Posts Tagged ‘virginity’
Ten years ago, when I was seeking a publisher for the book manuscript that would eventually become Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, one prominent academic press responded in a way that spoke volumes about popular perceptions of the relationship between romance and virginity loss. “You’ve got all the ingredients for a great monograph,” the editor told me. “But how about calling it Rites of Love?” I was utterly dismayed. All I could think to say was, “Didn’t you read the sample chapters? For most of my study participants, it wasn’t about love at all.”
The latest writer to step into the complicated terrain of virginity loss in the contemporary English-speaking world is British journalist Kate Monro, and she navigates it well. In The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost and Found (Including my Own), Monro offers a lively and detail-rich account of women’s and men’s understandings and experiences of virginity and virginity loss. Although distinctly a work of journalism—it makes no claim of being otherwise—The First Time has much to offer scholarly readers, not least thoughtful, empirically-based analyses of sociological and psychological processes surrounding sexual initiation. (Readers should know that I spoke with Monro while she was working on the book and am mentioned in her acknowledgements.)
Monro bases her analysis primarily on in-person interviews with over 50 men and women from various walks of life. These are bolstered by references to popular cultural texts (like Sex and the City and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and excerpts from some of the hundreds of emails sent to Monro’s blog, The Virginity Project. She deliberately sought a diverse sample in terms of social background and personal histories, a technique social scientists call purposive sampling. In addition to including men as well as women (all too rare in popular and scholarly studies, as Monro notes) and people with disabilities as well as those without, The First Time features virginity-loss narratives from individuals who lost their virginity in committed relationships, with sex workers, and with every kind of partner in between; from those who lost their virginity once, twice, and not at all; and from those who lost their virginity with same- and with other-sex partners (and via a variety of sexual acts). It is less clear how varied Monro’s sample is in terms of racial/ethnic background and social class, but it is neither all white nor all middle-class. Her data have the further advantage of being recently gathered.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Monro’s sample is the exceptionally wide age range it encompasses. The oldest person she interviewed was born in 1915, the youngest in 1990. This enables her to situate the particulars of individual biographies in the broader context of the dramatic social and economic changes that took place during the twentieth century. Her analyses thereby reveal social trends rather than individual idiosyncrasies. However, insofar as each birth cohort is represented by only a handful of interviews, Monro can say less about patterns within them. (To her credit, she doesn’t make grand claims about generalizability.) Notably, the stories in The First Time come primarily from the United Kingdom, so they do not touch on social phenomena or trends specific to the United States, such as the resurgence of moral conservatism or the rise of abstinence-only sex education since the 1970s.
The First Time consists of five chapters as well as a brief introduction and conclusion. After a concise history of virginity loss in the Western world, the first chapter addresses the extent to which attitudes about and approaches to virginity are patterned by gender. It also draws on Monro’s interviews to chart the myriad ways in which people define and experience virginity loss, including technical, multiple, and gay/straight virginities. The second chapter features women’s stories, highlighting diversity among women and foregrounding change over time. In the next chapter, we learn about men’s emotional responses to virginity loss and the ways their approaches to virginity have evolved in response to changes among women. (For example, younger-generation men seem to value virginity more than do their older-generation counterparts.) Chapter four tells the tales of several virgins, including their different reasons for, and responses to, their sexual status. Chapter five presents a series of painful stories, prompting Monro to argue that even the “worst” experiences have transformational qualities.
Consistent with the extant scholarly research, Monro finds that beliefs about and experiences of virginity loss have changed over time and that men and women’s beliefs and experiences differ, albeit less, in both cases, than most people typically assume. Regarding romance and love in particular, The First Time likewise mirrors previous investigations. Some of the women and men Monro interviewed wanted to lose their virginity in the context of a romantic relationship (in a few cases, marriage) or with romantic trappings (“like in the movies”). Others sought to avoid love and romance on purpose. Some interviewees’ experiences unfolded according to their dreams and expectations, while others’ diverged; the consequences were not always what one might predict. Like other contemporary observers, Monro notes that women and men recalled their experiences in a more positive light when they, at minimum, liked and were respected by their virginity-loss partners.
Scholars of popular romance will benefit from reading The First Time chiefly insofar as it sheds light on the relationship between romance and virginity loss—a common theme in popular novels and films—in the “real world.” The book represents an up-to-date, journalistic account with ample sociological insight, although Monro does not analyze her data as deeply as a social scientist would or situate her findings in an existing body of knowledge. (Nor would it be fair to expect her to.) She presents her conclusions thoughtfully, however, occasionally linking them to key scholarly works on virginity and virginity loss (including my book). These, along with practical resources (e.g., for sex therapy, support and interest groups, and factual sexuality information) are listed in the book’s appendix. Scholars of popular romance should find The First Time a witty and entertaining read, one that whets their appetites and provides a good jumping-off place for further systematic research on romance, love, and virginity loss.
The scholarship on virginity is surprisingly sparse for a subject so ubiquitous in cultural narratives and so rich in interpretative possibilities. Apart from two general histories of the topic by Hanne Blank (2007) and Anke Bernau (2007), and an emerging interest as it pertains to girlhood studies, much of the focus on virginity has occurred within literary scholarship, with Kathleen Coyne Kelly (2000, 1999) and Sarah Salih (2001, 2003) leading the way in medieval studies, and an earlier collection on virginity in the Victorian era edited by Lloyd Davis (1993). Few published works exist focusing on virginity in popular romance studies, although Jonathan Allan is forging a new path in this respect, and several PhD dissertations on the topic are underway. The investigation of virginity in film, however, is literally “virgin territory” so this volume of essays edited by Tamar Jeffers McDonald is an exciting and welcome addition to the extant scholarship.
Virgin Territory considers how virginity has been produced in and used to market films: an intriguing endeavor since, as Jeffers McDonald points out, filmmakers have to grapple with how “virginity—a lack of experience, a zero, can be made visible to audiences” (2). The book aims “to destabilize assumptions about virginity by questioning how it can be performed, externalized, and rendered not only visible but spectacular, across a range of periods, genres, and performances” (2). It begins with an excellent introduction by Jeffers McDonald providing a concise overview of the scholarship on virginity, before a strong first chapter by renowned film scholar Gaylyn Studlar which examines the screen presence of the young Elizabeth Taylor in three films of 1944: Jane Eyre, The White Cliffs of Dover, and National Velvet. Studlar is highly skilled in locating her readings of film within broader social and historical practices. Here, she argues that the representation of young girls in early Hollywood films draws from Victorian aesthetic conventions portraying little girls in rural or domestic settings. An analysis of Taylor’s screen image as a pure and beautiful innocent wielding mysterious sexual power is juxtaposed against a reading of the British artist John Everett Millais’s portrait of Cherry Ripe (1879), a “quintessential English girl” of “timeless purity” (21) whose disturbing sexual power was ameliorated by the sentimentalized idyllic rural setting connoting and confirming childhood innocence. Studlar looks at how the Elizabeth Taylor of 1944 challenged “the stereotype of the ‘pure’ child” (31) best epitomized in Hollywood films by Shirley Temple. Because of Taylor’s extraordinary “womanly” beauty as a child, Studlar observes, “Sexual power accrues to her by virtue of her erotized innocence and the desire of others directed toward her, including the desire of the film viewer. This calls into question the cultural fantasy of being able to separate desire for the pure child (taboo) from that for the impure woman (acceptable)” (32). Yet Taylor symbolized more than a potently sexualized and mysterious virginity; to American audiences she also represented a nostalgic and mythicized view of Englishness which, in the midst of the Second World War, they were fighting to defend.
That the virginal girl’s body should represent the body politic of the nation at war is also an idea explored by Ilana Nash in her chapter looking at teenage girls in Hollywood films produced during the Second World War—Janie (1944) and Kiss and Tell (1945)—and the Cold War—One, Two, Three (1961) and Take Her, She’s Mine (1963). In a parallel reading of these films, Nash contends that during these periods when the borders of the nation were under threat, the virginal and unruly body of the teenager represented the potential rupturing of social relations and the American way of life that Americans were fighting for. In these films, however, patriotism won out as the teenage virgin subordinated her own desires to patriarchal authority and was shown to possess the wholesome values that made her a fitting emblem of the nation.
The focus on American teenage virgins continues in Timothy Shary’s chapter: an overview of films depicting teenage sexuality and the loss of virginity from the 1950s to the present day. Shary points out that until the 1950s, teenage problems were depicted in terms of juvenile delinquency rather than sexual activity. From the mid-1950s onwards, however, filmmakers began to gesture to teenage sexual desires and loss of virginity—usually to each other. The early 1980s saw the rise and heyday of a new genre, the youth sex quest film, featuring “depictions and discussions of teenage premarital sexual intercourse and on-screen youth going to great lengths to alleviate their carnal longings” (57). This genre petered out with the onset of AIDS but was revived in the 1990s. Throughout this period, however, the emphasis was on teenage confusion over sexuality, and the consequences—both emotional and physical—of virginity loss and sexual activity. “Thus far, teenage sex in American cinema tends to be either frivolously unenlightened or, more often, torturously somber” (67)—an assessment which is borne out by Rebecca Sullivan’s chapter exploring the “Marjorie Morningstar” phenomenon, based on the Herman Wouk novel of 1955, which suggests the concerns about sexuality and domesticity that would come to characterize the 1960s.
The conservative ending of Marjorie Morningstar is shared by Otto Preminger’s version of Françoise Sagan’s bestselling French novel, Bonjour Tristesse (1954). Alisia G. Chase contends that where Sagan’s prize-winning novel shocked more conservative readers because it presented an insouciant and unrepentant young girl who not only lost her virginity but became thoroughly degenerate to the point where she plotted her stepmother’s murder in order to preserve her and her father’s libertine lifestyle, Preminger’s film of 1958 distorted the original plot into a much more censorious ending by “punishing” the young heroine and condemning her to a jaded and meaningless life in Paris. Chase suggests the director pursued a double strategy of appeasing the moral consciences of American mothers by casting the elegant and sympathetic Deborah Kerr as the stepmother, and by offering “a chic ex-Iowan, Jean Seberg, wearing the latest in Left Bank style, gambling and making love along the French Riviera, and bebopping at smoky Parisian basement boîtes—all anti-virginal mise-en-scènes rife with thrilling implications to young American women in the 1950s” as “visual consolations for his morally conventional ending” (85-86). One of many fine moments in this essay occurs with Chase’s analysis of costume to show how Jean Seberg’s clothes are used to show visually her moral “descent into postvirginal debauchery” (94).
This chapter is followed by Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s analysis of the Doris Day-as-perpetual-virgin phenomenon, which the author traces back to Day’s films Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). I was particularly fascinated by this phenomenon because even as I write, the Sydney Opera House is advertising a concert in April 2012 called “Doris Day—So Much More Than the Girl Next Door.” In Australia, Day is well-known as a gay icon and for her feisty, tomboyish roles in early to mid-1950s musicals which were constantly re-run on Australian television during the 1980s and 1990s. Her later films, however, are not so well known here, and her reputation in the U.S. as a perpetual filmic virgin was a surprise to me. Jeffers McDonald presents a polished and intricate analysis of the plots of Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, as well as of Day’s singing performances, making a convincing case that where Pillow Talk portrays Day as an independent, glamorous career woman who is not necessarily a virgin—even if the audience assumed her to be one—and who is aware of her sexual desires, Lover Come Back is far more conservative in shoehorning Day back into a subordinate, less competent role than her male costar.
Peter Falconer’s chapter on the “Horror Movie Virgin” explores how the conventions of the virginal Final Girl heroine are utilized, mocked, and subverted in teenage horror movies. Falconer sees disturbing parallels between the virginal body of the Final Girl and the monstrous body of the psycho killer. Both possess bodies which are marked and isolated from the mass of sexualized flesh surrounding them, bodies which open themselves willingly or which are violently torn asunder. The bounded, impermeable bodies of the Final Girl and the killer are set apart from sexual inexperience, and they are both hard to kill because “their bodies are already figured as closed. They are resistant to all forms of penetration,” (133) which accounts for the thrill of the climactic battle between them.
The violation of virginal bodies is also explored in Nina Martin’s superb chapter on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Martin’s reading of Repulsion sets it in the context of London of the Swinging Sixties, when older codes of gender relations are giving way to new expectations of the sexual availability of women. For the virginal protagonist Carole, who is painfully shy and glances longingly at the sequestered lifestyle of nuns, the sexual attention of men is terrifying, symbolizing a metaphorical and, later, physical invasion and rupturing of her private space and mind even as she tries to keep her body intact. Where Chase showed how virginity could be signified on film through costume, and Jeffers McDonald through song, Martin skillfully shows how Carole’s increasing paranoia and fear of violation and virginity loss are visually realized through the increasingly distorted mise-en-scènes, with the “gaping fissures and broken doors in her apartment signify[ing] the unraveling of young Carole’s mind” (140).
From the overly melodramatic to the bathetic, the volume then moves on to Greg Tuck’s exposition of orgasmic teenage virgins who masturbate. This chapter ponders the liminal status of virgins—especially male virgins—who have not yet had sex with females, but who nonetheless experience sexual pleasure through masturbation. In the end, Tuck concludes that American films portray male masturbation as infantile, presexual activity whereas for adult men, it is regarded as sinister and deviant activity because male sexuality is continually viewed through, and perpetuates, a “heteronormative ideology understood not simply as a gendered system of domination but as an ideology of reproduction” (160). The arrangement of chapters in this edited volume is a little unfortunate in some ways, for Shary’s work on teenage sex quest films would have provided an excellent overview and comparative context for this chapter, and Tuck’s work would have been usefully paired with the final chapter that ends this volume, Celestino Deleyto’s analysis of The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Deleyto locates this film within the generic hybridization of the gross-out film and romantic comedies that had begun with There’s Something About Mary (1998). The 40-Year-Old Virgin is different from other films featuring male virgins or masturbation, Deleyto contends, because while it follows the convention of showing an adult male virgin who needs to grow up mentally, emotionally, and sexually, the film suggests that Andy’s masculinity is in many ways admirable: “the mildness of his attitude to other people, his relaxed politeness, his sense of humor, and especially his respect for women are all related to his virginity and openly celebrated by the film. . . . his is not a way of living and being that the romantic comedy would like to dispense with altogether” (259). The fact that he has not been socialized into dominant modes of aggressive masculine heterosexuality makes him a fitting romantic partner and bodes well for the couple’s future happiness.
