feminism

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.

Subverting the Romance in the Philippines

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 27 December, 2015

The article discussed in my last post, about fans of yaoi and Boys' Love fiction, argues that these texts had changed their Filipino readers' attitudes. In particular,

Fans' exposure to representations of male homoeroticism, androgyny and coupling were all instrumental in teasing out from fans their dissatisfactions with the dualistic and essentialist constructions of gender and sexuality, as well as intimate relationships in their societies. However, more than that, Yaoi and BL's non-normative representations of masculinity and intimacy also help fans develop a more humanistic and egalitarian vision of men, women and love relationships, rejecting rigid gender norms and oppressive power relationships. (Santos Fermin 200)

Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin suggests that they may therefore be considered sites of cultural/political resistance. The same could be said of the romantic fiction discussed in Mina Roces' Women's Movements and the Filipina 1986-2008.

There isn't enough about romance novels in it for me to feel I can really add it to the Romance Wiki bibliography but it seemed a shame not to note down and share what she has to say about some romances published by "the radical women's health organization Likhaan [which] presented me with a unique source of six romance-style paperback books in the Tagalog language that they had commissioned to introduce the taboo concept of abortion as a reproductive right" (31):

Between 2004 and 2006, Likhaan published six pocketbooks. They were written by two authors; one of the authors, Lualhati Bautista, was an award-winning writer and novelist. The pocketbooks written by Carmen Cabiling were distinguishable from Bautista's because they were grouped under a series called The Scarlett Diaries where the main characters of each book were close friends of one local nonmetropolitan community named Gian. These pocketbooks were packaged in the genre of romance novels much like the Mills and Boon or Barbara Cartland books. But it was the issue of "abortion" rather than "romance" that received "star billing" in these novels. Although romance novels followed the quintessential formula that commenced with "boy meets girl" and ended with "boy gets girl," the pocketbooks by Bautista began with "girl gets pregnant" and was preoccupied with "girl and abortion." In addition, although the visual appearance of the publications were in the trope of the cheap romantic paperback novel, the content of these particular books captured poignantly the women's struggle with the decision to have an abortion - there represented as a decision that involved not just the woman herself, but also her kinship group, the father of the child, and her friends - and the difficulties in finding an abortionist, including complications that might have arisen due to the clandestine nature of it. [...] Carmen Cabiling's The Scarlett Diaries series privileged the "romance plot" over the "abortion plot" (Erika, Serena, and Angelika) [...]

Likhaan commissioned the writing of the pocketbooks based on the stories of thirty women interviewed by the organization for its research advocacy arm. The decision to use this genre was the extreme popularity of romance pocketbooks in the 1990s; they replaced the comics of previous years. The books were written in conversational, colloquial Tagalog, with an emphasis on dialogue rather than on literary description. All were short novels, of around 125 pages long, and were published in newsprint. A print-run of six thousand copies or one thousand per pocketbook was published. Many of the pocketbooks were handed out free of charge to audiences or participants in Likhaan's forums, training sessions, community educational activities, and mobilization events and to patients benefitting from their medical outreach services. [...] In addition, the books were sold at a minimum of 5 pesos each (a few cents), a huge price drop when one compares it with the P40.00 (or US$1.00) price tag on commercial pocketbooks. In addition, Likhaan has sold five hundred copies through consignment with a University of the Philippines writer-artist who sold it to college students and personal friends. By October 2007, only three hundred copies remained. All books brandished the Likhaan name and logo and were sold by Likhaan. The conspicuous absence of any explicit descriptions of sex in the novels themselves was probably intentional, because Likhaan was not shy about discussing sexuality. Because the purpose of the books was to inform, sex scenes that had the effect of titillating readers would only blunt the powerful message introduced by the narratives. Despite the cheap packaging and risqué series title (The Scarlett Diaries), these books handled the issue of abortion in a sophisticated and poignant way, delivering their attacks on the Catholic Church and the state through the intense dialogue of the characters. In this sense, the proverbial "do not judge a book by its cover" was appropriate. These pocketbooks subverted not just the sociocultural and legal mores of their time, but also the romance trope in which they were packaged. Perhaps that is why these books were seen as a potential subversive tool. But the aim was to introduce the delicate issue of abortion to mainstream society, epitomized by the target readers. One could also detect a certain irony in the use of the romance novel as a way of refashioning readers, since readers of romance fiction were not usually perceived to be susceptible to feminist ideas.

