Werewolf romances

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In her analysis of the werewolf romances of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn, Erin S. Young argues for a reconceptualisation of the borders around the genre(s) of Romance. She writes:

“In her introduction to Best New Paranormal Romance (2006), a collection of contemporary tales that explore the intersection of romance and fantasy, editor Paula Guran establishes a distinction between “paranormal romance” and “paranormal Romance”: “I contend that although some twenty-first century paranormal romance is still definitional Romance, another type of ‘paranormal romance’ has emerged that is not Romance. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge this duality or at least explore the idea” (8). Using Pamela Regis’ definition of romance—from A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003)—as the foundation of her argument, Guran suggests that “the betrothal,” which signifies “happily ever after” at the conclusion of the conventional romance narrative, is one of the definitive elements that distinguishes “paranormal Romance” from “paranormal romance.” Romance novelists such as Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon, who occasionally venture into paranormal territory, are producing “paranormal Romance.” In contrast, the works of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn—which will be the central foci of this essay—are more appropriately labeled “paranormal romance,” because these novels violate the conventional romance formula by omitting “the betrothal,” as well as any other indicator of “happily ever after.”

Guran’s argument reveals the fundamental paradox that exists at the core of romance criticism. The “betrothal” must occur at some point in the romance novel. [-p.205] A romance novel without a betrothal is not a romance; it may contain a love story, but it should be categorized as belonging to some other genre. This logic suggests both the impossibility of a feminist reading of popular romance—if a romance novel must conclude with at least the promise of marriage, then the genre does, by critical definition, affirm the “patriarchal myths and institutions” that have long prevented feminist romance critics from giving it a stamp of approval—and more importantly perhaps, it suggests that women’s concerns, experiences, and ideas about love have changed minimally in the 200-plus years that have passed since the emergence of the domestic novel (Modleski 16). I would argue that it is more fruitful to read the paranormal romance’s nearly universal rejection of marriage—and reproduction—as a reflection of particular cultural fantasies about limitless consumption and flexibility, even in the development of romantic relationships. I hope to justify the inclusion of the paranormal romance in academic romance criticism, despite its significant deviations from the popular romance code, because it suggests a cultural shift in dominant ideas about identity and intimacy. If an acknowledgement of this shift leads writers and readers of romance to interrogate constructions of love, marriage, and reproduction as stable and permanent concepts, then new analyses of women’s subjectivity in the context of patriarchal and economic realities may become possible.” (pp.204-205)

Citing David Harvey, Young asserts: “[“]”The dynamics of a ‘throwaway’ society . . . mean[s] more than just throwing away produced goods . . . but also being able to throw away values, lifestyles, stable relationships, and attachments to things, buildings, places, people, and received ways of doing and being” (156, 286). The heroines of “paranormal romance,” like the multi-volume structures that contain them, fully embrace the “dynamics of a ‘throwaway’ society” as they experience a multitude of romantic relationships, sexual encounters, and adventures that yield only temporary satisfaction.” (p.207)

With regards to the werewolf romances of Armstrong and Vaughn, Young explains, “What both of these series offer, then, are heroines whose paranormal attributes play a key role in their refusal—and sometimes, inability—to marry and bear children. Through the absence of these two central characteristics of romance, Elena and Kitty (as well as the readers of their narratives) are granted access to a very particular kind of capitalist fantasy.” (p.208)

In the works of Armstrong and Vaughn, lycanthropy functions as a paranormal inheritance that endows their heroines with altered physical bodies and perspectives that facilitate the indefinite pursuit of temporary and disposable pleasures. Lycanthropy also enables Elena and Kitty to interrogate and reject traditional “human” standards of gendered behavior, thereby reflecting the dissolution of stable identities in a flexible capitalist economy.
The werewolf romances of Armstrong and Vaughn share particular formulaic conventions that are identifiable throughout the genre of paranormal romance, [-p.209] including a first-person female narrator, a multi-volume structure, and a parallel universe in which magic exists.” (pp.208-209)

To be a werewolf is, for the most part, to consume without consequence.” (p.210)

“…the werewolf lens enables a critique of the monogamous relationship and the institution of marriage.” (p.211)

In both series, sexual intercourse is depicted as a “natural” indulgence for werewolves, especially when it follows a successful hunt. In contrast, the strict boundaries that surround acceptable forms of human sexuality (that it must be explored with only one other person, that it must be associated with love, and that it must be legally sanctioned by the State), are portrayed as heavily constructed rules of behavior that are distinctly “unnatural.”” (p.211)

“Armstrong’s Bitten offers the following premise: a female werewolf, uncomfortable with her lycanthropic identity, chooses to abandon her Pack and “pass” as an ordinary human woman with a stable career in journalism and a loving live-in boyfriend. In “The Politics of Passing” (1996), Elaine K. Ginsberg claims that “the possibility of passing challenges a number of problematic and even antithetical assumptions about identities, the first of which is that some identity categories are inherent and unalterable essences” (4). The conventional romance novel accepts the traditionally gendered categories of “male” and “female” as “inherent and unalterable essences,” as illustrated by Jayne Ann Krentz’s defense of the romance novel in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (1992): “[Romance novels] celebrate female power, intuition, and a female worldview that affirms life and expresses hope for the future” (8). Werewolf romances do not share this assumption; human standards of appropriate behavior—particularly along gender lines—are continually rendered “strange” as they are observed through the eyes of the werewolf protagonist. Elena’s painstaking attempt to “pass” as a human woman forces the reader to question the innateness of behaviors and values that are conventionally coded as “feminine.” Thus, Bitten poses a unique challenge to the romance genre; its focus on a werewolf heroine who is always conscious of performing human femininity is simultaneously a focus on gender as a socially constructed category of identity.” (p.214)

“…both series offer complex explorations of the lycanthropic inheritance as a specifically gendered form of power. Lycanthropy is constructed contradictorily as a condition that empowers its female hosts by granting them sexual, geographical, and economic mobility, while also signifying the source and consequence of patriarchal oppression. The explicitness of this contradiction may seem critically inconvenient, but it must be noted that the werewolf romance exposes a central contradiction at the heart of every romance novel. The conventional romance heroine is “empowered” by her access to the patriarchal institution of marriage at the novel’s conclusion, much to the dismay of early romance critics. In contemporary romances that feature career women, the heroine’s empowerment is dependent upon her access to the patriarchal business world—access that is solely the result of a fortunate accident of birth. Werewolf romances, in other words, may offer yet another fantasy of female empowerment—albeit one that suggests substantial changes in the needs and desires of women under flexible capitalism—but at least they reveal the incompatibility of that fantasy with the patriarchal conditions that continue to affect the choices available to contemporary women.” (p.225)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine; italics in original) Erin S. Young (2011) Flexible Heroines, Flexible Narratives: The Werewolf Romances of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn  Extrapolation, Vol. 52, No. 2, pp.204-226

Reference is to: Armstrong, Kelley. Bitten. New York: Plume, 2001.
Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1988.

Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.
Ginsberg, Elaine K. “The Politics of Passing.” Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1996.
Guran, Paula, ed. “Introduction: What is ‘Paranormal Romance’?” Best New Paranormal Romance. New York: Juno Books, 2006. 7-17.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time & Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York and London: New York UP, 2005.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Introduction. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992.
Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984.
Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty and the Midnight Hour. New York: Warner Books, 2005.

Zaretsky, Eli. Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.