The definition of "proper American" Livia Polanyi offers in Telling the American Story captures for many North Americans the essence of late-twentieth-century, mainstream, Anglo-American cultural values and norms. "Proper" Americans are knowledgeable, capable, talented, successful in both their professional and personal lives, healthy, intelligent, well-adjusted, in charge and in control of their lives, successfully married, and happy. As Polanyi reminds us, however, this set of attributes constitutes full "proper American" status only if the person being described is male (1989: 181, 110-111). For a female to be truly proper in 1990s America, she must be all of the above and good looking, well-groomed, an erotically-exciting sexual partner, a competent hostess, a politically-aware and socially-active member of her community, and a nurturing care-giver to her own children and to all others who might require her services as well. Just check any women's magazine on any newsstand for full instructions and self tests.
Certainly, no single magazine, best-seller text, Disney movie, pop-chart song, fairy tale, TV show, government policy, or social-agenda movement has been responsible for creating or transmitting American socio-cultural norms and expectations. Yet all of these have worked together to bring us to our current perspectives, and such products continue to perpetuate or to resist dominant cultural paradigms. This paper will consider the seeming contradiction created by mass-culture romance novels, which continue to encode and support a conservative Western version of "ideal" femininity while, at the same time, giving the appearance of adapting to more feminist and liberal definitions of "proper" womanhood.
Twentieth-century pop-culture romance novels are a consumer-oriented commodity. They are mass produced for, and mass marketed toward, a pre-identified and carefully analyzed audience. Like other pop-culture, mass-produced genres such as westerns, mysteries, and science fiction, contemporary romance novels are a type of "category fiction," sometimes called "semi-programmed literature." Such genres rely on basic formulas or recipes that dictate certain essential ingredients that must be included in each new text in order to create a product that maintains a consistent appeal to an establish audience. Each genre generates tremendous numbers of books, each treading cautiously between what John Cawelti once termed the "conventions" and "inventions" of the genre. The established conventions allow readers to begin each new volume trusting that the subject matter of the text will fall into well-established patterns. Such comforting familiarity is made newly pleasing by inventions in non-categorical aspects such as settings, occupations, plot twists, or aesthetics which distinguish the latest variation of the genre from previous texts. The writing cannot stray too far from the established parameters, however. Readers buy the product based on their previous orientation to the formula and expect only limited variations on the basic theme of the genre. (Cawelti, in Jowett vii).
In terms of romance novels, this means one basic story line and lots of books, each slightly different, yet each one the same in essential aspects of plot, characterization, and worldview. Publishers now issue tip sheets to guide aspiring authors. Such guides dictate length, appropriate language, acceptable levels of sexual descriptions, and the parameters of successful plots and character depiction (MacDaniel 1990). Semi-programmed production and mass marketing allow editors and publishing houses to direct and control the form of the finished product, practically guaranteeing that the book will appeal to--and be purchased by--a regular audience. These strategies have been extremely successful. Through its combined Harlequin and Silhouette lines, Harlequin Enterprises of Toronto (Canada) distributes more than 176,500,000 copies of its various titles in twenty-three languages in 100 international markets . Revenues top one-half billion dollars (US) a year. (Grescoe 1-3).
Structurally, modern-day romance novels are notoriously simple. The love story, and specifically the romantic courtship stage of love, is the story. The plot is simply the working through of the obstacles to happily ever after, and the pattern is well established. Woman meets man. She despises him; he's not to keen on her either. But soon they charge their minds. They really do want each other, just never at the same time--at least not until the end of the novel. The path to the marriage altar (which is were this woman's adventure of love and romance has traditionally ended) was, and still is, strewn with an obstacle course of mis-communications, second guessings, and jealous insecurities as the characters in the story are led down blind alleys of misapprehended appearances and misconstrued behaviors. Misunderstandings deal primarily with the nature of the hero's and the heroine's characters, and the whole plot is a working out of the man and woman getting to know the "real" person in each other. The couple must be proven to be (and/or made) properly ready for one another before they can truly commit to each other. The misleading clues function as a means of challenging, obscuring, and ultimately cementing the love relationship as the hero and heroine learn not to let their eyes and ears deceive them into not trusting one another.
