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Though I wouldn’t care to think of myself as an habitue of the gothic romance section of the bookstore maybe an occasional visitor, or even a dallier, but certainly not someone with any sort of compulsion in that direction I couldn’t help but notice that Johanna Lindsey has a new book out. This was purely by chance, mind you. I just happened to pass by on my way from psychology to women’s history, so I paused for a minute to thumb through Surrender My Love not without glancing surreptitiously around to make sure no one else was in the aisle.

Let’s face it, lingering in front of the ‘historical’ section that wall of fat spines glowing rose, gold and blue, decorated with scrolling gilded type, punctuated by the sweaty clasps of shirtless and sometimes even breechless (!) heroes and ample, unfurled heroines could be, well, incriminating. Unlike the slender, pastel Harlequin and Silhouette romances, these books make no attempt to be discreet. Reading them vaults me back to the tentative libidinal forays of my adolescence, and I taste again that unique sense of shame that accompanies the acquiring of forbidden knowledge. At thirteen, I wanted information that the gothics could deliver; they virtually screamed to me and, I thought then, to everyone else in the bookstore that they were about Just One Thing.

These days the anxiety is of rather the opposite kind.

Though I exhibit perfect sangfroid while perusing de Sade or On Our Backs magazine, I can barely bring myself to browse through a genre that is so universally dismissed as trash. There’s a reason that romances are sold in grocery stores, and it’s not just ecause they’re marketed mainly to That Kind Of Woman, the disempowered prole who never enters a bookstore. It’s easier for anyone to contemplate such an embarrassing purchase when not loomed over by stacks of more serious stuff. I finally picked up a copy of Surrender My Love at Walgreen’s. Aside from a trendy emphasis on bondage and spanking, it’s virtually indistinguishable from any of Lindsey’s other books. “Wrongly branded a spy, the dark and handsome Viking lord Selig Haardrad suffered greatly in the dungeons of Lady Erika of Gronwood,” the back cover copy breathlessly explains. “And as he hung in chains, his magnificent body wracked with pain and fever, one thought sustained him: revenge!”

Of course, that’s only in the first 100 pages or so. Selig’s sister Kristen, whose romance with Royce of Wyndhurst was chronicled in the earlier Hearts Aflame, promptly rescues Selig and captures Erika. Naturally, Erika’s pride prevents her from explaining that she didn’t actually have all that much to do with Selig’s sufferings.

Back at the keep, Selig humiliates Erika in various ways. Most memorably, he makes her bathe while he watches, walk around in chains (“Bring her, Ivarr. I want to put those shackles on myself”) and sleep in a corner of his bedroom on the floor. But since each of these two is the most gorgeous person the other has ever seen, it doesn’t take long for the eruption of one of those classic hate vs.desire scenes that are the marrow of this genre.

When Selig tries to force Erika to walk naked and chained down to the dining hall, she bites him on the leg and he tackles her: “Lying on top of a naked woman might not have stoked his fires, but her own movements to dislodge him had done so. It was there in the intense smoldering of his grey eyes, and in what she could feel hardening near the apex of her thighs. In a panic, she got out, ‘Recall that you hate me!’ just before his mouth closed on hers.”

Some version of this scene is found in all gothics, or all good ones anyway. The secret of the form, which I quickly learned as a horny teenager, is that the One Thing that these books are obsessed with isn’t sex per se. It’s conflict, specifically women’s conflict between the safety of chastity and the dangers of sexual fulfillment.

Lindsey has written twentyseven bestsellers by mixing and remixing this complicated potion without varying its essential ingredients. Even her titles spell out the clash of opposing forces: Gentle Rogue, Tender Rebel, Secret Fire. And unlike Kathleen Woodiwiss or Fern Michaels, who guiltily bury the real story under masses of complicated plot, she’s brash in her disdain for historical detail. Sure, her books bulge with abductions, knife fights, masked balls and ocean journeys, but these are only rudimentarily sketched. Their sole purpose is to present fields of evershifting obstacles around which hero and heroine can hurl at one another what is, in scene after scene and book after book, inevitably necessarily the exact same napalmic mixture of rage and lust.

Ironically, since these books don’t try to be anything more than material for psychological masturbation, the very same elements that most satisfy women are the ones so widely excoriated by men. In their repetition, their shameless wishfulfillment, romances cater to women’s obsessions without making even token obeisance to the standards of literature. And for that they must be, if not stamped out, then mocked out of existence.

In her semiautobiographical novel The Virgin in the Garden, British novelist A.S. Byatt chronicles her guilty obsession with the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer. Virgin’s main character is Frederica, a brainy and socially inept teenager perpetually badgered by a professorial father obsessed with literary truth.

Upon discovering Frederica’s stash of Georgette Heyers, her father takes them out to the back yard and burns them, “stir[ring] with an iron rod, as though officiating at a rite.” This rite, as acted out by Byatt’s father figure and by everyone who scathingly dismisses romances, is a symbolic rejection not just of bad literature but of feminine weakness. Frederica should be ashamed of herself, the ritual says she should have her mind on Milton and Yeats, not satin slippers and dark-eyed strangers.

