The purity of his maleness: masculinity in popular romance novels.
I begin this article by returning to what has become the canonical, though highly contested, study of popular romance novels, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature by Janice Radway (1984/1991; according to Google, the book has been cited some 4,300 times, far surpassing many other studies of the popular romance novel). (1) While the book is not without critique or fault, it remains the canonical study of popular romance, and it continues to inspire scholars, as is most clearly available when we realize that both The Journal of Popular Culture and Journal of Popular Romance Studies celebrated the thirtieth anniversary with editorials and articles. (2) Given the "lasting and expansive significance of [Radway's] study" (Selinger, 2014, p. 1), I argue that her work has much to offer the critical study of men and masculinities precisely because of the way she frames and thinks about men and masculinities in the popular romance novel.
In Reading the Romance, Radway (1984/1991) speaks of the male body in the popular romance novel as a site of "spectacular masculinity" (p. 128). Radway further notes that in the romance novel, "every aspect of [the hero's] being, whether his body, his face, or his general demeanour is informed by his maleness" (p. 128). For Radway, and certainly other critics, masculinity is, in many ways, central to the romance novel, and its representation is, simply put, "spectacular." Even beyond his body, the hero is not, in the words of romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz (1992), "a sensitive understanding, right-thinking, 'modem' man who is part therapist, part best friend" because, as Krentz suggests, "you don't get much of a challenge for [the heroine] from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel" (p. 109). The hero is a representation of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 2005), the kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have persistently called into question. Radway and Krentz are not alone. For Tania Modleski (2008), the hero is "a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man" (p. 28). What is certain then is that the hero of popular romance is, at bottom, a spectacular representation of masculinity.
In this essay, I want to take seriously Radway's (1984/1991) notion of "purity of his maleness" and explicitly think about what this might mean for scholars of men and masculinities. I argue that the "purity of his maleness" is central to the hero in popular romance fiction. Put bluntly, the romance novel depends on and is committed to an ideology of masculinity that needs to be engaged with and critiqued by scholars of critical masculinities. Although the revelation itself may not be "new," or "shocking," I do believe that it warrants further study precisely because the field of men's studies has failed to attend to popular romance fiction. The romance novel poses many important questions for scholars of men and masculinities, not least of which is the unanswerable question: "Why is traditional masculinity pleasurable in fantasy?" (Illouz, 2014, p. 58). Scholars of men and masculinities have continually called into question the very notion of "traditional masculinity," and yet in the popular romance novel--a genre largely written by women for women (Illouz, 2014; Regis, 2003; Wendell, 2012)--it is on full and spectacular display. This article is, at bottom, a hope to push scholars of men and masculinities to consider the romance novel as a potential area of inquiry precisely because of the kinds of masculinities it represents in its expansive textual archive.
Even though thirty years have passed since Radway's (1984/1991) Reading the Romance, it must be admitted that the romance novel is still, by and large, committed to "spectacular masculinity." (Indeed, one of the clearest indications of this claim may well be at the paratextual level, for instance, from the "spectacular masculinity" on display on the covers of these novels to the Tumblrs romance novelists and readers curate that showcase images of "hot guys.") What is not in question--and seemingly will never be in question--is the hero's claim to and performance of masculinity. Of course, such a claim will require study, especially since the genre continues to grow, change, and adapt to cultural anxieties and concerns. Eva llouz (2014) has rightly argued that "best-sellers," like Fifty Shades of Grey, "are likely to be texts that encode problematic social conditions" (p. 24) and one might go so far as to argue that popular literature does the same. What might it mean for scholars of men and masculinities that we see the rise of Fifty Shades of Grey and the continued interest in popular romance novels (which account for the largest share of the book market) at the same time as we witness another "crisis of masculinity?" What might it mean that we see the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, alongside the publication of the bestselling The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin (2012).
