Smashdown

80s Category Romances: Mustache Week

Doing this blog together may have exacerbated our smut-collecting tendencies. Case in point: last year Erin bought a whole box of 80s category romances. Obviously, we had to read (and discuss) these treasures together.

One of our goals for 2023 is therefore to do a couple of focused weeks on 80s categories romance, each loosely organized around a theme. And what better place to start than mustaches?

Look. At. Those. Mustaches!

Which romance are you reading? Based on the blurb, what’s the basic premise?

Holly: I’m reading The Temptress Touch by Lori Herter. The hero is a painter, and he paints the heroine’s portrait (as evidenced by the portrait of the heroine creepily watching them kiss on the cover of the book). The heroine had rejected the hero’s advances, but then decided she liked him after all, so she’s going to use the opportunity to seduce him.

I admit that I opened the book randomly to the middle and read a bit, and it seems like the big conflict is going to be because the heroine seduced the hero, the hero now thinks she’s a big ole slut, and she does not appreciate the mistrust and shaming. I’ll be interested to see how this dynamic is handled.

Erin: I’m reading Calling the Shots by Kathy Alerding because it’s a hockey romance. The blurb is puntastic with hockey references. Apparently the heroine is a trainer for Omaha, and the hero sweeps in as…a player and a talent scout and a skating coach? I don’t even know how that would work, but I guess I’ll find out! Naturally, she will be irritated by both his usurpation of her position and her unwanted lustful feelings, but he will prove irresistible in the end. Of course, he is the sort of man who can’t be tied down, and that will make my head absolutely explode until he is somehow forced to confront his feelings and (presumably retire and) tie himself down. 

Ingrid: I’m reading Walking on Air by Michele Robbe. Basically, we have Alexandra as the only woman on the ground crew for an airship (a freaking BLIMP, GUYS) who has carved out a place for herself with all the men, until womanizer Cameron comes along. He’s a womanizer and she’s desperately trying to hold on to her career and stay away from him…because obviously she’d have to choose between the two? 

What are you expecting to see in these 80s romances?

Erin: Honestly, I’m expecting a little surprise feminism. And also all the machismo and gender essentialism that typically makes older books cringeworthy. But I can’t stop remembering how surprised I was in Diana Palmer’s Calhoun when the hero’s brother (not only the heroine!!) called him on his caveman behaviors. So, given that the heroine in my book this week is a woman working in a field dominated by men—and clearly doing well for herself since she’s training elite athletes—I think I’ll see some pushback on certain ideas about what a woman’s place is.

Holly: I, too, am expecting a little surprise feminism to balance the machismo. I think there’s this idea that all old romance is regressive—because, frankly, parts of many of them are—but some feminist ideas have been in circulation for a long time. And I think that sometimes I forget this because I came of age in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when there was a huge anti-feminist backlash in pop culture. Feminism when I was a teenager meant being sexy and having girl power, but in the 80s the movement was much more concerned with women’s work.

Ingrid: I’m expecting to see some “you CAN have it all” in the ending, and maybe a little bit of “how could I be so stupid, he can clearly get any woman he wants with a mustache like that”. The entire premise of the book looks like it’s going to explore feminism but we’ll see how that unfolds.

What kind of mustache content are you looking for?

Holly: I really hope the heroine at least comments on the hero’s mustache and how sexy it makes him look.

Erin: It’s a hockey team, so I’m really hoping they all have mustaches. Or most of them. And maybe the hero will have the best mustache? The thickest, most well-groomed. Bonus points for comments about it tickling her thighs, because that’s a whole thing going on with beards in romance right now, and I’d really like our antecedents to be there before us. 

Ingrid: Eyes twinkling above a bristly mustache. Lip tickling during smooches and then “it’s so MANLY and makes me feel so WOMANLY”. Probably a comparison between his mustache and all the other manly air men. That’s what I expect, anyway. 

Drop a mustache fact!

Holly: I only added this question so that I could share that until 1916, enlisted men in the British army were *not allowed to shave their upper lips.* (!!!!???!??!!!) Every single Victorian romance with a clean-shaven hero is a LIE.

Erin: What Winterbourne actually looked like:

Holly: More broadly though, research seems to indicate that in times when men feel like they need to be hypermasculine, mustaches come into style. Given that there are all of these excellent mustaches in 80s romances, I wonder if this is an early sign of backlash against women working? I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here. (Also please note that I learned all of my fun facts from Wikipedia, so, uh, grain of salt and all that.)

Erin: Well, you know those Victorians also had special mustache teacups?

You might think it’s designed that way to prevent wet whiskers, and you’re partially right. But also steam melts wax, and a gentleman’s mood might match his mustache after the styling wax wilts into his teacup. So unrefined! Thankfully, Harvey Adams came up with a solution to this hairy problem.

Ingrid: Do beards also come back into style when manly men feel threatened? I’m interested in that. Also, were you aware that the average man touches his mustache 760 times every 24 hours? So…I certainly hope we see a lot of mustache stroking in these books. Only now I can only picture broody Winterbourne and I don’t know how I feel about that.

What do you think we’ll learn from doing this project together?

Erin: I don’t think this will turn out much differently than we expect it to, but I think we’ll be hugely entertained when we describe these stories to each other. 

What I would like to discuss is: what do we see in these category romances (they’re not single title, so they’re constructed differently to an old Nora Roberts or Johanna Lindsey!) that we still see, and what do we see as having changed over time? Also, I know we don’t read a ton of categories, but it would be interesting to note how much conventions for writing them has changed in thirty years. 

Holly: I like Erin’s discussion questions! Though I think for us to really get a handle on conventions we’re going to have to read more than one apiece. 

Ingrid: I think we’re going to have a lot to say about the differences between 80’s and current romance trends, and I am HERE for it.

On a scale of tiny stache to giant stache, how excited are you?

Holly: I am handlebar mustache excited.

This is medium levels of hairiness with some tempered expectations keeping it from getting too big. My excitement is controlled, but curly. (Am I taking this metaphor too far?) In other words, I don’t know that I’m looking forward to reading this book, but I do love talking about books with these ladies. 

Erin: I am horseshoe mustache excited. 

This is a playfully assertive but carefully groomed level because I really like the idea of it but am reasonably confident that when I dig deeper I will have some concerns. 

Ingrid: I am Dali mustache excited.

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