A Punishing Kiss

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 30 May, 2015

Rosemary Johnson-Kurek has noted that:

The punishing kiss is generally unique to the hero; however, at least one Temptation heroine indulges in the practice. Driven by a furious jealousy, Nikki grabs a handful of Carter's hair and plunges her tongue into his mouth when he gasps at her action. "Reveling in her power she changed the tenor of their kiss, caressing rather than branding. Rewarding instead of punishing" (MacAllister 119).

The nature of the punishing kiss is a phenomenon definitely open to feminist criticism. It is the intent that is important. Some punishing kisses are passionate, lip-bruising consummations: "He took her lips in a powerful, punishing kiss, pushed beyond gentleness by two days of more frustration than a man should ever have to endure" (Schuler, Passion 172). Joshua's kiss, however, [in Summer Surrender by Abra Taylor] "started in anger, a seal to stop the provocation of her words" (79). The former is physically punishing in that it is a bruising kiss; the latter is a kiss meant to punish the heroine by intimidating her. (134)

If the "punishing kiss" is less common nowadays (and I have the impression that it is), perhaps that's because, as the heroine of Nora Roberts' Cordina's Crown Jewel (2002) acknowledges after having given one to her hero,

She'd pushed herself on him. All but forced herself on him. It meant nothing that she'd been angry and insulted and aroused all at once. Why if a man had behaved as she had, Camilla would have been first in line to condemn him as a brute and a barbarian.

She'd made him kiss her, taking advantage of the situation and her physical advantage. That was unconscionable. (82)

And, as she adds in her apology to him, "A sexual act of any kind must be mutual or it's harassment. Worst, molestation" (86). Of course, the hero's response is to initiate a punishing kiss of his own:

It was an assault, a glorious one that made her weak-kneed, light-headed and hot-blooded all at once. Even as she started to sway toward him, he gave her a light shove. Stepped back.

"There, that clears the slate," he said.  (86)

While I think romance readers are probably a lot less likely to tolerate abusive, sexist behaviour from their heroes than they once were, there are clearly times when the use of force is portrayed as sexy. There is much more recognition, though, of how problematic its use can be. And perhaps that's why, just to be on the safe(word) side, a modern hero is more likely to want to have a signed contract before he initiates any punishing.


Johnson-Kurek, Rosemary E. "Leading Us into Temptation: The Language of Sex and the Power of Love." Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1999. 113-48.

Roberts, Nora. Cordina's Crown Jewel. New York, NY: Silhouette, 2002.

Sleepless Masculinity

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 23 December, 2014

Wakefulness as a measure of masculinity is a facet of the history of gender in America that has received no attention at all. Recent gender studies have pursued many facets of male experience and identity, often fixing on dramatic expressions such as extreme muscularity and myriad forms of aggression. But mundane manly stamina, as displayed by persevering through long days or nights on the job, has thus far gained little notice. Fulfilling the familiar male breadwinner role entailed a daily dedication to struggle to maintain consciousness as a basic test of strength. For many American men, winning bread meant losing sleep. (Derickson x)

Now that I think about it, I'm fairly sure that one can find sleeplessness as a marker of masculinity in romance novels too because I have a feeling there are quite a lot of heroes who sleep relatively little. I'll certainly be trying to spot examples in the future. What about Edward, in Twilight, who famously spends a lot of time watching Bella sleep? Of course, he's an immortal vampire. For mortals, as Derickson notes,

Although not as self-evident as the link between somnolence and accidents, the role of sleep loss in producing chronic disease has been established by researchers for numerous disorders. These include ulcers and other gastrointestinal ailments, depression and other psychiatric conditions, heart attacks and other forms of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and other metabolic disturbances. Some evidence links short sleep to elevated rates of cancer. (xii)

Romance novels can reflect concerns about overwork/lack of sleep too: there are heroines who're concerned about heroes who seem tired and overworked.

