READING POPULAR ROMANTIC FICTION
Women's Studies, School of Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University, Trueman Building, 15-21 Webster Street, Liverpool L3 2ET, UK
Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 20, no. 4, ps 537-546.
Synopsis - Over the last 20 years or so, examples of popular culture have become more acceptable as topics for exploration and feminists have led the way in this demystifying of art and media products. However, no matter what the stated aims. the readers of popular romantic fiction still seem to be treated as "victims" - of psychic incompleteness, of lack of education, of a capitalist and patriarchal system of which they are unknowing pawns. Through empirical research, however, it would seem that women read in a much more sophisticated and active way, and at a great many more levels of interpretation than has hitherto been suggested. The mythical form of the stories is a source of multiple uses and gratifications for women well aware of a society and a set of roles for women within that society that are so often not of their making.
Since the rise of both feminism and cultural studies it has become e more academically acceptable to study the genres that women enjoy. However, it seems still to be the case that the vast and devoted audience for popular romantic fiction poses a problem. Critics writing about this topic often convey a veiled contempt, a distance, or a baffled lack of understanding.
Perhaps one of the initial and most basic difficulties is actually to define the field. In my research into the reading of popular romantic fiction, it became apparent that perhaps the most useful definition would be that of those who actually read, write, and publish the genre and it was surprisingly wide, ranging. from Jane Eyre (Bronte, 1975) to a Woman of Substance (Bradford, 1981), Barbara Cartland to the steamy "bodice rippers!"
The publishing trade makes a distinction between the "soft" romance and the "strong" romance. The soft romance is the archetypal popular romance, short, simple, as published by Mills and Boon in Britain and under the imprint of their parent company, Harlequin, all over the world. The "strong" romance describes a book that foregrounds a strong, self-confident, resourceful woman. The covers of the novels, it was explained to me by publishers and authors, could be a sure indicator of the type of romance - "strong" romances featuring a picture of a woman in the foreground with a small figure of a man often somewhere behind her left shoulder, soft romances portraying a couple usually embracing. The trade joke was that the angle from the perpendicular of the couple indicates the explicitness of the sexual scenes.
In this paper, I would like to explore the way in which women take the ingredients of the romantic plot and utilise it for their own ends. I argue that they re-invent romance. I shall concentrate on the soft romance as the "extreme case," an example of what overtly seems like the most stereotyped picture of patriarchal, heterosexual relationships. For those who have never read them I should explain the plot. Young girl meets older dominant male. She is attracted, yet frightened. They become entangled in a relationship in which she feels he dislikes her but in the end after varying degrees of plot complication she finds he loves her. Though there have been some moves to a more "feisty" heroine and a newish man, one more aware of the claims of the women's movement, that is still it.
The books seem on the surface to have nothing to offer for a feminist reading. Yet, on the other hand. millions, literally, of women read them, spend great proportions of their time doing so and quite an amount of money. It also seems to be the case that women across all the divides of class, race, nationality, age, and educational level, enjoy these stories. I felt when I started to study them that surely it was too simplistic to think that these women were all the victims of an almost laughably overt patriarchal ideology, or as some feminist critics have suggested, were women secretly yearning to be raped, for revenge on men, or for nurturing by their mothers in the person of the hero, the male mother theory (e.g., Modleski, 1982; Radway, 1984). When I came to look at these texts I found that there were two perspectives that were particularly helpful and that I feel are of special advantage to feminist analyses of texts.
Firstly, a real reader response theory. Any written work is a communication. The act of communication at its simplest consists of a sender, a message, and a receiver. The communication is not complete until it is received. More emphatically, can we utilise the postmodernist/poststructuralist concept, the reader writes the text" As Michael Rifaterre has said, "The literary phenomenon is a dialectic between text and reader. If we are to formulate rules governing this dialectic, we shall have to know that what we are describing is actually perceived by the reader; we shall have to know whether he [sic] is always obliged to see what he sees or if he retains a certain freedom; and we shall have to know how perception takes place" (Rifaterre, 1978, pp. 1-2). I feel that it is essential in researching popular fiction that the responses of real readers are taken into account, in other words, it is important that their responses are not merely inferred.
