Part II - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on

Continued from Part I. In this post I'm summarising the following 3 papers:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change


Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.


Amy's the Book Review editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and her Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

A few days before the conference Amy gave a few teasers for her paper on Twitter:


When the @natlibscot lets you have a whole trolley full of @MillsandBoon novels to consult #research #amwriting pic.twitter.com/axH9p6mQc3

— Amy Burge (@dramyburge) 17 May 2016

Today mainly involves a huge spreadsheet in which I've tried to turn words into numbers and hopefully answers #Quantitative #Literature

— Amy Burge (@dramyburge) 30 May 2016

As these suggest, Amy's been doing quantitative research on a huge corpus of romances. I'm not sure quite how many romances it was, but it looked to be in the hundreds, at least, given that Amy was looking at 10 or more years' worth of novels in a line which publishes around 8 books every month. In the course of the research for her recent book Amy collected a lot of data on the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern/Sexy line's heroes. In this paper she revealed some of the findings which didn't make it into her book.

This "line" of romances promises readers "glamorous international settings" and Mills & Boon say that "Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Sheikh, Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American...wherever he's from, it's certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes!"

Clearly the line provides a rich source of primary material relating to masculinity, race and ethnicity because the heroes embody hegemonic masculinity i.e. the current most honoured way of being a man. This masculinity is both performative (it is shown in what the heroes do) and normative (in that it sets a standard by which other men can be judged). Hegemonic masculinity is an idealised version of masculinity and it's hierarchical because it marginalises some masculinities while elevating others.

In this context, it's interesting to note that although, as Edward Said observed, Western orientalism associated oriental masculinity with feminine penetrability, the Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh exhibits hegemonic masculinity.

Given that the majority of the authors in this line are from the UK, North America or Australasia and the line promises exotic, international settings, it's perhaps not surprising that 61% of the heroes in the corpus are not from those countries.

Italian heroes appear to the most popular, followed by Greeks, sheikhs, Spanish, Latin American, Mediterranean (either unspecified or invented countries) and Russians. The popularity of certain nationalities has fluctuated, however. For example, in more recent years Spaniards have declined in popularity while Latin Americans have increased in number. Russian heroes emerged in 2008. There were, however, no African or East Asian heroes at all.

The titles of these novels also reveal interesting trends. They usually reflect aspects of the hero's cultural identity (mainly his nationality) and profession (if you can call being a prince of a billionaire a "profession"). Interestingly, while it is common for it to be signalled in the title when a hero is a sheikh, this is not so likely to happen for Russians. Russians (and Latin Americans) are more likely to be described as ruthless, dark or devilish in the titles while the words "Greek" and "tycoon" are often found together.

Within the covers of the novels sheikhs are often described using metaphors and similies relating to the desert and dangerous desert creatures such as birds of prey and big cats. Harems are often mentioned in order to establish the hero's cultural tradition of masculine sexual dominance. In a nod to the feminine connotations of the orient, the authors may mention the hero's "robes" but immediately assert that they increase, or at least do nothing to minimise, his powerful masculinity.

The number of heroes from India is very small (only 3 novels) so it is more difficult to generalise about them. Susanna Carr's Secrets of a Bollywood Marriage (2014) and one of the other novels were both described by readers as having less alpha/dominant heroes than usual in this line.

We speculated about reasons for the trends in particular nationalities' popularity, including 9/11 and economic crises. This led well into the topic of the next paper.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Even though her "doctoral research concerns a highly respected eighteenth-century poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)" Val has argued at a "conference, hosted by the University of Cambridge ‘CRASSH’ (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) [...] entitled Art/Money/Crisis" that romance author Penny "Jordan’s novels illustrate her understanding of the sense of powerlessness losing financial independence has and how it affects her characters/ordinary people in society" (see the blog post here).

Today Val looked at a range of novels by Penny Jordan and then at Roberta Leigh's Man Without a Heart. demonstrating that Mills & Boon romances could be used by researchers as social barometers which offer information about the times in which they were written and reflect the concerns of ordinary women, offering insight into fashion, fears of financial crises, terrorism, and industrial relations. Man Without a Heart, for example, features a secondary character (the heroine's uncle) who is a trade unionist and the novel highlights the divide between London's social elites and the working classes.

More about Val's history of romance reading, and details of Penny Jordan's role as social barometer can be found here.

Although it's still relatively unusual for romances to be read and used in this way, Val and a handful of other researchers have demonstrated that romances can be fruitful primary sources for historians and others investigating social history. I've summarised Professor Tom Baum's romance-based research into representations of the airline industry here and Joseph McAleer has argued that "the new 'Doctor-Nurse' novels first published by Mills & Boon in the 1950s [...] reinforced a positive view of the NHS among middle- and working-class readers".

