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Confessions of a Harlequin Reader: Romance and the Myth of Male Mothers

  • Angela Miles
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Part of the Culture Texts book series (CULTTX)

Abstract

Like most women, I think, I have read one or two Harlequins over the years when nothing else was available. All I saw, at first, were sexist, predictable, often poorly written stories with boorish heros and embarrassingly childish heroines. They have a rigid formula which, unlike many other aspects, has remained unchanged over the years. In fact, the guide sheet for aspiring authors warns that the plot must not interfere with the romance and asks them to make their manuscript approximately (!) 188 pages in length. As one romance writer succinctly put it: “In the Roman rose the plot is always the same: attraction followed by repulsion; despair at the hero’s indifference; jealousy; reconciliation on the last page.”1 That means the last page, literally. Never earlier.

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Notes

  1. 3.
    Ann Barr Snitow, “Mass Marketing Romances: Pornography for Women is Different,” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 150.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    In 1982 Harlequin Enterprises sold 218 million books in twelve languages in 98 countries. In Canada twenty eight percent of the paperbacks sold were Harlequins. Romances of all kinds, taken together made up fifty percent of paperback sales in the U. S. From Margaret Jensen, Love’s Sweet Return: The Harlequin Story, (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1984), p. 34.Google Scholar
  3. Janice Radway in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  4. 18.
    Janet Patterson is another one of the writers who recognizes that “women are not consumers but active readers; novels are not commodities but cultural experiences” (p. 23) and asks “why women want to read Harlequins” (p. 22). She is the only writer I know who has dealt with the emotional nature of the Harlequin experience and the power of the ritualized repetitive experience in her answer to that question. See Janet Patterson, “Consuming Passion” Fireweed 11 (1981): 19–33.Google Scholar
  5. 22.
    Over half the women Radway surveyed read more than sixteen hours a week and another 24 percent between eleven and fifteen hours a week (Reading the Romance, p. 59). One-third read from five to nine romances weekly, another fifty-five percent completed between one and four romances weekly. She interviewed regular customers at a romance bookstore so her sample is probably skewed toward the heavier readers. According to Rosemary Griley in Love Lines: The Romance Readers Guide to Printed Pleasures, (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1983)Google Scholar
  6. Yankelevitch, K. Skelly and White, The 1978 Consumer Research Study on Reading and Book Purchasing, (Darien, Conn.: The Group, 1978)Google Scholar
  7. 23.
    Tania Modleski, “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances,” Signs 5, 3 (1980): 442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 27.
    Margaret Atwood, “The Story of Valerie Vapid,” Broadside 6, 4 (February 1985): 10.Google Scholar
  9. 40.
    For a review of this literature and its significance see Marianne Hirsch, “Mothers and Daughters,” Signs 7, I (1981): 200–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Heather Jon Maroney, “Embracing Motherhood: New Feminist Theory” in Feminism Now: Theory and Practice, eds. Marilouise and Arthur Kroker et al.(Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1985): 40–64.Google Scholar
  11. 41.
    Jane Lazarre, “Restoring Lives at City College,” The Village Voice 26, 20 (18 May 1982): 5Google Scholar
  12. Mickey Spencer et al. “Mother/Daughter Roles in the Feminist Movement,” Quest 5, 3 (1978): 71–80Google Scholar
  13. 43.
    Mary O’Brien, The Politics of Reproduction, (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1981).Google Scholar
  14. 44.
    Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, (University of California Press, 1978); Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977)Google Scholar
  15. Jane Flax, “The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother/Daughter Relationships and within Feminism,” Feminist Studies 4, 1 (1978): 171–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex and Power, (Essex: Longmann, 1983)Google Scholar
  17. Isaac D. Balbus, Marxism and Domination, (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  18. 46.
    Diane Hunter, “Hysteria, Psychoanalysis and Feminism: The Case of Anna O,” Feminist Studies 9, 3 (Fall 1983); Louise Eichenbaum and Susan Orbach, Understanding Women: A Feminist Psychoanalytic Approach, (Basic Books, 1983); Ruth Wodak, “The Language of Love and Guilt: Relationships Between Mothers and Daughters from a Socio and Psycholinguistic Point of View,” Resourcesfor Feminist Research 13, 3 (November 1984): 21–25.Google Scholar
  19. 49.
    Lillian Rubin, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, (Basic Books, 1976): 40-41. The same deprivation and its link to romantic fantasy is evident in such other accounts of working class family and community as in Basil Henriques et al., Coal is Our Life: An Analysis of a Yorkshire Mining Community, and Meg Luxton, More Than a Labour of Love: Three Generations of Women’s Work in the Home, (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  20. 51.
    Snitow, p. 154, citing Joanna Russ, “Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic,” Journal of Popular Culture 6, 4 (Spring 1983): 666–691.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 57.
    The theoretical study of women’s specific sexuality is less developed than the study of our specific relationship to the world and to power. But circumstantial evidence from a number of sources supports the implications from Harlequins that intimacy, nurture, and security are central to women’s erotic pleasure. When Ann Landers asked her readers “Would you be content to be held close and treated tenderly and forget about ‘the act’?” 72 percent of the 90,000 women who responded said “Yes” and 40 percent of these were less than 40 years old (Shere Hite, Women and Love: Cultural Revolution in Progress, [New York: Knopf, 1987]).Google Scholar
  22. 58.
    The theoretical bases of women’s more connected sense of self and the world and greater capacity for mutually affirming interdependence are described by Mary O’Brien, Nancy Chodorow, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Jane Flax (all op. cit.). Influential studies of this specific female experience and its psychological and social importance have been done by Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women, (Boston: Beacon, 1976)Google Scholar
  23. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  24. 59.
    Some writers who rightly challenge the extremely negative stereotyping of Harlequin readers and point out that we are active participants in the process and not mere passive victims, have moved from this to a representation of Harlequins as more benign than I think is warranted. See, for instance, the defense of Harlequins and Harlequin reading in Margaret Jensen, Gail Hamilton, Tatiana Tolstoi, all op. cit.; and Emily Toth, “Who’ll Take Romance?” Women’s Review of Books 1, 5 (February 1984): 12–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 60.
    Janice G. Raymond, A Passion for Friendship: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection, (Boston: Beacon, 1986).Google Scholar
  26. 63.
    Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, (New York: Bantam, 1977), p. 257.Google Scholar
  27. 64.
    Rich, p. 225. There is, in fact, a well developed feminist practice which recognizes our relationships with our mothers and our relational needs as both barriers and resources which must be consciously embraced and transformed in our personal/political struggle for a more human and freer world. See also: Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” and Between Women, op. cit., especially the chapters by Bell Gale Chevigny, Jane Lazarre, Jane Marcus, Sara Ruddick, and Martha Wheelock; Jane Lazarre, op. cit; Baba Copper, “Mothers and Daughters of Imagination,” Trivia 11 (Fall 1987): 8–20Google Scholar

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© New World Perspectives, CultureTexts Series 1991

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  • Angela Miles

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