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Gender, power, and m/m romance

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[NOTE: I originally posted a shorter version of this post a while back at my now-defunct personal blog. Robin’s post on gender and power raised the question of how these issues play out in m/m, so it seemed worth bringing it to Dear Author for discussion.]

 

If I hear one more time that readers turn to the m/m genre because it is free of “gendered power relationships,” I will throw a large heavy object across the room. The worst thing about this statement is that it is often made by intelligent people who seem to have some familiarity with feminism and gender theory. If they were in class on the day that the professor lectured about how male roles are also structured by gender assumptions and patriarchy, they seem to have forgotten it. Gender is not just about women. Gender is about everyone.

I apologize to readers who know this very well already, but just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the World Health Organizations’s definition:

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

In a heterosexual romance, the ways the hero and heroine behave are conditioned on how the author chooses to portray these socially constructed roles. The heroine may act in ways that reinforce “traditional” gender norms, or she may rebel against them. An Alpha hero is considered to embody “traditional” gender norms of masculinity, while a Beta hero, while still masculine, will be less “manly” in a stereotypical way.

In an m/m romance, the substitution of the heroine with a second hero does not mean that gendered power relationships disappear. It means that we now have two protagonists whose socially constructed roles are drawn from the same side of the gender binary** rather than one each from opposite sides.

Yes, the male-female power dynamic, which is structured by social expectations and patriarchy, is absent. But now we have a male-male power dynamic that is structured by social expectations and patriarchy. What are some possible ramifications of that? A short paper prepared by a social work professional offers a few:

Some problems within gay male relationships reflect the deficits inherent in the male gender role:

  • Some men have learned to be husbands who strive for competition for power and differentiation.
  • Some men are socialized to equate their value as a person with the power, prestige, and income of their work, and to see other men, at best, as worthy competitors and, at worst, as the enemy in this game of status and power.
  • Neither man in the relationship may be aware of how he is communicating either excess value or devaluation to his partner and himself based upon income and status criteria.
  • Power plays (subtle, obvious) will get acted out if not talked about, mainly through competition and negotiating tasks, duties, household, & finances.
  • Some men have been raised to be in control (of self and other). Thus, they will tell the other person in the relationship other what he should feel/think/be/do.

These attitudes and behaviors are part of being socialized as a male, regardless of sexual orientation (and that socialization begins at birth for most people). Not all men exhibit these attributes, of course, because response to socialization is conditioned on the individual. And gay men may fight certain aspects of gender conditioning more than straight men do. But gay men grow up in the same gendered world as straight men, women, and everyone else.

Human interactions (and many non-human ones) include negotiations over power, and some of these negotiations are influenced by the gendered perspectives of the actors. Gender and power are deeply intertwined; but not every power negotiation is shot through with gender issues, and not every aspect of gender involves thinking about power dynamics.

I agree that it’s wonderful to take a break from reading about male-female relationships that are inevitably structured by gender roles. But then you have to say hello to male-male relationships that are inevitably structured by gender roles. We need to be honest and acknowledge that m/m provides a respite from what women’s gendered roles in romance novels make us confront, not from “gendered power relationships” more generally.

Even though m/m romance differs in important ways from m/f romance (and even though there are vocal m/m readers who refuse to read m/f anymore), I would argue that we port a lot of our assumptions about relationships over to what is supposed to be a gender-neutral environment. Gay4U is basically the virgin heroine trope; guys taking care of other peoples’ kids is the family-friendly HEA; infidelity is frequently a relationship deal-breaker (unlike in other fiction with gay main characters), true love means having penetrative sex, and so on. I think that we unconsciously expect certain types of relationships no matter what we’re reading.

In Sean Kennedy’s Tigers and Devils, Simon’s father is trying to understand how a gay relationship works,  using his very restrictive lens:

“Well, Declan’s in there and they’re all over him, which is fine. But I’m fair game, so they think they can ask me all the stuff they’re too scared to ask him.”

“Like?”

I sighed. I wasn’t even sure if my dad would understand. “They just asked me if I was the woman.”

My dad was quiet. He cleared his throat. “Uh, are you?”

I couldn’t believe he was doing the exact same thing. My dad was usually gruff, but pretty smart. I would have thought he would know better. “Yes, Dad. I’m the woman. When we go home I hand Declan his pipe and slippers, put on my apron, and bake biscuits for him to take to training the next day.”

“I’m only asking a question,” Dad said, sounding genuinely puzzled.

“And it’s a dumb one. I’m a man, and he’s a man. We’re gay because we like men. Neither of us is ‘the woman’.”

Of course Simon is frustrated and of course we sympathize with his irritation and anger. But it’s not just about who’s the top and who’s the bottom (as it’s usually interpreted, and which is the subtext here), it’s how relationship roles are reassigned when the partners are of the same sex.

