Wednesday, February 8, 2012

“Weird and Kinky and Medieval”: Gender, Sexuality and the 'Medieval'


Next week, I am giving a paper at the University of York’s Centre for Modern Studies’ (CModS for short) Postgraduate Forum. The session, entitled ‘Feminist Narratives’, is being held (appropriately) on Valentine’s Day, and I must admit I am looking forward to celebrating V-Day with a kick-ass double session on feminist literature.

The paper I am giving, entitled “Weird and Kinky and Medieval”: Gender, Sexuality and the Idea of the ‘Medieval’ in Modern Popular Sheikh Romance, develops a paper I gave at this year’s International Medieval Congress in a panel hosted by the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages (PUMA). The specific focus on feminist narratives in next week’s session will allow me to bring out some ideas that I didn’t have time for in Leeds.

The subject of my paper is the use of a medievalising discourse in references to the Middle East in a selection of Mills & Boon sheikh romances published over the last ten years. It is no longer surprising (although it is regrettable) that contemporary political and cultural discourse label the contemporary Middle East as ‘medieval’, meaning backwards, or barbaric, defined by dictatorship, terrorism and misogyny. This is, after all, an association that has been made repeatedly by the western world, although it has been galvanised in recent years by a re-emergence of medievalising dialogue in the years since 9/11 (for example in the now infamous ‘crusading’ speech made by George Bush a few days after 9/11).

It seems paradoxical, therefore, that a series of popular romance novels that define themselves as modern in their very title (the novels I look at are all published in Mills & Boon’s ‘Modern Romance’ series) would similarly deploy this medievalising discourse about the east: especially when romance novels have been perceived of as avoiding engagement with politics.

I plan to explore the ways in which these sheikh romances use the medieval. What is described as medieval in these romances? Does it correlate with political rhetoric? Is there any way in which this medieval could be figured as desirable?

If you’re in York on the 14th and are interested in the topic, come along to the session – you can find more details here. If you’re further afield, I will post my paper up here after the session, and you can post queries and questions.

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The image is an extraordinarily Orientalist advertisement for Prang's greeting cards, showing a woman tethering a group of apparently helium-filled cherubs. One of the cherubs is portrayed as a baby of African descent. By Boston: L. Prang & Co. (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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