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“Queering the Romantic Heroine: Where Her Power Lies” by Katherine E. Lynch, Ruth E. Sternglantz, and Len Barot

Five years ago, a letter to the editor of the Romance Writers Report (a monthly publication issued by the Romance Writers of America), suggested that “romance” should be defined as between one man and one woman. Specifically, the writer asserted that “what [has] brought romance fiction to its present level of success is a collection of decades’ worth of one-man, one-woman relationship stories, in all their richness, variety, and power” (Rothwell). This letter caused a great deal of discussion, and no small controversy, within the RWA membership and the romance community. Ultimately, the debate came down to one central question: What, exactly, is a romance?

Romance comes from the Old French noun romanz, which was used to describe “a medieval narrative (originally in verse, later also in prose) relating the legendary or extraordinary adventures of some hero of chivalry” (OED s.v. romance, def. 1). Over time, of course, the word’s meaning has changed. In 2003, Pamela Regis defined the romance novel as “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (21). Regis acknowledges, however, that romance novels written within the last several decades do not necessarily require marriage as long as the protagonists end up together by the conclusion of the book. This is especially good news for queer readers living in locations where same-sex marriage is not recognized by law.

The early twentieth century saw the emergence of love stories featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered protagonists. However, these stories often ended tragically and were thus not romance novels in Regis’s sense. Over time, however, the queer female hero has been able to inhabit the romance genre in ways that reflect the rapidly changing landscape of sexual identity politics in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America.

This article will analyze the development of queer romance as a literary subtype that emerges both parallel to and intertwined with trends in mainstream romance literature. The authors of this paper are, respectively: an English professor and lesbian romance novelist, a medievalist and editor of queer fiction, and a publisher and author of queer fiction. As we trace the evolution of the queer romance genre, we will demonstrate the literature’s indebtedness to the LGBTQ civil rights movement, which began to gain traction in the late 1960s and has become a powerful and vociferous lobby in contemporary politics.

One Small Step for Romance: The Evolution of the Queer Female Hero

Women in the queer community are accustomed to reading themselves into works of literature. This process is analogous to transposing a piece of music; with subtle concentration, a hero can be transformed into a second heroine. In her article “Every Book is a Lesbian Book,” award-winning author Dorothy Allison describes this act of re-imagination: “I had spent my adolescence reinterpreting the reality of every book, movie and television show I had ever experienced—moving everything into lesbian land.” Occasionally, the queer female reader finds—to her immense delight—a passage in which the author has paved the way for her imagination. The author need only hint that the heroine is willing to deviate from the status quo as regards her love interest.

This re-interpretive project can be brought to bear on texts throughout history. One important example in English literature is Sir Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, which was published in the late sixteenth century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Book III of the poem takes as its subject Britomart, a woman on a quest for her one true love—a man named Arthegall. Knowing that she will be unable to proactively seek out Arthegall so long as she looks like a woman, Britomart dons a legendary suit of armor and takes up a magical spear in order to pass as a knight. During the course of her adventures, she rescues a lovely woman named Amoret, who has been imprisoned by an evil enchanter. Initially, Amoret fears for her own virtue because she believes Britomart to be a man who might force himself on her. However, once Britomart removes her helmet to expose, in Spenser’s words, “her golden lockes, that were vp bound” (III.1.13.2), Amoret’s attitude changes dramatically. Amoret’s relief that her savior is a woman takes an interesting turn as night falls:

And eke fayre Amoret now freed from feare,

More franke affection did to [Britomart] afford,

And to her bed, which she was wont forbeare,

Now freely drew, and found right safe assurance theare.

Where all that night they of their loues did treat,

And hard aduentures twixt themselues alone,

That each the other gan with passion great,

And griefull pittie priuately bemone. (Book IV, Canto I, stanzas 15.6 – 16.4)

The homoeroticism of this passage is undeniable and has been noted by several literary critics. In her 1998 monograph The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative, for example, Dorothy Stephens asserts that this moment is “the one happy bed scene in the whole poem” (38). For the queer female reader, this scene is an unexpected delight: Britomart, having just proven her superiority on a field of battle traditionally dominated by men, comes out as female and proceeds to spend a sensual night with another woman.

But the scene is ultimately dissatisfying; the reader’s joy is tempered by her knowledge that Britomart’s romantic destiny is predetermined. While Spenser’s poem may hint at romantic possibilities outside of the traditional pairing of a man and a woman, heteronormativity always prevails. In English texts from the medieval and early modern periods, one woman seeks out another for one of two reasons: either to avoid a man or to find a man.

