HEARTTHROBS: A HIS­TORY OF WOMEN AND DE­SIRE

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - BOOK REVIEWS - Carol Dy­house { ox­ford Univer­sity Press } —rachel vorona cote

From the mo­ment it was first rec­og­nized, women’s sexual de­sire has been pathol­o­gized as un­seemly, even hys­ter­i­cal. Con­tem­po­rary con­ver­sa­tions are also cir­cum­scribed by Vic­to­rian ag­i­ta­tion: We’re ob­sessed with fe­male sex­u­al­ity, yet we’re still hes­i­tant to dis­cuss it. In Heartthrobs: A His­tory of Women and De­sire, Carol Dy­house seeks to crack open the dis­course by ex­plor­ing fe­male de­sire as a phe­nom­e­non shaped by cul­tural, so­cioe­co­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal move­ments. Be­gin­ning in Re­gency Eng­land, Dy­house ex­am­ines pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture and me­dia to ex­am­ine who and what women found most ap­peal­ing, and what that re­vealed about the mi­lieu.

Dy­house’s project is a wor­thy one be­cause we need more frank dis­cus­sions about fe­male eroti­cism. And she draws out a fas­ci­nat­ing tele­ol­ogy fo­cused on the pop­u­lar ro­mance genre as a sig­ni­fier of cul­tural shifts. Larger con­ver­sa­tions on lit­er­a­ture and sex­u­al­ity will ben­e­fit from Dy­house’s care­ful study of a genre that has not been given enough at­ten­tion.

How­ever, when con­sid­ered in full, the book lacks both the in­ter­sec­tional and the­o­ret­i­cal rigor cru­cial to any his­tor­i­cal project. What Dy­house chron­i­cles is a his­tory of Western white het­ero­sex­ual fe­male de­sire, but she never spec­i­fies th­ese par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. When it comes to the “heartthrobs”—ru­dolph Valentino, for in­stance—race does be­come part of the dis­cus­sion, but it’s still an in­com­plete one. Dy­house ex­am­ines Valentino’s pop­u­lar­ity in the con­text of sexual ex­oti­cism: his turn in The Sheik, a 1921 film adap­ta­tion of Edith Maud Hull’s novel by the same name, ex­em­pli­fies the racism in­her­ent to in­ter­ra­cial ro­mance. Brown-skinned lovers were only mar­riage ma­te­rial when, at last, they were re­vealed to pos­sess ro­bust Bri­tish or Euro­pean an­ces­try. But Dy­house glosses over the use of brown­face in Hol­ly­wood and be­stows only fleet­ing at­ten­tion on the ubiq­ui­tous pre­sen­ta­tion of Black men as sex­u­ally dan­ger­ous.

What th­ese omis­sions demon­strate is the book’s larger con­cep­tual gap and its vast over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. Yes, women’s de­sires fluc­tu­ate and should be con­sid­ered in a larger his­tor­i­cal con­text. But cap­i­tal­ist pa­tri­archy en­sures that we are told what to de­sire, and the bound­ary be­tween our own pro­cliv­i­ties and the force of white, straight hege­mony can­not al­ways be dis­cerned. Ob­vi­ously not all women de­sire white men, or even men at all. For that mat­ter, Dy­house’s re­liance on a bi­na­ris­tic gen­der model alien­ates hu­mans and de­sire alike. Both are, at base, knot­ted and in­ef­fa­ble—it’s no use to pre­tend oth­er­wise.

In Heartthrobs, Carol Dy­house seeks to crack open the dis­course by his­tori­ciz­ing fe­male de­sire as a phe­nom­e­non shaped by cul­tural, so­cioe­co­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal move­ments.

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