There is no obvious support role for Simon that isn’t about being “the woman.” The standard way for a partner/spouse to publicly support a star professional football player is by being one of the WAGs, and WAGs are the epitome of feminized public figures. Kennedy does a great job of two things in this storyline: he shows us how the WAG role is impossible for Simon, and he also shows us that many women partners are much more than the WAG stereotype suggests, especially through the portrayal of Declan’s teammate’s partner, Lisa. But whether the job of the partner is trivialized or respected, it’s an inherently feminized role. A man cannot fulfil it and be held in public esteem. Simon’s inability to function as a WAG illustrates, in exaggerated form, the social and economic penalty men pay when they take on other feminized roles.

Heteronormative, patriarchial structures shape society for everyone. Some m/m authors, like Kennedy, write wonderful books that explore the ramifications of this hegemony for romantic relationships between men and show how they are negotiated to produce an HFN or HEA. Others pretend equality is an unproblematic given in the relationship. And the same is true for m/f authors: some tackle the ramifications head on, while others don’t.

Heterosexual romance novels don’t have a monopoly on dominated, naive, inexperienced, or TSTL characters, and many of the more egalitarian relationships depicted in m/m could (and do) work as m/f relationships. But are there aspects of each that are unique and not transferable to the other? Besides lube of course. ;)

_____________

**The binary division is a gross simplification, since it assumes cis-gendered identity. But that’s a more complicated conversation. Let’s stick with the “easy” stuff for now.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

65 Comments

  1. Rei
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 06:57:25

    I am commenting on this basically to remind myself to comment more later, because I have SO MANY THOUGHTS about this (I think a lot of what you’ve said here is applicable to f/f romance as well, for example), but I haven’t really slept and I need to go do some more before I can really trust myself around a keyboard. For now I’ll just say that this is a great post and I really appreciate that you wrote it.

  2. Carolyne
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 07:38:10

    As an m/m reader and writer (as well as reader of f/m and f/f) for me the whole point is, in fact, getting away from the expectations (whoever’s–mine, I guess) of f/m and exploring something different. Sometimes it’s interesting to see a couple start out with an “equivalent” gendered dynamic and see the clash and accommodation. I tend to enjoy writing f/m in science fiction because I can posit something different than contemporary expectations. I’m not sure that’s a failure on the part of Romance, but on myself. I’d like to think, though, that in good m/m one can’t just swap in a female for one of the males and have the same interplay.

    It’s a little early for deep thoughts from me, too. I should come back later!

  3. cleo
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 07:45:23

    Yay. I was hoping you’d repost this here after Robin’s post last week. Add me to the people who have to come back, when I have more time for thoughtful commenting.

  4. E.E. Ottoman
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 07:51:21

    “If I hear one more time that readers turn to the m/m genre because it is free of “gendered power relationships,” I will throw a large heavy object across the room.”

    This. Definitely this.

    I think it is also important to bear in mind that in our society not all masculinity is created equal either. In fact how your gender is judged and whether it is judged “good enough” is depended in large part on your race, able-bodied/able-minded status, class, trans* status … etc. This is true if you are a man same as if you are a woman.

    Also I don’t necessarily think it is a problem that m/m romance has so obviously taken a lot of the ways it thinks about romance, sex, relationships, monogamy, penetration, and gender from m/f romance I just wish it was done with a little more awareness and thoughtfulness. I think a lot of m/m romance writer/readers seem to take for granted that m/m romance is innately totally different from m/f romance in ways that I, as a writer and reader of m/m romance, have not found it to be.

  5. Aleksandr Voinov
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 07:55:51

    This reminds me of a discussion I had with “my” Japanese translator – we got to chatting about the market and she told me she really loves m/m versus yaoi/boylove (forgive me if I’m using the terms wrong, I’m not an expert) is because to heart it felt “grittier” and “more real”, as it actually explores “real life issues” a lot more (I’d have to take her word for it).

    Considering how much of m/m doesn’t actually do that at all – “OKHOMO” being an especially obnoxious example in historicals – I was intrigued by that perception. Maybe it’s selection bias, maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe it’s due to m/m romance’s very mixed ancestry that allows for a huge breadth and scope.

    That said, personally, one of my goals is to write an m/f novel to explore exactly that – my own perceptions and conditioning when it comes to gender. I’ve done an m/m/f menage, and I’ve definitely played with gender, gender perception and gender performance (like in Dark Soul and Incursion), but I’m extremely curious how this will change and influence my own work and what’s different about it. Right now, it’s a huge big gleaming question mark.

