heroines

Paraphrasing and Misleading: Inguenues, Madonnas, Virgins and Whores

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 22 October, 2016

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.

Frye on the Symbolism of the Virgin Heroine

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 1 July, 2016

In The Secular Scripture Northrop Frye takes a look at romance in its broadest definition and observes that there is a lot of emphasis on the heroines' virginity.

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virgniity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave. Behind all the "fate worse than death" situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virgniity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position. But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (73)

Deep within the stock convention of virgin-baiting is a vision of human integrity imprisoned in a world it is in but not of, often forced by weakness into all kinds of ruses and stratagems, yet always managing to avoid the one fate which really is worse than death, the annihilation of one's identity. [...] If we want an image [...] for this kind of integrity, there is an exquisite one in Sidney's Arcadia, where the heroine wears a diamond set in a black horn, with the motto attached "yet still myself." (86)

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Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard UP, 1976.

Part I - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

 

Yesterday I went to a one-day conference/symposium on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing. There were 5 papers which focussed on romance novels, one on Fifty Shades (I think there have been debates over how to classify that, though it could be considered erotic romance), and various papers which looked at links between romance and other forms of women’s writing.

I’m going to write up my thoughts about each of the papers here but these are very much my thoughts on the papers, rather than an accurate description of each of the papers themselves. That’s mostly because it’s difficult to write fast enough to take accurate, detailed notes which won’t misrepresent the finer points of someone’s argument but also because (a) I’m not sure how much information all the participants want to have shared online about their work and (b) I’m a bit single-mindedly focussed on romance, so even when a paper is primarily about books which are not genre romances my brain will tend to zoom in on the bits of the paper which relate to romance scholarship (as opposed, for example, to scholarship on feminism, capitalism etc).

The first three papers were:

Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

In my second post I write about:

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

In the final post I attempt to summarise papers by:

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans

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Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy

 

Fran is working towards her PhD, on the topic of "A.L. Kennedy and the Quest for Happy Ever After": "Fran’s thesis focuses on the work of contemporary Scottish writer A.L.Kennedy, examining issues of gender, love and sex in her work, and how these issues relate to the notion of Romance as it appears in British Literature as a whole."

Although Kennedy does not identify herself as a romance writer, the paratext of her books does tend to mention their romantic elements and she has said "I believe in God, I believe in love - they probably make very little sense without meaning much the same thing" (Mitchell 123).

Although Kennedy's characterisations seem very realistic, Fran quoted Robert Louis Stevenson's observation that "True romantic art [...] makes a romance of all things. It reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most pedestrian realism" (Stevenson, qtd. in Norquay, 60). [As I discussed in For Love and Money, there's nothing preventing romance novels from being written in the low mimetic mode so "realism" doesn't disqualify a novel from being considered a romance. It should be noted, though, that when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about romance in 1882, he wasn't thinking about the modern romance genre.]

Fran said that Kennedy's novels are structured in such a way that the reader wants there to be a happy ending but although the possibility of one exists at the close of the novels, they haven't got there. [A lack of an HEA doesn't automatically disqualify a novel from being a romance, though, given that the RWA merely require a romance to have "An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending". It would seem, though, that the endings aren't "emotionally satisfying" to Fran because an optimistic potential isn't enough for her, but that could be a matter of personal taste rather than a clear indication that the books aren't romances.]

Overall, the paper raised questions about the definition of a "romance novel". Amy Burge, for example, suggested one could think of romance as a strategy and/or a structure (which might fit with Fran's use of the term "quest" in the title of her paper) and I think referred to Gillian Beer's The Romance.

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

Bakhtin suggested that traditionally the carnival is a one-off (though recurring) way in which the status quo can be temporarily transgressed. It's a safety valve which ultimately functions to support dominant structures and relegitimate it. In modern, neo-liberal capitalist society, the carnivalesque has been individualised and commercialised, to similar effect:

In the Fifty Shades trilogy, although the BDSM appears transgressive, the series does end with the protagonists in a fairly traditional (married, heteronormative, with children) relationship.

Fifty Shades is set in the US but the author is British and in the UK BDSM has perhaps traditionally been associated with the ruling elite. More recently there was the 2008 court case involving Max Mosley and just this year there were revelations concerning the Conservative minister John Whittingdale MP, though

According to the former editor of the Erotic Review, Rowan Pelling, Britain is "still known abroad as the 'nation of floggers'".

