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K AY E M I T C H E L L

Gender and sexuality in popular fiction

Introduction: gender and sexuality in the field of popular fiction


Popular fiction has always had an intricate connection with questions of
gender and sexuality. In order to attend to this connection, it is necessary to
consider not only the content of popular fiction (its representations of
women and men and of sexual relationships and behaviour, for example),
but also its motivations and effects, the readerships it constructs for itself,
the reading practices and communities it institutes, the critical responses to
it, the gendering of particular genres (and of popular culture itself), and the
material contexts of the production and consumption of the popular.
Although there are many texts and topics that could be covered in an essay
such as this one, my necessarily selective focus here will range across:
theories of reading and the perceived effects of popular fiction upon women
readers in particular; the complex ideological work of popular fiction in
constructing our conceptions (and, therefore, shaping our lived experience)
of masculinity, femininity, heterosexuality and homosexuality; the appro-
priation and subversion of popular genres for new or alternative ideological
ends (for example, in 1970s feminist science fiction, and 1950s lesbian
pulp); the popular response to, and elucidation of post-feminism through
chick lit (viewed as a development of contemporary romance fiction) from
the 1990s onwards; and recent developments in the dissemination of popu-
lar narratives of gender and sexual identity and practice due to new tech-
nologies (e.g. internet blogs about female sexuality), which suggest that in
any consideration of popular writing we must continue to attend to the
shifting modes of production, distribution and consumption which put
these texts into circulation and partly determine their effects for us.
Scott McCracken writes that:

Popular fiction, from folk tales and fairy tales to popular ballads to modern
bestsellers, has always provided a structure within which our lives can be
understood. Who we are is never fixed, and in modern societies an embedded
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Gender and sexuality in popular fiction

sense of self is less available than ever before. Popular fiction has the capacity
to provide us with a workable, if temporary, sense of self.1

If identity is always unfixed, the instability of gender and sexual identity in


particular has been a focus of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century
thinking, as traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity are chal-
lenged (not least, but not only, by feminism), as the dominance and natur-
alness of the heterosexual paradigm is similarly tested, and as theories of
gender ‘performativity’, gender crossing and passing, transgenderism, and
sexual fluidity and indeterminacy have emerged. Popular fiction, therefore,
acquires a new resonance as it offers both the means of consolidating or
reinforcing older, more conservative or traditional norms and identities
in the face of these new challenges, and the means of negotiating new
paradigms and helping us to cope with the particular anxieties – and
opportunities – that they might occasion.

Reading popular fiction


There has been a good deal of attention paid to gender in studies of
readership, and in particular to the supposed negative effects of popular
fiction upon the ‘woman reader’. Going back as least as far as the eighteenth
century, anxieties have been expressed (and, more recently, analysed, as a
fascinating cultural phenomenon) about the relationship between popular
fiction (notably ‘feminine’ genres such as Gothic, romance and sensation
fiction) and the female body, senses and sensibility. In such accounts,
popular literature is seen as being either dangerously or subversively
(depending on your standpoint) sexualised and apt to induce the ‘wrong’
types of knowledge, emotion and physical response in impressionable
female readers. Sensation fiction of the 1860s, then, posed a challenge to
contemporary notions of femininity, not only in its female characters (Mary
Braddon’s angelic, doll-like Lady Audley, for example, superficially
embodies the feminine ideal, yet turns out to be a violent, duplicitous
bigamist), but also in the types of ‘unfeminine’ knowledge that it put into
the public sphere and into the minds of its female readers.2 The worldliness
of sensation fiction, which prided itself on its topical appropriation of
stories of crime and passion from the popular press of the time, is an acute
case, but attacks on it formed part of a wider concern, in the Victorian
period, with the types of reading material made available to women. Kate
Flint has noted the paradoxical arguments around the woman reader in this
period: firstly, there were fears that ‘certain texts might corrupt her innocent
mind, hence diminishing her value as a woman’; secondly, it was thought
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‘that she, as a woman, was particularly susceptible to emotionally provoca-


tive material’.3 The hyperbolic style and salacious subject matter of Gothic,
romance and sensation fiction might, therefore, induce women to seek lives
full of excitement and romantic intrigue, might distract them from their
proper (domestic and maternal) duties, might expose them to scandalous
material (compromising their virtue and innocence), might – in the novels’
common structure of anticipation and revelation – unsettle their nerves and
unbalance their emotions.
Although comparable attention is not paid to male readers at the time, such
novels carried with them the taint of a corrupting feminisation and
threatened a kind of class destabilisation too. But for women, the ‘private
act of reading’ raised anxieties about the woman reader’s ‘vulnerability to
textual influence’ and about ‘the potential autonomy of her mind’.4 Whilst
women readers in the early twenty-first century may not be subject to such
concerns, Flint’s discussion highlights the pleasures and the perils that read-
ing holds for women, as an activity both private and public. In her 1984 study
of a community of romance readers, Janice Radway touched upon markedly
similar concerns, noting the guilt (and pleasure) that many women felt in
being lured away from their domestic ‘duties’ by the urge to read mass-
market romance fiction.5 Furthermore, the discussion of ‘textual influence’
is of particular pertinence in any consideration of popular fiction, where the
effects are so often felt to be emotional, physical (the bodily effects of
excessive emotion, such as swooning and fainting) and sensual. Women have
been perceived, historically, as particularly in thrall to their bodies, and thus
particularly susceptible to dangerous levels of identification with the con-
tents of the fictions with which they engage, and therefore men and women
have been seen as differing in their modes of reading and processes of sub-
jectivation, as well as their literary interests and choices.6 According to such a
logic, much popular fiction can be seen as ‘feminine’ in its content (romance,
emotions, the erotic, the domestic, the superficial and the temporarily
modish) and as designed for female readers in its stimulation of fantasy,
particularly of fantasised forms of identification (with heroine or scenario)
as a route to identity-formation. Even as the opposition between emotion and
reason, body and mind, low art and high, has broken down over the years, the
association of popular fiction with women authors and readers has lingered.

