|Re-writing the romance?
Rosalind Gill & Elena Herdieckerhoff
Address for correspondence:
Dr Rosalind Gill
London School of Economics
London WC2A 2AE
+44 207955 6024
In the last 10 years popular publishing has been transformed by the development of a number of new genres that have claimed to 'rewrite' contemporary romances. Many publishers have launched a new imprints with more sexually explicit titles aimed at women (e.g. Black Lace), have commissioned fictions that deliberately build on the popularity of TV shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, and have marketed new sub-genres such as 'mum lit', 'lad lit' and 'dad lit'. Chief amongst these new genres is the phenomenon of chick lit, which burst onto the publishing scene in the wake of the extraordinary success of Helen Fielding's (1996) Bridget Jones’s Diary.
The focus of this paper is on how chick lit should be understood. Is chick lit 'rewriting' the romance? Do chick lit novels offer new versions of heterosexual partnerships? How different are their constructions of femininity and masculinity from those of 'traditional' popular romances such as those published by Harlequin or Mills and Boon? To what extent do these novels break with conventional formulas, and how, if at all, are they positioned in relation to feminist ideas and concerns.
In order to address these questions the paper is divided into three main parts. In the first section, a review of feminist writing on popular romance is presented, which outlines the different perspectives on romantic fiction and explores the extraordinary tenacity of notions of heterosexual romance against the backdrop of significant cultural and demographic changes, including divorce on a hitherto unprecedented scale, an increase in the number of single person households, and a diversification of family forms (including stepfamilies, lesbian and gay families, and the notion of 'friends as the new family'). The second section discusses the impact of the novels and films about Bridget Jones as perhaps the most important precursor of the success of chick lit. This discussion lays the foundations for the third section which is a detailed analysis of 20 chick lit novels published between 1997 and 2004, examining constructions of sexuality, beauty, independence, work and singleness. The paper concludes that chick lit articulates a distinctively postfeminist sensibility characterised by an emphasis on neoliberal feminine subjectivities and self surveillance and monitoring; the notion of the (sexual) body as the key source of identity for women; discourses of boldness, entitlement and choice (usually articulated to normative femininity and/or consumerism) and a belief in the emotional separateness of men's and women's worlds. It is also characterised by an entanglement of feminist and anti feminist discourses.
Key words: gender, post feminism, fiction, representation, romance.
'His skin was smooth, more roughly textured than hers, but sleek and flexible beneath her palms, his warmth and maleness enveloping her and making her overwhelmingly aware that only the thin material of the culotte suit separated them. He held her face between his hands, and his hardening mouth was echoed throughout the length and breadth of his body. She felt herself yielding weakly beneath him, and his hand slid from her shoulder across her throat to find the zipper at the front of her suit, impelling it steadily downward. "No, Logan", she breathed, but he pulled her hands, with which she might have resisted him, around him, arching her body so that he could observe her reaction to the thrusting aggression of his with sensual satisfaction. "No?" He probed with gentle mockery, his mouth, seeking the pointed fullness of her breasts now exposed to his gaze. "Why not? It's what we both want, don't deny it" 1
In the last 10 years popular publishing has been transformed by the development of a number of new genres that have claimed to 'rewrite' contemporary romances. Many publishers have launched a new imprints with more sexually explicit titles aimed at women (e.g. Black Lace), have commissioned fictions that deliberately build on the popularity of TV shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, and have marketed new sub-genres such as 'mum lit', 'lad lit' and 'dad lit'. Chief amongst these new genres is the phenomenon of chick lit, which burst onto the publishing scene in the wake of the extraordinary success of Helen Fielding's (1996) Bridget Jones. By the late 1990s, the genre was well established, with distinctive titles, heroines and narrative styles, clearly marked cover designs (day-glo or pastel, with cartoon style illustrations) and marketing strategies that aimed to attract single, urban-based white women in their twenties and thirties. The books were heavily marketed to female commuters and in Britain quickly became the archetypal 'tube read' for women.
There are a number of features of chick lit that make it an important object of study -- not least its significant role in the political economy of publishing, and its key role in the development of a sexually differentiated form of address, seen in the layout of bookstores, the purchasing policies of supermarket book departments and the rise of 'his and hers' discount book clubs. The focus of this paper, however, is on the novels as texts. Specifically, the paper seeks to explore whether and in what ways chick lit might be said to be 'rewriting' the romance. Do chick lit novels offer new versions of heterosexual partnerships? How different are their constructions of femininity and masculinity from those of 'traditional' popular romances such as those published by Harlequin or Mills and Boon? To what extent do these novels break with conventional formulas, and how, if at all, are they positioned in relation to feminist ideas and concerns.