The weakest essays in this edited collection are Shelley Cobb’s piece on Elizabeth I (1998), and Andrea Sabbadini’s psychoanalytic interpretation of virginity in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film about Love [Krotki Film O Milosci] (1988) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996). Cobb has an enthralling subject: the fictitious narrative of a young, sexually active princess who transforms herself into a de-gendered Virgin Queen in order to assume power and the throne of England. The contemporary debate over the historical inaccuracies in the film are handled well by Cobb, who notes that all critics writing along these lines converge on the issue of Elizabeth’s virginity or lack of it. However, it is when comparisons begin to be made between Elizabeth and Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher that the analysis falters. In large part, this is because Cobb is recounting a contemporary debate in Britain that accompanied the film. However, the original analogies cited are confused and not clearly articulated, and this problem subsequently spills over into Cobb’s analysis as well—an analysis which is far too heavily reliant on large slabs of quotes from the original commentaries, and insufficient elaboration of the incoherent points the authors were trying to make. For instance, there is insufficient explanation of the correlation between the virgin, virgin mother, virgin queen, and Princess Diana’s fondness for the pieta image (210-215). Instead, the essay relies heavily on a long block quote from Joan Bridgman’s article “Diana’s Country” and Pamela Church Gibson’s “From Dancing Queen to Plaster Virgin: Elizabeth and the End of English Heritage”—both of which do not and cannot sustain the burden of explanation. References are also made to the fact that when Elizabeth transforms herself into Virgin Queen at the end of the film, she is “no longer a living, mortal woman but a stiff, statuesque demigoddess, no longer appearing human,” and this is somehow connected to Margaret Thatcher as another woman who wielded female power and was, presumably, regarded as inhuman. This might well be true, but it is well-known that Thatcher’s sexuality was far more complex than this; she possessed considerable sex appeal particularly for conservative men, for whom the Iron Lady conjured up public school stereotypes of the stern, spanking British nanny who derided the British nanny state. The powerful virgin—the virago—who has escaped the control of men, who controls men, is something that needs far more consideration that has hitherto been given to the subject in all realms of virginity studies. In the end, while the essay indexes important scholarship about and during the Cool Britannia years (a reference is also made to Elizabeth and the Girl Power of Spice Girls) it does not venture very far beyond this. It is a lost opportunity, because Cobb certainly raises some intriguing ideas that could be fleshed out.
Sabbadini’s chapter uses Kieślowski’s A Short Film about Love and Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty as examples to explain psychoanalytic theories of virginity, and he does this very well. However, because of an almost complete lack of knowledge of, and engagement with, extant scholarship about virginity, the conclusions reached about virginity in these films seem somewhat banal:
Virginity [ . . . ] occupies an emotionally ambiguous place in the moral landscape of our relationship to our own and other people’s bodies. It can be invested with either positive connotations [ . . . ] or negative [ . . . ] or both. Therefore virginity, alongside adolescence itself with which it is often associated [ . . . ] can symbolically represent a number of other ambivalently invested aspects of our lives, such as the need to grow up and the wish to remain dependent on our families. (235-236)
Moreover, whether this was intentional or not, the placing of Sabbadini’s chapter next to Carol Siegel’s masterly exposition of the historical and cultural contingencies of psychoanalytic theories, and of feminist and Foucauldian critiques of dominant Freudian paradigms of sexuality, undermines the ability of a psychoanalytic interpretation of films to tell us anything “true” about human sexuality. It may present an interesting reading of virginity, but it is ultimately not much more than simply just another story about sexuality.
Virgin Territory is rich with original and insightful analyses of films, and two of the strongest chapters are the feminist-inspired readings of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Little Darlings (1980) by Lisa M. Dresner, and Carol Siegel’s discussion of Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003). Dresner argues that although Fast Times and Little Darlings did not set out to articulate a feminist agenda, this is essentially what both films achieve with their adolescent female sex quest plots in which “girls’ sexual decision making is represented as intelligent, responsible, and important, and the films make their points about not rushing into sex in a way that respects and empowers teenage girls instead of romanticizing or infantilizing them” (174). Both films feature protagonists who are anxious to lose their virginity, but their sexual experiences are not particularly enjoyable or fulfilling. Both feature protagonists who must make decisions about their subsequent sexual activity and its possible consequences. In Fast Times, Stacy’s pregnancy and decision to have an abortion is treated sympathetically and without condescension, while her brother is shown to be supportive of his teenage sister’s decision not to have a child because she knows she is not capable of looking after one. Meanwhile, having won the quest to lose her virginity, Angel in Little Darlings decides to stop having sex and instead gains “access to female solidarity and close female friendships” (192). Dresner contends that “In their portrayal of empowered, reasoning, sexually curious girls who decide to lose their virginity and who then decide to stop having sex, these two films show a respect for their characters and their audiences that is sadly lacking in many films and television programs of the later 1980s, 1990s, and beyond.”
In focusing on girls who want to experience sex and be desired by men, but who do not necessarily experience sexual pleasure or know when they have had an orgasm, Dresner implicitly raises a significant question that Siegel then articulates in her chapter on À ma soeur! and Thirteen: “what constitutes heterosexual pleasure for teen girls[?] Does teenage female sexuality consist primarily of the desire to be desired, or of the desire to successfully compete for male attention? Is it about the girl’s physical sensations or direct experience, or it is mainly psychological? Does it retain any connection to orgasm?” (245). These are questions that resonate particularly with popular romance studies, with its increasing attention to the psychological, emotional and sexual pleasures of reading, of readers’ ability to experience and inhabit simultaneously female and male protagonists’ points of view, of the myriad manifestations of sexualities, desires, and much more.
Siegel’s chapter analyzes two films centered on teenage girls’ sexual desires, first sexual experiences, and their relationship with their mothers and society: Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003). What makes this analysis so original and insightful is that Siegel shows how the concerns of each film grow from and feed into dominant discourses of feminism in France and in the United States. Siegel argues the plot of Thirteen and the film’s treatment of virginity is very much influenced by three historical developments in America over the last quarter century: “the development and ultimate mainstreaming of a feminist backlash against the orthodox Freudian view of healthy female sexuality and against the sexual availability of women to men demanded by many proponents of the sexual revolution”; the “the hysteria over the AIDS pandemic” which has equated ignorance and abstinence of sexual activity as safety; and “the rise of the religious right as a formidable political power,” central to which has been the cult of virginity (242). These perspectives can be seen in the way excessive teenage sexual activity in Thirteen is regarded as damaging to teenage girls and is blamed on bad parenting and peer pressure from the “wrong” types of friends. Delinquency and dysfunction—whether personal or familial—revolve almost solely around whether the teenage girl Tracy in Thirteen is having sex. “Although Tracy does some very dangerous drugs with Evie,” Siegel points out, “ones generally depicted in film as being instantly additive, the implication is that because she comes through her association with Evie with her virginity intact, she comes through all right. Nothing else seems to matter” (245). Not only does this ideology align with the values of the religious right; Siegel also traces it back to a particular type of American feminism which holds that “virginity’s loss for girls has come to signify the subordination of female truth to male fantasy, the girl’s loss of access to the universal(ized) realities of the female body to masculine discourses of pleasure. Within these circles virginity has come to represent women’s truth” (243).
In France, by contrast, feminism has reacted against Freudian theories of healthy female sexuality by critiquing Freudian discourse as a linguistic construct that institutes a truth regime positing sex as the core of identity—an essence rejected by poststructuralist theorists such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari. French feminist theory, influenced by Lacanian discussions of jouissance, has argued for the possibilities of myriad sexual pleasures which arise from the female body itself. In France, Siegel contends, “sexual pleasure was assumed to exist meaningfully outside relationships between lovers, the two vaginal lips touch each other, for instance. And meanings were made through the interplay of cultural discourses not through an individual’s consciously adopted gender politics” as in America (239). These ideas are given voice in À ma soeur! where the middle-class home is not a safe haven from sexual politics and the center of maternal love, but the site where female bodies are disciplined into heterosexual discourses of beauty, romance, and being sexually desirable to men. The director Catherine Breillat subverts this patriarchal, heteronormative ideology by suggesting that there are other autoerotic possibilities of pleasure as the teenage protagonist Anaïs revels in the fleshiness of her body and its sensations as it moves in and through the world. Anaïs rejects an initiation into sexuality that necessitates her attention to men’s pleasure and evaluation of her sex appeal. She wants her virginity loss to be completely impersonal so that she can focus on her own sensations and experience. Breillat takes this idea to extreme ends when Anaïs’s loses her virginity as a result of a psychotic killer murdering her mother and sister before raping her. Breillat’s decision to depict this horrific event as a satisfying initiation into sex for Anaïs seems to arise more from a desire to shock than a scrupulous adherence to French feminist ideas; we can envisage many ways in which Anaïs could have lost her virginity in a manner that enabled her to focus entirely on her own body’s various pleasures rather than in a savage rape which, despite Anaïs’s indifference and even pleasure, seems to confirm radical American feminists’ argument about rape as an extreme patriarchal tool by which men keep women in subjection (Brownmiller 49 and 15; MacKinnon 182). Nevertheless, Siegel’s analysis enables us to make sense of Breillat’s film and to see it as a meditation on French feminist concerns about sexuality, the body, pleasures, and the self, allowing “for the possibility that teen girls can choose how they will experience their virginity’s loss and can embrace and take pleasure even in acts that our current culture and society consign to the very fringes of criminality and unnatural evil” (252). She demonstrates most skillfully the differences between French and American feminisms at the turn of the century, and how these are played out on the bodies of teenage virgin girls.
In the introduction, Jeffers McDonald emphasized that Virgin Territory is not meant to be the final or even definitive word on virginity in film but, rather, the edited volume is intended to “inaugurate exploration of this fascinating topic.” This is certainly what the book achieves through its various overviews of male and female virginity sex quest films, historical discussions of what virginity meant over the course of the twentieth century, how it can be represented visually and aurally, and what theoretical tools may be used to analyse this complex subject.
Allan, Jonathan A. “Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): Web. http://jprstudies.org/2011/10/theorising-male-virginity
Bernau, Anke. Virgins: A Cultural History. London: Granta, 2007.
Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.
Davis, Lloyd. Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. Albany: State University of New York, 1993.
Evans, Ruth, Sarah Salih, and Anke Bernau, Eds. Medieval Virginities: Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Kelly, Kathleen Coyne, and Leslie Marina, Eds. Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Newark: Associated University Presses, 1999.
Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
MacKinnon, Catherine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Salih, Sarah. Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001.
Almost every major critic of popular romance fiction—and probably minor ones too—notes that in reading the romance novel, readers will encounter virgin heroines. “For most of the genre’s history,” Pamela Regis explains, “the romance heroine was depicted as a virgin” (35). Indeed, in the first wave of romance scholarship, the trope of female virginity was often presented as a necessary feature of the genre. “Virginity is a given here,” Ann Snitow thus declares in her influential early article, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different”:
The heroine is not involved in any overt adventure beyond trying to respond appropriately to male energy without losing her virginity. [ . . . ] [S]ex means marriage and marriage, promised at the end [of romance novels], means, finally, there can be sex. (309)
Snitow’s study was not based on a very broad sample of the genre—she only considers a handful of Harlequin romances—and it is tempting to dismiss her claims as dated, given the evolution of romance fiction since the 1980s. But consider some recent Harlequin titles: The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride (Clair, 2009), The Spaniard’s Virgin Housekeeper (Hamilton, 2009), The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl (Kendrick, 2009), Capelli’s Captive Virgin (Morgan, 2009), Rescuing the Virgin (Rosemoor, 2009), The Virgin’s Price (Milburne, 2009), His Convenient Virgin Bride (Dunlop, 2010), Virgin on Her Wedding Night (Graham, 2010). And novels with female virgins in the title are not the only ones where such characters appear. Clearly, the virgin heroine is still a regular character in popular romance fiction.
Indeed, even if modern romance fiction no longer insists on “making heroines compulsorily intact and reifying a hymenal virginity,” as a more recent scholar, Jocelyn Wogan-Brown puts it, what she calls the “cultural performance” of female virginity, at least in some metaphorical sense, remains remarkably important to the genre (346). “Harlequin romances (within the many subgenres)” have come to “represent virginity not as an essentialized and mystical anatomical condition,” this scholar writes, “but as an interior state, produced by volition and emotion” (346-7). Bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, whose familiarity with the genre is far broader than most scholars’, concur: the “sexually unawakened heroine” who is “relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity,” remains “one of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica” (37), they explain in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance. “No matter what type she is,” they add, “she is definitely not the ho-type” (37).
What, though, of the sexually unawakened hero? Is there a “type” for the male virgin in popular romance? At first glance, this figure is perhaps a rarity, both in fiction and in scholarship. Many current studies of the popular romance hero, for example, focus on the “alpha male” hero, a figure who tends to be as sexually experienced as he is powerful, masterful, and—at least as the novel begins—emotionally reserved. In fact, as an anecdote from romance author Monica Burns reveals, the alpha hero may seem hard to square with the idea of male virginity:
A little more than a year ago, I was getting ready to write my March 2011 release Pleasure Me. My editor and I had talked at a conference, and she’d asked me to make the hero a virgin. My initial [response] on the outside was, ummm . . . sure, I supposed I could. Inside I was thinking WTF? I write alpha heroes. How in the hell am I going to write an alpha male who’s never been with a woman?
Even Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer’s discussion of the virgin romance hero, which appeared last year in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, finds oddly little to say about him: “Virginal heroes do exist in the genre,” they point out—but their discussion quickly moves on to cite a short questionnaire attached to the Mills & Boon edition of Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, which seems to play down this figure’s importance. “[M]any heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced,” the questionnaire explains.
In this article, I hope to move beyond merely acknowledging the virgin hero’s existence to a more complex, theorised understanding of him as a complex character within the genre of popular romance fiction. My argument is that male virginity in romance novels is worthy of a more significant study than it has thus far been afforded—in part because male virgins are treated so differently in these novels from the ways they appear in cinematic representations, and in part because studying the virgin hero allows us to revisit some of the most puzzling and provocative of Northrop Frye’s pronouncements on the “romance,” broadly considered: in particular, his claim that in “romance” there is a “magical emphasis on virginity, the fact that virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236), but that “this prudery [about virginity] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187). With Frye in mind, my approach to the topic will be anatomical; that is, I will anatomise various “types” of the virgin hero in modern popular romance fiction, with some exploration of how they overlap and relate to one another. I will close with an extended discussion of one recent romance novel, When the Duke Returns, by Eloisa James, to demonstrate how a single text can make use of several distinct tropes concerning male virginity and the quest-like narrative structure surrounding its loss.
To understand the construction of male virgins in popular romance, we might begin by turning to the burgeoning field of “virginity studies.” Unfortunately, this body of research so far only contains the scantest of mentions of male virginity. In Hanne Blank’s book, Virgin: The Untouched History, the most “untouched” of topics is the male virgin; and the culture surrounding male virginity is surprisingly peripheral to Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History. Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, however, offers us insights not only into the modern social realities of male virginity, but perhaps also into the silence surrounding it in scholarship. While “girls can be labelled ‘sluts’ if they have sex without love,” Carpenter reports, “boys can be labelled ‘wimps’ or even gay should they not have sex early enough in their adolescence” (12). Male virginity not only must be lost; it must be lost as quickly as possible: if Virginia is for lovers, as the old advertisements used to proclaim, then (male) virginity is for losers. In Frygian terms, when the male is beyond the ‘normal age’ to lose his virginity, he becomes an alazon figure, the kind who serves as “an object of ridicule in comedy or satire” (CW XXII:331).
I am not the only scholar to make this connection between the male virgin in popular culture and the alazon. In his reading of the recent Hollywood comedy The Forty Year Old Virgin, Celestino Deleyto struggles to argue that Andy, the hero of the film, cannot quite be seen as “a ridiculous man or as an Aristotelian alazon” because of “other traits of his character [that] are more affirmative” (259). We might, however, reverse the argument, since those affirmative traits serve precisely to contrast and counterpoint Andy’s long-enduring virginity, which otherwise would indeed leave him simply “an object of ridicule” (Frye, CW XXII:331). He often seems like one in any case: as Deleyto himself notes, “one of the narrative and commercial goals of the centrality of Andy’s sexual innocence is its exploitative potential: it becomes the perfect excuse for the deployment of gross-out discourse on sexuality” (260). Inasmuch as the film moves beyond that “gross-out discourse” into telling an actual love story it proves itself to be a romance, rather than simply a sex farce, but it’s clear that the “Happily Ever After” of Andy’s romance plot requires him to lose his virginity to the film’s heroine, Trish—after which, we are assured, he will not only retain all those other, “affirmative” traits, but will put them to their proper use in the context of a truly “adult” (which is to say, sexual) relationship.
