Posts tagged with gender

Earlier research on Fifty Shades of Grey had

coded the behaviors in the book according to the CDC’s guidelines for interpersonal violence (IPV). They found pervasive patterns of violence and abuse within the work. This included ‘‘intimidation, stalking, humiliation, forced sex, use of alcohol to lower resistance and isolation’’.

The presence of these behaviours, combined with the massive popularity of the series,

created both confusion and worry in a generation of feminist scholars. We have asked ourselves why this book has succeeded. Is this really what women want? (van Reenen 2014 ) We have worried that the popularity of this story is evidence that the older generation of feminists has failed to inspire feminist attitudes in our daughters, younger sisters and perhaps within ourselves. [...] We have worried whether the characterization in the books reinforces heteronormative patterns of sexuality that may create harm for young readers.

However, as Case and Coventry observe in their recently published paper,

What we have not accomplished to date is to ask men and women what they think about the behaviors of the characters in the book. We make the argument that this series romanticizes abuse and that it should be investigated from this perspective. However, does this necessarily mean that American men and women, especially those that identify as feminists, are longing to engage in abusive behaviors as either the abused or the abusive.

They therefore set out to discover whether Fifty Shades describes behaviours women want in their own relationships and

the answer is ‘No and neither do men’. While the behaviors associated with Christian Grey may have been popular reading for women in the US, this fiction does not translate into acceptability of these behaviors in their real life. These behaviors are also not supported by men.

Furthermore, "both men and women appear to expect to give up relatively equal levels of control to the control that they exert."

One caveat I thought I'd better add is that the people involved in the research were not asked about whether or not they'd read Fifty Shades. However, the popularity of the series and its notoriety were such that I think (a) it might be possible to assume some of the people surveyed had read/heard about the series and (b) nonetheless this research suggests that "the behaviors associated with Christian Grey" have not become widely acceptable in real life.

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Case, Patricia and Barbara Thomas Coventry. "Fifty Shades of Feminism: An Analysis of Feminist Attitudes and 'Grey Behaviors'." Sexuality & Culture, 2017.  [Abstract here.]

In Alex Beecroft's Blue Eyed Stranger (2015) one of the heroes, Martin, is a history teacher and historical reenactor whose "mother’s a Yorkshirewoman, my father’s from the Sudan" (61). Historical accuracy matters to him and so he has thought out a matching back-story for the character he enacts: "my character is from the kingdom of Meroe in Nubia, one of whose principle [sic] exports was carnelian" (32);

A fair amount of both Saxons and Vikings travelled to Rome on pilgrimage even in the time we’re reenacting, and a fair amount of Nubians travelled from the Sudan to Rome to trade in gold, ivory, and gems. No reason why a Viking couldn’t have married a merchant’s daughter while he was out there and brought her home. (61)

Archaelogical evidence certainly suggests this is a possible scenario given that

at least some people from Africa or of African descent were living and dying in rural and urban communities in the British Isles during the 'Viking Age' (eighth to eleventh centuries). (Green)

All the same, Martin, knows "he wasn’t what the public wanted to see when they looked for Vikings" (34); in many ways, the public want what they imagine the Vikings to be rather than the more complex realities of which historians are aware.

According to María José Gómez Calderón,

In the last two decades there has been a significant increase of novels of the so-called «hot historical» variety focusing on the Viking as object of feminine erotic desire. The most famous authors of these new Viking narratives, Johanna Lindsey, Catherine Coulter, and Sandra Hill have even become «New York Times Best-Sellers.» (292)

and their outlines are well-known enough to be parodied:

In Jackie Rose’s I’m a Viking and I Protest (2004), a contemporary American man of Norse origin, Karl Gustavsen, founds an antidefamation league and sues romance writer Rose Jacobson for presenting Vikings as sexy rapists in her works [...]. To begin with, Karl denounces Rose’s unfair presentation of the Viking in her best-seller Ravished by Ragnar (significantly published by Orgazm Books). (Gómez Calderón 296)

He does have a valid point when protesting against the depiction of Vikings as "sexy rapists" because, as Erika Ruth Sigurdson points out,

While eighth-century writers were quick to denounce the various crimes of Viking invaders, very few of those largely monastic writers commented on rape in the invasions—to the point that even modern scholarship has considered it possible that rape was simply not a part of Viking invasions. (253)

Despite this, the

theme of Viking rape—[which treats] rape as historicizing detail and rape as evidence of Viking masculinity-—appear[s] from the earliest incarnations of romanticized Viking narratives in the early nineteenth century and onward. (Sigurdson 252-3)