The stories that were told through the medium of these pocketbooks blurred the lines between fiction, romance, and autobiography. All books carried the following acknowledgement: "Although all the people and events in this story comes from the imagination, we wish to thank all the women who opened their doors and hearts to us who in minor or major ways have been the inspiration of this literary work or book." (189-190)

Roces concludes by stating that

Likhaan's innovative use of pocketbooks [...] create[d] a counter-hegemonic discourse by subverting the romance genre. Even these radical ideas were packaged in the narrative of romance. Perhaps cultural preparation required hints rather than blunt demands. [...] In the meantime, women readers of romantic fiction have been introduced to the serious topic of abortion, although it was accompanied by a happy ending. (196-197)

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Roces, Mina. Women's Movements and the Filipina 1986-2008. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2012.

Santos Fermin, Tricia Abigail. "Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women's Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 187-203.

Persistent Concerns: Disability, Race, Sex

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 2 February, 2013

Since the concern of commercial media is to exploit as wide an audience as possible, their repertoire of genres in any period tends to be broad and various, covering a wide (though not all-inclusive) range of themes, subjects, and public concerns. Within the structured marketplace of myths, the continuity and persistence of particular genres may be seen as keys to identifying the culture's deepest and most persistent concerns. (Slotkin 8)

Some fictions make their views of these concerns rather more explicit than others. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1904) are extreme examples. In the former

Dixon sought, in part, to correct what he perceived as gross misrepresentations of the South in literary works, primarily in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which even fifty years after its publication was still widely read. In his fictional portrayal of the beginning of the Klan, Dixon argues the group began as a defensive organization—to protect white womanhood from black male sexual aggression and to protect government from corruption. Dixon seamlessly weaves his racist rhetoric into sentimental love plots, priming readers to feel sympathy for white supremacist leaders.  ("Controversial")

One of these is

Dixon's hero, Gaston [...]. Although Gaston's cause is originally southern, [...] Gaston's revenge produces a movement that finally awakens northerners to the Black menace: "You cannot build in a Democracy a nation inside a nation of two antagonistic races. The future American must be an Anglo-Saxon or a Mulatto." (Slotkin 187)

It seems a particularly gratifying context in which to recall the identity of the current president of the US, and to remember that

Children from racial and ethnic minorities now account for more than half the births in the US, according to estimates of the latest US census data.

Black, Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race births made up 50.4% of new arrivals in the year ending in July 2011.

It puts non-Hispanic white births in the minority for the first time. (BBC)

I'm certain these facts would not please Dixon. What I want to highlight here, though, is the fact that Dixon used "sentimental love plots" to express his beliefs. This is true not just of The Leopard's Spots but also of The Clansman, in which:

The southern male hero is more virile and attractive than his northern counterparts, and the northern heroine (Elsie Stoneman) is wooed from her infatuation with the unnatural doctrines of racial equality (espoused by her father) by her desire to love and be loved by the manly southerner. Elsie's father, the leader of the Radicals, is physically deformed, with "explains" his hatred of the healthy southern male and his desire to cripple and deform the southern race through miscegenation. (Slotkin 188)

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Meljean Brook's Riveted is a direct response from the romance genre to Dixon, but in her acknowledgments Brook pays tribute to

Monica Jackson, who fought to turn the world around: You flipped some of us. I truly believe that everyone else will follow, someday. I just wish that you were here to see it.

Monica, who died in May 2012, was outspoken about the racism in romance:

I've written many words on why black racial separation is so prevalent in romance. My favorite theory is that it's the nature of the romance genre. Romance is fantasy-based. Readers are notoriously picky about their settings and having sympathetic characters that they can relate to them. Also, majority romance readers have plenty of romance novels to choose. There's no shortage of books, so why should a reader take the trouble to venture outside their comfort zone and spend money on something that may not appeal? No black romance author gets major buzz in the majority romance community compared with the buzz, awards and recognition white authors receive, so where do they start?

These are a few of the reasons, but figuring out how to address the issue of segregation in romance and thinking about how to go about changing it, is a daunting task. Race is an uncomfortable and taboo subject to discuss on nearly any level by almost anybody, black or white. Desegregating any institution in this country has always been a monumental struggle. (All About Romance)

I think Brook's Riveted can be read as her small contribution to that struggle, and one which she extends so that it also challenges discrimination on the basis of gender, disability and sexual orientation. The novel suggests that it is because of prejudice that "it is not usually what we think of ourselves that makes our lives harder or easier; too often, it is what others think of you" (267).

US cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jackie C. Horne has argued that the novel "proves not to be a meditation on gender roles, for Brook takes for granted the equality of the sexes that Gilman and feminists in the 1960s and 70s could only imagine." This is largely true, because the heroine of the novel comes from an all-female society and works as an engineer on an airship captained by a woman. However, the "New World" is rife with sexism: in Manhattan City, for example, "exposing a bare ankle or elbow earned a rebuke and a trip in a paddy wagon back to the port's gates, where her salacious behavior was reported to Captain Vashon and the airship threatened with docking sanctions" (4). There:

without a man's name behind hers, a woman had very little. Even many of the female scientists [...] had to secure the approval of their husbands or fathers before pursuing their chosen field, and were sometimes forced to abandon that pursuit when other demands were made of them. There were exceptions, of course - there were always exceptions - but it was a sobering realization. (276)

One could make the case that, to an even greater extent, Riveted "proves not to be a meditation on race." Certainly Annika, the heroine, is "marked [...] by the darkness of her skin" (13) and although she doesn't know who her biological parents were, it's possible that she is "a descendant of the Africans who'd fled across the ocean to escape the Horde" (55). David, the hero, is half "native" (154):

Many of my father's people were among those who converted when the Europeans first came. My name - Kentewess - identifies me as one. When I was a boy living in the east, reclaiming of the old ways had just begun, so I didn't think of it much. But when we moved to the mountain builders' city [...], many of those around us took great pride in never having converted, never having lost history to Europeans. And when I was with the other boys, I would do everything I could to avoid mentioning my name, and gave them instead the name of an ancestor. I'd ask my father for legends, for tales - not even to truly honor them, but because knowing them make it easier to not feel ... European. (155)

Racial differences are noted, then, and do have an impact on how the characters are perceived, but what more often seems to set Annika apart are her colourful clothes and her "lack of proper sensibilities" (61). With David what mostly sets him apart are his prosthetics. He has a prosthetic hand "grafted on so that the steel contraption had become a working part of his body" (11), "mechanical legs" (23) and "Pale scars raked the left side of his face, with several wide, ragged stripes running diagonally from forehead to cheek [...] And [...] some sort of optical contraption [...] had been embedded into his temple, which shielded his left eye with a dark, reflective lens" (12). It sets him apart from others and at eighteen he'd "confused loving [...] with being grateful that someone would touch him without disgust" (121-22), only to discover that "she'd loved him for what he couldn't do, not what he could" (122). Years later, David knows that

There would always be the Emilys who kissed him out of pity, the women who flinched away in disgust. There would always be those with good intentions. It made David more grateful for rare men like Dooley, who took him as he was - and for women like Annika, who seemed to. (122)

Another possible response to disability, and the one expressed by the villain of the novel, is to use the disabled as an inspiration:

"Men like him [i.e. David] have had to fight harder than all of us, every day [...] It should be a lesson to the rest of us, to remember how our lives could be much more difficult. We need to be thankful for what we have [...]."

[...] David didn't want to be a hero, or a lesson. Just a goddamn man. People treating him like less or more than one made his life more difficult than losing his legs ever had. (145)

David's mother came from Hannasvick, a secret Islandic village populated only by women but since a

community couldn't continue without children, [...] some women left to lie with men, and returned with a girl - or empty-handed, if the baby had been a boy that they left with his father. Some of the women remained away, choosing to stay with their sons. Others, like Annika's mother, took in a child stolen from Horde territories or the New World. (97)

This, however, is not the reason why Annika believes that the village must remain a secret, even from David:

Annika had seen what would happen to her people if the New World descended on them. She'd seen men hanged for less than what the women had done for years. She would never expose them to the ugliest part of the New World, the part that transformed love into sickness and sin.

Not everyone in the New World believed the same; perhaps David Kentewess wouldn't, either. If she told him about the love shared between her mother and his aunt, about so many of the others who'd made their lives together in her village, maybe he wouldn't show the same disgust. But Annika couldn't know how he would react. (101-102)

It is, however, someone else who states that "Something is wrong in them, Annika, and what you see isn't love. It's just lust" (175). Annika argues with this individual but since Annika herself has never found "a woman who stirred her passion [...] - and she hadn't met any men to do it, either. Until David" (163), in our world she would probably be classified as an "ally" of lesbian, gay and bisexual people rather than as someone who was herself lesbian or bisexual. Annika herself wonders about the extent to which she is committed to being an "ally" for although she believes she would be willing to defend her lesbian or bisexual friends and relatives if their lives were at risk, she is less sure she would risk her own life

"[...] For something [...] I think it's harder to die for something you believe in. To stand up and to say that something else is wrong. I said it to my friend, but would I shout it aboard this ship? I don't know. I'd be too afraid of what would happen to me, because so many think as she does. I hate myself for this."

