Saturday, August 10, 2013

Gender and Love Conference: Demisexual Protagonists and Feminism

3rd Global Conference

Friday 13th September – Sunday 15th September 2013

Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom

The conference puts the draft papers online, so I've included links to some of them below. More details about the conference can be found here. Session 7 includes:

"First Love, Last Love, True Love: Heroines, Heroes, and the Gendered Representation of Love in the Romance Novel" by Jodi McAlister, Macquarie University

Jodi McAlister argues that
the concept of ‘compulsory demisexuality’ [...] permeates the world of the romance. Someone who is demisexual experiences sexual attraction only to those with whom they share an emotional connection. When this intersects with the idea of One True Love, a world is shaped where sex and love are inextricably linked. I will explore how this is differently gendered in the romance novel. Often, the heroine is already demisexual, the linking of sex and love coded as something explicitly feminine. Conversely, heroes become demisexual, unable to desire another woman once he has formed an emotional connection with the heroine. This highlights a sharp gendered divide in the portrayal of true love. For women, there is an emphasis on the importance of first love. For men, this emphasis is on last love.
She notes that
As sex scenes became more prevalent, heroines increasingly found themselves overpowered by their desire, their bodies triumphing over their minds. Their desire creates a kind of slippage in the paradigm of compulsory demisexuality. For true love to prevail – for mind and body to be united – their desire must be recuperated into the paradigm. They must form an emotional bond with the man they have slept with, the hero, proving their desire to be prophetic: a sort of metaphysical sign that the man they desire is their one true love.
The paper focuses on Harlequin Mills & Boons, as does

"A Third Wave Feminist Mills & Boon Love Affair? Gender in Recent Romance Novels" by Eirini Arvanitaki, Department of English, University of Hull

While I welcome Eirini Arvanitaki's positive approach towards recent HM&B romances, I was a bit worried by the lack of mention of differences between HM&B lines because these can have a significant impact on some of the issues under discussion (at least, I found it to be the case, as outlined in my "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances"). I also wonder how deep her knowledge is of earlier HM&Bs. It's easy enough to write:
In the past, the majority of the novels illustrated the hero as an heir of an influential and wealthy family and the heroine as a woman who belonged to a lower social class. [...] Additionally, in the past the hero’s wealth was a product of family or blood line
However, I think you could go back quite a few decades and find plenty of heroes who are professionals (e.g. doctors, airline pilots, businessmen) who have earned their own money and are not from particularly "influential and wealthy families." I have a feeling that jay Dixon's and Joseph McAleer's books on Mills & Boon would have been of assistance in adding nuance to the argument. In fact, there's a striking lack of romance scholarship in the paper's bibliography. Perhaps the academic bibliography at the Romance Wiki would be of assistance.

[Edited to add: the draft paper has since been altered and I've updated the link so that it takes the reader to the later draft]


  1. What is striking about "compulsory demisexuality" is that it seems to also require a "compulsory heterosexuality." I'm not sure if this is the case, but one wonders about the implications of "compulsory demisexuality" in romances that challenge/transcend the norms of the genre, i.e. the virgin hero, or male/male romance, etc.

    The other question, to be asked, perhaps, is what we mean when we talk about "feminism" in HMB novels. What kind of "feminism" is it that we find in these novels?

  2. My thought was that Jodi's view of "compulsory demisexuality" is congruent with Kyra Kramer and my findings about the Glittery HooHa and Prism making a Mighty Wang monogamous. Most of the novels we looked at featured sexually experienced heroes paired with a heroine (who was often less sexually experienced) but we observed a similar pattern re the linkage of sex, love and monogamy in the one romance we looked at which made it explicit it had a virgin hero and in a lesbian romance.

    Re feminism, in my article about feminism in early twenty-first-century HM&Bs I suggested that they tended to differ in the types of feminist issues they addressed, depending on whether they were in the Modern/Presents line or in the Romance one. As far as Eirini's paper is concerned, she states that:

    Prior to the analysis of these novels a definition of third wave feminism should be given. This is a difficult task since as a concept it is quite varied and contains a whole range of feminist positions some of which are even contradictory. [...] Nevertheless, there are four main points onto which third wave feminists focus: popular culture production (i.e. beauty and representation of women), sex equality and interaction, pursuit of sexual pleasure based on one’s own desire and enacting and personification of femininity.

  3. My question might be more particular: while addressing feminist issues, (things that feminists are interested in) do they adopt an explicitly feminist perspective on these issues? It is quite possible to talk about "feminist interests" without following a feminist theory, politic, etc. I think here, for instance, of Sarah Frantz's paper in which she noted the use of "strange stirring" in a series of romance novels, a seemingly explicit appropriation of Friedan's use of the phrase (I'm working from memory here, so perhaps I am not representing her paper well).

    With regards to the lesbian romance, is this a matter of imposing a theoretical model founded in heteronormativity on a non-heteronorm romance? One of the striking things to me is how committed to heterosexuality popular romance studies, which is to say its criticism, is (and seemingly must be). But, popular romance writing and authors are certainly less committed to these models.

  4. Your question re feminism makes me think of Georgette Heyer because people have sometimes found her works (or at least elements of them) feminist but, according to Kloester's biography, "She consistently criticised the feminist stance" (134).

    Speaking for myself, I tried to identify novels in which feminism and/or sexism was mentioned explicitly. I also contacted a number of authors and asked if they identified as feminists.

    Re the lesbian romance discussed in Kyra's and my article, its subtitle is "A Bit of a Departure: The First Lesbian Regency Novel" and (as I've discussed at TMT) it's full of metafictional references, so one might expect it to be drawing on the conventions of the heterosexual Regency romance.

    The most recent research I've come across about heteronormative roles in lesbian romance is

    Cook, Jennifer R., Sharon S. Rostosky and Ellen D. B. Riggle. "Gender Role Models in Fictional Novels for Emerging Adult Lesbians." Journal of Lesbian Studies 17:2 (2013): 150-166.

    I've discussed some of its findings at my blog; the authors state that "The same traditional gender roles that may be problematic in heterosexual relationships appear to be grafted into many lesbian romance novels" (161).