These books are bought and read predominantly by women. When Janice Radway conducted her ethnographic study of readers in 1984 romance novels were consumed primarily by women occupied chiefly with homemaking and the care of young children. Such women, by social custom, were expected to spend their energies, intellects, and emotions unselfishly in the nurturance of others, without demand or expectation of reciprocation, and Radway found that an "intensely felt but insufficiently met need for emotional nurturance" was the driving force behind the women's enthusiasm for romance fiction (119). Recent statistics challenge the notion that homemakers are the primary audience of this genre. (See, for example, Grescoe 1994). Harlequin novels (and those of their subsidiary Mills & Boon) are short, light, and compact enough to tuck into a purse, brief case, or hand luggage. At 185 pages (give or take a page or two), such books can be read in a few hours: while the kids are at school for the day, over the course of a couple days of commuter rides to the office, or while waiting for a connecting flight to an international conference. The increasing entry of women into the work force in recent years has not diminished sales; quite the opposite in fact. Clearly, in order to both maintain and expand readership, romance novels must still meet the expectations of the genre while also appearing to reflect at least some of the changing visions and realities of women's lives. The most noticeable alterations between novels of the early 1980s and those of the late 1990s have been in the characterizations and interactions of the hero and heroine. On the other hand, the culturally-conservative messages and plot line of courtship, contention, and commitment have remained virtually unaltered.
The romance novel is told primarily from the heroine's point of view.
The ideal heroine is intelligent; she has a good sense of humor; she is
nurturing and usually well-skilled in the domestic arts. As Radway
suggested, despite any unfeminine characteristics she may possess (such
as being tomboyish, stubborn, or outspoken), even the most conservative
readers of the 1980s were reassured of the heroine's status as a "true"
woman because she also displayed the nurturing skills associated in patriarchal
culture with the proper femininity (127). Interestingly, in recent
years, the more status and success the heroine has achieved in the public
world, the more domestic talents she displays as well. She can always
whip up a delicious lunch from whatever she happens to find in the hero's
refrigerator and cupboards (George 31-33). In one novel, the heroine
even decorated the hero's house and managed a full Christmas dinner with
only a couple day's notice (Spencer). Her "ideal woman" status is
thus effectively maintained despite her increasing assertiveness in traditionally
The heroine is also financially self-supporting. In the 1980s she may have been a simple typists or an aspiring singer; in 1990s she is more likely to be a university-educated career woman. In most cases she has been living an independent life before she meets the hero, supporting herself, and--despite being lonely--usually doing quite nicely, thank you. Thus it is implied that she does not have to marry for financial, physical, or emotional reasons until "Mr. Right" finally comes along. It is assumed, of course that he will come along, even if the heroine claims, as in one novel: "From now on I'm off men! I'm going to concentrate on my career" (Gilbert 32). Readers know that what the heroine is really lonely for, what she really needs to satisfy that vague sense of something missing in her life, is "the love of a good man."
The romance novel protagonist is not beautiful in the fashion-model sense, but she possess good features, a trim figure, and some charming-but-innocent sexually alluring attribute or mannerism such as "flashing green eyes, freckled snub nose, and adorable--kissable--mouth" (Mortimer 183) or "beautiful legs, slender, shapely and endless" (Spencer 108). Or maybe it's the "way she leaned against the arm of the couch and tilted one shoulder in an unwittingly sensuous shrug of denial" (Spencer 108-9) that excites the hero.
It was her combination of nurturing qualities, independence, sexual
innocence, and unconscious erotic beauty which would eventually leave the
hero of 1980s' novels unable to master his desire. In turn, when
he forced his attention onto the heroine, she was "awakened'" and overcome
by her own bodily response to him.