"When you're surrounded by stupidity, self-preservation isn't a sin."

"Refusing to challenge that stupidity and letting it continue might end up hurting someone you love, later. I'd die to protect them, but not to tell people that I've kissed a woman, too?"

Alarmed, David shook his head. Though he agreed with her in principle, he'd be the first to knock her off the pulpit if she intended to shout it from the deck. If she intended to risk herself, to stand for her people, he'd be there with her - but there had to be better ways of going about it. (180-81)

The question of how to "go about it" is raised again, this time in the context of poverty, and David argues that

"If you broke every stupid rule in the New World simply because it was stupid, you'd never have time for anything else."

"I should choose one or two that matter, then." Though she wore a faint smile, her gaze remained serious. "If I had been caught [giving money to the starving so that they could buy some food], died for it - perhaps someone would realize how stupid it is to die for a few coins. If enough people recognized it, they could make a change. But I didn't risk anything. And when I was stopped by the port officer, I thought, Who would come help me? I wouldn't even risk giving money to the hungry. [...]" (182)

Later in the novel Annika does take a risk to free others, and it does indeed "make a change." Her question, "Who would come help me?" reminds me of pastor Martin Niemöller's statement which exists in various versions: he "may have thought first of the Communists, then the disabled, then Jews, and finally countries conquered by Germany" (Marcuse) but the version which, according to Wikipedia, is most commonly cited in the US, is:

First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me. (Wikipedia)

Riveted may speak out more loudly on some issues than on others, but it seems to imply that all of us need to speak out against prejudice. Firstly, because it's the right thing to do, but also because all of us may one day face prejudice: as Annika suggests, "I suppose there is always something to make us different. I wonder if anyone at all ever feels at home" (314). As Annika and her mother acknowledge:

"It won't be easy, rabbit."

"No. It will take a long time, I think. But we can start small, here. And never back down." (388)

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BBC. "Non-Hispanic US White Births Now the Minority in US." 17 May 2012.

Brook, Meljean. Riveted. London: Penguin, 2012.

"Controversial History: Thomas Dixon and the Klan Trilogy." Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004.

Horne, Jackie C. "Lesbiian Allies, Heterosexual Romance: Meljean Brook's Riveted." Romance Novels for Feminists. 20 Nov. 2012.

Jackson, Monica. "What It's Like." Section of "Racism in Romance?" ed. Laurie Gold. All About Romance. 15 Oct. 2005.

Marcuse, Harold. "Martin Niemöller's famous quotation: 'First they came for the Communists ...' What did Niemoeller himself say? Which groups did he name? In what order?" Webpage created 12 Sept. 2000 and last updated 24 Feb 2012.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

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The cover image on the left (showing David as well as Annika) is the US version. The one on the right is of the UK cover. Brook has written that:

Cover art matching the contents is always iffy, unfortunately. And I think the girl on the cover [of the US edition] is darker, but the lighting/ice ends up washing her out. I saw some of the original stills from the photo shoot, and she was more obviously not-white, which was pretty awesomely thrilling. So I think the model was good. Then desaturation and lighting was added to make it look like they were on location, and then end result was all-over lighter. The UK cover ends up being closer in that respect.

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]

Cinderella, Goose-Girls and Rapunzel

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 3 October, 2012

GeeseI'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)

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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.

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1 I've explored the relationships between Harlequin Mills & Boon romances and fairytales in chapters 1 and 2 of For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance.

The image of the geese came from Wikimedia Commons and was created by LadyofHats, who dedicated it to the public domain.

