretty, that go where you will, you will never be free from the Designs of some or other of our Sex” (Richardson 87), he is revealing that he himself has some quite definitely sexual “Designs” upon her GHH. Austen is much more reticent about sexual matters and Darcy has no immoral “Designs” on Elizabeth, but when he notices “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (Pride 70) and is “forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing” (70), it is evident that despite having initially “looked at her only to criticise” (70), he is unable to deny the growing attraction he feels towards her GHH. As is demonstrated by Pride and Prejudice, there is no need for a heroine to be either the most beautiful woman in the novel, or one whom all men find irresistible. What matters is the special effect her GHH has on the hero:

A woman with a hooha as glittery as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Our Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the Glittery HooHa to snare him forever. […] For yea, no matter how many hoohas he might see, never will there be one as glittery as hers. (Crusie, Stuart, and Rich 237)

The heroine’s GHH is not merely sexually alluring; it is powerful enough to render a MW monogamous. Even while the attraction remains unconsummated and the hero’s physical penis (which is part of his individual body) has not penetrated the “hooha” or vagina (which is part of the heroine’s individual body), it is not uncommon for the hero to realise that his MW is no longer attracted to other women and their less glittery GHHs. Cyn Malloren “found he had difficulty imagining being aroused by any woman other than this one” (Beverley 68). In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the hero sets up a date with a woman who is not the heroine. She kisses him, and “In the old days, that would have set the fires burning. But not tonight” (85). That, and his inability to concentrate on anything except the heroine, enable the woman to reach an accurate diagnosis:

“Poor man,” she sighed. She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I guess we all meet our Waterloo someday. Looks like this is yours.” […] That same thought was only beginning to form in his own mind. He smiled sheepishly. (86)

In romance, then, it is often “the heroine’s task to remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love” (Cohn 30) and her success is made possible by her GHH.

Not all romance heroes need their sexuality to be “remade” in the same way. Some heroes have repressed, rather than hyperactive, MWs. Heyer’s Simon the Coldheart, for example, states that “There is no place for women in my life, and no liking for women in my breast” (16). In this case, the GHH regulates the MW by bringing forth a “new-born passion” (298). In Napier’s Secret Admirer, the hero’s sexuality was affected by his step-mother who, when he “turned fifteen […] decided that it was time I was taught the facts of life … on a practical basis” (154). Sent to a private boarding school by his father as punishment for what was assumed to be the attempted rape of his step-mother, Scott found that his “guilt and revulsion about sex in general was reinforced by the crude boastings in the dorm” (156). After that, he “never felt so strongly attracted to any one […] that I was willing to allow myself to be vulnerable” (158), but the heroine’s GHH changes his attitude towards sex. Whether hyper-sexual and promiscuous, or repressed and underused, the MW is attracted to, and then regulated by, the GHH.

Although the GHH is irresistible to the MW, the MW is also extremely attractive to the GHH. In some cases “The hero’s proximity alone can send the blood pounding through her veins, make her hands tremble, deprive her of speech and reason” (Douglas 26). In Anne Herries’s Captive of the Harem, the heroine expresses this attraction in terms of magic:

The sweetness of that kiss had surprised her, and aroused a longing for something that she did not understand, robbing her of the will to resist him. She had felt as though he cast a magic spell over her by some sorcery — was it this that made so many of the harem women eager for his notice? (99)

The heroine, who is generally unaware of the extent of her GHH’s power over the MW, may initially fear the “magic spell” cast by the MW. Such fears are not unfounded. In Barbara Samuel’s The Love Talker, in which the hero is quite literally a magical being, we are given a description of the full extent of the damage a MW can cause to women whose GHHs are not glittery enough to tame it:

The Love Talker is a fixture of Irish faery lore, a seductive and dangerous being indeed, a conscienceless faery who ravishes the senses of unsuspecting women and leaves them to pine away to their deaths. In all the poems and stories, he is the King of Rakes, a libertine of unholy power. (195)

This reflects the way in which male sexuality is culturally constructed as an active, unemotional, possibly dangerous part of masculine behaviour.

In a romance novel, the sexual desires and activities of a hero and heroine often reveal their growing emotional attachment, but how, when, where, and with whom the protagonists have sex, as well as the ramifications of their sexual activity, can express socio-cultural ideologies about what constitutes “ideal” sexuality.

The Political Body

Sex is not simply an activity engaged in by individual bodies: “Cultures are disciplines that provide codes and social scripts for the domestication of the individual body in conformity to the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). These codes and scripts are often translated into law, making it illegal to go against the cultural definition of normality. One of the most significant differences between the social body and the political body is that while the social body may be subjected to cultural sanctions, such as being socially marginalised, the political body may be disciplined by the state, especially through imprisonment.

Romances, however, generally conclude with the political bodies of the protagonists being rewarded. One of the key narrative elements of a romance is the “betrothal,” a “scene or scenes” in which “the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts” (Regis 37).[4] Marriage, or even the promise of marriage, gives both cultural and legal recognition to their relationship and legitimises the joining of their social and political bodies as well as of their individual bodies. In romances the pairing of the hero and heroine’s individual bodies, and of the MW and GHH, is complemented by the pairing of their socio-political bodies, which we shall call the Phallus and the Prism.

The Phallus in Romance

Teresa Ebert has described the romance hero as the personification of the Phallus:

The phallus […] is ideologically disguised as a full, embodied presence. […] Harlequin Romances, for example, are saturated with representations of the male anatomical organ. These representations take the form of tropic substitutions for the penis, as in such descriptions of the hero as “straight and tall, as brown and unbending as the monster trees rearing … behind him,” and “the erect masculine figure astride the horse”; or, more directly, “the thrusting weight of steel-hard thighs and hips.” These images […] reify the penis and thus mystify male power, sensuality, and sexual difference as physical and natural, while concealing the production of the phallus as signifier as well as the construction of male prowess and privilege in signification behind the naturalized penis. (34)

Perhaps the conflation of the Phallus with the penis occurs because while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,

The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)

In this essay the “Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.

At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero abducts the heroine on another man’s behalf before marrying her himself, and in Napier’s Secret Admirer the hero poses a threat on a business level because he’s “powerful enough to destroy us if he wants to — he’s done it before to other companies” (22). Not infrequently the heroine is wary of the Incomplete Phallus, and rightly so, since he may attempt to use his power and authority to imprison or coerce her. In Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, the hero is convinced that the heroine is nothing more than a GHH to be controlled and has her confined within an isolated castle. In other romances the MW and Incomplete Phallus may work in conjunction, through rape or sexual assault, to assert their dominance over the heroine. This is the case in Richardson’s Pamela, in which the hero attempts to rape the heroine, and in E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which the hero succeeds in such attempts.[5] More recent romances do not tend to include rapes of the heroine by the hero, but one can still find “ritual” versions, such as a punishing kiss which serves to demonstrate the social status and/or physical power of the Incomplete Phallus, and the sexual potency of the MW.

The Incomplete Phallus tends to have obtained his power and authority from one or more typically male-dominated cultural areas. He frequently has high social status (e.g. Duke, Sheik), wealth (billionaire, tycoon), or both. With or without wealth, he usually displays fighting skills or at least physical strength (SEAL, warrior, cowboy). In his most obviously patriarchal guise he has the ability to regulate society by enforcing the law (police officer, sheriff), or he may try to perfect society by fighting a corrupt system (outlaw, spy, private detective). There are, of course, other professions open to heroes, but many of them seem to involve power in forms strongly associated with masculinity.

Many Incomplete Phalluses lack emotional connection to others, but this lack can manifest itself in a number of different ways. A hero with a very strong MW and a very Incomplete Phallus may be a rake who spends much of his time engaging in sexual activity, as Dain does in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels:

He lusted for virtually every attractive female he saw. He had a prodigious sexual appetite […]. If he lusted for a whore, he paid her and had her. If he lusted for a respectable female, he found a whore as a substitute, paid her, and had her. (49)

In slightly less extreme cases this type of hero may be a “passionate, romantic figure with a past, perhaps most familiar in Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester” (Mussell 119). Sometimes rakish behaviour is ascribed to a deep emotional pain suffered by the hero:

He had deliberately set out to defy the conventions, to shock decent men and women, to become a by-word for everything that was debauched and immoral.

He had succeeded, but strangely enough it had not eased the hurt which had caused him to behave in such a manner, and the wound within himself had not healed. (Cartland, Love 84)

Although a rake generally acts in response to the demands of his MW, particularly where the heroine is concerned, his Phallic attributes may be considerable. Richardson’s Mr. B., for example, is a landowner, Justice of the Peace, and Member of Parliament and Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan states that “The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me” (Hull 63).

A second type of Incomplete Phallus may be identified by his devotion to his work (often in one of the typically Phallic professions listed above) and his avoidance of family ties. This type of hero’s Incomplete Phallus tendencies thus take precedence over those of his MW. Often this behaviour too is shown to be an imperfect coping mechanism developed in response to emotional trauma. Napier’s business “piranha” (22), for example, has been “taking over electronics companies, and offering preferential deals to anyone who has business with RedWing” (97) as part of his plan to destroy his father’s company in revenge for the way his mother was treated:

My mother died because she couldn’t afford a life-saving operation. […] She asked him for money and he told her that she had made her bed and now she could lie on it … but he meant die on it. […] my father had no humanity. (97)

He may be an emotionally wounded warrior, like Susan Mallery’s Rafe, whose “‘[…] folks died when I was four. There wasn’t anyone else. I became a ward of the state.’ […] He’d learned to take care of himself and never need anyone” (183). Diana Palmer’s Tony, a “professional soldier” specialising “in counterterrorism” (41), was physically abused by his father, who also “started doing things to my little sister, when she was about eight. […] My mother caught him at it […] She stabbed that knife up to the hilt in his stomach, all the way to the heart. […] I never saw so much blood” (70-71). Then, “When my sister and I went into foster care, it was like the end of the world. Especially when they separated us. […] She killed herself” (57). As he acknowledges, “I’ve got a past that’s going to make it hard for any woman to live with me on a permanent basis” (74). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero is an emotionally damaged, illegitimate, mercenary knight who has

no home, but it was his burning ambition to correct that lack. It was his only goal, yet it was an all-consuming one. It was all he worked toward, hiring out to any man no matter the task, no matter the difficulty, no matter his own feelings in the matter. His ambition did not allow for scruples. (15-16)

This particular ambition, and his authoritarian attitude towards his followers, put him on the brink of transforming into a third type of Incomplete Phallus.