In order to address these questions the paper is divided into three main parts. In the first section, a review of feminist writing on popular romance is presented, which outlines the different perspectives on romantic fiction and explores the extraordinary tenacity of notions of heterosexual romance against the backdrop of significant cultural and demographic changes, including divorce on a hitherto unprecedented scale, an increase in the number of single person households, and a diversification of family forms (including stepfamilies, lesbian and gay families, and the notion of 'friends as the new family'). The second section discusses the impact of the novels and films about Bridget Jones as perhaps the most important precursor of the success of chick lit.This discussion lays the foundations for the third section which is a detailed analysis of 20 chick lit novels published between 1997 and 2004, examining constructions of sexuality, beauty, independence, work and singleness.
Feminist perspectives on romantic fiction
'You start by sinking into his arms and end up with your arms in his sink'2
The Romance Writers of America (2002) define romantic novels as books 'where the love story is the main focus of the novel' and has 'an emotionally satisfying happy ending'. Within this definition there are many different types of romance, including historical romances, bodice rippers, 'sex and shopping' novels and newer sub genres such as the sci-fi romance, erotic fiction for women and 'chick lit'. This section examines feminist approaches to romance and will focus upon what Snitow (1986) calls 'hard' romances such as those produced by Harlequin and Mills & Boon.
The basic plot can the summarised as follows: a young, inexperienced, poor woman meets a handsome, wealthy man, 10 or 15 years her senior. The hero is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, hostile and even brutal, and the heroine is confused. By the end he reveals his love for her and misunderstandings are cleared away (Modleski, 1982; Weibel, 1977). The tales are set in an 'enchanted space' in which the heroine is socially dis- located -- perhaps on holiday, having gone away from friends and family to recover from a traumatic event, or even waking from a coma (to find herself staying at the hero's villa or castle). Stories are constructed around a series of obstacles that must be overcome in order for the hero and the heroine to fall in love -- these include class, national, or racial differences, inhibitions, stubbornness and, last but not least, their mutual loathing! The romance narrative progresses through hostility, separation and reconciliation which brings with it 'the transformation of the man into an emotional being with a heart who declares his love for the heroine' alongside the restoration of a new sense of social identity for the female protagonist (Pearce and Stacey, 1995:17).
Many commentators have drawn analogies between romances and pornography. Suzanne Moore (1991) suggests that romantic novels 'fetishise' particular emotions in the way that pornography fetishises particular body parts and positions. In a slightly different vein Snitow argues that sexual desire is sublimated in romances so that every look and touch signifies its existence and promise; 'pornography for women is different,' she contends, because 'sex is bathed in romance' (1986:257). At a broader level, Alison Assiter (1988) suggests that the analogy works because both heterosexual pornography and romantic fiction eroticise the power relations between the sexes, in this way making them both palatable and pleasurable.
This concern with the ideological nature of romantic fiction, has been common to many feminist accounts of it over the last 40 years. In the 1960s and 1970s romance novels were seen variously as a seductive trap which justified women's subordination to men and rendered women complicit in that subordination (Jackson, 1995); as a kind of false consciousness -- 'a cultural tool of male power to keep women from knowing their real conditions' (Firestone, 1971:139); or as a distraction which diverted women energies from more worthwhile pursuits. In Germaine Greer's (1970) words romantic fiction is 'dope for dupes' (cited in Jackson, 1995) and the unambiguous suspicion and hostility towards it is summed up by the feminist quip: 'You start by sinking into his arms, and end up with your arms in his sink!'
Second wave feminist antipathy and dismissiveness towards romantic fiction extended to its readers who were regarded as passive, dependent and addicted to trivial, escapist fantasies. Feminine romance readers were frequently counterposed against heroic feminist figures who had renounced any investment in femininity or romance (Hollows, 2000). This move, and specifically the condemnation of women who were housewives, became such a familiar one that Charlotte Brunsdon (1993) has suggested that it needs to be understood psychoanalytically in terms of the mother-daughter relationship, in which younger feminists were acting out troubled and ambivalent relationships with an older generation of women. Taking this intergenerational psychoanalytic insight further, it is now worth exploring what is happening when the 'daughters' of second wave feminists derive significant pleasure from reading chick lit.3
Complicating the story
Two landmark publications disrupted the commonsense feminist critique of romance. These were Tania Modleski's Loving With a Vengeance (1982) and Janice Radway's (1984) Reading the Romance. Both books can be understood as part of a wider attempt to take popular cultural forms seriously, to resist double standards which operate to condemn or dismiss women's genres, and to 'rescue' feminine forms as worthy of attention.
