Monday, August 29, 2011

CFP: The Popular Culture Of Romantic Love In Australia

Here's a very interesting call for papers from Hsu-Ming Teo, via PopCAANZ
I'm putting together an edited book on the theme of romantic love in popular culture. The aim of the book is to understand how Australians’ beliefs, ideals, and practices of romantic love have changed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — how we have written and spoken about being in love or falling out of love, and how these issues are related to dating, courtship, and long-term commitments such as cohabitation and marriage. This book asks: what kinds of popular cultural practices have facilitated or reflected ideas of romantic love to Australians?

Questions to be explored include (but are not limited to):

1. How has love been represented in:

• the media

• film

• television

• music

• popular literature

• graphic novels, comics, etc.

• What are the classic Australian love stories, and why?

2. How have dating and courtship changed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

3. How have consumerism and advertising affected the idea and/or practice of romantic love?

4. How does popular culture facilitate the practice of romantic love?

• e.g. what kinds of ideas/beliefs/practices have developed around food and love?

• Is there a role for clothing/fashion in the practice or marketing of romantic love? etc.

5. Do developments in gender roles, multiculturalism, the sexualisation of popular culture, age, etc. affect ideas of romantic love?

The book will be an accessibly written trade book aimed at a non-specialist audience which I hope will be launched on Valentine’s Day 2013.

Deadlines are as follows:

• Abstract: 26 September 2011

• Final chapter (5-8000 words): 4 June 2012

Conferences: If people are interested and we can get enough papers together, I will organize panel sessions at:

• PopCAANZ conference 2012, Melbourne – dates tba

• PCA/ACA conference, Boston, 11-14 April 2012

• International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, 27-29 September 2011 [I think this may in fact refer to the 2012 IASPR conference]

If you are interested in submitting an abstract on any aspect of the popular culture of romantic love in Australia, can you please let me know so that I don’t go chasing other people for book chapters on that topic. Please email me as soon as possible at:

With best wishes,

Dr Hsu-Ming Teo
The image came from Wikimedia Commons and was created by Andreyyshore.

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).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Change We Need

Change is key to the development of a romance. You can't have a romance without a "Central Love Story," that love story "centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work" (RWA), and so, by definition, the relationship changes over the course of the novel. That kind of change, to borrow one of President Obama's campaign slogans, is the "Change We Need."

That may not, however, be the only kind of change some readers need. When SmartBitch Sarah recently gave Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy a "D" grade I wasn't at all surprised that this was partly due to the anti-Semitic portrayal of Goldhanger, the Jewish moneylender. We have, after all, discussed that before here at TMT. I was, however, surprised by the following criticism of the novel:
Sophy doesn’t change or grow or evolve. She gets her way, and everyone around her is probably better off for her involvement, and they’re all happy, but Sophy doesn’t develop. She achieves through her own machinations, which, while entertaining, was not as satisfying as having her develop or grow as a character.
Although I had noticed that, in many romances, both the hero and heroine are greatly altered by the end of the novel, it had never occurred to me that change in the protagonists was necessary to any readers' enjoyment of romances. With this revelation still in the back of my mind, I came across the following:
When our immigrant ancestors arrived on America's shores they hit the ground running, some to homestead on the Great Plains, others to claw their way up the socio-economic ladder in coastal ghettos. Upward mobility, westward migration, Sunbelt relocation - the wisdom in America is that people don't, can't, mustn't end up where they begin. This belief has the moral force of religious doctrine. Thus the American identity is ordered around the psychological experience of forsaking or losing the past for the opportunity of reinventing oneself in the future. (Engle 337)
While there are likely to be plenty of non-American readers who have a preference for protagonists who change a lot, I wonder if the romance genre, as it has developed in North America, does tend to reflect the belief "that people don't, can't, mustn't end up where they begin."

Virginia Kantra, for example, states that
At the center of every story is a protagonist who wants to do, accomplish or change...something. In pursuit of his goals, our protagonist must struggle, learn and grow to become a more self-realized, self-reliant, autonomous character. This is the character arc.

But as readers and writers of romance, we expect, we celebrate, the development of the pair bond from attraction through exploration to emotional intimacy and sex. This is the romance arc. [...]

