Published: Aug. 1, 2009 By ,

[1] To the marriage of true minds, romance fiction has not admitted many impediments. The genre has long relied on the marriage closure in the tradition of the fairytale happily-ever-after, and because love and marriage continue to “go together” in popular culture discourses, many critics of the genre have taken as given that romance novels invariably promote a simplistic relationship between desires for emotional and legal commitment. Linda Christian-Smith is a case in point, claiming that ‘romance has all the hallmarks of a training camp for marriage, where heart and hearth become bound together and the wifely qualities of self-sacrifice and fidelity are instilled. As such, romance is an important social dynamic for the learning of gendered relations of subordination and domination’ (29). Her sentiments are reiterated by romance scholars, many of whom are critical of the genre’s sanctifying use of marriage as an institution that perpetuates gendered power inequalities. However, while such criticisms tend to be based on analysis of romance novels from the 1980s and earlier, and do not attend to subsequent shifts in the genre, the assumptions persist in contemporary scholarship. Jeanne Dubino, writing in 2004 refers to the ‘formula of contemporary romances’ and argues that ‘Once the goal of marriage has been reached, the novel usually ends’ (103-104). She cites Janice Radway’s work from 1984 and 1990, and Jean Radford from 1986, unproblematically. Similarly, Barbara Fuchs’ 2004 research in Romance also relies on Radway and addresses contemporary romance logic as demanding ‘the happy ending in a wedding, actual or anticipated’ (126).

[2] While it is clichéd to point out that times are changing, shifts in social structures that frame married life in the contemporary world have recast the perceptions and lived experiences of marriage in dramatic ways. Marriages and their ceremonies remain highly fashionable in these apparently postfeminist times and represent a lucrative industry, but the fact that couples are now typically aware of rising divorce rates (and therefore their real-world chances of maintaining a marriage), necessarily floats marriage as a signifier. Further, romance is a highly socially responsive form of narrative production, as the fairytale resonances in the genre suggest, and romance novels have a compelling relationship with the traditions of oral storytelling. Marina Warner demonstrates that traditional stories were often told among women as they worked, attended births and socialised together, and thus the narratives reflected their tastes and interests. Romance is likewise produced predominantly by and for women and, as with the oral tradition of storytelling, is characterised by the repeated retellings of a stock plot whereby each iteration includes alterations and additions that reflect social trends and concurrent shifts in audience sentiment. These changes then manifest themselves in the next telling of the story.

[3] Radway in Reading the Romance discovered some evidence of this social responsiveness in romance fiction in her interviews with avid readers who felt the narratives ‘were not only subtle and varied but immediately relevant to the conditions of their daily lives’ (5-6). Lynne Graham’s 1991 A Fiery Baptism offers a timely example of a romance encapsulating new knowledge about new social dynamics:

   ‘No child of mine will be raised as I was raised.’ His dark features were implacable. ‘For both of us it will mean sacrifices. Children have very basic needs. They require a mother, a father and a conventional home and I intend to supply each and every one of those needs!’
‘In an ideal world! And you may not have noticed but this is not an ideal world!’ Sarah threw back furiously. (102)

[4] This reference to contemporary familial life is indicative of the social realities romance fiction reflects. The stories are not unequivocal idealistic fantasies, nor can they be since they circulate in a world in which readers are now confronted with troubled marriages, fragile relationships and couples who actively work to sustain their relationships. As romance author, Sheila Holland claims, ‘Every few years Mills & Boon changes. A change is always author-led and mirrors what is happening in the world outside. We are not behind the times, at all, despite critical opinion; we are well aware of current trends and keep abreast of them’ (cited in McAleer, 283)

[5] The new role and function of marriage in the contemporary western cultures in which Anglophone romance books are produced and consumed beg a range of questions about (and a critical assessment of) the representations of marriage in current examples of the genre. This paper proposes some possible answers formed in response to the results of an ambitious survey of depictions of marriage in 150 Mills & Boon romances produced between 1984 and 2004. These novels have been systematically assessed according to a set of critically engaged criteria that relate specifically to marriage in order to accurately ascertain percentages of repeated representations and outcomes in the narratives. Given that the typical consumer of romance reads voraciously, these statistical results are likely to be more indicative of the reader’s experience of the genre than a close analysis of a smaller range of texts. As readers of romance commonly attest, the plots of such novels tend to blur as a result of replications of genre conventions, therefore this larger scale approach provides an effective strategy for accessing and interrogating the issues at stake.

