The narrative of popular romance simultaneously challenges and reaffirms traditional male-female rel

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The narrative of popular romance simultaneously challenges and reaffirms traditional male-female rel

The theory that popular art as a whole exists to reinforce the status quo and keep its audience happy with it is one that has long been espoused by critics. This attitude is one which was especially championed by the Marxist oriented Frankfurt school of thought led by Horkheimer, Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who argued that only "high" art could give us a view of a better tomorrow. In her book "Loving with a Vengeance"(-henceforth referred to as LWAV) Tania Modleski argues that, in this sense, contempt for 'mass' art is seen as a politically pro~ressive attitude (pg.30) Howeve~ she goes on to say that Robert Jameson showed that mass art often contained many specific criticisms of ~everyday life.Therefore, in order to effectively answer the question above the extent to which the popular romance criticises or celebrates the traditional relations between the sexes must be determined. In this essay I will attempt to examine this closely, looking firstly at how far the novels in question can be said to be reaffirming the traditional roles between the sexes then going on to examine the possible challenges they offer.

It would be useful to firstly ascertain what is meant by the traditional relations between the sexes." The hero in Mills and Boon and Harlequin novels must be, in order for the novel to be published, significantly older than the heroine (usually by ten to fifteen years) and he is generally financially better off and in possession of higher social status and always sexually more experienced and physically more powerful than her. In older publications such as "Sonora Sundown" by JanetDailey (Mills and Boon 1978) the heroine is identified as a virgin in the first chapter whilst her prospective lover is an actor, well known for his "success" with women. His physical domination of her is one of the very first scenes in the book as she tries to escape from him, believing that he is going to kill her. The scene concludes with a threat of rape in the immortal lines

"I ought to make love to you; it's what a hellcat like you deserves!" (Page 30)

His physical superiority over her is continually stressed and he uses it often quite brutally, especially in scenes of conflict. Phrases such as "his punishing grip", ~'hard unrelenting kisses" and

~exquisite pain" are common throughout the novel, along with his assertions that

"I'm no gentleman"

In the 1991 publication of "Specialist in Love" by Sharon Wirdnam (also Mills and Boon) the stressing of the physical superiority of the hero has on the whole been replaced by his intellectual prowess-he dictates words which she cannot spell and is rude and verbally aggressive towards her instead of physically so but he is certainly still taller, older and of a higher social standing than the heroine (a consultant dermatologist to her medical secretary,) with a ferocious temper, albeit one restrained to the verbal arena. These sets of circumstances would certainly appear to reinforce the traditional image of the male being the physical, intellectual and economic superior of the female within a romantic relationship. An inequality of class between the hero and heroine appears to be crucial to the plot of modern romantic fiction. This is not surprising if we look at the fact that men in our society generally hold the economic power, and that a woman's status is identified with that of her husbandls: finding an appropriate husband is the problem and the most effective way to ensure financial and social stability.Indeed Anne Cranny-Francis writes in ~Feminist Fiction~ that ~'Inequality of class is as much a mechanism of the romance as the gender relationships." This notion certainly appears to be reaffirmed by the narrative of the popular romance where the heroine transcends her own class and economic circumstances by being virtuous enough to be desired as a wife by a member of a class above her.

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Carolyn Steedman says in "Landscape ~for a Good Woman| that one of the most widespread fairytales of our society is that "goose-girls can marry kings"-we might add "if they make themselves attractive enough." That a woman of a lower socio-economic class can elevate herself by marriage to a man of higher social status reaffirms the patriarchal society's method of defining women purely in gender terms, and as inferior to men who are defined by their class, race and public achievements amongst other things, along with their gender. Women are classless because as a sex they are inferior and under the ...

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