  6. cead
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 08:24:38

    There are all sorts of interesting questions and discussion points raised by this essay, but (as I am in fact a terrible person), my mind has chosen to focus on the trivial.

    Erm. Lube is totally transferable. Just saying.

  7. Satana
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 08:33:09

    @cead:

    High five, my friend. All the intelligent, erudite, thoughtful, brilliant things I had to say about patriarchy and relationships went out the window when I read that last sentence and just thought, ‘KY and flavoured, anyone?’

    xx

  8. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 08:57:30

    @cead: @Satana: I too will come back to respond to the great comments here, but before I do that, let me just metaphorically smack myself for trying to end the column on a joke. Believe me, I’m well aware that lube comes in handy in other relationships. I was thinking more of the new Ward m/m and everyone’s fixation on the fact that lube wasn’t mentioned. Lube seemed to become a shorthand for “not getting m/m right,” which I found odd.

    Ah well. As I said, my fault for the misfire. So to speak.

  9. Satana
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 09:27:25

    @Sunita: Hiya – No, great ending for the entry, I think the tone of the response didn’t translate – it was completely tongue-in-cheek. I couldn’t resist playing: I knew you knew it translated to other relationships – no need for self-smacking, the line was taken as you meant it. Temptation was just too great :-D.

  10. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 09:30:56

    @E.E. Ottoman: I agree that there are many insights to be gleaned, and many interesting books to be written, by taking issues that arise in m/f gender relations and examining them in a same-gender context, and when it’s done thoughtfully it’s very rewarding. But what we can get out of that is inherently limited, because we are started with the m/f relationship as the baseline. There are expectations of what men are supposed to be, do, earn, etc. that exist whether they are in relationships with women or not. I’d love to see more explorations of how those issues are negotiated.

    @Aleksandr Voinov: I agree with you about the problems in m/m, and I don’t read yaoi, so I can’t comment with any authority on m/m is more or less “real,” but I wonder if she was referring to the fact that there are a lots of novels that incorporate causes and political questions about LGBT issues into the storylines.

  11. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 09:31:44

    @Satana: Thank you. ;) I am the worst teller of jokes on the planet, so I’m always second-guessing myself on them! And it didn’t *really* work, so there was that!

  12. cead
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 09:46:45

    @Sunita: Likewise, I was hoping my parenthetical would indicate the intended tongue-in-cheek-ness, but I guess it didn’t translate. Mea culpa!

  13. Satana
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 09:47:51

    @Sunita:

    *Hugs* I totally get that – but you write well and clearly, and it was a strong ending – humour often is – so trust your instincts. And it WAS funny – and a complete invitation to come out and play to people like me whose motto is ‘Get out of the gutter, you’re standing on my snorkel!’ ;-) xx

  14. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 10:12:21

    @Satana: @cead: You guys make a good point, though, and one that was in the back of my mind: certain things become *over*-identified with a genre. We don’t see nearly the dedication to mentioning lube in m/f romance and erotica, and while Ward may have got a bunch of things wrong in her m/m book, that one is just odd to single out. It’s trivial, and to me it’s not really important, but there are non-trivial things that *are* important that become de facto standards as well. Like the assumption that intra-gender inequality can be ignored. Masculinity is not monolithic, and society rewards some markers of masculinity and punishes people who don’t choose to perform them (or are unable to do so). But you won’t see that acknowledgment in many m/m romances. At most you’ll get jock v. nerd, or butch v. effeminate, which actually work in both m/m and m/f.

  15. Emma
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 11:15:16

    The fact that readers would assume that gender issues and their attendent power disparities would fade away in m/m or f/f texts reminds me how racial, racialized, ethnic, etc. are only used as adjectives when describing texts about (or by) people of color. Because white people don’t have a race, duh! Othering is truly a real thing and not just a metaphor.

  16. Lindsay
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 11:21:54

    Absolutely fabulous, Sunita — I hope you’ll keep writing more of these (to step people past the “easy” stuff in here would be pretty amazing), it’s so great to have someone who cuts to the quick of what an issue is that previously I’ve only been able to frown and vaguely handwave about. It’s so nice to have things put coherently.

    If I do get tired of reading of specific gendered issues in M/F, I tend to turn to other time periods for different discovery — that’s as relevant to me as just looking at gendered relationships with different gender roles completely. I’m still fairly new to romance reading in general, so I’m still learning a lot of the tropes in each sub-genre, and M/M is definitely one I don’t know them very well at all, so this was also a great post to call them out better for me.

    Thank you again! And honestly, I think the lube thing resonates so strongly because it is trivial yet strong enough to break a lot of people out of the story, while other elements might be larger yet still allowable to a lot of people as the story unfolds. I couldn’t read Ward’s books past part of the first because of their treatment of women (I guess I don’t do alphahole), so it is kind of funny that lube would be the gendered point people focus on to me.