I can also recall scenes in which a heroine thinks that her hero looks touchingly vulnerable and boyish when he's asleep. Those scenes would seem to affirm the association between sleeplessness and masculinity, but in a way which perhaps suggests that where there is love, there is no need for constant masculine vigilance. I'm reminded of the story of Samson:

One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.”

But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah. The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels[a] of silver.”  [...]

she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16, NIV)

Samson and Delilah

Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: U of Pennsylvania P, 2014.

Image of "Samson and Dalila" by Francesco Morone via Wikimedia Commons.

Nature or Nurture?

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 7 December, 2014

I'm too busy repeating "it was written in 1953" from between gritted teeth to write anything very insightful about Margaret Malcolm's Cherish This Wayward Heart but here's the blurb, from a 1983 Harlequin reprint:

All her life Judith had tried to make up for not being the son her father had wanted. She was determined to be as good as any man.

Now, with her father's death, Windygates Farm was hers. And right from the start she resented the new estate manager, Charles Saxilby.

But, in the ensuing battle of wills between them, Charles taught Judith to be a woman!

Obviously, this heroine is doomed to fail: there is no way she can run a farm as well as a man could because

Men and women were different. Had and ought to have a different outlook on life so that each was not the same as the other but complementary. Right from the beginning it had been been impossible for her to take the place of the son that her father had wanted so fervently, and she should never have been allowed to try. Life had always been frustrating because she had attempted to live it in a way that was foreign to a woman's nature, only she had been too stubborn to see that or admit it if she had.

And that, of all reasons, was the real one why she had hated Charles. He, with the normal man's approach, had taken it for granted that she would rely on him - that she would need to, just because he was a man and she a woman. And he had compelled her to admit it to herself, if no one else. He had always been there when she needed help - and she had needed it. (553-554)

The novel teaches that a woman simply can't do a man's job, because men and women are different and are therefore naturally best suited to different jobs. It's interesting, though, that the blurb says Judith needs to be "taught [...] to be a woman" because Simone de Beauvoir has argued that

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." By this, Beauvoir means to destroy the essentialism which claims that women are born "feminine" (according to whatever the culture and time define it to be) but are rather constructed to be such through social indoctrination. (Mussett)

I doubt that's quite what the blurb writer had in mind, though. Personally, I think Beauvoir was correct, and I'd suggest that Cherish This Wayward Heart provides evidence that romance novels can, on occasion, help with "social indoctrination."


Malcolm, Margaret. Cherish This Wayward Heart. In The third anthology of 3 Harlequin Romances by Margaret Malcolm. Toronto: Harlequin, 1983. 385-574.

Mussett, Shannon. "Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

An untamed North African Elephant Shrew, via Wikimedia Commons.

Strong Women

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 23 October, 2013

I'm probably going to be moving house soon, which means I'll have to part with quite a few of my books. I'm treating this as an opportunity to take a break from my current project and concentrate on books I've been meaning to read for a while; one of them is Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (there's a detailed review here). Vickery's description of their lives and beliefs suggests that women who might be considered doormats by the standards of many modern romance readers would have seen their own behaviour rather differently:

it was a commonplace that the strict performance of duty generated a degree of secret pleasure, and ladies were relentlessly tutored on how to reach and enjoy the moral high ground: 'You must also learn to be satisfied with the Consciousness of acting Right', counselled Lady Sarah Pennington, 'and look with an unconcerned Indifference on the Reception every successless Attempt to please may meet with,' while Eliza Haywood promised 'Sweet indeed are the reflections, which flow from a consciousness of having done what virtue and the duty owing to the character we bear in life, exacted from us ...' Women's own letters and diaries do suggest that many did their duty to a round of inner applause, finding a certain exaltation in it. Ladies accepted patriarchy in theory, although, strikingly, the assertion of male authority often proved much more acceptable and manageable coming from fathers than from husbands and brothers. Still, when wronged, genteel women rarely questioned the justice of the gender hierarchy; rather they bemoaned the fact that their menfolk departed so sorrily from the authoritative masculine ideal. That said, none of the women studied here expected to endure tyranny [...] and they were fully conscious of what was owing to their dignity and rank. While not above the occasional exhibition of an almost theatrical feminine inferiority when petitioning for favours, the habitual self-projection of most was of upright strength, stoical fortitude and self-command. To be mistress of oneself was paramount - genteel ladies aimed to be self-possessed in social encounters, self-controlled in the face of minor provocations, self-sufficient in the midst of ingratitude, and, above all, brave and enduring in the grip of tragedy and misfortune. Abject feminine servility was the ineradicable mark of the kitchen maid not her employer. (8)

