Harlequin readers and feminine anxieties


Outlining her project (on mass-produced fantasies for women), Tania Modleski writes:

“[Fredric] Jameson can speak of ‘desires’ and ‘anxieties’ as if the terms were self-evident, but when they are applied to women and women’s situation they become extremely problematic. Early followers of Freud tended to characterize women’s desire as masochism, a masochism thought to be biologically ordained, for, according to Helene Deutsch, if women did not ‘naturally’ love pain they would neither consent to sexual intercourse nor suffer the difficulties of childbearing. In a classic Freudian psychological manoeuvre, women’s very anxieties about pain which they revealed, for instance, in nightmares about rape, were construed by Deutsch as ‘proof’ of women’s repressed wish to be physically overpowered. We may smile at the doctrine of women’s masochism when it is thus baldly stated, but it survives in milder forms to this day, and is implicity invoked even by feminist critics when they try to explain the attractions of popular feminine [-p.30] texts. Here is how Ann Douglas describes the Harlequin readers: ‘[The] women who couldn’t thrill to male nudity in Playgirl are enjoying the titillation of seeing themselves, not necessarily as they are, but as some men would like to see them: illogical, innocent, magnetized by male sexuality and brutality.'” (pp.29-30)

“It is an important part of my project,” Modleski continues, “to show that the so-called masochism pervading these texts is a ‘cover’ for anxieties, desires and wishes which if openly expressed would challenge the psychological and social order of things. For that very reason, of course, they must be kept hidden: the texts, after arousing them, must, in Fredric Jameson’s formula, work to neutralize them.” (p.30)

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


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