Not until the early twentieth century did English literature produce a text that chronicled a full-fledged romance between two women. In 1928, two decades after the first English medical texts about homosexuality had been written,[1] British novelist Marguerite Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness. The book’s protagonist is a woman named Stephen Gordon, who was christened with a male name because of her father’s desire for a son. Stephen is the prototypical butch lesbian: “[She was] handsome in a flat, broad shouldered and slim flanked fashion; and her movements were purposeful, having fine poise, she moved with the easy assurance of the athlete. In face she had [ . . . ] the formation of the resolute jaw [of her father] Sir Phillip.” Even from a young age, Stephen typifies the butch lesbian hero emotionally as well as physically. As an adolescent, she falls in love with a married woman and declares herself ready and willing to sacrifice her name, her legacy, her inheritance, and her social status for love: “For your sake I’m ready to give up my home [ . . . ] I want the whole world to know how I adore you. I am done with these lies [ . . .] [W]e will go away, and will live quite openly together, you and I, which is what we owe to ourselves and our love.” Self-sacrifice is a fundamental trait of the romantic hero, and throughout the novel, Stephen repeatedly sacrifices herself on the altar of forbidden love.

As an adult, Stephen falls in love with a young, unmarried woman named Mary. The primary barrier to their love is the social stigma of being, in the medical terminology of the time, a “sexual invert.” Stephen, who has already experienced rejection at the hands of her own mother, attempts to dissuade Mary from falling in love with her. But Mary refuses to be cowed and courageously declares, “What do I care for the world’s opinion? What do I care for anything but you, and you just as you are—as you are, I love you! [ . . . ] Can’t you understand that all that I am belongs to you, Stephen?” (312-3). This passionate declaration of love is followed by an equally passionate embrace, “and that night,” Hall writes, “they were not divided” (313).

While The Well of Loneliness chronicles Stephen and Mary’s romance, it is not a romance novel. In the end, Stephen’s despair at the world’s rejection compels her to drive Mary into the arms of a man who can give her the respect she deserves from society. Stephen kills herself, crying out to God with her last breath in a prayer for compassion and recognition: “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” (437)

For decades following The Well of Loneliness, fiction about queer women offered no happy endings. Despite this trend, lesbian stories became ever more popular, particularly during the pulp fiction explosion of the 1950s and 60s. Stephanie Foote, in her article, “Deviant Classics: Pulp and the Making of Lesbian Print Culture,” asserts that “pulps changed the accessibility and affordability of fiction” (170). These books were widely available, and even the ones with lesbian themes sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Most of the early lesbian titles ended in despair. Dorothy Allison remembers her frustration with the grim ending of many a lesbian pulp, referring to them as “paperbacks from the drugstore that inevitably ended with one ‘dyke’ going off to marry while the other threw herself under a car.” In the late 1950s, however, several brave authors began to change the rules.[2]

One such author was Ann Bannon, whose best-known work, Beebo Brinker, was written in 1962 and tells the story of a young woman who leaves her rural home for New York City. Early in the novel, Beebo, who is still in the process of coming out to herself, mentions finding and reading a lesbian pulp: “I read a book once [ . . . ] under my covers at night—when I was fifteen. It was about two girls who loved each other. One of them committed suicide. It hit me so hard I wanted to die, too” (50). Stephanie Foote describes this particular moment as “a self-conscious, even playful metafictional reference to the pulps that Bannon herself helped to make famous.” She also acknowledges, however, that Beebo’s anecdote parallels the lived experience of many lesbian readers during that time. By making Beebo a reader of these tragic books, Bannon comments on the paucity of empowering fiction for the queer female readership.

During this time, lesbians found ways to compensate for their literature’s testimony that death was the only recourse for a woman who loved another woman. Carol Seajay, the founder of the Feminist Bookstore News, would read pulps “only up to the last twenty pages, to avoid sharing the lesbian protagonist’s inevitable tragic end” (Adams 122). In Beebo Brinker, Bannon rejects the paradigm of self-destruction and allows Beebo to find happiness, thus paving the way for the rise of the lesbian romance in the 1970s.

The pulps inaugurated a time of intense literary production around lesbian themes. “Between 1968 and 1973,” writes Adams, “over 500 feminist and lesbian publications appeared across the country, and what would become an organized network of independent women’s bookstores began to appear.” For many years, Naiad Press, founded in 1973, dominated the lesbian market. The press was most famous for its romances, one of which—Curious Wine, by Katherine V. Forrest—remains one of the best-selling lesbian romances of all time.

Curious Wine, first published in 1983, tells the story of Diana and Lane, two women who meet at Lake Tahoe and fall in love. Neither protagonist identifies as a lesbian prior to the events of the novel; in fact, both have been married to men in the past. The world that provides the backdrop for their story is very much a straight world, populated by their ex-boyfriends and straight girlfriends. Told from Diana’s point of view, the novel focuses on how difficult it can be to come out to oneself. Diana’s instinctive and powerful attraction to Lane leads them to fall into bed together a third of the way through the story. On the brink of consummating their desire, however, Diana pulls away, stuttering, “I can’t . . . I don’t . . . I’m not . . .” (77). The next day, she very deliberately seeks out a sexual encounter with a man who very nearly rapes her. She realizes in the wake of this experience that she is allowing fear to get the best of her true desires. She thinks to herself, “Diana Holland, you have really made a mess of things. You let that crude animal do that to you, but you wouldn’t let a tender sensitive woman—someone you care for—do what both of you want. [ . . . ] What is it that you’re afraid of, Diana Holland? What you feel? What other people think? Where is your courage? Your honesty? Your self esteem?” (89). Diana fears society’s judgment, just as Stephen Gordon does, but neither she nor Lane ever contemplates suicide. The book ends with a declaration of resolve in the face of the world’s opinion. “We’ll have problems, Diana, being together,” Lane reminds her. Diana’s response is to acknowledge the problem and to recognize its solution: “Yes, I know. But we’ll be together” (160). While Forrest’s novel does not shy away from a discussion of the difficulties Diana and Lane will face, the book focuses most of its attention on the exhilarating passion and depth of emotion that develop between the protagonists as they fall in love. Forrest’s lovers echo Stephen Gordon’s agony but move beyond it to fulfill her dying prayer.