"A lot of it has to do with the way we have historically treated children," says Ms Pelling, "sending them away to boarding school from an early age. (BBC)

It wasn't working-class children who were sent to boarding schools. And the Marquis de Sade was an aristocrat, of course. So perhaps that would suggest that BDSM has traditionally been a carnival for the elites.

It also occurs to me that female submission is actually fairly traditional (and perhaps therefore not so very transgressive) in the romance genre. It's not always been made explicit, and certainly wouldn't have been expressed as BDSM, but dominant heroes who give heroines "punishing kisses" or more were extremely common at one time. It also fits with traditional gender roles within marriage, in which the wife was expected to love, honour and obey. One romance which made me think more about the extent to which female (but definitely not male) submission has been accepted within the genre was Jill Christian's The Tender Bond (1961). It's a vintage romance in which Martin, a man who is ultimately not chosen as the hero, quite clearly has submissive tendencies and the heroine observes that

He did not stir her to tingling excitement as Dominic did. Dominic roused in her the instinct to surrender, to give herself body and soul into the hands of a lord and master. He would dominate her, and there would always be a certain awe in her love, a desire for meek obedience. She would never, never win the upper hand with him.
Martin would never seek to dominate her.

Martin is eventually paired up with a woman who states that she's:

not an ordinary woman. I'll never be a little, adoring wife. [...] At my wedding there'll be no such words as 'obey.' In the old days, I could have been a queen." She smiled as if seeing a picture of herself, a cruelly satisfied expression that reminded Pamela of a fed tiger in a zoo. "I should glory in possessing and ruling Martin, and he'd glory in obeying."
Pamela shuddered. "It's horrible, like the spider and the fly."
"A lot of insects eat their husbands. I don't find that disgusting. I find it interesting. [...]"

[More details about that book can be found in this post I wrote in 2008.] In that context, a female dominant/male submissive romance would presumably have a lot more subversive potential than one like Fifty Shades.

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

Veera's paper is the heroine-focussed counterpart of the paper she gave to the 2015 PCA/ACA conference:

Alpha, Beta, and the Ambiguous Omega: The Diversity of Heroes 

The heroes examined in this paper exemplify how a successful romance hero is a discussion on the pressures society puts on men and breaks reigning stereotypes. The romance genre almost demands that male protagonists show softness in order to be worthy of the heroine, which renders the stereotypical notion of the brutish Alpha antiquated. It is therefore necessary to update the vocabulary used to describe heroes and to examine the issues they represent in today’s romance writing.

Romance heroes have developed rapidly with the genre. The rapist Alpha is seen to a far lesser extent than it previously was, and the Beta hero’s soft personality is viewed as distinctly positive. However, although the surface division between Alpha and Beta types remain, any closer scrutiny reveals that the modern hero is in fact more a blend of the hard and soft traits than weighed in favour of one or the other.

This paper discusses the diversity and ambiguity this blending causes in romance heroes, using as examples the heroes of Mary Balogh’s novels Dark Angel, Lord Carew’s Bride and The Famous Heroine. The discussion takes into account the criticism of the romance hero, both past and present, and shows the change in basic terminology used to describe these male protagonists, which on close reading of Balogh’s novels proves to be useful as a basic tool regarding reader preferences and the hero’s function in the novel but inadequate in truly describing the wide range of male personalities found in the genre.

Returning to the same three (linked) novels by Mary Balogh, Veera turned her attention to their heroines.

The heroine of Dark Angel initially conforms to gender norms and attempts to please the men in her life but eventually she gains agency in her relationship with the hero.

The heroine of Lord Carew's Bride has internalised oppression by men and so cannot act without reference to the man who left her disillusioned. Eventually she does succeed in throwing off her victim status and physically fights back against her oppressor.

The heroine of The Famous Heroine is of a lower social class than the other two heroines so her concern is with pleasing society rather than individual men. It seems she attempts to fill the traditional womanly roles of mother, wife and homemaker (I think Veera was referring here to the romance heroine as described in Kay Mussell's Fantasy and Reconciliation) but does so in ways which burst out of the traditional limits.

Veera's analysis raised a number of questions: to what extent does the series shows a progressive change in heroines? If it does, does this reflect changes in the genre as a whole? Is it better to want to please individual men or patriarchal society? To what extent is "society" depicted as patriarchal in these novels given the power of the patronesses of Almack's? And to what extent are romance authors like those patronesses as they decide what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a heroine?