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

Ali describes herself as a "Freelance editor, journalist and academic. Specialisms include #IntersectionalRomances, #StrongRomanceHeroines and #AdaptationandAppropriation". She's an editor of the Pink Heart Society blog, where Harlequin Mills & Boon authors from a wide range of lines post about their books, inspirations and work-lives. That puts her in contact with a lot of authors and when she asked some of them what they thought about social issues in romance almost all of them said that romance could deal with them and one even stated that it was irresponsible for authors not to address them.

Perhaps as a result, Ali works on the assumption that "the death of the author" has been much exaggerated and in her research into the social issues addressed in Harlequin Mills & Boon romances she's very interested in authorial intent, as often revealed in "Dear Reader" letters which appear before the title page. She believes it's a powerful experience for readers to be addressed directly by authors, as Tara Tylor Quinn does in Husband by Choice and Once a Family.

Romance authors approach social issues with the guarantee of a happy ending providing a safety net which reassures readers that the issues can be dealt with and the obstacles to happiness overcome. Tara Taylor Quinn, who has herself experienced domestic violence, does so in her Where Secrets are Safe series, set in a woman's shelter called The Lemonade Stand. In one novel it is revealed that the hero has been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his now ex-wife. In another an abused secondary character is helped by the protagonists.

Ali has now begun The CatRom Project as an online "exploration of the way in which category romances address and engage with social issues." [Edited to add: Ali's now put the whole of her paper online at the CatRom Project.]

Data Mining Harlequin Presents

By Laura Vivanco on

Jack Elliott uses technology to analyse novels. His methods are therefore extremely different from mine and I find it very interesting to see how new, computer-based methods of analysing novels in bulk can complement more traditional kinds of literary criticism.

Elliott's methods allowed him to study "every Harlequin Presents novel published from 1999 to 2013—all 1,400 digitally available novels" ("Whole" 2) and he found that

authorship is the elemental organizing principle of the genre. This is surprising given the centrifugal forces exerted on authorship, but these—heavy editorial intervention, mini-series that share settings between authors and sub-genres—fail to find traction in the face of this powerful tendency. ("Whole" 2-3)

In other words, even the Presents line, which is perhaps one of the most stylized of all category lines and "constrain[s] authors in terms of setting, genre, and length [...] allows a huge variation in authorial ‘voice’ " ("Whole" 5):

Authorship overwhelms distinctions of editorial control, mini-series, and sub-genre, pulling novels into authorial groups. This validates the behavior of readers who seek out writing by their favourite authors, and the publishing decisions of Harlequin itself; the publisher reissues omnibus works by particular authors. ("Whole" 6)

He was also able to track certain changes chronologically across the line. For example,

Vivanco’s study of Harlequin Presents from 2000 to 2007 identifies two sorts of hero—the ‘primitive’ (Vivanco, 2013, p. 1068), who has to be tamed by the heroine, and another in which the hero ‘is not sexist, a fact which may astonish a heroine who is prepared for him to think and act like the heroes in the first group’ (Vivanco, 2013, pp. 1073–4). Intriguingly, the primitive hero who must be tamed is more likely to be associated with rage, contempt or cynicism—all flagged by modules that decline in importance from 2004 onwards. It seems that Vivanco’s primitives have reached their zenith and contemporary Harlequin Presents novels are more likely to be of the second category. ("Whole" 9)

He suggests that changes such as this reflect Harlequin's response when

a financial shock impacts Harlequin’s bottom line. At that point, the publisher alters the content of the novels by retasking some authors and redeploying others. ("Whole" 10).

Presumably with regards to hero types, in 2004 when there was such a "financial shock", "which caused Harlequin’s management team to ‘reinvigorate our series romances’" ("Whole" 3), Harlequin identified "changes in taste" ("Whole" 10) (or, perhaps, was seeking new readers from a different demographic?) and implemented changes in "the content of the novels":

Harlequin’s control is realized through its authors. This control exerts itself even within authorial clusters: most writers demonstrate a division in their pre and post 2004 work. Changes within the genre are not directly driven by external cultural events; the proximate cause of these shifts is poor financial results at Harlequin. ("Whole" 13)

While Elliott's techniques are extremely good at identifying trends, the discussion about Harlequin's responses to financial shocks indicates that technology alone cannot identify the causes of those trends.

