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♪ Murder to Marriage: Love and the Evolution of The Killers
by Tosha R. Taylor

The Killers occupy a contentious place in contemporary music. Their emergence onto the popular music scene in 2004 was characterized by a fusion of rock, “lo-fi fuzz” (Prevatt, qtd. in Keene 36), synth-pop, and new wave revival. The band’s early visual aesthetic, mostly embodied through the stage persona of frontman Brandon Flowers, gave conspicuous nods to glam rock and the “British pop dandy” (see Hawkins), but shared elements with the concurrently rising emo genre with its similar penchant for men in tailored suits and [End Page 1] eyeliner. Both their visual and musical styles underwent a notable transformation for their second album, striving to evoke a Springsteen-esque Americana. They have continued to dabble in various genres, notably arena rock in recent years, thus preventing their music from settling into a secure niche (Plutzik, paras. 7-10) and defying the “hallowed distinctions between ‘pop’ and ‘rock’” problematized by musicologist Allan F. Moore (“Authenticity” 210). While early hits “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” still receive radio and club play, their more recent work has received less commercial success and critical acclaim.[1] Following the release of their fourth studio album in 2012, Chris Bosman of TIME and Consequence of Sound described the band as “both grand and forgettable” and “embarrassingly satisfying” (para. 1), while Craig McLean of the Independent hailed them as “America’s greatest rock band” (n.p.). While Flowers himself appears to espouse this attitude in some public statements, in others he seems to apologize for work by the band that he finds subpar. They are, in short, a musical entity in a state of constant fluctuation, contradiction, and evolution.

One such evolution comes in their treatment of love and romance. Rhodes identifies love as “rock’s great theme” which the genre addresses “in all its positive, negative, and ambivalent connotations” (25). The Killers’ engagement with the theme alone is certainly not unique. What is noteworthy, however, is the nature of their evolution, which has been marked by conspicuous thematic and stylistic transformations, changes in reception, and, perhaps most significantly, their frontman’s return to his Mormon faith and much-publicized church-influenced commitment to his wife. In chronological terms (outlined below), their early work largely abstained from positive depictions of romantic relationships, centering instead on breakups, unreciprocated desire, and seemingly doomed pick-up lines (“Somebody told me/That you had a boyfriend/That looked like a girlfriend/That I had in February of last year”). By the release of their fourth album, their subject matter had evolved to focus heavily on love, with a particularly notable concern for love in long-term relationships. From the first track off their first album to the first single off their fourth, The Killers made a dramatic shift from murdering the object of their narrative focalizer’s affection to marrying her.

Surveying popular music, Madanikia and Bartholomew define love as a musical theme as “expressions of romantic love or caring for a potential, current, or past romantic partner, as well as any content that involved a romantic relationship” which may also, but not always, “involve expressions of sexual desire” (3). For the purposes of this article, I will consider songs as being about love/romance when their lyrics explicitly describe such a relationship (or the loss of one) or clear romantic and/or sexual desire. The band’s early studio albums posit bad endings to such desires, ranging from jilted emasculation to murder. The rejection theme continues in the release of 2007’s Sawdust, a compilation album of early singles, B-sides, and rare tracks. The album contains a number of songs that address romantic relationships, including The Killers’ first promotional single and exception to their early focus on the consequences of rejection, “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll.” Most other songs, however, pertain to smugly single-sided desire or the loss of a relationship. In keeping with the angrier approach suggested on Hot Fuss, “All the Pretty Faces” is a frenetic rock song in which the focalizer seems torn between love and violence, desire and rejection. “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf” here functions as a breakup song, although it is in fact a prequel to The Killers’ take on a rock murder ballad in Hot Fuss’s “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine.” (The Murder Trilogy will be discussed in detail below.) Other romance-centric tracks here include “Under [End Page 2] the Gun,” “Who Let You Go,” and a cover of Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Before closing with a remix of “Mr. Brightside,” the album features one of the band’s most popular covers, Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.” This album thus seems to collect several love-centric songs that were not selected for the early studio albums.

However, the next studio album, Day & Age (2008), withdraws from explicit love, its loss, and romance. No love-centric songs (per this article’s definition) appear on the album save for one: “Tidal Wave,” which was exclusive to the iTunes edition. Yet with their fourth LP, Battle Born (2012), The Killers focused conspicuously on romance, a turning point away from their previous work. The album explores romantic relationships with a maturity that is both unusual for often youth-centered rock and a departure from the images of the bewildered and rejected young boys on Hot Fuss. Not coincidentally, “Miss Atomic Bomb” acts as a sequel to “Mr. Brightside” both musically and lyrically, featuring its antecedent’s signature guitar motif and the apparent decision of the Mr. Brightside character to move on from the woman he cannot have. Several other tracks on the album concern romance, heartache, and even the hardships of marriage: “Runaways,” “The Way It Was,” “Here With Me,” and “Heart of a Girl,” and, on the deluxe edition of the album, “Prize Fighter.” Finally, a failed romantic relationship is lamented on “Just Another Girl,” a previously unreleased bonus track that closes their greatest hits collection, Direct Hits (2013). Their fifth studio album Wonderful Wonderful (2017) focuses more personally on marital relationships, specifically that of Flowers and his wife Tana.