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Mitchell, Kaye. A. L. Kennedy. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "A Gossip on Romance". R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 51-64.

laura Sunday, 12 June, 2016

Review/Summary (5 - Naomi Booth): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 December, 2015

Naomi Booth explores

the idea of shaking, shattering states in relation to radical thought, and I will present a number of theories that describe shaken states vibrating with the potential to unsettle wider social relations, disturbing our connections to the controlling discourses of gender, capitalism and anthropocentrism. Alongside these theories, I consider another frequently depicted literary state of shaking: that experienced by the vibrationally overwhelmed romance heroine. The contemporary romance heroine is preceded by a long line of female characters who reverberate with the disturbance of their erotic entanglements: Samuel Richardson's Pamela, for instance, fits violently at one of Mr B.'s early sexual approaches [...]; the more stately "felicities of rapid motion" are enjoyed by Jane Austen's Emma while dancing [...]; Thomas Hardy's sensual Tess, who is "throbbingly alive," trembles repeatedly, her tremulous state tending her speech toward shattered syllables, "ecstasized to fragments" [...]; and the palpitating body of Bram Stoker's voluptuous Lucy Westenra shakes and quivers and twists "in wild contortions" as her fiancé drives a stake through her heart. (99)

While generalisations can be useful at times, in order to highlight broad trends/themes, I wonder if it's really helpful to Booth's argument to put someone having a stake driven through their heart in the same category as someone enjoying a dance.

As far as modern romance heroines are concerned, the only example given is Anastasia Steele from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy which, Booth argues, in its descriptions of "jellied legs, [...] blushing, [...] various palpitations" draws on

clichéd tropes within romance fiction, which create a continuity between Fifty Shades and other popular romance novels. We might already, then, be on slightly shaky ground in attempting to read these novels as depicting shaking subjectivity in a radical or progressive sense: these jellifying tropes call backwards toward familiar descriptions of female sexual response in romance fiction, descriptions which often idolize female physical passivity, insufficiency and fragility. (105)

There isn't any analysis here of actual examples from romance novels, and therefore no comparisons between romance heroes and heroines. I can't help but wonder about alternative readings. For example, could it be that in some cases romance heroines' bodies are just reflecting their emotional openness? There are certainly examples of the same kind of language being used to describe heroes' emotional defences being shaken and then destroyed:

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.” (Mallery 248-49, qtd. in Vivanco and Kramer)

The limited range of primary texts is, however, justified by Booth on the grounds that:

While a full consideration of the contemporary romance genre is beyond the scope of this essay, it seems to me that Fifty Shades of Grey, with its prominent depictions of ecstatic, shattered states, is a particularly important text for romance studies. Fifty Shades, with its spectacular vibrations, might be read as a narrative charting the ways in which disruptive, active female energy is narratively released and then dealt with in romance fiction. We might, therefore, read Fifty Shades as a paradigmatic text. (106)

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Booth, Naomi. "Good Vibrations: Shaken Subjects and the Disintegrative Romance Heroine". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 99-116.

Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

Being Admirable, Repressing Complaint

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 15 April, 2014

In many ways popular romance novels are extremely emotional: they're about love, which is a very strong emotion. And yet, during a recent conversation on Twitter, Meoskop suggested that "there is a strong pressure in the genre to suppress personal emotions for socially prescribed reasons." As evidence, she pointed to the number of times one protagonist will attempt to convince the other to "see what’s good for you" and the plot endorses that emotional coersion.

Pressure to "suppress personal emotions for socially prescribed reasons" may also be applied via the depiction of the protagonists. Take a look, for example, at some of the "magical ingredients" in Adrienne deWolfe's recipe for creating romance heroines who appeal to readers:

She demonstrates a healthy self-respect.  A heroic woman would not let the volatile emotions of bullies or toxic personalities hold her “hostage” for long. She has the courage of her convictions, and she will walk away from personal or professional relationships that sabotage her greater good. 

During times of hardship, she draws upon deep internal reserves (faith, self-love, self-esteem, etc.) to maintain a positive outlook and to maintain her determination to achieve her goals. [...]

She is resourceful and resilient. She puts on her "big girl panties" when she is blindsided by crisis or thrown into situations that are completely alien to her. A heroic woman would never dissolve into a whiny, weepy, neurotic mess under stress!

