Issues

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Posts Tagged ‘Queer’

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage: (Homo)Normalizing Romance on American Television
by Bridget Kies

Bryan and David sitting in a tree
K-I-S-S-I-N-G
First comes love, then comes inability to marry
Then comes a stranger and an invasive medical procedure
Then comes the baby in the baby carriage

[End Page 1]

This modified version of the children’s nursery rhyme, featured in the first episode of The New Normal (NBC, 2012-2013), epitomizes contemporary television’s depictions of gay romance: different, but the same.[1] During its short run, The New Normal was hailed as wildly subversive and predictably normative, but its declaration that two men could find happiness by marrying (albeit not legally) and having a baby (by a surrogate) is one that echoes the dominant themes for both contemporary LGBT[2] causes and traditional romance. Prior to its broadcast, The New Normal gained notoriety when the Mormon-owned Utah NBC affiliate announced it would not air the show, citing its insidious content (Skoloff). In response, NBC released the pilot online before the broadcast premiere, and the response among viewers was surprise and relief at how protagonists Bryan and David were just like regular people: “When Bryan and David show physical affection […] they look and feel natural together, like a couple should” (Busis). Through its title as much as its plot of love-marriage-baby carriage, which I will call the normative trajectory, the series both valorized traditional romantic conventions and subverted them by allowing them to be enacted through a gay couple.

Across forms of popular entertainment, narratives like Bryan and David’s are becoming more prevalent. According to the annual survey conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), LGBT characters and storylines peaked in the 2012-2013 U.S. television season (Gouttebroze). The reality of this proliferation must be reconciled with the traditional economic model for television, which relies on advertising revenue and reaching the broadest possible audience for success. For this reason, television tends to “reflect, refract, and produce dominant ideologies” (Joyrich 133), and its messages “either directly or in the guise of entertainment serve to create, confirm, and cultivate” social values (Raley and Lucas 21). The presence of LGBT stories, including gay romance, must therefore say something about American culture.

At first glance, romance and television would seem to be at odds because of the former’s dependence on narrative closure (happily ever after) and the latter’s need to sustain conflicts in order to continue broadcasting. Gay romance would especially seem out of place on mainstream television given its reliance upon mass appeal, yet gay romance flourished on television during the 2012-2013 season. As I demonstrate in this article, this was at the expense of true queerness. In this article, I examine three series that foregrounded gay romance: Glee (Fox, 2009-2015), The New Normal (NBC, 2012-2013), and Husbands (CW Seed, 2011- ). By charting how the traditional romance plot leads to the normative trajectory for the couples in these series, I argue that there can be no queer romance on television.

Homonormativity and the Romance Plot

The normative trajectory of love-marriage-baby carriage followed by gay couples on Glee, The New Normal, and Husbands fits the pattern of heterosexual romance. Although scholars debate which qualities are necessary for a work to be called a “romance,” most agree that romance emphasizes characters living “happily ever after” (HEA) or “happy for now” (HFN). Catherine Roach, for instance, argues that across various subgenres, the “core genre message” of romance is always to “find your One True Love – your one-and-only – [End Page 2] and live happily ever after” (¶1). This happiness is often, though not always, achieved through betrothal of some sort. Pamela Regis defines a romance novel as a work that “tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (19). Roach’s definition of the core genre message privileges monogamy, and Regis, studying popular romance novels, excludes men from the position of the one being courted. Even if we expand Regis’ ideas to include male heroes, these common conceptions of what formulates romance culminate in normativity: engagement, marriage, or some form of monogamous commitment leads to happiness.

In the early 1990s, after a significant number of gay men had lost their lives to AIDS, a “new strain of gay moralism” advocated monogamy and marriage as safer alternatives to the promiscuity traditionally associated with the “gay lifestyle” (Duggan 53). Rather than confrontational politics in opposition to hegemonic heterosexuality, assimilationists encouraged the upholding and sustaining of heteronormative values, but this came at the cost of a “demobilized gay constituency, and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (50). Concomitant with the rise of neoliberalism in the United States, the juggernaut of LGBT advocacy organizations, the Human Rights Campaign, was formed, and “[i]mages of angry protesters shouting, ‘We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it’ were replaced by photos of suit-clad gay leaders…hobnobbing with the likes of Ted Kennedy” (Becker 43).[3] Because neoliberalism extends beyond the free market to “every sector of culture” (Ferguson and Hong 1057) and is “deeply implicated in shaping, taming, and domesticating sexualities and genders” (Elia and Yep 879), homonormativity was a logical end result: greater visibility of gay and lesbian couples whose lives look like those of their straight counterparts.

Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have historically championed a number of causes, but none so fervently as same-sex marriage. Polls in August 2010 indicated that acceptance for same-sex marriage had reached a majority of Americans (Gelman et al), and this was shortly followed by several crucial legal and judicial milestones. First, the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage on a national level as between one man and one woman. In particular, during the 2012-2013 television season, same-sex marriage was a topic impossible to avoid on television, as candidates for election to all levels of the American government espoused their views and as same-sex marriage appeared in various fictional and nonfiction television shows featuring gay couples. Most significantly, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. As that television season ended, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that paved the way for certain national benefits to same-sex couples (and culminated in national legal same-sex marriage as of June 26, 2015). Thus, while same-sex marriage had been foregrounded among LGBT rights causes for nearly twenty years, it reached a particular apotheosis in 2012-2013.

Alongside the development of homonormativity as a preferred political position in the LGBT rights movement, queer theory became increasingly popular in academia. The term “queer” in popular usage often serves as a catch-all for LGBT as well as other identities and sexualities, but its academic and political meaning is usually in counterpoint to the binaries of heterosexual/homosexual and gay/straight, and in counterpoint to homonormativity. Michael Warner, for instance, argues that “normal” marriage, even [End Page 3] among same-sex couples, stigmatizes other lifestyles and identities, like those who wish to engage in open relationships, polyamorous groups, and asexual people (81-148). In response to homonormativity’s privileging of parenthood, Lee Edelman argues that adults are constantly subordinating their desires for children, and that this subordination is laden with homophobia (for instance, the claim that laws against gays and lesbians “protect our children”). For Edelman, same-sex marriage and parenthood thus participate in an internalized homophobia; queerness is therefore a desire against propagation and futurity (33-66). These two examples demonstrate the extent to which queer theory is “committed to challenging and troubling ideological norms” (Joyrich 133). In other words, it is easier to understand what “queer” is not or is anti-, rather than what “queer” is. As Eve Sedgwick explains, “queer” can refer to the “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Tendencies 8, emphasis original). Later, Sedgwick concedes that “queer” also refers more simply to same-sex sexual desire, before she determines that “queer” is best used to signify identities, including race and ethnicity, intersecting with sexual desire and gender performance (8-9). While these example definitions and applications of “queer” vary, they all remark upon what queerness stands in opposition to: hegemonic identities, including whiteness, maleness, and normativity. If the most important aspect of the romance plot is its culmination in marriage, and the most important aspect of queerness is its opposition to the normative trajectory, queerness and romance are irreconcilable concepts.

Queer Television: Broadcast’s Gay Eunuchs and Cable’s Sex Gods

“Queer television studies” has its own set of varied meanings, given television’s (and television studies’) emphasis on the mainstream and queer theory’s position as anti-normative, or the “tension between the articulation of the mainstream and the unsettling of the mainstream” (Joyrich 133). Television’s articulation of the everyday in both content and its constant presence in the home is the normativity that queerness stands in opposition to (Aaron 69). Television’s broadcast schedule, for example, reinforces normative values of family and home. Although many of us now stream series online or record them with a digital video recorder (DVR), television networks still presuppose heteronormativity through the “temporal coordination of the nuclear family” by broadcasting around the “life timetables of children and child rearing activities….and eventually [having] the family united every evening in front of the box during prime time’s evening hours” (Needham 145). Television’s reliance upon the succession of episodes to create a season and seasons to create a series and its tendency toward copycat series and spinoffs to capitalize on the popular are examples of television’s own investment in reproduction (Joyrich 136). Content within particular series, however, may challenge hegemonic normativity by allowing for a subtextual reading of certain characters as queer (Doty 2). By the 2012-2013 season, plenty of characters on broadcast television were openly gay or lesbian, though few would identify as queer, and a reading of the television series and storylines featuring these characters reiterates the normative. [End Page 4]

In one night of television watching during the 2012-2013 season, the average American could watch national or local news coverage of pending LGBT rights legislation, an episode of Modern Family (ABC, 2009- ) with gay parents Mitch and Cameron, an episode of any series on HGTV in which a gay couple achieved their HEA through the purchase of a new home, and an episode of Glee in which young, newly out teenagers celebrated their diversity. Across broadcast and cable, fictional and nonfictional television, gay couples fell in love and set up house like any other romantic couple.

Gay and lesbian characters have arguably always existed in popular culture, but the recognition of them was only possible through an understanding of gay semiotics. Part of the difficulty in ascertaining and asserting sexual identity is that it is not a visible identity but one shaped through emotions and behaviors. As Sedgwick explains, race, gender, age, size, and physical abilities are identities that are “visible in all but exceptional cases,” while sexual identity requires one to publicly assert his or her marginality (Epistemology 75). Absent a public declaration, others may read into clues in speech, behavior, and attitudes; for instance, Sedgwick describes how readers might decode particular adjectives and phrases in nineteenth century literature to understand a character’s homosexuality (94-97). Many of the semiotics that identified particular characters as gay men and lesbians to audiences were portrayals as “funny clowns, flaming queens, fairies, fags and flits” (Raley and Lucas 24). Looking through television history, we may read a particular character as gay based on the flamboyancy of his fashion, mannerisms, and interactions with the opposite sex. Felix Unger of The Odd Couple (ABC, 1970-1975) exhibits many of the characteristics traditionally associated with gay men: he is tidy, dresses well, likes to cook and clean, and is far more invested in his relationship with his roommate Oscar than any romantic relationship with a woman. While The Odd Couple flirted with the “bromance” between Felix and Oscar, the series never explicitly declared Felix’s homosexuality; it is only by decoding particular cultural signs with the series that one can assume Felix might be gay. Queer readings of characters have historically been possible, but these characters were not allowed to participate in the traditional romance plot or normative trajectory.

In recent decades, gay and lesbian characters in film and television have openly identified as such but were typically relegated to the role of humorous sidekick or sexless character on a failed quest for love. The rise of gay characters on television in the 1990s reflected broadcast networks’ attempt to compete with the growing cable market for hip, young, affluent viewers (Becker 80-107). The titular character of the sitcom Will and Grace (NBC, 1998-2006) was a gay man whose unending quest to find the love of his life left him in an ersatz marriage with his heterosexual female roommate and best friend Grace. During the few times that Will Truman was romantically involved with men, sexual activity – even kissing – was rarely depicted, in contrast to the more explicit depictions of Grace’s heterosexual couplings. The success of Will and Grace may be attributed to many factors, including stellar writing and acting and a competitive time slot, but one important reason for the show’s success was due to the lack of gay romance it depicted. By relegating Will to the role of funny gay eunuch, he became non-threatening and easier to have in one’s living room once a week.