As romance writers, our job is to develop all three arcs, the hero's, the heroine's, and the relationship's, in an emotionally satisfying way.
Jennifer Crusie found the genre powerful and important because it
gave me female protagonists in stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest. And when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.
Leslie Wainger, author of Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies and Harlequin editor believes that
Static characters are boring: Your heroine (and yes, your hero, too) can't remain static over the course of the book. As the plot progresses, you need to make your heroine develop, change, grow, and discover things about herself and her abilities — especially how to love and live with her hero. If your heroine starts out perfect, she has nowhere to go. But if she has insecurities, past failures to put to rest, doubts about herself and her abilities, or an out-and-out bad habit — maybe a quick temper, or impatience that leads to rash, unwise decisions — she has room for progress, and readers will want to see how she masters the challenges of the plot and the romantic relationship.
I'm still not convinced, though. If the characters are intrinsically interesting, why do they need to change? Isn't it enough to see how their relationship develops? In Heyer's The Nonesuch, for example, neither the heroine nor the hero become "more self-realized, self-reliant." They don't change their personalities; what changes is how they feel about each other. And, as Sunita recently said,
For readers who enjoy context and setting, this novel has a lot to offer. There isn’t much in the way of plot: Ancilla and Sir Waldo slowly fall in love; Linden’s initial adoration of Tiffany dissipates and he moves on to a deep, long-lasting love for a more appropriate object of his affection; and Tiffany eventually gets her comeuppance, in a way that engenders some sympathy from the reader.
One of my favourite romances (as I've said many times) is Austen's Persuasion in which, when Captain Wentworth observes that
"You were not formerly, I know. You did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes."
"I am not yet so much changed," cried Anne, and stopped, fearing she hardly knew what misconstruction. After waiting a few moments he said - and as if it were the result of immediate feeling - "It is a period, indeed! Eight years and a half is a period!" (Chapter 22)
The years have made Anne more confident in her own judgments but in the essentials of their personalities, she and Wentworth remain basically unchanged:
they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. (Chapter 23)
The changes in their circumstances which make it possible for them to marry are more than enough change for me, and what change there has been in their personalities is the sort of gradual change I can believe in.

What kind(s) of change do you need in a romance and what makes it change you can believe in?

The first photo, of "Change We Need" was taken by snowmentality and downloaded from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. The second image, of "Change We Can Believe In," came from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

CFP: Literary Criticism and Pedagogy of Popular Texts

Here's a call for papers which specifically mentions romance novels:
Yin and Yang in the English Classroom: Literary Criticism and Pedagogy of Popular Texts (15 January 2012)

Contributions are invited for a collection of literary criticism and pedagogical strategies on any aspect of popular-culture texts. The burgeoning interest in popular culture in the academic environment provides a watershed moment to examine and evaluate a wide spectrum of critical approaches and practical uses of books, films, music, comics, television, radio, and electronic media. Our book uniquely brings together two major areas of academic study—criticism and pedagogy—to create a unified source for learning about popular texts and ways to teach them in university and secondary classrooms.

Bearing in mind that “education” literally means “drawing out,” how can we bring in what students read or watch outside the classroom in a meaningful and productive way? How can we link these “outside” texts to literary endeavors that excite students? What are some new options for teaching canonical and non-canonical texts? How can showing a film be more than a time-filler? How can we encourage students to develop more productive ways of critical thinking about literature? How can we take what “they like” and sneakily still achieve what “we want” in academia?

Our book comes in two parts. We welcome essays that would either address the literary criticism of a compelling popular text OR would present a creative approach to teaching one or more texts. In other words, please provide an abstract that clearly fits either the literary-criticism section or the creative-pedagogy section of the book.

What follows is a suggestive, but not an exhaustive, list of topics:

Feminist, Postcolonial, Cultural Studies, Historical Contexts, Queer Studies, and more concerning:
*Graphic Novels
*Young Adult Literature
*Detective/Mystery Fiction
*Romance Novels
*Science Fiction
*Popular Film (i.e., Film Noir, Vampire Sagas, Bollywood)

Using Film in the Classroom
Incorporating the Graphic Novel as Literature
Facebook Groups and Social Media as Pedagogy
YouTube and Hulu as Instructional Tools
Television as Text
The Lost Art of Radio Refound
Songs as Poetry

Please send abstracts of 500 words by email to Sandra Eckard of East Stroudsburg University at AND Cynthia Leenerts, also of East Stroudsburg University, at by 15 January 2012. Queries are welcome. Preference will be given to abstracts written in accessible language for multiple audiences that may include literary critics, middle and high school English teachers, and university professors.