Elly, the heroine of LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory is an example of this type of heroine. Although she does have low self-esteem to some extent due to a childhood full of neglect and bullying, she has walked away from those who hurt her, drawn on her internal reserves to bring up her two children alone and she has stayed strong despite becoming a widow while pregnant with her third child. When Will Parker remarks

"You never complain about anything, do you?"

It was subtle praise, but no poetry could have pleased her more. (138)

I'm sure this kind of heroine is inspiring to many readers but I can't relate very well to her. For one thing, I do complain, frequently, and I know I wouldn't be able to cope well in her situation. I also wonder how healthy it is to remain uncomplaining and maintain the appearance of strength. In Morning Glory itself, Will has trouble coming to terms with the horrors of war until he finally breaks down, cries, and tells Elly about it; this may not be labelled "complaining" but all the same it's stated that "He needed to voice his rage, work it out like pus from a festering wound" (314).

Staying "strong" can take its toll on people. For example,

Traditional notions of masculinity mean that men are supposed to be tough and self-reliant; that they manage pain and take charge of situations. It’s a sign of weakness to need help or depend on someone else, even for a short time or in a time of crisis.

This traditional view of how men should be – always tough and self-reliant – is also held by some women. Some men worry that if they talk about their feelings of depression, their partner may reject them. This can make it hard for men to acknowledge they have a health problem, especially a mental health problem. (Ogrodniczuk and Oliffe)

Men are not the only ones damaged by pressure to remain "strong" and to avoid turning "into a whiny, weepy, neurotic mess under stress":

Black women’s indomitable, unyielding strength in the face of unreasonable privation is one of our most dearly held cultural and national myths. Our ability to make a way out of no way seems like magic. We invoke this façade of strength as though it could actually materially replace the lack of care, the lack of outrage, the lack of social policy that could actually help black women and girls not to repeatedly succumb to severe poverty, mental illness, plain old racism and sexism, and disability. [...] Sometimes that badge of resilience that we hold up with so much pride impedes our ability to get the help we need. (Cooper)

Suffering stoically, then, can come at a serious personal and social price:

When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.

If you suffer in the proper way - silently, or with proclaimed fealty to institutions - then you are a hard worker "paying your dues". If you suffer in a way that shows your pain, that breaks your silence, then you are a complainer - and you are said to deserve your fate. [...]

People can always make choices. But the choices of today’s workers are increasingly limited. Survival is not only a matter of money, it is a matter of mentality - of not mistaking bad luck for bad character, of not mistaking lost opportunities for opportunities that were never really there.

I'd add that it's "mistaking bad luck for bad character" to assume it's only the unworthy and the non-heroic who find themselves in situations from which they can't "walk away," whose "deep internal reserves" run dry, and who find themselves unable to cope with stress. In addition, as Kendzior suggests, an individual's success or failure cannot be seen independently of the broader social and economic context in which they find themselves.

Spencer's novel is set in an America

just emerging from the jaws of depression, [...] still overrun with tramps, worthless vagrants who'd deserted their families and rode the flatcars aimlessly, begging for handouts at random doorsteps. (29)

Pauline Kael, a film critic who lived through the period, took a rather different view:

When I attended Berkeley in 1936, so many of the kids had actually lost their fathers. They had wandered off in disgrace because they couldn't support their families. Other fathers had killed themselves so the family could have the insurance. Families had totally broken down. Each father took it as his personal failure. These middle class men apparently had no social sense of what was going on, so they killed themselves.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. So I won't be putting on "big girl panties" any time soon: I'll be over here, interspersing my praise of the romance genre with complaints.

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Cooper, Brittney. "A Black Girl's Constant Fear: Why I Thought I'd Never Live to See 33." Salon. 15 April 2014.

deWolfe, Adrienne. "Writing Heroines Romance Readers Admire." Juanita Kees' Blog, 14 January.

Kael, Pauline, "Campus Life" as excerpted from Stud Terkels' Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by the Social Studies Help Center.

Kendzior, Sarah. "Surviving the Post-employment Economy." 3 Nov. 2013. Al-Jazeera.

Ogrodniczuk, John and John Oliffe. "The Strong, Silent Type: Is Masculinity Bad for Men's Mental Health?" CrossCurrents 13.4 (2010).

Spencer, LaVyrle. Morning Glory. 1989. New York: Jove, 1990.

