Jonathan A. Allan's Men, Masculinities and Popular Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 28 November, 2019

Cover of Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. It shows a shirtless man, staring at the viewer.As Jonathan Allan states, the motivation underlying this book is, "at bottom, a hope to push scholars of men and masculinities to consider the romance novel as a potential area of inquiry" (9). At under 150 pages, it is a relatively short introduction to the popular romance genre, aimed primarily at these scholars, and Allan repeatedly acknowledges its introductory/limited nature and expresses a wish that it will be seen as "a beginning to a much larger discussion" (90).

I've already posted a bit about Allan's comments in his introduction advocating viewing romance as pornography, so I'll just start with Chapter 1. Since I'm not a scholar of men and masculinities, I'm not in the target audience for the book, I'm a lot more likely to zoom in on things I find relevant to scholarship on popular romance novels.

Chapter 1, "Studying the Popular Romance Novel"

In terms of romance scholarship, Allan seems to be setting himself in opposition to Pamela Regis (albeit not the elements of her work which draw on Northrop Frye), and aligning himself with Janice Radway, Tania Modleski, Ann Barr Snitow (comparison to all three of whom he "might take [...] as a compliment" (18)), Jan Cohn, Jayashree Kamblé and Catherine Roach. Allan sets out "to think about method" (16) and begins by critiquing Pamela Regis's "What Do Critics Owe the Romance?" (2011). Allan's key critique is of Regis's critique of earlier scholars' citations (or lack of them) of primary sources. He admits that he is "perhaps sensitive to this argument because I have also been a recipient of this criticism" (18) (in a post by Jackie Horne). He then offers

some thoughts on how to study the popular romance novel. This chapter should not be read as definitive but rather as exploratory and as a critique of the now common critique that one has not read enough, not read widely enough, or, for instance, that one only studies 'contemporary' romances (as Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance does). Indeed, I am arguing against the idea that 'size matters,' wherein the critic wields the size of their corpus like a phallic object. (19)

Drawing on Northrop Frye, Allan argues that what is important is to focus on archetypes:

In Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, what connects one text to another is the part(s) of the text that are repeated, or what he calls 'archetypes.' [...] The scholar who pays attention to archetypes [...] focuses on the parts of the text that are repeated and repeating. This does not negate the new and innovative ways an archetype might be used, but it does insist upon the repetition of those archetypes, which are, then, essential to the genre. (21)

Allan acknowledges that other methods could be employed to study romance (he mentions Eric Selinger's close reading technique). He also recognises that there are limitations to his approach:

I am assuming that the hero's masculinity does something for readers. What that 'something' is, however, is the work of another project led by another scholar. I am making claims about the genre and about the novels that I study, not about the readers [...] Future work, however, should attend to the matter of readers and authors. (24)

Chapter 2 - Desiring Hegemonic Masculinity

In romance one can find "the very type of masculinity that theorists of masculinity have questioned, critiqued, and worked to reform over the past three decades - namely, hegemonic masculinity" (27). As such, the question "is the romance novel feminist or anti-feminist? [which] in many ways has motivated so much criticism of the popular romance novel [...] is a seductive question to ponder" even while Allan "resist[s] the simplicity of the binary form" (27). Instead, Allan asks "Why is traditional or stereotypical masculinity desirable in romance?" (28) and urges scholars of masculinity to look at romance because "Romance novels, it seems to me, offer an ideal place through which to think about 'hegemonic masculinity' and particularly the question of desire" (28). He also wonders if "scholars of men and masculinities have failed to study the popular romance [...] because it would require us to engage with feminine culture" (32) but also observes that

Popular romance novels embrace the very thing that critical scholars are trying to undo - namely, hegemonic masculinity. What might it mean for critical studies of men and masculinities that these texts, authored by women for women, so often conform to the definitions of masculinity that are so often critically analysed and critiqued by those in the field? As scholars of men and masculinity continually point out the failures of hegemonic and ideal masculinities, how do we then respond to their reification in these novels? These are all big questions, which Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance sets out to think about, and hopefully answer. (32)

My impression, having finished the book, is that Allan is very good at asking questions but I'm not at all sure he provides detailed answers to all the questions. He seems to be more likely to suggest possible avenues for future research which might confirm his theories/initial findings (e.g. in the final quote in this section, see below).