The image came from Wikimedia Commons and was created by Mattes.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Spot the Difference

The cover on the left is the UK (August 2011) Mills & Boon cover of Maisey Yates's The Highest Price to Pay and the one on the right is the Australian (September 2011) Mills & Boon cover.

On her website Maisey Yates notes that
there has been a bit of controversy regarding this book, the cover, either the UK cover for its boldness, or the AUS cover for it’s less-than-bold approach. But just as a hero is a hero, not because of the color of his skin, or in spite of it, but because of the characteristics he possesses, I hope this book touches people, not because of the cover, but the contents.

Unfortunately, some (and by that I mean one person who wrote me claiming to represent a group of readers) were put off by the fact that I have a character of African descent in this book. To that I say: Sidney Poitier came to dinner in 1967. Why are we still having this discussion?
Over at the Mills & Boon community blog she's written that the novel
has a lot to do with skin, but not so much in the way you might think. The hero's skin is perfect, while the heroine's skin is scarred and damaged, burned in places to the point that she no longer has feeling. In Ella's mind, Blaise is masculine, physical perfection while she's lacking.
Harlequin Mills & Boon have featured black protagonists on their covers in the past but Tumperkin, who drew my attention to the UK cover of The Highest Price to Pay, thought this was the first M&B Modern to do so. I think so too but we're open to correction.

Here are two more UK M&B covers featuring black protagonists: on the left is Carmen Green's The Husband She Couldn't Forget, published in the Cherish line in July this year, and the one below is Barbara Gale's The Ambassador's Vow published as a Silhouette Special Edition in the UK in 2005.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Snippets: Romance in Lebanon and the Caribbean

Here are snippets from two texts, both available online, in which the romance genre is briefly discussed:

Khater, Akram Fouad. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Feeding the imagination of young men and women of the middle classes was the novel, a new genre of Arabic literature that was revolutionary by definition. While not quite as respectable as the biography, this literature still provided a text which described the category of “woman” and explored her social relations to friends, family, and, most powerfully, to lovers. Romance novels, which, between 1890 and 1914, were either serialized in the Lebanese and the Egyptian press or sold as books, raised the ire of various observers for different reasons. Those who were more conservative registered their distaste for such “foreign” notions as romantic love and declared them quite inappropriate for women of “Eastern” societies. Others, generally more liberal, decried the frivolity of romance novels and pronounced them an absolute waste of time. Underlying both claims is the recognition that these novels were an implicit critique of middle-class society. As Richard Gray noted for German bourgeois literature, these novels were “a muffled protest by middle-class writers against the alienating and reifying tendencies of the bourgeois episteme within whose (signifying) parameters they and their texts necessarily operate.”

To understand this perceived threat, we need only look at the subjects of these early Arabic romance novels. A common thread ran through most of them: a young woman struggles to sort out the complexities of her feelings toward a young man. A competing woman, disapproving and unyielding parents, or another man intrude into her relationship and force her to evaluate her love. In one such story Countess Sarah we read the following impassioned plea on the part of young man: “I swear to you that I would die for you; I beseech you to listen to what I have to say because you must know the truth so that you will not continue to blame me. I never loved Sarah after I fell in love with you.” Within this story and many others, the young female protagonist was portrayed as an individual whose decisions were ultimately hers to make even if they were encumbered by family considerations. This radical notion was made possible by the power of love, even as it stood in testament for that power. [...]

Other romance novels presented love as the highest ideal to which a woman and a man could aspire. In one such tale Love Not Money a young woman's marriage to an older but wealthy man was being arranged by her mother. Painting a fairly unattractive image of the mother, the author wrote: “Truth is that marriage did not occupy the thoughts of Canair much. But her mother, who cared more for material than essential things, had painted marriage as something that is the duty of every young woman . . . . But she [the mother] said nothing of familial love; . . . but Canair . . . had very different opinion[s from] . . . her mother's, and she saw in marriage more than inheriting money and wealth.” These sentiments were equally common in romance novels that were located in an “Eastern” context. Jirji Zaidan (1861–1914) was among the most prolific authors of such stories, which were predominantly written as historical fiction. With titles such The Bride of Furgana,The Beauty of Karbala’, and The Young Woman of Ghassan, Zaidan evoked romantic nostalgia for the Arab past and its “traditions” of courtship and hubb, or love. In each tale a woman and a man struggle amidst political turmoil to overcome all the obstacles placed in the way of their love. In each story love is seen as a virtue that should even if it did not in reality erase class boundaries and dispense with social customs.