The Forty Year Old Virgin frequently invokes the discourse of ridicule that Carpenter describes surrounding male virginity: that is, the question of whether Andy is “a wimp” or “gay.” It does so for comic effect, notably in the film’s repeated bantering exchanges about “how I know you’re gay.” But one might well wonder how the representation of the virgin hero in this film, which was written and directed by men (Steve Carell and Judd Apatow), differs from the representation of the virgin hero in popular culture that is written by women, for example, popular romance fiction.
As Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak write in their introduction to Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000, several issues are at stake in the study of female-authored masculinity. The first of these arises from questions of power. As Frantz and Rennhak explain, feminist scholars have long studied the ways that male characters in female-authored texts serve as “catalysts for the subject-formation of the female characters, sparking in them emotional reaction and ideological resistance,” but this is not their only function. Rather, “the male characters of female novelists represent the authors’ negotiation with the ideologies of gender, class, and sexuality” (3) in their own right, with ideological and political issues playing out in the literary bodies and behaviour of a novel’s men. Fictional men are no more “natural” than fictional women; no character, in short, is created without an ideological potential.
But more than merely an interest in ideology should draw us to the study of female-authored masculinity. If, as Annette Kolodny observes, a male reader “in opening the pages of a woman’s book, finds himself entering a strange and unfamiliar world of symbolic significance” (174), part of that strangeness and unfamiliarity may lie in the degree to which issues of desire play out in the female construction of masculinity: desires that the male reader finds embodied both in “symbolic” ways and, sometimes, quite literally. As Frantz and Rennhak remark, “when women construct and write about men in fictional worlds, not only do they analyze the causes and effects of patriarchy, as Woolf does in A Room of One’s Own, but they also construct their own realities, imagining alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman’s perspective” (2). The male reader may thus confront an analytical, even diagnostic representation of masculinity at its patriarchal worst, or he may encounter an idealised representation of some “alternative masculinity” at its post- or anti- or reformed-patriarchal best—or even, most unsettling of all, he may face a male figure who somehow combines or moves between these extremes.
The romance novel, of course—particularly in its popular manifestation—has been predominantly theorised as being a genre written “by women, for women.” What, then, can we say about the virgin hero of the romance novel? How might he be read in political or ideological terms? Might he turn out to be one of those “alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman’s perspective”? Certainly the treatment of the virgin hero in romance fiction seems different, and generally more desirable, from the representation of male virginity seen in other media, fictional and otherwise, if only because the virgin hero tends to be a complex character, not a joke to be laughed at or a tragic figure to pity. Romance novels have been criticised and even discarded by the academy for the ways in which they unconsciously reinforce patriarchal norms, but when we read these novels with a particular focus on the virgin hero, we find that they are remarkably self-conscious about those norms, allowing us insights into both gender and genre.
In my study of virgin heroes, I have come across a variety of archetypes—by which I mean a “typical or recurring image” (Frye, CW XXII:91) in literary and cultural texts—of the male virgin in popular romance. The first archetype is the sick virginal hero: that is, the hero who was, for some specific period of time, too sick or too weak to lose his virginity, unable to perform sexually and therefore unable to “perform” adult masculinity as well. In Katherine Kendall’s First and Forever (1991), a Harlequin Temptation, we are introduced to a mature heroine, Laura Daniels (she is 35), who meets a younger man, 22 year old Alex Shaw, who happens to be a virgin. “I’ve never been with a woman, Laura,” he tells her forthrightly: “I’m a virgin” (136). The announcement of virginity seems to be one of the requirements of the male virgin romance novel: indeed, as far as I can tell, all virgin heroes at some point confess that they are virgins, as though this articulation were a defining feature of virginity itself, at least for a romance hero. The romance heroine’s virginity, by contrast, may be declared aloud, but it is often also “written” by her body in the form of pain during sexual intercourse, blood on the sheets, or other signs that the hero must read and respond to—and if he fails to see any signs, like the hero in Maureen Child’s atypical Last Virgin In California, this is a surprising twist on the trope. (“In every book she’d ever read, the hero always noticed a thing like that,” Child’s heroine thinks to herself, a little disappointed .)
The speaking-aloud of the hero’s virginity often arrives, for the sick virgin hero, in the context of some explanation of his wounded, hence virginal, status. In the case of Alex Shaw, a car accident gets the blame: “I was seventeen. Guy hit me head on. He crossed the line and hit me. When I woke up . . . [ . . . ] It’s impossible for me to covey the pain, the horror—the goddamned fear” (135). Some of that “horror” spills over into the depiction of Alex’s recovery and his life after the accident. As he further explains: “While I learned a lot during that time, I managed to miss quite a few things about the real world. I feel so . . . different, so ignorant of life. I never really had any friends. I fell behind other people my own age” (136). What Carpenter says about virginity loss in everyday discourse—that it “represents a rite of passage, a process of transition from sexual youth to adulthood” (143)—thus seems true in this novel, since Alex’s transition to adulthood has been delayed (“I fell behind”). A later passage makes this issue quite explicit. “Alex was a boy,” the heroine thinks to herself. “He should be making out with girls in the back seat of a car at a drive-in. His first time should be a joyful adventure. Not a self-conscious performance where the only thing on his mind was the review he’d receive the next morning” (140-41). As a “boy,” Alex should lose his virginity in a boyish way, as part of an “adventure.” Although he is physically capable of “performing” sexually, he seems here too emotionally frail (which is to say, still too much like a child) to endure the rigors of a female “review” of his “performance,” which includes his performance of adult masculinity. This scene concludes with Alex being sent home by the heroine, still a virgin, in a cab—it’s as though he were even too young to drive, at least metaphorically speaking.
The construction of virginal Alex as a “boy” in First and Forever leads quite naturally into a second common archetype: the student virgin hero, with the heroine as his teacher. Kendall makes the most of the erotic potential built into this archetype, and of the power imbalance as well. When Laura arrives at Alex’s apartment, she promptly and playfully takes charge, and Alex is glad to go along with her mix of metaphor and role-play scenario:
“Time for night school.” Wordlessly she led him to the bedroom and stationed him next to the water bed. Kicking off her shoes, she turned on the lamp next to his bed.
“Lesson number one,” she began with a smile that put to rest any doubts about her talents at seduction. “Sometimes it’s better with the lights on.”
Alex returned her smile, intensifying it. “Should I take notes?” (163)
She continues elaborating a series of lessons:
Laura closed her eyes, fighting off the lush, lazy heat that threatened to drug her into speechlessness. “Lesson three,” she managed at last, opening her eyes. “Female anatomy.”
“I think I’m going to like this class.” (163)
As the scene comes to a climax, the power dynamic is reversed, with Alex assuming the generically-typical quality of sexual mastery. Although she begins by leaving the lights on, Laura eventually “couldn’t watch any longer, closing her eyes to the delicious things he was doing to her body. Things no man had ever been able to do to her body” (167). One thinks of Frye’s observation that, in a romance, “virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236)—and, perhaps, of the sharp contrast between Alex’s immediate sexual prowess and the Andy’s goodhearted, fumbling, and extremely brief first time in The 40 Year Old Virgin, which is played entirely for comic effect. Although it’s true that the two men both respond with boyish enthusiasm to their first sexual episode—“Wanna do it again?” Alex asks (169)—this parallel hardly cancels out the striking, generically-specific difference between them when it comes to satisfying the heroine, perfectly, right from the very first time.
In Bonnie Dee’s The Countess Takes A Lover (2009), we see a variation of the teacher/student motif, one common enough to be its own archetype. This time, the student is a genius, and in the genius virgin archetype, the hero has not had sex because he is simply too intelligent to be concerned with carnal matters. His mind has been elsewhere. In The Countess Takes A Lover, readers are told about a virgin hero of twenty-five years of age:
Science and reason had always been the guiding forces of his life. Animal impulses were for the uneducated, unthinking louts. There must be more to life than satisfying base lust with bestial coupling; otherwise the whole of society might as well run about in animal skins cooking shanks over open fires. (31)
The genius virgin hero gives visible form to an enduring dichotomy in patriarchy: that is, the association of men with intellect and the mind, and women with emotion, sex, and the body. In this line of thought, only men are fully human—and as we can see in that reference to “uneducated, unthinking louts,” within the category of “men,” some men are more fully human than others. Needless to say, the novel does not endorse this line of thinking—rather it introduces the dichotomy in order to undo it.
This process plays out even more vividly in Jo Davis’ Under Fire (2009). Here our virgin hero Zack Knight, 26, is a “so-called genius” (3), while the heroine, Corinne “Cori” Shannon, is an exotic dancer who works for private parties at night and—to trouble the patriarchal dichotomy—also studies during the day to become a nurse. Cori exudes sexuality: “she was sex incarnate” (75) and “she put the ‘voom’ in vavoooom” (11). Zack’s sexuality is alluringly present, but repressed, a duality that plays out nicely in the novel’s choice of career for him (he’s a fire fighter) and in his behaviour at the outset of the novel. “He’d never been good at relating to women on any level—pathetic, but true—” we learn, “and now he had to keep from staring like an idiot at the goddess standing in front of him” (2). But if being a “genius” makes him “like an idiot,” this doesn’t last:
Her big, white smile blasted him with a double shot of desire. Awakened his slumbering libido. She was sex incarnate, a treat he’d never sampled. He’d wondered if she’d believe his innocence, then reminded himself it didn’t make any difference. Even if he wasn’t a disaster zone, Cori was way out of his league. (75)
In this novel, as we’ve seen elsewhere, the hero has to articulate his virginity to the heroine, a moment that shifts the novel back into the student / teacher model we saw in First and Forever:
“I’m sort of . . . new at, you know . . . ”
Sitting up, she stared at him, processing what he’d said. Holy crap! “You mean, you’ve never gone down on a woman before?”
He groaned, slapping a hand over his eyes. “More than that. I’ve never had sex with a woman, period.” (143)
Following his virginal announcement, Cori begins to introduce Zack to the pleasures of sexuality and, of course, not only does he lose his virginity, but “the sex was pretty damned amazing” (149), not embarrassing, frustrating, or disappointing, to either party.
The discourse of male virginity in Under Fire also introduces us to a fourth common archetype: the virgin hero as commodity. “Good god,” Cori ponders at one point, “how on earth had she snared one of the last sexy male virgins over the age of twenty-one?” (143). Such a construction of female virginity is certainly not novel in any sense; female virginity has long been prized and required at marriage, reducing women to the status of commodities. The commodification of male virginity, by contrast, is rarely so reductive as female virginity—and when it is, when the male is now commodified and spoken of as an object, a virgin, rather than as a subject (who just happens to be a virgin), this reduction is often played for comedy. Consider Katherine Deauxville’s The Last Male Virgin (2002) in which we are introduced to Dr. Peter Havistock, “the author of the surprise bestselling book Determining Anthropological and Developmental Social Factors Among the Papua New Guinea Aborigines in the Antorok Valley” (6). Indeed, his celebrity is so popular that readers learn that “[t]he Harry King show called. They want me to be interviewed on CNN tonight” (23). Havistock, in this interview, explains how he survived a plane crash that killed his parents—a variation, perhaps, on the sick or wounded virgin motif—and how he subsequently spent a great deal of time in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Pressed by an interviewer, he has no embarrassment about his state: “I believe what you are getting at is that I’m still a virgin,” he says (39). For Havistock there is nothing out of the ordinary about his lack of sexual experience; for Harry King and his viewers, there is nothing but shock: “I’m sorry, Doctor, I’m told our lines are jammed, so we are going to have to answer some of these calls. It seems a lot of people would like to talk to you” (40-41). The question of why the phone lines are jammed is quickly answered: Havistock has become a fetishised commodity.
Deauxville clearly has fun, throughout the novel, playing with popular culture stereotypes and readers’ expectations. Havistock, for example, is utterly unfazed by his virginal identity, with no fear that it brands him as a “wimp” or as “gay” or as something less than an adult man. Indeed, he turns the tables on a woman who gives voice to those views:
Leslie snapped. “To many people in our society here in the U.S., and maybe to most of the world, a man who is twenty-nine years old and hasn’t had sex is . . . is . . . unnatural!”
He raised his eyebrows. “Hmm. You mean it’s assumed that at my advanced age I must simply be more interested in having sex with myself?”
Leslie couldn’t help a little shudder. “I don’t believe you know how unattractive that sounds.”
“Nevertheless, that’s what you implied. Damn. Is that what the majority of the citizens in the United States believe I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years?”
She hesitated. “Well, I know it sounds bad, but can you blame them for thinking it?” (89)
Playing with the usual Romantic-primitivist assumption that indigenous cultures are more sexually open than the West—Havistock’s book recalls Margaret Mead’s famous Coming of Age in Samoa, just as his name recalls that of sex researcher Havelock Ellis—our virgin hero explains that “[f]rustration and sexual repression have no meaning in their [Antorok] language; they don’t think of themselves that way” (Deauxville 93). In such a cultural context, many of the meanings of male virginity seem to fall away, leaving Havistock quite bemused by his effect on American women:
“And they [Antorok] would never understand why my saying I’m a virgin on television is evidently like a shot of Viagra to apparently hundreds of women.”
“Women don’t take Viagra! At least, I don’t think they do. But you’re . . . you’re an aphrodisiac, that’s for sure.” (93)
Although he shares some traits with the sick virgin hero and the genius virgin hero, Havistock’s openly announced “aphrodisiac” quality seems linked neither to a boyish arrested development nor to a charmingly awkward repression of the body. It’s all about his status as a commodity, a rare thing that can be desired, when it’s advertised on television, by hundreds of women at once.
In conclusion, I want to consider the ways these various archetypes come together in a particularly complex novel with a virgin hero, Eloisa James’s Regency historical novel When the Duke Returns. The novels of Eloisa James have a rather large number of male virgins; by my count, at least five of her novels incorporate them, and this repeated use of the trope suggests an effort to explore its narrative and symbolic possibilities. This novel tells the story of a duke, Simeon, who returns home to his wife, Isidore. The pair was married via proxy while he was travelling through exotic lands; upon his return the twenty-three year old bride-now-wife realises, to her disappointment, that her groom-now-husband (six years her senior) not only is a virgin, but intends to remain one. The first chapter emphasises this departure from the usual male-virginity trope:
“He’s a virgin.”
“He’s a virgin and—”
“Your husband is a virgin?”
“And he won’t bed me.”
Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont, sank into her chair with a look of almost comical dismay on her face. “Darling, if there were ever grounds for annulment, these are they. Or this is it,” she added with some confusion. “Is he some sort of monk?” (11)
The attention to language here, as Isidore’s friend Jemma wonders whether these “grounds for annulment” should be singular or plural, reminds us that the hero’s virginity, too, is partly a matter of language: in the romance novel, as I argued above, it must be announced and articulated to be real.