Allan adds that

I do think we need to recognise that inherent to any commitment to the kinds of masculinity we are seeing in the popular romance is also a kind of institutional homophobia that lurks in the background of the romance novel and is written on the hero's body. In many ways, I agree with [Jayashree] Kamblé's contention [in Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction] that 'during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement [...] the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman'. [...] What I am arguing, thus, is that the romance novel contains an internalised homophobia - as a genre - in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not: feminine, queer, homosexual. (36)

He concludes that

Hegemonic and ideal forms of masculinity are nearly a rule in the popular romance novel of the eighties and early nineties. A larger study is required to make generalisations about the genre as a whole [...] I would caution that a larger study is required to sustain many of these suppositions (the male-male romance novel, for instance, may well become a site in which masculinity is explored in innovative and diverse ways). These masculinities are part of and contribute to heteropatriarchal capitalism. [...] To critique the romance novel for its commitment to hegemonic and ideal masculinity qua white, capitalist, bourgeois, heterosexual, and so on is not to reject the genre, but rather to ask new and important questions about its continuing success. [...] It is hoped that this study will encourage other scholars to develop an interest in popular romance novels and moreover that scholars of popular romance studies will begin to take into consideration the valuable lessons found throughout critical studies of men and masculinities. (39)

Chapter 3 - Reconsidering the Money Shot: Orgasm and Masculinity

Allan opens with a quote from a sex scene and then states that

The orgasm is essential to the popular romance novel, much in the same way that the money shot is seemingly essential to the pornographic text. [...] The money shot, like the orgasm in romance, has a long and storied history, and it has subsequently become a hotly debated aspect within the critical response to pornography. Surprisingly, romance scholars have not spilt nearly as much ink on the orgasm as porn scholars have on the money shot. As such, this chapter works to show how the orgasm is essential to romance and moreover that it functions like the money shot in pornography. (40)

I'm not sure why he's surprised. Explicit sex scenes only became common in romance in the later part of the twentieth century and romance novels existed long before then. Maybe it has to do with the fact that this book is focused on post-1970s romance, and there's reference to a similar time-period with respect to pornography: "For over forty years [...] the money shot has been essential to the structure and content of pornography, at least of the heterosexual mainstream varieties" (41). However, romances with no explicit sex scenes, or no sex scenes at all, continue to be published. As an Executive Editor at Harlequin wrote in July this year

Sex doesn’t matter. There, I said it.

I better clarify something before we move forward. Ok, ok, sex matters. But if you are thinking of writing for one of Harlequin’s series lines, sex shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind. (I assume some of you just stopped reading. Bye!) The first thing on your mind should be your story. What kind of a story is it? [...] We have a big range of hot to wholesome in our series and there is truly something for everybody, whether you like graphic sex or want to shut the door on sex, or whether you do not want to address a sexual relationship at all.

Allan is obviously aware of romances without explicit sex, since he continues by clarifying that "What is essential, at least within those novels that contain scenes of sexuality, is that the hero plays a central role in the orgasmic potential of the heroine" (43, emphasis added) because "women's orgasms are not autonomous to women in the sexual scene but rather are something for which men are responsible" (44). With regards to masculinity, "In the romance novel, sexual prowess and mastery depend upon being able to give a woman an orgasm" (44). As far as defining the romance genre goes, Allan states that

In many ways, then, the orgasm is as essential as the 'I love you' that closes the novel, and, perhaps, we might even argue that when the orgasm happens before the declaration of love, it is because of the orgasm that love can be achieved and declared. Each and every orgasm, then, in the popular romance novel is important as a structural and formal element of the novel because it speaks to the erotic and sexual success of the couple, in addition to their romantic success. (48)

Chapter 4 - Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Fiction

This chapter is based on "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels" and a forthcoming essay "'And He Absolutely Fascinated Me": Masculinity and Virginity in Sherilee Gray's Breaking Him'. Since they're both in/going to be in the open-access online Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I won't say much about this chapter. Here's a quote that's in both "Theorising" and this chapter and which might feed back in to what Allen speculating about earlier, in Chapter 2, re masculinities scholars' reluctance to analyse romance:

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. (56)

Chapter 5 - Slashing and Queering Popular Romance Fiction

One of the most fascinating developments in the genre of popular romance is the rise of male/male romance novels, which tell the story of two men falling in love. These novels are written, like most romances, 'for women, by women'. (69)

