Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Disappearing Difference

Laura Vivanco recently posted on the differences between the UK and Australian covers of Maisey Yate’s The Highest Price to Pay, suggesting that it is the first Mills & Boon ‘Modern Romance’ title to feature a black protagonist on the cover. Of course, while not of African-Caribbean descent, non-white heroes have long been depicted on ‘Modern Romance’ covers in the figure of the sheikh. Yet the racial politics of sheikh romance covers are not straightforward either. The erotic fetishising of contrasting skin colour is a well-documented trope in both modern and older sheikh romances and is commonly used in ‘Modern Romance’ titles:
The dark bronze of his body was in contrast to her own paler skin and as he lay down beside her she was fascinated by the sight of his large long-fingered hand splaying possessively across her body. Who’d have thought anything so simple could be so erotic? (West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure, 104)
Jessica Taylor has written that sheikh romances are one of the few occasions when the colour line is broken in North American category romance (1036). Hsu-Ming Teo observed that the covers of sheikh romances in the 1990s (so before the start of the Mills & Boon ‘Modern Romance’ series in August 2000) emphasised and celebrated racial difference as symbolised through skin tone (250), which seems to correlate with the eroticisation of contrasting skin colour in sheikh romances. Teo’s observations are initially corroborated by Juliet Flesch’s findings that the covers of sheikh romances published in the late 1980s and early 1990s emphasise a contrast between a blonde heroine and a dark hero.

However, Flesch goes on to observe that the covers of later sheikh novels published in the 1990s by the same author reveal less contrast between hero and heroine (214-215). Whilst both Teo and Flesch research novels published in the 1990s, my analysis of novels published from 2000-2009 reveals a surprising shift which correlates with Flesch’s conclusions about later sheikh novels. On the covers of some sheikh titles published in Mills & Boon’s ‘Modern Romance’ series over the past ten years, sheikh heroes have been whitened and a suggestive contrast has arisen between the representation of heroes in the text, where contrasting skin colour is eroticised, and the covers, where the contrast in skin colour is reduced and, in some cases, completely elided. Of the 57 sheikh romances published in the ‘Modern Romance’ series, only six appear to emphasise a contrast in skin colour on the cover (see for example The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife and Traded to the Sheikh). The six novels which emphasise racial difference seem to be clustered in the two-year period from 2006-2008: Emma Darcy’s Traded to the Sheikh (2006); Sandra Marton’s The Desert Virgin (2006); Jane Porter’s The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride (2006); Sharon Kendrick’s The Sheikh’s English Bride (2007); Lynne Graham’s The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife (2007); and The Sheikh’s Convenient Virgin by Trish Morey (2008).

Eighteen covers remove the couple from the cover all together, substituting a desert landscape, which seemed to be the preferred format until around 2005 (see The Arabian Mistress);

24 covers feature a couple who have no evident skin colour contrast (see Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin and The Sheikh's Ransomed Bride);

and nine covers have a slight, discernable difference, but which is not the main focus of the cover (see The Sheikh's Unwilling Wife).

Many of the covers are unique to sheikh romances published in the UK; although the same titles are published in North America and Australia, it is only since Miranda Lee's Love-Slave to the Sheikh (2006) that the UK covers have used the same images as the North American 'Harlequin Presents...' and the Australian 'Sexy' covers.

There seems to be no correlation between the skin colour of the sheikh hero on the cover and in the text. For example, Annie West's The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride describes how the heroine’s ‘breath stopped at the sight of him there, one large, tanned hand on her pale skin’ (147), yet the cover indicates no difference in skin colour between hero and heroine. In the text, their contrasting skin colour is eroticised, but on the covers, the sheikh’s ability to assimilate into (white) western culture is more prominent. This seems to reveal a paradox within these romances: a desire for difference, but an insistence on sameness.

This paradox is of course reflected in the sheikh hero’s hybridity, he has often been educated in the West, and may have Western (European, North American or Australian) parentage. Marketing a romance novel with a Middle Eastern hero at a time of political instability and western military engagement in the Middle East and North Africa could be seen as risky, therefore Mills & Boon may be attempting to solve this by emphasising the hero’s hybridity on the cover. Yet if the whitening of sheikh heroes on the covers is reflective of this hybridity, it seems odd that this would not be the case in the novels themselves, where the contrast in skin colour between the hero and heroine is regularly highlighted.