Alan Dundes (1968, p. xv) in his introduction to the second edition of Propp's Morphology of the Folk-tale asks, "To what extent is the structure of the fairy tale related to the structure of the ideal success story in a culture?" I think this is exactly the point of the significance of romantic fiction in our society today. As I shall go on to show, for the readers, these are fairy tales that take the circumstances of everyday life for women and demonstrate how a successful outcome can be achieved by the hero(ine) amid all the dangers, difficulties, and disadvantages of a world that, as in fairy tales, is threatening and testing. The stories that are filed under romantic fiction on the shelves of the library and the bookstore are part of a long tradition. The girl of humble birth who eventually marries the all-powerful Prince is the stuff of so many fairy tales. Many of the publishers, writers, and readers mentioned specifically that they were Cinderella stories.
Formula fiction, by definition, encodes a message that is very strongly programmed and with which its readers are familiar and, therefore, read with a strong sense of expectation. The readers of romantic fiction collaborate with the writers in a shared venture, a shared frame of reference. This is usually suggested by literary critics to mean that the readings of popular fiction will be more uniform, less open. Umberto Eco (1979) has talked of Finnegan's Wake (Joyce, 1964), for instance, as an open text, whereas comics or detective fiction are closed texts. Roland Barthes (1970) similarly has talked of readerly and writerly scripts. However, I would like to suggest that in one sense these distinctions can be reversed. Perhaps popular fiction, certainly romantic fiction, is more open in a sense. In high culture, particularly in innovator work where readers have little frame of expectation, they have to follow the writer completely, waiting for the plan to be revealed, the pattern, the purpose. Unless the reader abdicates his or her subjective self and takes on the role of the implied reader then that reader will probably find the book or poem less than absorbing. Readers have to be aware of every word of the author, every very particularistic twist and rum of the writing in order to take part in the enterprise. However, within the known world of the romantic plot, the reader is free to project her own ideas and imagination on to the participants, to compare and contrast their feelings and decisions with her own, to engage with the text as very active participant rather than having to be completely receptive. Because of the predictability of the story, the reader, is, paradoxically, free.
In popular literature, the writer and reader are partners. The reader in her reading is able to slide in and out of the implied reader position, to identify and to distance at different points in the story; to be narratee, implied reader, and actual reader. In the surveys and interviews I carried out it was apparent that this was really happening.
The second perspective that I found helpful is that of the social. Textual analysis often draws on psychology and particularly on psychoanalytic theories, yet a multitude of writings has demonstrated how patriarchal this approach can be and even those who challenge its stance are working within the terms set by it. Buscombe, Gledhill, Lovell, & Williams (1992, p. 35) have remarked in relation to film theory, ". . . psychoanalysis is an intellectual discipline that may provide fruitful insights . . .. However we feel that it has to be approached with a degree of critical caution since certain of its concepts and methods are undeveloped while others are matters of substantial debate both within psychoanalysis and outside it." I feel that the same caveat should be observed in deconstructing popular written texts. Gender is a social construct. When questions relating to women are considered, we are looking at a construction of self and a social position deriving from social gender. Lillian Robinson (1978, pp. 205-206) suggests, "All too many commentators have been tempted to assess the influence of the modem Gothic and the contemporary romance in strictly psychological terms Once the psychological aspect of both content and influence has been understood, however, a feminist reading demands that these categories themselves be placed in their history."
If we limit ourselves to looking at the lives and circumstances of women in psychoanalytic terms only, we do women a disservice because this constantly suggests individual psychological answers. It makes the woman her own enemy and by mystifying the inequalities of society contrives to perpetuate those inequalities. Explanations that are based in oedipal conflict ignore the realities of women's social position. As Maureen McNeil (1993, p. 157) has said of psychoanalytic therapies, "It would appear that . . . far from liberating women, therapeutic strategies can reinforce and proliferate the mechanisms of self-regulation and self-control which are precisely the heart of the problem." Theorists like Chodorow (1978), for instance, while challenging Freud, still start from the premise that women are incomplete personalities, that where boys establish a separate identity, girls do not. They seem to move on from ideas that women are inferior because we lack a penis, to theories that we are inferior because we lack a complete personality, whereas writers such as Luce Irigaray (1985) can suggest a celebration of the possibilities of a Sex Which is Not One.