Concurrently, the premium cable channel Showtime aired Queer as Folk (2000-2005), a one-hour drama about a circle of gay and lesbian friends loosely modelled on a UK series of the same name. Because premium cable channels like Showtime work on a subscription model and do not rely upon cautious advertisers to fund their programming, [End Page 5] the series they offer tend to titillate and push cultural boundaries more than series on broadcast television or basic cable. Queer as Folk challenged the “gay eunuch” trope through its constant depictions of sex between men. In 2004, the network debuted The L Word, a similar series featuring a group of lesbian friends. With fewer restrictions on sexual content in its programming than broadcast networks, Showtime counted on gay and lesbian subscribers to tune into these two series for graphic depictions of sex.

In spite of all the sex, the normative trajectory is something most of the characters in these two series strive for. Both series featured storylines about going to Canada to get legally married, and at least one couple on each series has a child. Infidelity and promiscuity were plotlines used to sustain drama and conflict, but the treatment of infidelity in these story arcs was unsympathetic. Brian of Queer as Folk and Shane of The L Word are the lone figures in their social circles who favor anonymous sexual encounters and disavow marriage and monogamy, yet their character arcs assert the value of normativity. When Shane leaves her fiancée Carmen at the altar, her life spins out of control. Shane drinks, takes drugs, gets into a car accident, and only cleans up when her little brother is thrust into her care, thus forcing Shane to follow the normative trajectory she had arduously avoided. Although at first skeptical of her role as caregiver, Shane soon thrives as big sister/guardian, and, in the seasons that follow, has much less indiscriminate sex and more success with long-term relationships.

Queer as Folk’s Brian is “someone who has completely liberated himself from the repressive conventions of heterosexuality,” the “ultimate gay hero” (Robinson 154), but he is also narcissistic, relentlessly chastised by his friends and family for not “growing up” and “settling down.” Brian undertakes a five-season, on-again, off-again romance with Justin, a man more than ten years his junior, and during most of their relationship, the two agree that they are free to engage in extrarelational sex. Rodger Streitmatter argues that this is one of the “most intriguing sexual plotlines” of the series: “how two men who aren’t monogamous can, nevertheless, have an emotionally committed relationship” (129). By the series’ final season, Justin has grown tired of their clubbing, drug-using, sexually indiscriminate lives, and in order not to lose him completely, Brian reluctantly proposes marriage. Like Shane and Carmen, Brian and Justin do not make it to the altar; they recognize that marriage will limit their freedom and mutually call off the wedding. In the final moment of the series, Brian dances alone at their favorite nightclub after Justin has moved away. This conclusion to their romance is the antithesis to Regis’ notion that romance culminates in marriage or betrothal, and may be read as queering of the traditional romance plot: the ultimate act of love is not marrying your beloved, but letting him go.

This reading of the conclusion to Brian and Justin’s story, however, is at odds with the series’ repeated emphasis on “settling down” and the increasing number of challenges to Brian’s queer perspective (Demory 75). Brian’s body suffers the consequences of his active sex life. He develops testicular cancer, which is not a direct result of sex but which threatens his performance and his physique. Later, he catches syphilis as a direct result of an unprotected oral sex act. As Brian and his friends grow older, their lives move on while Brian clings to the life of clubbing, recreational drug use, and casual sex. His solitude as he dances in the final moment of the series may be true to his independent spirit, but it is also coded as sad and possibly pathetic.[4] [End Page 6]

Rather than offering a genuine alternative to homonormativity, Shane and Brian serve as cautionary tales that reiterate the value of marriage, monogamy, and parenthood. Although the other characters in Queer as Folk and The L Word may not always succeed at maintaining their relationships or staying faithful to their partners, the normative trajectory is lauded by them, and, by extension, the series as a whole. Although Showtime’s status as a premium cable channel enabled more vivid depictions of gay and lesbian sex, Queer as Folk and The L Word persisted in privileging the sequence of love, marriage, and baby carriage.

Popping the Question on Primetime

These earlier examples of gay eunuchs and gay sex gods striving to follow the normative trajectory on broadcast and cable respectively are echoed in the 2012-2013 primetime broadcast series that foregrounded gay romance. The 2012-2013 season was especially significant in the development of LGBT representations on television not only because of the swell in representations charted by GLAAD, but because for the first time the number of LGBT characters on screen was roughly equivalent to the number of Americans who identified as LGBT, around four percent (Gouttebroze; Gates and Newport). Additionally, the storylines for characters on Glee, The New Normal, and the web series Husbands mirrored stories on the evening news of gay couples marrying and becoming parents, elements typically present in fictional romance. In particular, the marriage proposal serves as the key trope that marks the narrative of these series as romance.

As the central gay couple on Glee, Kurt and Blaine have also flirted with proposals of their own. A deleted scene from the 2011-2012 season features Blaine giving Kurt a promise ring and pledging his love. As soon as Kurt sees the jewelry box, he interrupts Blaine’s speech to declare: “If that’s an engagement ring, my answer is yes!” This scene, dubbed “box scene” by fans, was uploaded to YouTube later in 2012 after fans read the episode script, realized the scene had been cut, and pestered Fox and series creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy to see it. It reached its peak in fan discussions and YouTube hits at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, which would see plenty of stories about the tortuous evolution of Kurt and Blaine’s relationship.

In the fourth season of Glee, broadcast in 2012-2013, Kurt moves to New York to pursue his dreams, a move encouraged by Blaine. Once Kurt is gone, however, the two break up and date others. When they are finally reconciled, Blaine becomes determined to propose to Kurt and is aided by two older lesbians who discuss with him the increasing acceptance for same-sex couples – or, to use Regis’ terms, the barrier between the couple and its subsequent fall in order to achieve romantic narrative closure in betrothal. In the first episode of the fifth season, which was written and shot only a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s decisions in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, Blaine formally proposes to Kurt.[5] In the series finale, set five years in the future, Kurt and Blaine are married, and – like Bryan and David of The New Normal – are expecting a child via surrogate mother.

As evidenced by its title, The New Normal lauds the normative trajectory. Bryan and David are introduced as quasi-married: they have been in a committed relationship for [End Page 7] years, and they own a home and dog together. In the pilot, they decide the next step is having a baby via a surrogate. As if Bryan and David were not normative enough, they quickly become engaged. Bryan, who watches the bridal gown shopping television series Say Yes to the Dress (TLC, 2007-), dreams of having an elaborate wedding, but David believes the ceremony is meaningless if it is not attached to the same legal rights as heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, he gives in and proposes. The proposal takes place at an OB/GYN office, with their surrogate Goldie in the examination chair and a sonogram of their unborn baby in the background. David kneels before Bryan and puts a candy Ring Pop on Bryan’s finger. Bryan says the magic “yes,” then David rises, they kiss, and the camera quickly pans to the sonogram. While traditional heterosexual proposals do not involve a surrogate or a sonogram, these additional elements only serve to reinforce the extent to which Bryan and David embody homonormativity as they embark upon parenthood. That the proposal occurred after the couple decided to have a baby together but prior to the baby’s arrival serves an implicit reinforcement of the notion that having a baby out of wedlock is immoral. This notion is visually manifested in the camera panning away from the potentially controversial image of two men kissing and toward the sonogram, as if to ask the audience if it really wants the baby to grow up in a household with unmarried parents.[6] Bryan echoes the sentiment that having children out of wedlock is immoral in a later episode. While this is an argument for same-sex marriage, it is also a conservative one.

Both Glee and The New Normal were the brainchild of creator and director Ryan Murphy, an openly gay Hollywood executive, and as such, their particular view into gay romance could be chalked up to Murphy’s own worldview. The characters Bryan and Kurt are both loose fictional versions of Murphy; Bryan, for instance, is a television producer who works on a musical series called Sing, clearly a fictional version of Glee. However, the emphasis on the normative trajectory in gay romance is not unique to these series and is reflective of larger social and cultural values. The tremendously popular Modern Family also depicts a gay couple who are parents in what Steven Edward Doran calls a “homodomestic” relationship (95-104). Perhaps most revealingly, the web series Husbands, which was first released online for free viewing, depicted a homonormative (homodomestic) couple. Its status as independent media meant it did not rely upon advertising revenue and mass appeal in order to succeed, and could, in theory, depict genuine queerness.

Like The New Normal, the web series Husbands begins with its couple, Brady and Cheeks, already betrothed. The premise of the series is that Brady and Cheeks, after only a few weeks of dating, got married in Las Vegas while drunkenly celebrating (fictional at the time) nationwide marriage equality. Because they are a famous professional baseball player and reality TV star, Brady and Cheeks are pressured by LGBT advocacy organizations to set a good example for same-sex marriage. From this beginning, the series follows the couple learning to cohabitate and serve as role models for the marriage equality cause, and, finally, having an elegant wedding to make up for the one they were too drunk to remember.

Part of the charm and noteworthiness of Husbands is its awareness of its place in the history of sitcoms and LGBT media.[7] Its narrative reinterprets newlywed sitcoms for a gay couple. Plots involve the flamboyant and comedic Cheeks causing scandals while straight-acting Brady is left to wag his finger, as Ricky Ricardo might have on I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957). In the second season, which was released in the fall of 2012, Cheeks [End Page 8] tweets a photo of himself and Brady kissing, and within minutes conservative religious organizations protest what they perceive as the couple’s flaunting of sex and sexuality. While Brady and Cheeks debate whether they have indeed done anything controversial, television screens throughout their home display some of the images of heterosexual sex that inundate television with little complaint from conservative groups. Brady and Cheeks grant an interview that explains how “normal” their lives are, and during the interview they revisit their courtship, thus allowing the audience to enjoy a romance in reverse.

This media-frenzy storyline calls attention to the pushback series like Glee and The New Normal have received for their portrayals of gay sexual intimacy, even when they are tame in comparison to scenes of heterosexual couplings – pushback that results in Modern Family’s Mitch and Cameron rarely showing physical affection. Husbands depicts Brady and Cheeks as a couple with a healthy sexual appetite; however, their sexuality is always expressed within the confines of marriage, and only kissing and lying in bed together are seen on screen. The final episode of the series shows Brady and Cheeks remarrying to reiterate that their sexuality is restricted to marriage. Although this episode was not intended to be the conclusion of the series, no additional episodes have been produced, and the wedding-as-finale neatly concludes the romance narrative.