Contrasted with such flights of fantasy, reality for young women was surely less charming.
The second text is: Forbes, Curdella. "X Press Publications: Pop Culture, 'Pop Lit' and Caribbean Literary Criticism: An Essay of Provocation." Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 4.1 (2006). Most of this essay is about novels published by X Press and while some of these have romantic/sexual elements, these are not discussed in much detail. There is, however, a short description of romances published by a different publisher:
Black versions of the Harlequin/Mills and Boon romance began to appear in Caribbean bookshops in the 1980s; academic discourse ignored them in a taken-for-granted mode. In the early 1990s Heinemann, a long time publisher of mainstream Caribbean books geared towards the “respectable” and particularly the high school market, began issuing a line called Caribbean Caresses, aimed at “filling a gap” perceived in the romance market. The publishers felt that the voracious readership for Harlequin/Mills and Boon romances signaled a need for similar books about Caribbean subjects in a Caribbean setting; these, it was felt, would be much more appealing, (because more relevant) than their transatlantic counterparts. Despite the problematic, orientalist type of issues raised by Heinemann’s project and the fact that this was a “respectable” publisher seeking to intersect pop and mainstream (Heinemann hoped Caribbean Caresses would attract high schoolers), the series did not attract many academic reviews—Jane Bryce’s “A World of Caribbean Romance” (1996) stood out as an isolated response.

An interesting exception to academia’s general silence on the advent of Caribbean pop romance was seen in the case of Valerie Belgrave’s Ti Marie, published (also by Heinemann) in 1988; this exception had to do with Belgrave’s status as a serious artist in another mode, the setting of the book in the days of slavery—its insertion therefore into the established Caribbean discourse of history—and the provocative statements Belgrave made about what she set out to do in the book. [...]

Heinemann’s short-lived foray aside (the series petered out after fewer than a dozen issues), publishers and critics of Caribbean literature have for the most part been uncompromisingly, self consciously “serious,” concerned with the grand themes of race, nation, exile, diaspora, class, color, childhood/bildungsroman, language, power, etc. They have focused on texts that are implicitly or explicitly invested with a West Indian ethos of “respectability.”

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Milk of Human Kindness

World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year from 1 to 7 August in more than 170 countries to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. (WHO)
So, in honour of World Breastfeeding Week, and on the principle that it's better to post something late than never, here are some examples of breastfeeding in the romance genre, and a short discussion about them.

In LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory Elly breastfeeds her baby (Lizzy) while Will looks on:
She sat on one of the overstuffed chairs with Lizzy in the crook of her arm. Will rolled onto his belly, crossed his wrists beneath his chin and observed as his wife looked down, took a nipple between two fingers and guided it to the baby's open mouth. His eyes became dark as onyx, his body aroused as he imbibed the image, both maternal and sexual. (279)
Here Will "imbibes" the image, not the milk, but there are some romances in which heroes do imbibe breastmilk. The attitudes of heroes who watch breastfeeding and/or drink breastmilk can differ significantly: "Hayden's desire for access is the 'typical' masculine desire for female breasts as secondary sexual characteristic, not Hawk O'Toole's desire for the maternally sexual/sexually maternal female, nor Trey's desire for the glory of the God(dess)'s love" (Frantz 29).