While there is not space here to detail the methodology in depth, my sample of women were mostly broadly representative of the population of Britain in age. class, marital status, age of completing education, etc. My readers were accessed through the public library services. Initially they replied to a questionnaire and through that were invited to in-depth inter-views. There were 137 returned questionnaires and 40 in-depth interviews. The age distribution reflects fairly well the age distribution of the female population. Eleven percent of my respondents were aged from 15-18, 15% aged 19-24, 10% aged 25-34, 16% 34-44, 15% 4554, 15% aged 55-64, 10%-aged 65-74, and 9% aged 75 and over. [In the general population females under 16 equal 19.6%, the ace band 17-39 represents 33.5%, 40-64 represents 28.4%, 65-79 is 13. 1 % while the 80s and over-represent 5.4% (CSO. 1995/1996).]. My sample was targeted at the users of the adult library, though I did have two school students under 16. The age group 24-34 in my sample was rather underrepresented. I suspect that, quite simply, this is an age group highly involved in raising young children with little time to spare for visiting libraries. Peter Mann's postal surveys of Mills and Boon readers (Mann, 1969, 1974) had the opposite result with an unusually hi-h proportion of this age group. It may be that in this age croup it is merely easier to buy books from local newsagents and supermarkets with general shopping. Marital status followed that of the general population: 28% single (22.5% single in the general population), 47% married (57.7% married), 4% divorced (5.5% divorced), 19% widowed (14.3% widowed). (General population figures taken from EOC Women and Men in Britain, 1995). There were no replies in the separated category though these may have figured in the 2% who did not answer this question. The average age at first marriage was 22.8 while in the country as a whole the present age of first marriage for females is 26 (CSO, 1995). Twenty-one percent of the sample was employed full-time, 17% were employed less than 30 hours per week. 5% were unemployed, 13% were full time housewives, 14% students and 23% "retired" (7% did not reply). The retired category was particularly ambiguous. Many women who classified themselves as retired were considerably under the age of statutory retirement. From the interviews later it seemed that many women had stopped work when their partners did. irrespective of their own age, and saw themselves as part of a retired couple. Also many older women, but still under the age of statutory retirement, who became unemployed and could not find further employment again classified themselves as retired. Allocating women to social classes is a highly contentious area (see, for example, the long-running debate in Sociology, Volumes 18-22) and it was with some reluctance, but in order to make comparisons with other studies that I did so. Using the "Head of Household's occupation," 16% of respondents fell into class AB, 21% into class C1. 7% into Class C2, 15% in Class D, and 14% in Class E. which included the retired. However, in the general population Class C1 represents 22% of the general population while Class C2 represents the largest class of 28%. [Grading of social class taken from National Readership Survey. (Monk, 1985).] The marked difference represents the difficulties of looking at the class of an all-female sample. Many respondents took issue, often humorously, with the whole idea of "Head of the Household" and wrote detailed accounts of their anomalous class position. There were fewer representatives of ethnic minorities as the geographical area of the research does not have a large proportion of these groups. Given the topic of the research it was not surprising that most respondents declared themselves heterosexual.
I found that the readers recognised and lived day to day the inequalities and disadvantages that have been well explored in 25 years of feminist research. They were often in jobs that were less than their qualifications and abilities warranted. In spite of 20 years of equality legislation they faced the reality that the average weekly earnings of women are around 72% of men's (EOC, 1996), that women are still underrepresented in positions of power, that men's violence against women continues to instil fear into women on the streets and in the home, that, in spite of some changes, women are expected to have the final responsibility for the home, child care, and the care and emotional support of family (see, for example, Lawrence, 1994; Rees, 1992; Witz, 1993). They also recognised that the solution offered by society is still marriage or similar heterosexual relationship. Seemingly, the "best" solution to life in an inimical society as a member of the disadvantaged "sex class." to use Shulamith Firestone's (1970, p. 1) term, is, enduringly, to link one's fortunes to those of a member of the dominant sex class. When Sue Sharpe researched older school girls in Just Like a Girl she found that their priorities were "love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs and careers, more or less in that order" (Sharpe, 1976, p. 129). Teresa Rees. nearly two decades later. found the same results voiced by careers officers. "Most of the girls I see are only looking for a stop-gap between school and marriage. It was the same with the girls here today." (Rees, 1992, p. 48) My readers echoed these priorities, in spite of a knowledge of other possibilities, and they categorically stated that even given all the manifest disadvantages of heterosexual relationships and families, society was so