In another recently published article, Elliott suggests more than one possible explanation for his finding that

As a typical Harlequin Presents novel progresses, the working vocabulary contracts. This phenomenon, a sort of ‘vocabulary decay’, is driven by either the rapid speed of composition or the popular nature of the genre. Tight economic conditions imposed by Harlequin place a premium on the rapid completion of a novel. In this model, writers make their language less and less unique as they hurry through their novel, jettisoning vocabulary variation as they go. Vocabulary decay may also be a deliberate strategy to maintain a rapid narrative pace. Words that obscure understanding, or are potentially difficult are metered down by the author as they seek to keep their readership engaged. ("Vocabulary" 2)

My feeling is that "vocabulary decay" sounds rather pejorative and suggests that authors' attention to detail and word-choice declines as they rush through their writing to reach their deadline.

I'd favour the interpretation of the findings which gives more credit to authors' artistry. What I'd suggest is that it has something to do with a factor Elliott himself mentions: a tendency to set the scene at the beginning of the novels. Once the characters and their setting are firmly fixed in the readers' minds, however, I suspect that the novel focuses ever more closely on the protagonists' emotions as part of a "deliberate strategy to maintain a rapid narrative pace" and keep a reader turning the pages all the way to the end. These are, after all, short novels and, as Presents author Kate Walker has written, it is essential that each of them "grabs the reader and holds them with that vital PTQ  - Page Turning Quality" (1); "Pace is vital to reader interest and to the PTQ that you are trying to create" (134).

My impression is that PTQ created by a narrowing of the focus onto the romance's emotional core is particularly common in the Presents line. That's not to say that other lines don't have PTQ or that they don't focus on emotions, but I think it may be created in different ways and to different extents in other lines. For example, in a medical romance, some of the suspense may be created by patients' medical issues, in romantic suspense it'll be provided in large part by a mystery which needs to be solved. Some lines, such as the longer Superromances and Historicals often proceed at a more leisurely pace. I'd be intrigued to know if they, too, experience "vocabulary decay" and, if so, whether they do so to a lesser extent than the Presents.



Elliott, Jack. “Vocabulary Decay in Category Romance”, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Advance Access published December 8, 2014.

Elliott, Jack. “Whole Genre Sequencing”, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Advance Access published September 3, 2015.

Walker, Kate. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008.

Sleepless Masculinity

By Laura Vivanco on

Wakefulness as a measure of masculinity is a facet of the history of gender in America that has received no attention at all. Recent gender studies have pursued many facets of male experience and identity, often fixing on dramatic expressions such as extreme muscularity and myriad forms of aggression. But mundane manly stamina, as displayed by persevering through long days or nights on the job, has thus far gained little notice. Fulfilling the familiar male breadwinner role entailed a daily dedication to struggle to maintain consciousness as a basic test of strength. For many American men, winning bread meant losing sleep. (Derickson x)

Now that I think about it, I'm fairly sure that one can find sleeplessness as a marker of masculinity in romance novels too because I have a feeling there are quite a lot of heroes who sleep relatively little. I'll certainly be trying to spot examples in the future. What about Edward, in Twilight, who famously spends a lot of time watching Bella sleep? Of course, he's an immortal vampire. For mortals, as Derickson notes,

Although not as self-evident as the link between somnolence and accidents, the role of sleep loss in producing chronic disease has been established by researchers for numerous disorders. These include ulcers and other gastrointestinal ailments, depression and other psychiatric conditions, heart attacks and other forms of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and other metabolic disturbances. Some evidence links short sleep to elevated rates of cancer. (xii)

Romance novels can reflect concerns about overwork/lack of sleep too: there are heroines who're concerned about heroes who seem tired and overworked.

I can also recall scenes in which a heroine thinks that her hero looks touchingly vulnerable and boyish when he's asleep. Those scenes would seem to affirm the association between sleeplessness and masculinity, but in a way which perhaps suggests that where there is love, there is no need for constant masculine vigilance. I'm reminded of the story of Samson:

One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.”

But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah. The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels[a] of silver.”  [...]

she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16, NIV)

Samson and Delilah

Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: U of Pennsylvania P, 2014.

Image of "Samson and Dalila" by Francesco Morone via Wikimedia Commons.

A Tip on Writing Romance Heroes

By Laura Vivanco on

One of the sections in Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance stresses the importance of


Perfection isn't totally appealing. It can be scary. It can be unbelievable. It can seem inhuman. It can be just too much. [...]

Why especially for the hero?

So why is that vulnerability so vital - especially in a hero? As I've said, the alpha male is strong, powerful, forceful, dynamic and successful  [...]. But at heart he's just a human being. (109)

One of Sally Wentworth's heroines throws a bit more light on the topic:

she would probably never have fallen in love with him if she hadn't seen his bad leg and realised his vulnerability. Before she had been half afraid of him; he was so different from herself that he might almost have come from another world, not only of class and background, but of confidence and experience; he was a man in every sense of the word [...]. But the fact that he was vulnerable to pain, to frustration, to life, had brought him down to a level where she could fall head over heels in love with him. (146)


Walker, Kate. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008.

