Return of the Undead: Paranormal Violence and the Horsewomen of the Apocalypse

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 29 December, 2012

In "Romance and the Female Gaze Obscuring Gendered Violence in The Twilight Saga" Jessica Taylor

initially examines the gendered violence within The Twilight Saga, considering both the physical violence that occurs, as well as the mental and emotional violence, using Evan Stark's notion of coercive control. The series is then considered as conforming to the romance genre, using the work of Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, discovering how instances of violence can be re-coded as reassuring.

Having demonstrated that "Physical abuse is not the only type of domestic violence that Bella faces; she is also subjected to psychological and emotional abuse" (4), Taylor speculates

that the inclusion of the supernatural allows the depiction of an aggressive, even monstrous, masculinity—a masculinity that feminism forbade for the ordinary human male. This otherworldliness offers a justification for behaviour that is not only unacceptable for human males to exhibit, but also unacceptable for women to desire in a society that has been influenced by feminist critique of male violence. (6-7)

She also quotes Renae Franiuk and Samantha Scherr's observation that, in The Vampire Diaries and Twilight

the vampire-boyfriends are more than one hundred years older than their human girlfriends. Therefore, both men were born when gender roles were more strictly enforced, allowing the writers to excuse any of the boyfriend’s overtly sexist behavior with a simple nod to his upbringing. (4)

I wonder if a reversion to norms of behaviour which "are unacceptable for women to desire in a society that has been influenced by feminist critique of male violence" is indicative of the strength of postfeminism, which

has emerged since the early 1990s as the dominant mode of constructing femininities in the media. Angela McRobbie understands postfeminism as “to refer to an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined”, while simultaneously appearing to be “a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism” (“Postfeminism” 255). (Heise)

According to Franka Heise, "a prevailing characteristic of postfeminism [...] is a trend towards the reclamation of conservative ideals of femininity, following the assumption that the goals of traditional feminist politics have been attained."

Whatever the reason, a reversion to these older norms perhaps explains why Taylor reverts to two romance scholars whom Pamela Regis numbers among "the Four Horsewomen of the Romance Apocalypse"

because the conclusions these critics reached about the romance novel have, indeed, entered the public consciousness as descriptors of not just the romance novels that they studied—the ones written in English in the late 1970s and early 1980s—but as characteristics of the romance novel, period.

The assumption that Radway and Modleski's descriptions of romance novels are applicable to all romance novels, from every period, is indeed galling to those of us who are aware of the variety that exists within popular romance fiction on both a book-by-book basis and in terms of general trends.

If, however, some twenty-first century romantic fictions closely resemble those of the late 1970s and early 1980s, recourse to critics such as Radway and Modleski would seem justified. For instance, although Modleski's description of Harlequin romances would not, generally, fit those written these days, it may be considered an apt summary of the power dynamics between a teenage human and an incredibly powerful, wealthy vampire who is over 100 years old, albeit in Twilight the gap between the two protagonists is even more stark than it is in the older Harlequins:

a young, inexperienced, poor to moderately well-to-do woman encounters and becomes involved with a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man, older than herself by ten to fifteen years. The heroine is confused by the hero’s behaviour since, though he is obviously interested in her, he is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, often hostile, and even somewhat brutal. By the end, however, all misunderstandings are cleared away, and the hero reveals his love for the heroine, who reciprocates. (Modleski, qtd. by Taylor, 7)


Both Modleski and Radway argue that in the genre of romance, through the violent behaviour of the male love interest, which is later revealed as a symbol of the depth of his love for the heroine, the predominantly female audience is reassured that any violence they suffer can be a precursor to happiness. [...] Radway (1984, 75) [...] explicitly argues that:

when a heroine is misunderstood, then manhandled and mistreated by the hero, then suddenly loved and cared for, the novel is informing the reader that the minor acts of violence they must contend with in their own lives can be similarly reinterpreted as the result of misunderstandings or of jealousy born of “true love.” (7)


Radway’s study (1984, 76, italics mine) [...] found that for readers of the romance genre, “violence is acceptable only if it is described sparingly, if it is controlled carefully, or if it is clearly traceable to the passion or jealousy of the hero.” (Taylor 8)

This is the pattern of justification for male violence which Taylor identifies in Twilight. Needless to say, perhaps, it is one she finds extremely problematic, as has Foz Meadows, because:

Love can be unhealthy; it can be violent, toxic, unstable and imbalanced. Simply saying “But he/she loves him/her!” neither excuses nor overrules the presence of abuse: instead, it requires us to ask why the characters care for each other in the first place, and whether or not that history is solid enough to be worth fighting for. Obviously, YMMV on this point: there’s a massive amount of leeway in terms of personal preference. But that only applies when the narrative acknowledges the problem; and in far too many instances, not only doesn’t this happen, but abuse is construed as courtship. (Meadows)


Franiuk, Renae and Samantha Scherr. "The Lion Fell in Love with the Lamb." Feminist Media Studies (2012). [Abstract]

Heise, Franka. " 'I’m a Modern Bride': On the Relationship between Marital Hegemony, Bridal Fictions, and Postfeminism." M/C Journal 15.6 (2012).

Meadows, Foz. "Smugglivus 2012 Guest Author/Blogger: Foz Meadows." The Book Smugglers. 17 December 2012.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Taylor, Jessica. "Romance and the Female Gaze Obscuring Gendered Violence in The Twilight Saga. Feminist Media Studies (2012). [Abstract]

In the older Harlequins the hero was almost always rich and/or had some position of power (usually boss) over the heroine. This power was always “softened” by the hero’s love for the heroine, when a bully morphed into prince charming. Although this was a message that abusive men only abused because they loved you so much, I think this was not a case of trying to normalize aggressive male behavior, but a result of the fact the authors had grown up in a culture where the ability to dominate women and other patriarchal subordinates and a “macho” hero could demonstrate his virility to the reader by dominating the heroine. I think culture begins to change first, then the cultural messages begin to change as a response to (and a chance to reinforce) the new paradigm.

the hero was almost always rich and/or had some position of power (usually boss) over the heroine

I have a feeling that Modleski may also have mentioned that this is a pattern which goes back a long, long way. Samuel Richardson's Mr B in Pamela was richer than Pamela and he was her boss. He's also a bully and a would-be-rapist who morphs into a "prince charming." Mr Rochester's not quite so bad, but he's older than Jane Eyre and is also her boss. I don't think most people would argue that those books were attempting "to normalize aggressive/dominant male behavior" but they've got similar power dynamics to the Harlequins discussed by the horsewomen of the apocalypse.

With romantic fiction, as with cultures, there are usually different masculine types which (a) co-exist and (b) appeal to different authors and readers. So a writer like Violet Winspear (with her heroes who were "capable of rape") can be publishing at the same time as a writer like Betty Neels (who mostly wrote about large Dutch doctors who reorganise the heroine's life but don't give her a clue about their feelings until almost the last page). There do seem to be fashions to these things too (like the many publishers who're now trying to publish books which they hope will appeal to readers of Fifty Shades). And then, as you say, there's cultural change.

the end result would indeed be a trend toward normalization via cultural messaging

Yes, I take your point: authorial intent (or lack of it) may shape, but can't determine, the outcomes a text will have.

I don't really understand the appeal of aggressive/dominant male heroes, so I've no idea what they do for other readers.

Though it's been quite a while since I read them, I prefer Anne Bronte's novels (Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) to Charlotte's Jane Eyre, and much prefer that to Wuthering Heights. The Tenant has a lot to say about male agression (and it's not depicted at all positively).