The ideological work of popular fiction . . . and its subversion


If masculine genres (thrillers, adventure stories, boy’s own stories, etc.)
place more emphasis on individuation and action than identification and
feeling, they still suggest that masculinity is something that has to be learnt
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Gender and sexuality in popular fiction

and/or achieved, often through a supreme effort of will, and therefore can
be read as reflections on suitable and unsuitable models of masculine
identity. Masculinity is frequently achieved, in these genres, via an active
exclusion of the homosexual and homoerotic, even whilst forms of homo-
social bonding are encouraged as a means of learning and sustaining manli-
ness. Yet, if the male detective labours to offset the chaos of the external
world and impose his reason upon it, the heroines of popular fiction
frequently labour to contain the chaos and disorder of their own bodies
and emotions. ‘Being a woman’ arguably involves just as much labour as
being a man, in the form of an unceasing self-consciousness to maintain the
facade of perfect femininity, an unceasing performance of that femininity.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding satirises the frustrating and relent-
less labour of beauty-maintenance:

Completely exhausted by entire day of date-preparation. Being a woman is


worse than being a farmer – there is so much harvesting and crop-spraying to
be done: legs to be waxed, underarms shaved, eyebrows plucked, feet pum-
iced, skin exfoliated and moisturized, spots cleansed, roots dyed, eyelashes
tinted, nails filed, cellulite massaged, stomach muscles exercised. The whole
performance is so highly tuned you only need to neglect it for a few days for
the whole thing to go to seed.7

This extract – indeed, the novel as a whole – provides a good example of


popular fiction’s complex but ambivalent relationship to femininity, which
is, in this novel, both reinforced and critiqued. Fielding draws attention to
the absurdity of such beauty maintenance labours, without offering any real
alternative to them; she ridicules, and yet never quite exorcises, the view of
the female body as a leaky vessel, something abject, requiring containment,
even suppression. In this way, popular fiction can be seen as attending to the
construction of masculinity and femininity in ways that allow both for a
critique of such constructions and for their consolidation.
This ideological work of popular fiction in the construction and
reinforcement of gender and sexual norms has led to divergent readings of
it as, on the one hand, encouraging a kind of ‘false consciousness’ and
participating in the work of gender and sexual regulation and, on the other
hand, as providing opportunities for (at least) the negotiation of normativity
and (at best) its contestation. Considering ‘the instructive character of
popular fiction’, Batsleer et al. note, in their reading of Ian Fleming, that
‘the reader’s assent is being solicited not for some extravagant flight of
fantastic invention but for the deep ideological grain and substance of the
dominant culture’.8 This work of naturalisation and this soliciting of assent
are particularly important in the production and maintenance of gender
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and, crucially, this is ‘work’ that tends to be hidden; popular fiction can
perhaps be seen as bringing it to our attention, however unwittingly.
Is it, then, possible to read popular fictions without succumbing to –
assenting to – their more conservative and restrictive ideological messages?
The false consciousness argument denies the reader an agency (albeit an
agency of refusal) in their reading of popular fiction which feminist critics
have, in recent years, sought to insist upon. In The Feminist Bestseller, as
part of an argument for the inclusion of ‘trash’ (her term) on university
reading lists and for a feminist criticism that avoids the reiteration of
(gendered) literary critical hierarchies, Imelda Whelehan tacitly distinguishes
the ‘feminist reader’ from the common reader (as it were), suggesting that
the latter might still be regarded as prey to false consciousness. A more
optimistic account of the value of popular fiction for many (if not all)
readers comes from McCracken, who argues that bestselling works do not
simply ‘reflect and perpetuate the powerful ideologies that govern our
lives’, they also serve to ‘relate those generalised and impersonal structures
to the personal life and self identity of the reader’.9 Thus, in the case of
patriarchy, viewed as an institutional and impersonal (or supra-personal)
structure, bestsellers aimed at a female readership will attempt not only to
reiterate the terms according to which that institution operates – to ratify
and reify it; they will also seek to speak to the experience of individual
women living within patriarchal societies and to speak to them in ways that
are likely more consolatory than admonitory. For this reason, popular
culture cannot be viewed as simply and straightforwardly regulatory
(although it certainly serves this function, to some degree). McCracken,
then, retains a belief in ‘popular fiction’s ability to gesture to a better world’,
and argues that ‘the potential for transgression contained in popular fiction
creates the possibility for new and different potential selves’.10 These new
selves are made possible for all readers, I would suggest, not only those who
self-define as ‘feminist’.
Feminist authors have, though, exploited this ‘potential for transgression’
still further, by making notable interventions within genre fiction, using
popular fiction as a route to the subversion of gender and sexual ideologies.
Popular fiction is ideally suited to such ideological revisioning primarily
because of the large and diverse audience that it is able to reach and in this
way such appropriations also counteract allegations of feminism’s exclusiv-
ity (which Whelehan, in her appeal to the ‘feminist reader’, is in danger of
reinstating), its preserve as the interest of privileged, middle-class readers
or of those in receipt of a particular kind of education. An embrace
of the ‘popular’ – by author or by critic – can therefore be read as a
democratising impulse.
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Genre appropriations that involve the ‘regendering of the genre’ in