Wentworth, Sally. Man for Hire. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1982.

The illustration is of Achilles, from The World's Famous Orations, Vol. 1 (via Wikimedia Commons).

Jumping Between Genres

By Laura Vivanco on

The latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture came out a few days ago and although none of the articles were directly about romance, quite a few of them have some relevance to it. For example, Kirk Combe begins his article about the "bourgeois rake" in rom-coms by stating that

The comedic character of the rake—fundamentally, a playboy—originates in seventeenth-century aristocratic drama. There, he tends to be a notoriously appealing figure. He is a patrician roué who wields tremendous social power, and he does so effortlessly, carelessly. The rake is a hard fellow to resist, either in the sense of to forbear or to foil. He represents the alpha male of his society. For an audience, the comic entertainment is wholly conditional on watching this man obtain whatever it is he wants, which is always a pretty young woman and heaps of money (though not necessarily in that order, and sometimes heaps of pretty young women are involved as well). In short, the rake is a blueblood libertine who specializes in fashionable imbibing and swiving, and his wages for these sins are nothing less than absolute success. By the end of the play, he has bagged the rich, beautiful, and (sometimes) clever heiress, all the while behaving completely selfishly and all the while remaining the apple of everyone’s eye. The audience should hate to love him. The rake is little more than a ruthless pleasure/power-seeker using his status and privilege to increase his status and privilege. (338)

He was replaced, for a time, by the "man of sentiment [who] represents everything that the satirical and egoistic aristocratic rake is not" (343). However,

audiences still enjoyed seeing élan and something of the romantic chase. Here is born the bourgeois rake. He will mix old-fashioned wit and sex appeal with new-fashioned sentimentality. Any trace of sexual predation and sardonic acumen in him will be tempered and, in the end, tamed by true love and marriage. In the bourgeois rake, the former aristocratic roué will metamorphose into a nimble young man with a proclivity for clever free enterprise. Like his predecessor, though, he will still domineer in matters of money, gender, and mental dexterity. (344)

By the "second half of the eighteenth century [...] the middle-class ideal of a financially secure marriage of true love has supplanted entirely the cynicism and sexual laxity of earlier aristocratic comedy" (345) and the bourgeois rake can, Combe argues, still be found in many modern rom-coms. He believes that

inspecting most what we are meant to think about least is a productive exercise. Whether produced on the early modern stage or in current-day film, comedy is a genre not only presenting the jollity of love, marriage, and, by extension, sexual reproduction, but also depicting the business of social reproduction. Power is always at issue in comedy, notwithstanding its being mixed with and obscured by the pleasures and hijinks of romance. (355)

Given that Pamela Regis has described popular romance as "a subgenre of comedy" (16) and that in historical romances the rake continues to survive as "a patrician roué who wields tremendous social power, and he does so effortlessly, carelessly," albeit one who, like the "bourgeois rake" will be "tamed by true love and marriage," this article also raises questions about power in romance novels.

Srijani Ghosh draws parallels between chick lit and romance:

In her Reading the Romance (1984), an ethnographic study of female readers of romance novels, Janice Radway illustrates how women, mostly housewives, use romance reading to control their identities and pleasures within the limits of patriarchal society. She calls this “compensatory literature” (Radway 95) for the romance readers, and Colin Campbell refers to this vicarious pleasure as “a kind of emotional and imaginative decadence” (Campbell 176). The chick lit novel, the newest offshoot of the traditional romance novel and a genre aimed at young, urban, female professionals functions as a similar form of compensatory literature. The protected fictional world of the chick lit novel allows the readers to enjoy this “imaginative decadence,” and Confessions of a Shopaholic serves as a kind of necessary compensation because they know that at least their fictional alter ego might escape unscathed from any consumerist overindulgence which they would be penalized for in real life. (392)

And I'll close with a quote from Tison Pugh's article about mysteries which relates to all forms of "genre fiction":

As with many binary divisions, the privileging of literature over genre fiction reflects ideological biases rather than intrinsic truths. Contrary to its purportedly inferior status to literature, genre fiction is an exuberant field encompassing a diverse array of subgenres. Joyce Saricks taxonomizes genre fiction into four primary categories, each of which includes several subheadings: adrenaline genres (adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, thrillers), emotions genres (gentle reads, horror, romance, women’s lives, and relationships), intellect genres (literary fiction, mysteries, psychological suspense, science fiction), and landscape genres (fantasy, historical fiction, westerns) (vii). Saricks’s taxonomy is useful for considering how both genre fiction and literature resist efforts of categorization, as she upends the traditional binary of high and low culture by including literary fiction as a subcategory of genre fiction. (414-15)