It is clear from this survey that The Killers’ studio work has evolved toward romance rather than away from it, to such a point that their recent work is dominated by songs about love, to the dismay of some fans.[2] Several concurrent factors have precipitated this shift, including aging band members and fans, Flowers’ stated distaste for much contemporary rock music, and the peculiar place of Flowers as a devout Mormon rock star with ambitions of becoming an even greater one. More generally, the shift also participates in the critically well-established ability of rock music to explore and challenge masculinity via songs about love and desire. This article traces the band’s thematic evolution as an investigation into rock’s varying modes of masculinity, gender politics, and the star persona of the frontman figure. While Moore cautions against some humanities approaches to music studies (“Introduction” 7), my analysis of the music itself will primarily concern lyrics, which, Griffiths notes, are often de-emphasized in music studies despite their influence on the music itself (40-43). My focus on Flowers as the driving force of the band’s thematic evolution also requires a lyrical focus, as he is the band’s primary lyricist and spokesperson, and lyrical analysis is particularly efficient in revealing the “complex interplay between myth and music(ian)” (McCarthy 28). Furthermore, as this article will demonstrate, changes in the band’s treatment of romantic relationships are correlated with events in Flowers’ personal life. Through song lyrics, Astor and Negus argue, musicians “inevitably negotiate the meaning of their own biographies” (200). The band’s evolution is, therefore, most conspicuous through analysis of lyricism and the gradual identification of Flowers himself as his own focalizer. [End Page 3]

Rock Masculinities

The trajectory of The Killers’ evolution from murder to marriage can first be contextualized through an understanding of the relationship between masculinity and rock music. Much of the scholarship on this relationship concerns more popular, more aggressive, or conspicuously harder rock acts. Discourses of masculinity in the respective works of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both all-male bands that have straddled similar rock/pop lines to The Killers, have received a respectable amount of academic and non-academic study. Rock has traditionally been addressed as a male-dominated genre, and even when women do find prominence in the genre, Crider argues, rock “has always conformed to the expectations of hegemonic masculinity” (259). Male focalizers are also standard and can be reasonably assumed in many, if not most, songs performed by men in the rock and pop genres, further supporting a link from masculinity and maleness to such music.[3] Focalization, an essential element for this analysis, occurs in “the relationship between the ‘vision’ of the agent that sees, and that which is seen” (Bal, Narratology 104). The reader/listener is presented with the perspective not only of the narrating voice but also the implied perspective of the agent witnessing or participating in the events of the text, ultimately allowing up to three or four levels of focalization (Bal, Narratologie 32). With regards to masculinity, personal focalizers are especially embedded within lyrical music, which implicitly creates the masculine figure through a gendered human voice.

R.W. Connell’s theoretical model of “hegemonic masculinity” provides a starting point for several contemporary studies of masculinity and music. In her model, hegemonic masculinity is understood as a socially prescribed set of images and practices which men are expected to exhibit publicly. Frith and McRobbie’s seminal work on “cock rock” in 1978 provided a detailed analysis of hyper-aggressive masculinity in rock music that allowed only for anger and jealousy as male emotional expressions. This category was juxtaposed with what the authors termed “teenybop,” whose focalizer was an “incompetent male adolescent” who sang of his own “self-pity, vulnerability, and need” for the “unreliable, fickle, and more selfish” woman (375). However, Frith’s 1985 “Afterthoughts” admits this work oversimplified much of rock’s gender relations. Nonetheless, their study of women’s sexual objectification and men’s anger and sexual prowess is echoed in much rock criticism and is even now not without merit. In 2005, Connell and Messerschmidt revisited Connell’s original theoretical framework to adjust for more nuanced understandings of masculinity and to establish a “renovated analysis” of prescribed male qualities (854). This revised study rejected the former premise of an automatic subordination of women but maintained that gender hierarchies are still powerfully in place (846-7). Men’s abilities to navigate appropriate contexts for hegemonic practice are also acknowledged. Hegemonic masculinity, then, “is not static or essential” and may or may not include all the qualities previously ascribed to it (Houston 159).

Musical masculinities have indeed evolved to include performances that defy traditional criticism or that fluidly fuse characteristics of traditional understandings of gendered expression. Leonard posits Kurt Cobain, with his emotional neediness contrasted against aurally aggressive grunge rock, as a challenge to binaries such as Frith and McRobbie’s (25). Biddle, meanwhile, recognizes the “new male singer/songwriter,” who is characterized by “openness to vulnerability, a commitment to social and sexual intimacy, and [End Page 4] a tendency to want to avoid the overt spectacularisation of masculinity” (125). The Killers are far from the more aggressive musical forms of rock with which many critics of music and gender have been concerned, nor do they display the soft sensitivity of Biddle’s characterization, whom are exemplified by more musically and vocally subdued singers Sufjan Stevens and José González. What can be found in their work, however, is a negotiation of these spheres of musical masculinity that alternately upholds and challenges rigid critical classifications, beginning at one extreme (murder) and ending at what here serves as its thematic opposite, husband-and-fatherhood. These negotiations manifest particularly through a series of masculine focalizers who have gradually forsaken narrative distance to become identifiable as the band’s frontman himself.