This type manifests the incompleteness of his Phallus by the way in which he assumes his patriarchal authority and family duties. Although he may work hard, be a (phallic) pillar of the community, and a devoted father or brother, he tends to be an authoritarian patriarch who is emotionally flawed in some way. Darcy is an example of this kind of hero, since he has both high social standing and wealth, his father is deceased and he therefore stands in loco parentis to his younger sister, and he is declared by one of his servants to be “the best landlord, and the best master […] that ever lived” (Austen, Pride 270). This patriarch’s flaw, the evidence of his emotional lack, is his pride. Simon the Coldheart embodies, as far as that is possible for a human, the qualities of justice — “If it was a question of judgment or arbitration men found Simon relentlessly, mercilessly just” (Heyer 19) — and of omniscience:

‘[…] God alone knows what will come to this poor land!’

‘Nay, not God alone,’ the secretary said. ‘My lord knows also.’ (97)[6]

God-like in his own domain, Simon is omnipotent and one might say he “Suffer[s] the little children to come unto” (Mark 10:14) him because he “dost love children” (Heyer 114). In general, however, he seems incapable of feeling warmer emotions: “something he seemed to lack, for with all his assets and attainments, he was cold as stone, almost as though some humanising part of him had been left out in his fashioning” (130).

The Prism

The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism. The word appears in the rakish Marquis of Vidal’s mocking designation of Mary Challoner as “Miss Prunes and Prisms” (Heyer, Devil’s Cub 49), a phrase which characterises her as prim and disapproving. The term “Prism,” as used in this essay, also draws on Jayne Castle’s Orchid, set in a futuristic society in which many individuals are “talents” but only a few, including the heroine, are “prisms”:

talents […] possessed a specific type of paranormal power that could be actively used. […] The psychic energy that talents produced endowed them with a sixth sense. But unlike the other five senses, it could not be accessed except in brief, unpredictable, erratic bursts without the aid of a prism. […] In them, paranormal energy took a different form. Prisms possessed the ability to focus the powers of a talent for an extended length of time. (3)

Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.

The Prism embodies the Mother aspect of femininity and the Incomplete Prism’s motherliness tends to manifest itself in differing combinations of two different qualities. The first is nurturing tenderness, and the second is feistiness, which may also be thought of as an incomplete version of maternal authority and

the lioness aspect of the female personality […]. It’s acceptable for a woman, socially, to be outspoken and rude when defending her children — everyone knows not to get between a mother bear and her cub. (Wendell and Tan 59)

With the decline in the number of virgin heroines there may have been an increase in the proportion of heroines who are biological mothers, but childless heroines have long been given opportunities to display the nurturing aspect of their Prisms. Such heroines may often be found caring for children, either due to their jobs or because they have responsibility for younger siblings or abandoned infants. Slightly less blatant demonstrations of the Prism’s nurturing motherliness include expressions of love and care for animals or vulnerable friends. As Wendell and Tan declare in their humorous “ten commandments of heroine conduct” (36):

Thou shalt have a nurturing streak larger and warmer than the South China Sea. Thy desire for children shall be unquestioned […]. And shouldst thou choose to remain child-free, thou freak of nature, verily thou shouldst display your nurturing streak with animals. (36)

Elizabeth Bennet’s mother is so incompetent a parent that Elizabeth attempts to provide her sisters with both maternal care and authoritative maternal guidance. When her older sister Jane is “very unwell” (78), it is Elizabeth, not their mother, who feels “really anxious” (Austen, Pride 78) and tends to her during the illness. Furthermore, “Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement?” (241). In Cartland’s The Problems of Love, the heroine has taken on the role of mother: “I now have the family to look after, because my mother died five years ago” (11). On this heroine’s wedding day it also becomes apparent that in some respects she resembles the hero’s mother: “I was thinking in Church today when we were married that you were like the lilies that were arranged on the altar. I have never felt that about any other woman with the exception of my mother” (145). In some romances, the heroine may express motherly feelings towards the hero. Mary, the heroine of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, recognises that

it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake.

‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’ (110)

Similarly Jessica sees “the lonely little boy in” Dain (Chase 269), and understands that he needs “love […] he needed it far more than many, because, apparently, he hadn’t had so much as a whiff of it since he was a babe” (269). In some romances this motherly nurturance may take a very literal form: Sarah S. G. Frantz has written of one romance hero that his

desire to suckle (to be suckled) at his wife’s breast, when read against his whole character, can be read as the desire to return to the mother’s nourishment that he never received as a child, as his need for his lover to embody his mother and his mother to be his lover. (25)

Gentle maternal qualities are not the only traits demonstrated by Prisms, for as the Rev. Mr. Villars instructs Evelina, “Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men” (Burney 242). The Prism’s feisty “fortitude and firmness” may be displayed on behalf of others, as when Elizabeth Bennet angrily rejects a marriage proposal from Darcy, “who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister” (Austen, Pride 222), or in self-defence, often against either an untamed MW or an Incomplete Phallus. Pamela, for example, although only a servant, constantly expresses her resistance to her master’s designs upon her virtue:

when you forget what belongs to Decency in your Actions, and when Words are all that are left me, to shew my Resentment of such Actions, I will not promise to forbear the strongest Expressions that my distressed Mind shall suggest to me; nor shall your angriest Frowns deter me. (Richardson 211)

In Devil’s Cub, Mary goes so far as to shoot and injure Dominic when his untamed MW is about to rape her (Heyer 102).

In the end, displays of feisty strength in the heroine tend to bring forth positive characteristics in the hero, but as Incomplete Prisms differ in their type of feistiness and Incomplete Phalluses vary in the qualities they lack, each heroine will bring out slightly different personality traits in her hero: Pamela’s feistiness is focused on preserving her virtue, and she therefore stimulates her hero’s piety; Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self-aware and kind; Margaret “stole what men thought was not there to steal. Thy cold heart” (Heyer, Simon 300) and so teaches Simon to love; and Josephine is “a beautiful, headstrong woman” (Jenkins 100), and so the “man who marries you will have to have patience, a strong mind and an even stronger wit” (100).

Completing the Phallus

The Incomplete Prism’s feistiness poses a challenge to the Incomplete Phallus’s authority and its nurturance gentles him, bringing into focus his softer qualities. Many romances conclude with the hero “endowed with maternal qualities; he is not simply the phallus but also the maternal phallus: the ideal mother and father” (Treacher 80). However, since the Father also has nurturing qualities it should not be assumed that a Completed Phallus is an androgynous parental figure. The transformed hero is “the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too” (Radway 97). In becoming a Completed Phallus the hero suffers no loss of his culturally ascribed masculinity: he will still tend to exert control and power over others, but he is more likely to take the heroine’s views into account, and protectiveness will take the place of jealousy and aggression. Johanna Lindsey’s Ranulf, for example, becomes the Lord of Clydon and his military prowess ensures the safety of Reina, her lands, and dependants. The Completed Phallus’s Prism-inspired paternal care for the wider community may also be expressed politically. As the Marquis of Osminton declares:

I had never expected a woman to think seriously as you do on social and political questions, which have always been left to men. […] It will help and inspire me to make a greater effort in that direction than I have done in the past. (Cartland, Problems 144)

If he couldn’t before, he will now be able to express his feelings and often becomes an emotionally involved father. In Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example, Dain could initially only think of his illegitimate son as an “unspeakable thing” (293) which “was as foul inwardly as it was hideous outwardly, […] there was not a scrap of good it could have inherited from its depraved monster of a sire” (293-94). Dain’s own self-loathing has clearly affected his perception of the child who looks so much like him, but Jessica forces him into a situation in which he cannot help but realise that his son is indeed “just like his father, he needed someone […] to accept him” (340). Jessica’s conviction that Dain is not “a monster, impossible to love” (339) alters Dain’s perception of both himself and his son, and enables him to accept love for himself and show it to his child. In much less traumatic circumstances the Marquis of Osminton, too, is reconciled to the idea of fatherhood and confesses that

Once, before I knew you, […] I thought that children might disturb my well-organised life and perhaps be destructive, but now, because I love you, my darling, I can think of nothing more wonderful than to see you holding my son in your arms. (Cartland, Problems 146)

If he had feelings of loneliness or uncertainty about his role in life, these will be resolved by the Incomplete Prism. Barbara Samuel’s Galen is a faery cursed “to wander between the mortal and faerie realms, never to cross to either,” and so experiences a “loneliness so vast ‘twould make stones cry” (Samuel 199). His suffering lasts for 285 years, until he meets Moira who feels the allure of his MW, but is able to resist it in order to break the curse. As a heroine with a strong Incomplete Prism, she “wanted to protect him, protect him from the despair she’d glimpsed on his face […], protect him from having to return to the lost world of his exile” (247). Clare Morgan may not have to break a faery curse, but she is “the one Marta foresaw […] who would heal her Nikki’s heart” (Putney 346). It is thanks to Clare that “Nicholas Davies, the Gypsy Earl of Aberdare” (12), a man who says he doesn’t “give a damn about anyone or anything” (17), becomes involved in his local community, is reconciled with an estranged best friend, finds himself emotionally “free” (377) from his dead wife’s betrayal and his deceased grandfather’s hatred, and “can believe in my childhood again” (376).

The final transformation of the Incomplete Phallus may take place in a dramatic, emotionally charged scene. In Susan Mallery’s The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess, Rafe is an emotionally-wounded warrior hero who has power and status but is clearly an Incomplete Phallus because he has no desire to become the head of a stable family unit: “Rafe had told her that she was a marriage-and-kids kind of woman and that he wasn’t a marriage-and-kids kind of guy” (158). Zara intuits the reason behind this stance: “she knew. She read it in the pain in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders. After a lifetime of people turning away from him, he wasn’t about to trust her with something as fragile as his heart. Not before he knew that she would be willing to stay forever” (247-48). By demonstrating that she is indeed “willing to stay forever,” the Incomplete Prism transforms Rafe into a Completed Phallus:

The thick, angry barrier around his heart shattered and blew away. […] He knew then that he had to believe her or lose her forever. That he was nothing without her. That he had finally found a safe place to belong.