Given the glorification of the male body, maleness, masculinity, and male sexuality in romance novels, it is somewhat surprising that critical studies of men and masculinities have yet to take a serious interest in these novels. In this article, I think about the ways in which popular romance fiction and men's studies might engage one another in a critical discussion about "spectacular masculinity," as a kind of literary representation of ideal, normative, and hegemonic masculinity. More particularly, the romance novel, I contend, proselytizes an ideology of masculinity that is worthy of consideration, particularly because the genre is, by and large, written by women for women. (3)
Raewyn Connell argued that "when looking at masculinity it is essential to be aware of the many masculinities in circulation" (in Moss, 2011, p. xv), and one of those masculinities is the masculinity that we find in popular romance novels. And the medium in which we find these masculinities may well be part of the message. Romance novels have a particular investment in masculinity precisely because they are "more clearly gendered" (Illouz, 2014, p. 13) than nearly every other genre of fiction. Curiously, though Mark Moss contends that "American literature is exceptionally robust in its offerings of crucial examples of manhood and potent illustrations of masculine endeavour" (p. 66), we do not find a single reference to the most popular form of literary fiction: the popular romance novel. Moss speaks of "writers as diverse as Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper," and he also speaks about the "lesser contributions to the pantheon of American fiction, from Horatio Alger to the characters created by Zane Grey" (p. 66). But, to repeat, even though he acknowledges "lesser contributions," he does not extend his argument to the popular romance novel, in which, as Jan Cohn (1988) has suggested, "the dominant character ... is always the hero" (p. 41). To a certain extent then, this article is a kind of scholarly intervention insofar as it is asking that scholars of masculinity think seriously and critically about popular romance novels, and especially the construction and representation of maleness, masculinity, and male bodies. What would it mean to study popular romance novels from the perspective of masculinity studies? What would it mean to critique these novels from a perspective that takes into account the range of theories and criticisms made available by the critical study of men and masculinities? What is the study of popular romance missing given how few scholars have studied these novels with the theoretical and methodological insights of masculinity studies?
In this article, I want to think explicitly about the politics and representation of masculinity in the popular romance novel, which has hitherto been a largely unstudied area of inquiry in men's studies. In this article, I will limit my discussion to name-brand romance novels (i.e., Harlequin, Silhouette) published in the 1980s and 1990s. Popular romance novels are a rich archive to study not least because of the vastness and diversity of that archive but also because these novels are fundamentally about "female-authored masculinities" (Frantz & Rennhak, 2010, p. 4). Frantz and Rennhak (2010) argue that
examining the ways in which female authors construct, manipulate, ignore, or experiment with the representation of the actions, emotions, and inner life of their male characters exposes different but equally vital and telling perspectives of the construction of gender from that revealed by similar consideration of their female characters, (p. 3)
Frantz and Rennhak argue, at bottom, that "when women construct and write about men in fictional worlds, not only do they analyse the causes and effects of patriarchy, ... but they also construct their own realities" and crucially for this article, "imagining alternative masculinities that are desirable from a woman's perspective" (p. 2). The popular romance novel as this article will show is not always the most progressive of literary genres, especially given its predilection for reinforcing normative, if not hegemonic, masculinity. What is missing from studies of popular romance has been a sustained engagement with men's studies, and the same is true of men's studies; we have failed to attend to this archive of "female-authored masculinities."
I would argue, that many romance novels conform to David and Brannon's standard definition of masculinity, a definition that many scholars of masculinity have adopted, and that has informed the work of masculinity theorists like Michael Kimmel:
1. "No Sissy Stuff!" One may never do anything that even remotely suggests femininity. Masculinity is the relentless repudiation of the feminine.
2. "Be a Big Wheel." Masculinity is measured by power, success, wealth, and status. As the current saying goes, "He who has the most toys when he dies wins."
3. "Be a Sturdy Oak." Masculinity depends on remaining calm and reliable in a crisis, holding emotions in check. In fact, proving you're a man depends on never showing your emotions at all. Boys don't cry.
4. "Give 'em Hell." Exude an aura of manly daring and aggression. Go for it. Take risks. (In Kimmel, 1994, pp. 125-126)
This definition is a useful rubric to think about, especially in terms of the popular romance novel. But we could certainly look elsewhere, and earlier, for another working definition, for instance, Erving Goffman's useful definition of what in many ways sounds like the "purity of maleness" that interests Radway (1984/1991, p. 128). Goffman's (1963) American male is, "young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports" and further that "any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself--during moments at least--as unworthy, incomplete, inferior" (p. 128). Goffman's definition would need to be modified slightly to fit the requirements of the romance novel, for example, the hero of romance is not generally married (though he may be a widower); however, the bulk of this definition is illustrative of the typical romance hero. The above definitions, thus, provide critics with an idea of the kinds of masculinity that can, I argue, be found in a range of romance novels and criticism of romance novels, and moreover, that afford a hegemonic vision of masculinity that is ideal and determined not by its success but largely by its failures.
One question that remains unanswered is from where these definitions of masculinity come. But this is precisely how hegemonic masculinity works. Connell (2005) reminds us that
hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women, (p. 77)
What is so important to remember about Connell's (2005) work is the importance of Gramsci's notion of hegemony, which is about the "successful claim to authority, more than direct violence, that is the mark of hegemony" (p. 77). What I mean by this is that there is no given author of "masculinity," but rather that there is a "cultural dynamic by which a group claims and sustains a leading position in social life" (Connell, 2005, p. 77). Thus, masculinity, as such, is always determined by the social conditions in which it exists, responding to the need to reaffirm "the legitimacy of patriarchy." The male can, in many ways, never achieve all of the qualities we define as masculine, precisely because these are always in flux, always changing, and this is precisely why the male in romance is so ideal, such an object of fascination and fantasy.
