The Heroine is Being Beaten: Freud, Sadomasochism, and Reading the Romance

Publication year
Style: A Quarterly Journal of Aesthetics, Poetics, Stylistics, and Literary Criticism

Rather than castigate legions of female readers as victims of false consciousness, so hopelessly coopted by patriarchy their very fantasies are oppressive, I propose another means of understanding the process by which these texts are read. In this endeavor, I turn to the work of early psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Stekel, and Havelock Ellis and of more recent revisionists Juliet Mitchell, Jessica Benjamin, Constance Penley, and Lynn Chancer, and examine sadomasochism as a means of understanding the dynamics of the popular romance narrative and as a model reading strategy for such works. Before examining a brief outline of the theory behind it and offering a reading of Linda Howard's Silhouette Desire novel McKenzie 's Mission, I would like to point out that the sadomasochism to which I refer is not the s/m dynamic of popular imagination, the whips-and-chains brand of sexuality. Rather, I examine sado-masochism as an element of power relations within a larger social context. (460)


By emphasizing power as a dialectic and acknowledging the strength of the masochist, the paradigm of sadomasochism presents a strategy for reading and identification that does not position the reader regressively. It also explains the ways women gain a pleasure from texts they would never see as "masochistic" in the popular meaning of the word, but as empowering, however problematic that may appear to feminist readers and critics unfamiliar with the tropes and the modes in which they are read by fans of the genre. (470)