  17. Janine
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 11:43:30

    I’m really glad you expanded and reposted this here. Just because we may get away from gender differences when we read M/M in place of M/F doesn’t mean the issue of gender roles and expectations based on them disappears.

  18. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 13:42:42

    @Lindsay: I think you’re right about the lube thing! I couldn’t read Ward past the first 3 chapters of the first book because of the racial appropriation that jumped out at me, and I couldn’t make it more than partway into the first chapter of the m/m book, so I can’t speak to how well she portrayed the relationship. But I was taken aback when some readers suggested she should have read more m/m to understand how to write it.

    @Janine: Thanks, Janine. Reading m/m has made me more aware of how many issues aren’t found only in male-female relations but are present across all types of pairings.

  19. Lia
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 14:16:02

    I don’t know what aspects of “gendered power relationships” romance readers are trying to escape in turning to m/m romance, but I’d be tempted if I knew I’d never have to slog through another “secret baby”- or “oops! pregnancy”-driven plot ever again. :)

  20. Joy
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 14:35:09

    I don’t know if it’s just my perception or not, but it seems to me I find more BDSM in m/m romance than m/f . I wonder if this is another way of exploring power issues in relationships. One of the reasons I think I enjoy m/m, is the way that (at its best) it explores masculinity and social expectations related to it from the point of view of men who are in some ways outside of society’s norms of masculinity, whether overtly or covertly.

  21. Joy
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 14:36:12

    @Lia: Yeah, you’d think m/m would be totally void of these but you’re wrong! There are, however, significantly *fewer* of them.

  22. cleo
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 15:02:39

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot – I know that I made some rather grandiose claims about m/m during my initial infatuation with the genre. I’m not sure that I ever claimed that m/m was free from gendered power relationships (surely I’d never say something so silly;) ) but I do remember posting somewhere that m/m bypassed cultural baggage about female sexuality and traditional roles. I know what I was trying to say – one thing I still like about m/m is that you can have a couple where both partners are sexually active/aggressive without triggering massive slut shaming / guilt etc. But now that I’m less infatuated (although I still enjoy m/m), I see that there’s still a whole lot of cultural baggage in m/m – both in the treatment of supporting female characters (slut shaming and evil woman syndrome) and in the portrayal of men, queer and straight, as Sunita points out.

    @Lia: For me, the initial appeal of m/m was the lack of asshole heroes – ok, there are plenty of assholes in m/m (no pun intended) but there is a specific possessive, my-mate-is-my-property type asshole hero that’s pretty prevalent in m/f but is far, far less common in m/m. And that was such a relief.

    @Sunita – reading m/m has really made me more aware of some of my assumptions. One of them is my reaction to possessive, jealous heroes. I hate them in m/f, but in m/m they don’t bother me as much (plus there are fewer of them). I know that jealousy/possessiveness can be a warning sign for domestic abuse and I know that that’s a problem for same sex couples too, but it doesn’t trigger the same protective, get-out-of-there-girl response in me reading m/m. (And I don’t know what to make of that)

  23. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 15:06:45

    @Lia: What Joy said. There are way more babies than I expected, that’s for sure!

    @Joy: It does seem as if m/m has more BDSM storylines, although that impression may be because erotic and romance are conflated in m/m but are separated (albeit imperfectly) in m/f. And I agree with you that when done well, m/m has really interesting explorations of masculinity and gender roles. However frustrated I get with the genre, it’s been incredibly rewarding to read in it.

  24. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 15:21:34

    @cleo: I think I made many of those same claims, and I see new readers doing the same thing. It seems like a natural part of finding a new genre that speaks to you. Over time, though, you can start to see patterns that aren’t so wonderful. It took me a while to really comprehend how much anti-woman characterization there was, for example, but once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it.

    The possessive/jealous hero thing is really interesting. I don’t like them either, but I’ll keep reading one in m/m when I would have DNF’d the same type of hero in m/f, especially if the book is well written. It’s problematic, because as you say, abuse is a problem across the board. I think that perhaps we unconsciously translate physical strength into psychological strength, or we assume that because men are institutionally more powerful they’re more able to resist. Which not only is not always true, but it skates close to the victim-blaming problem we have in the abuse of female partners, i.e., he *could* have left but didn’t, or somehow it’s not as bad if it’s happening to a man. I don’t have an answer and, like you, it makes me uncomfortable that I don’t always see it clearly.

  25. cleo
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 16:11:28

    @Aleksandr Voinov: I just want to thank you for introducing me to a new term – I had to google OKHOMO, but now I know that it refers to historicals where everyone is ok with gay characters.

