The Circular Justification of Heroic Violence

By Laura Vivanco on

Lt. Col. Karalyne Lowery, of Air War College, Air University, United States Air Force, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, considers the militarized romance shapeshifter to be a problematic figure. She observes that

Many twenty-first-century shape-shifter series focus on the US military (or paramilitary organizations like the police) to afford their shape-shifting characters an outlet for authorized violence (197)


Even urban fantasy and paranormal romance series without explicit ties to military groups have some sort of militaristic formation – shape- shifters fall under an alpha, usually a male, and operate in a quasi-military manner. (209)

For Lowery,

The issue in modern shape-shifter genres is that [...] authorized violence is directly linked to the American propensity to view all military members as heroic, and, therefore, violence under a militaristic guise is assumed to be a valid response no matter how excessive it might be. This is a dangerous habit to assume as the documents purposed to keep the military in check are flexible and open to interpretation. [...] The violence that the characters perpetrate decides their place on the monster spectrum, and authorized violence, when connected to a militaristic organization – be it ancient knights or modern soldiers – turns characters from monsters to heroes, regardless of the genre.

This is a problematic and dangerous trend. When applied to some of the most disastrous wars in history – military actions that provide numerous instances of human monstrosity – the aggressors can easily justify their actions under the justum bellum conventions and the other documents that Americans assume control military members. As a military officer, I often discuss my concerns about the trend of assigning heroism to military members by fiat. The fact that this trend is now applied to shape-shifters and other supernatural characters, historically considered monsters, as an antidote to this monstrosity has dangerous implications in the real world. How does the public, which is trained to see military members acting under official orders as being heroic – no matter the intensity of the violence, no matter what kind of supernatural monster, and no matter if the violence is fictional – realistically evaluate and participate in authorizing violence? (210-11, emphasis added)

Given that US police forces are also armed, are increasingly militarised, and, as mentioned, Lowery has noted that paranormal heroes may be members of "paramilitary organizations like the police," these concerns about the legitimisation of excessive force could presumably be considered to have implications for attitudes towards police violence too.


Lowery, Karalyne. "The Militarized Shapeshifter: Authorized Violence and Military Connections as an Antidote to Monstrosity." University of Toronto Quarterly 87.1 (2018): 196-213.

Fluid vs Furry Species

By Laura Vivanco on


monsters and aliens offer important insight into how different animals become enlisted in the work of legitimizing particular human genders, sexualities, and races through animal imagination. In other words, monsters and aliens are imaginary beings, but their textual bodies are composed of specific animalsbears, lizards, birds, crabs, squid, etc.that are deployed for the purposes of different fantasies of gender, sexuality, race, and species. In particular, vertebrate- and especially mammal-based monsters make it easier to confirm heterosexual, racialized fantasies about bestial dominant masculinities and fragile white femininities, whereas invertebrate-based creatures open up a whole different realm of embodied animal relations, fantasies, and desires. (Van Engen)

The article from which this quote is taken is about erotica, but I think some of its insights could also be applied to some kinds of romance.


Dagmar Van Engen. "How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in EBook Erotica." Humanimalia 9.1 (2017).


The picture comes from the Illustrated Police News of 17 October 1896. It depicts the "alarming experience of fair bathers who are attacked by an octopus." I found it at Wikimedia Commons but more details can be found here.

Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr)

By Laura Vivanco on


I was sent a copy of Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen (ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr) around Christmas but I waited till after New Year to take a closer look at it. It's not about envying the Virgin Mary, although her presence does make itself felt particularly in the final chapter.

The editors suggest that "our ideas about virginity - the hymen in particular - and the phallus are 'cultural fantasies' that continue to inspire, provoke, and unsettle us" (2): the first and second essays in the volume show the continuities across the centuries of some of these "cultural fantasies". And yet:

As we began to discuss virginity, however, we realized that many of these common virginal narratives are not true. Virginity extends well beyond the girl who protects herself and her hymen until marriage. [...] Indeed, insistence on the hymen erases all kinds of bodies save the most normative, cisgendered body of the female. Therefore, it is imperative that we go beyond the hymen and think about virginity without it. Truth be told, boys are virgins, queers are virgins, some people reclaim their virginities, and others reject virginity from the get go. (4-5)

The editors have tried to ensure that the collection of essays in the volume have a wide range but "as editors regret that this collection does not contain much about lesbian or trans virginities - important areas of research that need to be attended to [...]. It is surprising that, though virginity studies is a field dominated by the idea that virginity is female, lesbian experiences of virginity are unaccounted for in the scholarship" (11). There is a discussion of Catalina de Erauso, though, in the last chapter.