“I love you,” he told her. […] “[…] I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please do me the honor of marrying me.” (248-49)

In a way that parallels the GHH’s regulation of the MW, the Incomplete Prism completes the Phallus, making him a happier, better man than he was without her: “till within these few Days, I knew not what it was to be happy. […] I hope, from her good Example, […] in time, to be half as good as my Tutoress” (Richardson 308).

Completing the Prism

As with Incomplete Phalluses, there is variation in what is lacking in Incomplete Prisms. Some extremely feisty Incomplete Prisms are described as having a boyish appearance or behaving mannishly. Diana Mayo, for example, “looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy” (Hull 2). It is said of Lady Margaret that she “fights at the head of her men” (Heyer, Simon 135) and when she “don[s] boy’s raiment” (196) in an attempt to escape from Simon she looks like “a slim stripling” (198) and declares “In man’s clothes I stand, and a man will I be” (216). Feistiness taken to the point of mannishness is depicted in these two novels as a characteristic of which the heroine must be broken, at least insofar as she relates to the hero, so that she can become a Completed Prism. Diana Mayo’s sheik adopts particularly violent methods:

with a greater arrogance and a determination stronger than her own Ahmed Ben Hassan had tamed her as he tamed the magnificent horses that he rode. He had been brutal and merciless, using no half measures, forcing her to obedience by sheer strength of will and compelling a complete submission. (Hull 226-27)

She comes to think of him as “A man of men. Monseigneur! Monseigneur! Mon maître et seigneur” (245) and Lady Margaret murmurs “Stern, merciless conqueror! Simon, mon maître et mon seigneur!” (Heyer, Simon 299).

Another way in which heroines may demonstrate their feisty nature is by engaging in “Too Stupid To Live” (TSTL) behaviour. This type of behaviour was “first recognized […] at romance supersite All About Romance” (Wendell and Tan 31) but AAR’s Laurie Gold has clarified that the term

tstl, or too-stupid-to-live […] actually came from a very well-known author who wrote me about it in 1997 and asked to remain anonymous. A tstl heroine does things like going […] where specifically told not to by the hero and ends up endangering both with her foolishness.

In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the heroine knows that “some crazy person is trying to kill me” (48), and she has been told that her apartment “is a death trap […]. […] Easy entrance and exit right outside the door, no dead bolts, a perfect line-of-sight aim for anybody with a high-powered rifle with a scope” (48). Her safety can only be assured if she moves in with Tony, whose professional skills will enable him to act as her bodyguard. She does so, but after an argument with him she decides to prove to him that she “wasn’t a doormat. No way was she staying in here to listen to him cavorting with his girlfriend! No way!” (82). Unfortunately, and rather predictably, the hit man “was watching and followed her home” (93). Tony only just arrives in time to save her. TSTL behaviour on the part of the heroine thus gives the hero an opportunity to display his manly prowess, and may demonstrate the extent to which the heroine needs the protection of a Phallus.

Removed from the context of TSTL behaviour, and described in terms which are more flattering to the heroine, this protection could be thought of as a benefit which accrues to the heroine once she has taken indirect control of his Phallus: “his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command” (Phillips 58). Once the heroine of Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart marries Ranulf, for example, she is safe from attacks by other males intent on usurping her wealth and power. Regardless of whether one views this outcome as evidence of the heroine’s lack or of her triumph, the end result is that the Completed Prism falls under the protection of the Completed Phallus.

Marriage to the Phallus may also enable a Prism to enter the socio-political elite or, “Put more polemically, popular romance tells the story of how the heroine gains access to money — to power — in patriarchal society” (Cohn 3). Millie, a woman who “came from a poor background, and lived on a meager budget” (Palmer 58), marries Tony, who is “rich” (62). In Richardson’s Pamela there is an even more marked elevation in the social status of the heroine: the landowner hero marries “his Mother’s Waiting-maid” (261) and “She was regularly visited by the principal Ladies in the Neighbourhood; who were fond of her Acquaintance” (499). In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet, though not noted for her intelligence in other matters, perceives the material benefits which will accrue to Elizabeth upon her marriage to Darcy: “how rich and how great you will be!” (386). By the end of Devil’s Cub Mary, a commoner, is engaged to the Marquis of Vidal who is “one of the biggest prizes on the matrimonial market” (Heyer 14).

Increased access to money and power may give the Completed Prism greater opportunities for displaying the nurturing aspects of the Prism. After her marriage to the Earl of Aberdare, Clare may have had to give up

being a full-time teacher, but […] now that she had Nicholas’s deep purse to plunder, she was able to help people on a broader scale. There were no more hungry children in Penreith, and the valley was becoming the prosperous, happy place she had dreamed of. (Putney 379-80)

Similarly, whereas Richardson’s Pamela as an Incomplete Prism, having received a charitable gift, exclaimed “O how amiable a Thing is doing good! — It is all I envy great Folks for!” (18), once she has been transformed by marriage into a Completed Prism she is able to reward her new servants, take Mr. B.’s illegitimate child into their home, and display “a diffusive Charity to all worthy Objects within the Compass of their Knowledge” (499).

The conclusion of Richardson’s novel also reveals that Pamela “made her beloved Spouse happy in a numerous and hopeful Progeny” (499), and in the epilogue to Thunder and Roses we learn that Clare “was almost sure that the next Gypsy Earl was on the way” (Putney 380). Dain and Jessica require no such epilogue for although they have only “been wed five weeks” by the end of Lord of Scoundrels, “It is easy enough to calculate. One fertile marchioness plus one virile marquess equals a brat” (Chase 373). Given the increase in recent decades of premarital sex in romances, it is now not uncommon for the virility of heroes and the fertility of heroines to be demonstrated long before either their wedding or the end of the novel. The heroine of His Lady’s Ransom, for example, falls pregnant after one night of “wild, prolonged and very thorough couplings” (Lovelace 273) with the hero; they marry a few months later, and in the final chapter their baby lies “in a basket on the table, gurgling” (353). Regardless of the method by which romance authors impart the information, it is common for them to provide evidence that the Completed Phallus and Prism, secure in their domestic bliss, have produced, or will produce, a suitable number of offspring.

The Alchemical Model of Relationships

In the model of romantic relationships outlined above, the processes of transformation are complex and involve the protagonists’ individual bodies, a GHH and MW, and an Incomplete Phallus and Incomplete Prism. Frantz suggests that a heroine who gives her breast milk to a supplicant hero is “appropriating patriarchal power for herself, but she is also then generous enough to return some to the hero, who continues to embody patriarchal power” (27). In such scenes, the individual bodies of the protagonists perform actions which can be read as symbolising the changes that are occurring to their socio-political bodies: the Incomplete Prism becomes a Completed Prism through her relationship with the Incomplete Phallus, and does so in a way which renders him Completed too. The GHH tends to be the catalyst for the transformation, because by ensuring that the MW desires union with this particular GHH, the hero’s Incomplete Phallus is brought into contact with the heroine’s Incomplete Prism. The Incomplete Prism then transmutes the glitter of sexual attraction into the gold of a socially sanctioned relationship between a Completed Prism and Completed Phallus. This, then, may be termed the alchemical model of relationships and it has been summarised by Mr. B., who admits to Pamela that “after having been long tost by the boisterous Winds of a more culpable Passion, I have now conquer’d it, and am not so much the Victim of your Love, all charming as you are, as of your Virtue” (Richardson 341); or, put more succinctly, “her Person made me her Lover; but her Mind made her my Wife” (474). Here “your Love” and “her Person” seem to refer to what we might term the heroine’s GHH, whereas her “Virtue” and her “Mind” are aspects of her Prism.

It is only because the heroine possesses both a particularly glittery GHH and an Incomplete Prism that she is able to have a transformative effect on both the MW and the Incomplete Phallus; as Janice A. Radway observed with regard to Alaina McGaren, the heroine of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, “It is […] the combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or of admitting dependence” (127). A GHH unaccompanied by an Incomplete Prism will be unable to effect the transformation of the Incomplete Phallus, as is demonstrated in Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man in which, as the heroine is aware, the hero has frequently found other women sexually attractive and “the brassier they are, the better you like them” (50). These women, however, appear to have lacked Incomplete Prisms, for as the hero explains:

“Those glittery women are fine for a good time. You don’t plan a future around them.”

He was insinuating that they were fine for a one-night stand. (60)

The brassy glitter of these promiscuous women is very different from the special glitter of the heroine, who is “illuminated” (59) and displays a special “radiance” (59) when in the presence of the hero. Her GHH is so closely associated with her Incomplete Prism that, like Mr. B.’s Pamela, she “would never go to bed with a man she hadn’t married” (58), and both novels conclude with the hero and heroine safely united in matrimony. Cartland’s Syrilla also has a glitter which is quite clearly inextricable from her Prism: “she had a radiance in her face that was not of this world” (Love 87), and since for the hero she “brought back dreams […] of a woman who could be innocent and pure and inspire a man spiritually as well as physically” (152), she may serve as a reminder to the reader that where some heroines are concerned, marriage is definitely Holy Matrimony.

The initial fear that many heroes experience in response to their overwhelming desire for the heroine can therefore be understood not solely in sexual terms (as a fear of a monogamy caused by a desire so strong and so specific for the GHH that the MW can barely feel attraction towards any other woman), but also as a fear of the gentling which will occur as his Incomplete Phallus is focused by the Incomplete Prism. The way in which the heroine’s GHH binds the hero to her, enabling the Incomplete Prism and Incomplete Phallus to act on each other and become Completed, has been described by Cook as

a bargain: his love for her sex. […] He finds pleasure in the confession of love because love is something he has learned to deny and fear, often as the result of a terrible experience in earlier life. She finds pleasure in the confession of sex because she can give freely to the hero what he has brought about in her and not fear the ruin of her identity. The formula of the bargain creates a kind of symmetry, a pretence of equality. The father of desire meets the mother of love and they exchange gifts. Each makes the other complete in a fantasy of total union.

But the bargain is also, on the heroine’s part, about attaching desire to social convention, to propriety, to marriage. It is part of her traditional role that she should represent virtue. […] Her function is to […] reassure us that, in the end, desire and the law are compatible. (157)[7]

There can be no better representative of the “traditional role” than Pamela, whose would-be seducer is so thoroughly reformed by his interactions with her Prism that he becomes “the best and fondest of Husbands; and, after her Example, became remarkable for Piety, Virtue, and all the Social Duties of a Man and a Christian” (Richardson 499).