“I’m Not Satisfied Until I Hold You”: Murder and Rejection (2003-2004)

Heartbreak is a common subject in The Killer’s music, as in rock at large, but is highlighted in their work by certain early tracks in which it leads to murder. Their Murder Trilogy comprises, in narrative order, “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf,” “Midnight Show,” and “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine.”[4] In the first song, the focalizer is rejected by his girlfriend, Jennifer, in favor of another man. In the second (which is actually the tenth and penultimate track on Hot Fuss), he murders her, and in “Jenny” (which opens the album), he is interrogated by the police, ultimately confessing to the crime. The lyrics of “Leave the Bourbon” themselves do not indicate that he will kill her for this perceived transgression, but a threat is implied:

Give me one more chance tonight
And I swear I’ll make it right
But you ain’t got time for this
And that wreckin’ bell is ringin’
And I’m not satisfied until I hold you

The final chorus modifies the last line to say “I’m not satisfied until I hold you tight.” The last word takes on new significance when paired with “Midnight Show.” Here, the focalizer confronts Jenny and strangles her: “I took my baby’s breath beneath the chandelier/Of stars and atmosphere/And watched her disappear.” We may now interpret the addition in the previous song as foreshadowing the manner in which Jenny will die. The embrace/strangulation motif is repeated in the chronologically final song, in which the focalizer proclaims, “She couldn’t scream when I held her close/I swore I’d never let her go.”[5]

The Murder Trilogy blends rock aggression with less masculine-coded emotional sensitivity to depict the most extreme reaction to rejection. The act of strangulation is particularly aggressive and dominating, requiring applied physical force over a prolonged period in order to ensure death. Through this act, the focalizer expresses the traditional stereotype of hegemonic male aggression while retaining a petulance that still echoes Frith and McRobbie’s limited analysis. Perhaps the most vocally emphatic tracks of Hot Fuss are [End Page 5] the two pertaining to Jenny’s murder. In these, Flowers’ voice moves from a disaffected, narcissistic bluntness (“I know my rights/I’ve been here all day and it’s time/For me to go so let me know/If it’s all right”) to loud, growling protest (“I just can’t take this!/I swear I told you the truth!”) in “Jenny” and a repetition of “no” over climactic driving guitars and a sustained wail in “Midnight Show”). In both songs, it is only when the focalizer becomes angry or is threatened with the revelation of his crime that Flowers emotes. His desperate pleas for Jenny to reconsider before he murders her compromise the smug dominance that he otherwise displays. Regarding the sex murderer, an iconic figure in murder ballads, Reynolds and Press write that “Murder is the final expression of his passion, the proof and testament of his love. It’s a form of absolute possession, a terrible sanguinary intimacy” (28). In these songs, Flowers perhaps inadvertently aligns himself with Nick Cave, whom Reynolds and Press label “the most powerful exploration” of that expression in rock (the alliance is all the more significant in that Cave has experienced a similar musical evolution, the lyricism of which owes much to his personal spirituality). In this way, the focalizer-murderer becomes a morbid, romantically rejected embodiment of Connell and Messerschmidt’s revised, plural hegemonic masculinities, which may involve conflicting emotional ambivalences (852), but still invite physical violence even if they are no longer predicated upon it (840).

On Hot Fuss, “Jenny” is followed by The Killers’ first single, “Mr. Brightside.” This marks the first blatantly love-centric song in their musical corpus, but it is far from a celebration of love. The song instead reveals the inner paranoia and envy of a male focalizer observing the woman he desires with another man. His protestation that he has “been doing just fine” at the beginning of each verse is contradicted by a sense of emasculation as he imagines the couple preparing for sex:

Now they’re going to bed
And my stomach is sick
And it’s all in my head


I just can’t look
It’s killing me
And taking control

The self-identified Mr. Brightside does not resort to murder when he perceives himself rejected, and his song thus removes him from the aggressive masculine/emasculated dichotomy found in the Murder Trilogy. The music video further establishes this removal, as Flowers appears as a nervous but smugly flamboyant dandy in contrast to the older, more emotionally collected Eric Roberts in their battle for the girl. Here, the embodied focalizer is at his least hegemonically masculine and most like a music dandy, who, “mocking his own self-loathing […] exhibits an outward expression of superiority” (Hawkins 5). This dandy, Reynolds and Press argue, is himself a “revolt against the proper model of masculinity” (17). Flowers’ dandy, however, lacks a rock dandy’s typical politically transgressive nature due to his inability to participate in the “supposed sexual freedom” of the aesthetic identity (Hesmondhalgh 57). [End Page 6]

While “Mr. Brightside” refrains from violence, it is worth noting that its 2012 sequel, “Miss Atomic Bomb,” evokes destructive imagery. With a decade between them, the two songs are positioned at polar opposite eras in The Killers’ thematic trajectory: “Mr. Brightside” occurs at the new wave/post punk-revival beginning and “Miss Atomic Bomb” is the centerpiece of the Springsteen-influenced arena rock of Battle Born. Here we return to Mr. Brightside’s focalization as he at last relinquishes his desire for the girl. There is a conspicuous maturity to the song, not only due to the years between albums and a more developed tone in Flowers’ voice but also within the lyrics, which denote a passage of time: “I was new in town, a boy with the eager eyes,” “When I look back on those neon nights,” “We were innocent and young,” “Sometimes in dreams of impact I still hear” (all emphases mine). The paranoid boy of the first track has grown into the man who has granted himself the power to leave the scene of his rejection. Accordingly, the frenetic, club-friendly dance-rock of its predecessor is replaced by a smoothly building rock ballad. The identification of the girl as “Miss Atomic Bomb” creates a sense of her as a sudden, all-destroying force, yet the focalizer, previously unmanned by his romantic desire, now emerges whole (“The dust cloud has settled/And my eyes are clear”).