Over the ensuing decades, lesbian fiction has evolved in a variety of ways, many of which mirror Western societies’ increased concern for LGBTQ equality. Radclyffe’s Safe Harbor, for example, was first published in 2001. Set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Safe Harbor chronicles the romance of deputy sheriff Reese Conlon and physician Tory King. Reese is a new arrival in Provincetown where Tory runs a clinic. Reese is wholly dedicated to her career and has never been physically or emotionally intimate with anyone. Tory is afraid to become romantically involved again after having been betrayed by her ex, and Reese’s innocence also deters her from pursuing a relationship. As in Curious Wine, the issue of coming out is at the heart of this book. But where Forrest describes this journey as private and internal, Radclyffe presents Reese’s coming out process as a collaborative effort on the part of the entire community. In a frank discussion with her friend Marge, Reese learns that, unbeknownst to her, she has become the talk of the town. “Carol from the Cheese Shop put it best,” says Marge. “She said you were an impossibly good-looking, unapproachable butch, who probably does the asking. And, my friend, there’re a fair number of women waiting in line, hoping that you’ll ask” (134). Marge is shocked to learn that Reese, as she puts it, has “never had that kind of relationship with anyone” (135). As time passes, Reese and Tory’s friends and families subtly—and often not so subtly—encourage their burgeoning romance. In fact, it is a conversation with Tory’s sister, Cath, that prompts Reese to first declare her love to Tory:

[Reese] remembered Cath speaking of all that Tory had lost, understanding the enormity of that pain as she contemplated what a life without Tory would be like. Barren and so lonely.

“Tory,” she said, her voice soft but crystal clear.

“Yes?” Tory questioned as she lay listening to the strong, steady heartbeat beneath her cheek.

“I love you.” (199)

Reese’s coming out process is a matter of public record, and her relationship with Tory is recognized and celebrated by the majority of the town’s citizens. Their love is reinforced by the community in which they live and whose constituents they serve and protect. In many ways, the story reflects changes in the landscape of sexual identity politics; just one year prior to Safe Harbor’s publication, for example, Vermont became the first state to legislate civil unions for same-sex partners. As the battle for equal marriage rights continues to be waged publically in courts and legislatures across the nation, stories in which queer women learn to love each other openly and unreservedly take on a powerful political undertone.

Other contemporary lesbian romances take this trend one step further. Often, the protagonists are already out and their sexual orientation is never seen as a barrier to anything or anyone; their queerness is simply accepted and rarely, if ever, questioned. By normalizing sexual queerness, such stories allow both the author and the audience to explore other modes of difference, whether a function of world or character. Moreover, in a lesbian romance these modes of difference are necessarily connected to the female-ness of the characters, and thus allow for a deeper interrogation of contemporary femininities. The following section will explore the ways in this subgenre offers up the notion of difference—what we prefer to call wildness, in deference to its Amazonian roots—as a celebrated quality, rather than a threat that must be contained.

Lesbian Romance and the Undomesticated Queer Hero

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, offers a string of definitions for the word wild. Among them (offered in order of the dictionary listing):

1a: living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame;

3a(1): not subject to restraint or regulation; also: passionately eager or enthusiastic;

4: uncivilized, barbaric; and

6a: deviating from the intended or expected course.

Wildness, in each of those forms, is a key element in the power dynamic driving the romance novel. Indeed, Pamela Regis, in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, defines the female hero of the twentieth-century romance novel in relationship to wildness—crucially, not her own wildness, but the wildness of the romance hero:

Rather than achieving affective individualism, property rights, and companionate marriage through courtship as the earlier [nineteenth-century] heroines did, the twentieth-century heroine begins the novel with these in place. [ . . . ] The novel chronicles the heroine’s taming of the dangerous hero or her healing of the injured hero, or both. [ . . . ] They are [ . . . ] dangerous men and must be tamed. (206)

This notion of the domestication of the dangerous hero—the dangerous male hero—is echoed in the title of Jayne Anne Krentz’s 1992 essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance. Krentz posits that in certain late-twentieth-century romance novels, “The trick is to teach the hero to integrate and control the two warring halves of himself so that he can function as a reliable mate and as a father. The journey of the novel [ . . . ] is the civilization of the male” (6). But Krentz goes a step further, arguing that these romance novels don’t just trace the civilization or domestication of dangerous wild men, but do it through the agency of “female power”: “In the romance novel [ . . . ] the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman” (5). According to Krentz, then, male power in much contemporary romance is dangerous, wild, and in need of taming, while female power is courageous, intelligent, gentle, civilizing, and domestic. But what happens to the power dynamic when there is no male hero? What happens in lesbian romance?