constructed as to make living in other ways difficult economically and emotionally. For most girls it can be argued that the respondents to Sue Sharpe were making rational choices. But in the books, writers and readers take this disadvantage and the solution offered by society and use these facts to construct a playful fantasy in which the problems of their lives are resolved in a utopian way. The readings were not sentimental yearnings after true romance, revenge fantasies, or the desire for the nurturing hero/mother that have been suggested. Popular romantic fiction may superficially be a sentimental tale of romance but beneath this manifest story is a practical survival dream plan. Readers are using the books to meet their social circumstances as the class, minority group, subculture of women. The books are an escapist daydream. But the daydream is an active reworking of the possibilities of women's lives. It is couched in the patriarchal ideology, which means there is no conflict with the dominant ideology, so the daydream is within the parameters of the most acceptable adventure route for women. Unlike Bridget Fowler (1991), whose research in Scotland led her to the conclusion that types of popular romance reading correlated with class, in my own sample, I found that women from across the classes and age groups read and enjoyed romantic fiction in general and the "soft romances" as a classification within this genre. Women of the non-manual classes and those with more years of education (usually, but not always, these two coincided) did, however, read rather less of the "Mills and Boon" type, though since one of my respondents claimed to have read 100 books in a month (!) this can still indicate a great many books. Most women read very widely across a broad range of material, often selecting the type of book to suit their mood or purpose. This fitted in with the findings that women are creative and thinking in their reading.
When my readers read the soft romances, as I shall show later, they did not even read the latent survival plan straight. They read in a very complex way, sliding between the different positions of narratee, implied reader, and actual reader.
I would like to demonstrate just a few of the features of these complex readings of the text by framing reports given by women readers within a quote from one of the books. It is the opening paragraph of Anne Mather's A Haunting Compulsion. I did not pick this book particularly purposefully. It happened to be on top of a pile. Anne Mather is one of Mills and Boon's most successful and prolific authors but extracts from any number of the books could be dealt with in the same way. The same themes and symbols occur and recur in the books. The books are full of signifiers that the experienced reader is able to decode immediately.
Do come. Rachel. You can't possibly spend Christmas alone in London. Jaime won't be home, you know that. We wouldn't expect you to come, if he was. But you know how much Robert and I would like to see you again. so do come, do come, do come. (Mather, 1981, p. 1)
Rachel is the heroine. As almost always in the novels, she is in an "orphaned" state literally and metaphorically. Heroines rarely have any family at all. They are curiously socially isolated - those fairy tales again. Propp (1968) mentions that one of the first elements of his recurring themes is that one of the members of the family absents himself from home and suggests that a very frequent extreme of this is the death of the parent. Rosy Wyndham, in Unwanted Wedding (Jordan, 1995) had lost her mother years before and at the start of the story has lost both her father and Grandfather within weeks of each other, thus necessitating a marriage, in name only of course, to handsome Guard Jamieson in order to ensure the inheritance of the family home. Melissa, in Voyage to Enchantment (Hammond, 1994) explains to famous author, Miles Thatcher, that she is able to come immediately to work for him as she has been an orphan for some years. Similarly. although the heroine's looks are minutely described they are vague in character. It is as though the heroine is a template on to which the reader can project her own self. Writers and readers collaborate to write a book in which the reader can write the text.
Critics writing on romantic fiction have suggested the explanation for its popularity lies in seeing the hero as a "male mother." Many critics base their analyses on Chodorow's (1978) work, which suggests that daughters make an incomplete separation from their mothers and therefore spend their lives yearning for nurturing. Chodorow draws on Freudian and Object Relations theory to suggest that because it is the mother who provides the early intense parenting for both boys and girls, daughters identify with the mother. Because they are of the same sex this leads to difficulties for the daughter in establishing a separate identity. The lack of sexual difference leads to a prolonged pre-oedipal state in the girl's development that tends to continue her dependence on the mother, her difficulties in establishing a separate self and an ambivalence about the yearning she feels for her mother's love. While turning to her father/ men as object of erotic desire, she, nevertheless, retains the affective ties with her mother. "A girl's rejection of her mother. and oedipal attachment to the father, therefore, do not mean the termination of the girl's affective relationship to her mother. Rather, a girl's dual and external mother-infant world becomes triadic." (Chodorow, 1978, p. 126) While heterosexual women desire men, they need women. They need mothering.
