Here's the abstract:
This article seeks to contribute to ongoing debates about whether popular romance novels are pornography or not. I argue that we might reframe the question and instead of focusing on kinds, we might, rather, focus on degrees. For instance, how might scholars of the romance draw upon beefcakes, pin-ups, and softcore in these debates? To these ends, I consider various scenes from several novels in which the hero/male protagonist is naked and argue for a softer and thus a softcore reading. These scenes are divided into two categories: in the first, the hero is seen naked or imagined naked; and in the second, the hero is in the shower. Additionally, I draw upon both male/female and male/male romance novels to show why nakedness matters in the novel.
In this article, my argument is that if popular romance novels are pornographic, it is imperative that terms be defined. Quite simply, pornography is too often used as a catchall term and often to dismiss the genre. Accordingly, I am setting out to argue that we might think of terms like softcore and beefcake as possible terms for the critical study of popular romance novels. As such, I provide here brief definitions to guide the discussion, definitions which will be taken up again in the discussion and conclusion. Softcore stands in contrast to hardcore pornography, or perhaps softcore is at one end of a continuum with hardcore at the other.
This article concerns [...] what we might call ‘naked scenes’, which need not suggest sexual or erotic scenes, which would involve the principal characters in the novel. There is, of course, a slippage between these scenes, that is, they can become sexual or erotic for a reader. I am thus interested in the naked body, and more particularly the hero’s naked body, in popular romance fiction, its purpose, and more specifically the moment in which a naked body might become erotic. Admittedly, and importantly, popular romance fiction is a ‘big tent’, insofar as there is a continuum of novels from the inspirational, Christian romance which will have little eroticism or sexual tension through to erotic romance where sex is essential to the narrative. The novels under consideration here are all novels that include explicit sexuality and erotic material. Therefore, in what follows, I set out to consider these moments in which a naked body is alone and seemingly without a viewer. For whom, we might ask, is the body naked? Obviously, the answer is the reader. In considering these instances, I wish to propose that we might consider these naked bodies as being akin to pin-ups found in softcore pornographies.
throughout this study I position texts alongside one another to have a diversity of texts playing with one another. That is, by positioning ‘classic’ texts alongside Harlequin romances, for example, we can see that the discourse is not unique to a particular subgenre or publisher, but perhaps is found more broadly in the field of popular romance studies.
naked bodies serve a purpose in the romance novel that is once more about highlighting the hero’s body as both desirable and lovable, as a site upon which the erotic and romantic fantasies can be written. And thus, if romance novels are to be defined in terms of pornography (and I am not certain that they ought to be), perhaps it might be better to think not in terms of kinds, but in terms of degrees (Frye 1957).