It is not our intent here to thoroughly explore—or explode—the paradigm, and there are surely lesbian romances in which a courageous, intelligent, gentle woman domesticates her wild female lover. For instance, in Jove Belle’s 2009 novel Chaps, Eden Metcalf, an L.A. drug-lord’s enforcer, steals his money, goes on the run, and—when her Ducati breaks down in the middle of nowhere—finds herself relying on the kindness of Brandi Cornwell, a hardworking, clean-living Idaho rancher. The story ends in Idaho, on the ranch, with Eden wrapped in the protective warmth of Brandi’s arms. The final words of the novel are, “Eden was home.” Few romance protagonists are more dangerous than Eden is at the top of the story or more domesticated than she is at its conclusion. But there is a parallel track in contemporary lesbian romance, one in which wildness or dangerousness is a quality to be celebrated and cultivated and embraced, rather than tamed or controlled.

Before turning to the transformation of this character in contemporary lesbian romance, it is necessary to take a brief look at the medieval and early modern roots of dangerous women in romance. There is a long tradition of dangerous women in English romance, long before the advent of the romance novel.[3] It is appropriate to begin this discussion with Geoffrey Chaucer, because one of the overarching themes of Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales is how women mediate power in romance. In the “Knight’s Tale”—the chivalric romance at the start of the Canterbury Tales—Theseus returns triumphantly to Athens, having conquered the kingdom of the Amazons. He brings his new wife—formerly the queen of the Amazons—to the Athenian court, along with her younger sister Emily. Emily promptly finds herself the unwilling apex of a love triangle, as two knights vie for her hand. Their love for Emily provokes war and chaos and copious bloodshed; an entire military/industrial complex springs up to support a tournament to determine who wins the girl. Emily prays to the goddess Diana, reminding her that she never wants to marry a man—she wants to spend her life in Diana’s service, hunting and walking in the wild woods. She begs Diana to divert the knights’ attention from her. But she does have a contingency clause: if she must end up with one of them, she begs, “sende me hym that moost desireth me” (2325). She clearly knows how romances end in the fourteenth century. It is not the dangerous male hero who is domesticated, but the dangerous woman who is silenced, who marries the knight who survives the tournament. And we are told that he lives happily ever after: “For now is Palamon in alle wele,/ Lyvynge in blisse, in richesse, and in heele” (3101-3102).

This brief excursus into early English literature reveals two possible models for heteronormative romance. On the one hand, there is the early modern English story, in which dangerous, wild women are domesticated and tamed. On the other, there is the contemporary romance novel, in which dangerous, wild men are domesticated and tamed.

Contemporary lesbian romance offers a third way. Perhaps because our heroes reach back to Chaucer’s Emily, who dared admit that she didn’t want to marry a man, who asked for nothing more than to spend her life in the wild wood, but who prepared for the contingency of having her wildness tamed, we view wildness in our romance heroes as a quality to be cultivated. Perhaps because we write our stories in the shadow of and standing on the shoulders of Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, whose Stephen Gordon believes that she is dangerous to the woman she loves, that she cannot offer her a happy life, we write romance novels where dangerous heroes are loved for their dangerous qualities, for their wildness, for their transgression—not in spite of it. In contemporary lesbian romance, wildness is not the enemy of happily ever after.

How does this play out in contemporary lesbian romance? Putting aside for the moment works of romantic intrigue or paranormal romance, where the persistence of the female hero’s dangerousness and wildness is arguably intrinsic, the discussion that follows will address character-driven romances that feature a dangerous, wild woman who not only remains untamed, but is loved for her wildness by the end of the novel.

Radclyffe’s Love’s Melody Lost, first published in 2001, is a romance between Graham Yardley, a reclusive composer-pianist living alone with a trusted housekeeper, and Anna Reid, who arrives to manage the affairs of the estate. Terribly injured over a decade before the action of the story in an accident that cost her her sight and her music, and abandoned by her lover Christine, Graham has locked herself and her heart away in a Victorian mansion on Cape Cod Bay, protecting both others and herself from the dangers of her unruly passions. After she and Anna finally make love, Graham knows she must send Anna away, much as Stephen Gordon resolved to drive her lover away:

She remembered with shattering clarity each sensation—the longing and the wonder and the miracle of communion, body and soul. She could not drive the memory of the past from her thoughts—the complete desolation of the spirit she had suffered when Christine left her. She feared that ultimately her deepest needs would force Anna to leave her, too. She knew with utter certainty that this would be a pain she could not bear a second time in her life. Despite the years, the wounds still bled, and she could not banish the fear. She had not sought this love; in fact she had hidden herself from the very possibility of it for years. (144-5)

Anna does leave, but because this is a romance novel, her love for Graham brings her back to fight for the woman she loves—for her wildness, for her dangerous passionate needs. Indeed, Radclyffe rewrites the ending of The Well of Loneliness as Anna refutes Graham’s claims: “There is nothing you could do, short of not loving me, that would ever make me leave you. I am not afraid of your needs, or your wants, or your passions. I want you” (165).

