Thursday, May 13, 2010

Harlequin and Evolutionary Psychology

Thanks to BevBB, I came across Anthony Cox and Maryanne Fisher's "The Texas Billionaire's Pregnant Bride: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Romance Fiction Titles." Published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, the article can be read online for free. According to the abstract
In this paper, we focus on the titles of popular modern romance novels, published by Harlequin Enterprises, in order to ascertain whether these books pertain to women’s sex-specific mating interests. Presumably, market demands have shaped the titles of Harlequins, such that books with titles that reflect topics of interest to women will sell the best. (387)
That second sentence suggests that the authors (a) have great faith in the working of the market and (b) assume that readers of Harlequin romances are representative of all women. Certainly Cox and Fisher state that
According to a recent press release (Harlequin, 2009), about 17% of mass marketed paperbacks sold in North America are published by Harlequin, and approximately one third of all North American women are thought to have read at least one. These figures clearly suggest that the appeal of Harlequin romance novels is universal, cutting across cultural and political boundaries (Linz, 1992). (387)
I'm not sure how the appeal of Harlequins can be deemed to be "universal" if only one in three women have ever read a Harlequin, and when the number of regular readers of Harlequins is presumably considerably lower than "one third of all North American women."

However, it clearly serves Cox and Fisher's argument well if Harlequins can be taken as indicators of all women's preferences because they
propose that the books appeal to women because they address evolved, sex-specific mating interests. Past analyses of romance novels have extensively relied upon socio-cultural interpretations. [...] One problem with these interpretations is that they do not satisfactorily explain why romance novels, and Harlequins in particular, have remained so incredibly popular across time and cultures. An alternative explanation is that these novels are consistently addressing topics that have universal appeal to women. (387)
This may be an example of the absolutist kind of thinking about culture which I mentioned in an earlier post and which Lonner described as
the belief that laws of human behavior, wherever they may be established, transcend cultures. In its extreme form absolutism would contend that human "cultures" constitute nothing more than a thin veneer that just barely mask a broad spectrum of universal laws governing thought and behavior.
Harlequin Mills & Boon romances are certainly popular across cultures but the markets are very far from identical in their preferences. For example, as I've mentioned before, medical romances are particularly popular in France, and "A substantial percentage of Mills & Boon readership in India is male!" This last fact might also raise some questions about the validity of the hypothesis "that the books appeal to women because they address evolved, sex-specific mating interests." They can hardly be "sex-specific" if they appeal to large numbers of men. Cox and Fisher, though, are depending on information about the North American market:
The assumption that Harlequin romance novels address women’s mating interests is justified, as, according to the press kit offered by Harlequin (2009), the readership of romance novels is primarily women (90.5%). According to the press kit, the majority of readers are between the ages of 31 and 49, and therefore, represent fertile women who are often mothering children. (388)
I've already noted differences in the Indian market. The UK market also differs from the North American one. In a recent interview with the BBC, Mandy Ferguson, Managing Director of Harlequin Mills and Boon in the UK revealed that HM&Bs UK readers
tend to be sort of 40, 50. I mean, they're all women, clearly, and they tend to be sort of middle aged upwards. I mean one of the challenges for the brand is to attract in readers in their thirties and forties. [...] we're actually working on a major sort of relaunch for the autumn and the brand will get a really fresh modern look.
The Harlequin Presents line is edited in the UK, and sold in the UK with identical titles to those used in the North American market yet UK readers apparently tend to be roughly a decade older, and presumably are therefore less likely to "represent fertile women who are often mothering children."1 These significant variations in the global market seem to undermine some of the assumptions on which Cox and Fisher base their hypothesis that "the titles of Harlequin romance novels would address women’s evolved, sex-specific mating interests" (288).