The male body, we are told, over and over again, ought to be "slim, toned, and muscular" (Gill, Henwood, & McLean, 2003, p. 188). Murray Drummond's (2011) study of the "archetypal heterosexual male body" suggests that "it is one that is muscular, but not too muscular. It is also a body that is devoid of fat and hair. It must be that one is 'cut' and 'chiselled,' and it must appear strong and powerful" (p. 104). Brenda R. Weber, in a study of television makeovers, notes that the goal of these shows "is to achieve the appearance of a naturally strong and youthful body" (p. 303) for the made-over men. David Buchbinder (2004), likewise, notes the presence of "naked, youthful, muscular bodies in an advertisement for Gucci men's underwear" in his analysis of a scene from the film Fight Club (p. 221). If one thing is certain, the male body is muscular, strong, virile. And it is important to note that the male body has "professional status, youth, and heterosexual desirability" (Weber, 2006, p. 298), which conforms to both Goffman's (1963) definition of masculinity (p. 128) and Jan Cohn's (1988) discussion of the hero of romance and the "necessity of economic success" (p. 42). We cannot suggest with the male body, as with the romance novel, that it is somehow divorced from hetero-patriarchal-capitalism. Cohn (1988) successfully argues, "The hero's work signifies his male energy and his power" and that "work is itself virile" (p. 43). The romance novel, thus, while celebrating the male body (perhaps a feminist appropriation of the male gaze), is also a commentary on and commitment to hegemonic masculinity made possible by the structure of hetero-patriarchal-capitalism. Put simply, capitalism, hegemonic masculinity, and patriarchy are written on and through the hero's body, through the "purity of his maleness" (Radway, 1984/1991, p. 128).
In recent scholarly work on popular romance, the male body continues to be a site of inquiry, especially in light of "hetero-patriarchal-capitalism." Jayashree Kamble (2014), for instance, observes that "the preoccupation with men who own land, labor, and capital goods across national boundaries has become increasingly visible in most popular romance novels" and further that it is "unsurprising that the romance genre, a highly refined product of consumer capitalism, valorizes the system that produces it" (p. 32). For Kamble, who departs from Fredric Jameson's work, the romance novel is deeply enmeshed in a system of capitalism, which enables and calls for a "capitalist identity" (p. 32), especially when dealing with, I argue, the hero. Kamble later argues that the hero of the romance novel also "embodies the sexual norms underlying the bourgeois family and the problematic nature of heterosexism" (p. 87). (4) A study of the romance novel reveals a great deal about masculinity, especially in terms of ideal (and desired) masculinities that conform to the expectations of readers and society alike.
In the textual analyses of popular romance novels, I am not making arguments about complete novels, but rather about scenes in these novels. In each of the scenes, we find a description of the male body that conforms to the idealistic treatment of maleness and masculinity that Radway and others have noted in their studies of popular romance. Admittedly, this methodology is open to critique, for example, I am not engaged in full-scale readings of novels; it seems to me that we have to begin somewhere, and a study that offers observations from a range of texts will hopefully encourage scholars to attend to the ways in which masculinity and popular romance novels inform one another.
I begin textual analysis with The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, which appeared in April 1972. Although the book appears before the interests of this article, the book remained and remains popular and nearly essential to the study of popular romance. Radway (1984/1991) notes, with the publication of the book, "the nature of romance publishing changed dramatically" (p. 33). Eric Selinger (2012) echoes Radway and suggests the novel was "groundbreaking" and that though the novel is dated, it remains "quite readable, quite enjoyable" (p. 36). Given the prominence of this novel, it is quite possible that in it we find the models that become essential to the development of the genre. It therefore should hardly be surprising that in The Flame and Flower, we find a male body that conforms to many ideal forms of masculinity, such as those noted above. In the novel, the heroine studies "him at her leisure. Her eyes trace the firm, straight mouth," declares "he is a handsome man," and concludes "perhaps it would not be so bad to have a son like him" (p. 113). Immediately, we should note, the body is idealized and, moreover, the body plays an important role in hetero-patriarchy and the production of capital: It is with his body that she could produce an offspring like him. Readers learn of "the broad expanse of his chest" (p. 113) and that "he was magnificently made, like some wild, grand beast of the forests. Long, flexible muscles were superbly conditioned, his belly flat and hard, his hips narrow" (p. 114). In many ways, this is precisely the kind of masculinity that is demanded and required in hetero-patriarchal-capitalism: The reification of strength is correlated with his breeding potential. This text "emphasize[s] superiority and dominance" (Cohn, 1988, p. 42) as is required by the genre. And we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that "sexuality is never divorced from economic power" (Cohn, 1988, p. 42), and attached to this must surely be not just the merely pleasurable but also the (re)productive potential of that sexuality. This reproductive potential, or what Lee Edelman (2004) might call "reproductive futurism," reinscribes--importantly--the heterosexuality of the hero.