Combe, Kirk. "Bourgeois Rakes in Wedding Crashers: Feudal to Neo-Liberal Articulations in Modern Comedic Discourse." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 338–357. [Excerpt]

Ghosh, Srijani. "Res Emptito Ergo Sum: Fashion and Commodity Fetishism in Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 378-393. [Excerpt]

Pugh, Tison. "Chaucer in Contemporary Mystery Novels: A Case Study in Genre Fiction, Low-Cultural Allusions, and the Pleasure of Derivative Forms." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 411–432. [Excerpt]

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Definitions from the (as yet unpublished) Dictionary of Popular Romance English

By Laura Vivanco on


Marriage: noun

There were those who said that the luster went from a marriage before one year was over and that all but the legal and ecclesiastical bonds were dead within seven years. (Balogh 362)

A romance heroine, on the other hand, will muse after seven years of marriage that

She did not suppose it was possible that she was more in love [...] now than she had been seven years ago [...]. That would be to insult what they had felt for each other when they married. But it was certainly true that she was as much in love. It was also true that the quality of her love had deepened. She knew him now in almost every way one human being could know another. Almost every way. No one could ever know absolutely everything there was to know about another, of course, and if it were possible it would not be desirable, because there should always be more to discover, always something new to surprise and delight. (Balogh 362-63)

Rake: noun

I believe the word rake needs to be defined [...] Or at least it needs to be established what a rake is not. As I understand it [...] the hero of Pamela is not a rake at all, for it seems he tried on a number of occasions to take Pamela's virtue by force and quite against her will. That man is an out-and-out villain, who ought not to be dignified with the name of rake. A rake, though capable of all sorts of wild, debauched, silly behavior, is still first and foremost a gentleman. And a gentleman never ever deprives a woman - and I speak not just of ladies - of her virtue against her will. [...] A rake may never be reformed [...] for most men believe it is a manly thing to be and something to which their gender entitles them. But they are not villainous for all that. Or, if they are, then they have put themselves beyond the pale of mere rakishness. (Balogh 297-98)

Seven-year-itch: noun. See Marriage.

Smell-that-is-uniquely-his: noun

Perhaps it was sweat, but who would have thought that sweat could smell so gloriously enticing? (Balogh 317)


Balogh, Mary. The Secret Mistress. London: Piatkus, 2011.


The image of dictionary indents was created by Minh Nguyễn and made available at Wikimedia Commons for use under the terms of a GNU Free Documentation License.

Alpha Males and Edible Mates

By Laura Vivanco on

As Heather Schell has noted,

Evolutionary psychology has popularized the notion that men’s everyday behavior can be better understood by comparison to the habits of large mammals—most especially the more aggressive of the primates—living in patriarchal, aggressive societies. [...] Our cultural fictions have embraced this narrative wholeheartedly but changed the comparison to more charismatic megafauna: dogs and wolves. (109-110)

Popular romance fiction has certainly "embraced this narrative wholeheartedly": the terms "alpha male" or "alpha" are frequently used to refer to the "tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels" (Krentz 107). The term

“Alpha” was originally used in early twentieth-century studies of animal behavior to refer to the dominant individuals in rigidly hierarchical animal societies, such as some types of insects and, in later work, large mammals like primates and wolves. (Schell 113).

One should, however, tread extremely cautiously when comparing animals and humans, not least because "There is a long-standing debate within the field of sexual selection regarding the potential projection of stereotypical sex roles onto animals by researchers" (Dougherty et al 313). According to Dougherty et al,

The subjectivity provided by anthropomorphism (endowing nonhuman animals with human-like attributes), zoomorphism (the converse, endowing humans with nonhuman animal-like attributes), and the sociocultural surroundings researchers finds themselves in, can bias what research is done, how it is done and how the resulting data are interpreted. [...] Perhaps the clearest case in point concerns the study and interpretation of sexual behaviour in nonhuman animals. (313)

For example,

Karlsson Green & Madjidian (2011) showed in their survey of the most cited papers on sexual conflict that male traits were more likely to be described using ‘active’ words, whereas female traits were more likely to be described with ‘reactive’ words, that is, in terms of female traits being a response to male behaviours or male-imposed costs. They ascribed this difference (at least in part) to the anthropomorphic imposition of conventional sex roles on animals by researchers (caricatured as males active, females passive). (314)

However, not all stereotypes of women's sexuality cast us in a passive role and "a gender bias in the use of language may depend upon which particular sexual conflict is being studied" (315).

