religion-faith

Romance and Religion: Opiates of the People?

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 22 October, 2012

The RWA revises its definition of the romance novel from time to time, but it used to state, among other things, that

Romance novels end in a way that makes the reader feel good. Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice -- the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

This isn't quite a promise of eternal life with a God who is love but there is, as Bridget Fowler has observed, “a parallel with religion, to which the romance bears strong resemblance [...] religion is [...] the plane on which the masses express their true material and social needs [...] the romance is also the ‘heart of a heartless world’” (174-75). Fowler is quoting here from Karl Marx, who stated that “The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression of and a protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (131). David Margolies, too, uses parts of this quotation from Marx in order to describe romances: “As in Marx’s description of religion as an opiate and the heart of a heartless world, the romance offers escape from an oppressive reality, or justifies it as a vale of tears that women pass through to salvation” (12).

Fowler notes that “Gramsci was [...] the first to extend to mass culture the Marxist analysis of religion as an opiate, later to be followed by Brecht, who referred cynically to the culture industry as ‘a branch of the capitalist narcotics industry’” (31). With specific reference to Mills & Boon romances, Alan Boon once acknowledged that “It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels” (McAleer 2) and “the assumption that Harlequins are ‘addictive’ [...] has been frequently stated by representatives of the company” (Jensen 41). Tania Modleski analysed the supposed effects of consuming this addictive product:

Harlequins, in presenting a heroine who has escaped psychic conflicts, inevitably increase the reader’s own psychic conflicts, thus creating an even greater dependency on the literature. This lends credence to the [...] commonly accepted theory of popular art as narcotic. As medical researchers are now discovering, certain tranquilizers taken to relieve anxiety are, though temporarily helpful, ultimately anxiety-producing. The user must constantly increase the dosage of the drug in order to alleviate problems aggravated by the drug itself. (57)

Theresa L. Ebert also draws parallels between religion and romance novels, but rather than drawing on Marx's metaphor of opium addiction, she turns to Hegel:

Religion as a mode of thinking, what Hegel calls ‘picture-thinking’ (Vorstellung), is the global logic of the popular. Both religion and the popular render the unseen, the immaterial, the abstract as sensuous, material, and individual – the ‘Word made flesh’ – through ‘picture-thinking’. According to Hegel, ‘the reality enclosed within religion’ and, I would argue, within the popular, ‘is the shape and the guise of its picture-thinking’. The ‘guise’ of reality in ‘picture-thinking’, whether religious or popular, is an inverted reality and through its sensuous, particular, imagining, produces an inverted consciousness.

She adds that

Like religion, popular texts explain the material by the immaterial and substitute a change of heart in the subject for the material transformation of objective conditions. Popular texts such as women’s romances and chick lit, in other words, re-orient the subject but leave intact the objective social conditions in which she lives. They do this by supplanting social justice and economic equality with love, intimacy, and caring. The affective is inverted into the material and the material into the affective.

The importance the RWA's definition gives to "emotional justice," would seem to provide support for this view of popular romances. However, the very parallel drawn by Ebert and others between religion and romance novels suggests that that it is not inevitable that romances should ignore the "material transformation of objective conditions."  For instance,

Liberation theology emerged as part of a broad effort to rethink the meaning of religious experience and the role the Catholic church ought to play in society and politics. The poor are central to these efforts, but not in the traditional sense of objects of charity or of hope for a better life after death. The idea that the poor shall inherit the earth takes on more immediate and activist tones, with concrete efforts to enhance the role of poor people as legitimate participants in religion, society and politics. Institutions, the Church included, were urged not only to help, speak for, and defend poor people, but also to trust and empower them, providing tools of organization and a moral vocabulary that made activism and equality both legitimate and possible. (Levine)

and

The central importance to Friends [Quakers] of the Testimony of Equality is exemplified by their corollary theological belief in "that of God in everyone." The idea that everyone has at least potential access to God’s leadings was a radical declaration of theological equality when first formulated by [George] Fox. It has since gone on to play a defining role in the history of Quakerism. The principle of equality is manifested, for instance, in the recognition and status accorded to the rights and gifts of women from the very earliest incarnations of the Quaker movement. To a group of people who held that women no more have souls than does a goose, Fox countered with the words of Mary, who said that: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour" (Fox, The Journal, 1646-7, pg. 11). In the following century, the Testimony of Equality led Friends to free their slaves and assume leading roles in calling for the abolition of slavery. By the time of the American Revolution, it had become plausible to declare the fundamental equality of all human beings to be a self-evident truth; though it would still take centuries for this truth to be fully enacted in the laws of the land. (Earlham School of Religion)