Her Gain is My Loss?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 8 June, 2013

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 has long been held as one of England's greatest military achievements. [...] The successful defence of the Kingdom against invasion on such an unprecedented scale boosted the prestige of England's Queen Elizabeth I and encouraged a sense of English pride and nationalism. In the speech [delivered by Queen Elizabeth to her troops who were assembled at Tilbury Camp], Elizabeth defends her strength as a female leader, saying "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too". (British Library)

Elizabeth I of England was an exceptional woman but her success, as formulated here, diminishes other women, who are described as merely "weak and feeble." I think Jane Tolmie has observed a similar dynamic at work in fiction when she argues of Middle English romances that there is a "price [to be] paid for female participation in these texts" (146) which feature a

romance heroine, often described as independent, strong, feisty, and passionate – ‘feisty and desiring’, in Cooper’s formulation –  [who] does not exist within a system in which all women are independent, strong, feisty and passionate (Cooper, 2004, p. 220). She must be exceptional to catch our attention, and that of the hero. She often picks the man she wants, eludes the (many) others, escapes rape, lives a life less ordinary. Behind her and all around her is the silent rank and file of women who do not choose, elude, or escape. (146)

Tolmie adds that the passage of several hundred years has apparently not given rise to

a radical new approach to the delineation of the female hero in contemporary fantasy fiction. The emphasis remains on the individual woman rising above a system that keeps her down – triumphing over it, reversing expectations – rather than in cultural revolution or innovation, and oppressive structures continue to provide the basis for representation. (147)

Quite a lot of romances also feature heroines who triumph because of their exceptional natures and I have to admit that I find this more disheartening than empowering. Can anyone recommend some novels (not necessarily romances) in which a fairly ordinary heroine finds a way to improve her society (without the assistance of friends with magical or military power)?

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Tolmie, Jane. "Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine." Journal of Gender Studies 15.2 (2006): 145-58.

Gender Roles in Lesbian Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 8 April, 2013

In "Gender Role Models in Fictional Novels for Emerging Adult Lesbians" Cook, Rostosky and Riggle state that

emerging adult lesbian role models in contemporary novels portray some behaviors and emotions that resist traditional gender stereotypes as well as other behaviors and emotions that reinforce them. (160)

As the authors themselves acknowledge (163), these findings are based on a very small sample: "This study focused on 16 lesbian protagonists identified in 11 young adult novels that received 2011 Lambda Literary Award nominations" (150) and of these only 5 were romances: Always Faithful, From a Distance, Nightshade, Nigredo, Midnight Hunt. Nonetheless, their findings are interesting and others might wish to see if the trends they identify are replicated in a larger sample. I'm going to focus on the negatives here because they seem to have been particularly noticeable in the romances, but the article as a whole tried to keep things more balanced by also stressing positive aspects of these novels.

One of the ways in which the romances in particular reinforced "traditional gender stereotypes" was by depicting

one partner [...]  as more masculine and one [...] as more feminine. These expressions of masculinity were illustrated primarily with hyperaggression and hypersexualization.
All [...] characters exhibited signs of hyperaggression through displays of fighting, violent bursts of anger, and/or the rejection of any female roles or feminine presentation. (159)

It was often "the masculine character who initiated sexual contact with the more passive feminine character, mimicking traditional heterosexual relationship scripts" (160) and another feature familiar to readers of m/f romance was that "These masculine characters generally must be 'tamed' or calmed by the feminine characters. However, the taming is typically focused on calming the masculine character’s temper and aggression, not their sexual desires" (160).

Cook, Rostosky and Riggle conclude that

Depictions of masculinity and traditional gender-role scripts were present in almost every novel in the romance genre. The same traditional gender roles that may be problematic in heterosexual relationships appear to be grafted into many lesbian romance novels, thereby foregoing an important opportunity to provide emerging adult lesbians with a unique perspective on same-sex romance and models for how to express a range of gender and sexual identities within same-sex relationships.
Instead, the traditional gender and sexual scripts serve to maintain heteronormativity in romantic relationships (Clawson, 2005) and fail to recognize the range of scripts that lesbians actually enact. Rose and Zand (2002) found that the most commonly used romance script involved developing a friendship before developing a romance. Thus, the focus on sexually-based romance scripts and the absence of friendship-based romance in these texts fail to build on a strength that lesbians commonly bring to their intimate relationships. (161)

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Cook, Jennifer R., Sharon S. Rostosky and Ellen D. B. Riggle. "Gender Role Models in Fictional Novels for Emerging Adult Lesbians." Journal of Lesbian Studies, 17:2 (2013): 150-166. [Abstract]

Return of the Undead: Paranormal Violence and the Horsewomen of the Apocalypse

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 29 December, 2012

In "Romance and the Female Gaze Obscuring Gendered Violence in The Twilight Saga" Jessica Taylor

initially examines the gendered violence within The Twilight Saga, considering both the physical violence that occurs, as well as the mental and emotional violence, using Evan Stark's notion of coercive control. The series is then considered as conforming to the romance genre, using the work of Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, discovering how instances of violence can be re-coded as reassuring.