My argument for the male/male romance novel [...] is that we find examples of hybrid masculinities which are nonetheless informed by hegemonic masculinities. We need to remember that hegemonic masculinities are always in flux and that these hybrid forms are, of course, in tune with and responding to the currently accepted definition of hegemonic masculinity. (73)

The chapter has sections on slash fiction and on a film, Y tu mamá también. Allan observes that

The popular romance novel between men extends and expands upon the limited nature of the bromance, which is a quasi-erotic but never quite enacted upon relationship. Unlike slash, wherein the fantasy is for seemingly straight men to become a romantic unit, and unlike the bromance, which cannot include sexuality, the popular romance introduces us to characters who are by and large gay and who are seeking the stability of a monogamous relationship. The popular romance novel, as a form, for the most part, will present a conservative vision of romance for these gay men. (83)

That's "conservative" because

what is central to romance are profoundly bourgeois values that speak to love, marriage, monogamy, and family. In what follows, I work to provide a close reading of Marie Sexton's Never a Hero, which is something of a controversial novel because it challenges the limits of the genre while also actively thinking about masculinity and sexuality. [...] In Never a Hero, the author openly and explicitly engages with the question and matter of HIV/AIDS, a topic which has remained taboo in many popular romance novels. [...] I argue here that what most upsets readers about Never a Hero is that it dared to engage with a question that few wanted to read about. (84)

One thing I found confusing is Allan's brief comment on Sunita's review of the novel (which can be found here). He writes that

In one review of the novel, the reviewer, Sunita, writes: 'Nick is HIV-positive and has been for five years. It's the result of a week-long encounter during a Cancun vacation where the condoms ran out and he and his partner barebacked (apparently Cancun had a condom shortage at that time)' (2013). [...] In this review, readers find an underlying HIV phobia. One imagines, of course, that this perspective is not unique to this review. The parenthetical remark that closes the sentence acts as a kind of 'victim-blaming,' I would argue, wherein a moral judgement is cast upon the characters. This judgement is a kind of 'I told you so' narrative, akin to 'she was asking for it' or 'she should have known better.' (84-85)

Since I recognised the name of the reviewer, I went off to look at the review. Here's the paragraph immediately after the one from which Allan quotes, and it quite explicitly condemns victim-blaming:

I found it somewhat problematic that Nick was so obsessed with his own guilt. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, but we all take risks that don’t pay off; it doesn’t mean we deserve it if something bad happens to us. Nick beating himself up for contracting HIV is like a woman who gets raped blaming herself for walking down the “wrong” street. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying all the consequences of those mistakes are deserved is blaming the victim and sends a terrible message, in my opinion.

Sunita isn't blaming Nick for contracting HIV: quite the opposite, in fact. However, she does go on to write that

Nick gives Owen a blow job before he tells him about his HIV status. This is absolutely a No Go. The fact that he knows his viral load is low and that the risk of transmission is low is beside the point. It’s Owen’s risk to assess, not Nick’s.

So maybe that explains why Allan writes that

the reviewers and commenters are taking on the diagnostic role of pathologising the barebacker while also policing his behaviour and indeed framing it in almost criminal terms because he failed to disclose the status. On the one hand, all of this is reasonable enough; after all, barebacking continues to be framed as a risky sexual practice. And it certainly may well be a risky sexual practice in terms of health, but so too are many things and yet we do not pathologise and condemn them in the same ways. After all, romance novels have celebrated the 'surprise pregnancy' narrative, which is also the result, often enough, of condomless sex. (85)

I'm still having a problem understanding Allan's critique though, because it wasn't Nick's barebacking in Cancun that was deemed a "No Go": it was his failure to "disclose the status" before having oral sex with Owen. So this seems to be more about (a lack of) informed consent than about specific sexual activities. Allan in fact goes on to say of the scene in which Nick reveals his HIV status that "The most common reading [...] of this scene is that Nick violated Owen's trust - which he did - by not disclosing his HIV status" (88).

All of this rather distracted me from Allan's suggestion that the scene in which Nick starts out by saying he's got AIDS and then corrects himself and says it's HIV could be read as

a 'teachable' moment within the novel, especially for a reader for whom HIV/AIDS may be something of an unknown? We have become less and less anxious about HIV with the rise of PrEP, for instance. What if Sexton was using the characters to educate her readers about HIV/AIDS? In this reading, then, the conflation of HIV with AIDS is necessary so as to explain that they are not the same. (88)

It's an interesting reading of the novel and, as Allan says, one "with a bit of generosity" (89); that last comment makes me wonder if Allan was more generous to the romance author than to the romance reviewer.