[6] Based on the quantitative data emerging from the study, it is apparent that many criticisms of the genre rely on now outmoded assumptions and generalisations surrounding the depiction of marriage. These require challenge and rigorous debate if scholarship in the field is to keep pace with changes in the narrative formulas. The Mills & Boon brand has been selected based on the vast popularity of the series. The Harlequin website estimates that 50 million women read these books globally. The period from 1984 to 2004 constitutes recent romance fiction in a time frame broad enough to expose cultural shifts across time and yet contemporary enough to be described as current examples of the genre. By crossing three decades, the period exposes evolutions in gender politics, the romance genre, and marriage as a symbolic narrative signifier in western countries, particularly America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

[7] Of the many fascinating findings produced by this extensive quantitative analysis, the fact that marriage in contemporary stories no longer consistently occurs as the novels’ closure is of paramount importance. Marriage now regularly takes place at the beginning or during the narrative. This was not always the case, as evidenced by David Shumway’s claim that ‘marriage itself is apparently beyond representation’ (5) in romance novels because, once the proposal has been issued, the narrative concludes. In contrast, Radford’s later study argues that marriage is no longer the closure point to the narrative; it is ‘a starting point for new episodes’ (15). The statistics that emerged from our analysis concur with Radford and show that 55% of texts had marriage occur at some stage during the story, with the narrative tracking post-wedding events. In over half the novels then, marriage is depicted as only one stage within a relationship. The heroine of Helen Bianchin’s Reluctant Captive discovers as much when she says: ‘for one wild, crazy moment she wanted to turn back the clock to the few short weeks after their marriage when she’d believed everything between them seemed so right, so incredibly complete, that it was almost a dream. Then reality had reared its ugly head, and the dream had steadily become a nightmare’ (69).

[8] The contemporary representational strategy of averting marriage as the ultimate closure is also in keeping with Mairead Owen’s 1997 interviews with 137 romance readers. She finds that the ‘course of the plot does not come to its resolution in a sexual encounter…nor in the proposal of marriage, but in this “resolving dialogue’’ in which the hero expresses his feelings for the heroine’ (cited in Flesch, 117). This dialogue, according to Ann Jones, serves as a ‘moment of collapse through which power relations are reversed’ (in Radford, 200). Owen and Jones’ claims are supported in 98.5% of the novels surveyed which all end with a concerted focus on the love connection (characterised by emotional avowals), as opposed to a focus on marriage embodied by a wedding, impending or actual. Proposals are also diminishing in significance so that while Jan Cohn claims that ‘most romances present as practically simultaneous the declaration of the hero’s love and his proposal of marriage’ (30), times have now changed. In the novels surveyed, 82% presented the hero’s proposal as separate from a declaration of love. Jones’s reading of the marriage proposal in novels published prior to 1986 entails that the hero must say, ‘‘I love you’ and he must say ‘Marry me’’ (in Radford, 199). In texts as early as 1993 heroines are not so dogged in their pursuit of marriage, as in Emma Darcy’s No Risks, No Prizes: ‘She desperately wanted to share her whole life with him. Marriage didn’t matter’ (99). Proposals are clearly no longer the culminating point in a relationship.

[9] Numerous other assessments of the romance genre’s earlier deployment of marriage are also now outdated. Significantly, the survey findings indicate that Christian-Smith’s 1990 claim that marriage entails subjugation to patriarchal traditions and forms of domination and control, can no longer so easily or confidently be applied to modern-day romance novels for two reasons. Firstly, marriage is in the process of being marginalised in the romance plot, and, secondly, when marriage does occur it is not overwhelmingly presented as a function of patriarchal domination. Of the texts analysed, 61% of heroines never express a desire to marry in what amounts to the diminishing of marriage as the key goal of romance. As one fiery heroine declares: ‘Craig, for some unknown reason we just have to touch each other and the earth moves. Fine. That’s a fact. But you don’t have to dress it up with offers of marriage and fancy speeches’ (Field, 166).