African-American romance author Beverly Jenkins sees her work as having both a political and a religious dimension:

it seems like that it’s been my ministry—tap, tap, tap on the shoulder—to do that, to bring that 19th century to life in a way that people can access it, people can be proud of who they were, and still see the struggle in a real light—you know, a real light, so that it’s not glossed over.

As Rita B. Dandridge has written, "Black women's historical romances document race as a social and political construct that is anchored to a systemic body of laws based on color difference, privileging whites over blacks" (5-6).

In For Love and Money I was very focused on reading romances as literature (as opposed to "trash") and therefore didn't have spend much time examining their implicit (and occasionally explicit) politics. It's something I'd like to look at more closely in future.

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Dandridge, Rita B. Black Women's Activism: Reading African American Women's Historical Romances. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Earlham School of Religion. "The Quaker Testimonies."

Ebert,Teresa L. "Hegel's “picture-thinking” as the Interpretive Logic of the Popular." Textual Practice. iFirst Article (2012). [Abstract]

Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

Jenkins, Beverly. "Jenkins on History." Transcript downloaded from The Popular Romance Project.

Jensen, Margaret Ann. Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story. Toronto: Women’s Educational P., 1984.

Levine, Daniel H. "The Future of Liberation Theology." The Journal of the International Institute 2.2 (1995).

Margolies, David. “Mills & Boon: Guilt Without Sex.” Red Letters 14 (1982-83): 5-13.

Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.” Trans. Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley. Critique of Hegel’s “Philosphy of Right.” Ed. Joseph O’Malley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970. 129-142.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. New York: Routledge, 1990.

RWA, "Romance Novels - What Are They?" 8 July 2007. Preserved by the Internet Archive.

 

The image was created on the 23 February 2012 at the Städtmuseum in Trier by Antonio Ponte (saigneurdeguerre) and made available under a Creative Commons licence at Flickr.

Im-PAIR-ment

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 20 September, 2012

Mary observes of Tim, “It was almost as if he lived within her mind as an entity quite distinct from his real being” (73). When Danny kisses Amanda, “It was as though a missing piece of the puzzle was put back in place. He was a part of her” (71). Jesse remarks of Althea, “Truly, it was like she was inside him” (149), while Daniel lauds Jenny, “She was more than beside him: She was in him, the best part of his heart” (41). Ian Mackenzie likewise “dissolves” into Beth (217); when they kiss, his inner monologue expresses the desire “to pull her inside him, or himself inside her. If he could be part of her, everything would be all right. He would be well” (214). (133)

According to Emily M. Baldys these quotes are instances of an

oddly consistent metaphoric trope in which able-bodied characters are represented as incorporating disabled characters, literally and metaphorically taking disabled characters inside themselves. I contend that the trope of romantic incorporation is motivated by the threatening potential of disabled sexuality and used [...] to enact the bodily containment of threat. (133)

I'm not so sure. As Baldys admits, in the third example "Morsi’s phrasing places the able-bodied character inside the disabled character instead of the other way around" (133). More significantly, the "trope of romantic incorporation" is one I've seen frequently in novels in which both characters are able-bodied. Here's an example from Carol Arens' Renegade Most Wanted (2012):

If it had been possible for a woman's soul to flow out of her body and into a man, that's the way it would happen. If not for the constraints of the flesh, she would be right there, inside Matt's heart. (317)

A very short while later the "romantic incorporation" is reversed and made literal as "He slipped inside her" (318) and

he rocked against her womb. A wave crashed inside her. It washed pleasure from the point of their joining to her clenching fingers, then tumbled to the tips of her toes.

Maybe flesh was no barrier to souls after all.