Yet, in keeping with the masculine destructiveness of Hot Fuss, the song closes with doublespeak suggesting a bad and bitter end for one of the pair. While the focalizer’s declaration that “this love that I’ve cradled/Is wearing thin” does not result in Miss Atomic Bomb’s murder, the subsequent lyrics “But I’m standing here/And you’re too late/Your shock-wave whisper has sealed your fate” imply that something undesirable awaits her. This fate, however, is clouded in ambiguity as the narrative adopts another layer in the song’s finale. The “you,” previously addressing Miss Atomic Bomb through the focalization of Mr. Brightside, now shifts to Mr. Brightside himself, addressed by the song’s external narrator, who may possibly be the mature Mr. Brightside as a distinctly separate entity speaking to his younger self. As the song fades out, a final verse describes Mr. Brightside with images that imply assault:

It feels just like a dagger buried deep in your back
You run for cover but you can’t escape the second attack
Your soul was innocent, she kissed him and she painted it black
You should have seen your little face, burning for love
Holding on for your life

Then backing vocals (also primarily provided by Flowers) juxtapose this narrator’s voice with Mr. Brightside’s as the latter repeats the pre-chorus:

But you can’t survive (All that I wanted was a little touch)
When you want it all (A little tenderness and truth, I didn’t ask for much)
There’s another side (Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time)

What is particularly notable here is that the first shift is not signalled; the listener only realizes that “you” is now Mr. Brightside when the focalized “she” enters. The fluid shift leaves it open to question if the final promise of death (“you can’t survive”), whether literal or figurative, is addressed to the man or the woman of the ill-fated pair. As (currently) the final piece in the band’s exploration of romantic destruction, “Miss Atomic Bomb” removes [End Page 7] the male focalizer from the jealous paranoia of his first appearance and the homicidal actions of Jenny’s murderer, but, as if an homage, it still ends with a sense that the emasculation of rejection will have negative, if ambiguous, consequences.

“I Don’t Really Like You”: Ambivalent Desire (2006-2008)

The Murder Trilogy now stands as an anomaly in the band’s musical corpus; despite their name (which was inspired by a New Order video), they did not build their recording career on killing. While some subsequent songs have addressed failed relationships, none have ended in death or emotional raving. Ambiguity and ambivalence, however, persist, and the post-Hot Fuss era can be romantically characterized by focalizers at war with their own emotions. The 2006 sophomore album, Sam’s Town, featured only one song that can be considered love-centric. “Bones” is one of the band’s few erotically suggestive songs; as will be discussed in the final section of this article, the band typically avoids references to sex. The song juxtaposes a playfully inviting chorus (“Don’t you wanna come with me/Don’t you wanna feel my bones/On your bones/It’s only natural”) with verses that suggest inexperience and even disdain on the part of the focalizer. The line “And in the ocean we’ll hold hands” is immediately followed by a Hot Fuss-esque tonal bluntness in “But I don’t really like you.” An image of the focalizer weeping is similarly immediately followed by a sonically joyful first chorus. The second chorus yields to an unemotional spoken admission that provides insight into the focalizer’s ambivalence: “I never had a lover/I never had soul/And I never had a good time/I never got cold.” His romantic and sexual inexperience has prevented him from feeling the opposing pleasure and pain of a relationship.

Male ambivalence comes to the forefront of “All the Pretty Faces,” recorded during the Sam’s Town era and released on Sawdust. Here the focalizer asks the focalized subject to “help [him] out” immediately before proclaiming “I don’t feel like loving you no more.” The line that follows (“I don’t feel like touching her no more”) shifts the focalized from second-person “you” to a feminine third person. The chorus echoes Hot Fuss’s violence as well as its ominous aural tone as drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. hits the cymbals on every eighth note with Mark Stoermer’s bass also picking up during the lines “You’re not going anywhere without me/These trials don’t prepare the air of love/You’re not telling anyone about me/And you shake and you bleed while I sing my song.” Other tracks on Sawdust are similarly steeped in romantic ambivalence. Despite its title, “Under the Gun” is not a song about murder but rather about a focalized man who is “tied to a dream” of the deceptive woman he loves. The chorus is entirely a repetition of his request to the narrator: “Kill me now, kill me now, kill me now.” According to the narrator, however, the man’s release can come only from the woman herself, whom the man still characterizes as an “angel.” His desire to be destroyed rather than continue suffering at her hands boasts shades of “Mr. Brightside” but lacks Brightside’s paranoid, 80s pop-influenced charisma and thus makes him seem the more emasculated of the two.

These songs, as well as those referencing romantic relationships on Sawdust, withdraw from the violent passions of Hot Fuss but do not replace them with other forms of romantic or sexual desire. Indeed, some songs suggest a cynicism about love. “Where the White Boys Dance” sets a break-up, focalized by a woman, against the comedic cultural motif [End Page 8] of unsophisticated young men who “might have a chance” only because she is upset. Flowers’ disaffected tone as he voices the focalizer of “Who Let You Go?” sounds bored with desire when he sings “I find it so romantic/When you look into my beautiful eyes/And lose control” (emphasis mine). Day & Age returns to the avoidance of explicitly love-centric songs. Confident masculine lust is nowhere to be found in the band’s 2006-2008 studio work, nor is the unabashed romanticism of the rock ballad. Up to this point, The Killers have complicated their treatment of love by infusing it with either ambivalent naiveté at best, or a petulant and selfish desire at worst.