[10] In order to thoroughly explore these and other statistical outcomes of the survey, our approach is to offer a politically inclusive critique of the institution of marriage, especially given its centrality in feminist cultural and literary analysis. Beyond the occurrence of a ceremony, marriage underscores questions around sexual liberation, and not only for those women who choose a white dress; it foregrounds issues of domestic divisions of labour that are typically consolidated by wedded couples living together; and, perhaps most importantly, marriage potentially institutionalises gendered hierarchy within relationships, even despite the common practice of excising the promise for women to “obey” in contemporary Christian weddings. Such hierarchies can also be evinced through economic dependence as a marker of subjugation. These assumptions are interrogated here for their contemporary validity. The broader dynamics cannot easily be disaggregated from a discussion of marriage in romance fiction, and so it is under the banner (rather than the veil) of marriage that the feminist implications of romance novels will be addressed.

Female Sexuality and Consummation

[11] Christian-Smith argues that the older romance novels she assesses are ‘the site for the struggle between the sexes over control of the woman’s sexuality’ and she concurrently claims that romances ‘demonstrate the contradictory position that sexuality occupies in heroine’s lives. Heroines may have desires, but their desires are to be held in check’ (37). In these assessments she concurs with Anne Cranny-Francis’s assertion in Feminist Fiction that romance ‘tales also teach patriarchal gender roles to women; that is, that women must deny their own sexuality in order to achieve a satisfactory marriage’ (183). These kinds of assessments are premised on romance novels or studies from the 1970s and 80s. However, even in their 2006 study of Chick Lit (as compared to romances like the Mills & Boon series) Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff base their claim that sexual innocence and passivity are “typical” of heroines in the Mills and Boon series on novels from that earlier period. The contemporary novels examined in our study, tell a range of different stories about sexuality, desire and control.

[12] The questions applied to the 150 strong sample of texts all required a simple yes/no response in order to limit discursive plays of meaning. This necessarily entails that the questions be somewhat pedestrian, but the results are nonetheless compelling. Question 4 asked: Does the text depict pre-marital sexual relations? An overwhelming 74% of texts depict heroines who engage in premarital sexual relations. These heroines are no longer required to remain virginal. The female lead in Jane Porter’s The Spaniard’s Passionis a case in point:

   ‘So, if you want me, and I think you do, then you’re going to get me. Along with a ring, a marriage license and the promise of the rest of our lives together.’
She was shaking from head to toe, her skin, body, heart on fire. She felt so much at that moment she couldn’t even get a coherent thought together. ‘You don’t have to get married to make love.’
She wrapped her arms around her knees. ‘Make fun of me. I don’t care. I’m not ashamed to say I just want some great sex. I’ve never had that, but I have had a husband.’ (127)

[13] Not only do narratives such as these dispense with the virginity paradigm as a precursor to marriage, they actively and vocally call traditionalist politics around women and their sexual pleasures into question.

[14] Such depictions of sexual freedom are heightened by the fact that a number of the heroines are cast as mistresses of the male hero, prior to any mention of marriage or commitment. While problematic on other levels, the deployment of mistress status is constructive in that it provides a platform from which romance narratives can explore sexuality outside of the confines of marriage. One author who consistently tackles the issue of women as mistresses is Michelle Reid, whose heroine:

found she could open her eyes and actually look at herself in the mirror opposite without wincing at what she saw.
And what did she see?
She saw a scarlet woman…A woman who was a mistress to a man who wasn’t even married but who still classed her as a mistress not a lover. In her view, there was a very important difference between the two titles. To be a man’s lover carried a certain amount of moral equality. To be his mistress showed a distinct lack of moral value. And was there such a thing as a master to level out the playing field? No, of course not. He remained simply the lover, with no stigma at all attached to the title. You could have a pair of lovers but you could not have a pair of mistresses—not in this context anyway. No, that unenviable title belonged exclusively to her own fair sex. (12)

[15] This novel, while positioning the heroine negatively as mistress, simultaneously denounces the sexual double-standard that the label represents (and that still operates in contemporary society) in overt and confronting prose.