In the 1970s and 80s, when heroines were typically between the ages of 17 and 25, the heroine was often not in a committed male-female relationship because she was either so young she'd never had a serious adult relationship or because the one relationship she had been involved in had ended (through no fault of her own of course) leaving her with a broken heart. By the mid 1980s, as romance novel writers began incorporating contemporary social rhetoric concerning sexual harassment and domestic abuse into their plots, the heroine may also have been left "traumatized" by male brutality. In the 1990s, the typical heroine is more often between the ages of 27 and 35, and she is more likely to be alone because she is widowed, or because she ended a relationship that was not in her best, long-term interest.
In the 1970 and 80s, the heroine was also, without question, a virgin. One 1986 novel, A Scarlet Woman even features a heroine who had been married for four years but who was "still as untouched as she had been on the day she was married" (Pargeter 7). The only instances otherwise that I have so far found before 1992, involve heroines who were still legally married but temporarily estranged from their husbands. The heroine may have been married too young (perhaps as early as age 17) and the estrangement years have given her time to grow up and be ready for an adult relationship--with her former husband, of course. (See, for example, Wentworth; Wells). The 1980s may have been the beginning of the sexual revolution in theory, but romance novels were still encoding sexual propriety for women in terms of sexual passivity and marital fidelity. The sexually-experienced hero awakened the sexuality of the innocent heroine (often over her protestations) after which they were, quite properly, married.
A shift began in the early 1990s. Virginity became increasingly unrealistic in older heroines--especially in the case of widows. As the effects of the feminist movement became more pervasive, it also became more difficult to depict women as naive or incapable of knowing their own carnal desires. In one 1992 novel, Jessica, "a lonely, thirty-one year-old woman most of whose dreams seemed unlikely to come true" (Spencer 18), is not only not a virgin, her sexual experience was gained during previous "love affair"--one that she naturally believed would end in marriage. The man's betrayal of her is why she is thirty-one, lonely, and very suspicious of men. But she finds true love (and ultimately marriage and children) while trapped in a snow storm in Christmas With a Stranger (Spencer 1992).
Caroline Anderson's 1998 novel, Just Another Miracle!,
takes the female sexual-experience issue even further. There is no
discussion whatsoever of twenty-five-year-old "Poppy's" previous sexual
experience, and it is she who finally ends the hero's gallant restraint
with the words, 'Take me to bed, James' (164).
The only other consistent female sphere of action in romance novels is filled by the "other woman," a character directly linked to the hero. From outward appearances the other woman is his kind of woman. Her function in the story is to insure that the hero is seen as virile and attractive. The hero doesn't need the heroine; there are plenty of other women to go around, and he has no trouble attracting them. The other woman, however, also exhibits characteristics that highlight the heroine's "ideal" stature and "proper" womanhood according to conservative paradigms. The "other" woman is self-interested. She wants social power and prestige, and she is quite willing to manipulate men for her own self-aggrandizement and pleasure. She is sexually experienced, and she often flaunts her sexual availability and may even be promiscuous--a trait which even the sexually experienced hero does not display.
Other changes have occurred in recent years as the average ages
of heroines have increased. Heroines (and often heroes) were likely
to be orphans in the 1980s. This allowed and justified her self-involvement
in career and travel. This situation also emphasized and increased
both her emotional isolation and physical vulnerability. Current
novels usually have one or both of the heroine's parents still living,
and the heroine receives loving support and advice from her parent(s) and
sometimes her siblings. Being less isolated, she is also less vulnerable
and has more options. Contemporary heroines exhibit stronger individualism
and personal integrity. Women take stands against men who show themselves
to lack integrity and who exhibit inadequate or improper behavior. The
heroine is more likely now to set her own standards and to risk losing
her man, as the heroine of one 1998 novel demonstrates:
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After reading only a few of these works, it's fairly easy--even by the end of the first chapter--to spot which man the heroine will marry because the hero has certain specific qualities that set him apart from all other men. The true hero is especially easy to spot in novels from the 1970 and 80s. He is the man the heroine thinks is rude, arrogant, haughty, grim, and insufferable. He has no charm or finesse; he is a brute and sometimes a scoundrel. But these are only first impressions. It is the "mislabeling" of the hero by the heroine (and of the heroine by the hero) this is the first and most frequent obstacle to happily-ever-after. Later in the story, the heroine will think the hero seems interesting, clever, amusing, charming, strangely appealing, handsome, rugged, and noble. The heroine will perceive the hero alternately through these two basic sets of characteristics until, finally, the heroine understand the "true" nature of this seemingly enigmatic man.