Chapter 6 - Towards an Anatomy of Male/Male Popular Romance Novel (sic)

In this chapter Allan focuses "on the anatomy of men's bodies in male/male popular romance novels. Simply put, there are more of them [than] in the average novel, so how does that affect and change the way bodies are described and imagined?" (91). He argues that

the performances may appear 'inclusive' or 'sensitive' but there is an underlying commitment to and belief in hegemonic masculinity that does not disappear once the clothing is removed. In these novels, the sex scenes become sites of hegemonic masculinity. When we look at the bodies in these novels, for instance, the hegemonic reveals itself quite clearly, for in the popular romance novel, readers rarely encounter a small penis. (93)

He gives as an example a quotation from Marie Sexton's Strawberries for Desert in which a thin hero is described, who is soft in places:

This scene provides much to think about with regards to the body. While the hero is generally attracted to 'more masculine men,' this body is 'absolutely perfect.' His body meets an ideal form, and yet there are allusions to seemingly feminine aspects of his body; for instance, the descriptions of both the thinness and the softness. All of this leads towards a conclusion within the paragraph that focuses attention on the penis, which 'was beautiful [and] hard.' [...] If the body could be 'more masculine,' the penis does the necessary work of reclaiming masculinity. (93)

However, "The male/male popular romance works to endow the anus with as much meaning as the phallus" (96) and "Rewriting anal sex as a proof of masculinity does important work with regards to femininity; that is, it works to undercut the possibility of femininity and in doing so perhaps becomes a latent misogyny" (97).

Allan ends with more questions:

What would the romance novel look like without 'spectacular masculinity'? It is almost impossible to conceive of the romance novel without spectacular masculinity. Presumably, we might find this in novels that do not include men, such as the lesbian romance novel, but I would suspect that gender still plays a role in those, too. Does the romance novel depend upon masculinity? These are, I admit, questions that remain unanswered. (98)

Chapter 7 - Vanilla Sex, or Reading Pornography Romantically

This chapter isn't about romance novels because "As I work towards a conclusion, I ask: Could pornography be read as a romance?" (99). Allan asks the question because he wishes "critical studies of men and masculinities [to] reconsider its engagement with pornography, which has to date largely been negative in nature" (99). He engages with a work of pornography which is set in a home, and in which an attractive couple have "vanilla" sex with each other in their bedroom, after flirting in the kitchen.

Epilogue: Are Billionaires Still Sexy?

Allan ponders the impact of Donald Trump becoming president of the US because "In many ways, Donald Trump, or 'The Donald,' is the archetypal hero of the popular romance novel, and one can think here, for instance, of the eroticisation of Trump during the eighties and nineties, and even into the new millennium" (117). [Typing that out made me feel a bit nauseous.] Allan turns to an article by evolutionary psychologists Cox and Fisher (it's available free online here): "In essence [...] Cox and Fisher are arguing that the [...] desire for the CEO is about accruing resources or finding a mate who has accrued enough resources to provide for a future" (118). [I feel I ought to point out here that evolutionary psychology is a lot more controversial than many other fields.] Allan notes that billionaires are a lot more wealthy than other types of wealthy hero so "These billionaires are excessive heroes" (118): "we find excesses of wealth, sex, and greed in the figure of the billionaire hero. He is often not necessarily a violent figure but initially a less than sympathetic figure, who, over the course of the novel, will be redeemed" (119).

Allan observes that

After the election of President Donald J. Trump, billionaire heroes did not and have not disappeared [...]. However, the election of President Trump did cause at least one romance novelist to pause and reflect not only on the wealth of their heroes but also their masculinities - recalling that often these go hand in hand. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Sarah MacLean explained that she rewrote an entire manuscript after the election of Donald Trump. The hero of her novel 'was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him' (2017).