question are perhaps most notable, and the feminist and/or lesbian rewrit-
ing of crime fiction and science fiction (two nominally ‘masculine’ genres)
in the twentieth century therefore deserves some mention.11 In the work
of writers as diverse as Dorothy L. Sayers, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid,
Mary Wings, Katherine V. Forrest, Sara Paretsky and Stella Duffy, we see
examples of what Sally Munt describes as ‘utopian models of female
agency’, the transgression of social and moral conventions, the foreground-
ing of non-heterosexual relationships (e.g. in Wings, Forrest and Duffy,
all of whose works feature lesbian detectives), ‘an irreverent feminizing
of male authority myths’ and figures (for example Sayers’s Lord Peter
Wimsey), and humorous or parodic renditions of crime fiction motifs and
formulae.12 Appropriations of hard-boiled crime fiction (by black, gay and
feminist writers, for example) play upon the idea of the detective as social
and institutional outsider, sometimes achieving their subversion of the
genre via the simplest method – that of inverting the race, gender or
sexuality of the detective. However, lesbian and feminist rewritings of crime
fiction often involve deliberate challenges to the basic tenets of (masculine)
crime writing that are more complex than a simple reversal of roles,
for example by presenting female detectives who are very far from the
‘controlled centre surrounded by chaos’ described by Munt, indeed who
partake of that chaos and whose personal lives cannot be kept absolutely
distinct from the cases they are working (for example, Saz Martin in
Duffy’s Beneath the Blonde, 1997, or Harriet Vane in Sayers’s Gaudy
Night, 1935).13
If women writers (feminist or otherwise) remain buoyant within the field
of crime fiction, the feminist appropriation of science fiction, by contrast,
occupies a quite fleeting position in the history of that genre, consisting of
novels produced by Ursula Le Guin, Sally Miller Gearhart, Joanne Russ and
Marge Piercy (amongst others) during the 1970s (and rarely since). The
advantage of popular literature with a futuristic or alternative-world setting
is that it can reveal that what we take as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ is in fact
cultural, contingent, a human construction and could be otherwise, in some
other possible world. This has been particularly important for feminism. If
it is the function of ideology to naturalise (and institutionalise) a given
reality (e.g. that patriarchal ‘reality’ where men are ‘naturally’ superior,
more rational, stronger, more dominant than women), then a novel set in
a future or alternative world can reveal this (or any) reality to be a construc-
tion by positing some other, quite different reality (e.g. a reality in which
women are the dominant sex or, more radically, a reality in which we have
moved beyond a binary understanding of gender). Utopian and dystopian
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novels show a society or culture that has undergone radical alteration –


what remains or survives is therefore presented as ‘natural’ or ‘essential’.
However, the disadvantage of the very politically engaged feminist sf of
the 1970s is that, like much popular fiction and nearly all sf, it is so much of
its time that much of it (with the exception of Piercy and Russ) is now out
of print and critically neglected. A similar situation obtains with the (sub)
genre that I want to turn to next – lesbian pulp fiction – and the case of pulp
reveals as well that the ideological work of popular fiction and its subver-
sion are perhaps not as straightforward as might be suggested by my
discussion of the feminist appropriation of genre fiction.

Sexuality in popular fiction: the case of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction


1950s America witnessed a quite unprecedented boom in writing, both
fictional and non-fictional, and of a definitively mass-market nature, about
homosexuality. Yet such texts were, until relatively recently, excluded from
official histories of gay and lesbian literature and were shunned both by
queer critics (for their blatant homophobia and sexual stereotyping) and by
literary critics (for their trashy, lowbrow aesthetic). ‘Queer pulp’, as it has
come to be called,14 emerged as part of the expansion of cheap paperback
publishing (mostly of genre fiction) during the war years and in the immedi-
ate postwar period. By the 1950s, pulp increasingly concerned itself with
prominent social and political anxieties about the roles and status of
women, teenage delinquency, homosexuality, communism and other per-
ceived threats from within and without. Lee Server has written of this as ‘a
brief but gloriously subversive era in the history of American publishing’,
adding that ‘These cheap, pocket-sized editions came wrapped in lurid
cover art and screaming headlines, hyping stories about crime, lust, and
violence.’15 I’ll address the question of how ‘subversive’ these books were –
particularly as regards their depiction of homosexuality – in due course.
Pulp novels were so named because of the cheap, wood-pulp paper on
which they were printed; they were published straight into paperback and
were sold in drugstores, train stations, bus depots and at news-stands, for as
little as twenty-five cents; the small-format, lightweight books were easy to
mail, distribute, carry – and dispose of; and their lurid covers proclaimed
the titillating nature of their content but the images (often of half-undressed
women) were countered by moralising taglines which promised the ‘truth’
of the information contained within, and its function as social corrective.
Although initially and primarily an American phenomenon, pulp gradually
infiltrated the UK and was influential upon the adult-oriented popular
fiction titles of the 1960s.16 The earliest genres of pulp, predominantly
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crime fiction and science fiction, and sometimes editions of already pub-
lished novels rather than originals, date from the 1930s, but the 1950s are
the heyday of pulp and the ‘lesbian pulp fiction’ that I’m going to discuss
here is pretty much confined to the period 1950–65.
Tereska Torres’s Women’s Barracks (1950) – ‘the frank autobiography of
a French girl soldier’, as its tagline proclaims – was one of the first books to
be published in the new paperback format by Fawcett Gold Medal Press and
is generally held to be the first lesbian pulp novel. It sold 1 million copies in
the first year of publication, more than 3 million in total before going out of
print. (It came back into print in 2005 with CUNY’s Feminist Press as part
of their ‘femmes fatales’ series.) In the light of its success, a young jobbing
journalist, Marijane Meaker, was asked by editor Dick Carroll at Fawcett to
write a novel about lesbian affairs between college girls. The result was
Spring Fire (1952) (‘A story once told in whispers now frankly, honestly
written’). Carroll informed Meaker that the book had to have an unhappy
ending (e.g. ‘the lesbian going crazy’) or copies of the book ‘would be
seized by the Post Office as obscene’, telling her, ‘you cannot make homo-
sexuality attractive. No happy ending’, and insisting that ‘your main
character can’t decide she’s not strong enough to live that life. She has to
reject it knowing that it’s wrong.’17 Meaker followed these instructions
(one character decides she’s not gay, the other ends up in a mental asylum),
and acknowledged that the book was meant to be a titillating read for
heterosexual men, yet she says: ‘when it came out I got just hundreds of
letters, boxes of them, all from women, gay women. It took them all
by surprise, this big audience out there.’18 The first printing sold more than
1.4 million copies, whilst Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out was the second
bestselling paperback of 1957.19 Hundreds of lesbian pulp titles were
produced through the 1950s and ’60s.
Although there was no single formula, lesbian pulp novels were more or
less formulaic, sharing a number of points in common, in their settings,
plots and characterisation, for example: all-female settings (college
campuses/dormitories, summer camps, career girls sharing city apartments);
stereotypical characters such as the butch (swaggering, predatory, preying
on the more feminine and often younger girl, wearing trousers and hanging
out in bars), and the femme (with her overdone femininity, voluptuous, a
femme fatale figure, or weak, ditzy and whining); there was a focus on the
bar scene, lesbian subculture, alcoholism, illegal or illicit parties, usually
with an urban setting (notably Greenwich Village); and usually there were
unhappy endings, where the lesbian characters were ‘converted’ to hetero-
sexuality (particularly the femmes), or where they ended up miserable,
alcoholic, suicidal or insane. So the surface ‘message’ was often that
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lesbianism was destructive, or a kind of sickness, and the frequently