In other words, rape appears as a "historicizing detail" in "nineteenth-century Viking stories" because it "formed an integral part of scene setting and the creation of historical authenticity, of creating a world that felt authentically Viking-Age" (261).  Similarly, in a collection of twelve Harlequin Mills & Boon romances reprinted in 2007 and set later in the Middle Ages,

The invented space of the Medieval Collection is one of acute sexual danger for women. [...] The threat of rape or sexual assault is an ever-present fear for medieval heroines [...]. Much of the sexual harassment in these novels originates from the hero, and although some are more explicit, most first sexual encounters are characterized by violence and male dominance. (Burge 104)

Rape in fictions set in the Middle Ages presumably felt and continues to feel authentic, even if it wasn't, because,

As Kathryn Gravdal, a leader in the field of medieval rape, explains, modern culture has developed powerful myths on the subject of rape and sexuality in the Middle Ages:

The first is the notion that women enjoyed unparalleled sexual power and freedom in the days of courtly love. The second is the converse belief that rape was commonplace in the Middle Ages because society was so barbaric that men “did not know any better.” (Gravdal 1991,152)

It is this second myth, the notion of barbaric men and rape as a commonplace[,] that is particularly prevalent in popular depictions of the Vikings. (Sigurdson 254)

Nonetheless, a propensity to rape women was presumably not considered an intrinsic, or at least a desirable, aspect of masculinity in the nineteenth century, because in most of the Viking texts produced in this period

the hero’s masculinity was defined [...] by his sexual restraint, and his ability to love a worthy woman and look for her love in return. At the same time, we have also seen a few places where violent sexuality plays a role in Viking masculine identity, particularly in the case of minor characters, or in the blurring of lines between abduction and voluntary marriage. But there are a few examples from this early period where Viking rape is treated as an unambiguously integral part of Viking masculinity. (Sigurdson 262)

As ideas about masculinity changed, however, so did the sexuality of Viking heroes and in recent decades

Vikings, with their giant battle-axes and muscular good looks, perfectly symbolize “the aggressive-passive, dominant-submissive, me-Tarzan-you-Jane nature of the relationship between the sexes in our [rape] culture” (Herman 1994, 45). With its close correlation to the broader “sex and violence,” the phrase “rape and pillage” has come to encapsulate this paradox and perfectly describe a violent, dominant form of male sexuality. (Sigurdson 250)

What I think all this demonstrates is, firstly, that historical fiction can be shaped by inaccurate ideas about the past and, secondly, that it will also tend to be shaped by contemporary ideas about gender roles and sexuality.

This pillaging of the past often enhances the enjoyment of modern readers. For example:

sexuality in the Medieval Collection is drawn from modern anxieties concerning sexual violence, but this violence is safely confined to the Middle Ages, obscuring the extent to which submission and dominance can be rooted in modernity. Furthermore, defining the medieval as a period characterized by sexual violence works oppositionally to suggest that modern sexuality is not violent. (Burge 109)

If imagined differences between past and present can bring pleasure, so too can imagined similarities. Eloisa James, for example, has argued that

we historical authors need to think more deeply about what men were like back in the era we’re writing about—and if you ask me, likely not much has changed. They were scratching themselves and boasting and carrying on generally 200 years ago.

Those might not seem at first glance like traits which would give readers enjoyment but, on reflection, I think perhaps they do for some readers because they allow the heroines (and through them some modern female readers) to feel a smug sense of superiority. To quote a secondary character in a non-Viking romance:

"Women get off on that, you know."
"What?"
"Men making jerks out of themselves, [...] I think it reinforces their sense of superiority. I mean, deep down they're ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent positive we're idiots. Still, they like to have it confirmed every once in a while." (Buck 34)

Or, to put it yet another way, there is an appeal

to what in the novels is presented as the eternal feminine that joins both females [i.e. the heroine and the female reader], [...] by assuming that women of all ages have to face the same kind of problems with men, that is, the eternal masculine. (Gómez Calderón 294)

Inaccurate depictions of the past may be enjoyable (although presumably not to those, like Martin, who crave accuracy) but they may, cumulatively, have serious consequences. For example, if one can create the impression of an "eternal feminine" one can ignore the ways in which gender roles have changed and are, therefore, socially constructed. Perhaps even more seriously,

Racist and white supremacist ideas about the past have lingered in our culture. They are not limited to dyed-in-the-wool racists or card-carrying members of the Klan. They can seem natural and normal. That makes them a fundamental part of institutionalized racism as it exists today, since the past forms and informs the foundations of the present. [...] We see the past the way it has been presented to us in school, in history books, and in popular culture. (Sturtevant)

As Martin says, being immersed in accurate history can feel

Funny and bizarre, unsettling and uncomfortable, sometimes even repellent. But you always returned from it with a refreshed perspective, so that just for a little while, before habit kicked back in, you could see your own world with a stranger’s eyes, and all the things that were normally invisible showed up like cancer cells tagged with radiant dye. (121)

It's not everyone's idea of enjoyment, and so perhaps not easy to incorporate into a mass-market genre. In addition, in popular romance fiction the readers do need to feel an emotional connection to the protagonists; that could be inhibited if readers feel too unsettled or repelled by the characters' beliefs and attitudes (though less so if those emotions are elicited by the characters' context). So there are certainly challenges involved in writing historically-accurate historical romance but there also romance authors who are willing to accept those challenges and make their depictions of history that bit more challenging to long-accepted norms.