Heterosexuality is central to both the romance novel and to hegemonic masculinity. Kamble (2014) argues, "Romance novels have variously acknowledged and denied the existence of nonnormative sexual identities, most noticeably via the continuous adaptation of the romance hero through the inclusion or exclusions of markers of heterosexuality" (p. 88). Such an argument conforms to hegemonic masculinity, as Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee (1987) argue in their work defining hegemonic masculinity: "The most important feature of his masculinity, alongside its connection with dominance, is that of heterosexuality" (p. 93). The "continuous adaptation" of the romance hero's masculinity is precisely in line with the ways that hegemonic masculinity works:
when conditions for the defence of patriarchy change, the bases for the dominance of particular masculinity are eroded. New groups may challenge old solutions and construct a new hegemony.... Hegemony, then, is a historically mobile relation. (Connell, 2005, p. 77)
Kamble, for instance, provides a telling and useful example, "the AIDS scare incited public feeling against homosexuality," and thus, in the popular romance novel, we find "the rise of the coping mechanism that is the alpha-male" (p. 110). What is essential to the romance novel is its continued affirmation of the heterosexuality of its hero, which conforms to and aligns with the demands of hegemonic masculinity--these variables cannot be separated.
One additional reason for beginning with The Flame and the Flower is because its impact extends far beyond the textual specificity of the particular novel and toward the entire book industry as a whole,
Once Avon [the publisher] had demonstrated that original romances could be parlayed into ready money, nearly every other mass-market house developed plans to issue is own "sweet savage romances," "erotic historicals," "bodice-rippers," or "slave sagas," as they were variously known throughout the industry. (Radway, 1984/1991, p. 34)
These novels, thus, became a profitable form of publishing, a trend that has never ceased, and romance novels continue to have the largest market share of publishing. For Radway (1984/1991), one can trace the publication history of the popular romance novel from The Flame and the Flower through to the modern day success story, Harlequin Enterprises, which "is now followed with care by book people who have little respect for the company's editorial product but who would dearly love to duplicate its financial success" (p. 41). While Reading the Romance is dated, we cannot negate the fact that the rise of popular romance, particularly the production of category/name-brand romance novels, is deeply attached to and participatory in capitalism.
Certainly, I am not the first critic to imagine that capitalism, especially the intersections amongst capitalism, heterosexual and hegemonic masculinity, and patriarchy, is central to romance. Indeed, for Jan Cohn (1988), there is hardly another way to see the popular romance novel. Even though Cohn's work is dated, this line of critique continues. Catherine Roach (2010), for example, argues that "romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women" (online). A claim echoed by Eva Illouz (2014), who asks, "why is traditional masculinity pleasurable in fantasy? In other words, why are some women's fantasies still caught in patriarchy?" (p. 58). These are valuable questions to think about precisely because they are questions about masculinity, and yet scholars of masculinity have yet to attend to these very questions. We have been reluctant, for whatever reason, to engage with popular romance novels, perhaps, our own critical and theoretical flight from the feminine (Kimmel, 1994, p. 126) that is so central to how we define masculinity. What might it mean for critical studies of men and masculinities that these texts, authored by women for women, so often conform to the definitions of masculinity that are so often critically analyzed and critiqued by those in the field? As scholars of men and masculinity continually point out the failures of hegemonic and ideal masculinities, how then do we respond to their reification in these novels?
In what remains, I focus on category romances, especially Harlequin romances set in "contemporary" settings. My argument thus can best be understood as a "generalization" about contemporary, category romances; however, I would imagine and hypothesize that this article establishes an initial framework that can be applied to and modified for the study of other types of popular romance novels, ranging from the historical to the supernatural and paranormal. In all of the novels to be studied, we find heroes who fit Goffman's American man: young, White, heterosexual, wealthy (or rags to riches wherein wealth is a telos of the genre), attractive, handsome, and so on. He will be recognized for the "purity of his maleness" (Radway, 1984/1991, p. 128). He participates in capitalist culture, he performs like an ideal male, and ultimately commits himself to heterosexuality.
That mass-produced fiction participates in both capitalism and the construction of masculinity should not come as a surprise to many. Kent Baxter (2000), for instance, argues that "the Stratemeyer series of books for boys," for example, The Hardy Boys Mysteries, are "of great interest to current studies of masculinity because of the interesting ways in which the ethics of capitalist production adhered to by the author can be seen in the plot, characterization, and material qualities of the books themselves" (p. 169). While Stratemeyer's books participate in the "censorship of male desire," at least heterosexual desire, the Harlequin romance openly and vicariously explores ideas of male desire: gender, capital, and sexuality.
