Modleski on criticism of popular feminine narratives

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30 years ago, Tania Modleski wrote a book on mass-produced fantasies for women, which looked at the Harlequin Romances, Gothic novels and soap operas. Reading it, you get a sense of some of the history of criticism in popular fiction – and it gets you wondering how such criticism connects with popular genres today… In her introduction to this book, Modleski wrote:

“Although Harlequin Romances, Gothic novels, and soap operas provide mass(ive) entertainment for countless numbers of women of varying ages, classes, and even educational backgrounds, very few critics have taken them seriously enough to study them in detail. The double critical standard, which feminists have claimed biases literary studies, is operative in the realm of mass-culture studies as well. One cannot find any writings on popular feminine narratives to match the aggrandized titles of certain classic studies of popular male genres (‘The Ganster as Tragic Hero’) or the inflated claims made for, say, the detective novel which fill the pages of the Journal of Popular Culture. …As Virginia Woolf observed some time ago, “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’ And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction“….” (11)

“Modleski continues: “There are no doubt a number of reasons why female protagonists and female popular fiction cannot claim for themselves the kind of status male heroes and male texts so often claim. This kind of aggrandizement, occurring both in fiction and in criticism, would appear to be a masculine mode, traceable, at least in part, to the male oedipal conflict. [she explains this position, then goes on…] At the end of a majority of popular narratives the woman is disfigured, dead, or at the very least, domesticated. And her downfall [in contrast with the hero] is seen as anything but tragic. There are other ways in which male texts work to insist implicitly on their difference from the feminine. Sometimes this is done through language: for instance, through rigorous suppression of ‘flowery’ descriptions or the tight-lipped refusal to employ any expression of emotion other than anger.” (12)

“…if self-aggrandizement has been the male mode, self-abasement has too frequently been the female mode.” (13)

“…women’s criticism of popular feminine narratives has generally adopted one of three attitudes: dismissiveness; hostility – tending unfortunately to be aimed at the consumers of the narratives; or, most frequently, a flippant kind of mockery. …The present work was conceived and undertaken out of concern that these narratives were not receiving the right kind of attention. I try to avoid expressing either hostility or ridicule, to get beneath the embarassment, which I am convinced provokes both the anger and the mockery, and to explore the reasons for the deep-rooted and centuries-old appeal of the narratives. Their enormous and continuing popularity, I assume, suggests that they speak to very real problems and tensions in women’s lives. The narrative strategies which have evolved for smoothing over these tensions can tell us much about how women have managed not only to live [-p.15] in oppressive circumstances but to invest their situations with some degree of dignity.” (14-15)

According to Modleski, “The complexity of women’s responses to romances has not been sufficiently acknowledged. Instead of exploring the possibility that romances, while serving to keep women in their place, may at the same time be concerned with real female problems, analysts of women’s romances have generally seen the fantasy embodied in romantic fiction either as evidence of female ‘masochism’ or as a [-p.38] simple reflection of the dominant masculine ideology.” (37-38)

Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut

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