Radclyffe herself has said that Love’s Melody Lost is “an intentional retelling of Jane Eyre,” with Graham corresponding to Mr. Rochester (“The Hero and The Lady”). But Graham, the dangerous woman, the woman with destructive, disruptive powers, the woman locked up in the grand house, can also be read as Bertha Rochester, the so-called madwoman in the attic. In lesbian romance, not only are dangerous women freed from the attic, but they are embraced and loved.

In Radclyffe’s first medical romance, Passion’s Bright Fury (2003), the dangerous, wild woman is Saxon Sinclair, trauma chief at a Manhattan hospital, and the woman who loves her for her wildness is Jude Castle, who is shooting a documentary in Sax’s trauma unit. Jude’s first glimpse of Saxon tells her—and us—that she is transgressive:

At the sound of the footsteps in the deserted hallway behind her, Jude Castle turned and got her first look at the elusive Dr. Saxon Sinclair, chief of trauma at St. Michael’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. The surgeon wasn’t entirely what she expected of someone with that title—particularly not with a motorcycle helmet tucked under one arm, a well-worn black leather jacket, and faded blue jeans. (20)

But Sax’s wildness goes beyond her appearance and actions. Like Graham, whose wildness is organic to her talent, and like Stephen Gordon, whose hardwired queerness—whose status as invert—makes her dangerous, Saxon’s brain chemistry is idiosyncratic. She revs at a higher speed than most people. As a child and young adult, misdiagnosed and misunderstood, she was rejected by her parents, and as an adult she has borne this secret truth about herself alone, refusing intimacy, expecting rejection. She has learned to be afraid of her own wildness. But like Anna, Jude refuses to allow Sax to push her away. She wants to know her, and she wants her, not in spite of her wildness, but for it. By the end of the novel, Sax declares: “‘Jude [ . . . ] you make it safe for me to be myself. I am not afraid when I’m with you’” (214). Thus, in lesbian romance, love frees wild women to be fully themselves. It certainly doesn’t tame them.

Wild women come in many different packages. Lea Santos’s 2010 romance Under Her Skin offers a distinctly nurturing wild woman, Torien Pacias, who falls in love with international supermodel Iris Lujan. While all of Santos’s novels feature Latina characters, Tori is not only Latina but a Mexican, supremely conscious of her outsider status among Americans, uncomfortably aware that she and Iris live in different socioeconomic worlds. Iris’s—and our—first glimpse of Torien is in the garden where she works—the wild woman in the state of nature:

Torien’s sleeveless shirt was buttoned low enough to expose a good portion of her sports bra, like she’d thrown it over her body as an afterthought. Sweat glistened on her defined delts and the exposed area of her chest. Mud caked the bottoms of her worn jeans and work boots. Her callused hands—Lord, get a load of those hands—were clearly unafraid of hard, honest, sweaty work. (17)

While there is certainly nothing conventionally dangerous about Tori, we see in Tori an echo of Stephen Gordon’s fear, of Graham Yardley’s fear, of the wild lesbian romance heroine’s fear that she will hurt the woman she loves. Torien believes that she, a lowly gardener, will only hold Iris back. Throughout the novel, Iris is the pursuer and Torien the pursued, until Iris finally manages to convince Torien that she loves her and they can be together. What is fascinating about this novel is that it is about the domestication of one of the lovers—but not of the dangerous wild one. Indeed, it is Iris who is domesticated, who turns down a lucrative long-term overseas modeling contract when she realizes that it’s Tori she wants. As for Tori, far from being domesticated, far from losing her wildness, Iris quite literally joins her in her garden. Not only is the wild woman not domesticated, but in this novel, domestication means going wild.

Emma Donoghue notes in her recent study of desire between women in literature that “[a] society’s literature is its dream: immensely suggestive, yes, but not a simple reflection of its daily reality” (14). For several hundred years, wild women in romance were silenced and domesticated. For two thirds of the twentieth century, lesbian love stories invariably ended in tears. Indeed, in 1941, a review in the New York Times stated categorically: “It is surely time to concede that the subject of Lesbianism, if used otherwise than in the scientific investigation of human abnormality, should fall into a special category of its own, possibly as a minor subsidiary of tragedy” (Southron).

Now, not only are lesbians the heroes of romance novels, but these wild women are dangerous because they are passionate, because they are artists, because they buck convention—and not simply because they are sexually queer. Contemporary lesbian romance creates a safe space for the wild hero, for the dangerous madwoman, who refuses to be trapped in the attic, and who will not be silenced in the closet.

This trend is amplified when the lesbian romantic hero is the protagonist of a paranormal romance. The final section of this article will explore the figure of the lesbian alpha hero, the recent resurgence in popularity of the alpha hero in the paranormal romance novel, and how this subgenre has served to legitimate wild heroines within mainstream romance—regardless of their sexual preference.