Cox and Fisher extract information about the supposedly "sex-specific" interests of women from the titles of Harlequin romances because
The titles of Harlequin romance novels have been shaped by market demands. Romance fiction publishers perform more market research than any other publishers (Eike, 1986), and presumably, they have selected the titles in response to consumer preferences. Titles must be shaped by consumer demand; readers vote with their money by purchasing the titles that interest them the most. In accordance with Malamuth (1996) and Salmon and Symons (1991), we therefore suggest that analyzing the titles is a valid way to investigate women’s mating interests. [...] An analysis of romance novel titles provides an objective means to ascertain word frequencies and recurring themes, which in turn reveal women’s mating interests and mate preferences. (388)
My first response to this was to muse that if the titles of romance novels reflect women's mating interests and mate preferences, there must be a lot of readers of Silhouette Nocturne romances looking for a wolf or vampire to mate with, whereas readers of historical romances would presumably prefer a Duke. I acknowledged that that was maybe a rather flippant response, so I read on, and I was very interested to see that Cox and Fisher later conclude that
some of the series (such as those that involve the paranormal) have seemingly no evolutionary underpinnings, and the number of titles from these series suggests that they are not as successful as compared with the series that are focused on traditional romance. (399)
Given the huge popularity of single-title paranormal romances in recent years, this statement reveals a striking lack of knowledge about the romance genre as a whole. Furthermore, if paranormal romances have "no evolutionary underpinnings" then their popularity would appear to undermine Cox and Fisher's assumptions about how the genre as a whole reflects women's "evolved, sex-specific mating interests" (387).

Cox and Fisher hypothesised that
  • "Women invest more than men in the production and raising of children, so we predict that one emergent theme will specifically pertain to reproduction. We expect words such as baby, mommy, father and paternity will frequently appear in the titles" (388-89).
  • "Given that women tend to provide the majority of childcare, they may not be able to accrue their own resources and consequently, often must rely on their mates (e.g., Buss, 1989). Thus, we predict that there will be a theme oriented towards wealth, in that the hero is a wealthy man. Hence, words such as wealth, tycoon, and billionaire will often appear in the titles" (389).
  • "women prefer long-term committed relationships. We predict that this preference will be displayed as an emergent theme, with words like marriage, engagement, bride, or fiancé, appearing frequently in the titles" (389).
  • Fourth, since women, as do men, prefer attractive mates (Li & Kenrick, 2006), and attractiveness (including athleticism) might serve as a proxy of genetic quality, we hypothesized that a final theme would revolve around male attractiveness. Thus, words such as handsome, attractive, or athletic will frequently occur. (389)
What they found was that
words linked to long-term committed relationships (i.e., bride, marriage, wife, wedding and husband), and reproductive success (i.e., baby and child), are within the top 20 words, thus providing some support for our hypotheses. However, words related to physical fitness did not appear, nor did words pertaining to resources. In both instances though, occupations that are normally linked with fitness (i.e., cowboy) and prestige and high income (i.e., doctors) were in the list. Thus, we explored the 20 most frequently listed professions, presented in Table 4. Three of these occupations are female dominated (i.e., nurse, secretary, and midwife). Interestingly, the other 17 professions can readily be divided into two primary themes: resource-based (e.g., doctors, surgeons, CEOs, kings) and athletic (e.g., cowboys, cattlemen). Perhaps related to the athletic theme is that of protectors (e.g., sheriffs, soldiers, lawmen) since these professions also require a high level of physical fitness. Therefore, our hypotheses concerning resources and physical fitness gained at least partial support, given the emphasis on these professions. (294)
Cox and Fisher's "data were obtained from the web-site" (389) and
The initial analysis covered 16 series of which 10 are currently being published and six are defunct. A total of 15,019 titles were analyzed [...]. The earliest books are published in 1949 (month unavailable) as part of the Harlequin Romance series, and the most recent are from June 2009. (390)
In addition
The Silhouette line contained eight series, of which four are currently published and four are defunct. Together, there was a total of 7,758 titles that we included in our analysis, which encompassed the 18 story titles within an anthology. The earliest books were published in 1980, and the most recent are from August 2009 in currently released series. (392)
What Cox and Fisher seem to have done is to amalgamate all the titles and not differentiated by the years in which they were published. I strongly suspect that this could have affected the outcomes. If one looks at the first 100 titles in the early Harlequin Presents line, for example, (which date from "May 1973 through July 1975") one can find 9 instances of "Love," 2 of "Beloved," 2 of "Bride," 2 of "Marriage," and none at all of "Baby," "Child," "Millionaire," "Billionaire" or "Tycoon." If you look at Harlequin Presents numbers 2801-2900, published in 2009 and 2010, there were no uses of the word "Love" or "Beloved" but you can find 6 instances of "Love-Child" and 1 of "Lover." In addition to the love-children there was 1 Child, 9 instances of the word "Baby", 6 of "Pregnant" and 3 of "Pregnancy". There were 6 instances of "Millionaire," 13 of "Billionaire" and 9 of "Tycoon." There are 11 instances of "Bride," 4 of "Marriage" but also 25 instances of "Mistress."