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Beecroft, Alex. Blue Eyed Stranger. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide, 2015.

Buck, Carole. Knight and Day. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1992.

Burge, Amy. “Do Knights Still Rescue Damsels in Distress?: Reimagining the Medieval in Mills & Boon Historical Romance.” The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction. Ed. Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 95-114.

Gómez Calderón, María José. “Romancing the Dark Ages: The Viking Hero in Sentimental Narrative.” Boletín Millares Carlo 26 (2007): 287-97. [Available in full, for free, online.]

Green, Caitlin. "A great host of captives? A note on Vikings in Morocco and Africans in early medieval Ireland & Britain." 12 September 2015.

James, Eloisa. "Making Rakes from Real Men." The Popular Romance Project. 9 April 2013. [link to the Internet Archive]

Sigurdson, Erika Ruth. "Violence and Historical Authenticity: Rape (and Pillage) in Popular Viking Fiction." Scandinavian Studies 86.3 (2014): 249-67.

Sturtevant, Paul E. "Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the 'Whites Only' Medieval World." The Public Medievalist. 7 February 2017.

 

monsters and aliens offer important insight into how different animals become enlisted in the work of legitimizing particular human genders, sexualities, and races through animal imagination. In other words, monsters and aliens are imaginary beings, but their textual bodies are composed of specific animalsbears, lizards, birds, crabs, squid, etc.that are deployed for the purposes of different fantasies of gender, sexuality, race, and species. In particular, vertebrate- and especially mammal-based monsters make it easier to confirm heterosexual, racialized fantasies about bestial dominant masculinities and fragile white femininities, whereas invertebrate-based creatures open up a whole different realm of embodied animal relations, fantasies, and desires. (Van Engen)

The article from which this quote is taken is about erotica, but I think some of its insights could also be applied to some kinds of romance.

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Dagmar Van Engen. "How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in EBook Erotica." Humanimalia 9.1 (2017).

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The picture comes from the Illustrated Police News of 17 October 1896. It depicts the "alarming experience of fair bathers who are attacked by an octopus." I found it at Wikimedia Commons but more details can be found here.

In Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women a number of romance authors attempted to explain the appeal of the popular romance novel. One of them, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, wrote that she "loved" the "historical romances [...] sometimes labeled 'bodice rippers,' not without a certain justification since many of them contained narrow-eyed heroes who [...] committed some rather violent sex acts on the heroines" (53) and, she added,

I can only shake my head in bewilderment when I hear the romance novel criticized for depicting women as being submissive to domineering men. Are the critics reading the same books I am? What is the ultimate fate of the most arrogant, domineering, ruthless macho hero any romance writer can create? He is tamed.

By the end of the book, the heroine has brought him under her control in a way women can seldom control men in the real world. [...] He is the mightiest of the mighty, the strongest of the strong. But, because he has been tamed by our heroine, because she exerts such a powerful emotional stranglehold over him, his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command. (57-58)

Phillips is quite explicit here in acknowledging that these relationships should not be models for relating to men "in the real world": "This fictional 'tough guy' hero is the sort of man I would never permit in my real life" (56). He is, then, a fantasy, and as Ashwin, the eponymous hero of Kit Rocha's Ashwin observes, "a fantasy was different than a plan. A fantasy meant disregarding inconvenient realities and embracing improbabilities."

AshwinAshwin himself is an updated, twenty-first-century version of the heroes who so thrilled Susan Elizabeth Phillips. He is a super-soldier, supposedly genetically engineered to be emotionless, but since popular romance has moved on from the days of the bodice-ripper he does not behave sexually like the heroes of those novels. However, he recalls that in a previous relationship the woman had wanted him to cater

to her fantasies. Sinking his hands into her hair to play the conquering beast had been a simple enough role, even for him. But he’d always puzzled over the apparent contradiction—why a woman with so little power would dream of having him take away even those scraps.

Now he understood. [...]  The fantasy was about this overwhelming madness inside him. About being desired by the monster so completely that you owned him. So he’d fight for you, kill for you. Protect you.