Since billionaire heroes continue to be written, he speculates that they are

an attempt to make sense of the life of the billionaire and to imagine that behind the money is a caring and sympathetic man. [...] the novel works to humanise the extraordinarily wealthy heroes who populate the world of romance while also limiting the value of those billions over the course of the novel - as if the novel declares that love can and will conquer all. [...] the novel, as a form, also imagines that there is something redeemable in seemingly irredeemable characters [...]. Perhaps, then, this novelistic strategy has taken on new meaning in the age of the uber-wealthy, who are no longer found on tropical islands and boardrooms but also in the Oval Office. (123)

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Since Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance is "asking that scholars of masculinity think seriously and critically about popular romance novels and especially the construction and representation of maleness, masculinity and male bodies within them" (10) it presumably focuses on aspects of romance which will be of particular interest to these scholars. This perhaps explains why Allan, who states that romance is "a genre largely written by women for women" (9), does not discuss lesbian romances. It would also seem to explain a focus on a particular kind of masculinity within the genre:

For Radway, and certainly other critics, masculinity is in many ways central to the romance novel, and its representation is, simply put, 'spectacular.' Even beyond his body, the hero is not, in the words of romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz, 'a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking, "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend,' because, as Krentz suggests, 'you don't get much of a challenge for [the heroine] from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel' (1992: p. 109). The hero is a representation of what Raewyn Connell has called hegemonic masculinity, the kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have spent decades studying. Radway and Krentz are not alone. For Tania Modleski the hero is 'a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man' (2008: p. 28). What is certain, then, is that the hero of popular romance is, at bottom, a spectacular representation of masculinity. (9)

In the context of Allan's aim of encouraging scholars of masculinity to examine romance, a focus on the "kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have spent decades studying" makes sense. However, Allan's methodology does appear to invite confirmation bias since

In my textual analyses of popular romance novels, I am not making arguments about complete novels but rather about scenes in these novels. In each of the scenes, we find a description of the male body that conforms to the idealistic treatment of maleness and masculinity that Radway and others have noted in their studies of popular romance. Admittedly, this methodology [...] is open to critique from a variety of perspectives, many of which I might agree with. (15)

I would have appreciated discussion of the "beta" hero because Krentz's statement is quite clearly a response to him. The so-called "beta" hero continued to exist despite her complaints about the lack of challenge he provided, and the recent creation of the label of "cinnamon roll" for heroes who are "supportive, kind & oh-so-sweet" (Olivia Dade) is evidence that "alpha" masculinity is not the sole type of masculinity in romance. Since they're not mentioned in the book, I don't know if Allan would consider these, too, to be archetypes, or just variations on the archetype he's describing. After all, "beta" heroes' personalities may differ from those of "alphas" but to what extent do their bodies differ?

Allan quotes Erving Goffman:

Goffman's American male is 'young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports' [...]. This definition would need to be modified slightly to fit the requirements of the romance novel; for example, the hero of romance is not generally married (though he may be a widower); however, the bulk of this definition is illustrative of the archetypal romance hero. (12)

There is only passing reference made here to race, ethnicity and nationality, and this is also the case when Allan quotes Judith Lorber's summation of "hegemonic masculinity as being about 'men who are economically successful, racially superior, and visibly heterosexual'" (28) and mentions "intersectional identities, critical race theory" (72). The book contains no discussion of masculinity in, for example, African-American romance novels, the implications of the popularity of sheikh romances and Mediterranean/Latin heroes, or potential national differences (e.g. as discussed with reference to Australia by Juliet Flesch). One omission which is deliberate and explained by Allan is a choice to

limit my analysis to romance novels that are 'contemporary' in nature - which means they are largely written about and take place in the present [...] and secondly, those that have been published since the rise of the 'blockbuster' romance, which begins in the early 1970s. While much can be said about a variety of subgenres, ranging from the historical through to the paranormal, there are, of course, limits to analysis and this is where I am choosing to draw a line in the sand. I am not excluding these novels from analysis because they are 'bad' or 'unworthy' of analysis but because I wish to focus on novels that are explicitly engaging in reflecting and thinking through the present. (14)

Another omission which is mentioned is that of "trans* romances for the simple reason that I do not know enough about these texts" (23) and in the conclusion he writes that "I did not [...] take an approach that drew upon or borrowed from critical disability studies [...] The field of popular romance studies, as it grows, will want to account for how disability functions and is represented in the genre, and how masculinity affects and informs such representations of disability" (114). How, too "might scholars think about age and aging in the popular romance novel?" (115)

Allan says that "A larger study is required to make generalisations about the genre as a whole" (39) and I hope I'm not taking that statement too far out of context when I agree that I'd like to see more studies of romance which explore different types of masculinity in (a wider variety of subgenres of) romance, as well as nuances in the presentation of it, which Allan has not had the space to consider. Allan's relatively short book will, I hope, encourage more scholars to study popular romance novels in all their variety.

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Allan, Jonathan A. Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

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