One final cautionary note here that deserves to be repeated is that I am not making an aesthetic or value argument about these texts, and as such, the texts mentioned and studied should not be understood as "representative" of what Regis (2011) calls the "strongest romance novels." Instead, my method was a random selection of name-brand romances, or what Janice Radway (1984/1991) understands as "quick reads, [which] contains less than 200 pages and require no more than two hours of reading time. Harlequins, Silhouettes, and most Regencies are considered quick reads" (p. 59). In choosing texts, I tried, as much as possible, to cover a historical range spanning the 80s and early 90s primarily. I have limited myself to novels that are "contemporary," which is to suggest that they represent a modern setting and include modern characters that reflect the values of the society and time in which they live.
The construction of the hero, often enough, happens early in the novel. For instance, in Elizabeth Graham's (1978) Mason's Ridge, readers are introduced to a heroine, who, standing at "five feet seven inches was dwarfed by the man's much taller figure" (p. 9), which, as Cohn (1988) would predict, highlights the "stress placed on height" in the romance novel (p. 42). His stature speaks to his "superiority and dominance" (Cohn, 1988, p. 42), which, in many ways, is precisely how these novels are framed from the outset. As the tale continues, readers learn of the hero's "prepossessing shoulders" (p. 41) and that his body takes on an exaggerated form as the romance develops: "With his back to her, his hips looked even narrower, his legs longer" (p. 46). All of these attributes conform to ideals of masculinity.
Sometimes descriptions that appear early are more complete and richly developed. In Carole Mortimer's (1980) Living Together, for instance, the hero is drawn in great detail in the opening chapter,
He was a hot property in the acting world, and had been for the last fifteen years. He was constantly working, his acting superb.... He looked totally the dominant male tonight, dressed completely in black from head to foot, the black silk shirt clinging to his powerful shoulders and chest, the trousers fitted snugly to his hips and thighs. It was obvious that most of the women here were attracted to his magnetism, and Helen supposed he could be called very attractive with his over-long sun-bleached blond hair, piercing tawny-coloured eyes set over a hawk-like nose, firm mouth with a full sensuous lower lip, the lines of experience beside nose and mouth that added, not detracted, to his looks, and the lithe masculinity of his tall powerful body. (p. 14)
This opening description is important because it sets into motion the ways in which gender, sexuality, and capitalism are brought together in the construction of a singular subject, the hero. Immediately, we note words like dominant, powerful (twice), tall, piercing, full, firm, and "lithe masculinity." All of these words, of course, conform to how we might imagine the hero of romance and also the ideal of masculinity. Indeed, even his advanced age--"the lines of experience"--do not "detract" from his looks, his claims to "lithe masculinity." While all of these descriptors are part of the aesthetic development of the novel, there is an ideological impulse behind them, which is to say, these descriptors participate in the idealization of hegemonic masculinity.
In Mortimer's description, we find indications of power, sexuality, gender, and capitalism. His masculine body is twice described as being "powerful," and it is so powerful that it contains a "magnetism" that should draw women toward him. Women should be interested in him sexually; he should be desirable. Indeed, this sexuality is all the more present by the use of the word "piercing," which lends itself well to phallic masculinity. Piercing is a kind of penetration, his "piercing tawny-coloured eyes" are felt by the object being observed, which, of course, is the epitome of what will become known as the "male gaze." The politics of his masculinity are further endowed with a property value; he is, in economic (and sexual) terms, "a hot property." His economic value is reinscribed by the clothing he is wearing, which are, and should almost always be seen as, vestments of capitalism. The hero wears a "black silk shirt" and his pants "fitted snugly to his hips and thighs," tailored to make him look good. Indeed, readers are told, "He looked totally dominant tonight, dressed in black from head to foot." His clothing is a kind of "sartorial shorthand" (Moss, 2011, p. 51) that speaks to his financial success due to the fact that he "was constantly working" (Mortimer, 1980, p. 14). Readers need not begrudge his wealth but rather admire his successful laboring, which affords him these luxuries.
The desirability of this kind of man is made all the more clear in Betty Neels's (1986) The Secret Pool, in which readers are initially introduced to two men, one of whom will clearly be the hero of the novel.
He came through the door within moments, a short stout man with a fringe of hair on a bald head and twinkling blue eyes.... He had someone with him ... a tall man with massive shoulders, fair hair with a heavy sprinkling of grey and the good looks to turn any woman's head. Francesca sighed at the sight of him.... He had a deep slow voice. (pp. 9-10)
The hero of this novel, of course, is not the "short stout man with a fringe of hair on a bald head." But what is telling here is the way that two men are compared with one another in such powerfully different terms: short and stout versus the tall man with massive shoulders. This "tall man," of course, turns out to be a "specialist in tropical diseases" (p. 10). He is the epitome of masculinity, a masculinity that is confirmed both in terms of his body as well as his work, which "signifies his male energy and power" (Cohn, 1988, p. 43), and his "business skill and his virility are synonymous" (Cohn, 1988, p. 44). These "parts" of his masculinity work together to build the whole, and all parts become essential to the construction of his masculinity, in other words, his masculinity is dependent upon these parts. Moreover, as Cohn (1988) has demonstrated, "Work serves as evidence for one aspect of masculinity, the ability to succeed in bourgeois society" (p. 46).