Feminist cultural critics perform an opposite rite, one that tries to mitigate the shame heaped on women by men. The tacit aim of all those laborious feminist deconstructions of Cosmo’s catch-a-man quizzes and Pretty Woman’s hooker with a heart of gold is to excuse, or at least explain, the appeal of images so patently ridiculous. Because at some point we’ve all endured a dose of embarrassment for doing what comes naturally to us as women. I don’t giggle breathily or totter around on five-inch heels, but I cringe over women who do. I can’t deny the fact that, like them, I’m subject to an array of feminine compulsions–Surrender My Love, for instance. Like a slightly tipsy partygoer guiltily averting my eyes from a boisterous drunk, I know I’ve worn my share of lampshades.

Even the blameless few who dress entirely in taupe and read only The New York Review of Books most likely have big hair and Young Miss magazine somewhere in their past. Media critic Susan Douglas grapples with the burden of her own past embarrassments in her new feminist cultural history Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. “Looking back produces for women an overwhelming reaction: the urge to disown these past images, these past associations, as having nothing to do with who we are today,” she notes. “Reading the diary I kept as a teenager is now excruciating, so mortifying that, if anyone else were to find it, I think I would blind myself with hot coals or simply commit hara-kiri.”

Douglas’ mortification is familiar to feminists. From the radical feminist screeds of the 70s to Susan Faludi’s 1992 bestseller Backlash, traditional feminism has offered a fairly homogenous take on both the problem and its solution. Women are the victims of the nefarious media, this feminism explains, brainwashed into “eroticizing our subordination.” The only way to escape from bimboism is to burn Vogue and Love’s Tender Trap, eschewing heels, lipstick and shaving in favor of Birkenstocks and a flannel shirt.

But lately we’ve been hearing another answer to the bimbo question one that sounds something like “Who Cares?” Esquire magazine recently explored this trend in a tribute to a group of pretty and potent women, including Susie Bright, Mary Gaitskill and Naomi Wolf, who the editors believe exemplify something called “Do-Me Feminism.” As such a phrase might suggest, the piece is little more than a choplicking paean to sexual openness that reeks of overcompensation. When reporter Tad Friend gleefully relates his suggestive banter with Wolf, he leaves one with the sneaking suspicion that he’s not quite up to her speed. Since, as he admits, he’s made a trifle…uneasy by demands like Bell Hooks’ for a “versatile dick…who can negotiate rough sex on Monday, eating pussy on Tuesday, and cuddling on Wednesday,” he reasserts himself by casting these women as ideological pinup girls whose politics don’t go beyond finding new and different ways to do the nasty.

Slightly closer to the mark in summing up the new feminism is a slogan that Wolf appropriates from Nike in her book Fire With Fire: “Just Do It.” Wolf uses “Just Do It” as a motivational mantra, but it can also function as an exhortation not to sweat the small stuff. If you like to read Harlequins, paint your toenails pink, or get spanked, don’t worry about it–just do it. The call applies to any form of expression that women could conceivably be ashamed of, from the mainstream to the marginal. “Will you be ridiculed if you pack a dildo in public?” Susie Bright muses in Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World. “Well, you might be the source of more dildo envy. But I think your pleasure might be worth it.”

Susan Douglas charts a course somewhere between Faludi and Bright in Where the Girls Are. Whether she’s celebrating or rejecting particular images, Douglas points up what both strands of feminism share: an emphasis on women’s power to evaluate cultural forms for ourselves, in terms of our own needs and desires. Douglas isn’t willing to parrot feminist antimedia dogma, but neither will she let male opinionmakers push her around.

With Where the Girls Are, Douglas throws a gauntlet at the feet of all those 1960s historians who focus on male politics and culture while portraying women as “mindless, hysterical, out-of-control bimbos who shrieked and fainted while watching the Beatles or jiggled our bare breasts at Woodstock.” Sick of blushing over girl groups, I Dream of Jeannie and Charlie’s Angels, she argues that they expressed women’s dreams and fears or some of them, anyway. As she documents her own metamorphosis from a teenager in the 60s whose hormones catapulted her “between desire and paranoia, elation and despair, horniness and terror” to a feminist mother perplexedly wringing her hands when her four-year-old daughter begs for Rollerblade Barbie, Douglas outlines her own set of rules for distinguishing reclaimable images from those which have been justifiably vilified.

One of Douglas’ most engaging chapters is her exploration of the girl groups of the 1960–those pretty, bouffanted, identical triplets or quadruplets with names like the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and the Marvelettes. Like A.S. Byatt’s father figure who thinks romance novels sully the literary tradition, male music critics have vilified girl groups as an affront to the standards of music. According to one critic Douglas cites, girl groups drove “the concept of art completely away from rock & roll.” Douglas argues that rock critics’ snobbish homage to artistic integrity–the standards of which they made up as they went along–blinded them to the role girl groups played in the lives of teenagers like her. That role was to articulate the conflicts girls faced between–you guessed it–safety and sexuality.

