Harlequin readers and feminine anxieties

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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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The narrative pleasure of knowing the story

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“In 1973, Susanna Rowson, a writer of the ‘sentimental novel,’ remarked, ‘I wonder that the novel readers are not tired of reading one story so many times, with only the variation of its being told different ways.’ While Rowson’s observation could, with even more justic today, be applied to most popular novels, which are, of course, deeply conventional, it pertains most forcibly to Harlequin Romances, for the company which produces them requires its writers to follow a strict set of rules and even dictates the point of view from which the narrative must be told. The peculiar result is that the reader who reads the story already knows the story, at least in all its essentials. I will show that this situation both reflects and contributes to a mild ‘hysterical’ state – using this term in its strict psychoanalytic sense. In his famous case study of Anna O., Josef Breuer, who, with Freud, worked with female hysterics, discusses the way the patient’s early ‘habit of daydreaming’ to escape from her ‘monotonous family life’ prepared the way for the extreme hysteria she was to develop. Eventually, she began to experience a kind of ‘double conscience,’ as Breuer calls it, which, among other symptoms, was manifested in a need to tell stories about herself in the third person and in a feeling that even when she was at her most ‘insane,’ a clear-sighted and calm observer sat… in a corner of her brain and looked on at all the mad business.’ This kind of duality exists, as we shall see, at the very core of romances, particularly in the relation between an ‘informed’ reader and a necessarily innocent heroine.” (p.32)

“Despite the significant differences,” Modleski goes on to say, “…both [Harlequin Romance and Gothic Romance] texts share in common a sense of the insufficiency of female selfhood. The reader of Harlequin Romances finds herself, in ‘hysterical’ fashion, desiring the subversion of the heroine’s attempts at self-assertion, and the reader of Gothics identifies with a heroine who fears hereditary madness or who feels literally possessed by the spirits of other women from out of the past. However, feminine selflessness reaches its extreme in the ‘family romances’ of soap operas. And this not so much because the women portrayed on these programs embody it as an ideal; rather, because of the special narrative form of soap operas (because it has no end, because, properly speaking it has no center), the spectator is invited to disperse herself into a variety of situations which never come to a full and satisfactory conclusion. The spectator becomes the ideal woman, emptied of self, preoccupied by the perennial problems of ‘all her children’. Moreover, in directing the spectator’s hostility towards the one woman who repeatedly tries to gain control over feminine powerlessness, soap operas further insure against the possibility of somen’s becoming more self-assertive. The ‘villainess’ often figures largely as a character in Harlequins and Gothics too…[but] the emotional energy the audience invests in [this character] appears to be most extreme in soap operas. This emotion cannot be defined as one of simple loathing, however; it consists of a complex mixture of anger, envy, and sneaking admiration.” (p.33)

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

The utopian component of mass dreams and fantasies

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“It is important not to overlook the utopian component of mass dreams and fantasies, as [Fredric] Jameson, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and others have recently pointed out. The Frankfurt School strenuously denied this component, insisting that only ‘great’ art could give us foreshadowings of a better world to come. As Herbert Marcuse, waxing poetical, puts it: ‘There is no work of art which does not, in its very structure, evoke the words, the images, the music of another reality, of another order repelled by the existing one and yet alive in memory and anticipation, alive in what happens to men and women, and in their rebellion against it.’

But Jameson accurately notes that precisely in order to legitimatize the status quo, the works of mass culture must ‘deflect… the deepest and most fundamental hopes… of the collectivity to which they can therefore… be found to have given voice.’ To commit ourselves to a search for the utopian promises of mass art for women, or as I put it…, to a ‘search for [-p.31] tomorrow,’ is to put ourselves in the way of answering the great vexed question of psychoanalysis first posed by Freud: ‘What do women want?'” (p.30)

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

Mass culture performs a transformational work on real anxieties

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Discussing Fredric Jameson’s essay, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, Tania Modleski explains that Jameson “makes a two-pronged attack on some of the main ideas of the Frankfurt School. In the first place,” she writes, “he shows that high art – the ‘modernism’ valorized by the Frankfurt School and, more recently, by the Tel Quel group in France – has not remained apart from the processes of the ‘commodification of art.’ For instance, although modernism may have arisen out of a desire ‘not to be a commodity,’ the very effort of avoiding the repetition and ‘standardization’ characteristic of mass art means that modernism must stress ‘innovation and novelty,’ must therefore, capitulate to the “pressure… to ‘make it new'” and thus act in accordance ‘with the ever swifter historicity of consumer society, with its yearly or quarterly style and fashion changes.” (p.27)