In her study of proposals in heterosexual romance novels, Laura Vivanco finds that engagement rings typically get more attention than wedding bands, a phenomenon she attributes in part to the more elaborate design of engagement rings. The private nature of the proposal, as opposed to the public ring exchange at a wedding, makes the engagement ring more meaningful (100). Though the Ring Pop in The New Normal references a joke from earlier in the episode, its uniqueness as an engagement ring for Bryan fits this pattern. Likewise, the promise ring Blaine gives Kurt is made from the wrappers of his favorite brand of gum, folded into a bow tie to reflect his love of fashion. Just as the cut, size, and setting of the engagement ring diamond should be reflective of a woman’s unique personality, these unusual rings demand attention – perfect for the flamboyant Bryan and Kurt. The offering of each ring emulates heterosexual proposal scenes: man on bended knee, ring offered to the woman (here, the more effeminate partner), and a kiss to seal the deal.

“Gaycism” and Exclusion

Series like Glee and The New Normal present gay couples to a wide audience, but do so by making the couples as normative and nonthreatening as possible. Gay couples on these series look and behave like many of their straight counterparts on other television series. Bryan and David, Kurt and Blaine, Mitch and Cameron, and Brady and Cheeks are all white and middle- to upper-class. One partner is more masculine and one more effeminate, so that the pair further mirrors the traditional gender roles within a heterosexual couple. The couples’ desire to remain monogamous, marry (legally or symbolically), and have children reinforces their normativity. Through their romantic storylines, these gay characters seem like “regular people” and act “like a couple should.”

These depictions of homonormativity, while opening romance up to gay couples, do not represent the full range of experiences within the LGBT community. Despite increasing [End Page 9] numbers of LGBT characters, television scholar Kelly Kessler complains that “much of television remains relatively static and predictable” (140). This predictability is indicative of the same-but-different quality found in all romance. The success of romance, according to An Goris, lies in its ability to grant “both comfort and surprise,” to appear “both familiar and new” (76). Likewise, broadcast television relies upon familiar tropes and conventions enacted through new characters. Stories of gay romance embody the same-but-different, familiar-but-new quality so necessary for success in both romance and television.

The corollary to that familiar, satisfying feeling is that there is a lack of romance for those who identify as queer, trans, or bisexual on television. Even lesbians are “more deeply coded by invisibility” than gay men (Walters 161). This can partly be attributed today to economics; gay men tend to have more disposable income than lesbians and so make a more attractive target audience for which television series are crafted (Streitmatter 147).[8] While white lesbians have not been as visible on television as white gay men, they have certainly been seen more frequently than racial minorities of any non-heterosexual identity and more than those who identify as queer or trans. A lesbian in a committed relationship is more easily likened to a white heterosexual than a queer person of color. Although recent series on alternative platforms, notably Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 2013- ) and Transparent (Amazon, 2014- ), feature trans characters, the stories about these characters are about acceptance for their identities and the transition process, not love and romance. While “social tolerance and legal equality have improved the lives of many…the privilege of white, middle-class lesbians and gay men appears to have become entrenched” (Brown 1065). Homonormative white gay men can achieve more power and visibility while other racial and sexual identities have been pushed farther into the margins of popular culture.

Since “neoliberalism does not appreciate fluidity, hybridity, or any other shades of grey” (Kimmel and Llewellyn 1087), then it follows that television today would have little appreciation for anything other than homonormativity. Additionally, by featuring gay characters on their series, some television executives may consider inclusivity a fait accompli. The vernacular term “gaycist” has been used by television critics in reference to series like Glee and The New Normal, not because of their unfair treatment of gay characters (as the rhyming term “racist” suggests) but because investment in gay characters enables television producers “carte blanche to cut PC corners elsewhere” (Bans). For instance, Bryan and David of The New Normal seek their HEA through the use of a lower-class woman’s body, yet the series does little to examine the economic inequalities that lead Goldie to agree to serve as their surrogate. In a flashback to his single life, Bryan is horrified to learn he is on a date with an intersex person; his love for David is “normal” by comparison. Read through a politically queer lens, gay romance “appropriates an ongoing U.S. narrative around the pursuit of equality, freedom, and liberation as cover for the same old American traditions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and general social inequality” (Henry). In a “gaycist” (or homonormative) television landscape, depictions of queerness are more obscure, neatly disregarded by gay men in order to better align themselves with the hegemony. In other words, those intersectional and multivalent identities so important to Sedgwick’s understanding of queerness are largely absent on television featuring gay romance.

Gay romance narratives are “both resistant and recuperative,” sites for working out “contesting ideologies circulating” throughout our culture (Therrien 165). The progress [End Page 10] made by opening romance up to gay couples on the one hand coincides with the subsuming of alternative sexualities and identities into the normative trajectory on the other. The prevalence of homonormativity on television is a double-edged sword. Gay romance depicts stable, loving relationships, but its emphasis on HEA and betrothal reinforces the idea that the ultimate life goals are monogamous marriage and procreation. Gay romance on television may be new and reflect social progress, but as the examples I have used here demonstrate, gay romance is often not queer.


[1] I am grateful for the feedback previous versions of this essay received from Tasha Oren, Stuart Moulthrop, Gilberto Blasini, and the anonymous peer reviewers. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at conferences for the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and the Fan Studies Network.

[2] I use the acronym LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) deliberately. My elimination of additional letters, such as I (intersex), Q (queer or questioning), or A (asexual) is not intended to neglect those groups, but rather to demonstrate how certain facets of culture and politics exclude them. Likewise, I use the terms “gay” and “lesbian” only to reference homosexual men and women respectively, not as catch-all terms for the larger LGBT+ community.

[3] The Human Rights Campaign was recently exposed for its own neoliberal practices: namely, that women and people of color have been systematically excluded from raises and promotions. See Brydum, Sunnivie, “Pride at Work Tells HRC: ‘Enough Is Enough,’” The Advocate, 30 Aug. 2015. Web.

[4] The club at which Brian is dancing and which he owns has been bombed by anti-gay activists. The scene begins with Brian dancing among the wreckage and cuts to a vision of the club restored and full of men. It is possible to read this as a moment in the future, after the club has been renovated and reopened, or as a fantasy that Brian clings to as his friends and even his business have moved on.

[5] Production on the fifth season was delayed due to the death of actor Cory Monteith, but this had little effect on the gay romance storyline between Kurt and Blaine that I discuss here.

[6] Bryan and David are certainly more physically affectionate than previous gay couples on broadcast primetime television, but their expressions of love are still far fewer than those exhibited by heterosexual couples. Their kissing is limited to light touches of lips, and cuts to commercial breaks and pans to other images are often used when the two are being playful or affectionate in bed.

[7] Importantly, both Brady and Cheeks are played by openly gay actors, Sean Hemeon and Brad Bell (also creator and executive producer for the series). On other series with gay romance, at least one of the actors playing a gay character identifies as straight.

[8] This is, of course, a reiteration of the wage gap disparity between all men and women in the U.S. [End Page 11]

Works Cited

Aaron, Michele. “Towards Queer Television Theory: Bigger Pictures Sans the Sweet Queer-After.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Eds. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham. New York: Routledge, 2009. 63-75. Print.

Bans, Lauren. “Your New TV Term of the Month: ‘Gaycism.’” GQ. 4 September 2012. Web. 1 December 2012.

Becker, Ron. Gay TV and Straight America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

Brown, Gavin, “Homonormativity: A Metropolitan Concept that Denigrates ‘Ordinary’ Gay Lives.” Journal of Homosexuality 59.7 (2012): 1065-1072. Print.

Busis, Hillary. “The New Normal Sneak Peek: Five Takeaways.” PopWatch. 29 August 2012. Entertainment Weekly. Web. 1 December 2012.

Demory, Pamela. “True Love Queered: Sex, Melodrama, and Romance in Queer as Folk.” Queer Love in Film and Television. Eds. Pamela Demory and Christopher Pullen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 69-82. Print.

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Resuscitating the Undead Queer in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga
by Jami McFarland

‘…the vampire is a queer figure because it is disruptive; the vampire breaks down categories, transgresses boundaries, and upsets the very premises upon which systems of normality are structured. At least this is true of most vampires. In 2005, Stephanie Meyer [End Page 1] introduced the Twilight series, which valorized a family of vampires who clearly and firmly refuse the queerness typically associated with the figure.’—Kathryn Kane, Bitten By Twilight

In the last several years, much ink has been spilled in the creation of whole collections of essays exploring the social, sexual, political, and religious ideological foundations of Stephanie Meyer’s four book saga and Summit Entertainment’s five part screen adaptation of the series known as Twilight (Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians and the Pursuit of Immortality (Housel 2009); Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise (Click 2010); Bringing Light to Twilight (Anatol 2011); Seduced By Twilight (Wilson 2011); Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It (Erzen 2012); Genre, Reception and Adaptation in the Twilight Series (Morey 2012)). Stephanie Meyer’s gothic romance series, aimed at teenagers, chronicles the teenage life of the dowdy and awkward Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan (Kristen Stewart) as she becomes intimately involved with two of the most celebrated monsters in Western literature and film: the icy and demure vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and the (hot)headed and bold werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).

With box office numbers in the billions, the Twilight saga has undeniably sunk its teeth into a cultural vein and has seduced large audiences into craving more. The Twilight series primarily follows Bella as she moves to the small and gloomy town of Forks, where she develops a fascination with a particularly strange family of fostered teenagers known as the ‘Cullens’ who attend her school. Captivated and mesmerized by Edward Cullen (the only single and available Cullen), Bella pursues Edward in spite of his strange and suspicious behaviours and/or ways of being. Revealed to be ethical and decent vampires, Edward and the Cullens refer to themselves as ‘vegetarians,’ because they refrain from hunting humans, feeding on the blood of animals instead. Besides the central focus—developing a romantic intimacy and relationship between Bella and Edward—the Twilight saga also pivots around Jacob the werewolf and his competing longings for Bella. While Twilight’s romantic dynamic, unquestionably triangular and arguably queer (McFarland 2013), has the potential to disrupt conventional understandings of desire, romance, and relationships, my focus in this article lies in the queer potential of the romantic monster—the vampire.

