Friday, November 05, 2010

Cameras, Action, Romance Novels!

According to Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan,
everyone has a very firm idea of what the average romance reader is like. We bet you already know her. She's rather dim and kind of tubby - undereducated and undersexed - and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens. (4)
If you'd like to see a picture of this typical romance reader, created by Joanne Renaud for the Smart Bitches' book, you can click across here. Wendell and Tan didn't mention the cause of the tubbyness, but it may be due to those bonbons that we romance readers apparently can't resist:
We still persist in the stereotypical belief that women who read romances can't get a date on Friday night. Instead, they lounge around all day eating bon-bons while they read their little books. This is simply untrue. (Bouricius 32)
According to Rachel Anderson, the genre "is usually condescendingly dismissed by those with highbrow pretensions as being harmless wish-fulfilment for ageing spinsters, or relatively harmless escapism for the ill-educated masses" (12-13). I suspect the stereotype varies a bit, perhaps from one country or time-period to another: Anderson was writing in the UK in the 1970s, whereas Wendell, Tan, and Bouricius were published in the US in the 2000s.

I'm not sure where these stereotypes of the romance reader come from, or how they're perpetuated, but since I'm interested in societal perceptions of romances and romance readers I was intrigued by Kirsten Valentine Cadieux's post about the recently released RED. She
was delighted to discover that a central narrative device of the film's setup is a somewhat elaborate, if simple, pattern in which the male romantic lead inquires about the current habits of the female romantic lead [...]; he then proceeds to read along with her trashy romance novels.
In the movie Mary-Louise Parker plays the part of Sarah, "a sweet, mild-mannered government HR rep and lover of romance novels who is inadvertently drawn into the film's dangerous world of intrigue" (CBR):
"She's a small town, Midwestern girl, and I think she's really positive and there's not a whole lot of dark in there," Parker said of Sarah during the press junket for "RED" in New York City. "She's a really bright, positive person, she reads romance novels and she kind of imagines herself "in" one of them. So when all of this happens, I think to her it's a dream come true. Even the horrible parts of it, like getting her mouth duct taped, there's some element to that that's thrilling and wonderful." (CBR)
Unfortunately, since I try to avoid depictions of violence, I won't be able to see for myself how the two romance readers (Sarah and Frank) challenge and/or reinforce particular stereotypes about romance readers.

When I looked to see if there were other movies with characters who read romance, I came across the following description, written by Dyanne, at The Romance Reader:
AMERICAN DREAMER - Stars JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti. Very funny - I love this movie! JoBeth Williams' character is a housewife who loves to read romantic thrillers by Rebecca Ryan and so she enters a Rebecca Ryan writing contest. She wins a trip to Paris and on her way to the awards luncheon gets knocked on the head -- when she awakens, she believes she is Rebecca Ryan.
I haven't seen that one either.

So is there anyone here who has seen either of these movies? If so, what did you think of their depiction of romance readers? And do any of you know of any other movies with romance-reading characters? Finally, is Jayashree Kamble overstating the case when she writes that
stereotypes about romance fiction are so deeply inscribed in popular discourse that they are regularly referenced by the entertainment media, such as television shows and movies, for comic effect. In every case, romance novels are portrayed as titillating fantasies written and read by oversexed or undersexed women. Romance readers often also come across in these electronic media as possessing little intelligence and discernment and as being incapable of separating themselves from the text. In most cases, these media are popular texts themselves and ridicule the romance genre as a way to elevate their own status by contrast and detract from their own formulae. (27-28)

  • Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-Literature of Love. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974.
  • Bouricius, Ann. The Romance Readers' Advisory: The Librarian's Guide to Love in the Stacks. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.
  • Kamble, Jayashree. Uncovering and Recovering the Popular Romance Novel. University of Minnesota, Ph.D. dissertation. December 2008. [Details here and available for download as a pdf here.]
  • Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.


  1. I saw American Dreamer, but it was at least a decade ago? Something like that? And I don't remember much of it at all, alas. I remember liking it. It was a friend's favorite movie.

    I did see RED this week, and very much enjoyed it. Frank begins to read romance novels because Sarah tells him about what she's reading, essentially telling him what she's reading is terrible--and wonderful. Can't quote it exactly. You then see Frank with a stack of novels (they look a bit like Silhouette categories, but fictionalized), and then he's reading one in bed. I think, overall, it was a positive portrayal.

  2. "And do any of you know of any other movies with romance-reading characters?"

    So far 'American Dreamer' is the only feature film that features a reader as protagonist.

    Oh, there is one: Keeping Up Appearances (UK). Hyacinth Bucket's overweight and unemployed unhappily married sister Rose is a daily M&B reader. I'm quite certain Rosanne of US sitcom Roseanne occasionally read a romance novel.

    I agree with Jayashree Kamble's take, particularly this bit: "In every case, romance novels are portrayed as titillating fantasies written [...] by oversexed or undersexed women."