Janice Radway (1984) sees the fact that the heroine is unusually isolated as a metaphor for this state. "When she is plucked from her earlier relationships and thrust out into a public world the heroine's consequent terror and feelings of emptiness most likely evokes for the reader distant memories of her initial separation from her mother and her later ambivalent attempts to establish an individual identity" (emphasis added) (Radway, 1984. p. 138) This quotation aptly illustrates the advantage of adding the two perspectives I have mentioned to the critical armoury. Here Radway is imputing a reader response and one which is difficult to demonstrate.
While Janice Radway's thesis may be true at some deep. unconscious level, not responsive to conscious reflection, at the conscious level it did not appear in the answers of the women to whom I talked. Many of my respondents talked of the fun of the books being the story of a heroine who, at the beginning, is alone and free rather than alone and frightened. Most women are. as social commentators describe, surrounded by other people who make demands upon them. Women are taught from an early age to be socially sensitive and considerate of other people's feelings. In order to enjoy the fantasy, first they have to discard the dependants. As they start the imaginative journey they need to be free in order to go where the heroine goes. Overtly, at any rate, the readers felt that the heroine's "orphaned" state opened up the whole range of exciting life chances and possibilities.
On the male mother theme, Janice Radway suggests that this may be a function of the fact that women in present society are isolated, that the sisterhood of former days with extended family and friends in a supportive network along with the presence of mothers has disappeared. This may be so of the United States, but in my research I found that women had very strong networks of female relatives and friends. In psychoanalytic terms, of course, they may be wishing. for a return to the primal mother, a return to the womb. and this is extremely difficult to demonstrate, but in everyday terms many of them had very loving relationships with real mothers. Certainly best friends and confidantes were a recurring theme when I talked to the readers.
The books repeat the familiar quest story, where the hero(ine) journeys through various misadventures and misunderstandings, where she has to pass through the tests of the hero's apparent cruelty, the machinations of the other woman, where she has to display a modesty and long suffering quite equal to Chaucer's (1951) Patient Griselda, often spending time in unpleasant, difficult, or demanding work. Even more significant, however, is the journey that takes place within the consciousness of the heroine, a journey from facing an inimical world to a place of safety. The books present this answer where the realities of society are shaken up and rearranged as in a kaleidoscope to suit the women readers. The life problems, disadvantages, and inequalities are met and reconstructed.
I found that the women read often with distance and irony, sometimes with commitment, frequently with humour, and this mirrored their real lives, Within their lives the roles of wives, mothers, partners, women, are so strongly structured that they often find themselves playing. those roles with distance. It has been cited as a facet of modern life, for example, by Berger and Luckman (1966), in The Social Construction of Reality that men "put on" their various roles. They talk of the possibility of manipulative man, who may play at what he (generic man) is supposed to be. I think because of the strength of prescribed roles for women they do indeed play at what they are supposed to be, their roles do not always fit, leading to a sense of alienation. In the books one usual theme met this unease. The heroine finds herself having to act a part. In Sweet Deceiver by Kathryn Blair (1989), set in a group of islands in the South Seas, the heroine exchanges identities with the Governor’s daughter, in The Doctor's Delusion the heroine is thought, mistakenly to be a rich man's niece, the Sweet Sinner (Hamilton, 1995) is thought by the hero to be a prostitute, the number of twin sisters who are confused in both senses of the word is a favourite. In the books this charade gives rise to great psychological stress. Here women find a place where they experience again the stress of living what MaryAnn Doane (1992) has called "the masquerade," but through what I came to call a "resolving dialogue" this stress is alleviated. In what is often the real climax of the book, a long conversation takes place in which all misunderstandings are cleared away and undying commitment promised. The course of the plot does not come to its resolution in a sexual encounter, contemporary novels have these scattered through the pages, nor in the proposal of marriage, but in this "resolving dialogue." it is well established that women talk more and value talk about emotions more than men. They have a strong need to verbalise experience and emotions and at the same time it seems that verbalising their experiences facilitates social interaction for them. Many of my readers commented with regret on how uncommunicative men could be; a few spoke appreciatively of partners to whom they could talk. The romantic novel posits an emotional situation that is unusually attractive to women, where the action of the plot resides in the dialogue and the hero, unlike perhaps the men they meet in real life, eventually does explore his feelings in a real dialogue.