As this opening chapter continues, the female friends repeatedly discuss male virginity as an emasculating, even monstrous phenomenon. “What sort of man stays a virgin until he’s near to thirty?” Isidore demands. “That’s almost disgusting. How am I supposed to introduce him to the bedroom, Jemma? Men do this sort of thing on their own. Honestly, if he’s never used his equipment—well, who’s to say that it will function at all?” (13). In part, of course, this speech reveals her anxiety—Isidore, too, is a virgin, not an older, more experienced woman like Laura in First and Forever—and in part it reveals her frustration about being treated as a commodity, “Isidore, property of the duke” (10) rather than as a woman with her own emotional, social, and even sexual desires. Jemma’s agreement that “incapability lies at the heart of this situation” (20), however, as the conversation end, shows that the novel is aware of and informed by modern American discourse about male virginity as a sign of lack, something for wimps. Never, for example, do the women praise Simeon for having remained loyal for eleven years to his proxy bride; instead, he seems at fault for not having learned about “this sort of thing on [his] own” (13).
Given the elaborate explanations other novels have offered for the hero’s virginity, we might expect to find something comparable here, and we do. Simeon, it seems, spent his childhood “long[ing] to escape his parents’ pitched battles” (22)—a version of the sick virgin archetype—and as an adult he now aspires to “quell” any strong emotion and be instead a “follower of the Middle Way” (22), a vaguely Eastern philosophical discipline he adopts during three years of “rigorous solitude” in India. (57). The novel explicitly links this philosophy’s aspiration to mastery over emotions and the body with a particular construction of masculinity: he spent those years “learning endurance, manliness, the Middle Way,” we read; “he had learned to create an oasis of calm around himself, no matter what happened” (57). Clearly, then, Simeon is not just a version of the sick virgin, but also a version of the genius virgin as well, a man who embodies the patriarchal split between body and mind, alternatively disciplining or ignoring the former, “animal” side of himself and identifying only with the latter, “principled, thoughtful” side that makes him a “human being” (162).
In this novel, the genius virgin tends to pride himself not just on his intellect, but on his self-control. When his Indian teacher Valamksepa “used to recite the poetry of Rumi,” we learn, “Simeon had exulted because he was free from the embarrassments described by the poet,” particularly the way that “reason was powerless” in the face of desire (162). At one point, Isidore laments that “she had the remarkable bad luck to be married to the one man in control of his body” (206), but Simeon associates the absence of self-control with “violent tempests of emotion” (162) both inside himself and between members of his household, as he witnessed with his parents. This issue of control, or the lack of it, is crucial to the point in James’ narrative where both hero and heroine lose their virginities. “That was the wonderful thing about it—there wasn’t an ounce of composure about Simeon now, nothing of the controlled man,” Isidore marvels. “His face was alive with pleasure” (263). In this scene, self-control begins to take on a new meaning, redefined or displaced into the sexual act: “I can’t control myself much longer,” Simeon says as he makes love to Isidore, and to her delight “his voice sounded dark and anguished” (263). As the scene ends, the narrator locates us squarely in Simeon’s point of view: “[p]leasure was roaring in his legs, and Isidore was meeting him now, raising her lips in a way that made him want to bite her on the collarbone, act like a rampaging beast” (264). Finally during the orgasmic moment, we are told, “[h]e threw his head back and roared like a man who was never quiet, like a lion claiming his mate” (264): a clear signal that he has finally come to inhabit and “claim” his own animal nature.
With this turn, Simeon’s virginal journey might seem to be complete. However, unlike earlier novels considered in this study, the post-coital moments in James’s text are not spent considering the completion or perfection of the sexual experience; that is, the sex was not entirely satisfying, neither for Isidore (who has yet to climax, and who finds Simeon’s semen rather disgusting) nor for the hero himself. “‘We weren’t very good,’ he said propping himself upon an elbow” (267). Having both become sexual subjects, this couple must now learn to be ‘good’ at it: a remarkable displacement and revision of the teacher / student motif that I discussed earlier. Simeon is quite willing to act as both student and teacher, asking Isidore a series of questions about her sexual body and offering to demonstrate certain aspects and capacities of his. She finds the questions and offers startling: in response to his inquiry about how it feels to have breasts, for example, she initially replies “How does it feel? Simeon, do you think you’re a normal man” (267). The fact that she does so with “a delicious low gust of laughter,” however, shows that the novel does not consider being a “normal” man an entirely good thing, since it implies a lack of curiosity about women, or at least women’s sexual subjectivity.
The first time marks a juncture between having completed the necessary act of virginity loss and becoming a sexual subject; however, as we likely know, the first time is hardly ever a good time, let alone “pretty damned amazing,” as it was in Under Fire (149). But James’ novel does not simply distinguish between sexual activity (i.e. losing one’s virginity) and sexual happiness (which is to say, being “good” at sex, or making it both enjoyable and satisfying for both partners). It further distinguishes between sexual happiness and marital happiness, which requires much more than mere sexual compatibility. The final hundred pages of the novel focus primarily on how the couple arrives at the latter. But in an elegant turn, James frames the couple’s mutual struggle towards marital success in the same terms that shape their virginity loss and subsequent sexual education. The two forms of happiness cannot be reduced to one another, but the obstacles to both, and the lessons that must be learned to achieve both, are set in parallel. Control, vulnerability, respect, the desire to belong to a beloved and to possess him or her (not exclusively as a rare commodity, although not entirely not as a rare commodity): these topics and their key terms come up in each context.
The final moments of the novel offer a scene that embodies this parallelism. As the novel enters its closing chapters, there has been a constant, even growing tension about the success of the marriage; indeed, “the king has interested himself personally in the dissolution of [Simeon’s] marriage,” we learn, “on the ground of [his] insanity” (342). But after a series of melodramatic twists and rescues—and the novel itself calls them “melodramas” (346)—the couple find themselves ensconced in a sumptuous carriage, a vehicle metonymous with marriage, enjoying a passionate scene in which sex and love and companionate union are inextricably conjoined. “In the moments that followed, broken only by their whispered endearments,” we read, Simeon “realized something his heart already knew. They were partners” (363). And, as we learn in the novel’s two-part epilogue, their marriage is not only re-consecrated after this, but “a year or so later” the couple become the parents of triplets (371), each of them a “living, breathing, adorable source of chaos” (372). As Simeon thinks to himself in the closing lines of the text, “living in a clean tent on the banks of the Ganges river” leaves one with “no gummy smiles, no warm little bundles, no beautiful, impetuous wives, no responsibilities. . . . No life. Real life” (373). Isidore’s pregnancy and childbirth are thus metaphorically shared: the metaphorical virginity loss of their true, marital union (rather than of their first sexual encounter) has transformed each of them into a child-rearing, if not child-bearing, parent.
To close, virginity in popular romance fiction is never simple, even—or perhaps especially—for when the virgin is the romance hero. Romance authors do not simply treat the male virgin as an alazon or ridiculous character who is simply in need of sex, post-haste; instead, writers of romance treat male virginity as a topic worthy of serious consideration and sometimes quite elaborate exploration. No matter which archetypes he belongs to, the virgin hero can be read as a narrative trope, whether moral, structural, ideological, or as an opportunity to explore female desire. But more than that, in some contemporary popular romance fiction—as in the James novel—the male virgin asks us to read him through all of these lenses at once and by turns: a complexity that borders on the complexity of male virginity in real life, if one can still speak of “real life” in an academic context. Romance novels have been criticised and even discarded by many in the academy for the ways in which they apparently reinforce patriarchal norms, but when we read these novels with a particular focus on male virginity, we find that romance novelists are quite conscious of these norms, and they sometimes break new ground in both gender and genre. Male virginity may receive its most honest and most complete fictional treatment in the genre pervasively written “by women, for women”: the popular romance novel.
The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Dir. Judd Apatow. Perf. Steve Carrell, Catherine Keener, Seth Rogen, et al. Apatow Productions, Universal Studios, 2005. Film.
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The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and of the Romance Writers of America.
 For further contextualization of Snitow’s place in the canon of critical theory of romance, see Pamela Regis’s “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” in this issue.
 My study does not attend to matters of queer or gay virginities in popular romance; however, there is much to be said about this concern. Queer virginities are problematic precisely because they define themselves in contradistinction to the overarching heteronormative definitions of virginity, which are dependent upon penile/vaginal penetration as a deciding factor. In male/male romance, for instance, the presentation of virginity loss is not always dependent upon penetration (either actively or passively). As such, this study brackets this area of concern as another space wherein the polemics of virginity in m/m romance can be further discussed and developed. What does seem certain is that the tripartite process discussed in this article does, for the most part, hold true. However, there is one striking difference that must be attended to in a study that would consider virginity in these textual spaces; that is, there is often a necessary recognition of the epistemology of the closet and a surrendering of the previous, closeted, identity. But, it must further be acknowledged that this is not always the case; likewise, sometimes heroes of these novels have had sex with women. Clearly the matter of virginity in male/male romance is complicated and deserves to be studied further.
“There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre” by Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer
Modern romance novels written in English have a pedigree which stretches back to the eighteenth century:
Harlequins can be traced back through the work of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen to the sentimental novel and ultimately […] to the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Pamela is considered by many scholars to be the first British novel (it was also the first English novel printed in America). (Modleski 15)
Defined as novels in which “The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (RWA) and which conclude with “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA), romances constitute a genre which, despite being “so stable in its form” (Regis 207), has not remained unchanged: “Although the base plot […] remains constant, themes vary from decade to decade and author to author” (Dixon 8). With regard to the portrayal of sexuality in the genre, however, it has been suggested that although many modern romances “portray human sexuality more explicitly than in the past, […] assumptions about male sexuality […] have not altered as much as one might expect from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to one of last month’s Harlequin Romances” (Mussell 4). It has also been argued that “the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types — the sweet romance and the erotic romance — with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities” (Thurston 7). We have examined primary texts in English which span more than two centuries, and which include both “sweet” and more explicit romances, in order to explore some of the continuities and variations that exist in the interactions between the bodies of the “individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.”
Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock’s “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology” provides a framework within which many of the existing analyses of the physical appearances, social statuses, and sexual behaviours of the characters in romance novels can be pieced together to reveal differing models of romantic relationships. Scheper-Hughes and Lock’s essay, which draws on Michel Foucault’s theories about the body, can be summarised thus:
The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective […]. While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. (Kramer)
This tripartite approach to understanding the human body can usefully be applied to the protagonists of romance novels. We can think of them as individuals with physical bodies (the individual body), as representations of cultural identities (the social body), and as characters existing in a particular political context (the political body). Each character’s three bodies can be conceptualised and analysed separately, but they exist simultaneously and therefore, as we shall see, a description of a character’s appearance in the least sexually explicit of romances may nonetheless intimate much about the sexuality of his or her social body.
Since each protagonist has three bodies, there are six bodies in a monogamous romantic relationship. Although we will discuss all six bodies, our discussion will centre around some socio-sexual aspects of the social bodies and a few socio-political elements of the political bodies. We focus in particular on one configuration of the six bodies which is both extremely common in modern romances and has a long history within the genre, and then briefly discuss a few alternative configurations, some of which are relatively recent innovations and others of which have been present in romantic fiction for centuries.
The Individual Body
As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an “expectant canvas of human flesh” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 10). The individual bodies of heroines vary, and one may have “a pair of fine eyes” (Austen, Pride 73) while another has a “lush lower lip and unblemished skin” (Lindsey 65), but “some indication, however slight, of the heroine’s physical attributes has always been an important part of the romantic novel” (Anderson 85). Social beliefs are inscribed on the “expectant canvas” of the body as soon as value judgements are included in the description. A heroine’s appearance, for example, may be compared to particular ideals of feminine beauty and attractiveness:
Was he looking at her nose? ‘Strong’ was the euphemism that people tossed around but Grace knew what she saw in the mirror every morning. Her nose was too big for the perfect oval of her face, too distinctive. Like her height, another ‘advantage’ that she had been encouraged to flaunt rather than conceal. She knew without vanity that she was beautiful, but not in the classical sense of the word. Her features taken piece by piece were far from perfect — apart from her nose, her blue eyes were too widely spaced, her mouth too full — but together with her gleaming cap of midnight-black hair they formed a striking whole. Her beauty was ‘unique’ and in this era of mass-production uniqueness had an inflationary value. (Napier 6)
Ann Barr Snitow has suggested that “There are more descriptions of his [the hero’s] body than of hers [the heroine’s]” (248), and although
The body of the romantic hero may represent an ideal of masculine beauty, […] beauty here is the equivalent of physical strength, and physical strength itself becomes a sign of something more, a definition of authentic virility as a power that is always scarcely contained. (Cook 155)
Descriptions of a hero whose “Iron-hewed strength rippled from every muscle” (Lindsey 47), or whose “gold-blond hair had been cut military short, a style that looked both severe and sexy” (Mallery 19), certainly call attention to his strength (which may be a component of his socio-political body) and to the potent sexuality of his socio-sexual body.
Since sexual desire is such an important part of romantic relationships, it is unsurprising that even in “sweet” romances, or in scenes which involve non-sexual activity, descriptions of the protagonists’ individual bodies are often overlaid by references to their socio-sexual bodies:
Harlequins revitalize daily routines by insisting that a woman combing her hair, a woman reaching up to put a plate on a high shelf (so that her knees show beneath the hem, if only there were a viewer), a woman doing what women do all day, is in a constant state of potential sexuality. (Snitow 249)
Bodies are more than flesh, blood, and bone: the social and political bodies co-exist with, and are written on, the individual body.