I don't want to draw sweeping conclusions from what is, after all, a small sample, but I think it's valid to point out that titles have almost certainly changed in response to greater social acceptability of sexual explicitness. Characters in the most recent Harlequin Presents are extremely likely to have sex outside marriage, and to conceive children outside marriage, whereas older Harlequins were, I think, more likely to end before the protagonists had sexually consummated their relationship. I'd suggest that that's one reason why words such as "Baby" "Pregnant" and "Mistress" are more prevalent nowadays.

But if the titles of Harlequin romances reflect "women’s sex-specific, evolved, mating interests" (388) how does one explain the fact that the titles of Harlequin romances have changed over the decades? Evolution presumably doesn't work so fast that women's "sex-specific, evolved, mating interests" would change within the space of a few decades. Could it possibly be that society and cultural preferences have changed and/or that Harlequin's marketing doesn't always respond to consumer preferences? Cox and Fisher suggest that
the company has simply discovered through trial and error that the most successful themes are those informed by evolutionary psychology. Indeed, a cursory scan of all of the titles ever published by Harlequin shows a transformation over time, such that the novels have slowly changed to being more congruent with the findings of evolutionary psychology. (398).
This, of course, would lead one to suppose that had Harlequin titles "more congruent with the findings of evolutionary psychology" been used for earlier romances, they would have been more successful. I'm not so sure, but of course, without the help of a time machine I wouldn't be able to confirm my hypothesis that readers used to titles like Storm in a Rain Barrel and The Kisses And The Wine might well have been a bit shocked to suddenly be offered titles such as Bedded For Passion, Purchased For Pregnancy and Magnate's Mistress...Accidentally Pregnant!

In the absence of a time machine, I shall

(a) content myself with wondering if, according to their methodology, the prevalence of the word "Mistress" in recent Harlequin Presents undermines their prediction that since "women prefer long-term committed relationships [...] this preference will be displayed as an emergent theme, with words like marriage, engagement, bride, or fiancé, appearing frequently in the titles" (389) and

(b) be watching carefully to see if there's a shift away from the titles which are most "congruent with the findings of evolutionary psychology." As Mandy Ferguson stated, Mills & Boon is planning "a major sort of relaunch for the autumn and the brand will get a really fresh modern look" and as part of that Kate Walker has revealed that "the Presents series titles are going through a change this year."

In the meantime, if anyone's interested in downloading some free Harlequin and Mills & Boon romances the company's offering a variety of them (in a range of different formats) at and .

If you're interested in reading more of Fisher's work on evolutionary psychology and the study of literature, then you might like Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher and Ian Jobling's "Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads: Alternative Mating Strategies in British Romantic literature." The authors begin with the interesting statement that
It is difficult to make progress in literary studies because, unlike scientists, literary scholars do not base their findings on theories that are subject to empirical tests. The imaginations of literary researchers are allowed to run wild, and theories like deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis are selected not because of their effectiveness in generating empirically valid hypotheses, but because people just happen to like them. Also, many humanists have an anti-scientific mythology that perpetuates this situation. (305-306)
It's probably worth noting in response that
There is a broad consensus among philosophers of science that evolutionary psychology is a deeply flawed enterprise. For philosophers of mind and cognitive science evolutionary psychology has been a source of empirical hypotheses about cognitive architecture and specific components of that architecture. Philosophers of mind are also critical of evolutionary psychology but their criticisms are not as all-encompassing as those presented by philosophers of biology. (Downes)
As a mere "literary scholar," though, I'm clearly not qualified to assess the merits of those differing scientific viewpoints.


1 I do know that changes were made to the titles of at least some Modern Extra/Modern Heat romances when they were sold in the North American market as Harlequin Presents. In general, however, I have the impression that Modern romances are sold as Presents romances with identical titles. Kate Walker, for example, lists her three latest US releases as The Konstantos Marriage Demand (March 16, 2009), Kept For Her Baby (October 13, 2009) and Cordero's Forced Bride (February 2009) and they were released with the same titles in the UK.


