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The Narrative Of Popular Romance Simultaneously Challenges And Reaffirms Traditional Male-female Rel Essay, Research Paper

The theory that popular art as a whole exists to reinforce the status quo and keep its audience happy with it is one that has long been espoused by critics. This attitude is one which was especially championed by the Marxist oriented Frankfurt school of thought led by Horkheimer, Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who argued that only “high” art could give us a view of a better tomorrow. In her book “Loving with a Vengeance”(-henceforth referred to as LWAV) Tania Modleski argues that, in this sense, contempt for ‘mass’ art is seen as a politically pro~ressive attitude (pg.30) Howeve~ she goes on to say that Robert Jameson showed that mass art often contained many specific criticisms of ~everyday life.Therefore, in order to effectively answer the question above the extent to which the popular romance criticises or celebrates the traditional relations between the sexes must be determined. In this essay I will attempt to examine this closely, looking firstly at how far the novels in question can be said to be reaffirming the traditional roles between the sexes then going on to examine the possible challenges they offer. It would be useful to firstly ascertain what is meant by the traditional relations between the sexes.” The hero in Mills and Boon and Harlequin novels must be, in order for the novel to be published, significantly older than the heroine (usually by ten to fifteen years) and he is generally financially better off and in possession of higher social status and always sexually more experienced and physically more powerful than her. In older publications such as “Sonora Sundown” by JanetDailey (Mills and Boon 1978) the heroine is identified as a virgin in the first chapter whilst her prospective lover is an actor, well known for his “success” with women. His physical domination of her is one of the very first scenes in the book as she tries to escape from him, believing that he is going to kill her. The scene concludes with a threat of rape in the immortal lines “I ought to make love to you; it’s what a hellcat like you deserves!” (Page 30) His physical superiority over her is continually stressed and he uses it often quite brutally, especially in scenes of conflict. Phrases such as “his punishing grip”, ~’hard unrelenting kisses” and ~exquisite pain” are common throughout the novel, along with his assertions that “I’m no gentleman” In the 1991 publication of “Specialist in Love” by Sharon Wirdnam (also Mills and Boon) the stressing of the physical superiority of the hero has on the whole been replaced by his intellectual prowess-he dictates words which she cannot spell and is rude and verbally aggressive towards her instead of physically so but he is certainly still taller, older and of a higher social standing than the heroine (a consultant dermatologist to her medical secretary,) with a ferocious temper, albeit one restrained to the verbal arena. These sets of circumstances would certainly appear to reinforce the traditional image of the male being the physical, intellectual and economic superior of the female within a romantic relationship. An inequality of class between the hero and heroine appears to be crucial to the plot of modern romantic fiction. This is not surprising if we look at the fact that men in our society generally hold the economic power, and that a woman’s status is identified with that of her husbandls: finding an appropriate husband is the problem and the most effective way to ensure financial and social stability.Indeed Anne Cranny-Francis writes in ~Feminist Fiction~ that ~’Inequality of class is as much a mechanism of the romance as the gender relationships.” This notion certainly appears to be reaffirmed by the narrative of the popular romance where the heroine transcends her own class and economic circumstances by being virtuous enough to be desired as a wife by a member of a class above her. Carolyn Steedman says in “Landscape ~for a Good Woman| that one of the most widespread fairytales of our society is that “goose-girls can marry kings”-we might add “if they make themselves attractive enough.” That a woman of a lower socio-economic class can elevate herself by marriage to a man of higher social status reaffirms the patriarchal society’s method of defining women purely in gender terms, and as inferior to men who are defined by their class, race and public achievements amongst other things, along with their gender. Women are classless because as a sex they are inferior and under the control of men: they are part of a huge sub-class and as long as they do not attempt to change this status quo they might be able to make a transition to something better by marriage to the ‘right’ man. The heroine must be careful not to attempt to protest about her subjugation; the heroine’s anger is frequently portrayed as amusing to the hero; any of her actions which are described as ‘militant’ ‘defiant’ or ‘rebellious’ for example are ultimately futile. Modleski writes in ~LWAV~ “the heroine’s expression of resentment which is the result of and only possible remedy for her belittlement is felt to be the very means by which she encourages her own belittlement.” The only means of improving one’s position in society is portrayed as being of the ‘if you can’t lick them, love them’ school of thought-the woman must sacrifice her pride. The heroine’s pride is usually the very obstacle which prevents the protagonists coming together for a while and living happily ever after: she is the