  26. Aleksandr Voinov
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 16:16:47

    @Sunita: Oh, yeah, that was the gist of it – issues like gay marriage, gay-bashing and coming out appear to be more prominent in m/m than in yaoi/boylove, which, I believe, has huge gendered “roles” as well. (Though saying it’s all seme/uke – aggressive top/feminised bottom – is absolutely way too simplified).

  27. Aleksandr Voinov
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 16:19:08

    @cleo: Cleo, ooops, sorry. In my pre-publisher days, I used to review for SpeakItsName.com – which reviews m/m and gay historicals. OKHOMO was one of the shorthands. If I never read a story again where a gay couple marries in a Church during the Middle Ages in Western/Central Europe, it’ll be too soon.

  28. Isobel Carr
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 17:03:30

    @Aleksandr Voinov:

    If I never read a story again where a gay couple marries in a Church during the Middle Ages in Western/Central Europe, it’ll be too soon.

    I think my brain just imploded. And I thought some of the Georgian/Regency m/m I’ve tried where everyone just sort of slyly celebrated their gayness were ahistorically irritating.

  29. Lia
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 17:39:04

    @Joy:

    (+ @sunita)

    Wow! I expected that trope to barely exist in m/m romance. It makes me think that if X-percent of women are reading these books, there must be something else about them — the dynamic between the lead characters, perhaps — that they find appealing. Like Cleo mentioned, perhaps they’re looking for a more egalitarian relationship, fewer “mate as property” type uber-Alphas?

  30. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 18:11:31

    @Aleksandr Voinov: OK Homo is everywhere (contemps have a lot of Understanding And Welcoming Small Towns), but it is particularly noteworthy in historicals, I agree. I assume readers enjoy them the way they enjoy wallpaper Regency m/f historicals, i.e., as AU or something.

    @Lia: There are a number of different reasons readers are attracted to m/m romances; a frequent observation is that they don’t like the way heroines are depicted in m/f. So you can wind up having very similar plots to m/f, but with a same-sex pairing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is completely unconvincing. But horses for courses, I guess.

  31. Sirius
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 19:52:56

    I loved your article when it appeared for the first time and I love expanded version and agree for the most part. I really do not have anything of value to add, but I do have a question. Do you think in theory it is possible to write such a story where the environment is completely gender neutral? I am just thinking of fantasy/scifi mm. I do not think that most of those stories have gender neutral environment because the writers would still bring their expectations of what gender dynamics, power negotiations should be even in their made up world, but do you think it is possible at all?

  32. hapax
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:06:17

    This is one of the most succinct and thoughtful introduction to this issue I have read.

    I confess I was also one of those starry-eyed readers who was all “free of gendered power structures, woo-HOO!” when I started reading m/m. I really appreciated the thoughtful criticism I discovered on many online review sites (many which are now defunct, alas) which gently opened my eyes to the overt misogyny and more subtle (usually) constraints of gender expectations for men that undergirds so many of these stories.

    @Aleksandr Voinov

    If I never read a story again where a gay couple marries in a Church during the Middle Ages in Western/Central Europe, it’ll be too soon.

    John Boswell has a LOT to answer for.

  33. hapax
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:14:34

    @Sirius:

    You might want to check out the Wraeththu novels by Storm Constantine. I wouldn’t call them “romance” in the least, but they are fascinating (and somewhat controversial) sff explorations of a truly hermaphroditic culture.

  34. cleo
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:14:54

    @Sirius: Ursula LeGuin attempted this – The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet named Genthen (Winter) populated by humanoids who have a sexual identity and sex drive only for a few days every month, when they go into kemmer. They take on either male or female genitalia during kemmer, but they have no gender identity during the rest of the month. It was published in 1969. In a later essay (I think in Dancing at the Edge of the World) she talks about how her thinking about writing a genderless society changed over the years and in particular how using male pronouns made readers “see” Gethenians as male rather than as gender neutral. She wrote a later short story set in Genthen (published in The Birthday of the World) about a young Genthenian’s coming of age experience in a Kemmer house that uses either female pronouns or gender neutral language. ETA – neither of these are romances but they are wonderful. I especially recommend the short story (called “Coming of Age in Karhide”).

  35. Nae
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:25:26

    I just wanted to say, this is a great post and discussion. It really brought to the forefront ideas that I didn’t even realise I had. Thanks :)

  36. Sirius
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:26:52

    @hapax: Oh I have read and loved two main Wraethfu trilogies :-). I wonder though, did you think that it was a truly hermaphroditic culture? I know it was supposed to be because that’s who they were, but maybe it is my conditioning, but I still thought of them as male. Does it mean that to me it was not successful? No, I loved it, but I just thought that they had more male in them if that makes any sense.