Monsters offer some of the most egregious representations of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality. Far from being apolitical creatures that simply fascinate and frighten, monsters embody constitutive difference or ‘otherness’. Put simply, representations of monsters matter because they are socially instructive. Judith Halberstam notes as much in Skin Shows, when she argues that representations of the modern monster and the horrific body bolster and sustain social and sexual hierarchies (Halberstam 1995). Depictions of vampires, for instance, are largely seductive, sexualized, and often indulge fears of forbidden or taboo sexuality (Skal 1993; Creed 1995; Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002). The destructively predatory and hypnotically charming vampire, moreso than any of its supernatural contemporaries, is associated with sexuality. This has not so much been posited by a few as it has been established as a canon when both analyzing and understanding the vampire figure in both literature and film. A scholarly tradition of conflating the vampire with sexuality, especially deviant sexuality, suggests as much (Skal 1993; Weiss 1993; Creed 1995; Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002; Williamson 2005). [End Page 2]

With a predisposition to seducing, nibbling, biting, penetrating, and sucking, the vampire ‘is perhaps the highest symbolic representation of eroticism’ (Jackson 120). While Jackson’s contention is typical of a generation of scholarship that conflates vampires with eroticism broadly, a more recent trend has materialized which focuses on the association between vampirism and homosexuality (Creed 1993; Auerbach 1995; 1997; Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002; Williamson 2005). These scholars, drawing parallels between the lifestyle of the homosexual and the vampire, largely argue that what makes the vampire attractive yet frightening to the general public is its embodiment of sexual transgression and difference: queerness at large. More recently, however, cultural critics and scholars alike have been noting an even more odd and frightening tendency toward the normalization of blood(suckers) within vampire fiction. Referring to the contemporary vampire figure in visual fictions like True Blood (2008-2014), The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and the Twilight Saga (2007-2012), Stephen Marche illuminates this trend when he claims that ‘our vampires are normal. They’re not Goth, they’re not scary, they’re not even that weird’ (March n.pag). Recalling familiar Antebellum chivalry and virtue, modern vampires—gentlemanly, handsome, and young—are, indeed, quite normative.

Stephanie Meyer’s chaste and conservative Twilight saga especially demonstrates this tendency toward the normalization of the vampire figure. The Twilight books and films, which center on a morally righteous family of vampires referred to as ‘the Cullens’, construct an image of vampirism that is white (alabaster-white), moneyed, educated, patriarchal, monogamously coupled, appropriately reproductive, domestic, and, as Kathryn Kane poignantly notes, ‘distinctly unqueer’ (Kane 117). A (straight)forward embodiment of the American (neoliberal) dream, Meyer’s conservative conceptualization of the vampire as a normal and compliant subject, Kane and I argue, strays from the canon’s radical representation of the vampire as a strange and disruptive troublemaker.

Through an in-depth thematic analysis of the five filmic re-imaginings (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn: Part 1, Breaking Dawn: Part 2) of Meyer’s four book Twilight saga, this article explores, develops, and challenges Kane’s contention that the modern vampire as characterized by Meyer’s Edward Cullen is distinctly un-queer.[1] While for the most part I agree with Kane’s assertion that Stephanie Meyer’s vampire—a figure that has often been championed as being both transgressive and sexually ‘deviant’—is emptied of some queerness, I depart with Kane’s argument when her definition of ‘queer’ stops at transgression. Following an elucidation of the various conceptualizations of the term ‘queer’ to make clear how the term will be deployed throughout the article, I trace a history of queerness within the vampire genre to locate Meyer’s conceptualization of the vampire within this practice. Claiming that Meyer’s representation of the vampire largely breaks with its traditionally queer (troubling) ancestors, I demonstrate how Edward Cullen, frighteningly less monstrous and more normal than his predecessors, is not wholly capable of parting from a well-established tradition of understanding the vampire as queer. While Kane briefly explores how the Twilight series restrains the radical possibilities of queerness, I wish to fully expand this analysis to include an exploration of the ways in which this text as a cultural artefact is in the business of producing meaning about normative queerness; and how this text, in spite of its normalizing tendency, is still very queer. [End Page 3]

Conceptualizing Queerness

Traditionally, vampires have often been thought of as being quite queer creatures. They are troubling (queering; verb) because they challenge and defy the rules and institutions of hetero-patriarchy, strange (queer; adjective) because their habits, appetites, and appearances are divergent, and homosexual (queer; noun) because they are often imagined engaging in same-sex relations. Vampires are simply ‘queer’. As illustrated, the use of the term ‘queer’ here does not refer to a particular conceptualization, but to a multitude of meanings. The word ‘queer,’ initially utilized to describe something of a strange or unusual nature, has undergone significant transformations in both activism and scholarship. For example, while the 1980s’ human rights activists’ reclamation of the pejorative ‘queer’ indicated an identity for LGBT individuals and communities, the use of ‘queer’ in contemporary academia frequently refers not so much to an identity, but to a politic associated with anti-identity attitudes. Thus, ‘queer’ is both a ‘catch-all’ term for the panoply of LGBT identities (sexual orientation) and an attitude (positionality) that challenges hegemonic systems and institutions predicated on heteronormativity and the supposed stability of gender and sexuality. Queer as an organizing identity for both alternative sexuality and oppositional positionality make up the bulk of ways in which the vampire has traditionally been understood in relation to the Western construction of the queer.

Most often, these two divergent discourses arise in scholarship regarding the vampire figure in one of three ways. First, the vampire is associated with queerness because the vampire itself is depicted as explicitly engaging in same-sex sexual activity and is therefore assumed to be a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identified character. This association is arguably most commonly discussed (Weiss 1993; Creed 1993, Aurebach 1997; Dyer 2002; Williamson 2005). Although not limited to women, the vampire as an explicitly queer identified character is most often represented as a lesbian or a bisexual woman (Creed 2002). While few films revel in explicit same-sex male vampirism, Gayracula (Roger Earl 1983) being one of the few exceptions, the 1970s and 1980s most remarkably abounded in fetishistic images of lesbian vampirism. Commonly referred to as ‘dykesploitation’ films, films exploiting images of lesbian desire, such as The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker 1970), Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster 1971), Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel 1971), Vampire Orgy—originally titled ‘Vampyres’ (José Ramón Larraz 1975) and The Hunger (Tony Scott 1983), to name only a few, deal exclusively with representations of the vampire as a lesbian or bisexual. Many, most notably Bonnie Zimmerman, Andrea Weiss, and Barbara Creed, have noted the metaphorical possibilities linking vampirism and lesbianism. This union between predatory vampirism and licentious lesbianism, Creed notes, is a happy one, because both lesbians and vampires have been popularly imagined as seducing ‘properly’ disciplined and gendered subjects away from patriarchal order (Creed 59).

Secondly, the vampire is associated with a queer identity without explicitly engaging in same-sex behaviour. Put differently, the lifestyle, behaviour, performance, and gestures of the vampire are implicitly compared to those of the Western construction of the queer. In particular, Richard Dyer notes the similarities between vampires and Western understandings of lesbian- and gay-identified individuals in his article ‘It’s in His Kiss!: [End Page 4] Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism’. Dyer confirms as much when he claims, ‘what has been imagined through the vampire image is of a piece with how people have thought and felt about homosexual women and men—how others have thought and felt about us, and how we have thought and felt about ourselves’ (Dyer 73). Here, Dyer is, of course, alluding to the long history of the West perceiving LGBT identified individuals as sexual and physical predators capable of mass infection (Benshoff 1997; 2006). Amenable to queer readings, vampires, Dyer argues, are similar to the West’s socially constructed ‘homosexual’ because they are both steeped in histories marked by secrecy and mystery, isolated from normative society, and sexually voracious, among other similarities. There is, of course, nothing inherently ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ about being private, alienated, or sexual; however, this is how the West has frequently constructed and thus understood LGBT identified individuals. This essentialist notion that queerness has certain innate sensibilities and behaviours makes possible the conflation of the vampire with Western constructions of the ‘queer’.

This leads me to the third, and perhaps most significant, conceptualization of ‘queer’ in scholarship focusing on the vampire figure and its fictions. While the first two applications of ‘queer’ focus on the longstanding trend of exploring both the explicit and implicit connections between the vampire figure and gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, the third application centers on the more recent yet equally important trend of equating the vampire with an attitude or ethos that refuses to comply with the rules of hegemonic systems. Throughout my work, the capitalization of ‘Queer’ will refer to the latter understanding in order to provide distinction between the two. Accordingly, ‘Queer’, in this sense, refers less to the supposedly innate and stable identity often coupled with LGBT individuals, and more to the actions taken that are motivated by the intent to challenge, transgress, disrupt, and destabilize naturalized systems of oppression such as compulsory heterosexuality, monogamy, temporary able-bodiedness, white supremacy, and patriarchy, among others. Put differently, the first two applications rely on the usage of ‘queer’ as a noun to categorize a set of people with supposedly identifiable differences, while the third depends on ‘Queer’ as a verb to indicate a state or action. Aligned with a positionality, ‘Queer’ is, therefore, not necessarily contingent on one’s sexual identity, but on one’s lack of compliance with or mistrust in normalized systems of ordering.

As a positionality that is aligned with disruption (Muñoz 1999), loss (Love 2007), and failure (Halberstam 2011), ‘Queer’ has understandably been perceived by activists and scholars alike as a politic or ideology of gay culture. However, as mentioned previously, ‘Queer’ is less an identity-organizing construct and more a critique of identity (Jagose 1996). Assuming that a sexual orientation, then, like ‘gay’ even has a culture that possesses unique, fixed behaviours, gestures, and attitudes is antithetical to ‘Queer’ sensibilities. However, this is not to say that queerness, like heterosexuality, is not performative (Butler 1990, 1993, 1999). Refusing categorization and definition, Queer sensibilities reject essentialized notions of sexuality which rely on an acceptance of the supposed fixedness and stability of socially constructed binaries like homosexuality/heterosexuality. It is this disruptive potential of Queer, Kathryn Kane maintains, that aligns with the vampire (Kane 107). Regarding the vampire as a ‘boundary threat’, Kane argues that the vampire, like the Queer, has conventionally disrupted ordered ways of knowing, being, and relating: ‘it undoes that which is taken to be fixed’ (106). Kane is critical of Meyer’s depiction of the ‘defanged’ (107) vampire which, she claims, is ‘a radical revision’ (107). Arguing that [End Page 5] Meyer’s conservative and sympathetic vampire represents the pinnacle of heteronormative success and order, Kane contends that Meyer’s conceptualization of the vampire is decidedly ‘unqueer’ (117).

Correspondingly, Meyer’s conservative representation of the vampire is, indeed, quite queer (strange) in its un-Queer (un-troubling) tendencies. Although I agree with Kane’s contention that Meyer’s vampire has been emptied of much of its potential to trouble, challenge, disrupt, transgress and, hence, Queer systems and institutions of power, I disagree with her argument when she severs herself from a tradition of aligning the vampire with gay and lesbian (queer) identity. While Kane briefly acknowledges a scholarly tradition of conflating the vampire with LGBT identity, her line of argument is overwhelmingly and distinctly grounded ‘in the way the vampire aligns with [Q]ueerness, not gay and lesbian identity’ (Kane 105). Even as she suggests, without elaboration, that many compelling connections exist between Meyer’s vampire and homosexuality, Kane divests Edward Cullen of his queerness and homoeroticism and instead contributes to a popular mainstream understanding of Edward as an unqueer vampire. I, on the other hand, discern a queer individual in Meyer’s protagonist vampire. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the Cullens and none of them are imagined as being explicitly gay identified characters, I return to the metaphor to explore the vampire’s relationship to queerness. Taking direction from Richard Dyer’s conflation of the performances of both vampirism and Western constructions of queerness, I locate Meyer’s conceptualization of the vampire within this tradition.