Perhaps what these covers indicate is that ‘sheikh-ness’ doesn’t necessarily have to come from the skin colour of the hero but can be indicated in other ways. For example, on the cover of The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride the display of fabric, wood carving on the bed frame, a stone archway and a pool are Orientalist markers which signify the ethnic identity of the sheikh as well as his geographical locus in the east. The cover of The Sheikh's Unwilling Wife is similarly clear in its use of markers of ethnicity, displaying stone arches behind the hero and heroine, and tokenistic Orientalist markers in the candle, pouring jug, vase and basket. These serve to indicate that although his skin seems to be white, the hero on the cover is still a sheikh. This may also be achieved by the novels’ title; ‘Modern Romance’ sheikh novels are the only subgenre which always indicate that the hero’s identity by using the words ‘sheikh’ (e.g. Sandra Marton’s The Sheikh’s Wayward Wife (2008)), ‘Sultan’ (The Sultan’s Virgin Bride by Sarah Morgan (2006)), ‘Desert’ (Annie West’s The Desert King’s Pregnant Wife (2008)) or Arabian (The Arabian Love-Child by Michelle Reid (2002)). So it is racial, not ethnic difference which is removed in the whitening of the sheikh hero, which begs the question: if it is not skin colour, what makes a sheikh?


Emma Darcy, Traded to the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006).

Juliet Flesch, From Australia with Love: a History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle: Curtin University Books, 2004).

Lynne Graham, The Arabian Mistress (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001).

Lynne Graham, The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008).

Sharon Kendrick, The Sheikh's Unwilling Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007).

Kim Lawrence, Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008).

Jessica Taylor, ‘And You Can Be My Sheikh: Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels’, Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007), pp. 1032-1051.

Hsu-Ming Teo, ‘Orientalism and Mass Market Romance Novels in the Twentieth Century’, Edward Said: The Legacy of a Public Intellectual, ed. Ned Curthoys and Debjani Ganguly (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007), pp. 241-262.

Annie West, The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007).

Annie West, For the Sheikh’s Pleasure (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007).


  1. You ask "if it is not skin colour, what makes a sheikh?" and I wonder if, in part, that would have to be answered in the context of Italian, Spanish, Greek and South American heroes. My feeling is that the appeal of these nationalities (and of the sheikh) is often that they are perceived by many readers to come from more "traditional" (i.e. more sexist) societies so they readily provide the kind of conflict that characterises the Modern line. The depiction of these heroes' backgrounds may, or may not be particularly related to reality. For example, when I went off to look for some statistics, I found that in 2010, 36.6% of Spain's members of parliament were women compared to 22% in the UK. Ireland, with 13.9%, and the US, with 16.8% come in lower than Greece (17.3%) and Italy (21.3%). The World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Gender Gap Report placed Spain 11th, the UK 15th and the US 19th (Greece comes in 58th and Italy 74th).

    I'm a bit hesitant to comment on covers because I've not got any training in the analysis/critique of images. Obviously I notice when there are particularly blatant contrasts such as the one I highlighted in the post you linked to, but I don't know very much about how covers are produced and selected, and what their precise relationship is to the texts. In the end, though, that's not going to stop me commenting; I hope you'll correct me if I write something particularly uninformed.

    You write that "Eighteen covers remove the couple from the cover all together, substituting a desert landscape, which seemed to be the preferred format until around 2005." I was wondering if it was only sheikh romances which went through this process or whether it also affected other M&B Modern romances in this period?

    Re the colour of the protagonists when they are depicted (on the covers and also in the texts), Stephanie Burley writes that

    Once we begin to notice the racial implications of seemingly all-white genres of popular culture, the language of whiteness emerges as one of the central representational strategies in popular romance, and as one of the constituent markers of the heroines in the Black Watch series. Category romances like the Silhouette Desire line often revel in the "creamy whiteness" and pale beauty of the heroine [...]. Such emphasis links the heroines of James' mini-series to a whole range of cultural associations of innocence and purity reminiscent of the 19th century "cult of true womanhood."