  37. Sirius
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:28:23

    @cleo: Thank you so much, will definitely check it out.

  38. hapax
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:49:14

    @Sirius:
    They read as “male-ish” to me, I guess; but I’m never sure if that’s because they’re written that way, or because my cultural conditioning forces me to view characters as conforming to a gender binary, whether they “really” do or not.

    Of course, Constantine makes it all more confusing with [SPOILER] at the end of the first trilogy, so…

  39. Sirius
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 20:53:00

    Good point about cultural conditioning (of course mine as well), and I am now wondering whether it was easier for me to accept the characters as hermaphrodites in the second trilogy when the Wraethfu kept spreading and grow, but I am still not sure.

  40. cleo
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 21:13:39

    @Lia: I haven’t read any secret baby m/m books, but I’ve read a couple “oops, I got someone pregnant” m/m stories. And as everyone else has said, there are a surprising number of babies and children in m/m – sometimes one of the heroes is raising a relative’s baby, or has children from a prior relationship with a woman and then there the are random plot moppets that pop up in m/m, just like m/f.

    @Sunita – I never thought of gay4u as equivalent to the virgin heroine, but I see your point. I dislike the gay4u trope more violently than I dislike the virgin heroine trope. Politically it bugs me because it erases queer identity and I think it reinforces the idea that sexual orientation is a choice. But really, I just don’t GET gay4u at a visceral level (the same way I just don’t get vampire romance at a visceral level). As a bi woman, I’ve been checking out men and women since I was like 12, so gay4u just doesn’t compute.

  41. cleo
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 21:15:08

    Argh, I just lost a comment to moderation – could someone fish it out?

  42. Sunita
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 21:20:34

    @cleo: Yep, done!

  43. Maili
    Jun 18, 2013 @ 21:33:28

    @Aleksandr Voinov:

    in yaoi/boylove, which, I believe, has huge gendered “roles” as well.

    BL manga certainly revolves around heteronormativity and gendered roleship. No doubt about it. Gay manga does as well, to be fair, but not so much. Not a surprise, I suppose, considering the fact that BL manga is a sub-genre of shoujo/josei (comics for female readers) and Gay manga (including bara/rose manga) is a sub-genre of seijin (erotic/fetish comics for older male readers).

    There are loads of significant differences between BL manga and gay manga as well, but I won’t go there because otherwise, I’d be killed for penning another long-winded response.

    But I’d like to point out one interesting difference: Gay manga generally don’t feature female characters and when it does (a rarity), it doesn’t demonise them. If anything, gay manga treats female characters with indifference or platonic affection. Whereas demonising and/or slut-shaming female characters is almost a genre convention in BL manga.

    Some BL comic creators routinely reject it in favour of realism or total absence (as in not having female characters at all), thank god. Interestingly, they also reject both heteronormativity and gendered roleship by opting for reversi. They are the minority, though.

    All right, I’d better break my fingers now to stop myself from typing any more. Honestly, I could write all day about issues, tropes, genre conventions, visual codes and clichés in manga – BL, shounen-ai, shoujo-ai, yuri, josei, seinen, seijin, hentai, geiboi (cross-dressing subculture), omorashi (fetish subculture), etc. It still fascinates me that many issues and tropes in Romance can be easily found in BL. All right, I’m stopping. *breaks fingers*

    Edited: Forgot to ask – has the m-pregnancy trope cropped up in m/m romance yet?

  44. Kaetrin
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 02:06:08

    @Sunita at the risk of derailing the thread, I was one of the people who particularly noticed the lack of lube (lhube?) in Lover At Last. While I didn’t come out and call for Ward to have read some m/m before writing it, I agreed with the sentiment. That’s because to me, the sex between Blaylock and Qhuinn read like m/f sex where certain body parts had been changed afterwards (ie, search and replace for vagina, add extra penis). Frankly, I took the lack of lube to be something to make the m/f-only readers more comfortable – ie, without it, it was easier to imagine that it wasn’t anal sex. (And, the way the boys go at it, some kind of lubrication was kind of necessary – I know they heal quickly, but boy oh boy, talk about going hard… Blay and Qhinn’s sex was mostly VERY rough. So I was wincing while reading – in the same way I would wince if no lube was used for an m/f anal scene actually.)

    There was limited use of fingers and tongues. There were BJ scenes and (mostly angry) kissing and anal sex scenes (which felt, as I tried to say above) like they were disguised as vaginal sex scenes, if that makes sense) but there wasn’t any intimacy or any other intimate touching really. I wondered if part of that was editorial to make it more “palatable” for those readers uncomfortable with an m/m pairing?

    From my vox pop, it seemed that, in general, regular m/m readers noticed these things more than those who do not read m/m usually.

    /thread derailment.