Another breast-feeding hero can be found in Lisa Kleypas's Dreaming of You. In the epilogue we learn that "Motherhood had brought a new radiance to Sara's features, while her achievements in her work had given her maturity and confidence" (366). However, motherhood has made Sara less confident about her sexual relationship with Derek:
She could find no way to explain her reluctance to him. She had gone through so many changes ... She was a mother now ... She wasn't certain that making love with him would be the same at all, and she didn't want to find out. She was afraid of disappointing him, and herself, and it was easier to keep putting off the event than to face it. She shrugged lamely. "I'm afraid it won't be the same as before." (370)
Derek's response is to undress her and kiss her until
She stirred in awakening desire, clasping him closer. To her sudden mortification, a few milky droplets seeped from her breasts. Pulling away with an apologetic gasp, she tried to turn from him. Derek pushed her shoulders down and bent over her breasts. His breath flowed in deep gusts as he stared at her. The moist nipples were a darker pink than before, surrounded by a delicate tracing of veins. The lustily maternal sight sent a wave of aching excitement through him. He touched the tip of her breast with his tongue, teasing and circling, then fastening his lips over the tautness. Gently he pulled with his mouth.
"Oh, you mustn't," Sara gasped as she felt a tingling ache in her breast. "It's not decent ..."
"I never said I was decent."
She gave a breathless moan, caught beneath him as he drew a surge of milk from her body. (371)
I can't help wondering if Sara's disinclination to resume sexual relations after becoming a mother has a lot to do with something I mentioned in an earlier post about motherhood: "Images of motherhood in western society have most often ignored maternal sexuality, notwithstanding the sleight of hand that this entails" (Pascoe). This scene in Dreaming of You certainly brings maternal sexuality to the forefront of the reader's attention: the breast is a "lustily maternal sight" and Derek and Sara learn that post-partum sex is "not the same as before ... It's even better" (372).

However, although it may be positive for maternal sexuality to be acknowledged and celebrated, "cultural notions of the female breast as a primarily sexual object place the act of breastfeeding in a controversial light and can be one of the most influential factors in a woman's decision not to breastfeed" (Rodriguez-Garcia and Frazier). As Cindy A. Stearns has written,
Breastfeeding is an embodied experience that is likely to provoke important insights and apparent contradictions concerning women's bodies. Breastfeeding, like being pregnant, is a state in which the body is in some ways a public good and thus open for public comment. However, unlike pregnancy and childbirth, the expression of breastfeeding is a continuous activity that requires the ongoing participation of another person. To the extent that breastfeeding occurs in the presence of others and/or symbolizes good mothering, it is also a visual performance of mothering with the maternal body at center stage. [...]

The prominence of the sexualized breast poses a problem for breastfeeding women and their maternal bodies. The good maternal body is not commonly believed to be simultaneously sexual, despite the obvious facts of human reproduction (Davis-Floyd 1992; Newton 1977). The sexual aspects of women and the maternal aspects of women are expected to be independent of each other. Thus, breastfeeding raises questions about the appropriate uses of women's bodies, for sexual or nurturing purposes. (308-309)
Romances in which breastfeeding heroines are "both maternal and sexual" would, then, seem to challenge ideas about what is "decent." At the same time, however, if they sexualise breastfeeding without showing heroines breastfeeding in public, it could be argued that they leave unchallenged, or perhaps even reinforce, the idea that breastfeeding should be performed in private. I don't think romances should be instruction manuals on how to breastfeed (just as I don't think, pace Quilliam, that it's fair to judge romance novels primarily in terms of whether they provide "sex and relationships education" (179)), but I'm fairly sure that there are plenty which include discussions about breastfeeding and/or have scenes of public breastfeeding. Right at the moment, though, I can't think of any examples. Can anyone help?
  • Frantz, Sarah S. G. "'Expressing' Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power." Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36.
  • Hackett, Helen. Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: UP, 2000.
  • Kleypas, Lisa. Dreaming of You. New York: Avon, 1994.
  • Pascoe, Caroline Myra. Screening Mothers: Representations of motherhood in Australian films from 1900 to 1988. PhD thesis. University of Sydney, 2006.
  • Quilliam, Susan. " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…': The Surprising Impact that Romantic Novels Have On Our Work." Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 37.3 (2011): 179-181.
  • Rodriguez-Garcia, Rosalia and Lara Frazier. "Cultural Paradoxes Relating to Sexuality and Breastfeeding." Journal of Human Lactation 11.2 (1995): 111-115. [Unfortunately I didn't have access to this journal, so I've quoted from the abstract.]
  • Spencer, LaVyrle. Morning Glory. 1989. New York: Jove, 1990.
  • Stearns, Cindy A. "Breastfeeding and the Good Maternal Body." Gender and Society 13.3 (1999): 308-325. [Excerpt]