These kinds of masculinity are central to the romance novel because the romance novel participates in more than just a fantasy about wedded bliss. These novels participate in the fantasy of succeeding in bourgeois culture. We cannot separate the bourgeois from the romance novel. In her defence of romance, for instance, Pamela Regis (2003) admits that the values of romance are "profoundly bourgeois" and that these values "are the impossible dreams of women in many parts of the world." Regis ultimately concludes that "to attack this very old genre, so stable in its form, so joyful in its celebration of freedom, is to discount, and perhaps even to deny, the most personal hopes of millions of women around the world" (p. 207). All of this may be true, but to negate the bourgeois tendencies of the popular romance genre may well lend itself to the possibility of obscuring the ways in which hetero-patriarchal capitalism makes these dreams impossible, that is, we participate in what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls the "cruel optimism" of "the American dream" when we refuse to take into account the kinds of oppressions that unfold in these spaces. Kamble (2014), for instance, notes that "money enters into these novels via a capitalist sensibility, and though the sensibility is finally judged immaterial in the face of love, its potential for disastrous repercussions lingers" (p. 46) and further that "capitalist wealth and its acquisition is associated with something ominous in the nature of its owners--dangerous competitiveness, aggression, and an inclination to treat relationships as mercantile exchanges" (p. 47). In other words, as David and Brannon noted, "Masculinity is measured by power, success, wealth, and status" (in Kimmel 1994, p. 125). I am not arguing that this is what makes romance novels good or bad but rather that we need to treat these novels as critically as we would any other text--were this not a romance novel, I am certain that many would be articulating a critique of their defence of capitalism and the bourgeoisie; instead, more often than not, we simply dismiss them as romance novels, not worthy of study. I disagree.
In accounting for the historical development of the genre, we often note that the bodies of its heroes do not change drastically. On the first page of Kay Clifford's (1987) Dream of Love, for instance, readers learn that "Richard Rayburn's luxuriant black hair, perfect profile and flat stomach, were a cameraman's dream" (p. 5); indeed, even though Richard has "grey hairs" (p. 5), he is told "when it's white as snow, you'll still be playing the hero" (p. 6). Once more, we see the idealization of masculinity, a new addition, perhaps (I am cautious that this may become a "hasty generalization"), may well be the inclusion of the "flat stomach," which speaks to the (re)turn to athleticism, muscularity, and healthy thinness. There was a perceived fear in the late 80s that thinness was found (especially) in the gay male body. Drummond (2011) explains,
at the time the archetypal gay male physique was that of being thin. With the advent of the perceived HIV/AIDS "epidemic," being a thin gay man heightened the possibility of being stigmatised as "contagious" while further marginalising an already marginalised group, (p. 104)
While this may seem a "trivial" moment, and that I am dwelling too much on the "flat stomach," 1 do think we need to recognize that inherent to any commitment to the kinds of masculinity we are seeing in the popular romance is also a kind of institutional homophobia that lurks in the background of the romance novel, and is written on the hero's body. In many ways, I agree with Kamble's (2014) contention that, "during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement ... the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman" (p. 129).
In his seminal article, "Masculinity as Homophobia," Michael Kimmel (1994) notes the numerous ways in which men must take "flight from the feminine" (p. 126). What I am arguing, thus, is that the romance novel contains an internalized homophobia--as a genre--in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not feminine, queer, and homosexual. In this critique, thus, masculinity "is irrevocably tied to sexuality" (p. 126). The romance novel, as a genre, conforms to and upholds the idea that, "masculine identity is born in the renunciation of the feminine" (Kimmel, 1994, p. 127). Kimmel argues, "Homophobia is a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of men" and, moreover, that
homophobia is more than the irrational fear of gay men, more than the fear that we might be perceived as gay.... Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world around that we do not measure up, that we are not real men. (p. 131)
With these definitions in mind, if we think back to the example from Neel's novel, in which two men are compared and contrasted, we quickly realize the ways in which that particular novel establishes a mode of reading masculinity that reifies the one and "unmasks," in a sense, the other. And so, when we read the construction and representation of men in the romance novel, we need to think carefully about the ways in which these bodies are constructed not only in a heteronormative and heterosexist fashion but also in light of institutional forms of homophobia, especially in terms of "effeminophobia," which is to say, "our culture's pervasive fear of effeminate boys" (Mavor, p. 72), and I think we can safely add "effeminate men" to this definition.