“They were…wondering whether the boyfriend, so seemingly full of heartfelt, earnest love in the night, would prove to be an opportunistic, lying cad after he got his way,” Douglas explains in a discussion of the Shirelles’ number-one hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” “Should the girl believe everything she’d heard about going all the way and boys losing respect for girls who did? Or should she believe the boy in her arms who was hugging and kissing her (and doing who knows what else) and generally making her feel real good?”

A running theme in Where the Girls Are is that women shouldn’t have to be ashamed of feeling real good, whether the source of those feelings is having sex or reading the Victoria’s Secret catalog. But this reasoning doesn’t let culture off the hook. Douglas roundly trashes all those cultural icon–from the martyred housewife of the 50s to the diet-and-exercise junkie of the 80s–that gave women no pleasure beyond the dubious one of conforming to a tough standard. In this respect Douglas has as careful a set of political criteria as those of radical feminists; her set simply includes factors like pleasure and fun.

This makes for a refreshing analysis, even if it occasionally sounds a bit strained. In a chapter on the 60s sitcoms Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, Douglas notes that they premiered right after the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, at a time when women were becoming increasingly itchy in the standard housewife role. With these shows, “all of a sudden, female characters in TV sitcoms were capable of magic.” Samantha the witch used her magic powers to zap the dishes clean and manage her bumbling hubby Darren, while Jeannie wreaked havoc on the U.S. space program. Douglas acknowledges that the shows made repeated concessions to traditional femininity, but she argues that they nonetheless offered a “critique of male domination.” She sees Samantha and Jeannie’s powers as a symbolic expression of “the impending release of female sexual and political energy” in society.

It’s an appealing slant, but one could just as easily make the opposite argument. Maybe the shows were just an attempt by media moguls to breathe new glamour into a role that was rapidly becoming stale. After all, it was precisely this deceptive glamour that Friedan herself criticized in her analysis of the American housewife who was “freed by science and laborsaving appliances from…drudgery.” Substitute “magic” for “science”, give Friedan’s housewife a stylish new wardrobe, and you have Samantha the witch.

I’m not sure whether I prefer to see Samantha as a radical woman of power or a conformist happy housewife. This is the central problem with feminist reclaiming; it’s hard to tell when you’ve stopped doing politics and begun cheerfully imbibing pop culture under the gloss of empowerment. Feminist anger can begin to seem tacky, a boring encumbrance to the radiant picture of bold, strong women who freely choose to be housewives or Playboy bunnies. And when it’s taken too far, feminist optimism drains away the capacity to condemn very real problems like sexual harassment and date rape. To support her flimsy thesis that the late 80s saw America undergoing a “genderquake”, Naomi Wolf actually spins the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings as a process that “free[d] locked-up energy” and “performed…alchemy on the aura of patriarchy.”

Douglas, fortunately, keeps her priorities straight. She isn’t afraid to lash out at mortifying images, especially when they represent the grim realities of women’s political situation. Though she praises Anita Hill’s dignity, she points to the hearings as a spectacle of shame for women, a proceeding that “resonated powerfully with all the accrued media images of women as victims, women needing to keep their mouths shut.

“The sight of this poised, accomplished, well-spoken woman sitting alone, across from the firing squad of complacent, self-satisfied white men, who after all this time still didn’t get it, hit a nerve,” she says. “Here we watched our daily, private, often internal conflicts acted out before our eyes, in public.”

In fact, it was the sneering complacency of Anita Hill’s judges that convinced many women that the ability to say Yes or No, and to be heard when you say it, is tied up with your self-respect and the respect you get in society. Writers like Douglas know that the key to this respect is claiming the freedom to enjoy the things that give us pleasure without letting anyone even other feminists make us feel like helpless dupes.

Susie Bright has shown that a rubber minidress can sheathe a truly thrilling expression of bold, transgressive female sexuality, and Douglas demonstrates that in certain ways Jeannie’s harem pants did too. But what matters more than placing these images on one side or another of some political dividing line is taking charge of them ourselves: using them freely when they bring us joy, tossing them out when they don’t. As feminist theorist Ann Snitow puts it, “in matters of popular culture, we are not what we eat.”

When it comes to my own personal brand of junk food, of course, this is easier said than done. I’m sure I colored a little as I paid for Surrender My Love, keeping my eyes low and muttering that it was for “research purposes.” But once I got it home, feminist empowerment was no problem. Curled in my bed, I giggled with delight as “she savored the taste and feel of him pressed along her length” and “his hand came to rest between her thighs”–flushing maybe, but not blushing.

Surrender My Love by Johanna Lindsey. Avon Books, 403 pp., $6.50

Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media by Susan J. Douglas. Times Books, 340 pp., $23

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.