    In order to puzzle out the relationship between color-coding and desire in category romance, the standard description of the "tall, dark, and handsome" hero, in distinction to the seemingly paler heroine, merits scrutiny.

    So it occurs to me that for comparative purposes it might be interesting to see if there are colour contrasts between heroines and Spanish/Greek/Italian/South American heroes and/or if the depictions of heroes with these nationalities heroes change in the same way as the sheikh covers. And how many covers in the Modern line depict non-sheikh/Spanish/Greek/South American/Italian heroes? Do some of them show colour contrasts?

  2. I also wondered how dark you thought the sheikhs on the covers ought to be? Many (all?) of them come from invented countries, but the real Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (to pick one example of a real person from the region from which the fictional sheikhs come) doesn't look particularly dark to me. So could it be that with the more recent covers the cover artists are reflecting reality whereas the authors are continuing in a literary tradition which equates darkness with otherness and masculinity?

    Another thing that occurs to me is that modern heroines do sometimes sunbathe so presumably that makes them darker. In the text (which usually "shows" more of the heroine's body than the cover does) there is still likely to be a colour contrast when the hero puts his dark hand on a part of her body which is not likely to be tanned and, of course, those body parts may well be ones which are more associated with sexuality (e.g. her belly, her inner thigh). If that's the case, it's an interesting way of continuing the dark=masculine and sexy tradition, while making it more realistic in a modern context in which White women are usually not as pale as their sun-avoiding upper-class Victorian counterparts.

    I also wonder about the relationship between the cover artists and the texts. I don't know what instructions the artists are given or how frequently they read the texts. The relationship between the two could, therefore, be a bit complicated. I'm thinking in particular of a passage from an essay about M&Bs by David Margolies (writing about covers of M&Bs published between 1979 and 1982):

    I thought I had discovered sophisticated editorial intervention when I became aware that the fairly realistic cover illustration of each volume closely accorded with the description in the text, showing the submission of heroine to hero by their postures or gaze (she has an inward focus while he surveys the outer world). I assumed that the ideological character of the illustration was created by the publishers - but none of the illustrations originates with Mills & Boon. They are able to choose from a wide range of material that already expresses the ideology of the texts. (6)

    I'm not really sure how much editors shape these decisions, though: isn't there a whole department devoted to the creation of cover art? So I don't know to what extent the covers can really be thought of as illustrating the texts. Rather, they may be complementary depictions which are chosen/designed to appeal to the readers visually and may therefore draw on iconographic traditions which are not necessarily identical to the literary traditions within which the authors are working.

    Burley, Stephanie. "Shadows & Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance." Paradoxa 5.13-14 (2000). 324-343.

    Margolies, David. "Mills & Boon: Guilt without Sex." Red Letters 14 (1982-83). 5-13.

  3. Maybe it was growing up with half-Lebanese stepsisters and having Pakistani doctors, but I read Middle Eastern as white. They aren't black. They aren't Asian. They aren't Australoid black.They aren't native American. So naturally, they're white. Darker than me, but most people are, unless they are Swedish blonds.

    IOW, I can see the contrast between his golden skin and her pale one, or his dark hair and her blond, but it's all still caucasian skin and hair.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Laura and Angelia. I think some of the points you both made highlight exactly what I find interesting about questions of racial identity - what do labels such as 'black' and 'white' really mean?

    Angelia, I agree that people from the Middle East and North Africa are generally considered to be 'white', yet I do think that these romances work to distinguish them racially from the 'white' western heroine. I wonder if it is in this more 'cultural' identity that the main differences between the hero and heroine emerge. This feeds into Laura's comment about the similarities between the sheikh hero and Greek, Italian, Spanish etc heroes - I am far from expert on these 'Mediterranean' heroes, but from my casual reading of some of them I do think there are many similarities, one of which is his 'traditional' (read sexist) attitude. I also recall that skin colour contrast is emphasised on some ronance covers with Mediterranean or South American heroes: the sheikh certainly isn't the only hero to be racially 'othered' in this way.