“If I Go On With You By My Side…”: Marriage Rock (2012-Present)

The release of Battle Born in 2012 saw the greatest thematic shift in The Killers’ music by conspicuously focusing on romantic relationships. The love-centric songs on the album do not repeat the motifs of spurned suitors or ambivalence; instead, many of them relate the perspectives of focalizers who navigate established and prolonged relationships. The first single (and second track on the album), “Runaways,” is an up-tempo arena rock song, powered by militaristic ghost notes on the drums and resplendent with energetic keyboards, that traces a pair of lovers from their courtship to pregnancy to engagement and ultimately to marriage. While dissimilar in tone, tempo, instrumentation, and vocal clarity, the track shares a trajectory with Springsteen’s “The River” (1980), depicting the idealism of young love (“a teenage rush”) as it rises to confront adult responsibilities (“We got engaged on a Friday night/I swore on the head of our unborn child/That I could take care of the three of us”). The couple soon wish to escape from their new roles. The focalizer sings, “But I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild/It’s in my blood,” while his wife “says she might just run away/Somewhere else, someplace good.” The bridge and final verse see the focalizer, like Springsteen’s, comparing the relationship’s better days to its current tension:

We used to look at the stars and confess our dreams
Hold each other til the morning light
We used to laugh, now we only fight
But baby, are you lonesome now?

At night I come home after they go to sleep
Like a stumbling ghost I haunt these halls
There’s a picture of us on our wedding day
I recognize the girl but I can’t settle in these walls

The repetition of “I knew that when I met you/I’m not gonna let you run away/I knew that when I held you I wasn’t lettin’ go” in each chorus moves from evoking romantic attachment to marital imprisonment. Unlike the similar language of the Murder Trilogy that describes Jenny’s murder, here inextricable embraces are used to signify the upholding of matrimonial bonds.

A melodically catchy song about marriage is, to a degree, an unusual choice to mark any band’s return after four years, especially when their sales have declined with each [End Page 9] album. Yet it does participate within a critically undefined group of songs in which a romantically committed man rediscovers freedom not through leaving (or murdering) his partner but through roaming away from the family home. It is perhaps no coincidence that this motif appears in the music of some of the band’s influences, who are also known for being in committed relationships, as well as being conspicuously religious. The “tendency to slip when the nights get wild” in “Runaways” echoes Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” which “pledges masculine fidelity while suggesting its opposite” (Edwards 84). For country and rockabilly performers like Cash, roaming allows focalizers to regain “some sense of lost working-class freedom and individualism” (88). The road similarly functions in Springsteen’s work “as source of male power” (John Connell 211). The Killers’ focalizer here finds comfort in driving, as related in the final pre-chorus’s triumphant contrast to the “stumbling ghost” he is at home: “I turn the engine over and my body just comes alive,” he sings, sustaining the final syllable triumphantly as the drums, rhythm, and bass uniformly punctuate the musical phrase. Although driving does not bring the focalizer of “The River” the same ecstatic release as that of “Runaways,” the convergence of the two songs is here amplified.

The next song on the album, “The Way It Was,” continues the driving motif, beginning with a man driving through a desert. Its music is much more subdued, resembling a power ballad, which “court[s] intimacy” as the “singer imparts what comes across as deeply felt emotions and draws in listeners through delicate candour” (Metzer 438-9). Here, the focalizer reminisces about the early days of a romance but finds the relationship has soured. The chorus subsequently questions whether or not the couple will be able to salvage their love. The interplay between singer and musicians inserts a pause between short phrases as represented here, signalling an increasingly emotive uncertainty: “If I go on/With you (by my side)/Can it be/The way/It was.”[6] If this song only resembles a power ballad, the subsequent track, “Here With Me,” actually is one. The song begins slowly and mournfully as the focalizer, accompanied by a piano, laments a past failed relationship (the opening line, “Wheels are turning,” continues the evocation of driving). Like the previous two tracks, this one juxtaposes carefree images of young romance with a more mature man’s sense of loss. The focalizer is almost painfully vulnerable in his nostalgic desire, with Flowers crying out the chorus and eventually vocalizing in falsetto. Unlike Jenny’s murderer, this focalizer cannot confront the object of his desire when he encounters her but rather flees from her, deciding to passively “wait” for her to return to him. As the song closes, he can only repeat his desperate request, “I want you here with me.”

With “Miss Atomic Bomb” belonging more to the narrative begun in Hot Fuss, the remaining love-centric song on the album is another ballad (but not a power ballad). “Heart of a Girl” relates the first meeting of two young lovers who now struggle to “hear that ancient refrain,” but the suggested marital strife does not end in late night roaming or separation, as the focalizer realizes his partner has chosen to stay with him: “Staring down the mouth of a hundred thousand guns/And you’re still here/You’re still here.” This realization is followed by the emphatic proclamation “I believe that we never have to be alone.” The track closes with an informal renewal of marital vows: “Standing on stone, you stand beside me/And honor the plans that were made.” The alienation experienced by focalizers of other love-centric Killers songs is here put to rout in favor of the assurance of a long, weathered but stable partnership. Its placement after the trio of romantic disillusionment songs and “Miss Atomic Bomb” leaves the listener with the image of a devoted couple working toward the [End Page 10] continuance of their relationship. A final crash and a sustained chord on the synthesizer emphasize a sense of narrative finality.