Some Alternative Models

Although the alchemical model of relationships, in which a GHH regulates a MW, an Incomplete Prism focusses an Incomplete Phallus, and an Incomplete Phallus completes an Incomplete Prism, has been present in the genre for centuries, there are alternative models of how the six bodies of romance protagonists can interact, some of which also have a very long literary history. It would be impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of all of these models in the space available, and this section therefore provides only a very brief overview of just a few of the alternative models to be found within the genre.

One of these alternative models offers the reader a hero who, at the start of the novel, already embodies masculine perfection. His MW needs no regulation and almost all he requires in order to become a Completed Phallus is a wife. Marriage is necessary in order to comply with the demands of heteronormativity: as Fulk tells the young Simon, “a man must take a wife unto himself” (Heyer, Simon 115), or, as Austen somewhat satirically observes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride 51). Among these near-perfect heroes are Frances Burney’s Lord Orville, who is depicted “as a fully formed paragon of male manners from his first appearance” (Hamilton 429), and Austen’s Mr. Knightley. A more recent example may be found in Heyer’s The Nonesuch. Sir Waldo Hawkridge, the novel’s hero, is known by this nickname which

means perfection! […]

‘A paragon, certainly.’ […]

‘[…] they say the Nonesuch is a clipping rider to hounds too. […]’ […]

‘Sir Waldo is first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance, besides being very handsome, and hugely wealthy!’ (20)

Sir Waldo, who “commanded as much liking as admiration” (169), is also a philanthropist and a responsible and caring role model to his younger cousin. This kind of hero is “the more conventional, sensitive, mature and competent husband-lover” who “has great strength and stability and seems particularly solid and trustworthy” (Mussell 119-20). He can be found in the novels of Betty Neels, which jay Dixon recalls reading “to fill my need for a knowledgeable and calm father-figure” (35). As Mussell observes, such heroes

appeal […] because of their implicit stability, their self-knowledge, and the status they can confer through marriage. If this figure seems more mature and sensitive than other men, and more attractive and intelligent, he offers an assurance of sexual fidelity because he knows his own mind in choosing the heroine. […] His strength and power derive from self-assurance, self-control, and uncompromising moral principles. (124)

Since his MW is already perfectly regulated, and he already manifests the full range of qualities required to be a Completed Phallus, the heroine’s GHH and Prism function solely to attract him and assure him of her suitability, but there is no need for them to effect a major transformation of his personality. She, however, may be taught by him, as is the case in Austen’s Emma, or enjoy the benefits which, as described above, generally accrue to a Completed Prism. In The Nonesuch, for example, Ancilla Trent is saved from life as a governess and restored to the social circle from which her father’s death had distanced her. In addition, Sir Waldo’s philanthropy will give her ample opportunity to manifest the charitable, caring aspects of the Completed Prism, particularly as his “mother […] will welcome you with open arms, and will very likely egg you on to bully me into starting an asylum for female orphans” (275).

Many modern “inspirational” romances feature an explicitly Christian version of this near-perfect type of hero. His possession of a MW may be implied via descriptions of his individual body: “The heroes’ physical stature and good looks reinforce their virility and attractiveness to heroines” (Neal 149). In Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, for example, Samuel Hart is “broad-shouldered” (13) and although “It was inappropriate that she should notice his well-defined cheekbones or his recently shaved, firm, square chin, […] she had. Even his deep, rich voice arrested her attention” (15). The use of the word “inappropriate” suggests that Josie, the heroine, is not merely cataloguing the features of Samuel’s individual body: despite his status as “a widower, a father and a preacher” (109) he has “a fluid agility and masculine grace” (109) — in other words a MW — which “she couldn’t help but appreciate” (109). That the ideal Christian romance hero’s MW is pre-regulated and incapable of succumbing to uncontrollable lust is made very clear in the guidelines provided by some publishers. In Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired romances, for example, “Any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality” (eHarlequin). Similarly, the guidelines for Barbour Publishing’s Heartsong Presents stipulate that:

Physical tension between characters should not be overdone. Do not be overly descriptive when describing how characters feel in a particular romantic moment, for example, kissing, embracing, and so on. It has been our belief from day one that we can tell a great love story without going into excessive physical detail. People can easily imagine the desires and tensions between a couple who are blossoming into love. Kisses are fine (no tongues or heights of arousal, please).

One consequence of the sexual restraint demonstrated by this near-perfect Christian romance hero is that he poses a challenge to some aspects of the “male sexual drive discourse” so often present in the mainstream romance genre’s depiction of heroes’ socio-sexual bodies. In addition to having a well-regulated MW he

retains all the rugged individualism, toughness, and power of secular heroes but combines this traditional masculinity with gentleness, patience, and attention to female needs, from snuggling to child-rearing. (Barrett-Fox 97)

He, like the near-perfect secular hero, is thus in possession of a Phallus which can become fully Completed without the need for major personality changes. However, despite the strong similarities between the near-perfect Christian hero and his secular counterpart, there is one very significant difference between the processes by which their Phalluses, and the Prisms of their heroines, become Completed: “The transformation that seems ‘magical’ in secular romances is explained by divinely sparked spiritual growth in their evangelical counterparts” (Neal 5).[8] Returning again to Samuel Hart, we find that he has an almost perfect Phallus, “He represented everything that was good and perfect about fathers and husbands” (St. John 157), but he does occasionally make mistakes and “Whenever he overlooked the obvious, whenever he let pride get in the way of what was best, God graciously pointed his foolishness out to him” (209).

The “beta” hero presents a challenge to the gender roles underlying all of the previous models because his Phallus is never Completed: he is never transformed into an authoritative, patriarchal figure. He is “More playful and relaxed,” “More of the ‘boy (or man) next door’ type,” “Considerate of his heroine’s feelings and opinions” and “The sort of man that a reader can actually imagine meeting, falling in love with, marrying — and being able to live with!” (Walker 100). Jayne Ann Krentz scornfully describes him as a “neurotic wimp” and “a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking ‘modern’ man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start” (109). It is indeed true that “you don’t get much of a challenge for a heroine” (109) from such a hero, if that challenge is understood in terms of demonstrating the power of her Prism and GHH. He brings into question the role of the heroine in the alchemical model because he tends not to need her to tame, gentle, domesticate or regulate his bodies.

Although Krentz attributes the beta hero’s appearance in romance to “a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing” (107), he is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is

too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (49)

Like the more recent “beta” heroes, he has been found wanting by some readers:

There is a strong tendency among critics to disparage Edward Ferrars as romantic hero. […] I suspect that Edward’s gender dissonance has stymied even professional readers. […] Edward […] lacks aggression altogether: for the most part he is retiring, he is passive, and he is as backward a lover as ladies are enjoined to be. […] As to society, Edward lacks ambition and the desire to be somebody in the world […]. Against the grain of the affluent gentry’s model for men, but consonantly with the female model, he aspires to nothing higher than a happy domestic life. (Perkins 5-6)

This “beta” hero is favourably contrasted with an “uncommonly handsome” (75) rake, as is also the case in Heyer’s Cotillion, in which she “was teasing her fans […] by making ineffective Freddy the hero rather than handsome Jack Westruther” (Aiken Hodge 91). Jack is “a tall man” (Heyer, Cotillion 110) with “powerful thighs” (110), whereas Freddy is “a slender young gentleman, of average height and graceful carriage” (36), and this smaller, less physically powerful individual body is matched by a less attractive socio-sexual body and a very socially acceptable but non-dominant socio-political body:

He was neither witty nor handsome; his disposition was retiring; and although he might be seen at any social gathering, he never (except by the excellence of his tailoring) drew attention to himself […] he was too inarticulate to pay charming compliments, and had never been known to indulge in the mildest flirtation. But a numerous circle of male acquaintances held him in considerable affection, and with the ladies he was a prime favourite. The most sought-after beauty was pleased to stand up with so graceful a dancer; any lady desirous of redecorating her drawing-room was anxious for his advice. (108-09)

Many “beta” heroes are neither shy nor sexually inexperienced, but as a type the “beta” hero, because of his lack of a Completed Phallus and the fact that he often possesses character traits more often associated with femininity, challenges the way in which particular groups of traits (such as those which are characteristic of the Prism) tend to be assigned only to individuals of one biological sex.

Although the Phallus is firmly associated with masculinity and the Prism with femininity, psychologists have long acknowledged that no individual is exclusively imbued with qualities ascribed to only one gender:

In every human being, Freud […] remarks, “pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture.” […] It is now generally accepted […] that masculine and feminine principles are not inherent polarities […]. Still, […] there exists a recurrent cultural tendency to distinguish and to polarize gender roles. (Gilmore 214)

Sexual, social, and political power are expressed in highly gendered ways when the MW and Phallus are strongly associated with heroes and their male individual bodies, while the GHH and Prism are strongly associated with heroines and their female individual bodies.

Elizabeth Bevarly’s Dr Mummy challenges such gender roles, but unlike romances featuring “beta” heroes, it does so by reversing the biological sex of the characters who, by the end of the novel, possess the Prism and Phallus. Perhaps in order to neutralise the threat to the hero’s masculinity which might result from this departure from the usual configuration of the six bodies, the transformation is not revealed until the epilogue, long after the hero’s “appealingly rugged, startlingly handsome […]. And big. Really, really big” (24) individual body has been established as being in conformity with the masculine ideal. The relationship between Nick and Claire’s socio-sexual bodies also conforms to romance conventions: “Nick’s hot, unyielding body before her, and the sense of his overwhelming possession thrilled her in a way that nothing else could” (117). The transformations undergone by their socio-political bodies, however, are anything but conventional. Nick begins the novel as an Incomplete Phallus: law enforcement is a typically Phallic profession and he works as a “narcotics detective” (15). Years before the start of the novel he had wanted to marry Claire and become a Completed Phallus:

He’d wanted them to have a half-dozen kids, just as his folks had done. He’d […] wanted Claire to stay at home with the kids, had wanted to work himself to death to take care of the family financially. […] And Claire just couldn’t see that happening. She hadn’t wanted to give birth to and care for six children — or even one child. She hadn’t wanted to be a homemaker — she’d wanted to be a doctor. (48)

Nick’s dream of having a large family with Claire is achievable, but only by abandoning traditional gender roles. By the end of the novel he has been transformed into a Completed Prism, a homemaking, stay-at-home parent who is “in charge of the bake sale this year” (184) and certain that “the job I have now is so much more important than the one I had before” (185). Claire, initially an Incomplete Phallus who had resisted parenthood, dedicated herself to her highly paid professional job, and who “had always had difficulty revealing any honest emotion” (56), becomes a Completed Phallus as the family’s only wage-earner.