titillating content was clearly designed for a male heterosexual audience.
However, the best novels (such as Bannon’s Beebo Brinker series) empha-
sised the possibility of pleasure and happiness in relationships between
women and worked towards more optimistic conclusions, whilst still stress-
ing the difficulty that the lesbian encounters living in an intolerant society.
Yvonne Keller in fact makes a distinction between what she calls ‘pro-
lesbian’ pulps (Bannon, Packer, Torres, Valerie Taylor, Paula Christian and
Della Martin) and ‘virile adventures’. ‘Pro-lesbian’ pulps are ‘women-
centred, often told from a woman’s point of view, dominated by a love
story, without obviously extraneous sex scenes, and with well-developed
characters’; these were ‘books with a female protagonist . . . uniformly
written by women, or at least by authors who used female pseudonyms’.20
By contrast, ‘virile adventures’ were male-authored, aimed at a male reader,
and typically had ‘more sex scenes and a male protagonist’.21 This is
an overly simplistic distinction, however, because even the allegedly ‘pro-
lesbian’ pulps contain decidedly mixed and contradictory messages about
lesbianism, and the use of a female pseudonym can hardly be held to
identify a ‘pro-lesbian’ text, as many pulp authors used gender-concealing
pseudonyms. To suggest that such novels can be either straightforwardly
‘pro’ or ‘anti’ lesbian is to elide the (ideological and material) conditions of
their production, dissemination and reception, and to ignore their individ-
ual, internal, incoherence.
Ultimately this distinction appears to be a comment on quality, as Keller
suggests that ‘pro-lesbian’ is roughly equivalent to Barbara Grier’s ‘good
titles’ in the ‘Lesbiana’ review sections of (1950s lesbian magazine) The
Ladder, whilst ‘virile adventures’ equate to what Grier here titles ‘trash’.22
It’s worth noting, in passing, this value system in microcosm: many people
would view all pulp as ‘trash’, yet it is clear, first, that lesbian readers in the
1950s did discriminate (as lesbian critics do now in reviewing the history of
pulp) and secondly, that pulp novels were discussed and exchanged by
lesbian readers and therefore were instrumental in building communities
and identities, even if only unifying readers in their dislike of the ‘trashy’
titles. This suggests that reception does alter, must alter, the way we read the
books. It suggests that the reading of popular fiction requires agency and
discernment on the part of the reader, who may choose to read ‘resistantly’ or
may appropriate for her own ends (desire, identity-formation, community-
formation, visibility) representations that might otherwise be viewed as
discriminatory or condemnatory. Kate Millett, writing of her own dalliance
with pulp novels, claims that she was ‘ashamed of them as writing, the
treacle of their fantasy, the cliché of their predicament’, yet indicates their
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Gender and sexuality in popular fiction

value to her in also describing them as ‘the only blooms in the desert’.23
Katherine V. Forrest, with a little more hyperbole (befitting the pulp subject),
remembers her first purchase of a pulp novel:

Overwhelming need led me to walk a gauntlet of fear up to the cash register.