  45. Sanna
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 02:14:27

    Your articulate post, Sunita, gives me the opportunity to say how much it drives me crazy when the campaign for gay marriage is billed as “marriage equality.” Yes, I understand it means everyone should have the equal right to get married. But it seems also to imply (subconsciously?) that gay marriages are “equal” while heterosexual marriage has a long way to go in that area. But since when has marriage EVER been about equality! As you said, it is about gendered roles, which means it is about power relationships, among other things.

  46. Aleksandr Voinov
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 03:29:56

    @Maili:

    Honestly, I could write all day about issues, tropes, genre conventions, visual codes and clichés in manga – BL, shounen-ai, shoujo-ai, yuri, josei, seinen, seijin, hentai, geiboi (cross-dressing subculture), omorashi (fetish subculture), etc.

    I’d love that. Maybe as a letter of opinion? I’m almost completely ignorant of all these sub-types, but I think it would be interesting to do a comparison. :)

  47. Sunita
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 06:27:06

    @hapax: Thanks! Your posts over at LJ were really helpful to me when I was trying to figure out what to read early in my m/m forays.

    @Sirius: I would never say never, but I think the combination of the author’s conditioning and what the reader brings to the experience makes it really difficult to write something that’s genuinely neutral.

  48. Sunita
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 06:35:27

    @cleo: I wouldn’t have equated Gay4U and the virgin heroine either, but I’ve seen a number of discussions where readers and authors talk about enjoying Gay4U as a version of finding The One, and I realized in both cases the character has “saved” himself/herself for The One, and now is giving this precious commodity to him. I don’t think Gay4U is at all impossible in real life, but I really dislike it as a fictional construct. Apart from the points you raise (with which I totally agree), it so rarely produces an authentic character. As they say, fiction, unlike real life, has to be believable.

    @Maili: Thanks so much for commenting, I hoped you would! Let me second Aleks and say that it would be great to have a post on this, or a Q&A conversation where I could ask obvious questions and you could try to dissipate the fog of ignorance. ;) And yes, there is apparently quite a bit of m-preg in m/m. I have avoided it all, so I cannot point you to examples, but it does take active avoidance.

  49. Sunita
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 06:53:22

    @Kaetrin: I remember you talking about it, and you were in some really funny (as in amusing) twitter conversations about it. But it was a topic of conversation at several of the m/m blogs and boards I read. I agree with your point, that it was a marker of other things in the story that didn’t seem quite right (as someone upthread mentioned). I don’t think that a non-m/m reader would ever forget that it wasn’t m/f sex, to be honest; when I read my first few m/m books I was acutely aware I was reading about men together.

    I haven’t read the Ward beyond the first few pages, but I did read Lori Foster’s m/m novella and found it very unsatisfying. It read to me the way you’re describing the Ward, in that I wondered if she was uncomfortable writing romance between two men (there wasn’t anything remotely approaching explicit sex, it was completely fade-to-black). But there’s no point in me speculating about authorial intentions or feelings. If the book doesn’t work, that’s the only thing that matters.

    What I find problematic about the criticisms of Ward’s book are the judgments about whether it conforms to m/m standards. m/m is a genre, and if Ward were writing explicitly within the genre, that would be one thing. But every book about a romance between two men is not automatically part of the m/m genre, in my opinion. Ward has every right to write that story and have it judged on its effectiveness, but the way m/m readers folded it into the m/m genre and built it up as the Great Breakthrough was *their* choice, not hers (unless I missed something in the marketing/publicity, which is entirely possible). It’s one thing to say the romance and the sex scenes didn’t work (as you lay out convincingly in your comment). It’s another thing entirely to say that she should have read more m/m so that it was more authentic, as if m/m’s genre conventions are the ne plus ultra of emotional and sexual authenticity.

  50. Estara Swanberg
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 07:06:33

    @Aleksandr Voinov: I just want to second this desire for an in-depth look at the differences and features of BL and gay manga. I have a general understanding – and own quite a few BL manga myself (I like Kizuna, Haru wo Daite Ita, Border, Black Knight, Shout out Loud, Future Lovers and lots of Fumi Yoshinaga … I like her hetero stuff, too ^^ – and am getting into Shoko Hidaka who has a few more books released over here in Germany… and then there’s the subtext in Silver Diamond which we’re still getting, too).

    But I’m really not well-read in the finer distinctions. Your comment reminded me of this doujinshi though, where the female artist Tetuzoh Okadaya worked together with US scanlation group Nakama to offer a digital well-translated doujinshi for sale, I believe.

    She also offered a one-shot of Man of Tango for free (the 4shared folder still works), which is a) graphically explicit but b) also shows a formidable and beautiful woman as a benevolent friend of the two men who are at the core of the short story.