Even in texts that account for nonnormative masculinities, for instance, the male virgin, about whom very little has been written (Allan, 2011), his masculinity--despite his lack of sexual performance--is rarely called into question. At the opening of the 90s, we see an interest in the virgin hero, the man who no longer requires the kinds of "experience" that Radway and Cohn document. It is hard not to imagine that this sudden lack of experience is not intimately tied to the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis (about which much remains to be written). In what follows, I look closely at a couple of these virgins and their bodies in the construction of masculinity. (5)
In Susan Napier's (1992) Secret Admirer, we are introduced to what is one of the earliest--though certainly not the earliest--male virgin heroes in the popular romance novel. Before moving further, let me clarify that the virgins I am speaking of here will openly, at one point in the novel, speak to their status and identity as virgins. In the case of Secret Admirer, he will comment, "You were my initiation, Grace. I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood" (p. 133). As Vivanco and Kramer (2010) have noted in their brief discussion of this very scene, "Manhood must be earned or achieved in particular ways," and they further argue that "manhood, then, is a status which once achieved must be maintained, and it therefore appears to be a status more easily lost by males than womanhood is by females." While this claim is never proven, it does conform to a great deal of studies in men and masculinities. Masculinities are never fixed and are always in threat of being lost. Indeed, even a phrase like "man up" shows, over and again, that manhood is almost always about living up to an expectation (i.e., hegemonic masculinity), men are all too often "proving manhood" (Beneke, 1997).
Throughout the entire novel, his "manhood" has never been in question, even following the loss of virginity, Grace wonders if this comment was a "joke," especially because he "was twenty-nine, for goodness sake!" (p. 134). How could a man, who is nearly 30, still be a virgin? In a sense, what is implied then is that male virginity is itself a kind of masculinity failure, but is only a failure when it is revealed. That is, unlike the chiseled body that is visible, male virginity is not, in a sense, written on the body (perhaps it is written in the body). The author of this novel, instead, treats the virginity as a narrative surprise, almost showing readers that virginity can indeed have a masculine edge to it. He is described early in the novel as being "dressed ... for an evening out, his dark suit superbly tailored to wide shoulders and lean hips" (p. 8), and he has "black hair, broad high cheekbones and deep set black eyes ... a noble roman nose ... that perfectly balanced those heavy-lidded eyes and finely arched brows" (p. 9).
Once more, we find the standard definition of the male body that focuses on its strength, "sartorial shorthand" (Moss, 2011, p. 51), and successful participation in capitalism: "Gregory has won and lost several fortunes on the stock exchange. He's a gambler and by all rights he should have been wiped out by the market crash but somehow he managed to emerge even stronger than before" (Napier, 1992, p. 21). Even though he lacks experience, "the purity of his maleness" (Radway, 1984/1991, p. 128) is never diminished; "the controlled, disciplined man had vanished completely. In his place was a greedy, intemperate, ardent, and impetuous male, urgently plundering each and every lavish pleasure of the flesh" (Napier, 1992, p. 129). His body continues to be defined in masculine terms: "Scott stiffened and pulled back slightly, the pupils of his eyes contracting, his jaw clenching as he fought blind instinct that was relentlessly driving him" (Napier, 1992, p. 129). The male body, even if a virgin body, is never called into question; instead it is a body that "plunder[s] each and every lavish pleasure of the flesh" and the previously "controlled, disciplined man had vanished completely" (Napier, 1992, p. 129). His claim to masculinity is affirmed by his sexual performance. Authors work carefully to construct a male body that is desirable to heterosexual women (a trend that continues to the present day, including in novels that are ostensibly about men, as is the case of the male/male romance novel).
Ultimately, the male body in romance almost always contributes to a very particular vision of masculinity that is hegemonic, heterosexual, deeply committed to capitalist and bourgeois success. And even when this is not the case, the narrative generally adopts a kind of Pygmalion narrative, wherein the less-than-perfect hero is ultimately revealed to be ideal, as is the case in Dixie Browning's (1989) Beginner's Luck, which also tells the story of a virgin hero. In this novel, we are introduced to a hero who is socially inept, nearly blind without his glasses, but is nonetheless a genius, "seven degrees by the time he'd reached twenty-three, including bachelor's degrees in computer science, biology, mathematics and linguistics, master's degrees in chemistry and philosophy, and a doctorate in chemical engineering" (Browning, 1989, p. 12). Despite all of his clumsiness, the heroine will later "feast her eyes on his glorious, unashamed masculinity," and he will be described as "lying there, proudly, primally male" (Browning, 1989, p. 157). His masculinity is, by the novel's close, affirmed. Masculinity is, once more, central to the romance novel, and even in cases where masculinity is uncertain, as is the case of the male virgin, his masculinity, at least at the level of his body, is assured.