Fear so intense that I remember nothing more, only that I stumbled out of the
store in possession of what I knew I must have, a book as necessary as air . . . It
opened the door to my soul and told me who I was. It led me to other books
that told me who some of us were, and how some of us lived.24

If both Millett and Forrest’s descriptions reveal the shame and anxiety
associated with pulp (and, we might note, with much popular, sensationalist
fiction and much fiction dealing with the representation of the erotic), they
also insist upon precisely those issues of identity, community and pleasure
that are central to any discussion of popular fiction and gender and
sexuality.
Pulp novels ostensibly function as agents of social, moral and political
regulation, policing female sexual behaviour and producing female sexual
identity in various ways, working towards the re-establishment of sexual
and social order. In these novels, female promiscuity is punishable, lesbian-
ism (if not overcome or rejected by the end of the novel) brings alcoholism,
misery or suicide and is frequently linked to criminality. Pulps detail the
consequences of overt, active and/or ‘deviant’ female sexuality, figuring that
sexuality as both symptom and cause of social and moral degeneration;
indeed the issue here is precisely agency – active (as opposed to passive,
responsive) female sexuality, just is ‘deviant’, even if heterosexual. Specific
anxieties (about sex outside marriage and the increasing visibility of les-
bianism, for example) can be seen as part of a more general anxiety about
female roles and identities in the 1950s. ‘College girls’ and ‘career girls’
figure frequently in these novels, suggesting a concern both with the move-
ment of women into the public sphere and with the dangers of all-female
communities. A key problem is that of influence (an influence that works by
proximity or contiguity). This can be the influencing of women by other
women – examples include the butch college lesbian who preys upon her
weak but otherwise ‘normal’ roommate, found in Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl
Out and Vin Packer’s Spring Fire or the sexually experienced older woman
who leads astray a naı̈ve girl, which happens in Torres’s Women’s Barracks;
but fears about influence also concern the effect of woman’s exposure to the
public world (her innate corruptibility), and the influence of woman upon
that public world (the feminisation of the public sphere). Indeed, in one
non-fiction pulp work of 1961, lesbianism is referred to as an ‘infection’,
and in a chapter titled ‘The Infection Spreads’ it is suggested that ‘the
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current increase in lesbianism is attributed by some to cultural defeminiza-


tion’ – i.e. by women taking on male roles and jobs, moving into the public
sphere and so becoming more ‘masculine’ – but implicit in that claim is the
fear that what will take place is actually a feminisation of the hitherto
masculine public sphere.25
However, pulp’s attempts at regulation were not (and are not) uniformly
successful. In fact, I would suggest, pulp fiction necessarily fails in its
attempt to re-impose order upon a disorderly world (and disorderly
women), and always has done. Pulps attempt their work of regulation by
foregrounding deviance, perversion and social/sexual disorder and this
deviance is not easily quelled by their morally conservative and censorious
endings. Their very use of excess, as a tool of shock and titillation, precludes
this. This excess appears at the level of language, plot, characterisation and
appearance – in the lurid descriptions, the garish covers, the melodramatic
plotting, and the ‘heart-pounding’ effects that form part of the desired and
necessary response to pulp. In particular, female sexuality itself is treated as
excessive, as something essentially uncontainable, ungovernable. This is a
negative (even misogynistic) characterisation, but also in some senses a self-
defeating one.
Again, this serves as a counter to the overly simplistic ‘false conscious-
ness’ argument, suggesting that popular fiction is capable of producing
dissonant effects, even when the surface message is dogmatically conserva-
tive. If this is most evident in the kinds of ‘resistant’ readings that I have
already hinted at, it is present also in the content of the books themselves.
Thus, although lesbian pulp tends to present stereotypical examples of the
predatory butch preying on the feminine girl who is vulnerable to her
attentions, yet it just as often subverts these roles, suggesting that such
‘natures’ (as they are presented) are similarly liable to overstep their own
boundaries. Witness, for example, Venus in Beebo Brinker, Leda in Spring
Fire and Claude in Women’s Barracks: all are described as goddesses and
paragons of femininity (Claude is ‘a lady such as one saw in films’,26 Leda is
repeatedly referred to as the ‘queen’ of the sorority, Venus is a renowned and
voluptuous Hollywood star), yet all actively desire other women.27 Simi-
larly, although Laura succumbs to the attentions of the more masculine and
experienced Beth in Odd Girl Out, it is Beth who ultimately renounces
homosexuality (at least for the time being) and marries, whilst Laura is
confirmed in her lesbianism and (subsequently) heads for Greenwich
Village.
Ann Bannon is unusual amongst pulp authors in allowing her characters
an occasional happy ending, even having one aver, at the end of Beebo
Brinker, that ‘women have a special knack for loving . . . There’s a
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tenderness, an instinctive sympathy, between two women when their love is


right . . . it’s very rare in any kind of love. But it comes near perfection
between women.’28 This is not to say, however, that such books (even
Bannon’s) are straightforwardly or uncomplicatedly ‘subversive’ – indeed,
I want to resist too facile an opposition between a ‘false consciousness’
reading and a ‘subversive’ reading. In the case of Bannon’s endings, then,
consider Diane Hamer’s assertion that:

In Bannon’s novels, momentary happiness is always followed by further


conflict, and the stories never really end . . . What distinguishes Bannon stories
from conventional romance (apart from the gender of her characters) is the
fact that here, the nature of desire, restless and insatiable, works against this
compulsory closure. Instead of the perhaps more comforting endings conven-
tional romance offers its readers, Bannon has captured accurately the contra-
dictory experience of sexuality and desire in her recognition that sexual desire
(heterosexual or lesbian) often works against the stability of monogamous
coupling. The resolution that such coupling promises is only ever partial, and
exists primarily in fantasy.29