Dougherty et al studied the language used in scientific papers describing

pre- and postcopulatory cannibalism. In terms of the taxonomic coverage, 23 of the species were spiders (35 papers and two reviews), six were mantids (six papers) and one was an orthopteran (one paper, concerning the sagebrush cricket, Cyphoderris strepitans). (314)

They found that,

In terms of the words used to describe females, while sexual cannibalism is predicated on the fact that one of the pair ends up being the meal of the other, some of the words used to describe female behaviour are a long way short of being value free: for instance, females have been called ‘voracious’ or ‘rapacious’ more than once. Moreover, if we are concerned with either the causes or consequences of negative sexual stereotyping more generally, the use of such words suggests that there may be scant comfort in our findings here of the assignment of active agency to female animals in the context of sexual cannibalism. Not least this is because it is well-known across human culture that sexually aggressive or violent females are themselves a negative stereotype: from the Gorgons of Greek myth to the femme fatale, the ‘black widow’ or the ‘lethal seductress’ of today. (316)

Given that scientists describing animal behaviour can be influenced by stereotypes derived from human culture, interpreting human behaviour in the light of potentially-anthropomorphised accounts of animal behaviour is problematic. As Dougherty et al conclude,

scientists may bring preconceptions and oversimplifications from their sociocultural surroundings, with ‘general principles’ merely serving to validate those preconceptions. This will forever be an inescapable part of science, and something that we must always be aware of and try and guard against as much as we can. However, there is also the concern that scientific findings about sexual behaviour (or indeed anything else) may travel the other way and provide the basis for sociocultural norms that are chauvinistic, demeaning, or that justify oppression and violence towards some members of society (for instance women or in terms of sexual identity [...]).  [...] We suggest that the key message that we should put across is that there are no easy lessons about how we should live or love to be learned from nonhuman animals. (318)

Two of the three papers cited in this post are available online. See below for details.


Dougherty, Liam R., Emily R. Burdfield-Steel and David M. Shuker. "Sexual Stereotypes: The Case of Sexual Cannibalism." Animal Behaviour 85.2 (2013): 313-322.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. "Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 107-114.

Schell, Heather. "The Big Bad Wolf: Masculinity and Genetics in Popular Culture." Literature and Medicine 26.1 (2007): 109-125.

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

By Laura Vivanco on

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]

Loving a Villain

By Laura Vivanco on

'[...] you aren’t going to let me out of it.’

‘Like Pearl White tied to the railway lines?’ He gave his rather grating laugh. ‘Always at the last moment she is released from bondage, eh? I may not be a hero in a white stetson, moiya, but I’m not altogether a villain – won’t you believe that?’ (Winspear 65)


Romance heroes certainly can't all be classified as "villains" but there's no shortage of those who, to put it mildly, could be described as "not altogether a villain": such a hero may use a heroine as a pawn in a subtle plan to gain revenge, he may be an assassin or a morally ambiguous paranormal creature, he may rape or "forcibly seduce" the heroine. So why would a reader be drawn to such a character? Richard Keen, Monica L. McCoy, Elizabeth Powell have some theories about why

rooting for the bad guy is not as difficult to understand as it appeared at first glance. There are a plethora of reasons among psychological theories to explain why normal people occasionally find themselves rooting for the villain instead of the hero. (144)

1) The fundamental attribution error:

If a mysterious stranger appears from out of nowhere and attacks a character we know and love, it is likely that we will make the fundamental attribution error. We will assume that he is a bad man. However, the villains we root for are generally not strangers to us; we know a great deal about them—from narration, from flashbacks, or because they talk to themselves and we get to listen. [...] We know a great deal about how the situation is influencing him. It allows us to be as kind to him as we generally are to ourselves. (131)

Given that it's common to find romances in which the reader is expected to be "kind" to the hero, but relatively few in which the heroine has the same villainous tendencies, I wonder if female authors and readers are actually "kinder" when thinking about the actions of heroes than we are to ourselves. Some of the theories outlined later in the essay may help to explain this imbalance.

2) Mere exposure effect:

According to the mere exposure effect, the more often you are exposed to a stimulus, the more you like it (Zajonc 2). This is true for everything from what letters we prefer to our perceptions of other people. [...] Especially relevant to the question at hand, Bukoff and Elman (134) reported that photos that were rated as likeable, neutral, or unlikable, and linked with either positive or negative trait descriptors all received more positive evaluations after participants had been exposed to them repeatedly. Therefore, the original stimulus did not need to be positive for repeated exposure to make the image more appealing. Repeated exposure increased the ratings of all stimuli – even those that were rated as unlikable originally. We would then predict that a villain who becomes familiar to us through repeated exposure would be seen as more favorable. (134)

I can see this effect being a greater influence on the perception of characters in long-running series. The authors give Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as an illustration of how these two effects might work together.