The most outstanding and consistent quality of heroes was and still is what Radway labeled "spectacular masculinity" (128). While the heroine must exhibit the behavioral traits of proper womanhood, (which the extremely attractive "other woman" is lacking), the hero openly displays the cultural ideal of physical masculinity. He has "forceful shoulders" (Mortimer 12); his "splendid physique" is "tall and lean," a perfect match to his "rugged good looks" (Pargeter 6); he in "superb physical condition"; his legs are "strong" and his thighs "powerful" (Pargeter 19). Such hard and potentially-threatening aspects of his overpowering masculinity are tempered by subtle features that hint at aspects of underlying softness in his nature. For example, he may have full, sensuous lips or "long, silky lashes touching softy against the lean austerity of his cheekbones" ( Spencer 17)
In early novels, the hero also has attributes such as a "powerful grip" that is capable of inflicting pain (Pargeter 11-12) and a "predatory mouth" (Pargeter 57) that he is not reluctant to use. His initial sexual advances are always rejected (since "nice" girls of that era didn't engage in sexual activity outside of marriage), so he imposes them on her instead. Or he uses sexuality as an intentional from of "punishment."
In First Love, Last Love (1981), corporate executive Alex
Blair takes an interest in Lauren, a seventeen-year-old girl in his typing
pool. He lures her into several semi-intimate situations, imposed
his advances on her, and claims each time that he is "disciplining" her
since she has not yet learned to "respect" his "authority" (Mortimer 65):
Alex sat down, completely unpreturbed by her anger. 'More names.
Lauren?' he mused. "Are you asking for punishment, I wonder?'
Remembering what form his punishment always took, she moved a safe distance away from him" (Mortimer 110).
Yet it was the heroine's physical response, even to imposed sexual advances, that awakened her own sensuality and to the possibility that this man was indeed Mr. Right. Thus it was this very imposition of his sexual advances that eventually led her to think of him in romantic terms.
The threat of male sexual violence is ever-present in the early
novels, and this threat is often realized. This "savage sexuality"
is closely tied to one of the most consistent motifs of the romance novel:
bodies "know," and bodies don't lie. The first obstacle the heroine
must overcome on her path to the true love and permanent relationship is
recognizing the hero when she finds him. The fastest way for the reader
to spot the hero is to notice toward which man the heroine develops an
initial loathing. The quickest way for the heroine to recognize the
hero is through her body. No matter what her mind may be telling
her about this arrogant and insufferable man, his powerful masculinity
excites her in ways no man has even excited her before, in ways she cannot
ignore. Consider the following passages from A Scarlet Woman
In novels before the mid 1990s, male sexual violence was usually in the form of unwelcome advances, but in some cases it actually takes the form of marital rape. (See, for example, Lamb: Wentworth). Yet such actions are explained away and forgiven. Either the hero was initially using the heroine as a way of getting revenge against someone else or he was overcome by his passion and felt justified in forcing his way through her initial resistance. At other times, is was simply an intention insult and way of hurting the woman during one of their many misunderstandings.
The following passages from Shadow Princess (1986) show
how a plot can move from sexual violence true love. Note the woman's
claim of guilt and complicity in the situation. On page 123, we find:
Sixty-four pages and several other encounters later, we find Matt explaining his actions (passage condensed; deletions indicated by spaced periods):
'After that day your threw me out I was in despair. I'd wanted
to love you so much, and I ended up savaging you.
'No!' protested Katya instinctively.
[Matt responds] . . . 'Oh yes, I did. Don't try whitewashing. I knew I'd shocked you, I was pretty sure I'd hurt you. I was terrified I'd spoiled everything . . . . 'But then you went and left me again!'
. . . 'I thought you were scoring,' Katya told him, 'that it was a sort of revenge. You said you were proud of yourself.'
