Harlequin exhibit documents a woman's changing world

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Women’s changing role in society and how they have viewed themselves since the World War Two is illustrated by a new exhibit of 60 years of Harlequin romance novel covers.

The New York exhibit, “The Heart of a Woman” Harlequin cover art, 1949 to 2009, celebrates the Canadian publisher’s 60th anniversary and focuses on the shifts in female desire.

Often perceived as simple “bodice rippers”, the women’s fiction genre has always mirrored the aspirations and thinking of women, sometimes in graphic form, said exhibit curator Elizabeth Semmelhack.

The early covers in the exhibit, which runs from May 29 to June 12, depicted the sexuality and drama of what lay between the pages, said Semmelhack. But it was only beginning in the early 50’s that Harlequin focused on romance and the covers were specifically aimed at women.

Women’s changing role in society is evident throughout the exhibit. In the medical romance genre early covers show nurses displaying unrequited love for the doctors they work with, while the doctor’s desires lay elsewhere.

“In the post World War Two era, where women had been nurses, they were being pushed back into the domestic realm but their desire to participate again is clearly evident,” said Semmelhack.

But with the social activism of the 60’s the covers show women beginning to again take a central role.


“By the early 1960’s, gender roles are challenged with the take off of the women’s movement and (illustrations show) women are traveling to exotic locations, often alone and they are now the doctors,” said Semmelhack.

While they still show chaste, or platonic relationships, between men and women, the tropical locations of those covers provide a strong hint of what the story may entail.

Cover art took another turn in the 70’s when it became clear that not all women wanted to be doctors but they still wanted to be whisked away. Covers depict icons such as the Eiffel Tower alongside movie star handsome males but with the heroine now completely to the foreground.

Shortly thereafter, in a radical departure from the theme, the hero disappeared completely, leaving the heroine alone.

Often looking at the reader, the heroine proposed “a one-on-one between the viewer and the viewed,” said Semmelhack. “She’s your best friend about to tell you about a trip.”

But the sexual revolution was taking hold, making the return of the male necessary, and covers begin to show the passion familiar to most current readers even as women retain dominant roles.

Though phallic symbols such as snakes has been on the cover since the late 50’s, according to Semmelhack, the male hero is now a hulking model and their masculinity has become an object of desire in and of itself, Semmelhack said.

Interest in traditional American themes such as the West in the 80’s allowed for racial barriers to be broken with romances across ethnic groups, rather than the usual all white couples, adding to the perceived erotic undertones.

Painted photographs were also replacing the traditional artwork and by the beginning of this decade, photographs of the six-pack male physique are front and center.

“Women are now comfortable with consuming images of men,” said Semmelhack.

So much so, that females no longer appear on recent covers at all.

Reporting by Nick Olivari; editing by Patricia Reaney