The Social Body
The social body can be thought of as the way in which the individual body relates to its cultural context. Descriptions of the protagonists’ clothing and adornments can be particularly helpful in revealing the social body. In Johanna Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, for example, we are told that the hero’s preference for “simple attire said a lot for his character” (274). His avoidance of ostentatious dress reveals his lack of vanity and is a culturally approved masculine behaviour, albeit perhaps a historically anachronistic one for a novel set in the Middle Ages. Clothing may thus assist both in distinguishing between male and female individual bodies and in increasing or decreasing the former’s masculinity and the latter’s femininity, for although “The ‘naturalness’ of gender is constantly invoked, […] masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the body that require work” (King 33). Women, for example, are expected to construct their social bodies through how they dress and adorn themselves. In turn, “Cultural constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19), and women’s fashion has been deemed problematic by many feminists because it can reinforce negative images of women:
Turning woman into an ornamented surface requires an enormous amount of discipline and can cause discomfort, not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. […] Female styles over the years have also served to confirm myths about woman: as duplicitous, over-sexualised temptress; delicate and weak or narcissistic, frivolous and obsessed with trivialities. (King 36)
Culturally constructed “ideas about men and women, their appropriate behaviors and attributes, and their relations to each other” are called “gender ideologies” (Blackwood 240-41). Despite the fluid nature of gender across cultures, each culture’s ideologies about gender tend to assume that gender is natural, inherent, and determined by a person’s sex at birth. For example, “the social sciences in the postwar period […] posited women as expressive (emotional) and men as instrumental (pragmatic, rational, and cognitive)” (Gutmann 388). Cross-cultural studies have found that
most societies hold consensual ideas — guiding or admonitory images — for conventional masculinity and femininity by which individuals are judged worthy members of one or the other sex […]. Such ideal statuses and their attendant images, or models, often become psychic anchors, or psychological identities, for most individuals, serving as a basis for self-perception. (Gilmore 208)
Masculinity can be defined as “anything men think and do to be men” (Gutmann 386, emphasis added). In many societies, perhaps even all cultures, “there is a constantly recurring notion that real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness” (Gilmore 208) and that manhood must be earned or achieved in particular ways. After his first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, a rare virginal romance hero tells his heroine that “I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood” (Napier 133). Zilbergeld suggests that sexuality is an area in which men feel under particular pressure to earn and demonstrate manhood:
One of the cornerstones of the masculine stereotype in our society is that a man is one who has no doubts, questions, or confusion about sex, and that a real man knows how to have good sex and does so frequently. For a man to ask a question about sex, thereby revealing ignorance, or to express concern, or to admit to a problem is to risk being thought something less than a man. (5)
Manhood, then, is a status which once achieved must be maintained, and it therefore appears to be a status more easily lost by males than womanhood is by females. Jo Beverley’s Cyn Malloren, for example, must frequently fight to maintain his manhood because his individual body constantly calls it into question:
Despite all evidence to the contrary people would persist in seeing him as fragile, even his family who certainly should know better. […] As a boy he’d believed age would toughen his looks, but at twenty-four, a veteran of Quebec and Louisbourg, he was still disgustingly pretty. He had to fight duels with nearly every new officer in the regiment to establish his manhood. (6)
As Gilmore has observed,
femininity seems to be judged differently. It usually involves questions of body ornament or sexual allure, or other essentially cosmetic behaviors that enhance, rather than create, an inherent quality of character […], femininity is more often construed as a biological given that is culturally refined or augmented. (208-09)
Even if she chooses not to augment her femininity but instead performs actions and behaviours associated with masculinity, a heroine may do so without losing her womanhood. In E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, for example, Diana Mayo’s “boyish directness” (6) and the fact that she is “far more at home” (14) in “smart-cut breeches and high brown boots” (13) than in “pretty dresses” (14) are the result of having been “brought up as a boy” (9). Nonetheless, “Diana Mayo, with the clothes and manners of a boy, was really an uncommonly beautiful young woman” (17), and one who at a ball can be found “ten deep in would-be partners” (3). By contrast, cross-dressing heroes are extremely rare, and if a hero acts in ways which are associated with femininity, this will tend to be dealt with circumspectly, so as not to impugn his masculinity. Cyn Malloren may disguise himself as a woman for a time, but he does so to play “knight-errant” (Beverley 25) to a “damsel in distress” (28). He is an experienced soldier, and the reader is aware that beneath the feminine dress he has chosen to wear, his individual body bears witness to his masculine socio-political and socio-sexual bodies: “He had a scar across his chest which it seemed no woman could ignore. It came from a minor wound, a long shallow saber cut, but it looked dramatic” (31). The scar is described in considerable detail while Cyn is dressing in “female garments” (58) for the first time and the reader is again told that women find it irresistible, thus emphasising the masculinity of Cyn’s socio-sexual body: “All the women who had been favored with a glimpse of it had been impelled to touch it, […] some with a finger, some with their mouths” (58). It also provides information about his socio-political body: seeing the scar convinces the heroine that “you really are a soldier” (59). In addition, even in disguise “His jaw was a little too square, his cheeks too lean. He carefully applied rouge to them, and was heartened to realize that for once he looked too masculine” (65). In another romance, analysed by Mary M. Talbot, it is the hero’s choice of profession which poses a threat to his masculinity since
Artists are assumed to be male, but at the same time there is some sort of problem with having an artist as hero. There is a shadow of doubt cast on the gender identity of artists. Being artistic is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. He is made ‘whole’ by the label Anna attaches to him: ‘He’s a portrait painter’. The hero […] is established as artist but reassuringly masculine, meaning heterosexual. (93)
Sexualities of the Social Bodies
Gender ideologies create, and are simultaneously created by, beliefs about human sexuality. There are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about the differences between male and female sexuality (Kane and Schippers). A clergyman in Richardson’s Pamela, for example, attempts to excuse Mr. B.’s abduction and intended rape or seduction of Pamela on the grounds that “’tis what all young Gentlemen will do” (135). These differences, however, may not all have biological causes: “Foucault […], Tiefer […], and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses” (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755). Far from being entirely innate,
sexual potential takes its form through a number of social processes, including ideologies of religion or ritual, ethnicity, class, gender, family, and reproduction, as well as the material and social conditions of everyday life. These processes provide the interpretive context for sexual feelings, desires and longings. (Blackwood 237)
Women have long been constructed as sexually “feeble and passive, literally a receptacle for the desires of the male” (King 31). This may explain why so many romance heroines, particularly in older romances, are virgins who are initiated into sexual activity by a romance hero, although thereafter they may enjoy sex immensely. Romance author Doreen Owens Malek argues that the heroine’s virginity is important because
virginity is a gift that can only be given once, and it is ideally bestowed on a woman’s great love. This giving of virginity adds an immeasurable element of drama and power to the story. It changes the heroine, of course, but in romance novels it also changes the hero. (118)
It is significant that Owens Malek only discusses the virginity of female characters. Virginal heroes do exist in the genre, but as acknowledged in a short questionnaire which Mills & Boon appended to Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, “Many heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced.” In Owens Malek’s description of virginity there is no suggestion that the hero might be a virgin whose virginity would be considered a “gift that can only be given once” and would change the heroine. Napier’s virgin hero, Scott Gregory, does, however, use this kind of language:
‘Couldn’t you tell, Grace? Was my gift such a paltry thing? I thought one’s partner could always tell.’ […]
‘What gift? T-tell-what?’ she stammered […]
‘Why, that it was my first time, of course.’ (133)
If we reword the quotation from Talbot which we cited earlier in the essay, so that “artist” is replaced by “male virgin,” we can say that this gender reversal casts
a shadow of doubt […] on the gender identity of [male virgins]. Being [a male virgin] is not masculine. The two identities sit uneasily together; there is a suspicion of homosexuality or, less serious but still quite unsuitable, being ‘weird’. (93)
Grace, in her attempt to reconcile Scott’s claim of virginity with the knowledge that he has “been out with lots of women” (139), eventually asks “Are you homosexual?” (140) but Napier has already defused most of the suspicions about Scott’s sexuality and masculine identity by ensuring that the revelation occurs after Scott has lost his virginity and demonstrated that in all other respects his sexual behaviour is identical to that of a great many other romance heroes. Having literally, as well as emotionally, chased the heroine until she surrendered to him:
His desire […] had proved insatiable. And, although the second and third time they made love it was not with the stunning speed of the first, it was still fiercely, gloriously energetic. […] He made her feel unutterably sexy […]. In short, he was every bit the fantastic lover. (131)
By taking the lead in initiating sex, ensuring that his partner experiences hitherto unknown heights of pleasure, and demonstrating the stamina necessary to repeat the experience several times in one night, Scott has proved that he is indeed a man.
The group of cultural beliefs about masculine sexuality known as the
male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway […]. Zilbergeld […] identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman’s responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. […] included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, “romance,” the cultural notion that when two people “fall in love,” sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56)
With the possible exception of ideas surrounding contraception, since modern romance heroes often take responsibility for providing condoms, these beliefs about gendered sexuality frequently appear to underlie the sexual behaviour of characters in the romance genre. However, although “both men and women perceive men’s sexual drives as greater than women’s” (Kane and Schippers 655), there is
a clear and consistent pattern of gender differences in beliefs […] related to sexual power […]. Women are much more likely to see men’s sexual power as greater than their own, while men are much more likely than women to hold the view that women’s sexual power is greater. […] In terms of value judgments regarding power differentials, both men and women are likely to see the other group as too powerful. (Kane and Schippers 655)
In the romance genre, however, perhaps because it often offers “a fantasy of female empowerment” (Phillips 55), the heroine will tend to possess “an unrelenting and absolute power […] over the hero’s mind and body. The conventional line is often literally ‘No other woman had affected him like this before’” (Johnson-Kurek 127). It is possible for a hero to resist the power of the heroine’s allure. He may even seek to deny the possibility of any attraction, as Darcy does when he states that “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, Pride 59). He cannot, however, resist indefinitely and Darcy eventually confesses to Elizabeth Bennet that “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (221). If she is aware of the attraction the hero feels towards her, a heroine may exult in it:
his mouth, hard and hungry, fell upon hers, dragging over her lips as though to punish her.
But what Jessica tasted was victory. She felt it in the heat he couldn’t disguise, and in the pulsing tension of his frame, and she heard it clear as any declaration when his tongue pushed impatiently for entry.
He wanted her. (Chase 160)
Madeline has a similar response to the evidence of her hero’s desire:
She’d seen the desire that flamed in his eyes when he held her. She’d felt the tremors in his arms and heard the pounding of his heart. A heady sense of feminine power shimmered in her veins. It thrilled her that she could cause such a reaction and made her eager to test her power over him once again. (Lovelace 133)
The Mighty Wang
Each of these heroines has aroused her hero’s Mighty Wang. The term “Mighty Wang” (Wendell and Tan 36) was coined by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan as a humorous way to describe the extremely large and effective sexual organ possessed by many a romance hero. The Mighty Wang (MW) can also be thought of as a symbol of the male sexual drive discourse: it is a penis functioning as a symbol of the ideal masculine socio-sexual body. The term “MW,” as it is used in this paper, will refer not to the individual body’s penis, but to the hero’s socio-sexual body. The appropriation of the name of this particular body-part to refer to the whole of a hero’s socio-sexual body seems particularly apt given that in romances there is frequent “use of the personal pronouns — me, he, him, himself — to signify this body part […]. The seemingly unavoidable use of these pronouns is a […] curious euphemistic practice because it equates the man’s penis with the man himself” (Johnson-Kurek 119). The sentence “She cradled the rigid length of him in her palm” (Castle 172) is an example of this kind of writing: the part seems to become the whole. Conversely, when the reader is told that a hero’s body has “Long, long legs, […] a broad back that went on forever, all golden-skinned and rock-hard” (Lindsey 47), the allusion to another part of the hero that might be long, broad, and hard is not subtle.
When the MW performs acts which are common to the male sexual drive discourse, he is giving a demonstration of the socio-cultural attributes of masculine sexuality. Although Austen is so discreet about these matters that the reader is left to surmise what she or he will about the precise ways in which “the utmost force of passion” (Pride 228) might be expressed physically, many of the more explicit modern romances take the reader into the bedroom to observe the MW in action; it is not uncommon for the hero’s penis to be, if not quite “Two Feet Long, Hard As Steel, And Can Go All Night,” as described in the title of Zilbergeld’s chapter on “The Fantasy Model of Sex,” at least unusually large, hard, and possessed of immense stamina. Although Zilbergeld was writing in 1978, his comment that “Much of the explicitness of recent […] fiction serves only to give more detailed presentations of the same old myths” (53) continues to ring true in relation to the romance genre. The size of Ranulf’s penis, for example, is implied when, prior to his second sexual encounter with Reina he partially reassures her by reminding her that “you have withstood my size once without dying” (Lindsey 177) and Dain fears that his immense organ will damage his virgin wife: “His lust-swollen rod strained furiously against his trousers, a great, monstrous invader that would tear her to pieces” (Chase 223).
The MW exists “in a state of constant hornytoad” (Wendell and Tan 84) and Wendell and Tan have noted its immense stamina:
There is a concept of recovery time that never really affects the romance hero, and thus casts mortal men with normal turgid boners in a shameful light, because immediately after having a great orgasm, real men need at least a half hour before they can think about going another round. (167)
Another of the characteristics of the MW as it appears in more explicit romances is that it can “Elevate sexual intercourse to near heavenly experiences, one orgasm at a time” (Wendell and Tan 84). During Clare’s first experience of sexual intercourse, for example, she experiences “passion without subtlety: a primal, desperate need for union that swept them both into the heart of the storm” (Putney 292). This, however, is merely “a synopsis” (300), and “the unabridged version” (300) which follows is so intensely pleasurable that afterwards Clare murmurs “This could make someone forget about God, for it is hard to imagine that heaven can offer anything more” (301). If the heroine is sexually experienced, she has generally never had sex quite as good as the sex she has with the MW. In Merline Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, Madeline, despite “Having twice been wed, […] was yet a stranger to the feeling that suddenly coursed through her at the sight of this tall, broad-shouldered man” (29-30) and the contrast is even greater once they actually reach the bedroom:
her first lord, as gentle as he’d been with her young innocence, had lacked either the skill or the stamina to hold himself in check. And in his eagerness, her second lord had all but spilled himself afore he got his braies off. But Ian had wrung responses from her she’d never dreamed she was capable of. (226)
In less explicit romances, the description of the MW’s kisses may seem to foreshadow the even greater delights still in store for the heroine. Germaine Greer once sarcastically commented of a Barbara Cartland romance that “when handkissing results in orgasm it is possible that an actual kiss might bring on epilepsy” (178). Cartland did not, of course, write a scene in which handkissing literally resulted in orgasm but she did use hyperbolic language to describe the intensely pleasurable sensations experienced by her heroines while kissing:
his mouth came down on hers […] and it was even more wonderful than she had thought it could be.
She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive. (Cartland, Problems 138)
The heroine of Beverly Jenkins’s Josephine experiences similarly intense sensations while being kissed by a MW:
Her whole world seemed to have come alive in response to his kisses. Now she understood how a girl could become overwhelmed and allow a boy to take liberties he shouldn’t. The soaring sensations and rising emotions were so exciting, Jo didn’t want to stop.
They had to, however, and they both knew it. (227)
In Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, the pleasure and power of the MW’s embrace almost render the heroine unconscious:
He had caught her in his arms so fiercely that the breath was almost crushed out of her. His dark face swam before her eyes for an instant, then his mouth was locked to hers, in a kiss so hard that her lips felt bruised. She yielded, carried away half-swooning on the tide of his passion. (277)
Another way in which the sexual potency of the MW may be revealed is via a description of the hero’s sexual history: Richardson’s Mr. B. has an illegitimate child by a woman he seduced; Cartland’s Duc de Savigne has had many liaisons with “women whom he takes up on an impulse and apparently without any consideration for their feelings, discards […] as soon as they bore him” (Love 8); and another hero, prior to meeting his heroine, “took what the wenches threw at him, never doubt it” (Lindsey 223). While multitudes of former sexual partners can serve as a demonstration of the MW’s allure, this can also be expressed via descriptions of women who find the hero attractive but who may not have had direct experience of his sexual prowess. Mr. B., for example, “is admir’d, as I know, by half a dozen Ladies” (Richardson 41) while Adam Morgan is “a young man accustomed to having young ladies jump at his beck and call” (Jenkins 176) who has “never had a young lady throw my interest back in my face” (188). Given the number of willing females available to him, it takes a very special woman to capture the MW’s permanent attention: a woman with a Glittery HooHa.
The Glittery HooHa
Although the term “Glittery HooHa” (GHH) “emerged at the internet discussion board Television Without Pity” (Vivanco) between 2004 and 2006, authors have long been describing heroines as glowing, sparkling and glittering. Pamela has “speaking Eyes” which can “overflow” with tears “without losing any of their Brilliancy!” (Richardson 186) and we learn of Syrilla that
there was something more than mere beauty about her, he thought, which made her different from other women.
It was the fact that she was so intensely alive, and that when she was animated she seemed almost to sparkle as she spoke, while her eyes shone as if they had captured the sunlight. (Cartland, Love 81)
A more recent example of a glittering heroine is Jo Best, whose “dark unblemished skin glowed with health and beauty. She was by far the most radiant young woman he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing” (Jenkins 123).