Hegemonic and ideal forms of masculinity are nearly a rule in the popular romance novel of the 80s and early 90s. A larger study is required to make generalizations about the genre as a whole, but I remain adequately convinced that the novels introduced here, more often than not, affirm hegemonic masculinities rather than critique them; however, I would caution that a larger study is required to sustain many of these suppositions (the male/male romance novel, for instance, may well become a site in which masculinity is explored in innovative and diverse ways). These masculinities are part of and contribute to hetero-patriarchal-capitalism. The male body never fails its owner--its virility may be hidden--but it is always recovered by the close of the novel. As critical scholars of men and masculinity, the popular romance novel provides an interesting space in which to think about the ways in which masculinity becomes idealized and reified, even while we work to dismantle some of these masculinities. These novels, I contend, participate in a culture that affirms a very particular vision of masculinity, a vision that is inaccessible to almost all men. These novels propagate a belief in a masculinity that is as accessible as the promised happily ever after. To critique the romance novel for its commitment to hegemonic and ideal masculinity, White, capitalist, bourgeois, heterosexual, and so on, is not to reject the genre but rather to ask new and important questions about the continuing success of the genre. What does it mean that these novels, "the impossible dream[s] of millions of women" (Regis, 2003, p. 207), revel in the "purity of his maleness" (Radway, 1984/1991, p. 128)? It is hoped that this study will encourage other scholars to develop an interest in popular romance novels, and moreover, that scholars of popular romance studies will begin to take into consideration the valuable lessons found throughout critical studies of men and masculinities.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was undertaken, in part, thanks to funding from the Canada Research Chairs program, and the Romance Writer's of America Academic Resarch Grant program.
(1.) As a point of comparison, I compare this citation record with Loving Willi a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women by Tania Modleski (2008), which has been cited 1,285 times; Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Fantasies of Women's Romance Fiction by Kay Mussell, which has been cited less than 100 times. Both of these books are included in Pamela Regis's (2011) "The First Wave of Romance Criticism."
(2.) See Jagodzinski (2014), Larabee (2014), Larsen (2014), Matthews (2014), Moody (2014), Morrissey (2014), Neal (2014), Schell (2014), Selinger (2014), and Traylor (2014). Also see Wood (2004), which is an earlier piece, written at about the 20th anniversary.
(3.) Throughout this article, I am interested in heterosexual romance novels, that is, novels that speak to the courtship of a male and a female. The rise of male/male romance novels has certainly given scholars of gender and popular romance more to think about; however, and unfortunately, very little has been published to date on the male/male romance. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the bulk of the arguments put forward are valid in the study of male/male romance; however, in the male/male romance, we do see some movement toward queerer forms of masculinity. The genre, however, also must contend with its seeming effeminophobia insofar as the genre seems to be committed to ideas of homonormativity and not doing much in terms of critiquing many of the institutions--marriage, love, commitment, monogamy--that are themselves sites of oppression and normativity. For an early critique of male/male romance, see Allan (2013).
(4.) One side of Kamble's (2014) argument with which I have been unable to attend to is the "warrior hero" of romance fiction, who "introduces perspectives on the wars that these economies fight under the banner of democracy. The trope includes men who are career soldiers, mercenaries, or even espionage agents, figures engaged in the mission of defending freedom and safeguarding the democratic capitalist nation's security" (p. 61 ). As I hope is becoming clear, romance novels are a rich archive of material that we may well want to consider in thinking about masculinities. The intersections between love and war, of course, are well-established; see, for instance, Tom Digby's Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance (2014).
(5.) For a larger discussion of male virginity in popular romance novels, see my article, "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels" (Allan, 2011), in which I argued that there are at least four types of male virgins in the popular romance novel. Each of these types has a reason for his virginity: (a) sickness, illness, disability; (b) the student virgin, who needs to be taught; (c) the genius virgin, often aligned with the student virgin, who simply is too smart for carnal matters; and (d) the virginal commodity, wherein his virginity is desirable because of its rarity. In revising these ideas, I have suggested that there needs to be an inclusion of queer virginities and that the fourth type of virginity speaks less about an identity and more about circumstances. This article was an early study of male virginity in popular romance, and it remains the only study on this subject. In another article (Allan, 2012), I argue that Edward Cullen, the hero of the Twilight Saga, allows for a kind of "monstrous virginity," wherein the most monstrous thing about Edward Cullen is not his vegetarian vampirism but his virginity.
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Jonathan A. Allan is Canada Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University. He is the author of Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus (University of Regina Press and Zed Books, 2016). He is at work on his second book, Uncut: The Foreskin Archive.
(1) Brandon University, Manitoba, Canada
Jonathan A. Allan, Brandon University, 270-18th Street, Brandon, Manitoba Canada R7A 6A9.
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|Author:||Allan, Jonathan A.|
|Publication:||The Journal of Men's Studies|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2016|
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