Having demonstrated that "Physical abuse is not the only type of domestic violence that Bella faces; she is also subjected to psychological and emotional abuse" (4), Taylor speculates

that the inclusion of the supernatural allows the depiction of an aggressive, even monstrous, masculinity—a masculinity that feminism forbade for the ordinary human male. This otherworldliness offers a justification for behaviour that is not only unacceptable for human males to exhibit, but also unacceptable for women to desire in a society that has been influenced by feminist critique of male violence. (6-7)

She also quotes Renae Franiuk and Samantha Scherr's observation that, in The Vampire Diaries and Twilight

the vampire-boyfriends are more than one hundred years older than their human girlfriends. Therefore, both men were born when gender roles were more strictly enforced, allowing the writers to excuse any of the boyfriend’s overtly sexist behavior with a simple nod to his upbringing. (4)

I wonder if a reversion to norms of behaviour which "are unacceptable for women to desire in a society that has been influenced by feminist critique of male violence" is indicative of the strength of postfeminism, which

has emerged since the early 1990s as the dominant mode of constructing femininities in the media. Angela McRobbie understands postfeminism as “to refer to an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined”, while simultaneously appearing to be “a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism” (“Postfeminism” 255). (Heise)

According to Franka Heise, "a prevailing characteristic of postfeminism [...] is a trend towards the reclamation of conservative ideals of femininity, following the assumption that the goals of traditional feminist politics have been attained."

Whatever the reason, a reversion to these older norms perhaps explains why Taylor reverts to two romance scholars whom Pamela Regis numbers among "the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse"

because the conclusions these critics reached about the romance novel have, indeed, entered the public consciousness as descriptors of not just the romance novels that they studied—the ones written in English in the late 1970s and early 1980s—but as characteristics of the romance novel, period.

The assumption that Radway and Modleski's descriptions of romance novels are applicable to all romance novels, from every period, is indeed galling to those of us who are aware of the variety that exists within popular romance fiction on both a book-by-book basis and in terms of general trends.

If, however, some twenty-first century romantic fictions closely resemble those of the late 1970s and early 1980s, recourse to critics such as Radway and Modleski would seem justified. For instance, although Modleski's description of Harlequin romances would not, generally, fit those written these days, it may be considered an apt summary of the power dynamics between a teenage human and an incredibly powerful, wealthy vampire who is over 100 years old, albeit in Twilight the gap between the two protagonists is even more stark than it is in the older Harlequins:

a young, inexperienced, poor to moderately well-to-do woman encounters and becomes involved with a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man, older than herself by ten to fifteen years. The heroine is confused by the hero’s behaviour since, though he is obviously interested in her, he is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, often hostile, and even somewhat brutal. By the end, however, all misunderstandings are cleared away, and the hero reveals his love for the heroine, who reciprocates. (Modleski, qtd. by Taylor, 7)

Furthermore,

Both Modleski and Radway argue that in the genre of romance, through the violent behaviour of the male love interest, which is later revealed as a symbol of the depth of his love for the heroine, the predominantly female audience is reassured that any violence they suffer can be a precursor to happiness. [...] Radway (1984, 75) [...] explicitly argues that:

when a heroine is misunderstood, then manhandled and mistreated by the hero, then suddenly loved and cared for, the novel is informing the reader that the minor acts of violence they must contend with in their own lives can be similarly reinterpreted as the result of misunderstandings or of jealousy born of “true love.” (7)

and

Radway’s study (1984, 76, italics mine) [...] found that for readers of the romance genre, “violence is acceptable only if it is described sparingly, if it is controlled carefully, or if it is clearly traceable to the passion or jealousy of the hero.” (Taylor 8)

This is the pattern of justification for male violence which Taylor identifies in Twilight. Needless to say, perhaps, it is one she finds extremely problematic, as has Foz Meadows, because:

Love can be unhealthy; it can be violent, toxic, unstable and imbalanced. Simply saying “But he/she loves him/her!” neither excuses nor overrules the presence of abuse: instead, it requires us to ask why the characters care for each other in the first place, and whether or not that history is solid enough to be worth fighting for. Obviously, YMMV on this point: there’s a massive amount of leeway in terms of personal preference. But that only applies when the narrative acknowledges the problem; and in far too many instances, not only doesn’t this happen, but abuse is construed as courtship. (Meadows)

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Franiuk, Renae and Samantha Scherr. "The Lion Fell in Love with the Lamb." Feminist Media Studies (2012). [Abstract]

Heise, Franka. " 'I’m a Modern Bride': On the Relationship between Marital Hegemony, Bridal Fictions, and Postfeminism." M/C Journal 15.6 (2012).

Meadows, Foz. "Smugglivus 2012 Guest Author/Blogger: Foz Meadows." The Book Smugglers. 17 December 2012.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Taylor, Jessica. "Romance and the Female Gaze Obscuring Gendered Violence in The Twilight Saga. Feminist Media Studies (2012). [Abstract]

Unknown Unknowns (3): A Guest Post on Female Werewolves by Hannah Priest

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 18 December, 2012

As I mentioned in my previous post, for the final instalment in this series about popular culture's known unknowns and unknown unknowns I'm calling on the expertise of Dr Hannah Priest, who very kindly agreed to write a post for me about female werewolves.

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It’s a pleasure to have been asked to contribute to this response to Erin Young’s article on paranormal romance. Like Laura, I begin my response by ‘treading carefully’, as I am aware of ‘known unknowns’ in my own sphere of knowledge (and I’m sure there are ‘unknown unknowns’ too). My current work does not concern contemporary paranormal romance specifically, but rather the wider cultural history of female werewolves. While the novels of Carrie Vaughn and Kelley Armstrong have a significant place in the recent history of female werewolf fiction, I am interested in how they might read in relation to the longer history of presenting she-wolves. Are Kitty and Elena ‘new’ takes on an older tradition? Or are they based on more traditional tropes of presentation? As Laura mentioned at the end of her second post, I am also interested in the ways in which the presentation of the paranormal romance werewolf intersects with lycanthropy in contemporary horror and urban fantasy.

When researching the long cultural history of werewolves, gender is a vital consideration. The question as to why there are more male werewolves than female werewolves has received a number of answers: that lycanthropy is a metaphor for masculine aggression, nobility or psychological bifurcation is the most common response. However, the question itself can be dangerous, as it suggests that a) there is one tradition of werewolves to be explored; b) we can understand or define this tradition by exploring its most common manifestations; and c) manifestations that deviate from the norm are unusual variants that, while interesting, do not alter what the tradition means.

When we actually look at the roughly thousand-year history of female werewolves in literature (and, later, film) – to say nothing of the various European folklores that include werewolves – and compare it to the (admittedly longer) history of male werewolves, I would suggest that it is more productive to consider the female werewolf tradition (which I have termed ‘lycogyny’) as a separate, though intersecting, tradition to that of male werewolves. While these traditions share many tropes, they also draw on different influences and cultural principles. Put simply: when we read a female werewolf, we are accessing a distinct and semi-independent cultural history. Writers of female werewolves do not simply take a male werewolf and give it breasts.

This leads me to this first issue I found when reading Erin Young’s essay on Vaughn and Armstrong’s fictions: in the explorations of their lycanthropy, Kitty and Elena are read against male werewolves, with little reference to other female werewolves. Young states, for instance:

one depiction of the werewolf is notably absent from contemporary paranormal romance: the half-wolf, half-human construction that is recognizable in film examples like Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance in George Waggener’s The Wolf Man (1941), or Michael J. Fox’s comedic portrayal in Rod Daniels’ Teen Wolf (1985). The werewolves of werewolf romance transform completely, from human to wolf, and from wolf to human. They also possess a great deal of control over the transformation. (209)

I am not denying that this is true. I would question, though, the relevance of The Wolf Man and Teen Wolf to an examination of Kitty and Elena. These ostensible precedents seem somewhat arbitrary, and specifically male. While the ‘Wolf Man’ paradigm has become a standard cinematic way of representing the male werewolf, this is a late twentieth-century trope. Earlier fictions of male werewolves rarely refer to ‘half-wolf, half-human’ creatures, but almost exclusively rely on complete transformation. This is also true of fictions about female werewolves, and the female of the species has remained stubbornly resistant to the hybrid mode of depiction. Female werewolves are much more likely than males to move from one discrete form to another (the Ginger Snaps trilogy being a notable exception to this).