I have elucidated multiple conceptualizations of the term ‘queer’ to illustrate shifting notions of queerness while creating the parameters of how I will engage with ‘queer’. While I occasionally refer to the vampire’s Queer potential, my use of the term ‘queer’ in this article refers to the limited and limiting categorical understandings of sexual difference. Put simply, I employ ‘queer’ to indicate a perceived sexual orientation rather than a defiant positionality. Aligning vampirism with queerness, I will trace the often homosocial and homoerotic histories of the vampire figure to resuscitate the queer within Meyer’s heteroromantic fiction.

Edward’s Great Queer Ancestors: (Blood)suckers and Man Haters

The vampire is popularly imagined as a caped, white-fanged aristocrat. He is of your Halloween variety—foreign, male, effete, unsympathetic, ghostly, lonely, old, white (very white), and most likely saying ‘I vant to suck your blood’. He is Dracula. Although the image of Dracula informs our popular understanding of the vampire, the vampire is a versatile monster that has been (vamp)ed and re(vamp)ed throughout the years. As Nina Auerbach begins in her influential text Our Vampires, Ourselves, ‘…there are many Draculas—and still more vampires who refuse to be Dracula or to play him’ (Auerbach 1). In all its diversity, the vampire has been represented as being sympathetic, trans, female, lesbian, bisexual, white, black, Asian, evil, good, homosocial, and symbolic of psychosis (respectively Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (Neil Jordan 1994), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson 2008), Vamp (Richard Wenk 1986), Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer 1936), The Hunger (Tony Scott 1983), White SkinLa peau blanche” (Daniel Roby 2004), [End Page 6] Blacula I (William Crane 1972), Thirst Bakjwi” (Chan-wook Park 2009), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon 1997-2003), Twilight (Harwicke 2008), The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher 1987), Martin (George A. Romero 1976)).

These vampires, in all their various forms, have functioned throughout the decades as salient metaphors for a myriad of social and political epidemics afflicting the United States. Vampires have been useful stand-ins for everything from slavery (Lee 2002; Cain 2009), consumption (Marx and Engels 1967; Latham 2002), modernity (Abbott 2006; 2007), and immigration (Newland 2009) to polymorphous sexuality (Auerbach 1997; Zanger 1997), lawyers (Sutherland 2006), menstruation (Creed 1993), sexual disease (Skal 1993), and surveillance (Grandena 2013). Although the vampire figure has symbolized all such meanings, among others, it has most commonly haunted the popular cultural landscape during moments of sexual panic and crisis to symbolize an embodied threat to normative sexuality (Marche n.pag). Correspondingly, we see a rise in vampire fiction produced at the turn of the century when women were becoming more independent. Similarly, vampire fictions experienced a renaissance in both literature and film in the United States during the 1960s and 1980s when the sexual revolution and AIDS epidemic transformed the sociosexual terrain. Although vampire films are, of course, not restricted to these periods, the rise can perhaps be best explained by grasping the vampire’s fundamental relationship to sexuality.

The vampire’s characteristic bite or ‘kiss’, as it is often referred to—yet another indication of the vampire’s association with sexuality—situates both predator and prey in an intimate embrace that is at once both satisfying and painful. Although you do not have to read the vampire’s transformational bite as being sexual, Richard Dyer, among a number of other writers, says, ‘an awful lot suggests you should’ (Dyer 75). The vampire’s erotic bite, consequently, appropriates the place of sex—penetrative sexuality specifically. Archetypically, this erotic displacement commonly occurs between a predatory male vampire and an unsuspecting female victim; however, both male and female vampires are also regularly imagined freely preying on men and women. The vampire’s connection to deviant sexuality, then, or queerness—more appropriately—is but a single step in the logic when a vampire bites someone of the same sex. Consequently, the vampire as a character has been integral to the production of gay and lesbian fiction as its participation in same-sex relations has often been overlooked (Dyer 73). The vampire allows authors to explore sexual themes and imagery that may otherwise not be available to them. To illustrate a tradition of queerness, I turn to several of Edward Cullen’s queer predecessors who, more frequently than not, revel in same-sex biting—a preference that is markedly homoerotic (or (hemo)erotic), if not homosexual.

Often thought to be the inventor of the vampire, Bram Stoker—the creator of the notorious Count Dracula—is frequently credited, mistakenly, as being the first to imagine the vampire. Although Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula (1897) largely defined our modern understandings of the vampire, Count Dracula is not the first vampire in Western literature. In fact, prior to the conception of the unpleasant Dracula, who singlemindedly pursues young women, vampires were considerably more homosocial, more homoerotic—more queer. Nina Auerbach notes as much when she argues that the infamous Dracula ‘is less the culmination of a tradition than the destroyer of one’ (Auerbach 64). Referring to a tradition in which vampires were considerably more friendly and intimate, Auerbach argues that the nineteenth century pre-Dracula vampire ‘offered an intimacy, a homoerotic sharing, that [End Page 7] threatened the hierarchal distance of sanctioned relationships’ (60). For example, Samuel Coleridge’s unfinished and ambiguous poem ‘Christabel’ (1797), written a century before Dracula, tells the story of a young but dead woman named Lady Geraldine who has inexplicably returned to charm and captivate the young maiden Christabel. Successfully captivated by Lady Geraldine’s enchantment, Christabel is transfixed by the sight of a naked Lady Geraldine, her breast specifically. The erotic overtones of the prose are markedly Sapphic, for example:

So half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did she recline
To look at the lady Geraldine,
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breathe aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! Her bosom and half her side
A sight to dream, not to tell?
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel
(qtd. in Urisini 32)

This imagery, in which Lady Geraldine, partially naked, holds the attentive gaze of Christabel, takes advantage of the naked female figure and lesbian desire. Employing her seductive wiles, Lady Geraldine’s power, as Auerbach and others have noted, lies in Geraldine’s focal breast (Auerbach 26). Correspondingly, Barbara Creed and others (Weiss 1993; Williamson 2005) have argued that ‘the female vampire’s seduction exploits images of lesbian desire’ (Creed 59). The imagery of predatory and voracious female intimacy and sexuality is undeniably homoerotic in its vivid illustration of same-sex attraction between Lady Geraldine and Christabel.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s supernatural novella Carmilla (1871) similarly focuses on a young girl named Laura who is haunted by dreams of a beautiful and mysterious woman named Carmilla and, later, Millarca—both anagrams of ‘Mircalla’. Both Carmilla and Millarca are eventually revealed in the narrative to be the same person, Countess ‘Mircalla’ Karnstein, a female vampire who expresses a predilection for vampirizing young women—a preference that produces palpable homoerotic underpinnings. Following a suspicious carriage accident, Carmilla is unexpectedly placed under the supervision of Laura’s father where she officially meets Laura. They quickly become close friends in spite of Carmilla’s abrupt and disruptive mood swings which fluctuate between perplexing rage and unsettling ‘passionate declarations of her liking for [Laura]’ (Le Fanu 82). Distressed by ‘a cruel love—strange love that would have taken [her] life’ (82), Laura expresses confusion: ‘I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of [End Page 8] abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling’ (87).

Correspondingly, Laura’s contradictory feelings of both disgust and adoration resonate with popularly imagined representations of how gay and lesbian identified individuals have thought and felt about themselves as they experience dissenting attraction and desire. Also implied in her statement is the notion that Laura is attracted to and affected by Carmilla in spite of her best efforts to remain unyielding. Similarly, being bitten by a vampire constructs a biological connection that binds the victim to the prey in spite of reason. Thus, the narrative which ambiguously explores Carmilla’s lust and/or hunger for Laura in many ways establishes a tradition in which vampirism is conflated with homosexuality. One possible implication of such imagery is that women who desire other women are predatory and, more worryingly for a heterosexist, patriarchal culture, capable of ensnaring heterosexual women, transforming them into deviants, sexual or otherwise. Although Christabel toys with lesbian desire, Carmilla effectively establishes the trope of the lesbian vampire, as it is this fiction which is re-appropriated time and again in twentieth century horror films.

After the creation of Carmilla, the lesbian vampire as a trope does not significantly return as a common depiction until the 1970s. No longer a thinly disguised metaphor for queer desire, the films of the 1970s portray many of their female vampires as explicitly lesbian- and bisexual- identified individuals. The Hammer productions especially boast lesbian vampires whose ‘lust knows no boundaries’—a tagline from the so-called Karnstein Trilogy Lust for a Vampire (Sangster 1971). While the instances of lesbianism or queerness discussed in both Christabel and Carmilla are more incidental, the instances in the dykesploitation films of the 1970s—loosely adapted from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’—are purposeful. The female vampires find identity politics and are clearly lesbian (Auerbach 56). Correspondingly, these films exploit imagery of softcore lesbianism that is at once both threatening and non-threatening. These films offer audiences—overwhelmingly heterosexual and male—the brief opportunity to revel in images of pornographic depictions of lesbianism before the narrative re-establishes order or ‘proper’ ways of relating within the heterosexist matrix. Even as these films narrowly present lesbian desire, they demonstrate a shift in patriarchal and heterosexist structures. These films arguably emerged during a time of burgeoning feminism and a greater awareness of lesbian relations. For Auerbach, films such as these can indeed celebrate alternative expressions of female desire as a result of the shifting attitudes of the 1970s (Auerbach 165). Where lesbian or, more appropriately, queer desire was suggested in the nineteenth-century female vampire, lesbianism is specifically addressed in the vampire films of the 1970s.

Although ‘Carmilla’ and ‘Christabel’—fictions which solely focus on intimacy between women—largely establish the explicit queerness of the vampire figure, a comparable pattern of same-sex intimacy and attraction between men can similarly be traced throughout vampire fiction. Referring to Lord Byron’s ‘Fragment of a Tale’ (1816) and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), Nina Auerbach makes clear a connection between the male vampire figure and homosexual writing. Elaborating on this correlation, Richard Dyer’s ‘It’s in His Kiss: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism’ provides a rich variety of examples to argue that the vampire figure and vampire fiction in general is a cultural phenomenon that has been both produced by and about men in the [End Page 9] category ‘queer’: ‘From Manor and Har to Anne Rice’s Louis, Armond and Lestat, or from Vathek to Gaywick, there is a line of vampire Gothic writing that is predominantly queer/gay produced, or which at any rate forms part of a queer/gay male reading tradition’ (Dyer 71). Vampire fiction, like Gothic fiction, Dyer argues, is often in contention and divergence with hegemonic male culture and narratives (72). Apart from elucidating a tradition of queer produced vampire fiction, Dyer’s most important intervention in the scholarship relies on the metaphorical connections between the construction of the vampire and the queer.