Loving With a Vengeance is a textual analysis of three such forms -- soaps, Gothic novels and Harlequin romances. It drew on feminist psychoanalytic theory to speculate about the kinds of pleasures such genres offer to women. Modleski (1982) argued that Harlequin romances are not simply escapist fantasies designed to dope women but fictions that engage in complex and contradictory ways with real problems -- offering temporary, magical, fantasy or symbolic solutions.
Modleski argued that one of the pleasures Harlequin romances may offer to seasoned readers is their superior knowledge as ‘experts’ familiar with the genre. Because they are positioned as knowing more than the heroine, theirs is not a straight forward identification with her: they know that the hero is behaving so badly because he is unsettled by the heroine and will come to realise that he loves her. Modleski (1982) suggests that this superior wisdom can transform for readers even the most problematic aspects of romances -- for example the way they draw on ideas about rape. In rape the intention to dominate, humiliate and degrade is often disguised as sexual desire. In romances this is reversed: sexual desire is disguised as hostility and dominance. But readers with privileged knowledge understand this already, and can take pleasure in the way that everything the heroine says and does serves only to increase the hero’s desire/hostility towards her.
Another key way in which romantic fiction may offer pleasures to heterosexual women is through the enactment of symbolic revenge. Modleski (1982) argues that contrary to stereotypes romantic heroines are not passive and masochistic, but active protagonists. She points out that the smallest liberty taken by the heroine is described as a real act of resistance -- as being performed militantly, rebelliously or defiantly (even if it is only a rebellious upturning of the chin or a defiant flick of the hair). She argues that the so-called masochism of the texts is 'a cover for anxieties, desires and wishes which, is openly expressed, would challenge the psychological and social order of things' (1982: 30). Moreover, although the heroine clearly suffers in such novels, the hero is equally tormented by his love for her. Romances might be understood as a kind of revenge fantasy in which the woman obtains power and vengeance from the conviction that she is bringing the hero to his knees; by the end, he is grovelling with her to accept his love and forgiveness.
One of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary romantic fiction is the way in which everything the heroine feels is demonstrated to be false -- at its base this means that when she says no, she really means yes. A classic scene might feature the hero attempting to kiss the heroine and her struggling and saying 'no, no,' and then melting into his arms knowing all along that this has been right (see quote in the introduction). As readers, we are invited to collude with the idea that the hero knows better than the woman herself what she really wants. Yet Modleski (1982) argues that this is not the whole story and not reason enough to condemn romances outright. Drawing on the work of the feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow, she proposes that romances promise the kind of transcendent, nurturing love that women may receive in infancy from their mothers, and which they then give to men in later life, but do not receive in return. In romances this inequality of emotional care is resolved in fantasy through the figure of the nurturing male lover who can meet her needs and satisfy them. It is also significant that romantic union usually occurs at precisely the moment when the heroine has taken no care whatsoever with her appearance. This, Modleski argues, may give readers the vicarious pleasure of temporarily transcending the traditional splitting of themselves -- where they are both object and subject of the gaze. It offers, in a sense, a chance to symbolically ‘let yourself go’, secure in the knowledge that he will love you anyway -- there is no need to constantly monitor yourself.
Janice Radway's (1984) groundbreaking book Reading the Romance combined textual analysis of Harlequin novels with an interview based ethnographic study of committed romance readers, and a detailed examination of publishing and bookselling as economic enterprises. Her work has been regarded as an exemplary example of media/cultural analysis in its attempt to grapple with different 'moments' of the cultural process -- production, distribution, text and audience -- in a way that allows romantic fiction to be understood as simultaneously an economic, cultural, ideological and pleasurable phenomenon.
Radway's ethnographic analysis focused on a group of avid romance readers whom she calls the 'Smithton women' all of whom used the services of a woman named 'Dot' to advise them on which romance novels to purchase. Using a combination of semistructured interviews, group discussions and observation, Radway attempted to uncover the meanings the women gave to their romance reading. She found that far from being unintelligent dopes the women were sophisticated readers of romance, able to make subtle differentiations within the genre and to pick up on small nuances and cues from the cover pictures and ‘blurbs’ in order to determine whether books would meet their particular tastes and needs. Moreover, the women thoroughly rejected the stereotype of them as unintelligent and superficial and placed considerable emphasis on the educational benefits of their romance reading, both in terms of allowing them to learn about different places and historical time periods, and also in 'modelling' reading-behaviour for their children. Many of the women expressed the hope that by showing the pleasure they derived from books they would encourage their children to read more and do better at school.
Radway's work is ambivalently positioned in relation to romantic fiction. On the one hand she is critical of Harlequin novels, arguing that they are profoundly conservative, posing some of the problems of life in a patriarchal society only to resolve them through an idealised depiction of heterosexual love. On the other hand she understands women's use of these novels as -- in part -- oppositional. Like Modleski she finds that one of the pleasures of romance reading is wish-fulfilment in which, in 'escaping' into the heroine's life, readers vicariously experience what it is to be really loved and nurtured in the way they crave.