This can be read as confirming Stacey and Pearce’s claim that, in lesbian
romance, ‘obstacles are shown to be integral to romance: they are not
something to be magically “disappeared” through consummation/
resolution’.30 Nevertheless, the possibility of some resolution of conflict,
doubt or indecision, however temporary, partial and fantasised, indicates
the value of popular texts – even those texts that simultaneously encode
quite conservative and punitive messages. I will leave open the question of
whether popular fictions concerned with sexuality – whether straight or
gay – are always marked, in their structural and ideological inconsistencies,
by ‘the nature of desire, restless and insatiable’, or whether it is such fictions
that are responsible for producing this particular understanding of desire as,
necessarily, uncontainable, uncontrollable, liable to wander. This ultimate
refusal of closure/satiation of desire (including readerly desire) always
leaves open the possibility of another story and, therefore, of continuing
consumption; this explains, in part, popular fiction’s investment in seriality.
Although pulp novels are defined by their (low) status as consumer
artifacts, possibilities for subversion of the messages (and regulatory lean-
ings) of pulp lie also in its modes of distribution. Pulps resisted regulation
through their sheer availability: they were sold via drugstores and news-
stands, rather than conventional bookshops; and by popular presses (such
as Fawcett, Beacon and Midwood) which were not subject to the controls of
more ‘literary’ publishing houses. They sold in huge numbers, quickly, and
went out of print just as quickly. Sales were not tracked, so it is difficult to
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know who exactly read pulp; the books were also passed from reader to
reader, or simply disposed of. Responding to Lee Server’s assertion that the
pulp publishing boom of the 50s was ‘subversive’,31 Christopher Nealon
writes that ‘pulp fiction seemed to open the door to unregulated consump-
tion of literary materials, out of reach – briefly, indeed – of censors, but
readily available to readers’.32 Again, the implied excess of this is troubling:
consumption is encouraged in the capitalist society in which these books are
exchanged, but ‘unregulated consumption’ suggests the inbuilt flaws of that
economy and reveals how pulp fiction, as a form of popular culture, is both
the most paradigmatic expression of the market and the moment of its
possible undoing.

Consumerism, technology and contemporary popular fictions for women


Pulps can be read as a form of romance fiction, and their recent recuper-
ation by queer critics mirrors the earlier feminist attempts by Radway,
Radford, Stacey and Pearce, and Modleski – to provide a serious critical
investigation of the importance of romance fiction for women readers,
following a second-wave castigation of romance as one of the tools and
veils of patriarchy.33 If mass-market romance fiction of the Mills and Boon/
Harlequin variety has, in the last couple of decades, become more forward-
looking and complex in its depiction of educated and ambitious heroines
and its inclusion of more explicit sexual material, it has perhaps had to
evolve in order to compete with its more ‘respectable’ offshoot, chick lit. In
turn, chick lit – of which Bridget Jones’s Diary is often held to be a
progenitor – has received increasing, and increasingly positive (or at least
nuanced) critical attention from feminist critics such as Imelda Whelehan,
Suzanne Ferris and Clare Hanson.
The feminist critical assessment of chick lit continues, but I want to
conclude by turning to the even more recent (post-2000) emergence/consoli-
dation of a popular subgenre, which can be seen as the latest development of
the form, content and materiality of romance fiction: popular erotic
memoirs by women and sex blogs (from which many of them are derived).
I began this essay by citing McCracken’s claims about the role of popular
fiction in identity formation, which included the assertion that ‘in modern
societies an embedded sense of self is less available than ever before’; in
the light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that popular narratives
around sexuality in particular have, in recent years, adopted an ever more
confessional tone and/or a memoir, or memoir-like, format. The dramatic
and quite unexpected success of Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of
Catherine M (2001), in particular,34 marked the emergence of an apparently
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new subgenre: the women’s popular erotic memoir. Whilst Millet’s work
undoubtedly had literary (if not, indeed, philosophical) pretensions (and is
best read alongside continental antecedents such as Pauline Réage, Anais
Nin, Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade), the works that publishers
have rushed into print to capitalise on Millet’s success have been
unashamedly mass-market, and have served to blur the distinction between
memoir and fiction (and, for that matter, between reality and fantasy).
Recent examples include: the two ‘Belle de Jour’ books, The Intimate
Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005) and The Further Adventures of
a London Call Girl (2007); Abby Lee, Girl With a One-Track Mind (2006)
and its follow-up, Girl With a One-Track Mind: Exposed (2010); Stephanie
Klein, Straight Up and Dirty (2007); Melissa P, One Hundred Strokes of
the Brush Before Bed (2004); Suzanne Portnoy, The Butcher, the Baker, the
Candlestick Maker: An Erotic Memoir (2006); Tracy Quan’s Manhattan
Call Girl series of novels (2005–8), and many more besides.
These titles are notable: first, for their interchangeability (regardless of
whether they claim to be true-life accounts or novels) and particularly the
interchangeability of their packaging (shades of pink, with animated,
slightly suggestive images of women); secondly, for their close relationship
to chick lit (evident, again, in their packaging, but also in the deployment of
similar motifs and concerns – romance, consumerism, ‘having it all’, the
legacies of feminism/the meanings of post-feminism);35 thirdly, for their
uneasy conflation of ‘erotic memoir’ and ‘prostitute narrative’ motifs; and
fourthly, for the fact that many of them began life as blogs (e.g. Belle de
Jour, Lee and Klein). This last point suggests that the internet has a hugely
important role to play in the construction and dissemination of popular
narratives about sexuality in the twenty-first century, and there are various
reasons for this: it facilitates the instant, widespread and notionally ‘free’
distribution of erotic material;36 it allows for author and reader anonymity
(which has been particularly important within communities and societies
where taboos remain around the discussion of female sexuality, homosexu-
ality, or sexuality generally), thus constituting a ‘safe’ space for sexual self-
expression; it encourages confession and links this, in a very un-Foucauldian
way, to identity;37 it creates (virtual) networks and communities (and
remember that communities of exchange have always been vital for the
success of popular fiction, particular for genres such as romance); ‘word of
mouth’ is here magnified, exponentially.
Feona Attwood argues that the popularity of such blogs and ‘blooks’ (as
the blogs-turned-books have become known) amongst female authors and
readers ‘can . . . be linked to the longstanding identification of diaries and
other autobiographical forms of writing as women’s genres. More generally,
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talk about personal and intimate issues is associated with women and with
women’s media such as the talk show, romantic novels and women’s maga-
zines.’38 Whilst this, rightly, places blogs and blooks within a particular
popular cultural tradition (and Attwood proceeds to read Belle de Jour and
Abby Lee in relation to Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’s Diary), it fails
to challenge either these kinds of gendered associations or the inherent
validity of sexual confession and its supposed, constitutive links to identity.
In addition, although affirmative readings of these memoirs tend to high-
light the emphasis on female pleasure and (sexual) agency, that is an
emphasis that is often undermined by the content of the texts themselves.
Thus, Belle’s own pleasure is not an issue in most of her sexual encounters as
she is (unsurprisingly) more concerned with pleasing the client – she
acknowledges that ‘this is a customer service position, not a self-fulfilment
odyssey’ and elaborates that ‘being desired is fun’;39 following another
professional encounter, she laments that, ‘It made me feel like unturned
clay must, wanting to form into something, some fantasy, but not being
allowed’, and yet this desire to form into someone else’s fantasy is miscon-
strued, in the popular and media response to the books, as female sexual
liberation.40 In her personal life, Belle’s description of her ‘enjoyment’ in her
first sexual encounter with a particular man boils down to the fact that
‘Here was a man, finally, who knew what he wanted and, better still, knew
what to do to get it’;41 of one abusive relationship, she claims, ‘I couldn’t
imagine myself in this man’s arms so much as on the end of his fist.’42 Abby
Lee’s sexual experiences are more convincingly pleasurable (not least
because she’s not working in prostitution), but she still agonises, endlessly,
over the question of whether her sexual desires (which are actually fairly
conventional and heterosexual, albeit non-monogamous, casual and active)
make her a ‘freak’.43
Whilst the original blogs from which these books derive might seem to
operate outside the exigencies of the market, they are centrally concerned
with consumption, and indeed reveal the increasing difficulty of discussing
sex and sexuality – in a popular arena – without employing the language of
commerce, consumerism and quantity.44 Even if not rapidly appropriated
by and assimilated into the commercial sphere through print publication,
they model a neo-liberal conception of sexuality as consumption, possession
and individualism: as Belle asserts, disconcertingly, ‘Like the Army, I have
fun and get paid to do it. Sometimes it’s not as fun but I always get
paid.’45 As such they constitute one more example of the movement of
capitalism into the sphere of personal life, whilst also suggesting the con-
tinuing, compromised attempts of popular culture to account for those still
tricky subjects of female sexual agency and pleasure. As self-consciously
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‘post-feminist’ texts, they also try – but generally fail – to be post-romance