Matt looked at her speechlessly for a long moment.
. . . 'Of course I was proud of myself. . . . I'd shown you in the most eloquent way I could that I loved you . . . it couldn't have been like that if I'd just been taking some petty revenge, for God's sake. And anyway, what sort of man do you think I am?'
She leaned forward contritely and stopped his mouth with her own. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' she said against his lips. 'It's because I didn't know enough about any men, nice or nasty. It was my damned innocence, as you said. I'll do something about it.'
'Possibly, said Matt releasing himself and running his hands up under her dark hair, letting it fall over his fingers in fascinated delight, 'but only under my expert tutelage and guidance. I am not letting you loose on an unsuspecting world.'
. . . Can't have dynamite like you lying around loose.
'I am not,' she stated, her eyes locking with his and her breath coming fast, 'loose.'
The grey eyes glinted with amusement and so much more that she was almost fainting with the intensity of it. 'Yes you are, he contradicted, 'but not for much longer. I'm going to marry you and save the world' (Weston 185-187).
Heroes sometimes explained their sexual aggression by claiming to have been so driven by their love for the woman or so overwhelmed by her erotic beauty that they were overcome by uncontrollable passions. "Love is a sort of rage when it's frustrated, Kate," says one hero. "Try putting a lid on it and it blows sky high" (Lamb 182-183).
The ideal hero of the 1990s is somewhat different. Sexual harassment is now categorically illegal, at least in the US, and consciousness-raising efforts by feminists mean that marital rape is not something the average woman is likely to find particularly erotic or to consider easily forgivable behavior. Older heroines make it nearly impossible to justify "punishing" or "disciplining" them as though they were children, and such terms have virtually disappeared in recently-authored novels. Older heroines also means less naive women. And, as the double-standard of sexual propriety has become less pronounced, women do not need to resist all their own sexual urges in order to be considered "good" women. On the other hand, heroes no longer need to impose their sexual attentions onto women in order to be considered virile, and they must restrain their urges more effectively to be considered desirable. The result has been heroes who are no less manly but who are less misogynistic and less sexist. They are more openly expressive and romantic, more nurturing and relational, and more restrained and gentle in their actions. They are still passionate, and their emotions still get the better of them at times, but their passions are now more likely to be expressed through erotic masculinity and sexual seductiveness rather than through simple physical virility and sexual domination.
Romance novels have their nonfiction counterparts in magazines such as Woman's Day and Good Housekeeping, which also promote conservative Anglo-American social paradigms. Such mass-media constructs contain articles such as "Relight the Romance" (Lathrop) which tells married couples how to "feel like newlyweds again," offering a series of "passion boosters," and a "Romance Cheat Sheet" with ideas like "In the car, kiss at all stoplights" (Godek, in Lathrop 55). Such magazines also, however, suggest that sexual eroticism (within the confines of marriage) is very much a part of the conservative paradigm when used as a means of keeping men "home" by keeping them happy. The April 1998 Good Housekeeping contained an extended feature called "Great to be Grown-up." In one section entitled "Why this [forty-something] woman is sexier than an 18-year-old," the author tells readers to "forget the teenage blond and the trophy wife . . . when it comes to relationships, real men prefer a grown woman" (Ryan: 122-3). "Grown-up" is obviously not the issue in this article, "sexier" is, but this "sexual eroticism" is carefully contained within the marriage contract as it is also within the romance novel.
In the 1980s, Radway considered the act of romance reading "oppositional" because it allowed housewives to refuse, temporarily at least, their self-abnegating social role. Romance novel reading allowed them to seek out and indulge their own person emotional gratification. Radway suggested also that romance reading allowed women to "explore the consequences of their common social condition as the appendages of men and attempt to imagine a more perfect state where all the needs they so intensely feel and accept as given would be adequately addressed" (212). Romances of the 1970s and 80s encoded misogynistic patriarchal norms both as negatives and as dangers that the heroines survived, and Radway suggested that when a novel moved a heroine from being misunderstood, mistreated, or even abused to being loved and protected once the hero "recognizes that he mistook the meaning of her behavior," readers are reassured that "the minor acts of violence they must contend with in their own lives can be similarly reinterpreted as the result of misunderstanding or of jealousy born of 'true love' " (Radway 75; emphasis added). Such escapist reassurance, however, also relieves women of making substantial--possibly traumatic and disruptive--changes in their own situations. The continued and expanded readership of these novels in recent years may reflect both a wealth of still-unmet emotional needs and wishful desire for "Cinderella" rescue on the part of many women.