Queering the Alpha

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler suggests that “the dramatic purpose of the hero is to give the audience a window into the story. Each person hearing a tale or watching a play or movie is invited in the early stages of the story to identify with the hero, to merge with him and see the world of the story through his eyes” (36). Romance authors would argue that the dramatic purpose of the hero is to embody a character with whom the heroine (and by extension, the reader) can fall in love. In fact, those who write erotic romances contend, as does Angela Knight in A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance, that the hero is responsible for the “sexual heat” of the story. The heroine may determine, as Knight posits, when and how sex ultimately takes place, but it is the hero who pushes the agenda. He creates the erotic focus of the work. He is also, however, constrained in certain ways by societal mores—both those of the story in which he finds himself, and those of the author who creates him. Jay Dixon asserts in her review of the romances of British publisher Mills and Boon that “social reality necessarily colours the portrayal of heroes in all popular literature” (64). As a consequence, since most romances are written by women, the portrayal of the hero is most often influenced by the social reality of women. This is no less true for lesbian romances.

Romance fiction allows authors to create heroes who may diverge from acceptable contemporary social and cultural parameters, thereby freeing the reader to embrace extreme psychosexual experiences in a defensible and safe forum. The alpha hero illustrates this inherent duality of social unacceptability and secret desirability more clearly than any other. The alpha hero, as with most heroes, is depicted as intelligent and supremely confident—a leader and a warrior. What critically defines him however is his ultraprotective, overtly territorial, controlling, and domineering nature. Sexually he is aggressive and often compels the heroine to accept his sexual advances by overpowering her emotionally and psychologically, if not outright physically, earning him the reputation of being a brute, an abuser, or a jerk. He appeared frequently in the historical romance, the most popular form of romance fiction until the late twentieth century, as Lord of the Manor.

As noted by Krentz, “these men are the tough, hard edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of best-selling romance novels. [ . . . ] They are the heroes who carry off the heroines in historical romances. These are the heroes feminist critics despise” (107-108). The single word that crystallizes both his appeal and his malignity is power. The alpha hero is in possession of power, and he wields it without apology.

As with all heroes, what prevents the alpha hero from being despicable and allows the heroine (and by extension, the reader) to embrace him is his hidden vulnerability—his secret need, his private torment, the wounds that only the heroine can heal. With the rise of feminism in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the alpha hero fell out of favor. Women in a fight for equality, recognition, and self-actualization rejected the dominating male persona along with the need to be protected, either from the outside world or their own inner impulses. Virginity was no longer an essential requirement for the romance heroine. The male, the hero, no longer held all the power in the sexual arena. In fiction, as in life, women sought partners, not father-figures, saviors, or knights in shining armor. Women and romance readers sought heroes who were partners with a focus on communication, sensitivity, shared responsibility, and a fierce need to protect the heroine’s independence, giving rise to the beta hero. In contradistinction to the alpha male, the beta male was more of a friend than a protector—more able to communicate his feelings, more sensitive, less controlling, less dominating. Forced seduction scenes disappeared.

The late twentieth century saw the emergence of the lesbian hero in romance fiction, along with an explosion of lesbian romances ushered in by the pulp fiction era of the 1950s and 1960s. The lesbian hero, however, is not a simple replica of the male hero, except with different body parts. She is, in fact, her own archetype, in early works close to the classic butch lesbian persona that pre-dated both the sexual revolution and gay liberation movements. Just as the portrayal of the male hero was colored by social reality, so was the early lesbian hero a reflection of the social-sexual butch-femme dynamic within the lesbian community of the early- to mid-twentieth century. Butch lesbians assumed the attributes/roles traditionally reserved for men—emotional reserve, sexual aggression, provider, and protector, while self-identified femme lesbians expressed the socially designated feminine role of caretaker, nurturer, and seductress. The lesbian hero emerged initially in detective fiction and gained popularity in intrigue/adventure romances featuring traditional hero figures: warriors, law enforcement agents, soldiers, and business tycoons. These women held traditional power roles and were often the POV characters.

Mysteries and romantic intrigue provided the perfect vehicle for merging the socially acceptable, newly independent female hero with the butch lesbian archetype. In Amateur City by Katherine V. Forrest (1984), the first work to feature a lesbian detective, the hero, Kate Delafield, was characterized as “[t]aller and stronger, more aggressive than the other girls; in look and manner hopelessly unfeminine by their standards. Among similarly uniformed women in the Marine Corps, she had been resented for her unusual physical strengths and command presence. [ . . . ] And always there had been that one most essential difference: she was a woman who desired only other women” (23-4). As the lead detective on the case, Kate is empowered with what traditionally had been reserved for men—the task of meting out justice. She represents not only a female hero, but a lesbian hero in classic alpha form. She is physically strong, commanding, and in control in the bedroom.

The lesbian hero was rising in popularity in lesbian romance fiction as the alpha male hero was simultaneously losing his place, temporarily at least, to the beta hero. Many similarities existed between the male and female alphas, however. The lesbian hero of the 60s, 70s, and 80s was often a loner, often assumed responsibility for others, willingly sacrificed herself for the greater good, and was the driving force behind the erotic tension in a work. Unlike the alpha male hero, however, the lesbian hero would always stop short of any kind of sexual encounter to which she was not invited. In Death By the Riverside (1990), Micky Knight, the lesbian alpha hero of J.M. Redmann’s detective series (widely considered to be the first lesbian noir) says, “I never, ever touch virgins unless they’re very sure of what they want and they practically beg me. (This happens more often than you think)” (Chapter 2).