I've copied out the abstracts of the two chapters on romance in this post so here I'll just highlight a few other quotes/elements which piqued my interest, mainly relating to depictions of race/ethnicity/geography and religion in texts/contexts related to popular romance fiction.

Chapter 1: "I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet": Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance [by Amy Burge, pages 17-44.]

Amy Burge's

focus throughout is on the [virginity] test as it applies to women, echoing the deeply gendered discourses that surround virginity testing: there are no virgin sheikhs. (18)

I'm kind of tempted to look for one now, just in case he exists out there somewhere. Almost certainly not published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, though, as I know Amy researched those very, very carefully.

Given the popularity of virgin heroines in romance fiction, it's really interesting to note that her

large-scale analysis of Mills & Boon Modern Romance [i.e. the line known as Harlequin Presents in the North American market] novels reveals that female virginity is particularly pronounced in romance novels with "foreign heroes": the ubiquitous Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Brazilians, Argentines, and, of course, sheikhs. Of the 931 Modern Romance novels published in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2009, 458 feature virgin heroines, and 281 of them (approximately 61 percent) have foreign heroes. This simultaneously reveals Western preoccupation with virginity and its situating of it "elsewhere." (21)

This does begin to make me wonder if, among English-speaking writers and readers, Greece, Italy and Spain are in some way not considered part of the "West," and in turn reminds me of Hsu-Ming Teo's essay about Rudolph Valentino playing the part of the "sheik." Teo mentions that

the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 [in the US] “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. [...] To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks."

Something of that hierarchy perhaps continues to haunt romance fiction; as a result of my own research on Greece in popular romance (forthcoming) I came across the suggestion that in England the Mediterrean has been particularly associated with passion since at least the early modern period.

It isn't entirely clear why cultures assumed to be more passionate should also be assumed to value virginity more highly but it is certainly stressed in romance novels set in the "romance East" that "female virginity is of great cultural importance. Sheikh romances repeatedly highlight the importance placed on virginity in Eastern culture [...]. Such a cultural valuing is connected to ideas of tradition often glossed as 'medieval.'" (Burge 23). As Burge concludes:

For contemporary popular romance fiction to construct the "romance East" as a space in which "medieval" virginity can be celebrated echoes the similar practice of situating practices or attitudes inappropriate today - such as sexual violence - in a distant space, such as the historical past or, indeed, the East. Relegating the valuing and testing of virginity to the East might be in line with current popular ideas about the East, but it also reveals some of the romance genre's motivations for situating this valuing in the fictional romance East. In other words, for the romance genre to celebrate the unequal traditions of heteronormativity, the virginity testing that upholds these traditions must be situated "elsewhere." As much as many Western readers [...] might condemn "foreign" cultures for continuing to conduct virginity tests, the gender hegemony that these tests uphold is clearly evident and even celebrated in our own romantic cultural imagination, as revealed in the pages of some of the most popular contemporary Western fiction. (34-35)

Chapter 2: Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen [by Jodi McAlister, pages 45-64.

Given the way in which the valuing of virginity is located "elsewhere" in the popular romances examined by Burge, it's intriguing that McAlister observes that

in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [..] Some virgins were said to be affected by chlorosis or "green-sickness," for which marriage was recommended as the cure [...]. We can see this represented in [...] the 1682 ballad "A Remedy for the Green Sickness" [...] We can see represented here not only the cure for green-sickness but also the pathologization of maintained virginity that existed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hanne Blank notes that it is an interesting coincidence that green-sickness was so often diagnosed during the period in which Protestantism, with its emphasis on marriage as the ideal state, became popular in Europe. (47-48)

Is it also a coincidence that the countries/places onto which romance novels seem to project the idealisation of virginity are not Protestant? Possibly it is, but at the same time I can't help but remember that in the seventeenth century:

European writers associated Islam with, and criticized it for, excessive and depraved sexual practices. The sexual excesses of Muslims were believed to derive from their religion, which permitted polygamy. (Teo, Desert 40-41)

