- Young Love, Politically Speaking
In the growing body of scholarly material on romance novels, Linda K. Christian-Smith's Becoming a Woman through Romance stands out because it focuses on "the young women readers of the romance" to whom the book is dedicated. As women's romance novels, the adolescent romances deserve attention for their number alone: "Adolescent romances . . . now constitute the third most widely read books by teenagers and represent 35 percent of the total non-adult booksales at the major national bookstore chains" (x).
Christian-Smith's methodology, though, is less quantitative than qualitative. Although she developed an initial grouping of 75 girls to whom she administered a reading survey and eventually a smaller pool of 29 girls whom she interviewed extensively, the bulk of her study presents the results of textual analysis of 34 U.S. teen romances spanning the period 1942-1982 ("the very beginnings of teen romance fiction" through "the development of the new series romances" ). While Christian-Smith sees a correlation between the simultaneous popularity of Reaganism and the series teen romance novel, she also observes an ideological consistency across the decades in the message of these novels "that a woman is incomplete without a man, that motherhood is woman's destiny, and that a woman's rightful place is at home" (2).
For Christian-Smith, these novels both reflect society's image of acceptable female behavior and inculcate such norms in their readers. However, she sees the actual reading practice of the girls she studies, situated within the schoolroom context, as an occasion for ideological conflict; with the sort of teacher involvement that she encourages, she sees this reading practice as potentially even more challenging.
Textual analysis of these novels suggested a division into unequal thirds—1942-1959, 1960-1979, and 1980-1982—based on changes in their presentation of the feminine ideal during those periods. In novels [End Page 230] from the first period, heroines assert themselves only through "informal influence" on their boyfriends, but the couples generally "share a common perception regarding how each should act toward the other. He leads, she follows" (17). In novels from the second period, heroines are more assertive and less concerned with making themselves physically attractive, but "romance itself is now fraught with conflict and disappointment" (17). Novels from the third period resemble those from the first in their presentation of relatively chaste, satisfactory romances involving nonaggressive heroines concerned with the process of beautification.
For Christian-Smith, romance in these novels "not only involves emotion and caring" but also "the negotiation of patterns of power and control between young women and men" (16); she refers to this combination as "the code of romance." She also addresses "the code of sexuality" and "the code of beautification." In these novels, "heroines and young women readers learn . . . that feminine sexuality is dangerous, that sexual desire must be properly channeled, and that the proper channel is heterosexual romance. . . . Heroines also learn that their bodies are the site of many struggles for control—boyfriends, parents, and the girls themselves all contend for ultimate control" (41). The chapter on beautification situates the heroine's use of beautification routines within a larger, feminist discourse on the fragmentation of women's bodies, the power of the male gaze, and the construction of the subject.
Clearly, Christian-Smith frames her analysis of these novels and their place in U.S. culture within contemporary cultural studies. (Her opening chapter, especially a section entitled "Cultural studies, feminism and popular fiction," is a good, quick introduction to cultural studies.) Unlike early British cultural studies, which "relegates questions of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, family, and personal life to secondary status," Christian-Smith is most interested in the connection between these novels and "gender subjectivity, [that is] one's awareness of sexual difference" (9), race, and class.
The novels themselves consistently present girls and women working at home; if they work outside the house, they do part-time or wage work to supplement their own discretionary income. In other words, these novels present the "traditional" family, dependent upon the working father...