The illustration is by Hans Sebald Beham and is from Wikimedia Commons (there's a detailed description of it here, which is mostly in German). It illustrates the story of Cimon and Pero, which has inspired a number of artists. Some other artistic interpretations of the story of Cimon and Pero can be found here. According to Wikipedia "The story is recorded in Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans, Book Nine (De Factis Dictisque Memorabilibus Libri IX) by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of filial piety and Roman honor." The Rijksmuseum describes Reubens' painting of the story like this:
At first this seems a strange subject for a painting: a young woman giving her breast to an old man tied up in chains in a bare prison cell. In fact it is a story from Roman history: the tale of Cimon and Pero. Cimon is Pero's father. He is in prison awaiting execution and has been given nothing to eat. Pero has recently had a child and saves her father from starvation by secretly giving him her breast. This relatively large picture was painted by the famous Antwerp artist, Peter Paul Rubens. To enliven the scene, Rubens has added two prying prison guards on the right.
One may suspect that the "prying prison guards" are not simply impressed by the "filial piety" of Pero's motives but rather have a more sexual interest in the scene. Byron, though, focused on its 'purity':
The starry fable of the milky way
Has not thy story’s purity; it is
A constellation of a sweeter ray,
And sacred Nature triumphs more in this
Reverse of her decree, than in the abyss
Where sparkle distant worlds: — Oh, holiest nurse!
No drop of that clear stream its way shall miss
To thy sire’s heart, replenishing its source
With life, as our freed souls rejoin the universe. (Childe Harold, Canto IV, Verse CLI)
Breastfeeding takes place in a similar context in a story in Barnaby Rich's Farewell to Military Profession (1581), although the plot is more similar to that of a modern romance since it features a wronged woman and the man who must learn to appreciate her goodness:
In the seventh story, ‘Of Aramanthus born a leper’, King Rodericke believes false accusations of adultery against his pregnant wife Isabell and sends her into exile, but when he is overthrown and imprisoned by the Turks she leaves her baby and returns in disguise to help him. In a graphic image of female nurturance, she comes to his prison each night, where ‘She would leane her self cloase to the grate, and thrustyng in her Teate betwene the Irons, the kyng learned againe to sucke, and thus she dieted him a long season’ (p. 175).
Because of Queen Isabell’s disguise, ‘Neither wiste the kyng what she was, that bestowed on hym so greate grace and goodnesse: yet he blessed her more then a thousande tymes a daie.’ While his companions in prison die for lack of sustenance, his gaolers observe him miraculously growing in strength from his unseen nightly ‘banquettes’. The episode has much of the resonance of mediaeval iconographies of the Virgin sustaining adult believers with her milk. (Hackett 88-89)

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Romance Genre and the American Dream

I've been doing a bit of background reading on the American Dream (if anyone has any books or articles they'd recommend, I'd be very grateful, particularly if they discuss the Dream in the context of popular culture) and came across this:
From its beginnings through the early twentieth century [...] the American success myth has been orchestrated around five basic beliefs which have served as recurring motifs: 1) American democracy allows its citizens to rise above any limitations into which they may have been born; 2) hard work brings riches and physical comforts; 3) these rewards come to those who are deserving of them (virtuous) and who 4) have the drive and ambition to attain them plus 5) a modicum of good luck. (Marsden 144)
It struck me that if you put 1), 2) and 3) together in the context of romance, you're likely to find heroines who are hardworking, virtuous and of a relatively lowly social status who "marry up," and have no difficulty fitting into the lifestyle of their vampire/prince/billionaire/sheikh. I also notice that Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy fit this pattern rather well.

The Romance Writers of America's definition of the romance genre states that "In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love." This definition had always puzzled me a little, because if the love is "unconditional" why is it only being given out on condition that the lovers "risk and struggle for each other and their relationship"? I wonder if I need to approach this definition in the context of 2), 3) and 4). Certainly Jennifer Crusie, who helped draft the definition, has written that
My feeling on this, which I have expressed loudly and often, is that the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished.
So it would definitely seem that the concept of "emotional justice" is derived from belief 3), that "rewards come to those who are deserving of them (virtuous)."

Number 5) of course, is not needed by those who are "fated mates" but even then, isn't it a question of luck (or fate) as to whether one has a "fated mate"?

  • Marsden, Madonna. "The American Myth of Success: Visions and Revisions." Popular Culture: An Introductory Text. Ed. Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause. Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1992. 134-48. [Excerpt.]