The Soft Power of Popular Romance

Heather Schell (George Washington University, USA)
Session 6.1 Power and Patriarchy

Abstract: Political scientist Joseph Nye introduced the term “soft power” as a way of describing how nations might win hearts and allies without the us of military force or economics.  Power, he says, is “a way to alter the behaviour of others to get what you want”; soft power does this via “attraction” (Nye, Think Again”). The potential for soft power resides in ppolitical vales, policies, and most important for our purposes, culture.  Culture is a resources requiring no governmental encouragement, yet it can still be leveraged.  This concept has become quite popular in foreign policy circles.  While indices of soft power focus on film, music and spots as their metrics for cultural influence, it’s obvious that Harlequin, with  “titles in 34 languages and sold in over 100 international markets” is a good example of soft power…

In her paper Heather explores soft power as a lens for examining popular romance.  Hard power is military and economic might, whereas soft power is the power to persuade and compel.

Soft power is often viewed in terms of purposes of the state, as an insidious power that is used for controlling others by getting them to have desires you want them to have.  [My addition:  Robert Kagan’s 2002 essay ‘Power and Weakness‘ in Policy Review is somewhat dated now but is a good breakdown of soft and hard power.]

However, soft power itself doesn’t have to be insidious.  Viewing it this way does provides no language to describe what is regularly valourised in romance novels, the form of soft power used by women.  This can be seen in romance novels and soap operas, traditionally viewed as women’s entertainment but which has the power to influence.  In romance, love itself is a form of soft power

Example:  Turkish soap opera Fatmagul, which is about a rape survivor who fights for justice in the courts.  TV shows can introduce feminist ideas like this to female audiences.  However there is a risk of cultural imperialism accusations.

Call back to the History Ever After session:  the fact that [some] romance readers have come to believe that Regency period on a lovely but small island is the most interesting thing to read about is a form of soft power in itself.

Note:  For those interested in exploring more about Soft Power, Macquarie University has a Soft Power Analysis Resource Centre (SPARC)

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