This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2018 International Association for the Study of Popular Romance conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of literary academia. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.
The Soft Power of Romance. Heather Schell (George Washington University)
(Jodi McAlister tweet) Schell: “soft power” is the ability to persuade, rather than compel. This is the type of power valorised in the romance novel, where characters (esp. heroines) may lack hard power.
(Kat Mayo tweet) Hard power refers to familiar modes of military and economic might. Soft power refers to the ability to persuade rather than compel. Heather doesn’t think there’s anything inherently soft or insidious about soft power. But it’s a useful lens.
Critics have a long history of worrying about the impact of novels on the female readers, and in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Austen shows she is aware of this by having a scene where the heroine shakes off the impact of having read too many gothic novels.
Jessica Luther in the 1970s – romance propped up the patriarchy
- Video games
- Neither are seen as having social agendas
Romance is powerful but how and what does it mean?
1970s Harlequin’s chief editor Mary Bonnycastle initiated a marketing campaign where romance was ‘created by women for women’.
Three levels of power
- Decision making
- Agenda making
- Manipulation (get people to do what you want) – this softer power is seen as pernicious
Joseph Ni talked about hard power (military, compelling) and soft power (attract and persuade). Soft power is a good tool for those who lack hard power and this is particularly apparent in romance novels. Harlequin, as a company, has very strong reach in terms of soft power.
(PopFicDoctors tweet) Romance novels are premised on the idea of love as a form of soft power, and are incredibly infuential that way, says Schell.
Dangerous Loves Endangered: Nationalism, Violence and Territorialization in US Paramilitary Romance Fiction. Nattie Golubov (Centro de Investigaciones sobre America del Norte, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico)
Paramilitary – privately owned military style forces
These books have covers with headless buff men with military clothes and weapons. The focus is on the male characters who are transformed by their journey. They usually begin in combat.
- “bumfuck Mexico”
- “hell hot armpit of the world” (Sierra Leone)
- “dusty rodent infected” (Brazil)
Abroad (from America) is described poorly in a sub-genre written by American authors. The male characters are devoted to the USA with plot threats being external (to USA).
(Kat Mayo tweet) Paramilitary romances set abroad enact a scenario of never-ending war where paramilitary intervention is required to advance US interests.
Most books are mf romance with white lead characters against a racialized enemy (either at home or abroad). There is an ideal USA community to defend (a quasi or real homeland). These books normalise the perpetual war on terror (and most are based in post-9/11 terrorism).
Golubov studied five series all set around private security corps.
- All published after Bush presidency as Obama reduced “Team America”
- All highlight the mercenaries (moves from public soldiers to private security)
- Emphasise on ‘no good reason for their work’
- “marauding angry white men until the heroines redirect their rage into gentleness”
- The rage comes from a sense of being discarded by the USA army after fighting ‘wars they shouldn’t have been fighting’
The men are described as ‘more than human’ in terms of physicality, and transform into human with a heart when the heroine shows them a ‘way back home’. These soldiers are motivated by profit, not country, and have issues with accountability (essentially living in groups of unregulated men)
This type of work (private security) boomed between 2003 and 2008 with private ‘soldiers’ seen as more cost effective than the USA military. USA government owns most of these business, and they actively exclude women – ie re-masculinise the military. Private companies are seen to sell ‘security’ not violence.
In this sub-genre, the white couple beat up brown men with outrage. Most novels include the private force doing some charity, as well as justifications for their outrage “you kill the people who deserve it.” It is the hero’s nature to be protective of white American women, and American womanhood.
The villains are typically:
- Middle Eastern
Every villain is shows to find pleasure in hurting women (to reinforce their villain-ness), while the hero teaches the heroine to re-find ‘trust’.
The heroes all have a brotherhood
- Eases the transfer from public soldier to private contractor
- Live in heavily guarded compounds under military conditions
- Heroes lack normalcy
(Kat Mayo tweet) Cultural shift recognising PTSD resulting from war and decreasing public appetite for war are reflected in paramilitary romance.
Heroines provide domesticity and allow the hero to renew their covenant with America
- Idealisation of the girl next door trope
- Characters all white heterosexual norms
- Heroines are far from old school passive objects, however they all require rescue from brown villains at the end
These books reinforce the ‘otherness’ of non-American countries, and of non-white races.
The current news about President Trump and his Mexican border regulations (the wall, separation of children, etc) might change the landscape for these novels (or the authors will dig deeper into the pro-America/white nationalist stand).
The Mexican border forces are run by private companies:
- Private after 9/11 was seen as a good force
- In Trump’s era, these same private forces are starting to be seen as bad
(Jodi McAllister tweet) Golubov: a genre that explicitly responded to 9/11 can now be read through a different, much more problematic lens, due to the current political climate.