    - Joan Wilder (US film 'Romancing the Stone') was a lonely single woman with a cat and a bag of neurotic issues for company. In sequel 'The Jewel of the Nile', she's changed. due to her love interest Jack.

    - Mary Fisher (TV mini series 'The Loves & Life of a She-Devil' / US film 'She-Devil') is a spoiled, selfish and almost asexual novelist with a bag of neurotic issues.

    - Nora Bing (Chandler's mother from TV sitcom 'Friends') is sex-mad with a history of broken marriages.

    - Ms. Perky the headmistress (of US film 'Ten Things I Hate About You') is a, err although a "spinister", passionate aspiring romance author with somewhat overheated imagination.

    Avid readers (and I suppose librarians) tend to be single, wear glasses and a bit uptight, but if they read romances, they tend to be overweight, lethargic or down-trodden, unemployed and living in a trailer trash (or in Rose's case, a council house).

    Actually, I think Lolita of Lolita (film version), as a tired housewife, was seen reading a romance novel? I'll have to check to make sure.

    All - both authors and readers - were portrayed incapable of separating reality from fantasy. Rose of 'Keeping Up Appearances' often compared her husband with M&B heroes, for instance. When things go wrong, she whips out a M&B to read. In TV drama series 'True Blood', Grandmother was seen reading a Charlaine Harris book (presumably as an inside joke) in the kitchen and well, she's not all there, is she?

    If they aren't reading romance novels, they would be watching daytime soap opera or the QVC shopping channel. So there is a strong association between romance readers and poor quality of life.

    Having said all that, I noticed some time ago that that stereotype is dying because quite a few romantic comedy films feature a romance reader without subjecting her to .

    There are loads more films and TV drama, but I'm stopping because it's getting too long, I'm making a mess of this, and I'm ready to fall asleep. Excuse typos, etc.

  3. There's a movie version of The Boyfriend Club, which is about romance writers, among other things. Haven't seen the movie but I enjoyed the book a lot, even more after I reread it as a romance reader.

    "American Dreamer" I thought somewhat dumb, but inoffensive, IIRC. -- willaful

  4. I really loved American Dreamer when it came out, though it's been a long time since I saw it. Cute, funny, sweet -- I already adored Tom Conti because of Reuben, Reuben (a rather black comedy about a Dylan Thomas-esque poet) and Williams because of her role in The Big Chill. Back then I would never have thought of myself as a romance fan, but it was a real guilty pleasure. The revelation of the "real" author counted on the audience's assumptions about "typical" romance writers and readers, so that was fun.

  5. In the movie "In Her Shoes" (based on a novel of the same name by Jennifer Weiner) the character played by Toni Collette reads romance novels. She is a successful lawyer, and is definitely portrayed as "the smart one" (though she does have trouble with men). There is a nice scene where her love interest, who first slightly mocks her reading material, reads aloud (I don't remember exactly what, I think something to do with pirates).

  6. Are you at all familiar with In the Jaws of Life? Both the film and the novel deal with a girl who, among other things, reads a lot of romance novels. However, when she meets men in real life, she doesn't compare them to romance heroes, although she does "try them out" by inserting them into romance-like fantasies. Never the less, the fact that she reads romances does not come across as anything she should be ridiculed for, nor is she depicted as stupid, spinstery or anything like that -- just a little shy. Both the novel and the film are very, very funny, though, and the novel is considered as one of the classics of modern literature from the late Yugoslavian period.

  7. Thanks so much, all of you, for your input. I don't tend to watch films/movies because I almost invariably end up with a headache afterwards. I know I'm missing out on an important area of popular culture, so I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with me.

    Victoria, I'm glad you enjoyed RED, and that it was "a positive portrayal" of the genre and its readers.

    Maili, your knowledge of films is very impressive, even when you're sleepy, and it's heartening that you think "that stereotype is dying."

    Willaful, did you mean The Boyfriend School/Don't Tell Her It's Me? It was apparently based on a novel by Sarah Bird:

    Bird wrote five romance novels between writing Alamo House and Boyfriend School - these were published under the pseudonym Tory Cates. Bird later wrote the screen play for the movie Don't Tell Her It's Me (1990, starring Shelley Long and Steve Guttenberg), adapting the Boyfriend School novel. (Wikipedia)

    K.A. you sent me off on a spoiler-hunt with your comment that

    The revelation of the "real" author counted on the audience's assumptions about "typical" romance writers and readers, so that was fun.

    Luckily for me, my curiosity was assuaged by the synopsis at Wikipedia.