Samuel Richardson's Pamela Andrews and Jane Austen's Fanny Price may not appeal to modern readers as much as the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, but they are "brave and enduring in the grip of tragedy and misfortune" and, in their own ways, they show a great deal of strength. They may begin their stories rather closer to being kitchen maids than employers but by the end of the novels in which they appear these heroines have been rewarded for their fortitude and virtue with more than "a round of inner applause": they are firmly embedded in the ranks of the genteel.


Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

Unconscious Elements of Style

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 28 August, 2013

This week I've been reading some romances from the beginning of the twentieth century, including Berta Ruck's The Courtship of Rosamund Fayre (1915). In that novel Rosamond, who is working as a secretary, is asked to deputise for her employer, Eleanor Urquhart, who thinks herself too busy to correspond with her cousin and fiancé. This is just about feasible because the cousins have never met, the match is an arranged one, and Eleanor and Rosamond have almost identical handwriting because during their schooldays Eleanor admired Rosamond's handwriting and copied it. Rosamond, however, is uneasy about the deception and she becomes distinctly alarmed by what a visiting

elderly Professor-person had to say to old Mr. Urquhart. [...] It seemed to be all about "literary criticism" and "style" [...]. Suddenly, however, her mind leapt to attention.

The old Dryasdust-man was violently tapping his palm with his forefinger and almost shouting at Mr. Urquhart, who looked intensely irritated, "but, my dear sir, the personal elements of style can never be eliminated! The plagiarist may imitate the writing, the general trend of argument may arrive at the same conclusions, but the unconscious elements of style remain." (219-220)

Of course the fiancé does eventually work out what has been going on, and in fact returned from abroad unexpectedly because something about the "unconscious elements" of Rosamond's style suddenly made him very eager to meet his bride-to-be.

I'm not sure I would know any more than Rosamond does about how to set about doing this type of analysis of literary styles, but Olivia Davis seems to have attempted it in a recent essay on Fifty Shades of Grey. She takes as her model a

study by Talbot (1995) that examined transitivity choices achieved through the distribution of process verbs in selected extracts taken from Mills and Boon romance novels. Talbot’s study found that within the genre, female characters were represented as being in a habitual ‘struggle for self-control’ (Talbot 1995: 83), exhibited by their frequent used of mental process verbs. This was a contrast to the male characters, whose use of material processes depicted them as ‘a powerful person...the epitome of the patriarchal male’ (Talbot 1995: 81), thus reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.

The study in question is Mary M. Talbot's Fictions at Work: Language and Social Practice in Fiction (1995) in which Talbot analysed one romance novel in depth (Kate Walker's No Gentleman, 1992). It was a Harlequin Romance and here's part of what Talbot had to say about the Harlequin/Mills & Boon hero of the time:

he is invariably tall, lean, white, and ruggedly handsome with an animal magnetism which is quite extraordinary. He turns heads wherever he goes. Always a powerful person, he is generally someone who is used to being obeyed; a bully, in fact, both professionally and personally. And, perhaps it goes without saying, he is always affluent, whether a successful architect or artist or a fully-fledged capitalist. (81)

By coincidence, Walker's heroine was named Anna and Talbot mentions that

she is tormented with (almost) uncontrollable urges of one kind or another. Her mind and body seem to be perpetually in conflict; the basic premise seems to be that women suppress their instincts/true feelings and are thrown into a state of confusion and consternation by a desirable man's attentions. (82)

The similarities between E. L. James's Christian and Ana and Harlequin/Mills & Boon heroes and heroines of this kind have been noted by Jodi McAlister:

Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are clearly recognisable [...] as archetypes from the world of “Harlequin Presents” category romances: the shy virgin and the emotionally damaged billionaire.