Romances featuring protagonists of the same sex may also offer new dynamics between, and depictions of, their six bodies. Phyllis M. Betz states that in a lesbian romance “The very fact that two women have determined to pursue a passionate relationship contravenes traditional social norms and expectations” (105), and as Paulina Palmer has observed, “By placing characters who identify as lesbian in a heterosexist frame and highlighting the tensions this generates, they alert the reader to the ideological limitations of the romance genre and the social codes which it inscribes” (203). Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park, for example, opens as Lady Joanna Sinclair is walking and daydreaming about romances, and so it is while “half expecting to find Ivanhoe” (2) that she first encounters Lady Diana March and “instead of a knight in shining armor there was a fair damsel […]. She was […] dressed in brown turkish trousers” (2). Lady Diana’s individual body is female, but her socio-political body has traditionally masculine attributes, as indicated by her attire and the comparison with Ivanhoe. Her “excellent birth […], her friends at the highest level of English society, and her vast fortune” (164-65), as well as the role she plays in rescuing Joanna from familial oppression, mark her as the possessor of an Incomplete Phallus. As the more sexually experienced of the two, her socio-sexual body can be thought of as a MW. For her part Joanna, who despite having been married has “never been in the throes of a Grand Passion” (111), has a GHH and as the mother of a young daughter and a woman in need of protection, she is clearly an Incomplete Prism whose love will heal Diana’s emotional wounds. In many respects, then, Pembroke Park tells the traditional story of how a GHH and Incomplete Prism work together to gentle and complete a MW and Incomplete Phallus, but because that MW and Incomplete Phallus belong to a person with a biologically female individual body, Diana “flagrantly sidestep[s] every rule of social decorum!” (4).

Conclusion

Romance novels, because they deal so explicitly with sexuality and men’s and women’s roles within sexual relationships, are cultural agents (primarily for women) for the transmission of gender ideologies. Gender ideologies, in turn, “construct men’s and women’s sexualities” (Blackwood 240). Although we have stressed the degree of continuity that exists in the depiction of the alchemical model of heterosexual romantic relationships, the genre has responded to changes in social attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. In addition, despite the fact that all romances feature protagonists with three bodies (individual, social, political) there are some romances which offer alternatives to the pairing of a female protagonist’s individual body, GHH, and Prism with a male protagonist’s individual body, MW, and Phallus. Such romances provide alternative “guiding or admonitory images” (Gilmore 208) regarding ideal masculinity or femininity. Due to the diversity that exists within the genre, the many bodies of romance heroes and heroines may be sites of reinforcement of, or of resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. London: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Bevarly, Elizabeth. Dr Mummy. 2000. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2001. Print.Beverley, Jo. My Lady Notorious. 1993. New York: Signet, 2002. Print.

Burney, Frances. Evelina. 1778. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Cartland, Barbara. Love Locked In. London: Pan, 1977. Print.

Cartland, Barbara. The Problems of Love. London: Corgi, 1978. Print.

Castle, Jayne. Orchid. New York: Pocket, 1998. Print.

Chase, Loretta. Lord of Scoundrels. New York: Avon, 1994. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich. Dogs and Goddesses. London: Little Black Dress, 2009. Print.

Herries, Anne. Captive of the Harem. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2002. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Cotillion. 1953. London: Pan, 1966. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Devil’s Cub. 1932. London: Pan, 1969. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Simon the Coldheart. 1925. London: Arrow Books, 2005. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. The Nonesuch. 1962. London: Pan, 1975. Print.

Hull, E. M. The Sheik. 1919. London: Virago, 2002. Print.

Jenkins, Beverly. Josephine. 2003. New York: Kimani, 2009. Print.

Lindsey, Johanna. Defy Not the Heart. New York: Avon, 1989. Print.

Lovelace, Merline. His Lady’s Ransom. 1995. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008. Print.

Mallery, Susan. The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess. 2002. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2003. Print.

Martin, Michelle. Pembroke Park. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad, 1986. Print.

Napier, Susan. Secret Admirer. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1992. Print.

Palmer, Diana. “Silent Night Man.” Married by Christmas. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008. 5-115. Print.

Putney, Mary Jo. Thunder and Roses. New York: Topaz, 1993. Print.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. 1740. Ed. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Samuel, Barbara. “The Love Talker.” Faery Magic. New York: Zebra (Kensington), 1998. 193-260. Print.

St. John, Cheryl. The Preacher’s Wife. New York: Steeple Hill, 2009. Print.

Secondary Texts

About the Romance Genre.” RWA National.org. RWA (Romance Writers of America), 2007. Web. 25 Jan. 2010.

Aiken Hodge, Jane. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. 1984. London: Arrow, 2006. Print.

Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. Print.

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. “Hope, Faith and Toughness: An Analysis of the Christian Hero.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 93-102. Print.

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Blackwood, Evelyn. “Women’s Intimate Friendships and Other Affairs: An Ethnographic Overview.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 237-47. Print.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. Print.

Cook, Jon. “Fictional Fathers.” Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction. Ed. Susannah Radstone. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988. 137-64. Print.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999. Print.

Douglas, Ann. “Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman.” The New Republic 183 (30 Aug. 1980): 25-29. Print.

Ebert, Teresa L. “The Romance of Patriarchy: Ideology, Subjectivity, and Postmodern Feminist Cultural Theory.”Cultural Critique 10 (1988): 19-57. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S. G. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Ed. Lydia Cushman Shurman and Deidre Johnson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 17-36. Print.

Gallop, Jane. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter’s Seduction. London: Macmillan, 1982. Print.

Gilbert Albino, Lucia, Sarah J. Walker, Sherry McKinney, and Jessica L. Snell. “Challenging Discourse Themes Reproducing Gender in Heterosexual Dating: An Analog Study.” Sex Roles 41.9-10 (1999): 753-74. Print.

Gilmore, David D. “The Manhood Puzzle.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 207-220. Print. Rpt. Of Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1990. 2-29.

Gold, Laurie. “Frequently Asked Questions.” All About Romance. Web. 5 May 2009

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: Paladin, 1971. Print.

Gutmann, Matthew C. “Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997): 385-409. Print.

Hamilton, Patricia L. “Monkey Business: Lord Orville and the Limits of Politeness in Frances Burney’s Evelina.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 19.4 (2007): 415-40. Print.

Heartsong Presents: Guidelines for Authors.” Barbourbooks.com. Barbour Publishing. Web. 8 Feb. 2010.

Johnson-Kurek, Rosemary E. “Leading Us into Temptation: The Language of Sex and the Power of Love.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 113-148. Print.

Kane, Emily W. and Mimi Schippers. “Men’s and Women’s Beliefs about Gender and Sexuality.” Gender & Society 10.5 (1996): 650-65. Print.

King, Angela. “The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 5.2 (2004): 29-39. Print.

Klaniczay, Gábor. “Fashionable Beards and Heretic Rags.” The Uses of Supernatural Power: The Transformation of Popular Religion in Medieval and Early-Modern Europe. Trans. Susan Singerman. Ed. Karen Margolis. Cambridge: Polity, 1990. 51-78. Print.

Kramer, Kyra. “The Heroine’s Three Bodies: Jennifer Crusie’s Feminist Reconceptualization of the Heroine’s Body.” Nothing But Good Times Ahead: the Novels of Jennifer Crusie. Ed. Eric M. Selinger and Laura Vivanco. Forthcoming. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. “Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1992. 107-114. Print.

Kuchta, David. “The Making of the Self-Made Man: Class, Clothing, and English Masculinity, 1688-1832.” The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Ed. Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough. Berkeley, CA: U of California P., 1996. 54-78. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. Print.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Print.

Owens Malek, Doreen. “Loved I Not Honor More: The Virginal Heroine in Romance.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1992. 115-120. Print.

Palmer, Paulina. “Girl Meets Girl: Changing Approaches to the Lesbian Romance.” Fatal Attractions: Rescripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Gina Wisker. London: Pluto, 1998. 189-204. Print.

Perkins, Moreland. Reshaping the Sexes in “Sense and Sensibility.” Charlottesville, Virginia: UP of Virginia, 1998. Print.

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1992. 53-59. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature.1984. Chapel Hill, PA: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

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

Saunders, Kate. Introduction. The Sheik. By E. M. Hull. London: Virago, 2002. v-xi. Print.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret M. Lock. “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly ns 1.1 (1987): 6-41. Print.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P., 1983. 245-63. Print. Rpt. of Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61.

Talbot, Mary M. Fictions at Work: Language and Social Practice in Fiction. New York: Longman, 1995. Print.

Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. Print.

Treacher, Amal. “What is Life Without My Love: Desire and Romantic Fiction.” Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction. Ed. Susannah Radstone. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988. 73-90. Print.

Vivanco, Laura. “One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in the Modern Romance Genre.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric M. Selinger. Forthcoming. Print.

Walker, Kate. Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008. Print.

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

Writing Guidelines: Steeple Hill Love Inspired.” eHarlequin. Harlequin Enterprises. Web. 8 Feb. 2010

Zilbergeld, Bernie. Male Sexuality: A Guide to Sexual Fulfillment. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1978. Print.


[1] For a more detailed analysis of the genre’s history, see Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

[2] Simplicity in men’s apparel was not unknown in the medieval period but, “In the Middle Ages, the norms regarding clothes were based on the nearly timeless precept that differentiations in social structure should be recognized by means of dress, hair and beard. However, at the same time – thanks to Christianity – clothes were endowed with a number of moral-symbolic interpretations […] controversy was caused on the one hand by the fashions prevalent at royal and aristocratic courts, and on the other by the symbolic attire of the ascetic religious movements, which opposed in equal measure the opulence of the Church and of the laity” (Klaniczay 52). It is only in much more recent centuries that simple fashions for men have been widely adopted by the aristocracy: “Clothing historians have labeled the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the era of ‘the great masculine renunciation,’ a period of increasing modesty and simplicity in middle- and upper-class men’s dress” (Kuchta 54).