The novel, Ashwin, is also a fantasy, of a similar type: Ashwin's obsession with the heroine, Kora, does not lead him to abuse her sexually, but nonetheless, by the end of the novel, as in the explicitly sexual fantasy he described earlier, though this time only wrapped in one layer of fantasy (that of the novel) rather than being a (sexual) fantasy within a (novelistic) fantasy, "Ashwin would always be a bit of a monster. But he was her monster, utterly loyal, completely devoted."

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

Rocha, Kit. Ashwin. Self-published. 2017.

gender, sexuality

Someone mentioned an alien romance on Twitter, and I was curious. The title included a pun, the review mentioned a beta hero, and so I decided that this sounded like a fun book to try. Several hours later, having read both The E.T. Guy and its sequel, The New Guy, it was obvious that they're not just about how clueless scaly guys from outer space, with alien mating practices and sexual organs, adapt to human culture while working in IT and the Enquiries department of a branch of government.  As is so often the case with popular culture, the escapism is inextricably linked to the political, and the author, V.C. Lancaster, has written a post which saved me the trouble of speculating about whether or not this was intentional:

The E.T. Guy was semi-politically motivated given the situation in Syria when I wrote it. Since then, Trump has been elected, and he actually did try to effectively close America’s borders, and the situation in Syria and around the world has not particularly gotten better. In Syria, it’s hard to quantify ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, so I won’t say it’s got worse. I can’t pretend that I am anything but pro-immigration, nor do I want to, but I hope that I would write these books anyway because I like the story.

I had a moment a few months ago when I thought “How can I continue? How can I write about refugees when the real world is like this?” and my answer was, go bigger. Say it. Say what you see. Make it political. Try to do good. Try to change minds, convince hearts. I know it’s just a mid-range Kindle romance about aliens, selling for a few quid, but if I can make just a couple of people more compassionate, then it’s worth it. And will I mind if Trump’s army boycott the book? Not really. I’ll miss the money, but I’m not going to collaborate with them. Good riddance.

But at its heart, [the second book, The New Guy] it’s still the same story I thought of last year, before any of this happened. It’s still going to be about Ro and Maggie. This book is going to be full of stuff I would consider a hard sell for a Kindle romance about aliens anyway. The only thing I don’t mind revealing now is that I want to give Ro hot pink highlights on his scales and eyes. He’s not going to be much of a rough-tough alpha, though he is going to have his moments. This book is going to touch on issues of masculinity as well as politics. Maybe I’m overreaching, but it’s my book and I’m going to write it the way I want, so there.

I don't usually mind including spoilers in my posts, since I write analysis rather than reviews, but in this case, since the book was published so recently, I don't want to say anything about how the second book "touch[es] on issues of masculinity." Also, this is an ongoing series, so I'm not sure how the issues around immigration will play out. One anti-immigrant-alien politician has already made an appearance.

I don't think elaan, a commenter at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, is alone in "wondering how recent politics wld/if show up in subsequent romance novels": if you're interested in how contemporary politics are influencing the romances authors create, this series joins the Rogue Desire anthology in answering that question. Anyone come across any other romances which are clearly exploring the issues raised by contemporary politics?

Analysis of reviews of books by women confirms that women authors, and genres associated with women, continue to receive less prestigious coverage in the media. Lori St-Martin

analyzed the book/arts sections of six newspapers of record in three languages and five countries: Le monde des livres (Paris, France), The New York Times Book Review (New York, USA), Le Devoir (Montréal, Canada), The Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), Babelia, in El País (Madrid, Spain, and Ñ, in Clarín (Buenos Aires, Argentina). The data covers a 12-week period, from the week of August 20, 2015 to the week of November 8, 2015. (35)

Some of these publications came close to giving equal coverage to women authors:

The English-language papers were the closest to parity, with 41.2% of books by women for The New York Times and 43% for The Globe & Mail. The Spanish-language papers had by far the lowest figures: 21% for Clarín and 24% for El País, with Le Monde (28.6%) and Le Devoir (34%) falling in between. (36)

However, the picture worsens when one considers the nature of these reviews:

Every newspaper has its own way of granting cultural prestige. Certain writers are marked as more important, usually by giving them prime space or extra space [...] perhaps the most important measure of all is the length of articles; giving an author a long article or more than one article sends a powerful message about his importance. I use the word "his" advisedly, since 9 out of 10 authors featured in this way (87.5%) were men. (38)