[16] The sexual politics in the novels include a range of other dimensions in need of interrogation. Question 11 asks, ‘Is the heroine a virgin when she meets the hero?’ The tallied results indicate that 55% of heroines are virgins, this figure denoting an (albeit rather conservative) even-handedness operating in this representation of sexual choices for contemporary women across the spectrum from 1984 to 2004. Furthermore, breaking the statistics down into two decades, it becomes clear that virginity is losing significance. In the texts ranging from 1984 to 1994, 27% of heroines are sexually active, whilst in the period from 1995 to 2004, 48% of heroines are sexually active. It remains the case, however, that many of the women who had lost their virginity have their sexual activity limited to a conservative one or, at most, two partners, but their sexual activity has nonetheless begun.

[17] On closer analysis, the heroine’s virginity is typically attributed to the fact that she had not met the “right man.” But waiting to feel loved is different to waiting for marriage. As the heroine in Graham’sRafaello’s Mistress, declares: ‘Five years ago, they had only been together six weeks. Long enough to fall irrevocably in love but not long enough to persuade her to surrender her virginity to a male who had not made the smallest mention of love’ (28). While it is possible to read this narrative moment as aligned with Cohn’s critical assessments of ‘the preservation of virginity rewarded by marriage to a wealthy man’ (132), when marriage is no longer the prerequisite goal, the terms of the bargain begin to unravel. We will track this logic further in our assessment of economic aspects of marriage below. Neither is sexual pleasure enough to please modern-day heroines who, instead, see fit to separate their desires from their more pressing need for equality within the relationship. As another heroine declares: ‘She’d never allow herself to be dominated by a man, not even a man who made her body sing with ecstasy and challenged her mind in a thousand absorbing ways’ (Donald, 122). The same heroine also says: ‘One night in my bed gives you no authority over me. I don’t like macho, overbearing men who think they have the right to order women’s lives for them’ (Donald, 112).

[18] Of course, it is equally possible to argue that the celebration of casual sex is not empowering for women. In some respects, cultural pressure to be sexually available to men serves male interests in line with the postfeminist promotion of overt sexuality as a means of gaining control in heterosexual relationships. However, the depiction of casual sex in romance fiction challenges the stigma of conservativism around the genre and replaces it with an emerging sexual equality that challenges the prevailing double standard in western culture. As the heroine in Darcy’s The Wedding tells her readers: ‘She had only let him use her because she had wanted to use him. That was equality’ (51). Such depictions of female sexual freedom as acceptable and natural in the more recent novels shift the goal-posts dramatically by comparison to the readings of innocence expressed by Radway. As part of her “new reading” strategy she suggests that critics assess whether a depiction of virginity is ‘characterized by childlike innocence and inexperience’ (126). Tania Modleski in Loving with a Vengeance is more confident in her claim that ‘a heroine must not even understand sexual desire, for knowledge entails guilt; but since she is a child and knows not what she does, she can do a lot and be excused’ (51). Modleski’s edict persists in more contemporary scholarship including Owen’s claims that romances stress the qualities of freshness and inexperience, while Gill and Herdieckerhoff (as noted above) automatically assume that the heroines in the Mills and Boon series are virgins. The genre has now moved on.

[19] Rather than promoting sexual innocence, the surveyed romances also referred to knowledge about a vital issue for women engaging in sexual activity: contraception. Question 46 asked whether contraception played any part in the texts and the greatest contrast between decades is evident in the data collected in response to this question. Remarkably, only 18% of texts from 1984 to 1994 mentioned contraception. Between 1994 and 2004, however, contraception figured in 51% of the novels, demonstrating a greater social awareness of contemporary issues relating to sexual safety and responsibility.

[20] Depictions of sexuality now indicate that heroines make choices about propriety and knowledge of contraception that mean marriage is no longer the obligatory arena in which they must explore intercourse; neither is virginity a necessary precondition for marriage. Marriage is now a symbol for serious long-term commitment to a relationship. The critics of earlier novels have argued, however, that the pleasure of this commitment comes at the price of female freedom.