[3] Unusually, this description is given from the point of view of a gay male, Theodric, who also observes the hero’s “tight, exquisitely curved arse” (47).

[4] Regis acknowledges that “In romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century marriage is not necessary as long as it is clear that heroine and hero will end up together” (37-38).

[5] Rape may also function, as Kate Saunders has observed in her introduction to The Sheik, as a way to ensure the heroine “is morally off the hook, in an era when female sexual desire on its own was shameful and improper” (vi).

[6] Another indication of his near omniscience is that “No matter how softly one might creep up to him, he always knew of the approach, and needed not to see who it was who drew near” (111).

[7] With regard to the “pretence of equality,” Cohn suggests that “the belief that a fair bargain has been struck between two parties when one offers rank and wealth and the other, moral improvement is the kind of pious wish-fulfillment called on to mask social relations that are far less benign” (140).

[8] Another significant difference between Christian romances and many secular romances is that characters in Christian romances have a fourth, spiritual, body. The existence of a spiritual body is explicitly mentioned in Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, in which the reader is informed that a minor character’s “physical body lay beneath the lush grass in the fenced-in cemetery behind the tiny white church. His spirit had gone on to be with the Lord” (7).

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“Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

The “story of romance” is the guiding text offered by contemporary American culture, and more generally the culture of the modern West, on the subject of how women and men (should) relate: find your One True Love—your one-and-only—and live happily ever after.[1] To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites: Disney princess movies consumed by three-year-olds, the wedding industry, Hollywood, pop music lyrics, advertising, popular magazines, the diamond jewelry industry, and more. One of the most important of these sites, where romance is taught, re-told, and—a crucial point—experimented with in new forms, is in the literal “romance story” of mass market genre fiction.

While there are clearly significant differences—among these media forms and certainly among the diversity of the immense romance readership, as well as in the variety of subgenres and plots within the romance publishing field—nonetheless there are significant similarities across these categories as well. The basic plotline of the romance narrative holds true despite subgenre variation, which, as we’ll see in the case of erotica and paranormal, can serve simply to highlight the core genre message. As such, likening readers and novels and considering the phenomenon of romance narrative as a whole allows important insights to emerge. More specifically, in this article, I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.[2]

Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work, we will see, involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves. Furthermore, I argue that the industry subcategories of erotica (including gay/lesbian and “slash” romance) and paranormal—both areas of strong recent growth within the overall genre—offer new and highly effective literary means for women to use romance fiction as a way of working out their position within the culture. Indeed, the mainstream growth of erotica in particular signals important changes in American cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality and perhaps, finally, a loosening of the patriarchal knot of allowable sexual expression.

This article forms the initial part of an ongoing monograph project on the romance narrative in popular culture, focusing especially on popular romance fiction. I seek to understand how this romance narrative functions and how it is currently changing, both as a genre of popular literature and as a form of human relationship. Unlike some lines of previous academic inquiry into romance fiction, my goal has little to do with either critique or defense of the genre, nor do I aim for close literary reading of individual authors (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). Like Tania Modleski, I seek to read “symptomatically” (2008, xix), not intending by this metaphor for romance fiction to be taken as illness or pathology, but simply as a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality in America today. I seek to place romance fiction in the broader context of the romance narrative in popular culture; and to adopt a framework of cultural studies, religious studies, gender studies, and sex-positive feminist theory to ask questions about meaning, fantasy, fear, and desire in how the romance narrative plays out in the realms of both popular and high culture in which this story holds such vast sway.

Love as God: Healing and the Religious Eschatology of the “Happily Ever After”

What fascinates me is how, even with the possibility of new and more open twenty-first century norms for gender equality and sexual experimentation, the romance narrative continues to thrive and endure. The power of the story does not die. In fact, romance sales show new dominance in the market; for example, yearly growth in number of new titles rose from 5,184 in 2003 to 10,497 in 2007 (Romance Writers Report 2009). According to industry research compiled by Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels constitute, by far, the largest segment of fiction publishing, with $1.4 billion in yearly US sales and half of mass market paperbacks sold.[3] We chase romance—even when it is to our detriment—we structure our lives around it, we fashion much of our art and pop culture from it. There is a mythic and even religious nature to this endless quest for love, this search for our “One True Love,” this desire and yearning for happily ever after.

Although the romance narrative finds one of its major contemporary expressions in the publishing industry of popular romance novels, more broadly speaking, the story of romance is perhaps the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture and, since its ascendance in the nineteenth century, may well be the most powerful narrative in art and culture in general (Coontz 2005, Polhemus 1990). By calling romance a “cultural narrative” here, I mean a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life.[4] According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

Part of my jumping off point here is Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27). John Keats, for example, in a recent movie dramatization, proclaims, “There is a holiness to the heart’s affection” (Bright Star 2009). Polhemus’s point is that we have faith in love, a reverence for it. Starting in the late eighteenth century with the growth of secularism springing from the Enlightenment, in the art and in the marriages of  western Europe and North America, people increasingly fell in love with the idea of being in love. This faith in love has become a new form of faith, to “augment or substitute for orthodox religious visions” (4), but with such close psychological functionality between the two forms of faith that “religious feeling and eroticism run close together” (10) and “love and theology may be surrogates for each other” (19).

Erotic faith takes on story form in what I’m calling the romance narrative: spun out in prose in the novel, be it the literary high fiction of Pride and Prejudice or the popular mass market fiction of The Sheik and the Vixen; or in advertisements, Hollywood flicks, and pop lyrics; or again as mythic or archetypal template to make sense of one’s own relationship practice. In all cases, the shared and underlying mythic conviction is in the idealizing power of love to make the world, in reality so often harsh and even tragic, a better place. In line with the promise of orthodox religious faith, love offers the promise of redemption and even salvation. In novels, the love plot is the story arc by which characters mature and, the novel teaches, is the means by which real-life people can mature as well. Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness; it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger and wiser person. In all these ways, erotic faith is the conviction, explored in the ups and downs of the romance narrative—girl and boy meet, fall in love or lust, suffer through internal and external conflicts, break up, get back together, and then live happily ever after—of the healing power of love.

But to go further and flip the equation: while the romance narrative is “religious” in its faith in the healing power of love and in the scope of its mythic quest for love, the central religious narrative of western history is also “romantic.” Christianity, that central religious narrative, is easily read as a love story. In the context of  western culture, wherein the artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific heritage are all strongly shaped by the Christian religious tradition, the narrative core of that tradition is essentially a romance story. The mythic narrative of Christianity follows the pattern of the romance narrative, with a guaranteed happy ending (for well-behaved believers or the “saved”), wherein all works out and you live forever after. “Find your one true love and live happily ever after” is one way to describe the narrative content of Christian theology, of the ideal relationship between the believer and the One True Love of Christ the Son or the Christian Father God, and then the believer’s reward of life everlasting. “Are you the One?” the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, as many a lover has pondered early in the game (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20). “God is love,” asserts a key New Testament passage (1 John 4:8, 16), a theological notion that erotic faith easily flips into its own central dogma that “Love is God.”

This two-directional religious analysis allows us to see both the romance narrative within the Christian religious story, thus highlighting the omnipresence and cultural power of this narrative, as well as the religious aspect of the romance story itself, thus highlighting the mythic work of healing and salvation carried out by this story.  The point I seek to make through this parallel is the deep-rootedness of the cultural belief that there is a resurrection power to love. The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith,  western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.

To make this argument clearer, we need to consider one particular aspect of the romance novel: namely, the ending. In romance, the ending is crucial. Romance novels, as well as the romance narrative more generally, are defined by their “HEA”: the happily-ever-after ending, or what RWA calls the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Web), wherein the protagonists resolve their various internal and external conflicts and commit their lives lovingly to one another. Stereotypically, this ending involves the hero and heroine solving the problems that kept them apart, declaring their mutual love, getting married, and often conceiving or bearing a child. Increasingly in contemporary romances, the protagonists may not marry and reproduce, but still make some sort of deliberate decision to be together, a decision that brings to their lives a sense of fulfillment, joy, and the ongoing promise of hot sex.

This ending is important because it highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly (“for all eternity, and even beyond” promises Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl [386]). This fantasy is the idealized version of reality that Northrop Frye (1957) sees as the central characteristic of the romance myth.[5] Authors I’ve interviewed talk about the ending as a contract they have with their readers: no matter how wounded are their characters at the book’s beginning and how further tortured are those characters by the plot conflicts in the book’s middle, all will be well by the end. The HEA is a sacred guarantee in a romance novel: the author will not let the readers down by failing to provide the emotional resolution in the reading experience of love conquering all, healing all wounds, and leading to the promised happily ever after.

The true significance of this HEA, I submit, lies not in its presence at the end of every romance novel, but in its presence in the larger culture. The Christian mythic narrative and the romance narrative both highlight eschatology. Both are narratives concerned with the eschaton, the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of the characters involved (from the Greek eschatos for “last” or “farthest”). A romance, from the very beginning of the story, promises its HEA; the end of the story is inherent from the very beginning, as part of its very narrative structure. The romance story is narrative eschatology. A romance is a story about how to get to a healing end—an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed. To be human is to desire and quest for love. This is what is both wonderful and foolish, even dangerous, about the human condition. The romance narrative tells this story of love and the human condition, in all its vulnerability and risk and wonder and foolishness.

To connect this analysis back to the context of patriarchal culture—true to eschatology, this HEA ending is not just the ending of a particular book nor of a genre of popular literature. The ending of romance novels—in which the heroine and hero will love each other well, for all their lives, and their love binds up their wounds—is not just the conclusion of a story. The romance ending, like the Christian eschaton, is the end of all endings, the ending beyond endings. It is the foundational premise of hetero-normative masculinist culture: that a woman must be under the protection of a man, yoked to him and to at least some extent in his control. But here’s the rub: as evidenced by the enormous female readership of romance novels, this premise is foundational as well to much female fantasy life: that a woman will be protected, yet also pleasured, by the perfect love of a good man.