(Kat Mayo tweet) Q on the appeal of this subgenre to readers. Nattie: There’s a pervasive low-key fear of (brown) foreign men. Also a genuine fear of male violence and a way to process men’s potential for violence and the ability to domesticate it through love.
(Kat Mayo tweet) Nattie read a book on white supremacist militias. A lot of the ideology in these novels are shared by them. something she wants to explore bc there’s a political vocabulary that can be used in various ways. White supremacists can use this for their own discourse/ideology
The Single-Mother and the Law: Romance Novels making room for female voices in patriarchal spaces. Therese Dryden (University of Newcastle).
Single Mums are stereotyped in media
- Living off the hard work of others
- Harmful to kids
These stereotypes are fundamentally false, and romance broaches this topic as a protest to these stereotypes.
Law in Literature
- Realm where language, story and human experience meet
- Where white men speak for all of us (from a place of authority)
- Legal theory misses the woman’s experience because in the past women have lacked the power to make the law
Dryden studied 12 novels about single mothers, including:
- Maid for Love (Gansett Island), by Marie Force
- Along Came Trouble: Camelot Series, by Ruthie Knox
- A Single Kiss (Sweetest Kisses Book 1), by Grace Burrowes
- I’ll Stand By You (Blessings, Georgia), by Sharon Sala
- Shelter Mountain: A Virgin River Novel, by Robyn Carr
- The Inn at Eagle Point (A Chesapeake Shores Novel), by Sherryl Woods
- Nobody’s Baby But Mine: A Novel (Chicago Stars), Susan Elizabeth Phillips
- Daisy’s Back in Town, by Rachel Gibson
- Custody battles
- Stigma is ongoing
- Threat to heroine’s created family
- Injustice of sexual double standard
Shelter Mountain and A Single Kiss described as ‘literature of protest’.
Shelter Mountain shows how the law fails to protect women from domestic violence. The inequalities in the justice system are not subtle or haphazard. The novel puts the heroine in peril immediately, and the hero is an ex-marine who cooks in a local diner. There is also a side character who is a nurse with experience in domestic violence support.
The hero researches the law, and exposes the skew towards men, meanwhile the father (and abuser) cares more about having possession of the child, than keeping the heroine alive.
Discussion on the impotence of restraining orders
- In order to file one, the heroine has to supply her address, giving the abuser access to her
Shelter Mountain sees ‘justice’ and ‘the law’ as separate entities, and in the end the hero is forced to more outside the law to compensate for its ineffectiveness.
(Kat Mayo tweet) Law and literature have often assumed that, if not absent, women are the other & subject to the male gaze. In romance, the woman is centred & it is her journey we see.
(Kat Mayo tweet) Q on whether there’s any conflict with a romance that nails female experience but kind of ruins it with man saves the day. Therese: In this book, there are 2 contradictory impulses: feminist, an unfair system, but this is resolved by hypermasculine men who are nurturers…
… It’s like the author has created super masculine men with super feminine sensibilities. But at the end of the day, the power still belongs to the men.
One of the Guys? Eve Dallas as a masculine worker heroine in JD Robb’s In Death series. Jayashree Kamble (LaGuardia CC, City University of New York)
(Jodi McAlister tweet) Kamble: romance is a dialectical, synthetic form, wherein apparently opposed binaries are regularly reconciled.
Kamble joked that reading the In Death series was potentially her longest running relationship to date. The series starts with Naked in Death (In Death, Book 1) (1995) and is currently up to 58 books (September 2018).
Eve Dallas (the series heroine)
- Seen through a masculine lens
- Slim disciplined muscles
- Long limbs
- Sharp angular face
- Cis-norm masculine
Kamble joked that the In Death series equated to the Nancy Drew series (with some characters gender switched).
Dallas wears manly clothes
- Worn boots
- Scarred jacket
- Often contrasted to her female colleagues and their ‘elegant dress’
- Dallas’ hair is short, cropped, untidy, sometimes she cuts it herself, careless, and avoids makeup
1974 – a woman was fired for wearing pants to work.
The 1970s had some moral panic in the press when teenage boys grew their hair long, and women cut theirs off.
Putting Dallas into the New York police department is putting her into a paramilitary force (they have more weaponry than some small nations).
Dallas can weaponize her body, preferring fighting and time on the streets to paperwork
- Rejection of feminised work
- Either ‘act like a guy and risk losing femineity’ or ‘risk losing work/career’
- Dallas rejects emotional work in favour of physical work (even though she is a detective and doesn’t have to put on a flak jacket)
- She behaves as if she is a man with a wife at home to take care of her needs
- Respected for her masculine traits
- Very unemotional to the media – accused of not playing nice, and being too rational