“More important for our purposes,” Modleski continues, “is the other half of Jameson’s argument, which is the one he most fully develops. If, on the one hand, high art does not represent an absolute, uncompromised alternative to mass art, on the other hand, mass art may be said to possess some of the negative, critical functions the Frankfurt School and its numerous followers have attributed to high art alone. This is true on the most general level. As Hans Robert Jauss points out in a critique of Adorno’s theories, every work of art presupposes ‘an aesthetic distance on the part of the spectator; that is, it presupposes a negation of the immediate interests of his everyday life.’ But as Jameson shows, mass art often contains many specific criticisms of everyday life, in addition to this rather global ‘negation’ (which, however, was of the utmost importance in the Frankfurt School’s philosophy of art). As opposed to those critics who claim that mass art is designed to create ‘false anxieties,’ manipulate ‘false needs,’ and impose ‘false consciousness,’ Jameson argues that mass culture performs ‘a transformational work on [real] social and political anxieties and fantasies which must then have some effective presence in the mass cultural text in order subsequently to be ‘managed’ or repressed.”” (p.27)

“Jameson is right,” Modleski asserts, “to claim that his discussion leads us some distance away from the concept of mass art as ‘manipulation,’ as ‘sheer brainwashing.’ Nevertheless, there are problems with this part of his essay [the part discussing Norman Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response], specifically with his notion of the social ‘management of desire,’ which suggests that there is someone doing the managing. Indeed, in his remarks on The Godfather, which Jameson uses as a test case for his theory, he speaks of the ‘intent to mystify,’ thus conjuring up, like the text itself, a sort of ‘Godfather’ on whom to project blame. Jameson and other left-wing critics of mass culture are the latest heirs to the old reformist/Populist belief in a group of conspirators ruthlessly holding us back from the attainment of a golden age. Ironically, it is the politically conservative mass-culture critic who has on occasion warned against the tendency, as Leo Spitzer puts it, to ‘oversimplify the psychology of the advertiser [and, by extension, of any other so-called captain of consciousness] – who is not only a businessman but a human being: one who is endowed with all the normal potentialities of emotion and who finds expression of these in the exercise of his profession.’ More recently, European Marxists like Louis Althusser have opposed the facile assumption that there are two groups of people – those within ideology (the masses of people) and those on the outside who, without illusions themselves, manage to control the others by feeding them illusions. We are all ‘inside’ ideology, Althusser has persuasively argued.” (p.28)

“Therefore,” Modleski explains, “while my analyses support Jameson’s theory that mass-cultural texts both stimulate and allay social anxieties, both arouse and symbolically satisfy the ‘properly imperishable’ desires and fantasies of women, I avoid imputing to, for example, the board of directors of the Harlequin Company, an omniscience [-p.29] about the nature and effects of their product.” (pp.28-29)

“The work of Althusser, itself influenced by the psychoanalytic thought of Jacques Lacan, has spurred renewed interest in psychoanalysis among other Marxists. For, if the production of ideology is not the work of any identifiable group, it must be located elsewhere. Rejecting the notion of ‘false consciousness,’ many Marxists have turned to a study of the unconscious, as it is tructured in and by the family. This emphasis has the merit of beginning to explain why people cling to oppressive conditions even after it is pointed out to them that their own best interests lie elsewhere. It helps explain, for example, why the sales of Harlequin Romances have not simply remained steady in recent years but have actually increased along with the growth of feminism. Only by taking psychoanalytic insights into account, by understanding how deep-rooted are the anxieties and fantasies contained in (and by) popular narratives for women can we begin to explain why women are still requiring what Jameson calls the ‘symbolic satisfactions’ of the texts instead of looking for ‘real’ satisfactions.” (p.29)