  1. Thanks for the laugh. (Which I hope this "study" received in other places, too.) And the reminder that a little common sense is a good thing when working in academia!

  2. What?!? What I do?!? <-- says she who'd completely forgotten she'd sent it to you ;-)

    Now off to read the rest. Kind of got distracted there. o.O

  3. Oh, yeah, just looked at my own post and now I remember that dingbat study of the titles. Context is everything.

    Head desk.

    It'll be interesting to see how you dissect it, Laura. :D

  4. Some changes in the titles are indeed afoot. After three "mistress" titles -- including the "Accidentally Pregnant" one mentioned here -- my August Modern Heat is titled "What Happens In Vegas..."

    And, yes, when Harlequin started releasing Modern Heats in the US as part of the Presents line, the titles were changed. The titles are now identical.

  5. I'm glad it gave you a laugh, Laura.

    I'm sorry I puzzled you, Bev. Hope you found the dissection interesting.

    Thanks for the clarification about the titles, Kimberly. The new ones seem more interesting to me. Maybe it's just because they're new, but I think it's also because (admittedly I'm saying this on the basis of the two that I know about, and that's a minuscule sample) they seem more varied.

  6. There do seem to be a lot of 'presumably's in the sections you quote.

    Casting aside the HQ title question, there is of course an interesting question about why (some) women read romance at all. But considering that question would have involved gaining some knowledge of the genre and then giving the question some actual thought, rather than simply carrying out the briefest analysis of a few thousand titles.

  7. The subject of this post suggests several things to me. One is that academic studies require a thesis of some sort, and, with the romance genre in particular, the thesis often leads the studier astray. Second, in the romance genre, titles rarely tell much about content. (That may be more particularly true with Harlequins.)
    Third, therefore most readers of romance fiction--and I think Harlequin readers in particular--pay little attention to titles, except to mock or make fun sometimes, so drawing conclusions about the readers of them from the titles is pointless.
    However, fourth, it's an interesting thing that titles in romance fiction have little to do with content and yet those titles are almost invariably clues that books are indeed romances, and that seems to be true with single titles as well as category titles. With other genre fiction, the title often clues a reader in to what genre the book belongs to as well, but they also usually have some relation to the content.


  8. Not so much puzzled, Laura, as just needing to jog the old memory cells a bit. ;-)

    Dick, I wouldn't say that titles never tell about content. For one thing, I don't call Harlequin Presents titles "keyword titles" for no good reason. ;-)

    The thing that strikes me about all of this isn't the topic so much as that we are truly only talking about a few decades of book titles that they don't even put into a timeline context. Any way one looks at it, how in the world does that show evolution? Of anything?

    Now, it could've shown the changes in the titles, as Laura points out, but without the context of dates for comparison, what is the academic point? Other than a lot of words, I mean.

  9. "there is of course an interesting question about why (some) women read romance at all. But considering that question would have involved gaining some knowledge of the genre and then giving the question some actual thought"

    My impression is that for these authors romance reading itself is also explained by evolutionary psychology: "the books appeal to women because they address evolved, sex-specific mating interests."

    One is that academic studies require a thesis of some sort, and, with the romance genre in particular, the thesis often leads the studier astray.

    Unfortunately I don't think this is a problem which has affected the study of romance "in particular." I don't think one can ever approach a text with one's brain entirely free from pre-existing ideas, but I do feel that if one approaches every text with the intention of proving that a particular theory is correct, that might prejudice the outcome of one's findings.

    "Dick, I wouldn't say that titles never tell about content. For one thing, I don't call Harlequin Presents titles "keyword titles" for no good reason"

    Yes, I have to agree with Bev on this. If the title has sheikh/Italian/Greek/Spaniard in the title, it gives the reader an indication of the nationality of the hero. If the word baby or child appears, there's usually one of those somewhere in the book and, at least in my experience, historicals and medicals not infrequently have some word in their titles which indicates their sub-genre.

    "without the context of dates for comparison, what is the academic point? Other than a lot of words, I mean."

    In the context of evolutionary psychology, the dates that would be involved here probably don't seem that relevant to them. After all, they're arguing that women's preferences in relation to sex/reproduction/romance were set millenia ago.