Dominant, virile, brooding: the alpha male is quintessential in modern western popular romance published by companies such as Harlequin Mills & Boon. One persistent iteration of the alpha is the Middle Eastern sheikh, whose hypermasculinity seems initially at odds with the ‘feminine penetrability’ of the Oriental east with which he is connected. Yet, the modern sheikh romance was not the first genre to persistently represent eastern romantic heroes; in late medieval England, the most popular secular texts were romances, several of which contained Orientalist heroes. This article scrutinizes the masculine performance of the sheikh hero in light of the romance genre’s medieval history. I consider how the masculinities of modern and medieval eastern romance heroes are inextricably connected to their eastern surroundings. Focusing on the Middle English romance Floris and Blancheflour, I identify two contrasting models of eastern hypo- and hyper-masculinity that make overt deviant gender performance and the associated anxiety and effect on heterosexual gender relations. Finally, I re-examine the presentation of the hypermasculine sheikh hero, arguing that these romances too exhibit anxiety about male gender identity in the east. These romances, medieval and modern, thus acknowledge and deny Said’s effeminate Orient and its destabilizing potential.
- Middle English