    Apart from brief glimpses of bara in the essays of various manga reviewers and scholars I hadn’t come across that dynamic in BL myself.

  51. Estara
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 07:14:18

    Okay, that link didn’t take in the comment editing: Nakama’s legal offer of the doujinshi, inspired by the films of Pedro Almodovar. I’d love to know what m/m writers and readers think of it.

  52. Kaetrin
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 07:15:52

    @Sunita. I agree on both counts. I don’t think someone reading m/m sex for the first time would actually mistake it, but I wondered if a publisher, editor or author might not have something like that in the back of their minds, an idea of “watering it down” so it’s less likely to “offend”? We’ll never know of course.

    While I had some sympathy with the sentiment (or what I thought it was shorthand for at least) I didn’t call for Ward to read m/m before writing more of it (or, at least, I don’t think I did) (& who knows, maybe she reads m/m all the time) mainly because I’m not gay so I have no real way of judging if the m/m books I’ve read in my little corner of romancelandia are authentic anyhow. Most of the m/m around is written by het women so I expect it’s about as authentic as a lot of (most?) m/f fiction – which is to say, not very.

  53. Estara Swanberg
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 07:25:22

    @Estara: Hmm, having had a reread of Man of Tango, even considering the erotic romances reviewed and discussed here, I do think I should emphasize again that half of the manga I linked is drawn porn (of the loving kind, heh), consistent with the storyline and all, but still.

  54. Sirius
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 08:09:22

    Sunita for some reason reply button does not work properly when I post from my phone so I just wanted to say this – I am absolutely one of those readers who have not read het romance for years and escaped to m/m romance because I did not like how women were portrayed ( as you know I do read some of it now but still not much). The irony of saying hello to the women in m/m romance so does not escape me :(.

  55. Sunita
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 08:34:36

    @Kaetrin: I don’t think you have to live something to write it; there are plenty of non-het women writing m/m, some very well and some not so well. Similarly with gay men. And yes, m/f romance has lots of unbelievable aspects. But one difference is that readers call out some of the OTT stuff in m/f (like the virgin’s instant knowledge of all things sexual), whereas I see less of that in m/m discussions. If m/m were treated basically as a fantasy genre, that would be one thing, but that’s not how a lot of readers approach it, as the argument that it’s free of gender constraints suggests.

    @Sirius: iPhone, right? I had that problem when I used one. Yeah, trading away woman as heroine and getting woman as cartoon villain wasn’t what readers signed up for.

  56. Sunita
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 08:45:18

    @Estara Swanberg: Thanks for the suggestions, Estara!

  57. cleo
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 08:59:07

    @Maili: @Sunita – ok, I have to ask this. What is the m- pregnancy trope? Please don’t tell me that it’s men actually getting physically pregnant.

  58. Kaetrin
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 08:59:20

    @Sunita I guess my point is I feel unqualified to identify what’s authentic in m/m for the most part. I have thoughts, obviously, but I don’t really *know* – so I stay out of those kinds of discussions generally. And of course you’re right, you don’t have to live something to write it well. I didn’t mean my comment as a slight against any het female authors. More that, like the general lack of morning breath, that I expect there to be a certain degree of unreality in all romance. I’m more familiar with where that line might be in m/f however.

    I’d like to read more m/m where power/roles/tradition/masculinity etc is explored more. Men have different gendered expectations on them than women I think and I’d be fascinated to read about that and see more of those negotiations in m/m romance. Because it seems to me that they must happen.

  59. Sirius
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 09:03:25

    Cleo, well, yeah :-).

  60. Fran S.
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 14:43:12

    This was fantastic. Food for thought. I love seeing romance used to explore gender politics. Thanks!!!

  61. Viridian Chick
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 20:59:29

    Loving this article. It’s always a pleasure to read Sunita’s posts.

    (Wish I had something useful to add to the discussion, but I don’t!)

  62. farmwifetwo
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 15:09:36

    I think what they are trying to say is they are tired of the “I wanna do him/her” that is unending in her romances and tstl 13 yr old female characters when they are suppose to be adults. I finally jumped on the m/m bandwagon and reading about adults is refreshing.

  63. Sirius
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 16:15:45

    Farmwifetwo, I just want you to be prepared – you will encounter plenty of “I want to do him” and now now now and any logical plot development be damned in m/m. And oy do not get me started on TSTL characters acting as a stupid hormonal teenagers who are much older than teenagers. Lots of them there, lots :). Now do not get me wrong, I maybe read one het book for every fifty m/m books I read ( I am not including other than romance genres), I love it, not planning to abandon m/m any time soon, but I got very selective over the years. Just do not want you to be disappointed because there is plenty of what you dislike in het romance present in m/m.

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