Marriage as patriarchal domination

[21] Christian-Smith is unequivocal when she says that in romance, ‘marriage is the vehicle for making women men’s property and for confining her within the home’ (13). She adds to this interpretation that a ‘prevalent pattern in the novels has the heroine giving up a more independent lifestyle upon her marriage’ (13). Again, these politics have dramatically shifted since her research was published so that romance heroines now marry against a background of careers and financial self-sufficiency. Further, in the relationships they choose, many of them insist on shared domestic duties and child-rearing responsibilities. These dimensions of the novels are each assessed by specific survey questions, the results of which demonstrate shifts in line with Carol Thurston’s claim that:

women favour marriage as a way of life, but that marriage has been redefined as sharing the responsibilities for earned income, homemaking, and child-rearing. Today it makes about as much sense to call women who desire marriage and children “traditional” as it does to apply that label to a woman with a vagina. (95)

[22] The heroines in contemporary novels are typically motivated not only by sharing responsibilities but by self-betterment and self-fulfilment within marriage. In this sense, novels now offer protagonists who are arguably also postfeminist in their pervasive individualism, a stance that can also be more broadly politicised and understood as a function of neoliberal capitalism. While the debates around postfeminism and neoliberalist individualism deserve to be undertaken in critiques of romance representations of women, our focus here is limited by the terms of the survey with its focus on marriage and its potentially debilitating consequences for women as subjugated partners. Thus it is more important (for our purposes) to note that these heroines are depicted as whole and complete people who are generally satisfied being single. In addition, they are often cast as too busy concentrating on their careers and achieving economic independence to preoccupy themselves with finding a man and marrying.

[23] While many of the male heroes in contemporary romance are still rich (in line with the genre’s traditional stock characterisations), financial security as a generic device is arguably necessary in order to free the narrative, and the lovers, to concentrate on their attentions to each other – rather than on mundane issues of financial organization. The heroines in the novels surveyed, however, now also have their own financial independence which ensures a freedom from patriarchal oppression in marriage as part of a larger trend toward independence and self-sufficiency of a majority of female protagonists. In 87% of the novels surveyed, the heroines have their own income and support themselves financially. Only 7% of heroines express a desire to be provided for by the hero while the vast majority of 93% do not. In theItalian Marriage, the heroine makes this position clear when she says:

If you’re going to start talking about money, you can forget it…We have been all through this subject before and I’ve told you I don’t want or need your help. I’m managing perfectly well by myself, and that’s how I like it. (Ross, 29)

[24] These figures also mark a change from Modleski’s criticism of marrying for money in earlier Harlequin romances, specifically her claim that:

The novels convey a contradictory message which the reader cannot possibly internalise without feeling manipulative, for we are repeatedly shown that although it is socially, economically, and aesthetically imperative for a woman to get a husband and his money, she achieves these goals partly by not wanting them. In order for this to work in real life, pretence and hypocrisy must be practiced. (50)

[25] As with older readings of virginity as a bargaining chip, this financial bargain has also been rendered less relevant by recent novels.

[26] In contemporary examples of romance, heroines are not only autonomous sexually and financially, their intellectual life is demonstrated by the fact that 48% are university educated (often a precursor for high paying careers). These novels increasingly depict heroines who are not only spirited, but educated and these two qualities win the heroes’ affections – a characterisation which challenges even contemporary novels, particularly in the Chick Lit genre which tend to downplay female intelligence (Gill and Herdieckerhoff, 495). Like economic independence, careers not only offer financial remuneration but also provide a satisfying life’s work to protect heroines from misogynistic alliances. Gill and Herdieckerhoff assert that in ‘traditional romantic novels, heroines are not normally seen as particularly career driven, despite their spirited nature and intelligence. Rather, they seek advancement and power through a romantic alliance with a man’ (495). In saying this they rely on the key studies from 1980s (specifically Jones, Modleski, Radway, Snitow) because, in the novels surveyed, career-driven female protagonists prevail. An overwhelming 76% of heroines have careers to which they are committed. This commitment is demonstrable in that only 12% of heroines give up their careers upon marrying. Furthermore, in 87% of the texts examined, the heroine has her own income and is financially secure. In fact, 93% of heroines overtly express the importance of economic independence. By way of some examples of the comments that produced this statistic, the heroine in the 1997 text, Solution: Seduction declares: ‘My career has the priority and I’m not prepared to be distracted’ (Oldfield, 13). In Sandra Field’s Untouched, the heroine affirms: ‘I really like my life the way it is. I love my job…how could I ever give that up? Marriage and babies kind of crimp your style’ (11). Such views contradict the recent critics who refer to Mills and Boon romances as premised upon a ‘return-to-the-home discourse’ (Gill & Herdickerhoff, 495).