Lust, Loins, and Literature: Romance Novels as Mirror of Changing Sexual Norms for Women

Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?). Much scholarship has prodded, and continues to prod along these lines, as variously nuanced feminist critique and/or apologia for the genre (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). From a feminist perspective worried about romance novels’ take-away message for women, there is room for concern. However, while readers may sometimes consume these novels in voracious quantity and with great attachment to the genre (reading “religiously” in another sense of the term), they by no means read uncritically. The advent of online readers’ communities exposes the rich interplay among readers, texts, and authors; far from accepting characters’ choices and any views implied by authors, readers often argue back (Wendell and Tan 2009). They post comments deriding the “too stupid to live heroine” along the lines of “why would any sane woman act like that?” or “why would she fall in love with a jerk like him?” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume readers, perhaps especially young adolescent girls, do derive something from their reading experience in terms of a “moral of the story,” and that this moral may well have some sort of ramification in the lives of women. In the books’ complex and ambiguous nexus of women’s imagined fear and desire, shame and pleasure, hurt and healing, vulnerability and protection, pleasure and anxiety, risk and reward, bondage and freedom—what lessons then emerge for readers?

Contemporary romance novels do feature, almost universally, strong and empowered heroines in storylines bucking patriarchal convention mandating male leadership and female submission, but they also, by definition, pretty much always end in monogamous pair-bonding. In contrast to the second-wave feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to live happily ever after in a romance novel, a woman does need a man (and a man needs a woman). To the extent that romances push a vision of women’s lives as incomplete unless they are with a man, a vision of women’s happiness and mature fulfillment necessarily achieved through monogamous, heterosexual marriage and motherhood, this would remain a rather limited, traditional, and patriarchal vision of a woman’s life possibilities. In this regard, I am heartened by the growth of erotica, paranormal, and the new lines of gay and lesbian romance with their ménage stories; non-“vanilla” sex scenes; and heroines who even after pair-bonding remain kick-ass vampire-killers, or vampires, or some other form of strong female alpha or high-achieving professional. Although romance fiction can sometimes seem to offer a narrower vision of women’s lives—perhaps even create false expectations and impossible goals—on the other hand, judging by its massive readership, this vision is hugely appealing to women. So, why, and is that a problem? Just what is at stake in the romance novel? What does happen in reading it? What work does it do for its women readers, and does this work have any feminist liberatory potential?

I want to take a new tack on these issues by focusing on the recent rise of erotica, which I argue allows us to probe this paradox differently, by picking up the lines of inquiry I’ve laid out in regards to the HEA and its central motif of the healing power of love. I grew up reading romance novels (indeed, an important part of my motivation in this project is the chance it offers to interrogate my own fascination with the genre). I used to call the books—with amused affection—“trashy novels.” My friends and I, and my mother and some of her friends all bought, read, traded, and discussed our trashy novels. Were I to parse this descriptor now, I would see in it, on the one hand, a fondly-intended denigration of the genre as lowbrow (not the “good” literature I read for school), and on the other hand, a somewhat titillated adolescent sense that I was getting away with something naughty. I wouldn’t have been allowed to read Playboy or watch porn videos in the house, but although these stories were equally sexually explicit, and thus in that sense “trashy” or smutty, they were acceptable because they were both “romance,” with its legitimizing married HEA, and “novel,” thus still better than reading nothing at all. The genre has developed in many ways over the thirty years I’ve been reading it, but one of the most fascinating developments is the rise of the entirely “trashy” subgenres of erotica (which doesn’t necessarily end with monogamous pair bonding) and “romantica” (which generally does).

This rise is a controversial one, and benefits from a brief contextualization within the recent and equally controversial rise of sex-positive culture and sex-positive feminism. Kayla Perrin is a USA Today bestselling romance novelist who wrote this speech for her character Lishelle in the erotic romance Getting Some (2007, 133):

See, this is what I don’t understand. If guys fuck a hundred women, they’re heroes. They feel no shame in bedding a woman they’ve just met. But if a woman has a one-night stand, my God, she’s a dirty whore. How dare she like sex? This is the twenty-first century, honey. It’s high time we women embrace our sexuality and bury the shame. We have needs, the same as men do. Why do we feel so friggin’ bad about going after what we want?

Lishelle’s passionate endorsement for women to embrace their sexuality highlights how the story of romance is rapidly changing, especially for young women today. A new era is opening up wherein women can write or read such erotica, “hook up” with multiple partners and different types of partners, post images of themselves on altporn sites like Suicide Girls, attend Tupperware-style sex toy parties, wear porno-chic fashion, work as strippers, or simply revel in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, yet still be “good girls” (“Good Girls Do,” reads one recent newspaper headline). The gay rights movement (LGBTQ) is an important part of opening up this narrative; “romance,” including in publishing, no longer means only heterosexual, female-virginal, monogamous, deeply-in-love pair-bonding. The category of what is culturally acceptable in love and romance has—at least in some quarters—grown much bigger. To use Polhemus’s term, our faith in what legitimately counts as the erotic is expanding. This phenomenon of potentially liberating new attitudes toward women’s sexuality is what commentators and scholars characterize in various forms as “sex-positive culture” or “sex-positive feminism” or “striptease culture” (Nagle 1997, McNair 2002, Johnson 2002, Roach 2007). We see its boldly playful echo in such romance groups and blogs as History Hoydens, Smart Bitches, Word Wenches, Historical Hussies, Rip My Bodice, and the Smutketeers.

This effect is further seen in the recent publishing rise of erotica and romantica, and the concurrent intensification of sexual content in much of mainstream romance fiction. Romance novels, like the wider romance narrative, are in the midst of a sea change as they become affected by this sex-positive culture—indeed, I would argue that many romance novelists today are doing sex-positive feminism in their writing. How can we evaluate the complex implications of this change as a current large-scale cultural experiment, both potentially liberatory and at risk of re-inscribing tired patriarchal norms of women’s erotic desire, fantasy, and pleasure? Does today’s romance fiction help move women’s sexuality from margin to crossroads to center, or simply re-marginalize it anew? How are romance novels affected by—and also responsible for shaping—new societal changes about what’s acceptable sexually, in terms of the novels’ level of graphicness, underlying attitudes toward sexuality, treatment of pregnancy and STD protection, etc.? And how does this new trend toward more explicit sexuality in romance novels and more sexual choices in lifestyle relate to such apparently opposite cultural trends as, for example, the premarital abstinence movements of “True Love Waits” and father-daughter “Purity Balls,” as well as the rise of inspirational romance novel sales (with little to no explicit sexuality)?

I take the rise of women’s erotica as indicative of an important cultural moment of change and counter-resistance. Romance authors are opening up restrictive sexual taboos in ways that have true potential to lessen social injustices (for women, sexual minorities, and men too long restricted to a narrow macho role). These new romance narratives can unchain young women from an often destructive and desperate sense they have to find “Mr. Right” early on and not let go. They can give people permission to explore love and sexuality, and ultimately themselves, in new liberatory ways, but these ways are, admittedly, at the same time clearly fraught with risk and danger. Part of the risk is women turning themselves into what author Ariel Levy (2005) termed “female chauvinist pigs” through the internalization of a sex-bunny sensibility that simply gives flesh to every boy’s wet dream fantasy, and then those women experiencing the type of losses Laura Sessions Stepp laments in her book Unhooked (2007) about the campus hook-up culture. Another part of the risk is the early sexualization of the “porno-tot” phenomenon and the loss of innocence and health risks feared by the abstinence movement. In all of this, there is a daunting challenge for the “new erotica” to pull off, but—perhaps—real potential as well, to help us live in ways that are richer and, ultimately, more loving.

Getting a Good Man to Love in Patriarchy: “Come Back to the Bed Ag’in, Alpha Honey!”

We arrive finally at the crux of the tension, the paradox at the heart of the romance narrative. If romance is one of—or even the—central cultural narrative(s), with roots stretching into the culture’s foundational religious story, and if this narrative is being experimented with in new and potentially liberatory ways for wider sexual justice, then romance novels are doing deep work for their readers and for the culture. By “deep work,” I mean that this work is partly unconscious (Modleski 2008), operating at the level of both individual psychology and larger socio-cultural dynamics. The purpose of this work, I argue, is to assuage the drag and rub of patriarchy, to try to make up for the costs to a woman’s psyche of living in a culture that is always just a little, at least potentially, in certain ways against her. As Frye says, “Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (1956, 136).

Let’s put it this way: if, to at least some extent, it’s still a man’s world out there, if the name of the game is patriarchy, then a woman is safer from the dangers that game poses to women—rape and other physical attack, diminished pay rates, employment discrimination, abandonment with children, restricted travel and other life options, general infantilization, misogyny, a life-long low-level anxiety over her sexual vulnerability—to the extent she is in committed relationship with, and thus protected by, a good man. The notion of “good man” here is represented by the romance hero possessing the unlikely profile of high alpha traits that both guarantee he can protect the heroine, and that render him immune to the predations of patriarchy—for patriarchy is a system of violent control and power-over that victimizes lower-caste males as well—in combination with the high sensitivity of the most enlightened pro-feminist lover. This good man/alpha hero is a fantasy, an illusion, in the sense of a powerfully-appealing figure based in wish-fulfillment. As Freud (1927) said, an illusion may have truth to it—for certain lucky young girls, their prince really does come; think Grace Kelly, for example. The story of the alpha hero does have such truth to it—in that love does heal wounds, romance does offer sweetness, most people do seek such and generally find such, to at least some extent—but it is also a fantasy, or illusion, and in the sense of a wish-fulfillment, is highly unlikely to be literally and wholly true. Such is the power of fantasy to offer both truth and illusion. I suspect the resonance of romance novels lies in the central paradox of this interconnected fantasy power of deep truth and of wish-fulfilling illusion.

Romance is fantasy in the sense of pleasure and escape from reality, where true love does not always conquer all nor heal all wounds—key premises of the romance narrative. But more specifically, romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy. According to Frye, one of the central and climactic images in the romance is that “of the monster tamed and controlled by the virgin” (1957, 201). In my reading, this taming is the central dynamic of the romance novel as well. Apart from any realism imparted by rich details, these novels essentially represent a mythic fantasy world in which Woman: the Virgin, the Maiden, the Princess Warrior, Everywoman, tames and controls the monster, Man: the patriarchal alpha hero, who has the power to easily harm her, but who will not, because she has cracked open his frozen patriarch’s heart and taught him to love (Frantz 2002).