You know how much Robert and I would like to see you again ... (Mather, 1991, p. 1)
The heroine is loved and loveable. As I have said the heroine's character is blank. Although described in detail there is a curious generality about her. The books stress the qualities of youth, freshness, inexperience. ‘She is passive. Contemporary novels, their publishers and writers make much of the new found independence of the liberated heroine but in fact as Arm Barr Snitow (1984, p. 266) says "Small surface concessions are made to a new female independence." Apart from the obligatory show of anger that will either lead to, or augment, the misunderstandings that prevent the happy ending for the requisite pages she rarely behaves unpredictably. She meets the hero always accidentally, falls in love, suffers his disapproval, the misunderstandings and difficulties that lie in the way of the quest's successful completion. She rarely initiates any part of the story or even carries the action along. In every characteristic it is stressed that she is not outstanding. In fact, at the heart of the story, there is a circular motif. The heroine wins the love of the hero by no other means than by being loveable.
However, there is the "Other Woman" who portrays a splitting off of those characteristics of female sexuality and experience that women may not wish to recognise in themselves or may recognise as a bar to successfully negotiating a male-dominated society. The Other Woman can represent those socially unacceptable facets of female personality, the drive, assertiveness, eroticism, and undisguised ambition, which are not allowed to surface in real life without male condemnation. These characteristics need to be repressed within women themselves if they are to be successful daughters, wives, and mothers in conventional families. In the wider society also they may be more successful if they adopt the heroine's role rather than that of the Other Women. In a very different way the character plays a particularly useful role in the reassuring nature of the books. By their socialisation women are encouraged to feel inferior, unsuccessful, and to lack confidence in their abilities. The Other Woman represents all that women doubt in themselves. She is beautiful and successful. She is confident and sure of herself. Nevertheless, it is the heroine who triumphs because she does not possess these qualities. But as many of my readers said of the Other Woman, "she's fun." The heroine then is a pattern on which the reader can project her own fears and problems and it is striking how almost any disadvantage that women encounter in their lives is reworked in the stories.
The major oppression for both heroine and reader is that of patriarchal power. It may be that the dark threatening males of the stories represent the dancers of sexuality, but we should not lose sight of the fact that they may represent, first, dark threatening males. It may be that they are Freudian symbols but it also may be that they represent, quite simply, the power of men in our society, at the least giving rise to disadvantage for women, at the most the dangers of physical abuse or of rape.
Which returns us to the story. The hero. "Jaime won't be home, you know that. We wouldn't expect you to come if he was" (Mather, 1981, p. 1).
Jaime will be the hero with whom she has bad some sort of romantic relationship before, which has obviously failed (but will be right again by the end of the book). We notice the implication of menace., The idea of his being there is threatening.
Perhaps the most obvious evidence that these books are survival plans rather than love's young dream is that there is very little love in them. I think most people would describe love in terms of caring for the other, a growing. understanding and ease with the other, a happiness in the other's company. Certainly this is what my readers saw as love but, as they recognised, the books don't really have love like that in them. The heroine is afraid of the hero. In spite of claims from authors and publishers that heroes have become nicer, they are still fierce, angry, forbidding. All Heathcliffs! A quote from Charlotte Lamb's A Naked Flame will indicate:
Christie tried to pull herself together; it was absurd to be so disturbed, nothing had happened, nothing had changed, the tremors of fear running through her had no real cause, yet she felt like some hapless insect on that sunlit wall, stalked by the silent predator behind the sway of green ivy. (Lamb, 1984)
This is her estranged husband whom of course she still loves. As so many of the publishers and the readers named them, Horrible Heroes. Why are they so unpleasant? Hardly the qualities one looks for in a loved one. I suggest that it is because the stories are not love stories. In order to survive in our society aggression is a desirable quality for men. The heroes are invariably rich and successful, socially powerful. The suggestions, for instance by Tania Modleski (1 982), have been that the heroine gains the victory by gradually taming the aggressive hero and revealing the adoring man beneath. This seems unconvincing. The weight of the domination is very great. The arrogant, demeaning, and belittling way in which the heroine is treated cannot always be put right by the happy ending. I agree with Audrey Thomas's disquiet, "It worries me that millions of women are buying the violence and abuse, the humiliation along with the happy ending. He didn't really mean it. I drove him to it anyway" (Thomas, 1986, p. 11). I don't think they are buying it. They are recognising it as a presence in society and trying to come to terms with it within the safety of the covers of a book. It is interesting that in real life the women were vehement that they rejected aggression and aggressive sex particularly absolutely.