“Heart of a Girl” pairs with “Prize Fighter,” a bonus track on the deluxe edition of Battle Born, to create a very personal exploration of frontman Flowers’ actual marriage (the story of “Heart” is indeed how he and Tana met). That exploration continues in The Killers’ fifth album, Wonderful Wonderful. Although the album’s lead single, “The Man,” is a parody of machismo, as if to mock previous cocksure focalizers, much of its promotion has concerned its three songs that specifically concern Tana and address her struggle with complex PTSD, which Flowers revealed in multiple promotional interviews in late summer of 2017. The third track on the album, “Rut,” addresses Tana’s suicidal depression directly and apparently from her perspective (Beaumont para. 16). “Rut” is followed by “Life to Come,” a quasi-spiritual rock song in which the focalizer promises “to be the one” who will “be there in the life to come.” In “Some Kind of Love,” which prominently samples Brian Eno’s “An Ending,” the focalizer, here identifiably Flowers himself, softly praises his wife’s strength and discourages her from self-harm, leading up to a plea sung by Flowers and his and Tana’s three sons. In the title track, which is more musically experimental than much of the band’s catalog, the focalizer sings to a “motherless child” who seeks “rescue” and will find it by “follow[ing] [his] voice.” Using the archaic “thee” pronouns to address her and claiming omnipresence, the focalizer doubles as a divine being who promises “great cause to rejoice” and a “home” for her. He recedes from this grandiosity in the final verse by admitting that he may be “dirty” and “unworthy,” but repeats his promises. This song in particular, Flowers relates to NME, served as a bonding experience for him and his wife, as it brought him to a better understanding of her long-untreated condition (Reilly para. 8). Just as the most prominent focalizer of the band’s love-centric songs has moved from the smarmy young murderer to the tempted but devoted husband, he now appears to simply be Flowers. In this way, Flowers becomes more conspicuous as the driving force behind The Killers’ thematic evolution. Thus, it is through his frontman persona that we may conclude an examination of the band’s trajectory from murder to marriage.

“This burning belief in salvation and love”

Building on analyses by music scholars Frith and Auslander, Sutton explicates three “‘layers of performance’” (209). The first is the musician himself: here, Brandon Flowers outside the public eye, the man, husband and father, composer, and primary lyricist for The Killers. The second is the star: here, the Brandon Flowers who appears onstage and in paratextual materials. The third is the narrator and/or focalizer that has been this article’s focus hitherto, who need not bear any resemblance to the prior layers, and it is this third that has steadily emerged as an audible and visible presence within the band’s music.

As a practicing Mormon who now abstains from alcohol and drugs, Flowers is an unlikely rock star.[7] In an interview with The Daily Beast, Flowers describes his decision to devote himself to his faith in terms that we can see reflected in his de-eroticized, drug-free music: “[…] being committed to my wife and family, I can’t see any downside to it. There are people who’ve done the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll thing and made it happen for them, but I knew even when I was young that that wasn’t going to work out for me” (Stern para. 14). [End Page 11] However, his current devotion to his faith did not occur until after Sam’s Town (para. 13), thus aligning the sneering, desperate murderers and rejected lovers of the band’s early work with each other, during which time Flowers has stated that he experienced “a rebellious streak” (para. 21). Writing for The Mormon Women Project, Tana Flowers has similarly emphasized her husband’s temporary departure from his faith in this period (para. 1). He has since committed himself to his wife and children and prioritized them over music; their inclusion as focalized subjects and performers on Wonderful Wonderful provides musical evidence of an increasing thematic prioritization.

The Mormon emphasis on marriage is evident in “Heart of a Girl,” and thus it is all the more appropriate that the band’s 2012 album places it as the final love-centric song. As an influence on Flowers even prior to his re-commitment to the church, it likely also accounts for the continued lack of sexuality in the band’s work. The most explicitly sexually-charged lyrics in their corpus occur prior to Jenny’s murder in “Midnight Show” (“You got a real short skirt/I wanna look up”) and the chorus of “Bones,” but even these songs do not venture into the raw sexuality that is often associated with rock. While by no means universal, the genre’s frequent “separat[ion]” of sexuality from “fidelity and trust” and “the demands of conventionality, including marriage” poses a challenge for the rock musician who adheres to their faith more than simply nominally (Hesmondhalgh 56). As Hesmondhalgh argues, rock often deploys sexuality as a means of “opposition to structure and […] central institutions of order and continuity” (63). While Hesmondhalgh points out that alternative rock allows for a “hyper-masculine but desexualized rock style, derived from the frenetic energy of punk,” The Killers’ sound has evolved further away from that energy; the one track that could be described as having “the frenetic energy of punk” on Wonderful Wonderful, “Run for Cover,” was in fact composed between the Sam’s Town and Day & Age eras. The remembrances of youthful sexuality in Battle Born’s love-centric content are relatively tame: “Did you forget all about those golden nights?” and, respectively, “Your body was tan and your hair was long/You showed me a smile and my cares were gone.” The latter continues to echo the nostalgia in Springsteen’s “The River,” in which the focalizer describes “Her body tan and went down at the reservoir.” Springsteen’s musical influence on The Killers is made all the more relevant through his own own admitted religious ties and struggle to reconcile his experience of the world with his faith (Marsh 97). Although Springsteen has dealt with sexuality more frankly than Flowers, his focalized women (whom are frequently named Mary) are undoubtedly colored by Catholicism (Moss 343-4). In the Mormon context, so, too, is Flowers’ lyrical evolution from murder to marriage.