The GHH is a symbol of the female socio-sexual body and in particular of female sexual allure. Its glitter indicates the desirability of the heroine’s socio-sexual body. When Mr. B. states that Pamela is “so pretty, that go where you will, you will never be free from the Designs of some or other of our Sex” (Richardson 87), he is revealing that he himself has some quite definitely sexual “Designs” upon her GHH. Austen is much more reticent about sexual matters and Darcy has no immoral “Designs” on Elizabeth, but when he notices “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (Pride 70) and is “forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing” (70), it is evident that despite having initially “looked at her only to criticise” (70), he is unable to deny the growing attraction he feels towards her GHH. As is demonstrated by Pride and Prejudice, there is no need for a heroine to be either the most beautiful woman in the novel, or one whom all men find irresistible. What matters is the special effect her GHH has on the hero:
A woman with a hooha as glittery as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Our Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the Glittery HooHa to snare him forever. […] For yea, no matter how many hoohas he might see, never will there be one as glittery as hers. (Crusie, Stuart, and Rich 237)
The heroine’s GHH is not merely sexually alluring; it is powerful enough to render a MW monogamous. Even while the attraction remains unconsummated and the hero’s physical penis (which is part of his individual body) has not penetrated the “hooha” or vagina (which is part of the heroine’s individual body), it is not uncommon for the hero to realise that his MW is no longer attracted to other women and their less glittery GHHs. Cyn Malloren “found he had difficulty imagining being aroused by any woman other than this one” (Beverley 68). In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the hero sets up a date with a woman who is not the heroine. She kisses him, and “In the old days, that would have set the fires burning. But not tonight” (85). That, and his inability to concentrate on anything except the heroine, enable the woman to reach an accurate diagnosis:
“Poor man,” she sighed. She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I guess we all meet our Waterloo someday. Looks like this is yours.” […] That same thought was only beginning to form in his own mind. He smiled sheepishly. (86)
In romance, then, it is often “the heroine’s task to remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love” (Cohn 30) and her success is made possible by her GHH.
Not all romance heroes need their sexuality to be “remade” in the same way. Some heroes have repressed, rather than hyperactive, MWs. Heyer’s Simon the Coldheart, for example, states that “There is no place for women in my life, and no liking for women in my breast” (16). In this case, the GHH regulates the MW by bringing forth a “new-born passion” (298). In Napier’s Secret Admirer, the hero’s sexuality was affected by his step-mother who, when he “turned fifteen […] decided that it was time I was taught the facts of life … on a practical basis” (154). Sent to a private boarding school by his father as punishment for what was assumed to be the attempted rape of his step-mother, Scott found that his “guilt and revulsion about sex in general was reinforced by the crude boastings in the dorm” (156). After that, he “never felt so strongly attracted to any one […] that I was willing to allow myself to be vulnerable” (158), but the heroine’s GHH changes his attitude towards sex. Whether hyper-sexual and promiscuous, or repressed and underused, the MW is attracted to, and then regulated by, the GHH.
Although the GHH is irresistible to the MW, the MW is also extremely attractive to the GHH. In some cases “The hero’s proximity alone can send the blood pounding through her veins, make her hands tremble, deprive her of speech and reason” (Douglas 26). In Anne Herries’s Captive of the Harem, the heroine expresses this attraction in terms of magic:
The sweetness of that kiss had surprised her, and aroused a longing for something that she did not understand, robbing her of the will to resist him. She had felt as though he cast a magic spell over her by some sorcery — was it this that made so many of the harem women eager for his notice? (99)
The heroine, who is generally unaware of the extent of her GHH’s power over the MW, may initially fear the “magic spell” cast by the MW. Such fears are not unfounded. In Barbara Samuel’s The Love Talker, in which the hero is quite literally a magical being, we are given a description of the full extent of the damage a MW can cause to women whose GHHs are not glittery enough to tame it:
The Love Talker is a fixture of Irish faery lore, a seductive and dangerous being indeed, a conscienceless faery who ravishes the senses of unsuspecting women and leaves them to pine away to their deaths. In all the poems and stories, he is the King of Rakes, a libertine of unholy power. (195)
This reflects the way in which male sexuality is culturally constructed as an active, unemotional, possibly dangerous part of masculine behaviour.
In a romance novel, the sexual desires and activities of a hero and heroine often reveal their growing emotional attachment, but how, when, where, and with whom the protagonists have sex, as well as the ramifications of their sexual activity, can express socio-cultural ideologies about what constitutes “ideal” sexuality.
The Political Body
Sex is not simply an activity engaged in by individual bodies: “Cultures are disciplines that provide codes and social scripts for the domestication of the individual body in conformity to the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). These codes and scripts are often translated into law, making it illegal to go against the cultural definition of normality. One of the most significant differences between the social body and the political body is that while the social body may be subjected to cultural sanctions, such as being socially marginalised, the political body may be disciplined by the state, especially through imprisonment.
Romances, however, generally conclude with the political bodies of the protagonists being rewarded. One of the key narrative elements of a romance is the “betrothal,” a “scene or scenes” in which “the hero asks the heroine to marry him and she accepts; or the heroine asks the hero, and he accepts” (Regis 37). Marriage, or even the promise of marriage, gives both cultural and legal recognition to their relationship and legitimises the joining of their social and political bodies as well as of their individual bodies. In romances the pairing of the hero and heroine’s individual bodies, and of the MW and GHH, is complemented by the pairing of their socio-political bodies, which we shall call the Phallus and the Prism.
The Phallus in Romance
Teresa Ebert has described the romance hero as the personification of the Phallus:
The phallus […] is ideologically disguised as a full, embodied presence. […] Harlequin Romances, for example, are saturated with representations of the male anatomical organ. These representations take the form of tropic substitutions for the penis, as in such descriptions of the hero as “straight and tall, as brown and unbending as the monster trees rearing … behind him,” and “the erect masculine figure astride the horse”; or, more directly, “the thrusting weight of steel-hard thighs and hips.” These images […] reify the penis and thus mystify male power, sensuality, and sexual difference as physical and natural, while concealing the production of the phallus as signifier as well as the construction of male prowess and privilege in signification behind the naturalized penis. (34)
Perhaps the conflation of the Phallus with the penis occurs because while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,
The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)
In this essay the “Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.
At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero abducts the heroine on another man’s behalf before marrying her himself, and in Napier’s Secret Admirer the hero poses a threat on a business level because he’s “powerful enough to destroy us if he wants to — he’s done it before to other companies” (22). Not infrequently the heroine is wary of the Incomplete Phallus, and rightly so, since he may attempt to use his power and authority to imprison or coerce her. In Lovelace’s His Lady’s Ransom, for example, the hero is convinced that the heroine is nothing more than a GHH to be controlled and has her confined within an isolated castle. In other romances the MW and Incomplete Phallus may work in conjunction, through rape or sexual assault, to assert their dominance over the heroine. This is the case in Richardson’s Pamela, in which the hero attempts to rape the heroine, and in E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which the hero succeeds in such attempts. More recent romances do not tend to include rapes of the heroine by the hero, but one can still find “ritual” versions, such as a punishing kiss which serves to demonstrate the social status and/or physical power of the Incomplete Phallus, and the sexual potency of the MW.
The Incomplete Phallus tends to have obtained his power and authority from one or more typically male-dominated cultural areas. He frequently has high social status (e.g. Duke, Sheik), wealth (billionaire, tycoon), or both. With or without wealth, he usually displays fighting skills or at least physical strength (SEAL, warrior, cowboy). In his most obviously patriarchal guise he has the ability to regulate society by enforcing the law (police officer, sheriff), or he may try to perfect society by fighting a corrupt system (outlaw, spy, private detective). There are, of course, other professions open to heroes, but many of them seem to involve power in forms strongly associated with masculinity.
Many Incomplete Phalluses lack emotional connection to others, but this lack can manifest itself in a number of different ways. A hero with a very strong MW and a very Incomplete Phallus may be a rake who spends much of his time engaging in sexual activity, as Dain does in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels:
He lusted for virtually every attractive female he saw. He had a prodigious sexual appetite […]. If he lusted for a whore, he paid her and had her. If he lusted for a respectable female, he found a whore as a substitute, paid her, and had her. (49)
In slightly less extreme cases this type of hero may be a “passionate, romantic figure with a past, perhaps most familiar in Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester” (Mussell 119). Sometimes rakish behaviour is ascribed to a deep emotional pain suffered by the hero:
He had deliberately set out to defy the conventions, to shock decent men and women, to become a by-word for everything that was debauched and immoral.
He had succeeded, but strangely enough it had not eased the hurt which had caused him to behave in such a manner, and the wound within himself had not healed. (Cartland, Love 84)
Although a rake generally acts in response to the demands of his MW, particularly where the heroine is concerned, his Phallic attributes may be considerable. Richardson’s Mr. B., for example, is a landowner, Justice of the Peace, and Member of Parliament and Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan states that “The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me” (Hull 63).
A second type of Incomplete Phallus may be identified by his devotion to his work (often in one of the typically Phallic professions listed above) and his avoidance of family ties. This type of hero’s Incomplete Phallus tendencies thus take precedence over those of his MW. Often this behaviour too is shown to be an imperfect coping mechanism developed in response to emotional trauma. Napier’s business “piranha” (22), for example, has been “taking over electronics companies, and offering preferential deals to anyone who has business with RedWing” (97) as part of his plan to destroy his father’s company in revenge for the way his mother was treated:
My mother died because she couldn’t afford a life-saving operation. […] She asked him for money and he told her that she had made her bed and now she could lie on it … but he meant die on it. […] my father had no humanity. (97)
He may be an emotionally wounded warrior, like Susan Mallery’s Rafe, whose “‘[…] folks died when I was four. There wasn’t anyone else. I became a ward of the state.’ […] He’d learned to take care of himself and never need anyone” (183). Diana Palmer’s Tony, a “professional soldier” specialising “in counterterrorism” (41), was physically abused by his father, who also “started doing things to my little sister, when she was about eight. […] My mother caught him at it […] She stabbed that knife up to the hilt in his stomach, all the way to the heart. […] I never saw so much blood” (70-71). Then, “When my sister and I went into foster care, it was like the end of the world. Especially when they separated us. […] She killed herself” (57). As he acknowledges, “I’ve got a past that’s going to make it hard for any woman to live with me on a permanent basis” (74). In Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart, the hero is an emotionally damaged, illegitimate, mercenary knight who has
no home, but it was his burning ambition to correct that lack. It was his only goal, yet it was an all-consuming one. It was all he worked toward, hiring out to any man no matter the task, no matter the difficulty, no matter his own feelings in the matter. His ambition did not allow for scruples. (15-16)
This particular ambition, and his authoritarian attitude towards his followers, put him on the brink of transforming into a third type of Incomplete Phallus.
This type manifests the incompleteness of his Phallus by the way in which he assumes his patriarchal authority and family duties. Although he may work hard, be a (phallic) pillar of the community, and a devoted father or brother, he tends to be an authoritarian patriarch who is emotionally flawed in some way. Darcy is an example of this kind of hero, since he has both high social standing and wealth, his father is deceased and he therefore stands in loco parentis to his younger sister, and he is declared by one of his servants to be “the best landlord, and the best master […] that ever lived” (Austen, Pride 270). This patriarch’s flaw, the evidence of his emotional lack, is his pride. Simon the Coldheart embodies, as far as that is possible for a human, the qualities of justice — “If it was a question of judgment or arbitration men found Simon relentlessly, mercilessly just” (Heyer 19) — and of omniscience:
‘[…] God alone knows what will come to this poor land!’
‘Nay, not God alone,’ the secretary said. ‘My lord knows also.’ (97)
God-like in his own domain, Simon is omnipotent and one might say he “Suffer[s] the little children to come unto” (Mark 10:14) him because he “dost love children” (Heyer 114). In general, however, he seems incapable of feeling warmer emotions: “something he seemed to lack, for with all his assets and attainments, he was cold as stone, almost as though some humanising part of him had been left out in his fashioning” (130).
The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism. The word appears in the rakish Marquis of Vidal’s mocking designation of Mary Challoner as “Miss Prunes and Prisms” (Heyer, Devil’s Cub 49), a phrase which characterises her as prim and disapproving. The term “Prism,” as used in this essay, also draws on Jayne Castle’s Orchid, set in a futuristic society in which many individuals are “talents” but only a few, including the heroine, are “prisms”:
talents […] possessed a specific type of paranormal power that could be actively used. […] The psychic energy that talents produced endowed them with a sixth sense. But unlike the other five senses, it could not be accessed except in brief, unpredictable, erratic bursts without the aid of a prism. […] In them, paranormal energy took a different form. Prisms possessed the ability to focus the powers of a talent for an extended length of time. (3)
Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.
The Prism embodies the Mother aspect of femininity and the Incomplete Prism’s motherliness tends to manifest itself in differing combinations of two different qualities. The first is nurturing tenderness, and the second is feistiness, which may also be thought of as an incomplete version of maternal authority and
the lioness aspect of the female personality […]. It’s acceptable for a woman, socially, to be outspoken and rude when defending her children — everyone knows not to get between a mother bear and her cub. (Wendell and Tan 59)
With the decline in the number of virgin heroines there may have been an increase in the proportion of heroines who are biological mothers, but childless heroines have long been given opportunities to display the nurturing aspect of their Prisms. Such heroines may often be found caring for children, either due to their jobs or because they have responsibility for younger siblings or abandoned infants. Slightly less blatant demonstrations of the Prism’s nurturing motherliness include expressions of love and care for animals or vulnerable friends. As Wendell and Tan declare in their humorous “ten commandments of heroine conduct” (36):
Thou shalt have a nurturing streak larger and warmer than the South China Sea. Thy desire for children shall be unquestioned […]. And shouldst thou choose to remain child-free, thou freak of nature, verily thou shouldst display your nurturing streak with animals. (36)
Elizabeth Bennet’s mother is so incompetent a parent that Elizabeth attempts to provide her sisters with both maternal care and authoritative maternal guidance. When her older sister Jane is “very unwell” (78), it is Elizabeth, not their mother, who feels “really anxious” (Austen, Pride 78) and tends to her during the illness. Furthermore, “Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement?” (241). In Cartland’s The Problems of Love, the heroine has taken on the role of mother: “I now have the family to look after, because my mother died five years ago” (11). On this heroine’s wedding day it also becomes apparent that in some respects she resembles the hero’s mother: “I was thinking in Church today when we were married that you were like the lilies that were arranged on the altar. I have never felt that about any other woman with the exception of my mother” (145). In some romances, the heroine may express motherly feelings towards the hero. Mary, the heroine of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, recognises that
it was not a notorious Marquis with whom she had fallen in love; it was with the wild, sulky, unmanageable boy that she saw behind the rake.
‘I could manage him,’ she sighed. ‘Oh, but I could!’ (110)
Similarly Jessica sees “the lonely little boy in” Dain (Chase 269), and understands that he needs “love […] he needed it far more than many, because, apparently, he hadn’t had so much as a whiff of it since he was a babe” (269). In some romances this motherly nurturance may take a very literal form: Sarah S. G. Frantz has written of one romance hero that his
desire to suckle (to be suckled) at his wife’s breast, when read against his whole character, can be read as the desire to return to the mother’s nourishment that he never received as a child, as his need for his lover to embody his mother and his mother to be his lover. (25)
Gentle maternal qualities are not the only traits demonstrated by Prisms, for as the Rev. Mr. Villars instructs Evelina, “Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men” (Burney 242). The Prism’s feisty “fortitude and firmness” may be displayed on behalf of others, as when Elizabeth Bennet angrily rejects a marriage proposal from Darcy, “who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister” (Austen, Pride 222), or in self-defence, often against either an untamed MW or an Incomplete Phallus. Pamela, for example, although only a servant, constantly expresses her resistance to her master’s designs upon her virtue:
when you forget what belongs to Decency in your Actions, and when Words are all that are left me, to shew my Resentment of such Actions, I will not promise to forbear the strongest Expressions that my distressed Mind shall suggest to me; nor shall your angriest Frowns deter me. (Richardson 211)
In Devil’s Cub, Mary goes so far as to shoot and injure Dominic when his untamed MW is about to rape her (Heyer 102).