Hadn't her wedding vows declared that the two shall become one flesh? (318-19)

I think passages describing "romantic incorporation" can perhaps be explained by extrapolating a little from some of the ideas Baldys outlined earlier in her essay.

Compulsory heterosexuality—the ideology that positions heterosexuality as a default, biologically derived identity and enforces its normalcy through pervasive cultural mechanisms—has been a common idiom in queer and feminist studies since 1980, when Adrienne Rich published her influential essay coining the term. More recently, scholars writing within disability studies have proposed an analogous conception to Rich’s formative idea. “Compulsory able-bodiedness” is an ideology that positions able-bodiedness as the default position and bolsters itself through cultural forms that represent ability as original, authentic, and normal. This concept, as theorized by Alison Kafer and Robert McRuer, posits a complex interrelationship between heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. Kafer explains that heterosexuality is threatened by disability’s associations with deviance, while able-bodiedness is threatened by the relationship of queerness to illness and medicalization (81–82). Thus, the two ideologies are “entwined” (in McRuer’s terminology) and “imbricated” (in Kafer’s) such that each is contingent on the other: the default heterosexual subject is necessarily able-bodied, and the default able-bodied subject is necessarily heterosexual. (127)

The "trope of romantic incorporation" seems to suggest that there is a third ideology entwined with the other two. Catherine Roach has observed that

To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites.

Given that these narratives are "increasingly not exclusively [...] heterosexual," I think they cannot simply be described as a part of "compulsory heterosexuality." Rather, they perhaps indicate the existence of what one might term "compulsory coupledom" which often, but not always, complements "compulsory heterosexuality" and "compulsory able-bodiedness" and which should at times be analysed separately from them.

According to Bella M. DePaulo and Wendy L. Morris

A widespread form of bias has slipped under our cultural and academic radar. People who are single are targets of singlism: negative stereotypes and discrimination. Compared to married or coupled people, who are often described in very positive terms, singles are assumed to be immature, maladjusted, and self-centered. (251)

Given that romances always feature "individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work" who "are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love" (RWA), it would seem likely that romances could be seen as a "cultural mechanism" which helps to enforce "compulsory coupledom." Certainly Kyra Kramer and I observed a pattern in many romances in which becoming part of a couple completes/perfects the "Phallus" of the romance hero:

“Phallus” refers to the socio-political body which expresses aspects of masculinity associated with the Father, such as authority, the capacity to administer punishment, and the ability to love and care for those under his protection. If a full range of Phallic traits is evinced by a hero then his socio-political body is a Completed Phallus.

At the beginning of a romance novel, however, most heroes have Incomplete Phalluses. Such heroes tend to demonstrate authoritarian or aggressive aspects of Phallic masculinity, including “the threat of violence, the law-giving nature, the ownership of the world, a power vested in physical presence” (Cook 154), and few of the softer qualities, such as care-giving. In a romance in which the Incomplete Phallus displays many of the negative characteristics of men in patriarchal culture, the hero of the romance can also be “its villain, a potent symbol of all the obstacles life presents to women” (Phillips 57). [...]

The feminine equivalent of the Phallus is the socio-political body we shall term the Prism [...]. Even though a romance heroine’s Prism is initially incomplete, it nonetheless focuses her hero’s powers, enabling his Incomplete Phallus to fulfil its potential in a socially acceptable manner and become a Completed Phallus.

Becoming part of a couple also completes/perfects the heroine's Prism.

There are, of course, romances which do not follow this pattern and in any case I would not wish to suggest that all romances imply that the unpartnered are incomplete: the protagonists of romance are sometimes depicted in contexts which include happily-single secondary characters. Nonetheless, the extent to which such contexts can mitigate the focus on the achievement of a romantic relationship is limited because, by definition, a romance has to prioritise the depiction of the central couple (or occasionally threesome or more).

Baldys states that the "demands of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness" are "intertwined" (127); it appears they may also be intertwined with compulsory coupledom:

never-married men do run the risk of being labelled 'queers', 'fairies' or 'queens'.