We notice Jaime travels. He is away at Christmas, an implication of a high-powered lifestyle? In the books the heroine achieves the protection of a very successful male who is exceptionally aggressive and competitive and whose occasional tenderness is reserved for her and her future children. It is essential to the survival plan that he is horrible.
One of the recurring list of characters is the Other Man. The Other Man is usually kind, understanding, attractive, easy to talk to. However, time and time again the heroine rejects a relationship with the Other Man, a relationship that in the real world one might think stood a fair chance of success. In the person of the Other Man, alternative ideas of masculinity are explored - and rejected. The Other Man in his appearance as the kindly comforter bears many resemblances to the New Man who still sometimes figures in media features about the accompanying changes in men to accommodate the more liberated women. If we are interested in ideas of equality for women, I think we do need to look carefully at the women who read romantic fiction. As Bridget Fowler says, "even the most formulaic romance may reveal important clues to both human needs and the existing social relations within which they are expressed" (Fowler, 1991. p. 1) Many of my readers were very sympathetic to the aims of feminism as was evident in the interviews, albeit often of the "I'm not a feminist but . . ." persuasion. There is much research where it has been shown that the newly freed woman who is now not only allowed but expected to go out to paid employment is also still expected to perform the same domestic and emotionally supportive work as before. Teresa Rees comments on "(t)his extraordinarily robust pattern of division of labour!" (Rees, 1992, p. 116). Many women are all too aware of the disparity between reality and the images of increasing equality purveyed by the media. It seems that they reject the New Man as insufficient security in an oppressive society.
It is noticeable that while the heroine may have a very supportive relationship with the Other Man, she reserves any sexual relationship for the Hero. Since the books are survival plans, security demands that the sexual relationship is reserved for the more successful male.
Indeed a further function of the books for women is the very straightforward one that they are the most available source of eroticism for women. It is intriguing how, for those who do not read romance, Barbara Cartland virgins are considered the norm. This was certainly reported to me by their writers and readers as the view of their friends and acquaintances and families. However, virginal heroines are very much the exception nowadays. Women readers were often aware that an overt and lively interest in sex was not part, still, of the accepted image of women and were at great pains to hide the sexual content of the novels from family and partners. Carol Thurston in The Romance Revolution has remarked, "If there is any single label that fits these romances today it is female sexual fantasy and they are available in essentially every supermarket in the land and the hundreds of articulate readers . . . for the most part are well aware of the role this erotic fiction plays in both their real and fantasy lives" (Thurston, 1987, p. 141), Alison Light said rather cynically in an article, "The reader is left in a permanent state of foreplay, but I would guess that for many women, this is the best heterosexual sex they ever -et" (Light, 1990, p. 342).
Women then read romantic fiction in very complex ways and at many levels. They read at different times with commitment, or distance or irony and with a -real deal of humour. They do not confront patriarchal society or oppose it, as, for instance, some science fiction does. It is bluff and double bluff. The books present the ideology of romantic love with which society cloaks the patriarchal reality for women. Women themselves take the overt ideology and writers and readers subvert the ideology with a message of how to survive that society. They are subversive, manipulative - changing circumstances to their own advantage. As suggested earlier, women constantly play highly defined roles, which, within a patriarchal and capitalist society, are not always rewarding. In my interviews 1 found that women could and did maintain a distancing from those roles within their own consciousness. And it was through the lens of this distancing, in regard both to the books and much more importantly to their own lives, that they read the romantic novels and those lives. They read and enjoy the books but they shift and change constantly in their position as interpellated subject of the ideologies contained in the text and the degree to which they collaborate with that interpellation. The readers knew that the stories were "sentimental rubbish" as one reader reported of a partner's verdict. They were amused at their own reactions to the sexual content of the books - one reader, when asked which type of books she most enjoyed, wanted ,”erotic love scenes (one or two only).” They knew the stories did not reflect real love - but they do reflect real success and security.
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