Ultimately arguing that the vampire’s metaphorical possibilities account for its traditional and historical relationship to queerness, Dyer explicates how the construction of the vampire is dependent on modern discourses used to articulate the social construction of queerness. Dyer argues that there is a fit between vampire imagery and gay and lesbian identities. Referencing both explicitly queer and heterosexual vampire fictions to illustrate how the visual production of vampirism is homologous with the construction of queerness, Dyer underscores several features that the two identities share: privacy/secrecy, uncontrollable desires, and discourses of self-loathing. Although there is nothing inherently private, uncontrollable, or self-loathing about the popularly imagined queer, these features, Dyer argues, are integral to modern notions of hegemonic queerness.

I have focused on traditions of both visual and metaphoric queerness represented throughout Western vampire fiction. A history of textual and visual homoerotic vampires, both male and female, and a metaphoric compatibility begin to explicate my, among other scholars’, reasons for extending the metaphor to contemporary vampire fictions such as True Blood (Brace and Arp 2010; Culver 2010; Curtis 2010) and, most importantly, the Twilight saga. Turning now to a more direct analysis of the Twilight saga, I will illustrate and reiterate Dyer’s claim that ‘much of the form of vampirism/sexuality is homologous with the social construction of queerness’ (Dyer 77). Although the Cullen family and, more importantly, Edward, in many ways represent a major revision in the construction of the vampire as monster (Kane 117), Dyer’s metaphoric understanding of the vampire largely remains the same. I return to Kane’s claim that Edward and the Cullen family are ‘distinctly unqueer’ (Kane 117) to argue instead that Meyer’s representation of vampirism continues to articulate and conflate popular discourses of the ‘queer’—inflected by gender, race, class, and ability—with the vampire figure.

 The Undead Metaphor

Turning to a more direct analysis of the Twilight saga, I will demonstrate how Meyer’s vampire, regarded as being atypical and revisionary (Kane 2010), represents an extension of the very tradition it is believed to disavow. Locating the self-hating outsider known as Edward Cullen within a tradition of equating the experience of the vampire with the imagined experience of the queer, I will illustrate how Meyer’s film series reanimates this undead trend.

As a social construction, homosexuality or, more appropriately, queerness is often perceived to be a fixed and stable category that is thought to have inherent and identifiable characteristics and ways of being. While privacy has been integral to the definition of the [End Page 10] ideal sexual citizen (Rubin 1984; Warner 1999; Dyer 2002), which, according to the construction, does not include queers (Rubin 1984; Warner 1999; Puar 2007), privacy has also been integral to the construction and perception of the queer for other reasons. Popular culture often imagines queer individuals to be private individuals either out of necessity to avoid perceived—yet very real—physical and psychic violence (Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce 1999); Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee 2005)) and/or because the queer individual is ashamed of his/her same-sex attractions (M. Butterfly (David Cronenberg 1993); J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood 2011). Correspondingly, it is under the conditions of a heterosexist matrix and often flagrantly homophobic culture that queer individuals are encouraged or, more appropriately, forced—both intuitively and physically—into lives of secrecy. Although there is nothing inherently private about queer folks, the idea of privacy is frequently perceived to be very important to the queer ‘lifestyle’.

Similarly, secrecy and privacy are integral themes within traditional vampire fiction. Noting the similarities between the lifestyles of the queer and vampire, Dyer discusses the importance of the secret double life in which both vampire and queer must hide their true identities. Like the perceived-to-be or self-identified queer, the vampire must conceal its strange desires and acts to ensure its survival in a society that ruthlessly maintains normalcy because, as Dyer notes, there is a ‘sense that being a queer is something one must keep to oneself [which] certainly accords with an idea of the authenticity of private sexuality, but it also is something that one better keep private if one is not to lose a job, family, friends and so on’ (Dyer 78). As a result, the vampire’s existence relies on its ability to be consistently regarded as belonging to a group that is not its own—essentially, the vampire is able to ‘pass’ as being human. The sociological phenomenon known as ‘passing’—which not only includes sexual passing, but racial, gender, and class passing—is reliant on successful misrepresentation. The concept of passing requires a critical nod of acknowledgment to the constructedness or performance of identities—racial, gender, sexual, class, bodiedness, or otherwise. In the same ways that queer individuals have been understood as possessing an identifiable ethos, ways of being, and cultural practice (Dyer 1988; Halperin 2012)—or, as Dyer aptly observes, ‘a widespread discourse that there are tell-tale signs that someone ‘is’’ (Dyer 78) —vampires, similarly, have ways of being which, if revealed, threaten their existence. Although Dyer made this comparison over ten years ago, this theme of what is essentially ‘passing,’ which fittingly resonates with the lives and stories of many LGBT identified individuals, still rings true for the vampire figure in Meyer’s Twilight saga.

The characterization of Edward Cullen as an emotional teenage boy with pouty lips, beautifully coiffed hair, and, most notably, sparkling skin appeals, perhaps unintentionally, to camp’s aesthetic and performance. Revealing his bare skin to the sun’s magical rays and Bella’s gaze, Edward bemoans, in a fashion reminiscent of ‘coming out’ narratives, ‘This is what I am’ (Twilight 0:52:12). Bella gasps, ‘It’s like diamonds. You’re beautiful.’ (Twilight 0:52:18)—cue swooning drag queens. The depiction of Edward as a strange (read as odd, different, queer), glittering adolescent—a condition that Pramod Nayar terms ‘Supernatural masculinity in drag’ (Nayar 62)—who is simultaneously repulsed by Bella’s abject body (most notably, her scent) and attracted to her appearance reads as Liberace-excess, Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show-camp, RuPaul-drag: queer at the very least. Steven Marche similarly notes queer incongruities in the seemingly staunch hetero-romantic tale in his article ‘What’s Really Going on With All These Vampires?’: ‘Twilight’s fantasy is that [End Page 11] the gorgeous gay guy can be your boyfriend’ (Marche n.pag). Despite Marche’s hasty generalization that ‘[v]ampires have overwhelmed pop culture because young straight women want to have sex with gay men’ (Marche n.pag.), I believe that the parallel that Marche draws between the representation of Edward Cullen and queerness is fitting and a subject worthy of greater attention.

Indeed, Meyer’s ‘beautiful’ vampire breed renders statements like Dyer’s—‘the classic metaphoric statement of the idea of the gay male image of the gay man as a sparkling, agreeable surface masking a hidden depravity, brilliant charm concealing a corrupt and sordid sexuality’ (Dyer 80)—quite fitting. My attention here is, of course, focused on Dyer’s description of the vampire’s body as being sparkling and agreeable because Meyer’s vampires—in a break with traditional vampire convention—indeed, sparkle. Among being exceedingly beautiful, Meyer’s vampires sparkle when their skin is exposed to the sun. The iconic scene in Twilight in which Edward not only reveals himself to be a vampire to Bella but also exposes his peculiar ability to sparkle has been only one of many sites of incredible amusement and disparagement for viewers of the Twilight series. This scene of discovery and Edward’s fabulous ‘coming out’ is instigated by Bella cagily saying, ‘I know what you are’ (Twilight 0:50:36). In spite of this ‘othering’ language, which is strikingly similar to Dyer’s ‘tell-tale signs that someone ‘is’’ (78), Bella does, in fact, have grounds to suggest that Edward is different. After all, the first half of the Twilight film goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Edward’s ways of being are different, strange, peculiar—queer, even. As Bella notes, Edward is ‘impossibly fast and strong. [His] skin is pale white and ice cold. [His] eyes change colour and sometimes [he] speak[s] like [he is] from a different time. [He] never eat[s] or drink[s] anything. [He doesn’t] go out into the sunlight.’ (Twilight 0:49:43). Not only does Edward have ‘give away aspects’ (79) which align him with vampirism, reinforcing Dyer’s comparison and argument that both the queer and vampire have ‘tell-tell signs’ (71), Edward has queer ‘give away aspects’ which more closely align him with queerness.

While Dyer argued that vampirism in all its expressions was easy to read as an image of queerness, I argue that Edward Cullen’s revisionary signs more readily associate him with queerness. Besides possessing the ‘othering’ yet typical traits of conventional vampirism, Edward sparkles when out in sunlight, appears to be repulsed by the sight and smell of Bella, and, perhaps most importantly, will not and/or cannot bite—the figurative act of sexual penetration—or have sex with Bella. Surely, this is the type of concealed ‘sordid sexuality’ (80) Dyer was referring to previously. These particular additions to the vampire mythos are unquestionably queer behaviour for a vampire (Sommers 155). But, more importantly, are these additions not also queer behaviour for an adolescent male? If only stereotypically indicative of the ways of being ‘gay’, these features align Edward more readily with queerness. Stephen Marche suggests as much when he claims that Edward resembles the gay best friend construction:

Edward…is a sweet, screwed-up high school kid, and at the beginning of his relationship with Bella, she is attracted to him because he is strange, beautiful, and seemingly repulsed by her. This exact scenario happened several times in my high school between straight girls and gay guys who either hadn’t figured out they were gay or were still in the closet. (March n.pag) [End Page 12]

Although Marche’s hasty claim is quite reductive and essentializing, it reinforces Dyer’s comparison between the rhetoric and discourse of queer- and vampire-spotting and, more importantly, it locates queerness within the hetero- and abstinent Twilight saga.

Conventionally, monsters emerge to disrupt and challenge hegemonic ideas of the normal. Consequently, monsters, including vampires, evade rules, mores, and order. Renowned for especially evading sexual rules, decorum, and order, the vampire’s appetite, in spite of its sexual orientation, ‘always exceeds and defies cultural mores’ (Weinstock 2012). At the whim of its appetite, the vampire has traditionally been depicted as indiscriminately feeding on both men and women. Consequently, the vampire, unable to control its hunger, has often been depicted in same-sex biting, penetrating, and sucking. This imagery, which imagines a man or woman invading the body of another of the same sex, has had limited visual homoerotic representation in popular culture. Thus, the vampire’s voracious and irrepressible appetite has afforded it the opportunity to engage, even if only platonically or temporarily, in same-sex relations.

Recently, however, vampires have been depriving themselves of this natural yet evil instinct in an attempt to be civil and moral—HBO’s True Blood and Meyer’s Twilight series being the most blatant expressions of this trend. Although not the first to depict the vampire as attempting to control its appetite, Stephanie Meyer is the first to depict her vampire as being successful and content while doing so. Where Anne Rice’s self-loathing and sympathetic Louis is ultimately unable to manage his natural inclination toward drinking human blood, Meyer’s resolute and controlled Edward ultimately perfects repressing his bodily appetites. Although drinking the blood of humans is perhaps the most distinguishable and significant feature of the vampire as well as its greatest pleasure, Meyer’s vampire, in a mark of disinterest with this convention, abstains from feeding on humans. Referred to as ‘vegetarian’ vampires, Edward Cullen explains, ‘my family and I, we are different from the others of our kind. We only hunt animals. We learned how to control our thirst’ (Twilight 0:54:20). In the interest of leading a moral life, Meyer’s vampire rejects and denounces an inherent part of its self-identity because vampirism and morality are thought to be incompatible.