In the end, displays of feisty strength in the heroine tend to bring forth positive characteristics in the hero, but as Incomplete Prisms differ in their type of feistiness and Incomplete Phalluses vary in the qualities they lack, each heroine will bring out slightly different personality traits in her hero: Pamela’s feistiness is focused on preserving her virtue, and she therefore stimulates her hero’s piety; Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self-aware and kind; Margaret “stole what men thought was not there to steal. Thy cold heart” (Heyer, Simon 300) and so teaches Simon to love; and Josephine is “a beautiful, headstrong woman” (Jenkins 100), and so the “man who marries you will have to have patience, a strong mind and an even stronger wit” (100).
Completing the Phallus
The Incomplete Prism’s feistiness poses a challenge to the Incomplete Phallus’s authority and its nurturance gentles him, bringing into focus his softer qualities. Many romances conclude with the hero “endowed with maternal qualities; he is not simply the phallus but also the maternal phallus: the ideal mother and father” (Treacher 80). However, since the Father also has nurturing qualities it should not be assumed that a Completed Phallus is an androgynous parental figure. The transformed hero is “the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too” (Radway 97). In becoming a Completed Phallus the hero suffers no loss of his culturally ascribed masculinity: he will still tend to exert control and power over others, but he is more likely to take the heroine’s views into account, and protectiveness will take the place of jealousy and aggression. Johanna Lindsey’s Ranulf, for example, becomes the Lord of Clydon and his military prowess ensures the safety of Reina, her lands, and dependants. The Completed Phallus’s Prism-inspired paternal care for the wider community may also be expressed politically. As the Marquis of Osminton declares:
I had never expected a woman to think seriously as you do on social and political questions, which have always been left to men. […] It will help and inspire me to make a greater effort in that direction than I have done in the past. (Cartland, Problems 144)
If he couldn’t before, he will now be able to express his feelings and often becomes an emotionally involved father. In Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example, Dain could initially only think of his illegitimate son as an “unspeakable thing” (293) which “was as foul inwardly as it was hideous outwardly, […] there was not a scrap of good it could have inherited from its depraved monster of a sire” (293-94). Dain’s own self-loathing has clearly affected his perception of the child who looks so much like him, but Jessica forces him into a situation in which he cannot help but realise that his son is indeed “just like his father, he needed someone […] to accept him” (340). Jessica’s conviction that Dain is not “a monster, impossible to love” (339) alters Dain’s perception of both himself and his son, and enables him to accept love for himself and show it to his child. In much less traumatic circumstances the Marquis of Osminton, too, is reconciled to the idea of fatherhood and confesses that
Once, before I knew you, […] I thought that children might disturb my well-organised life and perhaps be destructive, but now, because I love you, my darling, I can think of nothing more wonderful than to see you holding my son in your arms. (Cartland, Problems 146)
If he had feelings of loneliness or uncertainty about his role in life, these will be resolved by the Incomplete Prism. Barbara Samuel’s Galen is a faery cursed “to wander between the mortal and faerie realms, never to cross to either,” and so experiences a “loneliness so vast ‘twould make stones cry” (Samuel 199). His suffering lasts for 285 years, until he meets Moira who feels the allure of his MW, but is able to resist it in order to break the curse. As a heroine with a strong Incomplete Prism, she “wanted to protect him, protect him from the despair she’d glimpsed on his face […], protect him from having to return to the lost world of his exile” (247). Clare Morgan may not have to break a faery curse, but she is “the one Marta foresaw […] who would heal her Nikki’s heart” (Putney 346). It is thanks to Clare that “Nicholas Davies, the Gypsy Earl of Aberdare” (12), a man who says he doesn’t “give a damn about anyone or anything” (17), becomes involved in his local community, is reconciled with an estranged best friend, finds himself emotionally “free” (377) from his dead wife’s betrayal and his deceased grandfather’s hatred, and “can believe in my childhood again” (376).
The final transformation of the Incomplete Phallus may take place in a dramatic, emotionally charged scene. In Susan Mallery’s The Sheikh & the Virgin Princess, Rafe is an emotionally-wounded warrior hero who has power and status but is clearly an Incomplete Phallus because he has no desire to become the head of a stable family unit: “Rafe had told her that she was a marriage-and-kids kind of woman and that he wasn’t a marriage-and-kids kind of guy” (158). Zara intuits the reason behind this stance: “she knew. She read it in the pain in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders. After a lifetime of people turning away from him, he wasn’t about to trust her with something as fragile as his heart. Not before he knew that she would be willing to stay forever” (247-48). By demonstrating that she is indeed “willing to stay forever,” the Incomplete Prism transforms Rafe into a Completed Phallus:
The thick, angry barrier around his heart shattered and blew away. […] He knew then that he had to believe her or lose her forever. That he was nothing without her. That he had finally found a safe place to belong.
“I love you,” he told her. […] “[…] I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please do me the honor of marrying me.” (248-49)
In a way that parallels the GHH’s regulation of the MW, the Incomplete Prism completes the Phallus, making him a happier, better man than he was without her: “till within these few Days, I knew not what it was to be happy. […] I hope, from her good Example, […] in time, to be half as good as my Tutoress” (Richardson 308).
Completing the Prism
As with Incomplete Phalluses, there is variation in what is lacking in Incomplete Prisms. Some extremely feisty Incomplete Prisms are described as having a boyish appearance or behaving mannishly. Diana Mayo, for example, “looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy” (Hull 2). It is said of Lady Margaret that she “fights at the head of her men” (Heyer, Simon 135) and when she “don[s] boy’s raiment” (196) in an attempt to escape from Simon she looks like “a slim stripling” (198) and declares “In man’s clothes I stand, and a man will I be” (216). Feistiness taken to the point of mannishness is depicted in these two novels as a characteristic of which the heroine must be broken, at least insofar as she relates to the hero, so that she can become a Completed Prism. Diana Mayo’s sheik adopts particularly violent methods:
with a greater arrogance and a determination stronger than her own Ahmed Ben Hassan had tamed her as he tamed the magnificent horses that he rode. He had been brutal and merciless, using no half measures, forcing her to obedience by sheer strength of will and compelling a complete submission. (Hull 226-27)
She comes to think of him as “A man of men. Monseigneur! Monseigneur! Mon maître et seigneur” (245) and Lady Margaret murmurs “Stern, merciless conqueror! Simon, mon maître et mon seigneur!” (Heyer, Simon 299).
Another way in which heroines may demonstrate their feisty nature is by engaging in “Too Stupid To Live” (TSTL) behaviour. This type of behaviour was “first recognized […] at romance supersite All About Romance” (Wendell and Tan 31) but AAR’s Laurie Gold has clarified that the term
tstl, or too-stupid-to-live […] actually came from a very well-known author who wrote me about it in 1997 and asked to remain anonymous. A tstl heroine does things like going […] where specifically told not to by the hero and ends up endangering both with her foolishness.
In Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man, the heroine knows that “some crazy person is trying to kill me” (48), and she has been told that her apartment “is a death trap […]. […] Easy entrance and exit right outside the door, no dead bolts, a perfect line-of-sight aim for anybody with a high-powered rifle with a scope” (48). Her safety can only be assured if she moves in with Tony, whose professional skills will enable him to act as her bodyguard. She does so, but after an argument with him she decides to prove to him that she “wasn’t a doormat. No way was she staying in here to listen to him cavorting with his girlfriend! No way!” (82). Unfortunately, and rather predictably, the hit man “was watching and followed her home” (93). Tony only just arrives in time to save her. TSTL behaviour on the part of the heroine thus gives the hero an opportunity to display his manly prowess, and may demonstrate the extent to which the heroine needs the protection of a Phallus.
Removed from the context of TSTL behaviour, and described in terms which are more flattering to the heroine, this protection could be thought of as a benefit which accrues to the heroine once she has taken indirect control of his Phallus: “his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command” (Phillips 58). Once the heroine of Lindsey’s Defy Not the Heart marries Ranulf, for example, she is safe from attacks by other males intent on usurping her wealth and power. Regardless of whether one views this outcome as evidence of the heroine’s lack or of her triumph, the end result is that the Completed Prism falls under the protection of the Completed Phallus.
Marriage to the Phallus may also enable a Prism to enter the socio-political elite or, “Put more polemically, popular romance tells the story of how the heroine gains access to money — to power — in patriarchal society” (Cohn 3). Millie, a woman who “came from a poor background, and lived on a meager budget” (Palmer 58), marries Tony, who is “rich” (62). In Richardson’s Pamela there is an even more marked elevation in the social status of the heroine: the landowner hero marries “his Mother’s Waiting-maid” (261) and “She was regularly visited by the principal Ladies in the Neighbourhood; who were fond of her Acquaintance” (499). In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet, though not noted for her intelligence in other matters, perceives the material benefits which will accrue to Elizabeth upon her marriage to Darcy: “how rich and how great you will be!” (386). By the end of Devil’s Cub Mary, a commoner, is engaged to the Marquis of Vidal who is “one of the biggest prizes on the matrimonial market” (Heyer 14).
Increased access to money and power may give the Completed Prism greater opportunities for displaying the nurturing aspects of the Prism. After her marriage to the Earl of Aberdare, Clare may have had to give up
being a full-time teacher, but […] now that she had Nicholas’s deep purse to plunder, she was able to help people on a broader scale. There were no more hungry children in Penreith, and the valley was becoming the prosperous, happy place she had dreamed of. (Putney 379-80)
Similarly, whereas Richardson’s Pamela as an Incomplete Prism, having received a charitable gift, exclaimed “O how amiable a Thing is doing good! — It is all I envy great Folks for!” (18), once she has been transformed by marriage into a Completed Prism she is able to reward her new servants, take Mr. B.’s illegitimate child into their home, and display “a diffusive Charity to all worthy Objects within the Compass of their Knowledge” (499).
The conclusion of Richardson’s novel also reveals that Pamela “made her beloved Spouse happy in a numerous and hopeful Progeny” (499), and in the epilogue to Thunder and Roses we learn that Clare “was almost sure that the next Gypsy Earl was on the way” (Putney 380). Dain and Jessica require no such epilogue for although they have only “been wed five weeks” by the end of Lord of Scoundrels, “It is easy enough to calculate. One fertile marchioness plus one virile marquess equals a brat” (Chase 373). Given the increase in recent decades of premarital sex in romances, it is now not uncommon for the virility of heroes and the fertility of heroines to be demonstrated long before either their wedding or the end of the novel. The heroine of His Lady’s Ransom, for example, falls pregnant after one night of “wild, prolonged and very thorough couplings” (Lovelace 273) with the hero; they marry a few months later, and in the final chapter their baby lies “in a basket on the table, gurgling” (353). Regardless of the method by which romance authors impart the information, it is common for them to provide evidence that the Completed Phallus and Prism, secure in their domestic bliss, have produced, or will produce, a suitable number of offspring.
The Alchemical Model of Relationships
In the model of romantic relationships outlined above, the processes of transformation are complex and involve the protagonists’ individual bodies, a GHH and MW, and an Incomplete Phallus and Incomplete Prism. Frantz suggests that a heroine who gives her breast milk to a supplicant hero is “appropriating patriarchal power for herself, but she is also then generous enough to return some to the hero, who continues to embody patriarchal power” (27). In such scenes, the individual bodies of the protagonists perform actions which can be read as symbolising the changes that are occurring to their socio-political bodies: the Incomplete Prism becomes a Completed Prism through her relationship with the Incomplete Phallus, and does so in a way which renders him Completed too. The GHH tends to be the catalyst for the transformation, because by ensuring that the MW desires union with this particular GHH, the hero’s Incomplete Phallus is brought into contact with the heroine’s Incomplete Prism. The Incomplete Prism then transmutes the glitter of sexual attraction into the gold of a socially sanctioned relationship between a Completed Prism and Completed Phallus. This, then, may be termed the alchemical model of relationships and it has been summarised by Mr. B., who admits to Pamela that “after having been long tost by the boisterous Winds of a more culpable Passion, I have now conquer’d it, and am not so much the Victim of your Love, all charming as you are, as of your Virtue” (Richardson 341); or, put more succinctly, “her Person made me her Lover; but her Mind made her my Wife” (474). Here “your Love” and “her Person” seem to refer to what we might term the heroine’s GHH, whereas her “Virtue” and her “Mind” are aspects of her Prism.
It is only because the heroine possesses both a particularly glittery GHH and an Incomplete Prism that she is able to have a transformative effect on both the MW and the Incomplete Phallus; as Janice A. Radway observed with regard to Alaina McGaren, the heroine of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, “It is […] the combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or of admitting dependence” (127). A GHH unaccompanied by an Incomplete Prism will be unable to effect the transformation of the Incomplete Phallus, as is demonstrated in Diana Palmer’s Silent Night Man in which, as the heroine is aware, the hero has frequently found other women sexually attractive and “the brassier they are, the better you like them” (50). These women, however, appear to have lacked Incomplete Prisms, for as the hero explains:
“Those glittery women are fine for a good time. You don’t plan a future around them.”
He was insinuating that they were fine for a one-night stand. (60)
The brassy glitter of these promiscuous women is very different from the special glitter of the heroine, who is “illuminated” (59) and displays a special “radiance” (59) when in the presence of the hero. Her GHH is so closely associated with her Incomplete Prism that, like Mr. B.’s Pamela, she “would never go to bed with a man she hadn’t married” (58), and both novels conclude with the hero and heroine safely united in matrimony. Cartland’s Syrilla also has a glitter which is quite clearly inextricable from her Prism: “she had a radiance in her face that was not of this world” (Love 87), and since for the hero she “brought back dreams […] of a woman who could be innocent and pure and inspire a man spiritually as well as physically” (152), she may serve as a reminder to the reader that where some heroines are concerned, marriage is definitely Holy Matrimony.
The initial fear that many heroes experience in response to their overwhelming desire for the heroine can therefore be understood not solely in sexual terms (as a fear of a monogamy caused by a desire so strong and so specific for the GHH that the MW can barely feel attraction towards any other woman), but also as a fear of the gentling which will occur as his Incomplete Phallus is focused by the Incomplete Prism. The way in which the heroine’s GHH binds the hero to her, enabling the Incomplete Prism and Incomplete Phallus to act on each other and become Completed, has been described by Cook as
a bargain: his love for her sex. […] He finds pleasure in the confession of love because love is something he has learned to deny and fear, often as the result of a terrible experience in earlier life. She finds pleasure in the confession of sex because she can give freely to the hero what he has brought about in her and not fear the ruin of her identity. The formula of the bargain creates a kind of symmetry, a pretence of equality. The father of desire meets the mother of love and they exchange gifts. Each makes the other complete in a fantasy of total union.