A couple of centuries later, Gothic fiction linked Catholicism and "depraved" sexuality. For example:

When in The Monk (1796), Matthew G. Lewis uses the details of conventual life to suggest lurid forms of sexual excess such as necromancy, incest, matricide, and same-sex love, he does not need to explain his choice of a Catholic setting, a Mediterranean country (Spain, not Italy in this case), or religious life itself. All these things, to the English imagination at least, make such easy, rational sense that Lewis could assume a general understanding of (and even assent to) his extravagant posturing. And while reviewers criticized Lewis’s excess, they never suggested that his portrayal of Catholic monastic life was inappropriate. If the novel can be considered sensational, that is not because anyone objected to the portrayal of the characters themselves: oversexed and violent Catholic priests, victimizing and vindictive nuns, devil worship and self-abuse. These and other lurid sexual possibilities were common popular perceptions of conventual life in Mediterranean countries. (Haggerty)

Is it yet another coincidence that all this sexual excess is taking place in settings which are supposed to be filled with virgins?

Chapter 3 - The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga [by Jonathan A. Allan and Cristina Santos, pages 67-96.

Edward, the virgin hero of the Twilight saga is "foreign" in a different way from Mediterranean romance heroes: he is a vampire. Again, there is a link to religion:

Silver argues that his values are "uncommon in popular, mainstream secular discourse about young adult sexuality today." [...] there is an entire industry dedicated to ensuring sexual purity, which though having a religious affiliation, is also very much a part of secular culture. (72)

The issue of virginity in US culture is also mentioned in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 - Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood [Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos, pages 97-123.]

Certainly, in the past two decades in America, evangelical church groups and the American government have united to encourage youth in general, and young women in particular, to choose abstinence [...]. Historian and independent scholar Hanne Blank points out that, "of all the developed world, the United States is the only one that has to date created a federal agenda having specifically to do with the virginity of its citizens." (97)

Zehentbauer and Santos suggest that

Twenty-first-century America's obsession with virginity also emerges in many artifacts of popular culture, especially those of the gothic or supernatural genres. In her influential Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that vampires, in the Anglo-American cultural imaginary, embody and signify the sociopolitical concerns of the era that produces them. (98)

If the US policies around virginity have been at all divisive, and it would seem that they have, given that "repealing abstinence-only programs, much less authorizing the full scope of reproductive health care services, runs into deep moral divides" (Morone and Ehlke 318), and if Edward's values "are 'uncommon in [...] secular discourse," could it be that those values have to be translated into a "foreign" (in this case vampiric) context to make them palatable to a mass audience which is, nonetheless, still fascinated by virginity and what it represents?


The other chapters in the volume are:

McGuiness, Kevin. "The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane." (127-143.)

Ncube, Gibson. "Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abdellah Taïa and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri." (145-169.)

Sayed, Asma. "Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood." (173-190.)

Crowe Morey, Tracy and Adriana Spahr. "The Policing of Viragos and other "Fuckable" Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America." (191-231.)

That last chapter introduced me to Catalina de Erauso whose life

reads like a picaresque novel. Born, probably in 1592, to a noble Basque family in San Sebastián, Spain, she bolted from a convent before taking her vows, assumed masculine clothing, gave herself a new identity as "Francisco de Loyola," and, early in the seventeenth century , made her way to the New World, where she led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier in the Spanish colonies.

On the battlefield she was a formidable warrior; in her other exploits she gambled, engaged in dalliances with women, brawled, and faced death sentences for murder. Once her true sex was revealed, she became a celebrity in Spain. [...]

In her memoir Erauso stressed her chief virtues as a man--physical courage--and as a woman--virginity . While she did not stint at recounting transgressive acts of "manly" bravery such as fights resulting in murder, she was more oblique when referring to acts that were sexually transgressive.

At no point does Erauso speak of physical attraction to a man. She did, however, include several incidents that show her affection for women. (Rapp)

As the authors note, she fared much better than either Joan of Arc or more modern women whose soldiering/other forms of political engagement was responded to with state-sponsored violence that included rape and execution.