(both Abby Lee and Belle, in their first books, have a significant, typically
obstacle-strewn relationship in addition to their more casual, or paid, sexual
encounters) and Lee in particular presents herself as a feminist, suggesting
that she is continuing her mother’s work of sexual liberation: ‘Here was her
daughter, brought up to respect her own sexuality and be proud of her
desires and wants, being her own woman and keeping up the good work
she’d fought and struggled for in the Sixties.’46
It’s useful to read such texts in relation to earlier popular forays into
erotic writing by and for women such as Virgin’s Black Lace novels: whilst
such narratives are generally sold on the basis of their emancipatory sexual
potential, whilst they foreground and appear to celebrate female sexuality,
they further reify the position of the woman reader as a consumer and the
status of sex as an object of consumption, one amongst many. Indeed,
whether it is sex itself or merely the sexual confession that is being sold,
the new erotic memoirs bear out Ariel Levy’s assessment of ‘raunch culture’
as ‘essentially commercial’ rather than ‘essentially progressive’.47
Despite – or even because of – this, the books are extremely important as
sociological documents, revealing the effects of both capitalism and neo-
liberalism for our understanding of sexuality, the continued anxieties about
female sexuality (and its discussion/representation within the public
sphere), the conflicted legacies of second-wave feminism, and the continued
fascination of popular cultural forms with sex, gender and sexuality.
Arguably, the ideological work of popular fiction which has formed such
a significant part of my discussion here reaches its apogee in these kinds of
texts, with both Intimate Adventures and Girl With a One-Track Mind
offering ‘guides’ to sexual behaviour for the (female) reader. If such guides
adopt and adapt a savvy Cosmo-language of liberation and pleasure-
seeking, they also reveal that popular narratives that treat of gender identity
and sexual behaviour will always incline towards the instructive and the
regulatory, and – regardless of their increasing explicitness – they preclude
any simple reading of the development of popular narratives of gender and
sexuality in the last century and a half as a progressive liberalisation.
Popular fiction has always sought to accomplish apparently contradictory
tasks in its treatment of gender and sexuality: to explore and yet contain –
even suppress – anxieties about changing gender roles and taboo or ‘devi-
ant’ sexual proclivities; to titillate readers who are simultaneously conserva-
tive and prurient, without offending or alienating them; to entertain and
divert a ‘mass’ audience, ensuring accessibility, whilst speaking to quite
personal, private and idiosyncratic desires and fears; to emphasise its
grounding in reality, whilst offering fantasy, escapism. Despite the
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increasing academic attention paid to various kinds of genre fiction and


popular culture (to which this collection attests), ‘the popular’ continues to
be disparaged for reasons and in terms that are notably gendered; neverthe-
less, this disparagement itself reveals the importance of the popular cultural
arena as both a key source of evidence in the study of gender and sexuality,
and a crucial space for the elaboration and enactment of the fantasies which
structure and complicate our own experiences of being gendered, desiring
individuals in the world.