While the lesbian hero found her voice, what then became of the alpha male? Did he slink back to his cave (or his castle), relegated to a footnote in the history of romance fiction? Fortunately, the alpha hero wasn’t alpha for nothing, and he did not go quietly. He exploded back onto the romance scene a changed man—literally—in a form more acceptable to the liberated woman. The alpha male returned with claws, fangs, and wings, becoming even more of an alpha-creature than previously—larger, more dangerous, darker, and more deadly. He also resumed his controlling, territorial, and dominant ways. The paranormal romance genre provided a stage upon which it was once again permissible to write a hero who was dominant, aggressive, protective, and controlling, and who claimed his woman for all the world to see. When the alpha male reemerged in heterosexual romance, he was paired with a strong, independent, aggressive heroine befitting the social role of the late-twentieth-century woman, thereby re-igniting the essential conflict at the heart of all good romance fiction.

This new (old) dynamic is evidenced in this passage from River Marked by Patricia Briggs (2011), which illustrates the instinctive aggressiveness of the alpha male, Adam, countered by the willing acceptance of his aggression and the control over it exerted by the heroine, Mercy. She is not dominated by his sexual drive or his territorial aggression. She welcomes it even as she tempers it.

Beside me, Adam rose with a snarl. I lowered my head to show that I was not a threat. After a bad change, it would be a few minutes before Adam had a leash on his wolf. [ . . . ] The wolf put his nose just under my ear. I tilted my head to give him my throat. Sharp teeth brushed against my skin, and I shivered. (Chapter 10)

In this passage the alpha hero is literally an alpha—in this case an alpha wolf, and the heroine recognizes and accepts his innate need to claim her. He, in turn, recognizes her independence (he seeks her acceptance with his nose just under her ear). Her submission is willing (she gives him her throat) and his dominance (teeth at her throat) is both consensual and sexually arousing. Very much as occurs in sadomasochistic power dynamics, the apparent submissive in this situation (Mercy) controls the exchange by recognizing Adam’s need to dominate her and allowing it. The key to their relationship of equals is consent.

In lesbian fiction, the hero has never been male, but that does not mean the lesbian hero is not alpha. The lesbian butch hero slowly underwent a transformation, just as did the alpha hero in heterosexual romance fiction, as the romance genre diversified and as societal gender roles blended. Romantic intrigue, swords and sorcery, space opera, and other romance subgenres where women held positions of power became more and more popular. Then the paranormal romance revolution hit lesbian fiction a decade after the similar surge in mainstream fiction. Suddenly, lesbian heroes could be Weres, Vampires, demons, and other preternatural beings. These heroes are as alpha as any alpha male hero ever hoped to be. Like the male alpha hero, the lesbian alpha hero is driven by her primal instincts to mate, to protect her young, to preserve her species, and to defend those she leads. She is also most effectively paired with a strong heroine, which generally creates a great deal of the internal conflict that drives the romance. Like her male counterpart, she is often a loner, secretly wounded, and in need of healing or redemption.

Perhaps most important within the context of lesbian romantic relationships, the lesbian alpha hero has given us, for the first time in our romance fiction, what the alpha male always brought to heterosexual romance fiction—the opportunity to write (and experience) unfettered sexual aggression. Just as is true in heterosexual paranormal romance fiction, the inherent sexual aggression of the alpha hero, male or female, has been validated by their very nature—these are not humans, but preternatural creatures driven by inhuman instincts, needs, and desires. No one can fault an alpha werewolf for being excessively territorial, for claiming her mate with a bite or demanding submission from a lover. We cannot criticize a vampire who enthralls the object of her desire when she prepares to feed and forces her lover to orgasm in the process. Forced seduction becomes biologically permissible and, most importantly, consensual.

In L.L. Raand’s The Midnight Hunt (2010), for example, jealousy and possessiveness are portrayed as biologically hardwired into werewolf mated pairs. Near the conclusion of the novel, Sylvan, the werewolf Alpha, takes umbrage at anyone who touches her new mate Drake—even if that touch is the purely pragmatic examination of the Pack medic, Sophia:

“Back away from her,” Sylvan snarled in Sophia’s direction, her whole body shuddering with the effort not to tear Sophia apart.

“Sylvan,” Drake murmured, pressing her mouth to the bite on Sylvan’s chest. She had felt Sylvan calling out to her long before Sylvan had reached the room, had felt her power—hungry and demanding. She scraped her teeth over the bite and Sylvan shuddered. “I’ve missed you.”

Sylvan grasped Drake behind the head and yanked her forward, covering her mouth in a ferocious kiss. [ . . . ] Drake pressed her hips into Sylvan’s and raked her blunt claws down the center of Sylvan’s abdomen. She drew Sylvan in, welcomed her questing tongue, her demanding mouth. The more she gave—the more she took—the calmer Sylvan became. [ . . . ]

“You have nothing to growl over,” Drake murmured. “I hunger only for you.” (258-259)

This passage illustrates the alpha’s instinctual sexual aggression, the subsequent desire unleashed in her mate by the alpha’s primal demands, and the mate’s recognition of and control over the alpha’s needs.