[27] This debunking of the older economic model for empowered status within marriages in romance novels is augmented by shifts in the distribution of domestic labour. The novels have transformed since Radway made the claim that romance advocates ‘the usual sexual division of labor that dictates that women take charge of the domestic and purely personal spheres’ (123). The survey indicated that where the heroine and hero live together, the heroine is cast as doing a majority of the housework in only 6% of texts. In fact, in 59.5% of texts, heroines are portrayed as not domestically-inclined, with many of these heroines cast as rather incompetent at domestic tasks. In the period from 1984 to 1994, 20% of heroines are depicted as inept when it came to domestic duties. From 1995 onwards, however, 39.5% of heroines are domestically unskilled and or uninterested in homemaking. These representations can work to licence female readers to reject stereotypical gender roles in a profoundly ground-roots feminist gesture.

[28] It seems that marriage does not (in the surveyed novels in any case) lock heroines into selfless, passive or domestic roles. The assumptions, however, persist such that Dubino claims that romances help to ‘reconcile women to a domestic role as housewives’. Yet these contemporary characters are certainly nothing like the self-abnegating or naturally nurturant heroines that Radway identified in her 1991 study. In fact, 60% of heroines never express a desire to have children. The majority of heroines are not cast as “maternal” and in texts where children are present, 47% of heroines are not the primary child-carer. This means, if no nanny is at hand, the heroine and hero share the task.

[29] The new and significantly more empowered envisioning of distributions of power, status and workload in the marriage fictionalised in recent examples of the genre, can be read in tandem with questions that asked whether heroines express a desire to be protected by the hero. Only 4% of the books surveyed model dominant/submissive relations. As the heroine in Rafaello’s Mistressdeclares: ‘You’re too used to little, fragile women who get off on big, strong men looking after them. I don’t’ (Graham, 98-99). The statistics counter Radway’s analysis of earlier texts indicating that the heroine’s connection with a ‘powerful male’, ultimately ‘confirms her longing to be protected, provided for’ (149). Neither do they continue with Owen’s claim in 1997 that the solution offered women ‘is still marriage’ and consequently ‘there is no conflict with the dominant ideology, so the daydream is within the parameters of the most acceptable route for women’ (5). The statistics thus indicate a promisingly feminist trend in romance, a genre long derided by feminist scholars for selling regressive stereotypes to women.

[30] The survey demonstrated that 82% of the romance relationships analysed are characterised by equality between partners. Significantly, this equality is depicted as automatic and given within relationships rather than fought for and won. This means a marked majority of the texts portray relationships in which the heroine and hero are equals – where equality is determined by three primary factors: mutual love, mutual dependency and no set roles for either the heroine or hero as dominant or dominated. The questions posed included: Does the hero appear to love the heroine equally as much as the heroine appears to love the hero? Is the heroine depicted as being dependent on the hero? Is the hero portrayed as dependent on the heroine? Does it appear that the heroine is dominated? Does the hero appear to be dominant? Or are the hero and heroine on an equal footing? That equality forms the core of these relationships is indeed indicative of both generic evolution and the potential for cultural revolution in feminist terms. In The Desert Prince’s Mistress, even upon finding out that the hero is a king, the heroine remains confident of their equality, reasoning: ‘she determined not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because…of the discovery of his royal blood—he was in some way superior. He was not. He was her equal, no matter what’ (Kendrick, 110-111). Similarly, in Penny Jordan’s aptly titled The Marriage Demand, the heroine affirms: ‘I don’t like the idea of any relationship where the two people in it don’t meet as equals’ (114).