Allan, Jonathan A. and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 67-96.
Burge, Amy, 2016. 
"‘I Will Cut Myself and Smear Blood on the Sheet’: Testing Virginity in Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 17-44.
Haggerty, George. 2004-2005. 
"The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction." Romanticism on the Net 36-37.
McAlister, Jodi, 2016. 
"Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 45-64.
Morone, James A. and Daniel C. Ehlke, 2013. 
Health Politics and Policy. Fifth Edition. Cengage.
Rapp. Linda. 2003. 
"Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592- ca 1650)." glbtq Encyclopedia.
Teo, Hsu-Ming, 2010. 
'Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film', Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1.
Teo, Hsu-Ming. 2012. 
Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Zehentbauer, Janice and Cristina Santos, 2016. 
"Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica's Presence in True Blood." Virgin Envy: The Cultural Insignificance of the Hymen. Ed. Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr. London: Zed. 97-123.

Passing: Identifying Dragons

By Laura Vivanco on

Like Aliette de Bodard, I have recently finished reading Rachel Hartman's Seraphina, a fantasy novel with romantic elements. Unlike her, I enjoyed it. Now that could be because, unlike her, I did not read it

mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

I wonder, though, if another reason I enjoyed it is that I'm a medievalist at heart despite my move into popular romance scholarship and the religious beliefs and race relations in Goredd seemed to me to resemble those I came across while studying medieval Castile.

For those who haven't read the novel, here's a quick summary taken from Janine's review at Dear Author: this

debut YA fantasy [...] set in a world based [on] Renaissance Europe, is both a coming of age story and a tale of a clash between two species. Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh, the heroine of the novel, is the child of a human father and a dragon mother. The secret of her maternity is one she must hide at all costs.

In this world, dragons are a logical, emotionless species, but they can take human shape and while doing so, experience human emotions – something they guard against vigilantly. A truce exists between the two species but there is also a lot of tension and bigotry. Most dragons in Goredd, Seraphina’s country, are required to wear a bell on their shoulder, although scholarly dragons are exempt.

From Seraphina’s narration, we learn that her father Claude had no idea his wife Linn was a dragon until Linn died giving birth to Seraphina. At first glance Seraphina appeared to be a normal human baby, and it was not until she was eleven that she discovered that she is not what she appears to be.

I'd have identified it as a fantasy version of the late Middle Ages, but that's probably because in the Castilian context the fifteenth century is considered medieval. Random House describe the novel as being set in "an alternative-medieval world" and, although I'm no expert on this, the buildings on the cover look Gothic or Tudor to me.

Whether alternative-medieval or alternative-Renaissance, the dating of the setting is, I think, rather important to the novel's depiction of the way the two species relate to one another. Aliette de Bodard has stated that

I guess that, insofar as you buy the setting, Seraphina and the other half-dragons are an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be mixed-race in a world where race divisions are sharp and bitter, and half-dragons are viewed as abominations. What I take issue with is the whole setup: as a metaphor for race relationships (and, even if this wasn’t deliberate, the metaphor sort of naturally bubbles up when the book tackles subjects like interspecies breeding, interspecies prejudice and other related stuff), this is freaking old-fashioned. It might have been the case in my grandparents’ generation (and even then, did we genuinely have two races at each other’s throat in such a non-subtle way?); but it’s certainly never been my experience. In a similar way, prejudice here is outright ugly and blatant: people throw “abomination” very quickly at half-dragons (and at dragons), and Seraphina herself is very much aware of this–even doubting at times that she has a right to exist.

Firstly, in my grandparents' time we did indeed have "two races at each other's throat in such a non-subtle way": they lived through the Second World War, a time when the supposed differences between "Aryans" and Jews were elaborated in considerable detail. Secondly, if Seraphina is set in an alternative-medieval world then of course it may seem "freaking old-fashioned" but

In medieval parlance, the term ‘monster’ was [...] applied specifically to non-Christians, all of whom shared a common monstrous flaw: the failure to embrace the true Christian faith. So even though they possessed an extremely well-developed set of monotheistic beliefs which provided the infrastructure for Christianity itself, the Jews were viewed as idol-worshipping, demonic pagans, principally owing to the Christian conviction that they were responsible for the death of Christ.

The thirteenth-century Salvin Hours contains typically monstrous portrayals of Jews in a representation of Christ before Caiaphas, the high priest. The Jews are instantly recognisable from their grotesque physiognomy, featuring dark skin, hooked noses, and evil grimaces. (Strickland)

There was also a belief that "Jews had a characteristic strong body odor, the foetor Iudaicus. [...] Another such folkloristic feature of the Jewish body was a pair of horns" (Patai & Patai 13). It is perhaps not a coincidence that Hartman's dragons can be identified by their odor.