Complications superficially arise in Flowers’ solo work. To date, Flowers has released two solo albums, Flamingo (2010) and The Desired Effect (2015). The first boasts a more explicit spirituality than The Killers’ work, with “Crossfire” fusing images of lovers with a cosmic battle between heaven and hell. “Playing with Fire” features a more direct statement that appears to reference Flowers’ own precarious place as a rocker who is equally religious and ambitious, aged by marriage and fatherhood, but determined to keep his faith:

Ten thousand demons hammer down with every footstep
Ten thousand angels rush the wind against my back
This church of mine may not be recognized by steeples
But that doesn’t mean that I will walk without a God [End Page 12]

Rolling river of truth, can you spare me a sip?
The holy fountain of youth has been reduced to a drip
But I’ve got this burning belief in salvation and love
This notion may be naive, but when push comes to shove
I will till this ground

Yet The Desired Effect sees a brief return to early form. The album makes heavy use of synthesizers in stark contrast to Battle Born’s arena rock, a sonic homage to 80s pop and new wave, and its lyrics feature darker treatments of love and desire. The chorus of the first single, “Can’t Deny My Love”, ends with the lines “And you can run to the hillside/And you can close your eyes/[…] But you’re not gonna deny my love.”[8] Likewise, the upbeat, brass-backed “Lonely Town” relates the perspective of a stalker who, while lacking the energy of the Murder Trilogy’s focalizers, references having a knife.

However, these songs are not permitted to carry the narrative theme of the album. Two songs after “Can’t Deny My Love” is “Still Want You,” a campy pop song accompanied by doo-wop style feminine backing vocals in which the focalizer proclaims continued love for his partner in spite of all the troubles of the world. Then, two songs after “Lonely Town,” Flowers settles back into the theme of simultaneous spiritual and romantic longing. In “Never Get You Right,” the focalizer addresses a troubled woman whom he romantically describes as “born lost and dirt blonde.” Another Springsteenian veneration of the focalized woman is suggested as he ends each chorus with an affirmation of her power: “The people passing by/Should tremble at your sight.” This veneration now serves as a lyrical prelude to Flowers’ songs for Tana in The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful, as does the image of the focalized woman as a lost child. The focalizer of “Untangled Love,” the last love-centric song on Desired Effect, seeks the kind of romance that may lead to marriage and fatherhood and ultimately appears to find it: “It took a lot of faith, it took a lot of lies/But I finally came to realize/Untangled love/I can see it in your eyes.” Therefore, like Battle Born, the album closes its exploration of love with images of stable monogamy, and leads to the autobiographical depictions of marriage on Wonderful Wonderful. Finally, with no distance remaining between Flowers and the narrative focalizer of his work, he sings lines such as “You got the grace of a storm in the desert/You got some kind of love” directly to the focalized woman, who also lacks narrative distance. As Flowers has admitted in multiple promotional interviews for the album, the focalized woman is literally his wife. The Killers’ most recent work, then, brings their evolution far from the beach where Jenny died and directly into the Flowers home.


Music critics still contextualize the band through their early interest in murder. A September 2017 interview with NME’s Marc Beaumont begins with the band being shown Jeffrey Dahmer’s glasses. Flowers voices mild personal identification by reminding Beaumont that one of Dahmer’s escaped victims shared Flowers’ surname. Beaumont describes Flowers as “slightly embarrassed” by the venue, a club across from Dahmer’s former apartment (para 3). According to Beaumont, Flowers disavowed any role in selecting [End Page 13] the venue, suggesting a distaste for the continued association of his and the band’s work with violence and death. It is clear from the band’s thematic shifts that they have largely moved on from the sneering young man who murdered his ex-girlfriend and who opened their first album. “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine” has been an intermittent staple of the band’s live shows, and while it has recently reappeared in their 2017 tour, it was only rarely played in the weeks leading up to Wonderful Wonderful’s release. While Flowers has explicitly identified only three of the ten songs on Wonderful Wonderful as pertaining to his wife, the album’s exploration of his marital relationship has dominated the pre-release press, with Flowers giving nearly identical statements to publications such as Rolling Stone, NME, and Q regarding the album’s intimacy to him. The departures of bassist Mark Stoermer and lead guitarist Dave Keuning from the tour, although it has been stated that this was for personal reasons, highlights the role that Flowers has played in directing the band’s shift.

Though The Killers have been neglected by popular music scholarship and even seem to suffer from some neglect from music critics, their discography provides insight into rock’s shifting concerns about love and sexuality, particularly through the lens of masculinity. The video for the aptly-titled “The Man,” Wonderful Wonderful’s first single, depicts Flowers as a parody of masculinity who repeatedly affirms “I’m the man.” The video’s contextualization of the self-proclaimed man through visual references to deserts, Las Vegas, and celebrity ambitions further encourages a reading of the song as a self-aware critique of specifically Flowers’ early focalizers. Such a reading, then, enables realization of the thematic shift in Flowers’ more personally authentic odes to his wife on the album. As part of his stated commitment to his family and church, he appears to be extricating himself from his early image and thematic interests.