These are large claims that must await full unpacking and exploration in future research and writing, but as an exemplar here, I want to focus on the HEA and healing in a final argument that both the subgenres of erotica and paranormal (often combined) highlight or intensify the dynamics of the HEA and of its central reparation fantasy of redemption, salvation, and wholeness. Both erotica and paranormal are highly effective at doing the deep work of the romance novel HEA and thus can more clearly reveal this deep work. The messages to women here are three: you can’t fight patriarchy, you must fight patriarchy, and patriarchy will end. All this is encapsulated in the complex HEA promise: you will get a good man to love. Vignettes from three recent romance novels illustrate these messages.

Maya Banks’s Sweet Persuasion (2009) is a BDSM romantica tale, featuring Serena, a successful business woman whose fantasy is to be a sex slave to Damon, the charismatic owner of a sex club. This, and similar plot lines, allow for exploration of a submission and surrender theme to the erotic desire and possessiveness of a powerful man not widely seen since the “bodice-ripper” domination and rape plots of the 1980s (Wendell and Tan 2009). BDSM romantica allows for a more politically-correct exploration of this dynamic, as here the heroine surrenders willingly, in a fantasy power game, and Damon’s complete authority over her—“I want the security of knowing I am … owned,” Serena says (70)—is ultimately benign. While he puts her in bondage and takes a crop to her, Damon also feeds, clothes, and bathes her—literally by hand; fully supports her professional ambitions; puts up charmingly with her meddling friends; buys her a wardrobe; and sends her to the spa. He demands total control over her, but he’s also a good man, who loves her well and devotedly. “I wanted to own her. I wanted her to own my heart” (253), he says of a previous failed relationship, when explaining his desire to Serena. The lesson Serena learns in the end: “it takes someone strong to give up ultimate power, to allow a man to take care of her, to make decisions for her” (284). Patriarchy is literally the name of the game here: Serena wants to play sex-slave to a strong alpha master. Thus, the message: you can’t fight patriarchy, lest you be a bad slave and displease your master; but you must fight patriarchy, in the sense of holding out for no less than this perfectly egalitarian master. For while the master here rules, no matter—by the time of the HEA, it’s clear he rules to serve and to cherish. And so patriarchy ends. Although he’s in charge, she has him: she owns his heart. Through identification with both the heroine and hero, the female reader experiences her subordinate and vulnerable position within our still-patriarchal culture as one that nevertheless promises her safety and pleasure, precisely because this particular patriarch has capitulated to her, fully and completely.

In Joey W. Hill’s BDSM romantica novel Natural Law (2004), the power dynamic is reversed between two under-cover cops; instead of patriarchy ruling, here it’s the “matriarch” or Mistress in charge. Violet is petite, a “pixie,” yet formidable: a dominant Mistress born. Patriarchy is already overturned here, in that the deep fantasy work of this story is that of resisting and rejecting male rule for a matriarchy where man is the subordinate, required to obey the woman’s every command, and wanting nothing more than to fulfill her will and satisfaction as his own. Yet although Mac is a willing male submissive, he is still the alpha through and through: physically much stronger, a seasoned detective, no weakling who would leave you prey to harm (he in fact takes a bullet for Violet by the end of the story). Like Serena and Damon, Violet and Mac finally find each other after a long and painful life quest of loneliness and self-doubt; these couples complete each other and find healing and wholeness through surrender to their special form of love. Violet, unlike Serena, upends the patriarchal dynamic; she is “someone strong” in a different sense than Serena, but not in any sense that emasculates Mac. He enjoys “serving a Mistress’s pleasure,” he says self-confidently, as much as he enjoys “being a cop, or watching a Buccaneers game, or spending a day out in the Gulf on my boat. Being a sub doesn’t make me less of a man” (277). The female reader fantasy here is one of overt power, but although she’s nominally in charge (you must fight patriarchy), he’s the strong alpha male all the same (you can’t fight patriarchy), perhaps even more so—because if it takes a real man to eat quiche, wear pink, and drink Chardonnay, surely it takes a man on the archetypal level of a romance novel warrior-king to accept bondage and open himself to the pleasure of anal penetration by his Mistress (patriarchy will end).

The warrior-king becomes real, and becomes vampire, in my last example: J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover (2005), the first book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. In paranormal romance, the hero can be more alpha—bigger, stronger, more deadly—than in non-paranormal: he can grow fangs, possess supernatural strength, teleport, heal miraculously fast, etc. While “Wrath” is all that—indeed, his name says it all—he, like all males shaped by patriarchy’s “tough guise” or mask of emotional straight-jacketing, cannot love. He can only disdain erotic faith as the religion of women and weak men. He is the über-patriarch: violently aggressive against all enemies, an arrogant macho hardass toward the brotherhood, “six feet nine inches of pure terror dressed in leather” (3). Yet he’s immediately drawn to Beth, a beautiful woman thrust into his keeping, about to turn into a vampire herself. He gives into lust, but fights love. For a man to open himself to love means he’s weak, “pathetic … pussy-whipped,” Wrath goads a happily-mated brother (186-87). But by the end, as Wrath and Beth find peace and completion in their love bond and a new life mission together to rebuild vampire civilization, Wrath is a changed man. Still the ultra-violent patriarch toward any who would dare hurt his queen, he has literally had Beth’s name carved into his back; kneeled at her feet; offered his body, heart, and soul as hers to command; and then asked, with head bowed, “Will you take me as your own?” (333). The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love.

All three of these examples have in common what I am calling a reparation fantasy in the HEA’s work of imagined healing. One of the Latin etymologies for the term “religion” is re-ligare, “to re-bind” or “re-tie” (the term “ligament” has the same root). From this perspective, religion represents a threefold sense of original unity, recognition of loss or wound, and attempt to repair and reconnect sundered parts back into a whole. Plato’s Symposium dialogue famously casts this threefold sense as an origin story of humanity and humans’ rather foolish yet poignant endless quest for love. In the dialogue, humans began as four-footed symmetrical beings, then were cut in half by the gods, and now are forever on a quest for their missing other part: our better half, our soul mate, our one-and-only, our One True Love. In the Symposium and the three romance novels above, love renders us whole, heals and completes us, resolves life’s quest, brings true peace. From this perspective, both romance and religion are reparation fantasies, deep mythic stories of the powerful healing that comes about through meaningful and intimate relations.

One last idea: for Leslie Fiedler, the American literature critic of the mid-twentieth century, American fiction is driven by the dream of interethnic male bonding and the “myth of the dark beloved,” in which people of color forgive and love white folk, despite the predations and horrors of racism. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) is his controversial essay on Huckleberry Finn and also The Last of the Mohicans, two iconic American stories authored by white males about a “dark beloved:” an African-American or Native American male other who shares an adventurous quest with a white male protagonist. Fielder’s essay is essentially about the literature of white male America as a reparation fantasy for racism, offered with remorse and affection on the part of the racists. Romance fiction is a different, reverse type of reparation fantasy, one centered on sexism and patriarchy and offered not by those who perpetuated the discrimination (as in Fiedler’s formulation), but by those subjected to it. Instead of a myth of the dark beloved, we have a myth of the “alpha beloved.” Women readers/authors/fictional heroines, like Jim in Huck Finn and in Fiedler’s provocative title, bear no grudge and invite the master, “Come back to the raft”—or the bed—“again, honey.” A woman can proffer this invitation because she has taken her stand against patriarchy, and though the system remains, so too has it ended. The romance fantasy, in other words, is that the hero will come, in all his fierce and possessive patriarchal warrior-king glory, but that he will also forever stay: emotionally vulnerable, devoted unto death, serving his mistress with his sword and with his heart. The fantasy is that patriarchy overall remains in place—he remains a ruling alpha, and so can protect her—but this system, and he as its representative, never threaten or diminish the heroine.

She gets a good man. And she gets him to love.[6]


Works Cited

Banks, Maya. Sweet Persuasion. New York: Berkley Heat, 2009. Print.

Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Apparition, 2009. Film.

Coddington, Lynn. “Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa 3:1-2 (1997): 58-77. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review. June 1948. Print.

Frantz, Sarah. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. and ed. James Strachey.  New York: Norton, 1989. Print.

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

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hill, Joey W. Natural Law. Akron, OH: Ellora’s Cave, 2004. Print.

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[1] In my use of the cultural descriptor “modern West” here, I draw on Stephanie Coontz’s (2005) history of marriage, with its central thesis that starting in the later eighteenth century, a “gigantic marital revolution had occurred in Western Europe and North America during the Enlightenment” (5). The ideal of the sentimental and passionate love-based marriage—in radical contrast to the more economically and politically pragmatic notions of marriage that had predominated before that time and that continued as the norm in other parts of the world—came to dominate in  western culture through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[2] By “patriarchy,” I adopt Allan Johnson’s definition of a cultural system that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered” and that valorizes violence and control (2005, 5). High rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and violence against girls and women form a central part of such culture, as well as high rates of violence against men. I share in Johnson’s analysis that contemporary American culture remains marked by such patterns, although these patterns have clearly lessened through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of human rights and the influence of the successive waves of the women’s movement and feminism. To the extent that both patriarchy and popular romance fiction reading are phenomena with global reach, this analysis could be broadened beyond contemporary America as well, but for now, I confine my analysis to this cultural complex.

[3] Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US-based professional writers’ organization devoted to the publishing genre of popular romance fiction, with a membership of approximately ten thousand published and aspiring authors. For publication and sale statistics, visit the organization’s website at rwanational.org.

[4] Northrop Frye’s (1957) archetypal criticism in his classic theory of myths is useful here as well, where he lays out a theory of generic plots or mythic narrative structures: “In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

[5] Although what Frye (1957) means by “romance novel” differs from the popular women’s fiction under consideration here, there is significant continuity between these forms of prose fiction as well. This issue of the historical lineage of contemporary women’s romance novels in terms of the long-established literary forms of both “novel” and “romance” bears further study.

[6] I thank two very astute anonymous peer-review readers who helped me see my text more clearly with excellent suggestions for revision and expansion. I am grateful as well to the College of Arts and Sciences and New College at the University of Alabama and to the Romance Writers of America for academic grant support that made this research possible. Academic audiences at the Popular Culture Association 2009 annual conference and a Women’s Resource Center talk at the University of Alabama provided useful feedback as well in working out my ideas. Finally, I thank Eric Murphy Selinger for leading me to Robert Polhemus and colleagues Deborah Weiss, Fred Whiting, and Ted Trost for helping me think through key ideas in this paper.

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