engineer of her own frustration. In “Specialist in Love” she overhears a telephone conversation between the hero and his girlfriend and is convinced she is merely being used as a plaything so she flees from the hero; in “Sonora Sundown” the heroine rejects the hero’s arrogant advances to her, convinced, although in love with him, that he is only interested in her for amusement’s sake. In both cases the heroine must sacrifice her pride and lay herself open to the hero, whatever the possible consequences/humiliations may be before she can achieve ~true happiness and fulfilment. To be attractive to the ‘right’ kind of man the , heroine must pose no threat to him either sexually, intellectually or physically. The heroine in all Mills and Boon and Harlequin novels without exception is never the hero’s boss or even professional equal; at least not in the patriarchal capitalist society where the novels are set; in “Specialist in Love” she is his secretary, in “Sonora Sundown” she works in a craft shop whereas he is an internationally renowned actor.These portrayals of the heroines as having occupations traditionally regarded as rather menial and comparatively unimportant may well be related to the assumption that the majority of readers of these novels are themselves in similar positions and like~ to identify with their heroine; however the hero is never a bricklayer, a miner or a truck driver for example-he is required to be perhaps a doctor, a lawyer or an actor (and certainly not a struggling one.) The heroine is also frequently a virgin and always sexually less experienced than the hero:she poses no threat to him sexually; if there is any sexual awakening to be done we can be certain of who will be doing it.The male must be personally, professionally and financially successful. He must want the heroine in spite of his strength, not because of any weakness. They must trade what he can give her materially and socially for what she can give him emotionally. The emotional arena is the only one in which he heroine is allowed to be superior to the hero; she is continually monitoring and trying to understand his behaviour, and often explaining or excusing it. “Possibly the sudden spell of bad weather had stirred a devil in him.Many men looked for scapegoats when overworked.” (Quote taken from “Lesson in Love-Harlequin taken from Modleski’s LWAV) This inability to see that she is the cause of the hero’s odd behaviour can be seen to reaffirm two more traditional views of male-female relations; the notion that the female must not actively be seeking the male’s desire of her in order to be worthy of it and also the image of the threat of rape or humiliation being a means of punishing the errant female. The heroine is always unaware of the effect she is having sexually on the male; indeed she is usually unaware of being watched or listened to by the male when she discloses her true feelings towards him and she is frequently unconscious or without any other option when she is at her most sexually alluring-being stripped or viewed semi-naked by him. She must be entirely innocent-passive not active in her arousal of him; otherwise she risks humiliation. In “Sonora Sundown” the heroine is stranded and injured when she is forced to undress in front of the hero to allow him to attend to her wounds; in “Specialist~ she is unconscious through illness when she is stripped by the hero and put to bed. Modleski says in LWAV “To be alive and conscious is to be suspect.” This is certainly apparent in the male protagonist’s treatment of the usually present ‘other woman’-she is young enough to be a threat but too old to be innocent and she is mostly upfront and honest about her sexual desire for the hero, if not her desire to marry him. We, however are aware of it, and the hero frequently treats her with contempt, or if he becomes involved with her it is a purely sexual arrangement and not one with the ‘purer~ intent of marriage attached to it. She always fails in her aim simply because she is aware of it and consciously acts accordingly. The use of the third person narrative also helps to reaffirm the heroine’s unwittingness in her arousal of the male. She is being watched by the reader who is aware of her effect on the hero, but she patently is not. Parallells can even be seen between the sexually aware ‘other woman’ and the powerful cultural norm of Eve in the Garden of Eden-having bitten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge she has no hope of attaining the status of the entirely innocent Virgin Mary who receives the approval of, and metaphorically becomes the bride of God~arguably the greatest male hero of them all. The sexually aware woman is denigrated to the level of being deserving of male abuse: the metaphorical ’slag’ (it goes without ~saying that double standards are in operation here.) However, despite the copious evidence to suggest that popular romance reaffirms the traditional, unequal relations between the sexes, to see these novels as merely sexist propaganda disguised as entertainment would be wrong. The most obvious question to be answered is the one relating to why the genre is so popular (it accounts for ten percent of the paperback market.) What do its millions of (mostly female) readers find so satisfying about it? Germaine Greer says of the archetypal romantic hero that “This is the hero that women have chosen for themselves. The traits invented for him have been invented by women cherishing the chains of their bondage” However, this claim must be mitigated by the reasoning that in a sexist society, social conditioning may also have a large part to play in determining the sexual fantasies of women. If women have little freedom of choice in their lives, why should it be assumed they have much in their art? Susan Brownmiller (quoted in LWAV) writes “Given the pervasive male ideology of rape (the mass psychology of the conqueror) a mirror image female victim psychology (the mass psychology of the conquered) could not help but arise. Near its extreme this female psychosexuality indulges in the fantasy of rape. Stated another way, when women do fantasize about sex, the fantasies are usually the product of male conditioning and cannot be otherwise.