    Anonymous, I think I found at least part of the quote from In Her Shoes:

    Simon Stein: [reading from one of Rose's romance novels] "His fingers tangled in her curls while his tongue plundered the soft cavern of her mouth. She made no protests. Her furnace was alight. Jack drew his lips from hers and urged her forward so he could take one shirt-veiled nipple into his mouth. Kit's gasp urged him on. He licked the material until it clung to the right peak then drew the turgid flesh deep into his mouth. Kit moaned, her body spasming in response. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted." Okay, um, embarrassing as this is to admit, I'm officially turned on. (IMDB)

    Milena, sadly I'd not even heard of In the Jaws of Life but I watch so few movies that's probably not surprising. It does sound like a very positive depiction of a romance reader, and it's interesting that "the novel is considered as one of the classics of modern literature from the late Yugoslavian period." Are you the Milena who was intereviewed by Jessica at RRR?

  8. Are you the Milena who was intereviewed by Jessica at RRR?
    Yes, that would be me. Hi!
    As for the story of the novel, yes, it is rather interesting, as it takes a very postmodern approach, combining elements that were commonly encountered in women's magazines of the time, one of which were romances. We had a lot of them published for a while, but almost all were published as supplements in women's magazines, so that's where the connection comes from. The original novel was published in English, too, and it's a very interesting read, I think.

  9. Yes, that's what I meant. -- willaful

  10. I've seen Don't Tell Her It's Me -- IIRC the Shelley Long / romance novelist character was portrayed as a happily married brainiac mom with a little girl she talked to using very big words, especially when warning the toddler what harm could come to her if she stuck her finger into light sockets, etc. I didn't think the writer was portrayed poorly, but I'm not sure anyone in that movie was a reader, per se? I think the heroine was a journalist who was supposed to research the genre.

  11. Thanks for the clarification, Willaful!

    "We had a lot of them published for a while, but almost all were published as supplements in women's magazines"

    At the recent IASPR conference Cora Buhlert reported that that's still the format they're most associated with in Germany, apparently there are still some available in France in that format, and that's also true of the UK. I do find the differences in the various markets very interesting, but I don't know anywhere near enough to be able to draw any conclusions about them.

    "IIRC the Shelley Long / romance novelist character was portrayed as a happily married brainiac mom [...] I didn't think the writer was portrayed poorly, but I'm not sure anyone in that movie was a reader, per se?"

    Ah. But perhaps it does something to counter the stereotype(s) that exists of the romance author. As mentioned in the Romantic Novelists' Association's recent book, published to mark their 50th anniversary:

    Barbara Cartland was the biggest personality ever in the Romantic Novelists' Association, even though she was only a member for six years. She was undoubtedly a major force in getting it off the ground and recruiting founder members. But over the years she has also presented a problem, with which the Association still grapples today: that carefully crafted image of hers has been accepted universally as the archetypal romantic novelist. Of course, it was not true in 1960, but so much the more is it wide of the mark today. (22)

    Fabulous at Fifty: Recollections of the Romantic Novelists' Association 1960-2010. Ed. Jenny Haddon & Diane Pearson. RNA, 2010.

  12. @Milena
    Thank you *so* much for the heads up on 'In the Jaws of Life'. I haven't seen this, but I will soon.
    It's also a reminder that I focused on English-language films only, which is a mistake. There are many non-English films that feature romance authors and readers.

    On the U.S. side, while there were certainly predecessors (I'm thinking of 1920s-era romance authors whose films were adapted for the screen), I think it was Rosemary Rogers who pretty much created the "glamorous romance author with a massive house and a fleet of cars" stereotype.
    Here's an example:

    I'm pretty sure Faith Baldwin had as well. She was famous enough to have her own television line: "Faith Baldwin Romance Television" (I might have the wording wrong, but it's something like that).

    There's another author - whose first name is also Faith, but I can't remember her surname - who used to appear in magazines and newspapers about her oh-so-glamorous life with a former bullfighter for a husband.

  13. Good old Wikipedia! A good starter:

    "In 1935, she was described as the newest of the "highly paid" women romance writers by Time magazine."

    I still don't get why the Romance genre was thought to have created in the 1970s when we have authors like Faith Baldwin.

  14. Maili, I did have a vague recollection of that page of photos of US romance authors, which is why I wrote "the stereotype(s)" rather than "the stereotype," but I couldn't remember where to find it.

    I think the Cartland stereotype conjures up escapist, and often anachronistic, ideas about class and female sexuality; she "was a champion of idealistic love and virginity before marriage, and she believed that women should be at home to look after the children" (BBC) and among her vast output one can find an etiquette guide.

    That Rosemary Rodgers photo, on the other hand, shows her in the kind of pose which might lead other authors to be asked nudge-nudge-wink-wink questions about how they do the research for their sex scenes.

  15. Maili, I think the author whose name you can't recall was Barbara Faith. According to Wikipedia, she was married to bullfighter Alfonso Covarrubias and many of her books feature rather glamorous Spanish and Mexican settings. (And I only know this because Super Librarian Wendy featured one of her books recently and the bit about the bullfighter husband stuck in my mind. All hail Wendy!)

  16. Marie-Thérèse, I'm so glad you mentioned Wendy's post. When I read Maili's comment about the bullfighter I thought I'd read something about that romance author recently, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen it, which was very frustrating. Thanks!