The act of reading can also be understood as 'combative' and 'compensatory'; a way of carving out some time or space for themselves:
'In picking up a book... they refuse temporarily their family's otherwise constant demands that they tend to the wants of others even as they act deliberately to do something for their own private pleasure... Romance reading addresses needs created in them but not met by patriarchal institutions and engendering practices’. (Radway, 1984:211)
Radway's work has become the focus of a number of important debates in media and cultural studies. These are concerned with what feminist cultural criticism should involve (e.g. critique, celebration or affirmation, respect, etc.) and the nature of the relationship between the cultural critic and her respondents. Ien Ang (1996) contends that Radway is working with a thinly veiled political moralism -- a vanguardism which seeks to make ‘them’ (romance readers) more like ‘us’ (feminists), and implicitly regards feminists accounts as superior. As well as contesting whether this is necessarily true (would feminism actually make these women happier?), Ang argues that Radway fails to take pleasure seriously in its own right because it is always read in terms of its ideological functions. At stake in this debate are two very different conceptions of feminist research -- one concerned with ideological critique and the other concerned with understanding women's pleasure in women's own terms.
In the 20 years or so since Modleski and Radway were writing, discussions of romance have changed. One important factor has been the development of the World Wide Web which has facilitated both writers and readers of romantic fiction to become involved in debates that were previously the sole province of academics and college students. E-zines, chat rooms and bulletin boards are today the site of fierce debate on questions such as whether romances can be considered feminist, with authors and fans contesting the issues.
New questions are being asked about romance, connected not simply to gender relations but also to sexuality and 'race'. In what ways are conventional romances racialised discourses? How are their constructions of love and desire connected to white fantasies of racial others? (Maddison and Storr, 2002; Ingraham, 1999; Perry, 1995; Blackman, 1995). Does romance writing by black women (women of colour) challenge or disrupt traditional generic and normative expectations? (Barr, 2000; Charles, 1995; Nkweto-Simmonds, 1995;) (see also Squire, 2003 on ‘HIV romances’). Research is also exploring the way that romantic discourse as a western discourse is being contradictorily taken up and resisted in other post-colonial contexts, complexly negotiated with other traditional discourses of intimacy and kinship (eg. Kim, forthcoming).
Discussions of lesbian writing also explore the heterosexism of romance, and investigate the ways in which erotic discourses in the wake of HIV and AIDS may be challenging or reinscribing conventional narratives (Wilton, 1994; Griffin, 2000). One of the key questions might be 'can romance be queered?' in the way that other cultural forms (arguably) have been. This would involve not simply replacing heterosexual protagonists with homosexual ones, but, more fundamentally questioning the very binaries on which conventional romance depends (male/female, gay/straight, virgin/whore, etc) as well as the premise of fixed identity, and the idea that a declaration of monogamy represents narrative closure. It may be hard to imagine what such texts would look like but there have been a number of notable attempts to experiment with the genre e.g. Sally Potter's film Thriller, and Jeanette Winterson's novel Written on the Body.
Attempts to experiment and innovate with/in the genre have partly come about because of the growing realisation of the power of romance as a discourse. What makes it so powerful, Stevi Jackson (1995) has argued, is its narrativity or storied nature -- it is one of the most compelling discourses by which Western subjects are inscribed. Its resilience in the face of social, cultural and demographic changes that include high rates of relationship breakdown, the growth of new family forms and broader transformations of intimacy show that there is no necessary correspondence between changing patterns of sexual relations and romantic desire. In fact, rather than diminishing in importance the significance of romantic love is undergoing a rapid intensification according to Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1995). They argue that as the structures of industrial societies break down alongside an increasingly competitive labour market and rising social secularisation, traditional sources of security are disappearing fast. In this context 'romantic love is gaining ever greater significance as a "secular" religion' (1995:173). Ingraham’s (1999) research on weddings as a recession proof industry, alongside many US postings to romance discussion boards in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 would seem to affirm this reading of romance as offering a secure meta-narrative in unsettled times.
The other key to the enduring significance of romance as a discourse lies in its ability to adapt or mutate (Pearce & Stacey, 1995). It is this ongoing evolution of the romance genre that is at the heart of the current paper. Some writers have suggested that romance writers have responded to the transformations brought about by feminism by creating heroines who are more independent and assertive, more likely to be sexually experienced and more likely to work outside the home, and who are seeking more equal partnerships (Jones, 1986). Yet there has been very little empirical analysis of contemporary romantic fiction, and chick lit, in particular, seems to have been overlooked by feminist cultural analysts. This paper begins the task of analysing this new genre.