3) What is Beautiful is Good:

The repeated use of physically attractive people to play the role of the villain taps into another basic human tendency—the association of what is beautiful with what is good. In numerous studies, beautiful persons have been given higher ratings on measures of social desirability, intelligence, success, happiness, persuasiveness, and potency, than their less attractive counterparts (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 285; Gross and Crofton 85; Kassin, Fein and Markus 346). In a study by Hoffner and Cantor (66), physical attractiveness, along with strength and humor, was one of the best predictors of which characters were liked.

In traditional media, the protagonist is portrayed as more physically attractive than the antagonist, leading audiences to prefer him (Sanders 147). In current media, the protagonist of the story is also often the bad guy, such as in the popular Godfather trilogy and the Ocean’s movies. Thus, when attractive villains are cast, we assume they possess more positive qualities than the less attractive good guys in the show, so, unsurprisingly, we prefer them. (135)

To put this in the terms Kyra Kramer and I used in our article about bodies in romance fiction: "As humans, we understand that we have a body; our consciousness is embodied in a physical self. This is the individual body, an 'expectant canvas of human flesh' [...]. Social beliefs are inscribed on the 'expectant canvas' of the body."

The authors add that:

According to a meta-analysis by Eagly et al. (119), physical attractiveness was most strongly related to ratings of social competence, adjustment, potency, and intellectual competence. On the other hand, it was not related to integrity or concern for others. This works out well for the bad guys we root for. Their good looks lead viewers to think of them as smart, socially skilled, and powerful while not necessarily expecting them to be nice. (135-36)

Given that "concern for others" is a common feature of romance heroines (see Vivanco and Kramer for heroines' nurturing behaviours), while intelligence and power are more commonly coded as "masculine" attributes, it would seem likely that beauty would more strongly benefit villainous heroes than villainous heroines. Indeed, quite a lot of "Other Women" in romances are beautiful and their beauty seems to be used to underscore their shallowness, vanity and/or promiscuity. The latter, thanks to the double standard, is judged negatively in women but, depending on the context, may in men be considered an indication of virility.

4) Schemas:

Schemas may have some influence on why we root for bad guys. In most movies, the protagonist is the good guy and usually good prevails in the end. When we have repeated exposure to this type of storyline, we will start to form a schema of this. The schema can then influence future movie experiences due to certain expectations deduced from the schema. Thus, if the good guys are usually the protagonists, then we should root for the protagonist. (136)

It's easy to see how schemas could affect frequent readers of romance novels. We know that the heroine is going to fall in love with the hero and they are going to have a happy ending, so even if a hero initially behaves like a villain, the schema of the romance form encourages us to "root for" him.

5) Aggresive Tendencies:

We propose, at least according to Freud’s approach, that vicariously experiencing aggression and violence in movies, television, and books may serve as an outlet for our aggressive tendencies (i.e., catharsis). In fact, since many violent movies also have sex scenes, you may be meeting both aggressive and sexual needs. (137)

6) Revenge:

Many of the bad guys we love are motivated in one way or another by revenge. [...] Revenge seems to be a stronger motivator for men than for women. [...] Taken together, these studies illustrate why we like bad guys who are seeking revenge. In part, we may identify with and understand their motivation. (138-39)

Romance heroines, on the other hand, seem to have a tendency to make martyrs of themselves and they often readily forgive those who have treated them badly. If revenge is not only "a stronger motivator for men than for women" but also one more closely associated with men, a villainous hero's revenge may make him seem more manly whereas a heroine who acted in the same way might be more likely to be considered devious and lacking in compassion.

7) Bad Boy/Nice Guy:

studies have shown that women seeking long term relationships valued niceness as the most salient characteristic, but niceness was devalued and other characteristics, such as physical attractiveness, became more important if the women were seeking more casual, sexual relationships [...]. The bad guys we root for in movies and on TV are almost universally attractive. Further, most (sane) people probably do not consider fictional characters when making long-term relationship plans. Thus it is easy to see how the driving force behind a fantasy “fling” with a bad guy is his attractiveness and swagger, rather than his niceness. (140)

8) Psychological Reactance

Psychological reactance is an emotional response to restricting rules and regulations. In general, psychological reactance results in increased desirability once that object/person becomes unobtainable. For example, [...] psychological reactance is observed if parents tell their daughter not to date a certain boy, a prohibition which results in the daughter fi nding that boy more attractive.