By portraying a female alpha in whom dominance, aggression, and territoriality are innate and not assumed—not only beyond her control but admirable and acceptable in certain circumstances—Raand and other authors of lesbian paranormal romance set the stage for the ultimate romantic challenge, the literal taming of the beast within by love. Only a heroine strong enough to maintain her own identity in the face of the alpha’s power can be a worthy mate, thus establishing the core conflict: the alpha’s need to dominate and protect is at odds with the heroine’s fierce need to maintain her autonomy and sense of self. Sexually the two are often equally aggressive, allowing a dynamic exchange of power within fluid gender boundaries. Ultimately, the heroine will come to trust that being cared for will not diminish her, and the alpha will learn not only to rely on her mate’s strength, but to protect what her mate values the most—her independence.

The lesbian alpha thus can be seen to serve the same function in a romance as does the alpha male—she presents a larger-than-life hero with unquenchable erotic power, a dominant personality, and a proprietary attitude toward her mate likely to infuriate an equally strong heroine—all within a context that allows the contemporary heroine to embrace her, even when she bites.

It is not a coincidence that as mainstream and queer romance converge upon the figure of the alpha paranormal heroine, there are signs of increased interest in queer romance generally from the mainstream romance community. As a recent blog on the RT Book Reviews site reports, “the question of mainstreaming, can these [queer] love stories make the leap to everyday public consumption, was put up to discussion during a recent panel at the 2012 RWA Conference in Anaheim.” Len Barot (one of the co-authors of this article and a member of that RWA panel) noted that while it is becoming easier—particularly in mainstream paranormal romances—to find characters who identify as queer, “the revolution is not here yet.” In some respects, however, we have already seen a revolution in the emergence of the lesbian romantic hero. And there is no question that the romance novel, like the broad romance tradition from which it developed, will continue to reflect and refract the hopes and dreams of those who seek a safe space to imagine their deepest desires.

Works Cited

Adams, Kate. “Built out of Books: Lesbian Energy and Feminist Ideology in Alternative Publishing.” Gay and Lesbian Literature since World War II: History and Memory. Ed. Sonya L. Jones. New York: Haworth, 1998. 113–41. Print.

Allison, Dorothy. “Every Book is a Lesbian Book.” Salon.com. Salon.com, 10 June 1999. Web. 19 April 2011.

Bannon, Ann. Beebo Brinker. 1962. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 2001. Print.

Belle, Jove. Chaps. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2009. eBook.

Briggs, Patricia. River Marked. New York: Penguin, 2011. eBook.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales” in The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Print.

Dixon, jay. The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909 – 1995. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Donoghue, Emma. Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Foote, Stephanie. “Deviant Classics: Pulp and the Making of Lesbian Print Culture.” Signs 13.1 (2005): 169-190. Web. 12 April 2011.

Forrest, Katherine V. Amateur City: A Kate Delafield Mystery. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1984. Print.

—. Curious Wine. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1983. Print.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. 1928. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. Print.

Krentz, Jane Anne, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Raand, L.L. The Midnight Hunt. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2010. Print.

Radclyffe. Love’s Melody Lost. 2001. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2005. eBook.

—. Passion’s Bright Fury. 2003. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2006. Print.

—. “The Hero and The Lady.” DC Bardfest, October 2004. Web.

—. Safe Harbor. 2001. Philadelphia: Bold Strokes Books, 2004. Print.

Redmann, J.M. Death by the Riverside. 1990. Reprint. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2009. eBook.

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

Rothwell, Kate. “What I’m talking about above–the letter in RWR.” Kate Rothwell. KateRothwell.blogspot.com, 22 July 2006. Web. 19 April 2011.

RT Book Reviews. “RWA 2012: Alternative Romance Goes Mainstream.” RT Book Reviews. Rtbookreviews.com. 27 July 2012. Web. 29 July 2012.

Santos, Lea. Under Her Skin. Valley Falls: Bold Strokes Books, 2010. eBook.

Schwarz, Kathryn. Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.

Southron, Jane Spence. “Various Lives: The Little Less by Angela du Maurier.” New York Times, August 17, 1941.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. New York: Longman, 2001. Print.

Stephens, Dorothy. The Limits of Eroticism in Post-Petrarchan Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1998. Print.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd ed. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007. Print.



[1] Specifically, Havelock and Krafft-Ebing. Stephen is depicted as reading the latter’s Psychopathia Sexualis in her father’s study.

[2] Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, published 1953 and written under the name Claire Morgan, is the first lesbian romance with a happy ending.

[3] For a thorough and thought-provoking study of the figure of the Amazon—the paradigmatic dangerous woman—in early modern English literature, see Kathryn Schwarz’s Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. Schwarz investigates the ways in which Amazons in the literature of that period can be seen both to define and to disrupt the heteronormative construction of domesticity.

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“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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