Werewolf Woman

Young describes Vaughn and Armstrong’s description of werewolf transformation as an ‘alteration’ (209), but, in fact, we might compare it to Victorian narratives about female werewolves (Clemence Housman’s The Were Wolf, for instance), in which transformed women are indistinguishable from natural wolves. Similarly, when Young argues that ‘the transformation does not involve a loss of memory’ (209), we might remember that very few werewolf narratives have actually used the memory-loss trope – it has been used in twentieth-century cinema, but is not by any means the only presentation of lycanthropy (male or female) through the ages.

The paradigm that Young suggests is subverted by these novels, and their construction of ‘no undesirable bodies, no helpless lack of control, no tragic loss of memory or fear of the atrocities one may have committed in werewolf form’ (209), is well-represented by films inspired by The Wolf Man, but has never been the dominant mode of presenting female werewolves. It is also not particularly common in other literary genres containing female werewolves: horror, for instance, often erodes the difference between the woman-in-human-form and the woman-in-wolf-form. In fiction, we might look to Thomas Emson’s Maneater or, more strikingly, Tom Fletcher’s The Leaping, in which the only female werewolf has far less of a break in identity than her male peers. These texts bear comparison with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose only female werewolf (Veruca) has far less ‘tragic loss of memory’ and ‘fear’ than her male counterpart (Oz), and Trick ‘r Treat, whose lycanthropic transformation is far from ‘undesirable’.

Despite some compelling discussion of Vaughn and Armstrong’s work, Young sadly continues to discuss aspects of Elena and Kitty’s gendered presentation as ‘new’ without reference to traditions of presenting female werewolves. Most striking in this respect is her claim that Elena’s ‘lycanthropy effectively denaturalizes the domestic sphere, along with its gendered expectations and values’ (219). This is true in the case of Armstrong’s fiction, though I would question its direct application to Vaughn’s. However, rather than being a ‘new’ development in female werewolf fiction, it is one of the most common and abiding tropes of lycogyny. While earlier representations of male werewolves often work to reinforce masculine, hegemonic ideals – I’m thinking particularly of medieval romance narratives like Marie de France’s Bisclavret and the anonymous Guillaume de Palerne – female werewolves (or their medieval counterparts, the wives and stepmothers in werewolf narratives) have consistently denaturalized and subverted the domestic sphere (or other spheres with ‘gendered expectations and values’). We might look to the presentation of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf (a creature associated with wolves, if not a werewolf) as an early example of this. With her perversion of patrilineal society (her son’s heritage is matrilineal, with descent from Cain’s daughters), aggression towards the meadhall and its inhabitants, and alternative ‘family home’ in the mere, Grendel’s mother stands in sharp and violent opposition to the ‘gendered expectations and values’ of the domus.

However, we don’t need to go this far back: Shakira’s 2009 hit ‘She-Wolf’ told us:

A domesticated girl, that’s all you ask of me

Darling, it is no joke. This is lycanthropy.

For Shakira as for the anonymous poet of Beowulf, and numerous other writers in between, lycogyny necessarily requires a rejection and denaturalization of the domestic sphere. In truth, Elena and Kitty are much less forceful in this than other female werewolves – they do not, for instance, kill/kidnap their own children, like the wife of Rosamund Marriott Watson’s ‘A Ballad of the Werewolf’ – which might raise the question of what exactly the ‘alteration’ here is. For me, paranormal romance’s true subversion of lycogyny lies in the nostalgic yearning for the pre-lycanthropic domestic – it may be denaturalized in the narratives, but this often runs contrary to the heroine’s desires.

There is much that I agree with in Young’s article, and (as Laura stated in her post) this response is not a know-it-all corrective. Rather, I also want to draw attention to a common issue with studies of contemporary paranormal fictions: which precedents should be cited. In the case of werewolves (and, perhaps even more, vampires), the temptation is to hold up twentieth-century cinematic monsters as the tradition and to read twenty-first-century romance iterations as a subversion. Sadly, more often than not, it is also twentieth-century cinematic male monsters that are held up as the norm, denying a long and complex history of presenting female monsters. If we follow this approach, we will undoubtedly read paranormal romance’s creatures of the night as subversive and paradigm-altering. However, this is a misleading simplification that ignores millennia of literature and story-telling.