In an analysis of Australian attitudes, Penman and Stolk (1983) found that single women were described as unfulfilled, incomplete, unattractive, and less happy than married women" (Callan and Noller 97, emphasis added)

The idea that single people are "incomplete" evidently has a long history, for Plato's Symposium contains a tale in which it is explained that "the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love" and that it came about because

the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

These early humans attacked the gods and as a punishment Zeus declared that he would "cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers." According to this myth, all humans are incomplete, and when we fall in love it is because we seek to become whole once more. Obviously the story is not one which can be taken at all seriously but there is nonetheless a

tendency to refer to marriage as a union of two persons into oneness [which] often prompts married people to refer to their spouse as their "other half" or "better half". Unfortunately, it gives rise to the idea that an unmarried person must be fractured, being only half of a whole.

Therefore, the implication is that we must go about looking for another person to provide completion to our being. In other words, a person who is unmarried is incomplete as a person and has less than a full existence than a married person has. (Yeo 11-12)

In romance novels, the formation of a couple sometimes accompanies the curing of disabilities. Baldys notes that

One strain of ableist fantasy suggests that cognitive disability can be “overcome” in one way or another through the extraordinary power of heterosexual relationships. Simi Linton identifies such an “overcoming rhetoric” as one of the clichés that structure dominant meanings and response patterns assigned to disability. “The idea that someone can overcome a disability,” she writes, implies “personal triumph over a personal condition.” Linton argues that this idea is not a concept native to the disability community, but rather “a wish fulfillment generated from the outside” (165). This wish-fulfilling fantasy, in romance novels, finds expression in a process of narrative rehabilitation through which the effects of disability are represented as mitigated or overcome by the characters’ blossoming love. (Baldys 134)

Although I've not read the novel Baldys gives as an example of "the most extreme (and credulity-straining) measures to rehabilitate disability" (134), I've come across a number of romances in which blind protagonists regain their sight as well as novels in which previously infertile protagonists become pregnant or father children. Deborah Chappel has observed the transformations which occur in LaVyrle Spencer's novels and argues that

the changes in Spencer's protagonists (regularization of speech, dimming of freckles, development of healthy-looking bodies) are sometimes so pronounced that it seems inner, emotional reality has the power to improve the material world. Love, and the hope love engenders, operate as forces in the world. [...] Thus, in The Gamble Agatha's limp becomes less and less pronounced and she is able to achieve the three seemingly impossible wishes she expressed in the opening chapters: she can dance, swim, and ride a horse. (110)

Baldys believes that the depictions of disability in romances differ "from depictions in canonical literature, where disability has traditionally functioned as a 'cipher of metaphysical or divine significance' (Quayson 17)" (138) but I'm not so sure that this is the case. As Catherine Roach has observed, "The story of romance is the most powerful narrative in Western art and culture, sharing roots with Christianity and functioning as a mythic story about the meaning and purpose of life, particularly in regards to the HEA ending of redemption and wholeness."

Perhaps in romances the curing of protagonists' disabilities, which takes to a new and literal level the metaphorical use of words suggesting that love makes a person whole/completes them, serves as a kind of secular miracle bearing witness to the power of love (and compulsory coupledom, compulsory heterosexuality and compusory able-bodiedness)  by implying that when a man is united to his wife, not only are they "no more twain, but one flesh" (Matthew 19; 6) but that sometimes, in addition, "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk" (Matthew 11:5).

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Arens, Carol. Renegade Most Wanted. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2012.

Baldys, Emily M. "Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.2 (2012), 125–141.

Callan, Victor J. and Patricia Noller. Marriage and the Family. North Ryde, NSW: Methuen, 1987.

Chappel, Deborah K. "LaVyrle Spencer and the Anti-Essentialist Argument." Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997), 107-120.

DePaulo, Bella M. and Wendy L. Morris. "The Unrecognized Stereotyping and Discrimination against Singles." Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.5 (2006), 251-254.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive.

Roach, Catherine. "Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

RWA. "About the Romance Genre."

Vivanco, Laura, and Kyra Kramer. “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre”, Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

Yeo, Anthony. Partners in Life: Your Guide to Lasting Marriage. Singapore: Armour, 1999.

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The image of a dovetail joint comes via Flickr where it was made available under a Creative Commons licence by Jordanhill School D&T Dept.