The language used to describe books is also very significant in terms of granting or withholding prestige. For example, St-Martin

looked at all the brief headers that introduced the in-depth articles in [French literary magazine] Lire. [...] The only positive words used to describe women's books in headers in the entire issue were the following: "fast-paced", "enjoyable", "whimsically multiplies characters and situations". Books by men, however, were deemed "masterly", "magnificent", "fascinating" [...], "powerful", "superb", "brilliant", and even "necessary, indispensable, revolutionary". This is a partial list. Just by leafing through this magazine, one gets the message, subliminally, that books by women do not deserve high praise, that books that are epic in scope ("an American odyssey", "a masterly ode to life") and touched by greatness are invariably by men. There is no need to proclaim that women's books are none of these things; the entire magazine screams it. It is no coincidence that these attributes - power, mastery, greatness, size and scope - are stereotypically considered to be male, and even phallic. (40)

The unstated criteria by which brilliance, significance and value are assessed all favour particular kinds of authors and works:

what is neglected? Books by or about women and "minorities", including sexual and gender minorities; feminist, lesbian or "radical" books of any kind; "commercial fiction" defined in such a way as to exclude certain categories identified with women (romance novels) while including others deemed more "universal" (crime fiction, thrillers). The big, the major, the important, are concepts still associated with males. (42)

This is, in other words, the literary equivalent of what we see elsewhere in the labour market: even if women are present in larger numbers, the types of work associated with women continue to be considered (often literally) worth less, while types of work linked to traits associated with masculinity are given higher value. The Fawcett Society recently reported that

80% of those working in the low paid care and leisure sector are women, while only 10% of those in the better paid skilled trades are women. [...] Men make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles – for example, there are just seven female Chief Executives in the FTSE 100.

As

sociologists such as Judy Wajcman (1998) have highlighted [...] the increased entry of women into the labour market has not been associated with feminising or 'softening' the workings of capitalism, even when women workers make it to high-level management positions. For Stephen Whitehead (2002), even though women have been moving more into paid work, the capitalist system retains values that are associated with dominant discourses of masculinity. Masculine values still pervade organisational cultures, locating femininity - and those who are feminine - as 'other' and marginal to much paid work. (Strangleman and Warren 137)

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Fawcett Society. "Close the Gender Pay Gap." Accessed on 7 September 2017. <https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/close-gender-pay-gap>.

Saint-Martin, Lori. "Counting Women to Make Women Count: From Manspreading to Cultural Parity." Du genre dans la critique d'art/Gender in art criticism. Ed. Marie Buscatto, Mary Leontsini & Delphine Naudier. Paris: E'ditions des archives contemporaines, 2017: 33-46.

Strangleman, Tim and Tracey Warren. Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008.

This Wednesday (21 June) I'll be giving a video presentation to a conference in the Canary Islands. My paper takes Meljean Brook's Riveted as a starting point for taking a look at changing attitudes towards "otherness" in popular romance fiction. I've written a little bit about the novel elsewhere on this blog but here's an abstract of what I'll be saying on Wednesday:

Changing Attitudes to Others: Meljean Brook’s Riveted (2012) and its Context

Meljean Brook's Riveted (2012) is dedicated to Monica Jackson, a romance author who drew attention to the marginalisation of African American romance authors and their novels; her successors in this task include K. M. Jackson and Rebekah Weatherspoon. Riveted can be read both as evidence of changing attitudes towards "others" in the early twenty-first-century romance reading and writing community, and as an attempt to encourage readers to think more deeply and sympathetically about those who are marginalised and othered in a variety of ways, including on the basis of their sexuality, disability and ethnicity. Riveted also seems to challenge the gender-based othering which is extremely common in the genre.

Keywords: circunstancia, disability, gender, José Ortega y Gasset, K. M. Jackson, LGBTQ, Meljean Brook, Monica Jackson, othering, race, Rebekah Weatherspoon, romance, Stella Young

While I do discuss some of the ways in which Brook challenges common forms of "othering" which persist in the genre, I've tried to use her book as a springboard to bring together the voices of some of those who've been discussing various forms of "othering" and exclusion. My hope is that my paper will help preserve a flavour of those discussions and help other academics find them if they hadn't been members of the community at the time the discussions took place.

The plan is for the conference proceedings to be published at some point.

Other papers at the conference include:

María del Mar Pérez Gil (ULPGC): “‘Every inch a Spaniard’: Images of Spain in popular romance novels”

Inmaculada Pérez-Casal (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela): “Lisa Kleypas and the ‘outcast’ hero: A diachronic study”

María Jesús Vera Cazorla (ULPGC): “‘And they drive on the wrong side of the road’. An analysis of the Anglo-centric vision of the Canary Islands in three romance novels”

Aline Bazenga (Universidade da Madeira): “Language awareness in four popular romances set in Madeira Island”

María Isabel González Cruz (ULPGC): “English/Spanish codeswitching and borrowing in a sample of romances set in the Canaries”

María del Pilar González de la Rosa (ULPGC): “‘In a flash of perverse temper’: Acknowledging gender and the representation of women in a sample of romance novels set in the Canaries”