~ To assume that the women reading these texts hanker after subjugation and humiliation is, I believe, a very narrow-minded and naive standpoint to take. The notion that the reader is either mentally deficient or happily accepting of her subjugation also seems to be a very patronising view to take of the millions of capable, intelligent women who read the texts. The fantasy would appear to lie not in the traits of the hero which are more likely an expression of the experiences of everyday life, but in the explanations given for his behaviour (male brutality being really an expression of ~love). Clara Thompson, quoted in LWAV writes that ~ …women’s ‘masochism’ is a form of adaption to an unsatisfactory and circumscribed life~ This would seem to promote the idea that it is an active decision to make their lives more bearable rather than a passive acceptance of their lot. The violent nature of the heroes has also been suggested as being an ‘inoculation’ against the violence present in the readers own lives; it is explained as love and passion rather than contempt. This however is probably not the main satisfaction accorded to readers of popular romance. In “Eros and Civilisation” Marcuse (quoted in LWAV) argues that “Freudianism contains a hidden liberating tendency because it encourages people to explore the sources of their repression and to discover in their dreams and fantasies the long hidden wishes which ultimately constitute a critique of repressive civilisation.” This idea gives us a new angle on the popular romance. Whilst the heroine ultimately surrenders to the hero’s charms, in the interim period she MAKES HIM SUFFER. She, by rejecting him, brings him to his knees internally and exacts a form of revenge for his arrogant treatment of her, before she succumbs. Although this revenge is usually unconsciously exacted, it would seem highly plausible to suggest that she may well be satisfying the reader’s desire for revenge against her devaluation by a sexist society. The hero must also chanqe his behaviour before the heroine will accept his advances and it is perhaps in this area that the romance can most be seen to be challenging the relations between the sexes. The female heroine, although usually unwittingly, effects a change in the status quo. She reforms the male to her own image of the ideal marriage partner. The hero begins by using his power to the detriment of the heroine, by making her uncomfortable or embarrassed for example, but she subverts the situation to enable this power to be used to her advantage (through marriage.) ~ intense power of the female to subvert the inequality of her position to her benefit, even transcending class divisions is a powerful image for the millions of readers of these novels and engenders the hope that the patriarchal system can be reformed. Whilst this is done in a very conventional fashion and only by a woman that never really set out to do so, the fact that the heroine can do this is quite plausibly very satisfying to the~reader. The novels can therefore be seen to express the level of female discontent with traditional society and her subjugation within it. This ideal can be seen clearly in Richardson’s “Pamela,” written in 1740 and frequently called the ‘mother’ of all popular romances, achieving mass popularity amongst women when it was first published. Pamela, the heroine, by denying her boss advances and threatened rape of her, by remaining virtuous throughout, sufficiently moves her master to reform and marry her. She renegotiates and reforms the patriarchy under which she lives by the only means available to her. The male must therefore be abusive to give the reader an incentive to see him changed. The heroine is not only advancing her own position, but can seen to be striking a blow for all those whose lives ~are devalued under patriarchy. As Tania Modleski says ‘The price is high but women may be getting more than anyone bargained for.” (LWAV) How high is the price though? She says that “An understanding of Harlequin romances should lead one less to condemn the novels than the conditions which have made them necessary.” (LWAV) How, though, are the conditions to change if women’s anger and discontent are alleviated by seeing a fictional set of circumstances changed? The real danger of the genre, in my opinion, lies not in its reaffirmation of the traditional roles of the sexes but in its possible effect as an opiate, a quasi-religion, preventing by appeasement, women’s discontent from effecting real action and consequently change.BIBLIOGRAPHYAusten, Jane/ PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Wordsworth) Austen, Jane/ PERSUASION (Wordsworth) Cranny-Francis, Anne/ FEMINIST FICTION (Harvester) Dailey, Janet/ SONORA SUNDOWN (Mills & Boon) Darce-Frenier, Mariam/ GOODBYE HEATHCLIFFE (Harvester) Fowler, Bridget/ THE ALIENATED READER (Harvester) Modleski, Tania/ LOVING WITH A VENGEANCE (Harvester) Steedman, Carolyn/ LANDSCAPE OF A GOOD WOMAN (Harvester) Wirdnam, Sharon/ SPECIALIST IN LOVE (Mills ~ Boon)

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