Olivia Davis, though, sticks to analysis of the "unconscious elements of style" and looks in detail at the passage in Fifty Shades which

details the 21-year old, sexually naïve Ana losing her virginity to Grey, [...] an older, more experienced man. [...] Ana has less total verbs than her male counterpart. Grey uses a massive 37 verbs in the extract, implying he is more active, and he literally dominates the text. [...] Within these verbs, Grey also uses more material processes than mental. [...] Ana has a higher percentage of mental processes (65%) than material (35%) [...]. These figures indicate again that gender stereotypes are evident in the text, as this low level of material processes depicts Ana as more passive. Although [...] the narrative is told from Ana’s point of view, which can account for the use of some of the mental processes, Mills rightfully observes that ‘While the male [sexual] experience is represented in terms of the actions he does to her body, the female’s experience is given as her thoughts and feelings, and her body’s independent responses to physical pleasure’ (1995:149) [...]. (79-81)

I find all this interesting, though I can't say I fully understand it: like Jack Elliot's work on romance, which involves training "a computer to spot differences in word-use," it seems a much more scientific, numerical sort of literary criticism than mine.


Davis, Olivia. "Fifty Shades of Grey: A Liberating Text in the Context of Post-Feminism?" Codex 1.1 (2013): 69-89.

McAlister, Jodi. "Fifty Shades of Genre." Popular Romance Project. 8 Nov. 2012.

Ruck, Berta. The Courtship of Rosamond Fayre. Toronto: William Briggs, 1915.

Talbot, Mary M. Fictions at Work: Language and Social Practice in Fiction. London: Longman, 1995.

Thinking Outside the Box

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 22 June, 2013

Ria Cheyne's "research focuses on representations of disability and illness in fiction, especially popular genres such as science fiction, romance, horror and crime" and she suggests that

science fiction offers a space where alternative conceptions of ‘ability’, ‘disability’ and what constitutes a ‘normal’ human body can be explored. [...] The story might be set on another planet, in an artificial environment like a spaceship, or on an Earth where conditions are radically changed from the way they are now.  What this means is that there’s a lot more potential to depict different environmental conditions than in most other types of fiction – including those in which the ‘normal’ human body is ill-adapted. [...] Alternatively, science fiction may depict environments that are enabling for those with bodily configurations or capabilities outwith the norm.

This resonated with me because I've recently read Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free (1988) in which most of the characters have an extra set of arms instead of a pair of legs. This is extremely useful in the zero-gravity conditions in which they live and to which they are much better suited than two-armed and two-legged humans. It also, though, made me think about Geoffrey Trease's Mandeville series, set mostly in England during the reign of Charles I, which I read this week and in which one of the recurring characters, Pietro Zorzi, is

Barely four feet high, he was in all respects quite naturally proportioned, as was the miniature violin on which he played.

He played excellently. But the applause he won was perfunctory, as though the Duke and his household had little appreciation of music and were merely amused that so small a being could produce it at all. (123-23)

This is historical fiction rather than science fiction but even so it contrives to depict a situation in which there is an environment to which "the 'normal' human body is ill-adapted." The Duke's dwarves are housed in a special set of apartments:

"Follow me," said Zorzi. "Mind your heads."

It was not too difficult, even for Anthony. It meant stooping, and flexing at the knees, and placing one's toes with unusual care on the narrow treads of the stairs. [...] This miniature suite had been built, decorated and furnished with an exquisite attention to detail. [...] If the painters and plasterers and other craftsmen had been of normal size, they must have worked in most cramped positions, squatting like miners. (152)

In the third book of the series a situation arises which is "enabling for those with bodily configurations or capabilities outwith the norm" inasmuch as Zorzi's size enables him to carry out a particular task which is crucial to foiling a plot.