NOTES
1 Scott McCracken, Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction (Manchester University Press,
1998), p. 2.
2 Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) (Hertfordshire: Words-
worth Editions, 1997).
3 Kate Flint, The Woman Reader, 1837–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 22.
4 Ibid., p. 4.
5 Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Litera-
ture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
6 Ibid.
7 Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary (London: Picador, 1996), p. 30.
8 Janet Batsleer, Tony Davies, Rebecca O’Rourke and Chris Weedon, Rewriting
English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 75.
9 McCracken, Pulp, pp. 44–5.
10 Ibid., p. 13.
11 See Lee Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (Oxford University Press,
2005), ch. 6, ‘Regendering the Genre’.
12 Sally Munt, Murder by the Book: Feminism and the Crime Novel (London:
Routledge, 1994), pp. 6–7.
13 Ibid., p. 1.
14 See, for example, Susan Stryker’s book Queer Pulp (San Francisco: Chronicle
Books, 2001), one of the earliest overviews of pulp, although mainly notable for
its extensive illustrations.
15 Lee Server, Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the American Paper-
back, 1945–1955 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994), p. 9.
16 Examples of non-US pulp include Shirley Verel, The Dark Side of Venus (1962)
(British), and Anna Elisabet Weirauch, Of Love Forbidden (1958) (German –
also published under the title, The Scorpion).
17 Quoted in Server, Over My Dead Body, p. 55.
18 Ibid.
19 Bannon is now feted as the queen of pulp and still does lecture tours and readings
in the US, although at the time she was an unhappy housewife, making illicit trips
to Greenwich Village and then writing fiction based on her experiences there.
20 Yvonne Keller, ‘“Was it Right to Love her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”:
Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Lesbian Identity, 1950–1965’, American Quarterly
57:2 (2005): 390–1.
21 Ibid., p. 390.
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Gender and sexuality in popular fiction

22 Ibid., p. 395.
23 Kate Millett, Flying (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1974), p. 202.
24 Katherine V. Forrest, ‘Introduction’, in Lesbian Pulp Fiction anthology (San
Francisco: Cleis Press, 2005), p. ix.
25 Carlson Wade, The Troubled Sex (New York: Beacon Envoy, 1961), p. 33.
26 Tereska Torres, Women’s Barracks (1950) (New York: Feminist Press, 2005),
p. 30.
27 Vin Packer, Spring Fire (1952) (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2004); Ann Bannon,
Beebo Brinker (1962) (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2001).
28 Bannon, Beebo Brinker, p. 232.
29 Diane Hamer, ‘I Am a Woman’, in Mark Lilly (ed.), Lesbian and Gay Writing:
An Anthology of Critical Essays (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990),
p. 69.
30 Jackie Stacey and Lynne Pearce (eds.), Romance Revisited (London: Lawrence
and Wishart, 1995), p. 24.
31 Server, Over My Dead Body, p. 9.
32 Christopher Nealon, ‘Invert-History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction’,
New Literary History 31 (2000): 748.
33 For the important, more positive feminist, accounts of romance, see: Radway,
Reading the Romance; Jean Radford (ed.), The Progress of Romance: The
Politics of Popular Fiction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986); Stacey
and Pearce (eds.), Romance Revisited; Lynne Pearce, Fatal Attractions (London:
Pluto, 1998) and Romance Writing (Cambridge: Polity, 2007); Tania Modleski,
Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (London:
Methuen, 1982). For second-wave attacks on romance, see Kate Millett, Sexual
Politics (1969); Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (1970).
34 The Sexual Life of Catherine M sold more than 400,000 copies in France, and
has been translated into twenty-six languages; in the UK it became Serpent’s
Tail’s biggest seller, and they proceeded to have significant success with Melissa
P’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (2004) (an international bestseller) and
Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast (2005).
35 The connection to chick lit is reinforced by reviews of Belle de Jour which
describe her as ‘a top shelf Bridget Jones’ (Daily Mail) and ‘Bridget Jones in a
brothel’ (Heat Magazine).
36 Erotic, rather than pornographic, although the distinction is, admittedly, a
contested one – the difference here is perhaps that you have to pay for
pornography!
37 Such blogs can be seen as an extension of those social networking sites which
seek to express and/or consolidate identity through the enumeration of tastes – in
music, film, etc; in the ‘sex blogs’, it is sexual tastes and proclivities which are
seen as defining the individual or as constituting the ‘truth’ of identity, particu-
larly as far as women are concerned.
38 Feona Attwood, ‘Intimate Adventures: Sex Blogs, Sex “Blooks” and Women’s
Sexual Narration’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 12:1 (2009): 6.
39 Belle de Jour, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (London: Orion,
2005), p. 94.
40 Ibid., p. 212.
41 Ibid., p. 67.

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42 Ibid.
43 Abby Lee, Girl with a One-Track Mind (London: Ebury Press, 2006), p. vii.
44 For alternatives to the more commercially minded Belle and Girl, see, for
example, the (recently discontinued) ‘Bitchy Jones’ blog at http://bitchyjones.
wordpress.com/, which puts great stress on the fact that Bitchy is not selling
sexual services (‘I do not do dominatrixing for money’) or writing for money. See
also Kitty Stryker’s blog, Purrversatility, where she describes herself as a queer
professional domme, and muses on her experiences and relationships; although
she is selling her services (on another site), she presents herself as ‘alternative’ in
her sexuality and in her politics.
45 Belle de Jour, Intimate Adventures, p. 102.
46 Lee, Girl With a One-Track Mind, p. 217.
47 Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
(London: Simon & Schuster, 2005), p. 29.

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