[31] Sentiments such as these abound in the current permutations of the romance genre. Thurston, on noting an increase in such sentiments in the romance novels of the eighties, asserts that ‘romances not only challenge the traditional power relationships between men and women but depict a more balanced power alignment as natural and expected—in other words, as the norm’ (8). Another case of co-dependency and mutual love is expressed in one of Robyn Donald’s texts:

   ‘It is so—huge a thing, to be dependent on someone else for your happiness.’
‘As long as it’s a two-way process, does it matter so much…I’m scared, too, Hope, because I love you more than I can even admit to myself. With you I’m vulnerable. You have the power to hurt me beyond anything I’ve ever endured.’ (182)

[32] Not only are the relationships based on this level of equality, but the narratives foreground this issue of equality as a discursive narrative strategy and thereby call attention to crucial issues at stake for the advancement of gender equality. Based on the survey results of these highly popular texts, it seems that readers of romance want to see women as partners, equals of their men—not subjugated, nor inferior. As a minor character in The Devil’s Bargain announces: ‘There’ll always be masterful men, and it doesn’t mean you have to knuckle under, you know. Most of ‘em like a strong woman to match them’ (Donald, 48).

[33] What emerges from this study is a picture of romance heroines who know themselves, who know what they want and who seek their own fulfilment external to relationships, marriage or no marriage. These findings substantiate Juliet Flesch’s 2004 assertion that romance writers have responded to the changes brought about by feminism whereby heroines are more likely to be independent, assertive, sexually experienced, work outside the home and seek more equal partnerships. The dynamics in contemporary romance thus tally with the point that Rachel Brownstein so eloquently argues and that the statistical research presented here supports:

Implicit in Austen’s novels are these truths no longer universally acknowledged: that women are interesting only in the brief time they are marriageable, that marriage is the most significant action a woman can undertake, and that after she marries her story is over. (90)

[34] Marriage is certainly part of the story, but the trope is no longer unequivocally the herald of oppression or the conclusive end to a romance heroine’s exciting life.


[35] In the 1980s, Ann Jones convincingly put the Mills and Boon celebration of love and marriage in one corner, and feminism in the other in “Mills & Boon meets feminism,” but the dichotomy is no longer unquestionably applicable to the contemporary novels in the genre. The alternations produce heroines who wryly say, ‘Why how magnanimous of you, Luke. Offer me a ring! Do you think that’s all you need to do to bring me running?’ (Charlton, 161). While many romances have, and some still do, depict submissive heroines, tyrannical heroes and relationships that promote inequality, the genre can also be liberating, empowering and can function as a tool for the promotion of feminist ideology. The tool can be all the more subtle and effective as a result of the genre’s perceived anti-feminism and ability to reach women readers who have long been derisively understood as willing victims of patriarchy. As Flesch contends, too often critics and academics reproach the romance readership for their preference of a genre that is touted as ‘supermenial’ and read by women who are ‘refreshed or drugged to their housework’ (14). This stereotype underpins a number of critics’ perceptions of romance readers as uneducated and mainly ‘housewives’. Cranny-Francis is less dismissive, but still implies that many readers lack knowledge of feminist politics when she says that:

As a political practice, then, the feminist use of genre fiction seems very appropriate. It (potentially) enables feminist writers to reach markets which might otherwise be closed, even antagonistic, to them. The feminist discourse which many readers might be totally unfamiliar with is presented within a familiar and much loved format. (3)

[36] She makes the apt point, though, that as a ‘conscious feminist propagandist it makes sense to use a fictional format which already has a huge market’ (Cranny-Francis, 2).

