I've been reading Anne Cranny-Francis's Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (1990). In it she defends genre fiction, whose
audience commonly attracts a negative reception from critics who, in accordance with the high/low culture division institutionalized by a now outmoded, but still powerful, modernist aesthetic, regard the mass audience of popular fiction as degraded consumers of formula art. This judgement contains an assumption that modernist writing (and possibly its realist predecessor) is non-formulaic, which is highly questionable. Genre fiction, it might be argue, foregrounds its conventions, rather than stitching them seamlessly into the fabric of the text and so its ideological framework may be, or may appear to be, self-evident; modernist and realist fiction, on the other hand, uses less mannered conventions and so achieves an apparent 'naturalization' which has the effect of obscuring its encoded ideological statements. Both genre fiction and its 'high brow' counterparts (realism, modernism, postmodernism) utilize a variety of textual conventions, some of which are more visible than others. (3)
Many of the conventions foregrounded by popular romance seem to be drawn from, or related to those to be found in, fairy tales, for although romances are not (with a few exceptions) actually fairy tales and "The vast majority of romance novels do not consciously invoke specific fairy tales [...] many still implicitly draw on the tradition, its conflicts and quests, and occasionally its motifs" (Lee 57).1
According to Cranny-Francis, "the fairy tale as popularized by the translation of folk-tales collected by the brothers Grimm" (104) is "encoded with dominant ideological discourses - such as patriarchal gender ideology" (104). For example,
In his study of folk and fairy-tales, Breaking the Magic Spell, Jack Zipes raises a series of questions about the Cinderella story which leave little doubt about its contemporary ideological function:
Though it is difficult to speculate how an individual child might react to Cinderella, certainly the adult reader and interpreter must ask the following questions: Why is the stepmother shown to be wicked and not the father? Why is Cinderella essentially passive? ... Why do girls have to quarrel over a man? How do children react to a Cinderella who is industrious, dutiful, virginal and passive? Are all men handsome? Is marriage the end goal of life? Is it important to marry rich men? This small list of questions suggests that the ideological and psychological pattern and message of Cinderella do nothing more than reinforce sexist values and a Puritan ethos that serves a society which fosters competition and achievement. (Zipes [...] 173 qtd. in Cranny-Francis 87)
Quite a lot of romances explicitly allude to Cinderella but often this is a shorthand "means of indicating that the novel includes a woman who is poor, perhaps working in a menial job, and who then meets a rich and handsome man" (Vivanco 91-92). Strictly speaking, though
Cinderella's status as a gentleman's daughter makes her more acceptable as a future king's consort. It also places her above the status of peasant. Cinderella is not usually a rags-to-riches tale, but a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale. (SurLaLune)
So when Cranny-Francis comes to discuss popular romance fiction, she turns to another fairy tale:
As Carolyn Steedman observed in Landscape for a Good Woman, one of the principal fairy-tales of our society is that 'goose-girls can marry kings'. [...] Inequality of class is as much a mechanism of the romance as the gender relationships and this may be both an essential feature of the romance and a key to its operation. The desire these texts encode is not sexual, but economic; the desire for solid middle- or upper-class status, for money and power. Since we live in a society in which men hold economic power and in which a woman's status is identified with that of her husband, then finding an appropriate husband is the problem. To make this search more palatable, less seemingly acquisitive, it is displaced into gender terms. The woman's search becomes a sexual and emotional one, a matter of fulfilling her natural, heterosexual needs for sexual and emotional fulfilment - and eventually for children. (186)
This view of romance is very similar to that of Jan Cohn who, a couple of years earlier than Cranny-Francis, observed that
It is a commonplace of romance that the heroine will marry well, a given that the hero will be rich. The heroine's accomplishment, moreover, her success in marrying well, must seem almost an accident; it is never her purpose. The idea of a romance heroine setting out to marry successfully is doubly denied. She never seeks marriage in any form, and when she finds her hero, she is never drawn to him by the signs of his economic power [...] she is a negation of the purposeful, self-interested, mercenary woman. (127)
This isn't to say that there are absolutely no romance heroines who set out to marry a rich man, or that there are no romance heroes who are poorer than their heroines, but as Blythe Barnhill at AAR recently wrote, in romance
Wealthy Regency Dukes are a dime a dozen, and the Harlequin Presents line is based on wealthy, exotic magnate heroes. All of it got me thinking, is this what we want in a book? Is it our real fantasy? Is it not enough to be in love and comfortably middle class? Does our drop dead handsome, ripped hero also need to be able to whisk us off for a luxury cruise, buy us dresses from the best London modistes, or buy the company we work for if our boss is a sexist jerk? Obviously, it’s a popular fantasy, often with Cinderella roots. But is it too popular…or anti-feminist?
The relationship between fairytales and the depiction of disability in romance hasn't been commented on as often but Sandra Schwab has noted that
The ability to see clearly and the loss of sight play an important role in the historical romances The Bride and the Beast (2001) and Yours Until Dawn (2004) by the American author Teresa Medeiros. While Yours Until Dawn features a blind hero, large parts of The Bride and the Beast are set during the night, and the darkness makes the heroine unable to see the face of the male protagonist. In both books the physical inability to see clearly is not only connected to a lack of recognition, but is also indicative of a lack of psychological insight.
Given its title, I can't help but wonder if The Bride and the Beast draws on the tale of Beauty and the Beast.
At the recent 2012 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Ria Cheyne discussed romances depicting disability and remarked on the frequency with which disabilities are cured by love. I wonder if there's something here of Rapunzel:
The Prince was beside himself with grief, and in his despair he jumped right down from the tower, and, though he escaped with his life, the thorns among which he fell pierced his eyes out. Then he wandered, blind and miserable, through the wood, eating nothing but roots and berries, and weeping and lamenting the loss of his lovely bride. So he wandered about for some years, as wretched and unhappy as he could well be, and at last he came to the desert place where Rapunzel was living. Of a sudden he heard a voice which seemed strangely familiar to him. He walked eagerly in the direction of the sound, and when he was quite close, Rapunzel recognised him and fell on his neck and wept. But two of her tears touched his eyes, and in a moment they became quite clear again, and he saw as well as he had ever done. Then he led her to his kingdom, where they were received and welcomed with great joy, and they lived happily ever after. (SurLaLune)
Barnhill,Blythe. "Is This Our Collective Fantasy?" All About Romance. 24 Sept. 2012.
Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.
Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.
Lee, Linda J. “Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 22.1 (2008): 52–66.
SurLaLune. "Annotations for Cinderella."
SurLaLune. "The Annotated Rapunzel."
Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2011.
The image of the geese came from Wikimedia Commons and was created by LadyofHats, who dedicated it to the public domain.