    However, I do think that sheikh romances emphasise the sheikh's difference through skin colour more frequently than romances with Mediterranean (or indeed, South American or Asian) heroes - some work I have done on themes of miscegenation in these romances seems to indicate their concern with lineage which is often mediated through discussions of skin colour. For example in 'The Sheikh's Convenient Virgin' by Trish Morey (2008) the heroine imagines the skin colour of any children she and the hero might have:

    'What would Taj’s children look like? Would they share his golden eyes? Or would they have everyday hazel ones? They would have his dark hair and beautiful skin, she was sure. She would want them to'. (147)

    Your suggestions, Laura, about the possible reasons for a distinction between skin colour on the cover and in the text are interesting and plausible - we hear again and again about unsatisfactory distinctions between depictions of the hero and heroine in the text and on the cover. However, perhaps it is part of the uniqueness (and, for me as a researcher, interest) that I have never heard a complaint about the depiction of sheikh heroes on the cover.

    Finally, to answer your question about the sheikh covers, Laura: as far as I can tell, it is only the sheikh romances which had landscape (non-couple) covers in the Modern Romance series until 2005. During the same period, romances with Greek, Italian and Spanish heroes all had the conventional 'couple' cover and the same sheikh titles published in the US as Harlequin Presents... also had couple covers. These 'desert' covers are therefore unique to sheikh titles published in the UK during this period.

    I haven't analysed any of the Mediterranean/South American hero covers, although this would be fascinating, but as a point of interest, of the approximately 931 titles published in the Modern Romance series from 2000-2009, 57 have sheikh heroes, 106 Greek heroes, 62 Spanish heroes, 27 South American heroes, 183 Italian heroes and 21 French heroes (I also seem to recall a couple of Turkish heroes). So even within the Mediterranean, there is a national code about what constitutes a hero - there are no Croatian or Algerian heroes, as far as I am aware.

  5. I agree that people from the Middle East and North Africa are generally considered to be 'white'

    The question of what has been deemed and is deemed to constitute "whiteness" is a fascinating one to me (albeit one I don't know a great deal about). In "Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film" Teo mentions that

    As Matthew Frye Jacobson has argued, the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. The response of newly arrived European immigrants—Irish, Italians, Poles, and Slavs—or their descendants was to scramble for inclusion into and consolidation of a catch-all white “Caucasian” identity, constructed at the expense of black Americans then migrating from the agrarian South to the urban and industrial North and West (Jacobson 7-8). The crucial test for belonging was, of course, naturalization and citizenship, restricted since 1790 to “free white persons,” and later amended in 1870 to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Rather than challenging the racial basis of citizenship, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries instead saw a raft of legal attempts to have certain marginal groups declared “white” (Gualtieri 52-53).

    Significantly, in contrast to Britain—where Arabs were associated with “blacks” until the Second World War—in the United States, Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, and Turks were declared a “white” race under the landmark 1915 Dow v. United States ruling by the Circuit Court of Appeals. The “fact” of Levantine whiteness was established in a series of naturalization cases heard in federal courts between 1909 and 1915. Syrians such as George Dow and his supporters deliberately constructed themselves as white, appealing to a shared sense of Christian entitlement, their ancient civilization, and the Semitic roots they shared with Jews who were considered racially white (Gualtieri 42-46). For the new immigrant groups, however, whiteness was unstable and precarious. To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks.


    So even within the Mediterranean, there is a national code about what constitutes a hero - there are no Croatian or Algerian heroes, as far as I am aware.

    Some unusual nationalities did turn up as a result of Mills & Boon creating a Euromance series, but I'm not sure how popular it was. The list at the Romance Wiki's incomplete because M&B's branding was inconsistent. I have Jessica Marchant's A Part of Heaven (1993) which isn't on the Wiki's list but is nonetheless part of that series and it features a Bulgarian hero.

    Teo, Hsu-Ming. "Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

  6. I would hesitate to write a Croatian or Albanian hero. Mainly because I'm not sure they have enough ethnic dynamism to stand out.

    Ditto Algerian vs. Egyptian. Egyptian, people understand. But Algeria? Where's that? It's kind of like how midwesterners consider Canada to be America's attic and not a real place of its own.