I think it could be said of Trease's depiction of Zorzi, just as much as of the science fiction novels discussed by Cheyne, that the

transformations of impairment status that characters undergo in these novels – from non-impaired to impaired, or vice versa – though the body itself has not changed, demonstrates the extent to which impairment is created by features of the physical environment.  As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “Stairs disable people who need to use wheelchairs to get around, but ramps let them go places freely” (524).  As a tool for political change, the social model of disability insists that rather than being something inherent to the individual, disability is created by barriers in society which disable a person.  The disability is created by barriers in the environment – which can include attitudinal barriers as well as architectural ones.

Trease was a politically committed author and his novels often address "barriers in society":

As a writer, he started out as a passionate young socialist determined to overthrow the sentimental romanticism of historical fiction at the time. [...] He came to believe it was wrong "to press party politics on readers too immature to argue with him", though of course his books remained permeated with his own liberal values as he wrote [...]. Trease was also innovatory in introducing girls as co-partners in his stories. (Thwaite)

Sir Jeffrey Hudson and Queen Henrietta MariaIn Zorzi's case, the barriers relate primarily to his size but Anthony is restricted by his low social class and Amoret by her gender. Indeed, in the first book in the series Amoret is only able to participate in the adventure as a result of dressing as a boy. Thinking about these differing barriers in the light of the social model of disability reminded me of Aristotle's ideas about women:

To Aristotle, women were imperfect men, the result of something wrong with the conception that created them [...]; a woman was thus "a deformity, but one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature." Aristotle was not sure exactly why imperfect men were required in the natural scheme of things, but decided that it must be because they performed a function necessary for men, [...] he saw their primary function as procreation. (Weisner 18)

That, of course, suggests that bodies which are specially adapted may still be considered inferior, which took me back to the way that the "quaddies" are seen by some of the "normal" humans in Bujold's novel. Nonetheless, in both Bujold and Trease's novels there are scenes which

foreground the ways in which disability can be created by barriers in the environment.  [...] that encounter [...] is valuable because it encourages readers and viewers to reflect upon their own understanding of disability.  I’m not assuming a straightforward influence – read this book and your prejudices will disappear!  Rather, I’m talking about the potentials these works might have in terms of encouraging reflection upon beliefs and values that otherwise might not be questioned. (Cheyne)

In Bujold's novel Leo, one of the two-armed human characters, is shown to reflect and he concludes that

Men adapted to free fall, it was the going back that crippled them.

"I am a quaddie," Leo whispered in wonder. He regarded his hands, clenched and spread his fingers. "Just a quaddie with legs." He wasn't going back. (137)

Trease may not have taken his readers out of this world in order to encourage them to reflect "upon beliefs and values" but I think he nonetheless encouraged reflection on the ways in which the great majority of people might be said to be disabled by "attitudinal barriers" even if not also by "architectural ones."


Bujold, Lois McMaster. Falling Free. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1988.

Cheyne, Ria. "Disability in Science Fiction." DaDaFest.

Thwaite, Ann. "Obituary: Geoffrey Trease." The Independent. 30 Jan. 1998.

Trease, Geoffrey. Mandeville. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Weisner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.


The painting is Anthony Van Dyck's portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson. I found it at Wikimedia Commons. In an author's note Trease wrote that Sir Jeffrey Hudson was "the Queen's dwarf" (189).

A Gun in the Hand is ...

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 25 May, 2013

"[...] I'll die a man!...Give me my guns."