But the bargain is also, on the heroine’s part, about attaching desire to social convention, to propriety, to marriage. It is part of her traditional role that she should represent virtue. […] Her function is to […] reassure us that, in the end, desire and the law are compatible. (157)
There can be no better representative of the “traditional role” than Pamela, whose would-be seducer is so thoroughly reformed by his interactions with her Prism that he becomes “the best and fondest of Husbands; and, after her Example, became remarkable for Piety, Virtue, and all the Social Duties of a Man and a Christian” (Richardson 499).
Some Alternative Models
Although the alchemical model of relationships, in which a GHH regulates a MW, an Incomplete Prism focusses an Incomplete Phallus, and an Incomplete Phallus completes an Incomplete Prism, has been present in the genre for centuries, there are alternative models of how the six bodies of romance protagonists can interact, some of which also have a very long literary history. It would be impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of all of these models in the space available, and this section therefore provides only a very brief overview of just a few of the alternative models to be found within the genre.
One of these alternative models offers the reader a hero who, at the start of the novel, already embodies masculine perfection. His MW needs no regulation and almost all he requires in order to become a Completed Phallus is a wife. Marriage is necessary in order to comply with the demands of heteronormativity: as Fulk tells the young Simon, “a man must take a wife unto himself” (Heyer, Simon 115), or, as Austen somewhat satirically observes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride 51). Among these near-perfect heroes are Frances Burney’s Lord Orville, who is depicted “as a fully formed paragon of male manners from his first appearance” (Hamilton 429), and Austen’s Mr. Knightley. A more recent example may be found in Heyer’s The Nonesuch. Sir Waldo Hawkridge, the novel’s hero, is known by this nickname which
means perfection! […]
‘A paragon, certainly.’ […]
‘[…] they say the Nonesuch is a clipping rider to hounds too. […]’ […]
‘Sir Waldo is first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance, besides being very handsome, and hugely wealthy!’ (20)
Sir Waldo, who “commanded as much liking as admiration” (169), is also a philanthropist and a responsible and caring role model to his younger cousin. This kind of hero is “the more conventional, sensitive, mature and competent husband-lover” who “has great strength and stability and seems particularly solid and trustworthy” (Mussell 119-20). He can be found in the novels of Betty Neels, which jay Dixon recalls reading “to fill my need for a knowledgeable and calm father-figure” (35). As Mussell observes, such heroes
appeal […] because of their implicit stability, their self-knowledge, and the status they can confer through marriage. If this figure seems more mature and sensitive than other men, and more attractive and intelligent, he offers an assurance of sexual fidelity because he knows his own mind in choosing the heroine. […] His strength and power derive from self-assurance, self-control, and uncompromising moral principles. (124)
Since his MW is already perfectly regulated, and he already manifests the full range of qualities required to be a Completed Phallus, the heroine’s GHH and Prism function solely to attract him and assure him of her suitability, but there is no need for them to effect a major transformation of his personality. She, however, may be taught by him, as is the case in Austen’s Emma, or enjoy the benefits which, as described above, generally accrue to a Completed Prism. In The Nonesuch, for example, Ancilla Trent is saved from life as a governess and restored to the social circle from which her father’s death had distanced her. In addition, Sir Waldo’s philanthropy will give her ample opportunity to manifest the charitable, caring aspects of the Completed Prism, particularly as his “mother […] will welcome you with open arms, and will very likely egg you on to bully me into starting an asylum for female orphans” (275).
Many modern “inspirational” romances feature an explicitly Christian version of this near-perfect type of hero. His possession of a MW may be implied via descriptions of his individual body: “The heroes’ physical stature and good looks reinforce their virility and attractiveness to heroines” (Neal 149). In Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, for example, Samuel Hart is “broad-shouldered” (13) and although “It was inappropriate that she should notice his well-defined cheekbones or his recently shaved, firm, square chin, […] she had. Even his deep, rich voice arrested her attention” (15). The use of the word “inappropriate” suggests that Josie, the heroine, is not merely cataloguing the features of Samuel’s individual body: despite his status as “a widower, a father and a preacher” (109) he has “a fluid agility and masculine grace” (109) — in other words a MW — which “she couldn’t help but appreciate” (109). That the ideal Christian romance hero’s MW is pre-regulated and incapable of succumbing to uncontrollable lust is made very clear in the guidelines provided by some publishers. In Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired romances, for example, “Any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality” (eHarlequin). Similarly, the guidelines for Barbour Publishing’s Heartsong Presents stipulate that:
Physical tension between characters should not be overdone. Do not be overly descriptive when describing how characters feel in a particular romantic moment, for example, kissing, embracing, and so on. It has been our belief from day one that we can tell a great love story without going into excessive physical detail. People can easily imagine the desires and tensions between a couple who are blossoming into love. Kisses are fine (no tongues or heights of arousal, please).
One consequence of the sexual restraint demonstrated by this near-perfect Christian romance hero is that he poses a challenge to some aspects of the “male sexual drive discourse” so often present in the mainstream romance genre’s depiction of heroes’ socio-sexual bodies. In addition to having a well-regulated MW he
retains all the rugged individualism, toughness, and power of secular heroes but combines this traditional masculinity with gentleness, patience, and attention to female needs, from snuggling to child-rearing. (Barrett-Fox 97)
He, like the near-perfect secular hero, is thus in possession of a Phallus which can become fully Completed without the need for major personality changes. However, despite the strong similarities between the near-perfect Christian hero and his secular counterpart, there is one very significant difference between the processes by which their Phalluses, and the Prisms of their heroines, become Completed: “The transformation that seems ‘magical’ in secular romances is explained by divinely sparked spiritual growth in their evangelical counterparts” (Neal 5). Returning again to Samuel Hart, we find that he has an almost perfect Phallus, “He represented everything that was good and perfect about fathers and husbands” (St. John 157), but he does occasionally make mistakes and “Whenever he overlooked the obvious, whenever he let pride get in the way of what was best, God graciously pointed his foolishness out to him” (209).
The “beta” hero presents a challenge to the gender roles underlying all of the previous models because his Phallus is never Completed: he is never transformed into an authoritative, patriarchal figure. He is “More playful and relaxed,” “More of the ‘boy (or man) next door’ type,” “Considerate of his heroine’s feelings and opinions” and “The sort of man that a reader can actually imagine meeting, falling in love with, marrying — and being able to live with!” (Walker 100). Jayne Ann Krentz scornfully describes him as a “neurotic wimp” and “a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking ‘modern’ man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start” (109). It is indeed true that “you don’t get much of a challenge for a heroine” (109) from such a hero, if that challenge is understood in terms of demonstrating the power of her Prism and GHH. He brings into question the role of the heroine in the alchemical model because he tends not to need her to tame, gentle, domesticate or regulate his bodies.
Although Krentz attributes the beta hero’s appearance in romance to “a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing” (107), he is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is
too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (49)
Like the more recent “beta” heroes, he has been found wanting by some readers:
There is a strong tendency among critics to disparage Edward Ferrars as romantic hero. […] I suspect that Edward’s gender dissonance has stymied even professional readers. […] Edward […] lacks aggression altogether: for the most part he is retiring, he is passive, and he is as backward a lover as ladies are enjoined to be. […] As to society, Edward lacks ambition and the desire to be somebody in the world […]. Against the grain of the affluent gentry’s model for men, but consonantly with the female model, he aspires to nothing higher than a happy domestic life. (Perkins 5-6)
This “beta” hero is favourably contrasted with an “uncommonly handsome” (75) rake, as is also the case in Heyer’s Cotillion, in which she “was teasing her fans […] by making ineffective Freddy the hero rather than handsome Jack Westruther” (Aiken Hodge 91). Jack is “a tall man” (Heyer, Cotillion 110) with “powerful thighs” (110), whereas Freddy is “a slender young gentleman, of average height and graceful carriage” (36), and this smaller, less physically powerful individual body is matched by a less attractive socio-sexual body and a very socially acceptable but non-dominant socio-political body:
He was neither witty nor handsome; his disposition was retiring; and although he might be seen at any social gathering, he never (except by the excellence of his tailoring) drew attention to himself […] he was too inarticulate to pay charming compliments, and had never been known to indulge in the mildest flirtation. But a numerous circle of male acquaintances held him in considerable affection, and with the ladies he was a prime favourite. The most sought-after beauty was pleased to stand up with so graceful a dancer; any lady desirous of redecorating her drawing-room was anxious for his advice. (108-09)
Many “beta” heroes are neither shy nor sexually inexperienced, but as a type the “beta” hero, because of his lack of a Completed Phallus and the fact that he often possesses character traits more often associated with femininity, challenges the way in which particular groups of traits (such as those which are characteristic of the Prism) tend to be assigned only to individuals of one biological sex.
Although the Phallus is firmly associated with masculinity and the Prism with femininity, psychologists have long acknowledged that no individual is exclusively imbued with qualities ascribed to only one gender:
In every human being, Freud […] remarks, “pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture.” […] It is now generally accepted […] that masculine and feminine principles are not inherent polarities […]. Still, […] there exists a recurrent cultural tendency to distinguish and to polarize gender roles. (Gilmore 214)
Sexual, social, and political power are expressed in highly gendered ways when the MW and Phallus are strongly associated with heroes and their male individual bodies, while the GHH and Prism are strongly associated with heroines and their female individual bodies.
Elizabeth Bevarly’s Dr Mummy challenges such gender roles, but unlike romances featuring “beta” heroes, it does so by reversing the biological sex of the characters who, by the end of the novel, possess the Prism and Phallus. Perhaps in order to neutralise the threat to the hero’s masculinity which might result from this departure from the usual configuration of the six bodies, the transformation is not revealed until the epilogue, long after the hero’s “appealingly rugged, startlingly handsome […]. And big. Really, really big” (24) individual body has been established as being in conformity with the masculine ideal. The relationship between Nick and Claire’s socio-sexual bodies also conforms to romance conventions: “Nick’s hot, unyielding body before her, and the sense of his overwhelming possession thrilled her in a way that nothing else could” (117). The transformations undergone by their socio-political bodies, however, are anything but conventional. Nick begins the novel as an Incomplete Phallus: law enforcement is a typically Phallic profession and he works as a “narcotics detective” (15). Years before the start of the novel he had wanted to marry Claire and become a Completed Phallus:
He’d wanted them to have a half-dozen kids, just as his folks had done. He’d […] wanted Claire to stay at home with the kids, had wanted to work himself to death to take care of the family financially. […] And Claire just couldn’t see that happening. She hadn’t wanted to give birth to and care for six children — or even one child. She hadn’t wanted to be a homemaker — she’d wanted to be a doctor. (48)
Nick’s dream of having a large family with Claire is achievable, but only by abandoning traditional gender roles. By the end of the novel he has been transformed into a Completed Prism, a homemaking, stay-at-home parent who is “in charge of the bake sale this year” (184) and certain that “the job I have now is so much more important than the one I had before” (185). Claire, initially an Incomplete Phallus who had resisted parenthood, dedicated herself to her highly paid professional job, and who “had always had difficulty revealing any honest emotion” (56), becomes a Completed Phallus as the family’s only wage-earner.
Romances featuring protagonists of the same sex may also offer new dynamics between, and depictions of, their six bodies. Phyllis M. Betz states that in a lesbian romance “The very fact that two women have determined to pursue a passionate relationship contravenes traditional social norms and expectations” (105), and as Paulina Palmer has observed, “By placing characters who identify as lesbian in a heterosexist frame and highlighting the tensions this generates, they alert the reader to the ideological limitations of the romance genre and the social codes which it inscribes” (203). Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park, for example, opens as Lady Joanna Sinclair is walking and daydreaming about romances, and so it is while “half expecting to find Ivanhoe” (2) that she first encounters Lady Diana March and “instead of a knight in shining armor there was a fair damsel […]. She was […] dressed in brown turkish trousers” (2). Lady Diana’s individual body is female, but her socio-political body has traditionally masculine attributes, as indicated by her attire and the comparison with Ivanhoe. Her “excellent birth […], her friends at the highest level of English society, and her vast fortune” (164-65), as well as the role she plays in rescuing Joanna from familial oppression, mark her as the possessor of an Incomplete Phallus. As the more sexually experienced of the two, her socio-sexual body can be thought of as a MW. For her part Joanna, who despite having been married has “never been in the throes of a Grand Passion” (111), has a GHH and as the mother of a young daughter and a woman in need of protection, she is clearly an Incomplete Prism whose love will heal Diana’s emotional wounds. In many respects, then, Pembroke Park tells the traditional story of how a GHH and Incomplete Prism work together to gentle and complete a MW and Incomplete Phallus, but because that MW and Incomplete Phallus belong to a person with a biologically female individual body, Diana “flagrantly sidestep[s] every rule of social decorum!” (4).
Romance novels, because they deal so explicitly with sexuality and men’s and women’s roles within sexual relationships, are cultural agents (primarily for women) for the transmission of gender ideologies. Gender ideologies, in turn, “construct men’s and women’s sexualities” (Blackwood 240). Although we have stressed the degree of continuity that exists in the depiction of the alchemical model of heterosexual romantic relationships, the genre has responded to changes in social attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. In addition, despite the fact that all romances feature protagonists with three bodies (individual, social, political) there are some romances which offer alternatives to the pairing of a female protagonist’s individual body, GHH, and Prism with a male protagonist’s individual body, MW, and Phallus. Such romances provide alternative “guiding or admonitory images” (Gilmore 208) regarding ideal masculinity or femininity. Due to the diversity that exists within the genre, the many bodies of romance heroes and heroines may be sites of reinforcement of, or of resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies.
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 For a more detailed analysis of the genre’s history, see Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel.
 Simplicity in men’s apparel was not unknown in the medieval period but, “In the Middle Ages, the norms regarding clothes were based on the nearly timeless precept that differentiations in social structure should be recognized by means of dress, hair and beard. However, at the same time – thanks to Christianity – clothes were endowed with a number of moral-symbolic interpretations […] controversy was caused on the one hand by the fashions prevalent at royal and aristocratic courts, and on the other by the symbolic attire of the ascetic religious movements, which opposed in equal measure the opulence of the Church and of the laity” (Klaniczay 52). It is only in much more recent centuries that simple fashions for men have been widely adopted by the aristocracy: “Clothing historians have labeled the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the era of ‘the great masculine renunciation,’ a period of increasing modesty and simplicity in middle- and upper-class men’s dress” (Kuchta 54).
 Unusually, this description is given from the point of view of a gay male, Theodric, who also observes the hero’s “tight, exquisitely curved arse” (47).
 Regis acknowledges that “In romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century marriage is not necessary as long as it is clear that heroine and hero will end up together” (37-38).
 Rape may also function, as Kate Saunders has observed in her introduction to The Sheik, as a way to ensure the heroine “is morally off the hook, in an era when female sexual desire on its own was shameful and improper” (vi).
 Another indication of his near omniscience is that “No matter how softly one might creep up to him, he always knew of the approach, and needed not to see who it was who drew near” (111).
 With regard to the “pretence of equality,” Cohn suggests that “the belief that a fair bargain has been struck between two parties when one offers rank and wealth and the other, moral improvement is the kind of pious wish-fulfillment called on to mask social relations that are far less benign” (140).
 Another significant difference between Christian romances and many secular romances is that characters in Christian romances have a fourth, spiritual, body. The existence of a spiritual body is explicitly mentioned in Cheryl St. John’s The Preacher’s Wife, in which the reader is informed that a minor character’s “physical body lay beneath the lush grass in the fenced-in cemetery behind the tiny white church. His spirit had gone on to be with the Lord” (7).