Psychological reactance can be easily applied to rooting for the bad guy. If, by societal standards, we are not supposed to root for the bad guy, then your freedom to choose whom to root for is constrained by others. Thus, by the definition of psychological reactance, one would find the bad guy more desirable. (140-41)

This presumably means that the more romance readers are criticised for liking to read about romance heroes who are nasty, brutish and anti-feminist, the more those heroes will become a "guilty pleasure."

9) Media Villains Versus Real Villains:

Before closing, we also want to stress that the villains we see in popular culture are often not reflective of real-life villains. Media villains tend to be good looking, intelligent, witty, and sexy. If you ever watch real-life villains on the news or on court television, you will be struck by the fact that they tend not to be at all attractive or charming. In fact, when a real-life villain is appealing, it is almost always given a great deal of media attention because it is an anomaly. It has also been pointed out that the villain in many romance novels and movies attracts the female with their swagger and dangerous persona, only to morph into devoted loving husbands and fathers by the end of the story. Therefore, the woman gets both the excitement of the bad boy and the security of a good man (Pelusi 58). In other words, many of the popular culture villains are more like misunderstood good guys than truly bad guys. (143)

Here, as in 7), the point is made that there is a difference between fiction and reality: it would be unwise to assume that a reader's preferences with regards to romance heroes are an exact match for her preferences outside the pages of a novel.


Keen, Richard, Monica L. McCoy, and Elizabeth Powell. "Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives." Studies in Popular Culture 34.2 (2012): 129-148.

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).

Winspear, Violet. Bride's Lace. London: Mills & Boon, 1984.


The black hat was "Made in the USA by Resistol" and the photograph was provided by Miller Hats under a Creative Commons licence. It features a "3/8" diamond back rattlesnake band with buckle."

Stealing Insights Into the Alpha

By Laura Vivanco on

I was so taken with one of Liz McCausland's recent posts that I decided I'd copy and paste her conclusions into a post here so that I can find it again easily if I need it for future reference:

The possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero is [...] a literary “symptom” with multiple causes. There are a lot of ways to interpret, experience and think about this kind of hero. Some are positive, some negative. I don’t think any of these are right or wrong, provable or disprovable. The best, deepest understanding of the role of this hero in romance fiction will come when we hold them all open as possibilities in a discussion, even though they are in tension with each other, rather than letting any one reading dominate. Here are some of the things we could say about the stalker-alpha:

  • The hero’s possessive, jealous controlling nature is symbolic of his passion for the heroine; it shows how much he cares.
  • The fact that such a strong man surrenders to his love for her (particularly if he’s a misogynist who disdains other women) gives the heroine power over him.
  • The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.
  • The dominant, protective male is an archetype, and romance as a genre trades in archetypes.
  • The alpha (and the passive, submissive heroine he’s sometimes paired with) is a reflection of cultural views and ideals of masculinity, some of which can be sexist and/or harmful to both men and women.
  • The stalker-misogynist asshole who is tamed by love perpetuates the misguided view that the love of a good woman can “fix” a man, a view which leads to a lot of unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships.

The power of literature is that the hero can be and mean all these things at the same time. But that’s also the danger of it, and why, in my view, we should ask questions about our reading.

It seems to me that a lot of discussions of popular romance end with generalisations being made about both the novels and their readers. While I can understand the appeal of making generalisations such as "romance is empowering" or "it is misogynistic hate speech," the characters and plots in all romances are not identical; the novels that stick in my mind generally do so because their characters, and the way those characters interact, feel unique. That being so, the context in which one hero's jealous, controlling, stalkerish behaviour occurs may be so different from that in another novel that the two heroes can't be interpreted in exactly the same way. Furthermore, readers are not homogenous; something which feels empowering to one reader may indeed feel like "hate speech" to another.

Liz's list of possible interpretations of the " possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero" demonstrates the need to tread carefully when analysing romances, and to accept the possibility of multiple, complex readings and understandings of popular romance fiction (and its readers). It's  the type of analysis of which we need to see more. As Pamela Regis stated in her address to the 2010 IASPR conference:

our discipline values complexity in its study texts.  [...]

We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment. Surely, we owe the romance at least an acknowledgment that many readers, writers, and, yes, even some critics do find the romance novel complex, and we further owe it to the genre to make overt the value judgment that is a part of this topos—that simplicity is a “much-maligned state.” [...] I also contend that a critic confronted with a text that she considers simple should be careful of the conclusions that she draws in working on that text. I would argue that in assuming that the texts are simple, we flirt with what to me always seems like a dangerous idea—that it is not just the texts that are simple, but that the readers of the texts must, by extension, be simple, as well, or else why would they read these texts? [...]

A corollary: We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly.


McCausland, Liz. “The Overdetermined Hero.” Something More. 3 September 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).