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

Romantic lineages… 3

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By far, the most popular form of literature for women throughout most of the nineteenth century were the ‘domestic novels.’ These novels and the sensation fiction of the 1860s, mostly from england, come together to form the prototypes of the modern soap opera. Elaine Showalter credits sensation writers with a subversive appeal, claiming that they inverted ‘the stereotypes of the domestic novel.’ Certainly the sensationalists ‘expressed female anger, frustration, and sexual energy more directly than had been done previously.’ Nevertheless, several important studies by women scholars have shown that the domestic novel itself was subversive, thus challenging the orthodox view of the genre, advanced by Herbert Brown: ‘The domestic novels in which these writers sought to glorify the American home were as limited in scope as the narrow sphere of interests of the women readers for whom they were designed. …Domestic fiction records few instances of discontent with this circumscribed life.’ James Hart corroborates Brown’s assessment when he speaks of the women novelists as ‘middle-class ladies… busy fashioning their homes into the land of the heart’s content.’ In sharp contrast, Helen Waite Papashvily characterizes the novels as ‘handbooks… of feminine revolt,’ encouraging ‘a pattern of feminine behavior so quietly ruthless, so subtly vicious that by comparison the ladies at Seneca appear angels of innocence.’ How is it possible for people to read the same group of books and come up with such wildly divergent ideas about them? The answer, I believe, is that many critics tend to take at face value the novelists’ endorsement of the domestic ideal and ignore the actual, not very flattering portraits of domesticity which emerge from their works. To be sure, as Brown notes, the novelists tended strenuously to affirm the sacredness of the marriage tie, but they were concerned primarily to show how far short of the ideal many marriages in real life tended to fall. Some of the very titles of the fiction of Mrs E.D.E.N. Southworth, one of the most prolific writers of the age, suggest the grievances against marriage, fathers, and husbands Brown says are nowhere to be found: The Fatal Vow, The Discarded Daughter, The Deserted Wife.” (p.22)

“Nina Baym,” Modleski goes on to say, “who is more moderate than Papashvily in her account of the [-p.23] novels, even takes issue with the term ‘domestic,’ which she says reinforces the stereotyped idea that the novelists wallowed in domestic bliss. On the contrary, in this fiction
‘home life is presented, overwhelmingly, as unhappy. There are very few intact families in this literature, and those that are intact are unstable or locked into routines of misery. Domestic tasks are arduous and monotonous; family members oppress and abuse each other; social interchanges are alternately insipid or malicious.’
In much ‘domestic’ fiction men are the culprits responsible for the intense suffering of wives and daughters. Mrs. Southworth, in particular, delighted in portraying men as tyrannical, foolish, untrusting, and untrustworthy.” (pp.22-23)

Soap operas continue the tradition…

Soap operas continue the tradition of portraying strong women, who, if they no longer single-handedly run large farms, nevertheless must struggle to keep intact the worlds which the weakness and unreliability of men threaten to undermine. However, men in soap operas tend not to be the bullying tyrants frequently found in domestic fiction. The evil ‘villain’ in soap opera is generally female, and in this respect soap opera closely resembles the nineteenth-century sensation novels written by and for women. In the fiction of Mary Louise Braddon and the recently discovered ‘thrillers’ of Louisa May Alcott, the happiness of the ‘good’ woman is jeopardized by the infernal machinations of a clever and beautiful temptress who gains control over the haples man with ridiculous ease. In the chapter on soap operas I will explore the appeal of such a character and show that this plot is not really the ‘inversion’ of the ‘domestic’ plot but it s complement. Soap operas may also be indebted to the sensation novels for the emphasis on violence, crime, and sexual scandal.” (p.23)

“Not only did the domestic novels call into question the felicity women were supposed to experience in making home-life the center of their existence, but they also revealed, as Papashvily shows, covert longings for power and revenge.” (p.24)

“…even the contemporary mass-produced narratives for women contain elements of protest and resistance underneath highly ‘orthodox’ plots. This is not to say that the tensions, anxieties, and anger which pervade these works are solved in ways which would please modern feminists: far from it.” (p.25)

Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut [refer also: Romantic lineages… 2]

A woman must continually watch herself

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“In Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Marxist art critic, screenwriter and novelist, has discussed the way in which the display of women in the visual arts and publicity images results in [and Modleski quotes Berger:] a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.'” (37)

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