Correspondingly, if we are to understand the vampire’s innate and pleasurable act of sucking the blood of humans as a thoroughly Victorian displacement of the traditional sex act, recognizing its refusal to feed on humans as an attempt to abstain from sexual intercourse—same-sex or otherwise—is but a step in the logic. Put simply and directly, Meyer’s Byronic Edward not only controls the biological impulse to bite and suck human blood, but, more significantly, controls his voracious impulse to penetrate and suck the bodily fluids of his victims.

In a flashback which reveals a pre-vegetarian Edward, Edward describes himself as a monster. While the choice of language is interesting because it resonates with how LGBT identified individuals have often been represented and thus thought of (Benshoff 1997, 2006; Dyer 2002), the language also reveals a judgement. This fictional condemnation and repression of a super(natural) instinct eerily resembles an existent discourse which condemns natural feelings of same-sex attraction and desire. This existent discourse, informally referred to as ‘Pray the Gay Away’, endeavours to reconcile homosexuality with religious beliefs, specifically Christianity. The fundamentalist practice of attempting to convert people identified as ‘homosexuals’ into ‘heterosexuals’ resembles the Cullen family’s practice of converting vampires into vegetarian vampires. In the same ways that [End Page 13] the Cullen family believe that the desire to and act of (suck)ing the blood of humans is incompatible with a moral life, many extremist Christians believe that same-sex desire is incompatible with a moral life. Given Meyer’s religious standing and the text’s overriding didactic messages of piety and restraint, connections emerge between Meyer’s fictional family who abstain from the perverse bodily desire to consume blood and individuals like Alan Chambers, the longstanding president of Exodus International, the organization which has single-handedly become synonymous with the phrase ‘Pray the gay away’ (Crow n.pag). Both bodily desires, thirst for blood and attraction to the same sex, are similarly constructed as being purely biological and instinctual, and both pious groups, the Cullen family and organizations like Exodus International, champion similar ideologies that maintain that those very instincts can be overcome with just a little (neoliberal) effort and determination.

Gripping Edward’s hand, Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) leans into Edward’s dying and bed-bound body and tenderly whispers words, unbeknownst to the viewer, into Edward’s ear. Following this, Carlisle bites into Edward’s exposed neck, holding Edward’s face still as his body writhes in agony. In the violent moment, Edward is pictured screaming, gasping for air as his eyes open wide in pain. A victim of circumstance, Carlisle is depicted as experiencing feelings of regret and possibly even abhorrence as he removes himself from Edward’s penetrated and infected body. Carlisle is demonstrated as possessing immense focus and self-discipline: ‘not many of us have the restraint to do that’ (Twilight). Carlisle’s decision to ‘turn’ a dying Edward is one based in compassion and reason instead of impulse and instinct, which distinguishes Meyer’s brand of vampirism from her predecessors. Even as Carlisle is seen as producing a monster, Carlisle is sympathetically rendered as the morally righteous patriarch who is capable of controlling his desires.

Another feature of the vampire narrative that Dyer claims can be easily read metaphorically as an image of queer sexuality and experience is the discourse of self-loathing that surrounds the vampire. Discourses of self-loathing are particularly essential to the construction of the sympathetic vampire (Williamson 63). As many have noted, the sympathetic vampire is a vampire who loathes its condition or identity but is essentially and ultimately constrained by it (Williamson 2005; Dyer 2002). Unlike the unsympathetic vampire, the sympathetic vampire despises and feels contempt for its perceived and/or self-identified culture and personal identity. Unlike the traditional vampire, imagined as a predator and perpetrator, the sympathetic vampire is regarded as being a victim of circumstance (Williamson 63). Again, Dyer relates this imagery to the queer identity and experience. Dyer posits that queer readers of vampire fiction may very well identify with the ‘curse’ of vampirism because the framing language used to understand and empathize with the melancholic vampire reflects modern bio-medical discourses about the ‘curse’ of ‘homosexuality’. With the medicalization and essentializing of ‘homosexuality’, individuals identified as queer were more frequently pitied than abhorred. Indeed, the twentieth century ‘argument that “we/they can’t help it”’ (Dyer 81), which has often taken the form of ‘a mix of distaste for homosexuality with a recognition that it cannot be resisted’ (81), is similarly employed within the vampire narrative. Respectively, the sympathetic vampire innately ‘can’t help it’ and its awareness of its biological disposition is often met with feelings of regret, disgust, and disappointment. This identity crisis, which, as Dyer contends, bears a striking resemblance to the consequences of internalized homophobia, rings true for forlorn queer folks across North America. [End Page 14]

Throughout the series, Edward experiences several identity crises in which he struggles to accept his seemingly inherent queerness as a vampire. As a creature that has instinctively perverse desires—a voracious thirst for human blood— Edward is perhaps fittingly imagined as experiencing crises which are almost always surrounded by language of self-loathing: ‘All the men I killed were monsters. And so was I’ (Breaking Dawn: Part I 0:05:40). This language, as Dyer notes, has been informed by the modern queer. In Breaking Dawn: Part I, Edward recalls a time when he enjoyed killing humans. Interestingly, Edward is only ever visually imagined as haunting, biting, penetrating, and sucking male bodies, save Bella’s body, which is always out of necessity to save her life. Edward is demonstrated biting the neck of a man. When he explains this to Bella, he emphasizes that he only penetrated (my language)/punctured men. This scene is informed by language of regret and disgust—’I was a monster’ (Breaking Dawn: Part I 0:5:56). Although Edward is meant to be read as regretting his decision to kill men, I argue that this scene can be alternatively read as an instance of Edward’s homoerotic panic, especially because this ‘coming out’ scene is in response to Bella jeeringly saying ‘What, you’re not a virgin?’ (0:05:12). The language of the forbidden, the impermissible, combined with Bella’s enquiry about Edward’s previous sexual exploits, contributes to the reading of Edward as an ashamed queer. In addition, these scenes in which Edward struggles with his identity often occur when Edward warns Bella of the dangers of his ‘condition’ to discourage her from its destruction‘I’m the world’s most dangerous predator’ (Twilight 0:53:20). Thus, Edward’s continuous and purposeful distancing from his ‘condition’ renders his actions and attitudes self-loathing.

While Edward attempts to purge himself of any vampireness by refusing to live like a vampire, as demonstrated by his choice to maintain a ‘vegetarian diet’, the villainous vampires—perhaps only villainous because they embrace their nature, which stands in direct opposition to the nature of humans—epitomize the self-identified, out and proud queer, because they embrace and revel in their desires. Whereas Edward denies himself the pleasures, desires, and experiences of the vampire, James, the most celebratory of his differences, embraces his supposed genetic nature and all that it entails. Thus, I draw a parallel between the frequently self-hating Edward and the construction of the ashamed homosexual, both of which are popularly imagined as being incapable of embracing their ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self. The coded language of the ashamed homosexual, equated with the vampiric condition of Edward. is just another example of how Edward Cullen can be understood as participating in the constructed ways of being queer.

Normalized Vampires/Queers

Many Queer scholars have voiced concern for/with the longstanding myopic focus of the LGBT agenda in North America. Repudiating the movement’s central focus on gays in the military and, most significantly, same-sex marriage equity, Michael Warner in particular discusses the agenda’s attempt to normalize and desexualize gays as being misguided and in the interest of only select identities. Rather than either devising a radical reimagining of sexuality, family, and relationality, and/or challenging institutions and [End Page 15] structures which disproportionately privilege the normative, the movement promotes the reappropriation of traditional and restrictive values and institutions.

This type of agenda, assimilationist in function, has been referred to as ‘homonormative’. Homonormativity, as defined by Lisa Duggan in her article ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, ‘is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumerism’ (23). Working to downplay homosexuality as a form of significant otherness, homonormative conventions mark individuals within lesbian and gay communities as indistinguishable from heterosexuals (Duggan 2002). In line with the gay assimilationist viewpoint(s), homonormative politics are quite different from radical Queer politics, which not only strive to deemphasize the importance of sexual identity politics, but address LGBT issues as they intersect with gender, race, class, ability, and capitalism. Conversely, homonormative politics prioritize issues that involve the mainstreaming and thus normalization of gay identities. Focus on the legislation of same-sex marriage, adoption, and military service as the primary concerns of most lesbian and gay activist groups exemplifies homonormative rhetoric and discourses. Thus, rather than questioning or challenging heteronormative structures and institutions like marriage and childrearing, homonormativity simply asks for inclusion in the existing structures.

Assimilationist ideology that strives to have queer individuals recognized as similar, if not normal, resonates with the discourses employed in Meyer’s text. Although the Twilight series is not explicitly a text about queer sexuality, it is a text about queer creatures. A text about vampires, monsters, and individuals not unlike us, the Twilight saga implicitly explores themes of normality and abnormality. Consequently, the text carries several persistent and enduring yet embedded and invisible notions about normality. These notions are so pervasive and established in Western culture that they are rarely questioned or challenged. I argue that the Twilight series, in its production of normality and abnormality, is reproducing problematic discourses that reappropriate homonormative rhetoric. Much of the rhetoric and many of the discourses that surround the assimilationist approach in the struggle for gay rights, I contend, are reappropriated by Twilight’s Cullen family: in particular, Edward. Like homonormative queers, vampires who endeavour to squelch their abnormal desires and who instead channel their energies into fostering incredibly committed monogamous relationships and raising children are sympathetically rendered as valuable individuals.

I argue that this type of un-radical politic, the assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into queer culture and identity, is deployed in the Twilight saga, whether consciously or unconsciously, to mark ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ queers as separate from ‘abnormal’ and ‘unhealthy’ queers. This is best exemplified by the Cullen family, Edward specifically, through their reappropriation of traditional American values, such as virtue, loyalty, and sacrifice, as well as institutions, such as marriage and family building. In fact, Meyer’s films glorify heteronormative structures and institutions by upholding the importance of compulsory heteronormative coupling, monogamy, the practice of abstinence before marriage, matrimony, the nuclear family, and organic child rearing, which the film Breaking Dawn: Part I provides for Bella and Edward in spite of all supposed folkloric and supernatural odds. Although a queer character—if, at the very least, because [End Page 16] he represents something abnormal—Edward not only takes part in these institutions and structures, but cherishes and upholds them as markers of the good and healthy normal life. Although Edward will never be able to fully attain a normal life because we are told that vampires are—like queers are imagined to be—intrinsically abnormal folk, Edward can acquire most of the sociosexual markers of the valuable sexual citizen. Put simply, Edward cannot change his biological and disreputable impulses, but he can conduct himself in a manner deemed appropriate enough to afford him with the opportunity to border respectability and thus receive the social privileges and rewards listed above.