Johanna Hoorenman (Utrecht University): “Private treaties: Historical and contemporary Lakota Sioux romances by Kathleen Eagle”

María Henríquez Betancor (ULPGC): “Imagery of lovers in book covers: A gender approach to romantic novels”

Jayashree Kamble (LaGuardia Community College CUNY): “From Xinjiang to the British Isles: Examining escapism and the ‘othering’ of romance heroines in Sherry Thomas’s My Beautiful Enemy

María Ramos-García (South Dakota State University): “Representations of the Other in paranormal romance and urban fantasy”

Sometimes, an author/critic can be quoted out of context so that it appears they're saying something they didn't mean. For example, if I summarised an argument I disagreed with and someone then quoted my summary and attributed it to me but didn't say that I was summarising arguments I disagreed with, they'd not be misquoting me, but they would be giving a misleading impression of my opinions.

Another possiblility is for someone to paraphrase an argument or statement in a way which significantly alters its meaning. Here's an example I've just come across from an article by Victoria Kennedy about Philippa Gregory's work of historical fiction, The Other Boleyn Girl, in which romance fiction in briefly discussed so that the conclusions drawn about it can be used to analyse Gregory's novel:

Regis notes that romance novels are defined by their happy endings (9) and their ingénue heroines (49). The virgin and the whore appear as standard archetypes in romance narratives, but, as Regis explains, the virginal ingénue is the usual heroine of a romance novel (49). This figure, according to Janice Radway, allows the “ideal romance” narrative to deal with female sexuality “by confining the expression of female desire within the limits of a permanent, loving relationship” (169). Indeed, the element of “love” is central to the ideal romance heroine. As Helen Hughes notes of the genre’s typical heroine, “a woman who wants love is a sympathetic figure” (112). The ingénue’s opposite – the whore, seductress, or fallen woman – is a figure that severs the link between love and sex and is consequently denied the happy ending of matrimonial bliss granted to the heroine at the conclusion of the narrative. (50-51, emphasis added)

It seems extremely odd that Kennedy would describe "ingénue heroines" as a defining feature of the romance novel given that that just before this passage Kennedy had listed the eight elements which Regis does describe as defining:

Regis outlines eight narrative elements that she says define the romance novel: a depiction of corruption within society that the romance will reform; the meeting of heroine and hero; their attraction; a barrier to their relationship; a symbolic or literal death; the overcoming of the barrier; the declaration of love; and the betrothal. (Kennedy, 50)

Clearly, ingénue heroines are not among the eight essential elements of a romance listed by Regis.

I think there is, moreover, a significant difference between the statement "the virginal ingénue is the usual heroine of a romance novel"(51, emphasis added) and what Regis actually wrote on page 49 of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, which is "the ingenue heroine [is] frequent in romance novels" (49). Admittedly neither "usual" and "frequent" are precise terms, but it seems to me that something might be frequent if, for example, it happens in one book in ten. If something is usual I'd expect it to happen in fifty percent or more cases.

Changing "frequent" to "usual" matters, then, and it makes a difference because it's a building-block in Kennedy's argument, which leads her to conclude that:

A great deal of the tension between feminism and the romance, I suggest, lies in the fact that the romance’s formulaic female archetypes represent precisely the static female identity positions that feminism has long fought to undermine: the madonna and the whore. (54)

It seems rather ironic to reduce romance heroines to just two archetypes while arguing, from a feminist perspective, that feminism "has long fought to undermine" "static female identity positions".

Regis, it should be noted, was taking a historical perspective on the romance and it's certainly true that, in the past, virgin heroines were probably the norm (i.e. more than 50% of heroines). Even then, though, you could find exceptions. Georgette Heyer's Babs, in An Infamous Army (1937), is a widow with a distinctly un-madonna-like reputation and history.

It should also be noted that the heroines of The Grand Sophy (1950), The Masqueraders (1928), and Venetia (1958), to give just three examples, though virgins, are hardly "ingénues": an "ingénue" is "An innocent or unsophisticated young woman" (Oxford Dictionaries) and Sophy, Prudence and Venetia are neither.

While it is true that virgin heroines are still "frequent" in romance novels they're far from ubiquitous and the impression I have is that, outside historical romance, inspirational romance and particular lines such as Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern they probably don't make up over 50% of heroines published in recent years. Even in the sample of early twenty-first century sheikh romances analysed by Amy Burge, "Of the fifty-seven sheikh novels published in the Modern Romance series, at least thirty-two feature virgin heroines" (89-90) and that's in a sub-genre within that line in which "virginity is a particularly prominent trope" (89).