Other themes persist in The Killers’ work, such as the American dream, fate, and overcoming self-doubt and regret. However, it is through their journey from murder to marriage that we may find a particular negotiation of the expectations of masculinity within rock – and where it intersects with themes that have been more artistically and critically neglected in the genre, such as marriage, fatherhood, and a more explicitly conservative spirituality. The band’s seemingly precarious future at the time of this writing calls into question whether or not these subjects are sustainable when made so explicit, especially when they have increasingly become linked to a frontman’s personal beliefs and family life. Regardless of sustainability, however, the band’s discography reveals a fascinating gender-coded trajectory from some of rock’s most famous masculine themes (aggression, sexual liberation) to the affirmation of marital and religious faithfulness.

[1] Indeed, Noisey reports that “Mr. Brightside” has remained in the UK charts every year between 2004 and 2017.

[2] Observation of various Killers fan spaces online reveals a noticeable (but by no means universal) disdain for the band’s overtly romantic work, especially songs that seem to reference Flowers’ relationship with his wife.

[3] Challenges to the association of the male rock/pop singer with a male focalizer seem infrequent. A notable example occurred with Matchbox 20’s “Push” (1997). Despite being criticized for seeming misogynistic, its chorus (“I wanna push you around / […] I wanna push you down / […] I wanna take you for granted”), is complicated by each verse’s opening with “She said….” [End Page 14]

[4] The Murder Trilogy is not the band’s only negotiation of a woman’s murder. In 2005, their setlist commonly included “Where Is She?”, a song written about the 2003 death of Scottish teen Jodi Jones. The song shares some similarities with the trilogy; like the fictional Jenny, Jodi was murdered by her boyfriend. However, in response to public backlash, the band did not release any official recordings of the song. It cannot, therefore, be counted amongst their standard catalog or the Murder Trilogy. Moreover, Flowers has stated that the song’s focalizer is Jodi’s mother, not her killer. While it does point toward the band’s early fascination with murder, it is not part of the same negotiation of rock masculinity as the trilogy.

[5] The motif is more explicit in alternate live versions of the song, in which Flowers sometimes sings “She couldn’t scream while I held her throat” or even “She kicked and screamed while I held her throat” (“The Killers’ Top Ten Most Played Concert Tracks” para. 11).

[6] “By my side” is only sung by backup vocals. Thus, Flowers’ lead vocal track makes this phrase even shorter.

[7] Certainly, Flowers is not the only Mormon to find mainstream success in music. However, he currently lacks the wholesome family appeal and light pop of, for instance, the Osmonds. His continued adherence to Mormonism, which he has affirmed to Rolling Stone in September 2017 (Greene paras. 7-8), also distinguishes him from rock/pop musicians like Tyler Glenn, the frontman of Neon Trees (with whom The Killers have toured). After coming out as gay in 2014, Glenn has spoken openly of his ostracization from the church and a sense of separation from God.

[8] What is omitted here is the repetition of “not gonna deny” before the line’s fulfillment at the end of the chorus. The song may also be interpreted as a religious song in which the focalizer of the chorus takes on the qualities of the God of the Book of Job and the New Testament’s Jonah as He promises his own inescapability. This possibility is emphasized in the music video, which (in contrast to the 80s pop sound of the song) casts Flowers as Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. [End Page 15]

Works Cited

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Beaumont, Marc. “The Killers Talk New Album Wonderful Wonderful, Group Counselling and Trump.” NME Blogs, 15 Sept. 2017, Accessed 15 Sept. 2017.

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Bosman, Chris. “The Killers Are Both Grand and Forgettable with Battle Born.” TIME, 19 Sept. 2012, Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.

Cash, Johnny. I Walk the Line. Sun Records, 1956. Single.

Connell, John. Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place. Routledge, 2003.

Connell, R.W. Gender and Power: Society, The Person, and Sexual Politics. Stanford University Press, 1987.

Connell, R.W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society, vol. 19, no. 6, 2005, pp. 829-59.

Crider, David. “For Those (Men) About to Rock: Rock Radio and the Crisis of Masculinity.” Journal of Radio and Audio Media, vol. 21, no. 1, 2014, pp. 258-71. Taylor and Francis, Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.

Edwards, Leigh H. Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity. Indiana University Press, 2009.

Flowers, Tana. “Banding Together As a Family.” Mormon Women. The Mormon Women Project, 16 Jan. 2013, Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.

Frith, Simon. “Afterthoughts.” 1985. On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, Routledge, 1991, pp. 359-63.

Frith, Simon, and Angela McRobbie. “Rock and Sexuality.” 1978. On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, Routledge, 1991, pp. 371-89.

Greene, Andy. “Killers’ Brandon Flowers on Mormonism, Why ‘Mr. Brightside’ is Bigger Than Ever.” Rolling Stone, 13. Sept. 2017, Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

Griffiths, Dai. “From Lyric to Anti-Lyric: Analyzing the Words in a Pop Song.” Analyzing Popular Music, edited by Allan F. Moore, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 39-59.

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Hesmondhalgh, David. Why Music Matters. Blackwell, 2013. Google Play Edition.

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—. Day & Age. Island, 2008. CD.

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[End Page 18]


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rape of Mistaken Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rape of Possession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rape of Coercion, or “Forced Seduction”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] See note 6, above.