What is not encoded as blameworthy in the 1980s novels are male
competitiveness and ambition, patriarchal double-standards in sexuality
and opportunity, or male indifference toward or mistreatment of women (including
outright cruelty). Negative qualities in a hero could always be traced
to previous hurt at the hands of another woman (or women). This,
in turn, was supposed to justify his distrust of women in general and his
cruelty toward the heroine. The heroine (the ideal woman), on the
other hand, could bring his true, innate, natural tendencies to the surface.
The "love of a good woman," as the myth went, could turn male promiscuity
into fidelity and commitment, and change misogynistic suspicion and cruelty
into true love and romantic passion.
The true heroine--past and present--represents an ideal vicariously-experienced femininity for the reader. Today's heroine is vibrantly alive, independent and competent, attractive, sexually erotic, and emotionally fulfilled. The novel emphasizes, however, that even for this pristine example of "true womanhood," sex alone would never be enough. No matter how ecstatic her physical response, for the heroine "making love" is still not something done only with her body. "Making love" means commitment, marriage, home, and children. But these texts generate an ideal hero for whom that is also true also. According to the genre's conventions, what both real men and proper women are looking for is a conservative and exclusive relationship of long-term commitment.
Promiscuity, therefore, is still not acceptable--particularly for heroines, but also increasingly for heroes. Despite any notions that may have been promoted by the sexual revolution, women in the novels are only "proper" women if they engage in sexual activity only with when they believe that they are already involved in a love relationship and headed toward a situation of long-term commitment. While heroes of the 1980s could "hurt" the heroine by imposing unwanted sexual attentions on her, the hero of the 1990s merely has to treat her like a sexually-liberated Cosmopolitan magazine version of the "90s woman," someone who could engage in causal sex. His implication is that she is only a casual, disposable, and replaceable "sex object," not a love interest. Such behavior on the hero's part demonstrates, in turn, his unworthiness as the object of her affections. But while 1980s sexual aggression might awaken her own latent erotic tendencies, the 1990s insult leaves the already sexually-awakened heroine with the choice of rejecting the hero (until he comes to his senses) or of demeaning herself in her own eyes, which the current, "proper" woman (according to main-stream conservative standards) would not do. The "liberated" sexuality of the contemporary romance heroine is still usually contained within the culturally acceptable confines of marriage: eventually, they "do the right thing." Sex scenes in main-stream romance novels are not gratuitous; they are the means by which character is revealed and cultural attitudes are transmitted.
This encodement of ideal masculinity and femininity has changed only slightly over the years. The current male ideal has shifted somewhat toward a more relational individual and toward less aggressive competitiveness. The stronger, more independent, older heroine is now less likely to weep guilty tears for her failure to transform the beast into a human being and more likely to demand that he get his own act together. "The love of a good woman," recent novels seem to suggest, can only go so far, and males have to take more responsibility for their own behavior. Ultimately, however, since it is most often women rather than men who read both the novels which allow escape into an idealized romantic fantasy world and the magazines which suggest to a woman how she can "Relight the Romance" in her real world marriage, it is in the final analysis women who are still held responsible for creating the ideal male, mate, and life. The vision of the romance novel may not be static, but it is certainly conservative and traditionally patriarchal. Although the novels seemed to be keeping up with changing social discourse, voicing much of the consciousness-raising rhetoric of feminists' attempts to change gender-related attitudes and role expectations, this was always undercut by the actual behavior of the heroine. The result is that most of the traditional and conservative paradigms were and are ultimately left intact.
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