[37] In a more forceful analysis, Modleski positions feminism and romance as laden with activist possibilities in Loving with a Vengeance claiming, ‘even the contemporary mass-produced narratives for women contain elements of protest and resistance underneath highly “orthodox” plots’ (25). The survey results presented here demonstrate that romance fiction does now contain such elements of feminist activism and these elements are nowhere more apparent than when they are concerned with the issue of marriage. Although Flesch contends that ‘overt political positions are rarely adopted in the contemporary romance’ (294), novels presenting women’s experiences with men in a patriarchal culture are necessarily political. Of the novels surveyed, this politicisation is overt. In fact, 24.5% of the texts examined foreground feminist issues directly. These included: equality in the workplace, working mothers, and the above described sexual freedoms. When broken down, only 4% of the novels from the 1980s deal with feminism and feminist issues, while from 1990 onwards, 20.5% of the texts do so. This upward trajectory is vastly important given there is no escaping the political and social agendas of the genre and so it is no surprise that romance fictions serve as a literary-political and cultural playing field for scholars, critics and feminists alike.

[38] The representations examined here depict women as increasingly liberated sexually, financially and intellectually, and forming mutually dependent and satisfying relationships with men. They may well embody a new brand of utopia in the romance genre given that real-world gender politics have not moved so far forward for the majority of women in the western world. That said, as science fiction novels indicate in their constructions of fictional futures, imagining a different world to the reality of many women’s lives calls current inequities into question, and the very nature of new iterations of the romance fantasy indicate a positive shift in desires for gender equality. This research tracks the evolution of the representation of marriage, one that suggests the feminist potential of these widely read novels. Such potential is cleverly put by the heroine in Sweet Pretence: ‘Cinderella has a choice these days…she doesn’t have to try on the glass slipper…there are other things in life instead of rushing into marriage just for security and the status quo’ (Gilbert, 11).

Works Cited


  • Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982.
  • Christian-Smith, Linda. Becoming a Woman through Romance. New York/London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 1988.
  • Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.
  • Dubino, Jeanne. “The cinderella complex: romance fiction, patriarchy and capitalism.”
  • The Journal of Popular Culture 27:3 (March 2004): 103-118.
  • Flesch, Juliet 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Western Australia: Curtin University Books, 2004.
  • Gill, Rosalind and Elena Herdieckerhoff. “Rewriting the Romance: New Femininities in Chick Lit?” Feminist Media Studies 6:4 (2006): 487-504.
  • Jones, Ann. “Mills & Boon meets feminism.” The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge, 1986. 195-220.
  • McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s fortune: the story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced fantasies for women. London/New York: Methuen, 1982.
  • Radford, Jean, ed. The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. London: Routledge, 1986.
  • Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Shumway, David. Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy and the Marriage Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 1979.
  • Snitow, Ann. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Desire: The Politics of Sexuality.Eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. London: Virago, 1986. 259-276.
  • Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.

Romance novels cited

  • Bianchin, Helen. Reluctant Captive. Sydney: Mills & Boon Pty Limited, 1992.
  • Charlton, Ann. Winter Sun, Summer Rain. London: Mills & Boon Limited, 1984.
  • Darcy, Emma. No Risks, No Prizes. Sydney: Mills & Boon Pty Limited, 1993.
  • Darcy, Emma. The Wedding. Sydney: Mills & Boon Pty Limited, 1992.
  • Donald, Robyn. The Devil’s Bargain. Auckland: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001.
  • Field, Sandra. The Land of Maybe. Toronto: Mills & Boon Pty Limited, 1990.
  • Field, Sandra. Untouched. Toronto: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 1995.
  • Gilbert, Jacqueline. Sweet Pretence. London: Mills & Boon Pty Limited, 1988.
  • Graham, Lynne. A Fiery Baptism. London: Mills & Boon Pty Limited, 1991.
  • Graham, Lynne. Rafaello’s Mistress. London: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001.
  • Jordan, Penny. The Marriage Demand. London: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001.
  • Kendrick, Sharon. The Desert Prince’s Mistress. London: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004.
  • Oldfield, Elizabeth. Solution: Seduction. London: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 1997.
  • Porter, Jane. The Spaniard’s Passion. New York: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2003.
  • Reid, Michelle. The Bellini Bride. London: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001.
  • Ross, Kathryn. The Italian Marriage. London: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2003.