Nova Scotia

Halifax study uses Harlequin covers to track changing attitudes on romance, society

Halifax researchers have found a unique way to look at how societal attitudes around women and romance have shifted over the years through Harlequin book covers.

Researchers analyzed covers from 1953 to 2014

Harlequin Romance imprint covers were used in a new study by Halifax researchers Maryanne Fisher and Tami Meredith. (Maryanne Fisher)

Two Halifax researchers have found a unique way to look at how societal attitudes around women and romance have shifted over the years — and they didn't need to crack a book to do it.

Maryanne Fisher, a psychology professor at Saint Mary's University, has been studying what Harlequin romance novels can tell us about relationships for more than seven years.

Her latest publication with Tami Meredith of Dalhousie University came out in the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences journal earlier this month, and completes a trilogy of Harlequin-related studies.

They analyzed over 500 Harlequin cover images of books published from 1953 to 2014, from a collection amassed over years of donations, titles found in used book stores, and friends passing them along.

"When you go to a grocery store and you walk down the aisle and you see those books for sale … you would be drawn in by the covers, and it's mostly the image that would sell the book," Fisher said.

"That really told us that we should be looking at the imagery as revealing something about maybe women's mating interests, or what they fantasize about in terms of romance."

Maryanne Fisher, a psychology professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, examined more than 60 years of Harlequin book covers to see how expectations around romance and relationships changed. (Wendell Conrod)

Fisher noted they focused on Harlequin's Romance imprint, since it is the company's longest-running one and offers the most research material. 

The covers they studied are not explicit and don't feature the couples baring lots of skin or in suggestive poses, Fisher said, which is often the case with Harlequin's racier imprints like Blaze.

These Romance titles are the classic kind, ones "your grandmother could be reading and you wouldn't feel embarrassed to see," Fisher said.

They took a two-pronged approach to the study, looking at the clothing styles, background elements, and figures on each cover overall along with data driven by numbers.

In the data analysis, Fisher said they looked at what proportions of the body were showing, what types of people or settings were on the covers, whether pets were present, and other factors.

At the end of their research, Fisher said one of the aspects that stood out to her was a real shift toward seeing more children on the covers as time goes on. By the 2010s, Fisher said a quarter of the covers featured kids.

This change is likely thanks to the feminist and reproductive rights movements gaining steam, Fisher said, which also likely influenced an increase in pregnant women on the covers.

"So it's more social acceptance about … single motherhood and how being a pregnant mom, or being a single mom, really isn't as negatively portrayed as it was obviously decades ago," Fisher said.

They also saw a "huge increase" in how much of a body would be showing, and couples behaving in more intimate ways. 

Starting in the 1980s, Fisher said there started to be more direct eye contact between the hero and the heroine of the cover as they are seen engaging and touching.

As the decades go on, they engage in more "reclining behaviour" together, with a much higher degree of intimacy.

All of these findings point to different levels of expectation for what was acceptable and not acceptable for women to want, Fisher said. Now, women feel more free to expect a mate who would be a great father and display paternal behaviour, whereas in the 1950's that wasn't the case.

Some of the new Harlequin Romance imprint books, published after the company was taken over by HarperCollins in 2014. (Wendell Conrod)

With the displays of intimacy increasing, Fisher said this shows society being more accepting of public displays of affection.

Their study range ended in 2014 when the Canadian Harlequin business was sold to U.S.-based News Corp, now a division of HarperCollins. Since the switch, Fisher said the Romance line has taken quite a turn toward more explicit covers that would never have been found in the original imprint.

Fisher said in the Romance line before 2014, they also never saw LGBTQ couples and "very few" non-white figures — although she can't be completely sure about ethnicity since it's impossible to discern original skin colour on many older covers.

Harlequin has always been deliberate about dividing its readership by series, Fisher said, and they kept the Romance line representing a white and straight majority readership.

If you want a certain kind of book you can stick to that imprint, which could be their supernatural line, one focused on people of colour, or maybe even the NASCAR imprint if that's your thing.

For Fisher, she said the entire study has changed how she looks at every cover. She takes her time really thinking about what message the design is meant to send, and no longer dismisses a book as quickly as she used to.

Especially in COVID-19 times, when more and more people have time to read at home, Fisher said it might be an interesting exercise.

"What are they gaining from reading that story?" Fisher said.

"And did they buy the book because the cover looked really enticing? Did they buy it because there [were] a particular couple words on the back cover that piqued their interest?"

Fisher's upcoming research plans include looking at how Harlequin novels changed under the move to HarperCollins, and turning to the screen to analyze romantic movies.

"We'll see if I get much liftoff there. That's another seven years of my life," she said with a laugh.