Silently she went into the house, to return with a heavy cartridge-belt and gun-filled sheath and a long rifle; these she handed to him, and as he buckled on the belt she stood before him in silent eloquence. (Grey)

In this passage from Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage it is clear that guns symbolise masculinity but, Jane Tompkins notes, "even though the gun is obviously a symbol for the penis, manhood, in this scenario, does not express itself sexually. Violence is what breaks out when men get guns" (33). Later she adds that, in Westerns, "the ultimate loss of [...] control takes place when one man puts holes in another man's body" (56). For obvious reasons, that state of affairs generally wouldn't be deemed wholly satisfactory in a romance novel.

That's why I found Ruth Jean Dale's use of gun symbolism particularly interesting. Legend! is a Western romance, and Dale seems well aware that the gun can function as a phallic symbol. I'll begin with a scene in which Rose, the heroine, tries to confiscate the hero's gun and instead receives a lesson in sexual desire:

Glaring into his face, she reached out with her left hand and pulled his pistol from its holster. The weight of it dragged her arm down to her side but she had it, she thought triumphantly. [...]

Yanking her hard against his chest, [...] holding her by the upper arms, he brought his mouth down on hers. Stunned, she felt the pressure of his chest against her breasts and the corded muscle of his thighs against her legs, and then she forgot all those peripheral distractions before the onslaught of sensations originating at that point where his mouth joined with hers.

It was a fast, hard kiss meant to punish, and in that it failed miserably. Too surprised to resist, Rose hung suspended like a rag doll. A devastating rush of excitement shot through her from the tips of her toes to the roots of her hair and all points in between, leaving fire in its wake. This was a kiss? She'd had no idea! [...]

Boone leaned forward and slipped his pistol from Rose's numb grip. Flipping it over his hand, he settled it snugly into his holster. (84-85)

Replaying the scene in a dream, Rose transposes its location from the marshal's office to the local saloon, where the town whore plies her trade upstairs:

He stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to a second floor obscured by swirling smoke or fog - Rose couldn't be sure which. He did not move so much as a muscle, didn't lift his hand to beckon her, yet she felt his pull as strongly as if he'd dropped a loop over her shoulders and was hauling her in like a calf at roundup.

She had no choice. Or did she? His holster was empty; she held his pistol in her hand but this time it was light and warm to her touch, not heavy and cold and awkward as it had been in the marshal's office. She could do anything she wanted with it, she realized [...]. She held his fate ... and her own ... in her hands. [...]

She followed his lead willingly, anticipation surging through her as they ascended to ... what?

Rose sat bolt upright in her bed, trembling, her cotton nightgown clinging to a body damp with perspiration. Shame clogged her throat, shame at her own weakness - she'd succumbed to the man even in her sleep! But mixed with the shame was also fear, fear that she would never know what bliss might have awaited her at the top of those stairs. (90-91)

I don't think you need to be Freud to work out the symbolism of that warm pistol but if it still wasn't clear, there's a rather obvious clue in Boone's statement that "I never hired out my gun to the highest bidder. That to a man is like whorin' to a woman - the end of the line" (218).

Given Boone's reputation as a gunslinger it seems as though he may use his gun in Rose's service (literally and metaphorically), but not settle down to a permanent relationship with her.  Dale resolves the problem by having Boone relinquish his "gun belt and revolver. He has no further use for them in the new life we hope to build together" (279): only when the symbol of violent, destructive masculinity is relinquished can Boone adopt a new, sexual and reproductive, model of manhood of the kind celebrated in popular romance.


Dale, Ruth Jean. Legend! 1993. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 1997.

Grey, Zane. Riders of the Purple Sage. Project Gutenberg Australia.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Lives of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.


The image of the gun and gunbelt slung round someone's waist was created by theexbrit who made it available at Flickr under a creative commons licence.