The Cullens and Edward, in a rejection of their ‘natures’, align themselves with normality by upholding and participating in both social and sexual (heteronormative) value systems and institutions assumed to be natural to humans. Accordingly, the Cullens are valued as respectable figures—in spite of their literal and figurative queerness—because their sexuality is ‘heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and non-commercial’ and ‘coupled, relational, within the same generation and occur[ing] at home’ (Rubin 280). According to Rubin’s hierarchy of sexuality, their sexuality and ways of relating do not violate distinctions of ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ sexuality, but bolster it by blindly accepting the supposed ‘normalness’ of it.

This message is nowhere more blatantly stated in the text than when Bella implores Edward to have sex with her. We are told that Edward refuses to have sexual intercourse with Bella because ‘Edward is old school’ (Eclipse 1:12:36) and, more importantly, her human scent is most potent and thus attractive to Edward’s vampiric senses when she is sexually aroused. But in desiring to have sex with Edward as a human being before being turned into a vampire, Bella pleads, ‘You said you wanted me to have every human experience’ (Eclipse 1:15:10). Although sex is but one of the ‘human experiences’ Edward hopes for Bella, this statement and scene alludes to the stakes in sexual conduct. A desire for human experience is relegated to a select few privileged experiences which are considered human and thus good. Edward does want Bella to have every human experience and he does want to have sexual relations with Bella, but for Edward, the human experience is conflated with ‘normal’ sexuality: ‘Believe me, I want to. I just want to be married to you first’ (Eclipse 1:17:10). More concerned for her ‘virtue’ (Eclipse 1:17:29) than the threat of vampirization, Edward conflates not desire, perverse or otherwise, with normality and/or ‘human experiences’, but proper sociosexual conduct —a feature that aligns him not only with religious morality, but with homonormative rhetoric and discourses.

Among the moral didacticism, the film’s fascination with marriage serves to normalize the vampires. Meyer’s text, I argue, draws from gay liberationist strategies that have situated the gay individual as being no different than their straight counterpart. Drawing a parallel to the rhetoric and discourses of the North American gay and lesbian movement, I argue that the Twilight series employs homonormative propaganda and strategies to articulate the normalness of the vampire. In an attempt to normalize the vampire, the series embraces an invisibilized politics of ‘the normal’ which requires the vampires to repudiate their perverse desire—a similar tactic that the North American gay movement took in the 1990s.

According to Michael Warner, the North American lesbian and gay movement experienced a drastic political shift in the early 1990s. Warner contends that a large faction of the gay movement stopped embracing a politics of sexual pride and instead embraced a politics of shame (Warner 42). Recognizing that ‘power lies almost exclusively on the [End Page 17] normal side’ (44), the gay movement, he argues, underwent a desexualisation in hopes of garnering more support (legal and social) from the heterosexual majority. As a result, the movement’s embrace of ‘normal’ began with ‘divorcing homosexuality from sex and then from politics’ (60). Similarly, the Twilight text, I argue, divorces desire from sex and politics. The Cullens are virtually ‘just like’ their human counterparts, save their strange desires and impulses. We are told that the only thing that distinguishes the vampires from humans is their desire and lust for blood; however, according to Meyer’s text, if that desire is controlled and restrained, then, vampires—positioned as fundamentally different—can be ‘just like’ us. By controlling their desires and embracing institutions and values considered ‘normal’, the Cullen family move from being creatures of disgust to creatures of respectability. Accordingly, just as ‘marriage, in short, would make for good gays—the kind who would not challenge the norms of straight culture, who would not flaunt sexuality, and who would not insist on living differently from ordinary folk’ (Warner 113), marriage would, similarly, make for good vampires.

Meyer reveals that vampirism can be good—normal, even. If the unnatural desires of the vampire and queer cannot be squelched, the Twilight series reveals that the lifestyles that are assumed to belong to those desires can be. As a result, the queer lifestyle of Edward ultimately becomes indistinguishable from a normative human life. Duggan’s homonormative politics provide a useful platform for addressing and discussing Edward’s normalizing tendencies and his desire to be seen as the same. Accordingly, as gay and lesbian individuals acquire more social and legal equality in North America and social attitudes toward non-normative sexualities evolve, representations of queer individuals change as well. Situating the vampire—a figure that has been championed by queer folks for being queer—as a character that desires to embrace normality as opposed to rejecting it seems fitting to a decade that has begun to accept the emergent normative queer.

In 1995, Nina Auerbach argued that vampires, far from being simply fantastical monsters, were creatures that embodied the age in which they were created. What vampires are, she maintains, ‘in any given generation is a part of what [she] is and what [her] times have become’ (Auerbach 1). Referring to the years in between 1989 and 1993 (the years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency), Auerbach draws compelling parallels and makes convincing comparisons between the representations of vampires and the moral panics and social fears of the period. Correspondingly, my intervention in vampire studies has explored the rather recent depiction of the ‘normal monster’ while discerning how its depiction similarly parallels contemporary Anglo-American politics and culture.

This scholarly work took shape during 2011 and 2013 when debates about sexuality took front stage in U.S. politics. It was during these years that Rick Santorum, one of the Republican primary candidates, was glitter bombed by protesters for his hateful and homophobic denouncements of same-sex marriage. It was during these years that President Obama was re-inaugurated, defeating Mitt Romney. It was during these years that Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage and his administration urged the Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex couples. It was during these years that landmark victories for gay rights were achieved, including the legal recognition of same-sex couples from the federal government in states where same-sex marriage is legal. It was also during these years that the final Twilight film, Breaking Dawn: Part II (Condon 2012), which grants the undead but no longer unwed couple Edward and Bella a happily-ever-after ending in spite of their supposed difference, was released. [End Page 18]

These are queer times in which we live. Queer (stange), indeed, when our vampires look and act like what we imagine normative people to look and act like; however, it is not surprising that creatures that have traditionally embodied difference look and act like (some of) ‘us’ now. Returning to Auerbach’s objective, vampires, far from being unimportant and nonsensical creatures, ‘matter because when properly understood, they make us see that our lives are implicated in theirs and our times are inescapable’ (9). Consequently, as North America witnesses a mainstreaming shift in attitudes toward (white, wealthy, able-bodied, male) gays, so, too does it experience a change in attitudes toward one of queer folks’ figurative and metaphoric counterparts, the (white, wealthy, able-bodied, male) vampire. Thus, Meyer’s hetero(normative) vampire reflects an emerging homo(normative) queer.

In this article, I have sought to recover the apparently absent queer of the Twilight series. A narrative about a supposedly odd and out-of-place girl meeting and falling in love with a vampire (or, more appropriately, a rich, white (super)man living with vampirism), the Twilight series is not a text about the abnormal, but instead, one about the normal. Normality is not something that has traditionally come easy to queer folks, and thus, drawing a parallel between Meyer’s normal vampire and the queer identity, commonly understood in opposition to the ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ and ‘good’, has not been a common strategy among scholars theorizing around the Twilight series. I, however, maintain that the normalcy of Meyer’s normative Edward Cullen can be attributed to recent changes in both American attitudes toward and representations of queer individuals. In a society where people once considered different and strange are more frequently understood as being ‘normal’, it only makes sense that the figures they influenced, embraced, and celebrated also evolve to accommodate the period’s new attitudes and perceptions.


[1] This work does take up both textual and visual vampire fictions as if they are identical mediums. While the article does not permit space to discuss the differences between textual and visual constructions of the vampire, it is worth noting that they do differ. Generally, vampires of film adaptations are emptied of much of the queerness of their literary counterparts. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

Abbott, Stacey. Celluloid Vampires: Life after Death in the Modern World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Print.

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Anatol, Giselle Liza. Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

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—. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

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Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

Boyer, Sabrina. ‘“Thou Shalt Not Crave Thy Neighbor”: True Blood, Abjection, and Otherness.’ Popular American Culture 33.2 (2011): 21-41. Print.

Brace, Patricia, and Robert Arp. ‘Coming Out of the Coffin and Coming out of the Closet.’ True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 93-108. Print.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

—. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

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Cain, Jimmie. ‘Racism and the Vampire: The Anti-Slavic Premise of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture. Ed. John Edgar. Browning and Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009. 127-134. Print.

Click, Melissa A., Jennifer Stevens. Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & the Vampire Franchise. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.

Condon, Bill. dir. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2011. DVD. 16 November 2011.

—. dir. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2011. DVD. 20 August 2012.

Creed, Barbara. ‘Woman as Vampire: The Hunger.’ The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Ed. Barbara Creed. London: Routledge, 1993. 59-72. Print.

Crow, David. ‘Ecumenical News.’ Ecumenical News. N.p., 23 June 2013. Web.16 July 2013.

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Culver, Jennifer. ‘Dressing Up and Playing: Vampire Assimilation in Human Playground.’ True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 19-32. Print.

Curtis, William. ‘‘Honey, If We Can’t Kill People, What’s the Point of Being a Vampire?’: Can Vampires be Good Citizens?’ True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You. Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 65-78. Print.

Duggan, Lisa. ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.’ Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics. Ed. Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 175-194. Print.

Dyer, Richard. ‘It’s In His Kiss!: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism.’ The Culture of Queers. London: Routledge, 2002. 70-89. Print.

Erzen, Tanya. Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Print.

Grandena, Florian. ‘Heading Toward the Past: The Twilight Vampire Figure as Surveillance Metaphor.’ Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader. Ed. Marina Levina. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 35-52. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

—. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Halperin, David M. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

Hardwicke, Catherine. dir. Twilight. Writ. Melissa Rosenberg. Summit Entertainment, 2008. DVD. 22 August 2012.

Housel, Rebecca, and Jeremy Wisnewski. Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981. Print.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1996. Print.

Kane, Kathryn. ‘A Very Queer Refusal: The Chilling Effect of the Cullens’ Heteronormative Embrace. Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & the Vampire Franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens. Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 103-118. Print.

Latham, Rob. Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. ‘Carmilla.’ Children of the Night: Classic Vampire Stories. Ed. David Stuart Davies. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2007. 65-132. Print.

Lee, Debbie. ‘Proximity’s Monsters: Ethnography and Anti-Slavery Law in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.’ Slavery and the Romantic Imagination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 156-179. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Marche, Stephen. ‘What’s Really Going on With All These Vampires?’ Esquire. 13.10 2009: n. page. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967. Print.

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McFarland, Jami. ‘Triangulated Desire in Meyer’s Twilight: A Queer Dynamic.’ Journal of Dracula Studies 15 (2013). 23-46. Print.

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Rubin, Gayle. ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.’ Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1984. 267-319. Print.

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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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