Tender Heroes and Twilight Lovers: Re-Reading the Romance in Mass-Market Pulp Novels, 1950–1965

Publication year
Journal of Lesbian Studies

A comparative reading of 49 mass-market novels published in the United States between 1950 and 1965 representing various types of relationships, including lesbian, gay male, and heterosexual, reveals that the protagonist’s gender is a salient predictor of a novel’s narrative path, shaping a protagonist’s identity narrative and the sequence of events in his or her romantic “career.” But differences in representation of sexual behavior produce variation in the outcome of stories, framed as morality messages against sexual deviance and, occasionally, as “happy” outcomes between lesbian and gay lovers. In novels with men as protagonists, both gay and straight, the narrative involves an existential quest punctuated by a relationship saga. Men are introspective, physically able but in control. The female protagonist embarks on a journey, often as the “new girl in town,” and encounters love and turmoil. The woman’s narrative is devoid of introspection, and her identity is defined by relationships and not by inner reflection. (375)


Most gay novels describe a self-assured hero who is involved with a tortured man, usually someone in denial about his homosexuality, and in the end, the hero does not renounce homosexuality. (386)


In this sample the women who end up single, both lesbian and heterosexual, are often emotionally resolute and exhibit shreds of “self-actualization” in the final pages of the novels. Without comparative context, a lesbian’s solitude at the end of a novel may be a sign that popular culture demands that deviant relationships not survive. But heterosexual women end up alone, too, in outcomes that reflect morality tales about good womanhood, but also capitalize on themes of personal resolution and self-sufficiency. When lesbian characters are paired with lovers of the same gender at the end, the novels reveal the possibilities for representation in the period. (389)