Anyway, not having done a statistical analysis of heroines' levels of sexual experience and knowledge, I can't speak confidently about the precise percentages of recently-published romances which contain virgin heroines but (a) I don't think it's particularly helpful or accurate to assume that romance only depicts women as "madonnas" or "whores" and cannot conceive of a wider spectrum of sexual knowledge and experience among heroines, (b) I don't think it's accurate to imply that "madonnas" are "the usual" type of heroine in the romance novels currently being published and (c) I don't think it's possible to support such an argument on the basis of a paraphrasing of a passing comment by Pamela Regis.

 

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Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

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

Kennedy, Victoria. "Revisionary Historical Metatext or 'Good Mills and Boon'?: Gender, Genre, and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl." Pivot 5.1 (2016): 42-74.

Continued from Part I. In this post I'm summarising the following 3 papers:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

 

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

 

Amy's the Book Review editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and her Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

A few days before the conference Amy gave a few teasers for her paper on Twitter:

 

As these suggest, Amy's been doing quantitative research on a huge corpus of romances. I'm not sure quite how many romances it was, but it looked to be in the hundreds, at least, given that Amy was looking at 10 or more years' worth of novels in a line which publishes around 8 books every month. In the course of the research for her recent book Amy collected a lot of data on the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern/Sexy line's heroes. In this paper she revealed some of the findings which didn't make it into her book.

This "line" of romances promises readers "glamorous international settings" and Mills & Boon say that "Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Sheikh, Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American...wherever he's from, it's certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes!"

Clearly the line provides a rich source of primary material relating to masculinity, race and ethnicity because the heroes embody hegemonic masculinity i.e. the current most honoured way of being a man. This masculinity is both performative (it is shown in what the heroes do) and normative (in that it sets a standard by which other men can be judged). Hegemonic masculinity is an idealised version of masculinity and it's hierarchical because it marginalises some masculinities while elevating others.

In this context, it's interesting to note that although, as Edward Said observed, Western orientalism associated oriental masculinity with feminine penetrability, the Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh exhibits hegemonic masculinity.

Given that the majority of the authors in this line are from the UK, North America or Australasia and the line promises exotic, international settings, it's perhaps not surprising that 61% of the heroes in the corpus are not from those countries.

Italian heroes appear to the most popular, followed by Greeks, sheikhs, Spanish, Latin American, Mediterranean (either unspecified or invented countries) and Russians. The popularity of certain nationalities has fluctuated, however. For example, in more recent years Spaniards have declined in popularity while Latin Americans have increased in number. Russian heroes emerged in 2008. There were, however, no African or East Asian heroes at all.

The titles of these novels also reveal interesting trends. They usually reflect aspects of the hero's cultural identity (mainly his nationality) and profession (if you can call being a prince of a billionaire a "profession"). Interestingly, while it is common for it to be signalled in the title when a hero is a sheikh, this is not so likely to happen for Russians. Russians (and Latin Americans) are more likely to be described as ruthless, dark or devilish in the titles while the words "Greek" and "tycoon" are often found together.

Within the covers of the novels sheikhs are often described using metaphors and similies relating to the desert and dangerous desert creatures such as birds of prey and big cats. Harems are often mentioned in order to establish the hero's cultural tradition of masculine sexual dominance. In a nod to the feminine connotations of the orient, the authors may mention the hero's "robes" but immediately assert that they increase, or at least do nothing to minimise, his powerful masculinity.

The number of heroes from India is very small (only 3 novels) so it is more difficult to generalise about them. Susanna Carr's Secrets of a Bollywood Marriage (2014) and one of the other novels were both described by readers as having less alpha/dominant heroes than usual in this line.

We speculated about reasons for the trends in particular nationalities' popularity, including 9/11 and economic crises. This led well into the topic of the next paper.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Even though her "doctoral research concerns a highly respected eighteenth-century poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)" Val has argued at a "conference, hosted by the University of Cambridge ‘CRASSH’ (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) [...] entitled Art/Money/Crisis" that romance author Penny "Jordan’s novels illustrate her understanding of the sense of powerlessness losing financial independence has and how it affects her characters/ordinary people in society" (see the blog post here).

Today Val looked at a range of novels by Penny Jordan and then at Roberta Leigh's Man Without a Heart. demonstrating that Mills & Boon romances could be used by researchers as social barometers which offer information about the times in which they were written and reflect the concerns of ordinary women, offering insight into fashion, fears of financial crises, terrorism, and industrial relations. Man Without a Heart, for example, features a secondary character (the heroine's uncle) who is a trade unionist and the novel highlights the divide between London's social elites and the working classes.

More about Val's history of romance reading, and details of Penny Jordan's role as social barometer can be found here.