The belief that Jews were physically different has persisted into modern times. Richard Jeffrey Newman, for example, recounts that,

In eleventh grade, my class went on a trip to somewhere that included a tour of a ship of historical importance. (I don’t remember which one.) We were standing on the deck, when a group of much younger kids, probably in elementary school, came on board. One of the girls asked one of the adults accompanying them why the boys in my group were wearing those “funny hats.” The adult explained that they were called yarmulkes and it meant we were Jewish. “Oh,” the kid said, a tone of wonder completely bereft of irony creeping into her voice. “Then where are their horns?”

If Jews were really readily identifiable by their physical appearance, however, it would presumably not have been deemed necessary to impose particular types of clothing which would act as visible markers of difference. As Hartman herself related in an essay written in 2001, in the Middle Ages it was frequently the case that

Local laws required Jews, "Saracens," and sometimes even Christian deviants to wear distinctive clothing, or markers on their clothing, so they could be readily identified. Again, the details varied from community to community. For Jews, the markers most often consisted of a round patch, usually yellow, about the size of a human palm, to be displayed prominently upon the front of the garment. They could sometimes get out of wearing it -- for a fee, of course. Muslims were marked with a yellow crescent. In fact, visible religious identification may have begun in Islamic countries as a means of identifying those who were exempt from heeding the call to prayer. In Christian Europe, however, lawmakers were more interested in segregation, in preventing intermarriage, and in increasing the revenues brought in by tolls and taxes levied exclusively on non-Christians.

The obligation to wear markers such as these was, of course, revived by the Nazis and, albeit in a much more benign form, concerns about Jews' ability to "pass" continue to be expressed. In 2008 "The Girl Detective" posted at Feministe that:

I’ve written before on how angry I was when fellow progressives began to inform me that while some Jews consider themselves white, it’s only because they’ve assimilated into white culture. They never explained what white-looking Jews actually are, if not white, but the message was always clear: if we Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews think we’re white, well, it’s just because we wanted some of that tasty privilege so badly that we suppressed our real identity to get it. [...]

Here’s what’s really toxic about the idea that an Ashkenazi like me isn’t what she says she is: it paints us as infiltrators or spies, sneaking into white society so that we can get our hands on what doesn’t belong to us. From a white point of view, this turns us into something threatening, a presence that has to be identified and dealt with. (I still remember the anecdote a Jewish boyfriend’s mother told me: when they moved, their new neighbor felt it necessary to warn them that the family down the block was Jewish. “Well, we’ll fit right in,” my boyfriend’s mother responded. The neighbor didn’t speak to them again.)

Aliette de Bodard points out that "Some of us (white/SE Asians mixed-race people, for instance) simply never have this option, and we live our entire lives with what we are writ clearly on our faces and bodies. This is, of course, true. But many Jews have had this "option" and, in the past, were set apart by methods akin to the bells worn by Hartman's dragons when they are in human form. What de Bodard's comments demonstrate, I think, is that there is no one experience of being "mixed race" but, by the same token, de Bodard's experience does not invalidate the experiences of those who, like Seraphina, are able to conceal their "otherness." In addition, the historical sources on which Hartman is drawing suggest to me that, if "Seraphina is [...] oddly obsessed with 'passing'" this is not, as de Bodard suspects, simply because "it’s a US book and this has always been a huge issue in the US."


de Bodard, Aliette. "Seraphina, full-blood prejudice and pervasive racial passing." 14 February 2013.

Hartman, Rachel. "Sometimes a Codpiece is Just a Codpiece: The Meanings of Medieval Clothes." Strange Horizons. 22 October 2001.

Janine. "REVIEW: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman." Dear Author. 16 January 2013.

Newman, Richard Jeffrey. "What We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don't Talk About) antisemitism and Israel - 1." Alas A Blog. 19 January 2009.

Patai, Raphael and Jennifer Patai. 1975. The Myth of the Jewish Race. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989.

Strickland, Debra Higgs. "Monsters and Christian Enemies." History Today 50.2 (2000).

The Girl Detective. "On Being Jewish and White." Feministe. 7 July 2008.

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

By Laura Vivanco on

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)


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)


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)


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

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

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

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

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

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

By Laura Vivanco on

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.