“Heartthrobs” Makes Female Desire Only For White Women

Book Reviews{ Oxford University Press }
Released: May 10, 2017

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This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

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.

This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by Rachel Vorona Cote
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Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her first book, TOO MUCH: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Us Today, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. Find her on Twitter here.

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