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)


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]

Alpha Males and Edible Mates

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 17 March, 2013

As Heather Schell has noted,

Evolutionary psychology has popularized the notion that men’s everyday behavior can be better understood by comparison to the habits of large mammals—most especially the more aggressive of the primates—living in patriarchal, aggressive societies. [...] Our cultural fictions have embraced this narrative wholeheartedly but changed the comparison to more charismatic megafauna: dogs and wolves. (109-110)

Popular romance fiction has certainly "embraced this narrative wholeheartedly": the terms "alpha male" or "alpha" are frequently used to refer to the "tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels" (Krentz 107). The term

“Alpha” was originally used in early twentieth-century studies of animal behavior to refer to the dominant individuals in rigidly hierarchical animal societies, such as some types of insects and, in later work, large mammals like primates and wolves. (Schell 113).

One should, however, tread extremely cautiously when comparing animals and humans, not least because "There is a long-standing debate within the field of sexual selection regarding the potential projection of stereotypical sex roles onto animals by researchers" (Dougherty et al 313). According to Dougherty et al,

The subjectivity provided by anthropomorphism (endowing nonhuman animals with human-like attributes), zoomorphism (the converse, endowing humans with nonhuman animal-like attributes), and the sociocultural surroundings researchers finds themselves in, can bias what research is done, how it is done and how the resulting data are interpreted. [...] Perhaps the clearest case in point concerns the study and interpretation of sexual behaviour in nonhuman animals. (313)

For example,

Karlsson Green & Madjidian (2011) showed in their survey of the most cited papers on sexual conflict that male traits were more likely to be described using ‘active’ words, whereas female traits were more likely to be described with ‘reactive’ words, that is, in terms of female traits being a response to male behaviours or male-imposed costs. They ascribed this difference (at least in part) to the anthropomorphic imposition of conventional sex roles on animals by researchers (caricatured as males active, females passive). (314)

However, not all stereotypes of women's sexuality cast us in a passive role and "a gender bias in the use of language may depend upon which particular sexual conflict is being studied" (315).

Dougherty et al studied the language used in scientific papers describing

pre- and postcopulatory cannibalism. In terms of the taxonomic coverage, 23 of the species were spiders (35 papers and two reviews), six were mantids (six papers) and one was an orthopteran (one paper, concerning the sagebrush cricket, Cyphoderris strepitans). (314)

They found that,

In terms of the words used to describe females, while sexual cannibalism is predicated on the fact that one of the pair ends up being the meal of the other, some of the words used to describe female behaviour are a long way short of being value free: for instance, females have been called ‘voracious’ or ‘rapacious’ more than once. Moreover, if we are concerned with either the causes or consequences of negative sexual stereotyping more generally, the use of such words suggests that there may be scant comfort in our findings here of the assignment of active agency to female animals in the context of sexual cannibalism. Not least this is because it is well-known across human culture that sexually aggressive or violent females are themselves a negative stereotype: from the Gorgons of Greek myth to the femme fatale, the ‘black widow’ or the ‘lethal seductress’ of today. (316)

Given that scientists describing animal behaviour can be influenced by stereotypes derived from human culture, interpreting human behaviour in the light of potentially-anthropomorphised accounts of animal behaviour is problematic. As Dougherty et al conclude,

scientists may bring preconceptions and oversimplifications from their sociocultural surroundings, with ‘general principles’ merely serving to validate those preconceptions. This will forever be an inescapable part of science, and something that we must always be aware of and try and guard against as much as we can. However, there is also the concern that scientific findings about sexual behaviour (or indeed anything else) may travel the other way and provide the basis for sociocultural norms that are chauvinistic, demeaning, or that justify oppression and violence towards some members of society (for instance women or in terms of sexual identity [...]).  [...] We suggest that the key message that we should put across is that there are no easy lessons about how we should live or love to be learned from nonhuman animals. (318)

Two of the three papers cited in this post are available online. See below for details.


Dougherty, Liam R., Emily R. Burdfield-Steel and David M. Shuker. "Sexual Stereotypes: The Case of Sexual Cannibalism." Animal Behaviour 85.2 (2013): 313-322.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. "Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 107-114.

Schell, Heather. "The Big Bad Wolf: Masculinity and Genetics in Popular Culture." Literature and Medicine 26.1 (2007): 109-125.

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.


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.