Although it's still relatively unusual for romances to be read and used in this way, Val and a handful of other researchers have demonstrated that romances can be fruitful primary sources for historians and others investigating social history. I've summarised Professor Tom Baum's romance-based research into representations of the airline industry here and Joseph McAleer has argued that "the new 'Doctor-Nurse' novels first published by Mills & Boon in the 1950s [...] reinforced a positive view of the NHS among middle- and working-class readers".

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

Ali describes herself as a "Freelance editor, journalist and academic. Specialisms include #IntersectionalRomances, #StrongRomanceHeroines and #AdaptationandAppropriation". She's an editor of the Pink Heart Society blog, where Harlequin Mills & Boon authors from a wide range of lines post about their books, inspirations and work-lives. That puts her in contact with a lot of authors and when she asked some of them what they thought about social issues in romance almost all of them said that romance could deal with them and one even stated that it was irresponsible for authors not to address them.

Perhaps as a result, Ali works on the assumption that "the death of the author" has been much exaggerated and in her research into the social issues addressed in Harlequin Mills & Boon romances she's very interested in authorial intent, as often revealed in "Dear Reader" letters which appear before the title page. She believes it's a powerful experience for readers to be addressed directly by authors, as Tara Tylor Quinn does in Husband by Choice and Once a Family.

Romance authors approach social issues with the guarantee of a happy ending providing a safety net which reassures readers that the issues can be dealt with and the obstacles to happiness overcome. Tara Taylor Quinn, who has herself experienced domestic violence, does so in her Where Secrets are Safe series, set in a woman's shelter called The Lemonade Stand. In one novel it is revealed that the hero has been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his now ex-wife. In another an abused secondary character is helped by the protagonists.

Ali has now begun The CatRom Project as an online "exploration of the way in which category romances address and engage with social issues." [Edited to add: Ali's now put the whole of her paper online at the CatRom Project.]

A recent piece of research in The Journal of Sex Research, in which a group of male and female readers were exposed to three different types of erotica (male dominant/female submissive; female dominant/male submissive; neither partner submissive or dominant), suggests that:

reading about a sexually submissive woman may have a negative impact on attitudes toward women, including increasing benevolent sexism in women and rape myth acceptance in men. However, erotica also had the power to challenge traditional gender roles. We found that after reading about a sexually dominant woman, men rated dominance as an appealing trait in a potential partner, at least to the same extent that women did. Finally, we found that men and women were similar in their levels of arousal in response to sexually explicit erotica and that different types of erotica are equally arousing, regardless of the dominance and submission roles taken on by the protagonists. In sum, although we highlight some potentially negative consequences of reading erotica depicting male dominance, our findings should not be interpreted as devaluing erotica. Instead, our study hints at the utility and benefit of seeking out a range of erotica that eschews typical gender roles to encourage “eroticizing equality.” (10)

The authors did advise that:

It should be noted that the effects of reading different submission/dominance stories on attitudes were small. We speculate that the potential consequences of reading male dominance erotica on attitudes, such as more negative views toward women, may be exacerbated following repeated exposure to such erotica. Future research might investigate the effects of a longer-term exposure to submission-/dominance-themed erotica by using a diary study to test the effects of reading a full-length erotic novel, or longitudinal work testing male dominance erotica consumption and attitudes over time. Finally, an additional avenue for future research would be to test the effects of reading popular erotica in a nonheterosexual sample. For example, submission and dominance between a consenting lesbian pair would be unlikely to carry with it the same political meaning as male-on-female dominance. It is possible, however, that effects may still be seen on partner preferences. (10)

Here's a bit more detail about their findings regarding the dominant woman/submissive male and neither-partner-dominant-nor-submissive erotica:

It may be that depictions of nontraditional men and women as “sexy” broaden our understanding of what is considered gender appropriate behavior. The battle for less prescriptive gender roles is often fought directly. Our work highlights that change can also occur indirectly via the stories that we tell, including those that sexually arouse us. While erotica has the potential to result in detrimental outcomes for women (i.e., through increased benevolent sexism and rape myths), it also has the potential to make the deviant desirable and prompt a shift toward acceptance of nontraditional gender roles. Although the shifts observed in our study were small and likely to be temporary, more consistent exposure to nonnormative erotica (or even literature more generally) may have a stronger impact on what men and women want in a partner. (9)

and

Our findings provide promising evidence that a focus away from female submission does not mean a decrease in sexual arousal. Rather, stories describing female dominance or no dominance were equally arousing and perhaps less likely to perpetuate the belief in women that sex and submission are necessarily linked. (9)

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Harris, Emily Ann, Michael Thai & Fiona Kate Barlow (2016). "Fifty Shades Flipped: Effects of Reading Erotica Depicting a Sexually Dominant Woman Compared to a Sexually Dominant Man", The Journal of Sex Research.

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