Feminism and Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 25 September, 2012

ChickWriting about "chick flicks," Imelda Whelehan has commented that their

postfeminist discourse is characterised as deploying what might be regarded as broadly "feminist" sentiments in order to justify certain behaviours or choices, but these sentiments have become severed from their political or philosophical origins. Postfeminism in popular culture displays a certain schizophrenia in the way women are often portrayed as enormously successful at work and simultaneously hopelessly anxious about their intimate relationships, over which they often have little control or for which they seek continuous self-improvement. The world of work is generally portrayed as allowing female success, but there are glimpses of sexism which present enough problems that women have to solve for themselves or in consultation with their close girlfriends; beauty, fashion and adornment remain highly prized as part of the arsenal of the high-achieving woman, so that postfeminism equates with excessive consumption, while at the same time expressing sentiments of empowerment and female capability. The things that make women miserable are often covertly laid at the door of feminism and can be summarised thus: "feminism gave women social equality, choices and freedoms, but those choices have emotional costs which individual women are constantly trying to resolve and balance." It is feminism, then, that is positioned as creating the most significant challenges for postmodern women, even though all that feminism did was to foreground the reality that the traditional feminine sphere of the home remains painfully exclusive from the world of work and almost entirely the domain of women. (156)

Romances, by contrast, tend to focus on women's success in the field of "intimate relationships," though they may also show heroines achieving success at work. The differences don't end there, however: while I certainly don't think that all romances are feminist, there are many that are and I discuss some of them in "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances" which was published today in the Journal of Popular Culture.

I found that a "focus on female sexuality and a woman’s right to experience sexual gratification is something that the Modern romances share with Second Wave feminism" (1066). Since they also acknowledge that even highly gratifying sex cannot, on its own, provide a firm basis for a long-term "intimate relationship," these novels explore what more is required in order to achieve a successful marriage and, much as

Second Wave feminists “critiqued marriage as yet another form of sexual slavery” (hooks 78–79) [...] In Modern romances the damaging consequences of unequal marriages in which the woman is treated as a commodity, providing sexual and reproductive services in exchange for her upkeep, may be shown through the stories of secondary characters. (1069)

The stories of the protagonists themselves, in the feminist romances of both the Modern and Romance lines, seem to offer the reader an alternative model for relationships of the sort outlined by bell hooks:

When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love. (104)

According to Whelehan,

earlier, more positive accounts of the meanings of postfeminism have waned as more and more critics identify the seductions of the term as comforting us with the assurance that feminism‘s work is over. Postfeminism depends upon notions of feminism and feminist politics for its existence, but it often resorts to parody to diminish the historical importance of Second Wave feminism. (158)

However, although some of the feminist romances I looked at did reject some of the more radical aspects of second wave feminism, they did not do so in order to position feminism as the source of "the most significant challenges for postmodern women." Furthermore, although HM&B author Ally Blake has declared that some of them contain "post-feminist twentysomething heroines,"

in a personal communication she elaborated that she thinks of “feminists as the women who openly fought for women’s rights, and post-feminist [women] as those of us who believe in those rights and enjoy having them.” (Vivanco 1084-85)

What is clear is that this is not the postfemism present in the films described by Whelehan, in which "The constant return to the theme that full empowerment and heterosexual romance are incompatible has meant that under mature postfeminism men increasingly are being put under erasure" (169). On the contrary, in these romances empowerment (albeit not full empowerment, given that the protagonists still inhabit a world in which sexism has not been eradicated) and heterosexual romance are compatible.

One may still critique romances for the support they offer to "compulsory coupledom" but, unlike Whelehan, who observes tiredly that

For many of us in the business of offering feminist critiques of popular culture in the twenty-first century, it can seem like we‘re simply tilting at windmills. This article touches on those sensations of boredom and ennui which trouble a feminist cultural critic attempting to make sense of the postfeminist distractions of popular culture. (159)

I feel encouraged by the feminist romances I've read: they demonstrate "that romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms" (Radway 18).

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Blake, Ally. "The Changing Face of Romance."

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End, 2000.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Vivanco, Laura. "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances." Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060–1089.

Whelehan, Imelda. "Remaking Feminism: Or Why is Postfeminism so Boring?" Nordic Journal of English Studies 9.3 (2010): 155-172.

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The image of the 3-week-old Polish Bantam chick was created by Charles M. Sauer, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence at Wikimedia Commons.

