The Photoromance: A Feminist Reading of Popular Culture

The Photoromance: A Feminist Reading of Popular Culture
by Paola Bonifazio

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020
264 pp., illus. 20 col., 21 b&w. Paper, $29.95
ISBN: 9780262539289.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
February 2021

Born in Italy in the second half of the 1940s and becoming a wildly successful global publication format till the 1970s, photoromances, aka fumetti in the United States, are a form of graphic storytelling that uses photographs instead of drawings whose form and content is heavily indebted to the clichés of serialized melodrama (some critics have called them TV-soap operas in magazine format). From the very beginning, the medium was crudely mocked, if not directly attacked, as a prototypical example of cultural manipulation from the side of those who shamelessly exploited it as well as alienation from the side of its supposedly stupid and self-deceiving female readers. Photoromances were scorned as the lowest of the lowest in the field of popular literature, and for many decades they remained largely ignored by academic research. Other types of “trash”, from comic books to porn, have had their fans and defenders from the very moment that universities opened their programs to the world of popular reading and culture in general, but this was not the case for the photoromance, a format that seemed so illegitimate that it was not even allowed to appear on the radar screen, except in a limited number of studies that are now beginning to have a certain impact on the field of popular medium studies in general, and let’s hope beyond the sole field of popular culture. It is too early to dream of the development of photoromance studies, to the model of the now very well established domain of comics studies, but there is certainly hope that the longtime neglect of this fascinating area of medium studies is now coming to an end.

In this process, the book by Paola Bonifazio on photoromance culture in Italy will undoubtedly play a decisive role. Not only because it is written in English, while most other studies are either in French or in Italian, but more importantly because the author offers a new theoretical and methodological framework to analyze the medium. The framework in question is a mix of gender studies, more particularly feminism and medium studies, which here relies on the implementation of Henry Jenkins’s work on media convergence and fan culture. The inspiring combination of these approaches helps avoid some of the traditional obstacles of photoromance studies. Their critical reflections on the role and position of both producers and consumers of the medium –the nasty publishers, the victimized readers, the former supposedly all-male, the latter no less supposedly all-female–generally tend to be elaborated in a kind of historical and material vacuum, with little room for an in-depth study of the cultural industry the photoromance was part of. In addition, these critical readings are also hardly interested in what real readers were actually doing when reading photoromances. As Bonifazio convincingly demonstrates, it is not possible to understand the medium by setting it apart from its cultural and commercial environment. Nor is it possible to maintain that readers were just daydreaming or getting lost in reactionary escapism. Readers did have agency, and the medium culture they were co-constructing was not only that of the photoromance itself.

In order to move into these new directions, Bonifazio proposes an approach that exemplarily mixes the feminist and medium-theoretical perspectives with two specific methods. On the one hand, her reading is based on solid archival research in various countries and types of institution–an exceptional achievement in a field that is characterized by the absence of well-structured repositories: most historical sources have disappeared and discovering material evidence of what happened in the photoromance business is quite a challenge. On the other hand, the investigation also has a strong anthropological, participant observer-based character, given the fact that Bonifazio has entered the online community of photoromance fans, perhaps the only possibility to complement the quasi-absence of oral histories in this domain. The insights gained from this “acafan” commitment to the photoromance community as well as the ideas and hypotheses built by the patient disclosure of shattered and sometimes unorganized archival material produce a new vision of the medium from a cultural-theoretical and political point of view.

This vision logically reshapes not only our take on the medium but also our ideas on the way it socially functioned–and to a certain extent continues to function till today, since it would be a mistake to think that the photoromance is a dead medium. First of all, Bonifazio clearly pushes the boundaries of the medium, both by exploring its global, transnational dimension (the book is particularly efficacious in bringing together European and American material) and by refusing the divide between photoromance and the larger field of movie and showbiz culture (here it is the very innovative reading of the subgenre of the film photonovel as a tool of stardom marketing that comes to the fore). In addition, Bonifazio also discloses the thematic and formal diversity of the photoromance, by drawing attention to less known but no less widely read uses of the medium by other than the usual commercial suspects: the Communist Party, the Catholic Church, the governmental agency for sexual education, all of which were eager to make usage of the format for their own ideological, political, social programs (and Bonifazio smartly analyzes the achievements but also limitations and failures of these instrumentalizations). Second, the book also challenges the idea of the female reader’s passivity and ideological backwardness, not just by claiming in a very general and now somewhat stereotypical way her “agency” and the perception of any form of reading as an open negotiation between producer and consumer, but also and more importantly by a careful historical as well as anthropological reading of what one can learn from the archives and the fan websites. Photoromances may have played a key role in the “faux feminist” emancipation movement (a term coined by Angela McRobbie, who refers to forms of postwar economic and sexual emancipation that nevertheless remained traditional in their articulation of gender roles in the private and public spheres) or in the spread of celebrity culture in the pretelevision years and beyond. Yet this deep immersion in alienating consumer culture is only one side of the medal. Bonifazio does not deny or ignore but this dimension, but she powerfully counterbalances it with many historical and contemporary testimonies of the socializing and thus empowering practices that the industry opens to its users. Commercial transactions are definitely part of the photoromance universe, but this part is not the whole and Bonifazio’s book offers many opportunities to continue its explorations of the other side of a despised medium.