Shulamith Firestone and the Glittery HooHa

Shulamith Firestone,

a widely quoted feminist writer who published her arresting first book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” at 25, only to withdraw from public life soon afterward, was found dead on Tuesday [...] [28 August 2012]. She was 67. [...] Subtitled “The Case for Feminist Revolution,” “The Dialectic of Sex” was published by William Morrow & Company in 1970. [...] The book, which was translated into several languages, hurtled Ms. Firestone into the front ranks of second-wave feminists, alongside women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. It remains widely taught in college women’s-studies courses. (Fox)

I can't remember when I first came across The Dialectic of Sex but it proved useful to me when I began to think about the Glittery HooHa, which I learned of thanks to a post by Jennifer Crusie in which she quoted Lani Diane Rich's explanation of how the term "Glittery HooHa" came into being, and what it means:

Once upon a time, in a land called Television Without Pity, the peasants gathered to discuss a particular type of character on soap operas. She was always blond, always beautiful, and always good-natured and kind, and always stupid beyond the telling of it. Did someone get approached by a masked man wearing dark gloves who needed help getting a puppy out of a wolf trap, only to happily agree to assist and disappear? It was her. Did someone get drunk on her honeymoon, pass out in a strange bed, and wake up only to assume on very little evidence that she’d slept with another man? Then lie about it? Then get caught lying? Then find out it was all a set-up by her evil twin, who had always been evil and had, in fact, done this before? It was her. Did someone get trapped in their own microwave oven?

Guess who?

And yet… there is a man. We’ll call him… Hero. Hero is handsome, he is strong, and… well, yes, okay, he’s kinda dumb, too, but still he manages to rescue her every single time she’s in trouble… which is approximately twice a show. He stays by her side and loves her through thick and thin. He disentangles her hair from the curling iron. He drops his Very Important Job to rush off and rescue her from the cardboard box on the pier where the Villain left her, warning her NOT TO SAY A WORD lest he do BAD BAD THINGS to her favorite hamster, so she kept quiet, even though the Villain was long gone, and many a passerby had passed her by. The Hero is loyal and loving and doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she is so FREAKIN’ stupid. How can this be??

Well, my friends, it comes down to the power of the Glittery HooHa, or the GHH for short. A woman with an HH as G as this girl merely needs to walk around as glitter falls from her netherparts, leaving a trail for Hero to follow. And once he finds her, it only takes one dip in the GHH to snare him forever, for yea, no matter how many HooHas he might see, never will there be one as Glittery as hers…

Of course, Shulamith Firestone wasn't a poster at Television Without Pity, but you could say that she'd already described the GHH long before, in The Dialectic of Sex:

because the distinguishing characteristic of women's exploitation as a class is sexual, a special means must be found to make them unaware that they are considered all alike sexually ("cunts"). Perhaps when a man marries he chooses from this undistinguishable lot with care, for as we have seen, he holds a special high place in his mental reserve for "The One," by virtue of her close association with himself; but in general he can't tell the difference between chicks (Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads). [...] When a man believes all women are alike, but wants to keep women from guessing, what does he do? He keeps his beliefs to himself, and pretends, to allay her suspicions, that what she has in common with other women is precisely what makes her different. Thus her sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality. [...]The process is so effective that most women have come to believe seriously that the world needs their particular sexual contributions to go on. ("She thinks her pussy is made of gold."). (148-50)

Firestone's articulation of the ideas underpinning the concept of the GHH is extremely harsh in its condemnation of both men and women and I don't think I'm deluding myself when I say that she certainly does not describe how the men in my life feel about women. When it comes to romance fiction and its depiction of heterosexual relationships, though, I have to admit that there are a fair number of misogynistic, promiscuous heroes who do seem to think that all women are untrustworthy and only good for one thing - until a surpassingly sexually attractive heroine appears to demonstrate that there is at least one exception (which perhaps proves the rule). It should be noted however that, contrary to Firestone's claim that a woman's "sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality," the success of such heroines is also dependent on their possession of a Prism (see Vivanco and Kramer).

In romance novels, as in real life, one can find plenty of women with complex personalities and unique relationships which are not based solely on sexual attraction and sexual pleasure. In romances the multi-faceted nature of these relationships is sometimes symbolised by rings given to the heroines of romances by their heroes: although these rings often indicate "that the hero and heroine have found their 'One' and may also symbolize the sexual attraction between them" (Vivanco 105), they also often "recall a moment of particular importance to their relationship, or reflect aspects of the personality [...] of the heroine, the hero, or both" (105).

That said, is it that case that, in some romances, there is such an overwhelming emphasis on sex, and the heroine's sexual allure, that it seems "her sexuality eventually becomes synonymous with her individuality"? Shulamith Firestone may be dead, but her work lives on and still raises thought-provoking questions.

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Crusie, Jennifer. "Modern Literary Terms: The Glittery HooHa." 9 April 2007.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. 1970. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Fox, Margalit. "Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67." The New York Times. 30 August 2012.

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).

Vivanco, Laura. "One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance Fiction." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 99-107.

laura Saturday, 1 September, 2012