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Gender, power, and m/m romance

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. ;)

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**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.

It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

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When I started this series, I was working toward a consideration of why certain types Romance novels and authors are so popular right now, especially when they have generated so much controversy and even divisiveness among readers. I started with the assertion that Romance, because it covers the territory of love, marriage, family, and relationships more generally, is very much a genre concerned with how power between individuals — and between individuals and society – is defined, granted, taken, exchanged, balanced, and otherwise negotiated in a way that is ultimately resolved into significant, even lifelong, mutual love and happiness.

Because Romance is a genre that in part grew out of sentimental fiction (inclusive of the so-called sensational novels), which itself grew out of captivity narratives (among other genres, including amatory fiction), the genre’s literary ancestry is rich and diverse, but also pretty consistent in its engagement with certain tropes, character types, literary devices, and archetypes that flow through more than 300 years of immensely popular texts populated, voiced, and/or written by women.

One of these devices – that of captivity – is especially robust in its persistence, and as I traced (in a much more simplified and superficial way than the topic deserves) the history of what are commonly referred to as North American Indian Captivity Narratives, I wanted to show how the device has adapted to different genres while still raising some of the same issues around how women (particularly women from Western societies) are both insiders and outsiders to the social power structure. Characteristics such as race, class, education, family history, and other forms of social capital will shift the insider-outsider balance, but the dynamic itself is always central to these narratives.

More specifically, I wanted to show that the motif of captivity is one that is very commonly used in the portrayal of romantic relationships (and clearly, its popularity in mythological and religious narratives is critical, as well), sometimes overtly (Mary Jo Putney’s Uncommon Vows), sometimes symbolically (Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet), to bring the heroine into a place of unfamiliar extremity from the life she is used to, such that she can ultimately find a new “home,” constitutive of love and happiness with the hero.

One of the main differences between the original Indian captivity narratives and Romance’s adaptation, is that the heroine of yore was supposed to be “redeemed” to her original home, unchanged but not unchallenged by her experience. Indeed, she was supposed to be stronger and steadier in her religious and cultural convictions, as well as more “pure” in her spiritual mission. What often happened, however, is that the time she spent among people different from herself created a temporary bridge between her culture and theirs, such that the reader could vicariously experience the immersion of the heroine in this different cultural space. And let me be clear here in saying that these representations were not necessarily realistic nor represented without prejudicial and even racist attitudes. In fact, many of these narratives were written with the explicit intent to demonstrate the captive’s cultural and/or spiritual superiority to the captor’s society.

However, the representation of cultural difference in these narratives is compelling enough to bring the captive and her readers into a place of cross-cultural sympathy, which both subverts the narrative’s articulated intent and challenges many of the differences that the narratives tries to reinforce. Moreover, the narratives that provide the most generous space for a sympathetic bond between captor and captive/reader are those that have always been most popular. Mary Jemison, who married within the Seneca, renounced her Irish immigrant family and her status as an “American,” and lived for all intents and purposes as a member of the Seneca nation (two husbands and several children, included), is still having her story re-told, almost two hundred years after its first publication.

So what’s the significance of this for Romance? I think the answer is multi-layered and much more complex than I have even begun to explore in this series. But one important similarity I see is the way in which the Romance genre often treats courtship like journey into a new and different territory, one that requires a stripping away of certain layers to the heroine and hero (in straight Romance, at least; I think m/m requires its own conversation), and a reformation, in a way, of the individuals as they become a couple. In those books where the power between the hero and heroine is represented as most equitable, the change may be less drastic. In those books where either the power appears to be most inequitable, change may be more drastic, and depending on how the power is configured, its negotiation will require different changes from each partner.

The lack of a power imbalance between hero and heroine does not necessarily mean there will be no conflict in the relationship. In some cases, if you have a two alphas, for example, you may have more conflict between the protagonists, precisely because there is more power on both sides to negotiate. Similarly, a large power differential between hero and heroine does not guarantee overt power negotiations; how many historical Romances or Harlequin Presents novels do we see where a heroine with much less power seems to “lift up” the heroine to his social level, for example. However, it is often in books where there is a substantial power-related conflict between hero and heroine that we will see the presence of some sort of force that bears down on the relationship and the narrative, strong enough to effect a romantic resolution. Sometimes that force is the captivity itself (The Sheik, for example), and sometimes it is something else, either a force outside the couple or between them (in The Sheik, for example, there are several acts of force, and the one that solidifies the couple comes from an outside threat of violence to both of them).

Historically speaking, books that bring their protagonists into the greatest conflict and extremity are often seen as close to or even exceeding the genre’s boundaries – take the derisively named category of “bodice rippers,” for example. However, my position is precisely the opposite: that these books are at the very heart of the work the genre is doing vis a vis investigating how two people who often come from very different backgrounds and positions of social power can form a happy, well-balanced romantic unit. That these books take these dynamics to an extreme does not make them any less core Romance to me – in fact, I think that these are the books that are most overtly, explicitly, and intensely performing the social, gender, and sexual power negotiations that the genre continues to replay.

In fact, I would categorize many genre favorites among these Extreme Romances: Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels; Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold; Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief (to take a recently reviewed classic); most, if not all, of Linda Howard’s books (I’d probably put a lot of Romantic Suspense here, actually, as well as many Paranormal Romances; Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series; Nalini Singh’s Psy series, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series; JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series; Christine Feehan’s Carpathian books; Stephanie Laurens’s Cynster series; books by Maya Banks, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Charlotte Lamb (quite a few Harlequin authors, in fact), Anne Stuart, Johanna Lindsey, and Jennifer Crusie, as well as many authors of Erotic Romance.

While many readers don’t understand the popularity of authors like E.L. James or Kristen Ashley, I am more stumped by the divisive antagonism they have generated among Romance readers. However, perhaps this is another aspect of books that do push core genre concerns to the extreme: reader responses will mirror the extremity of the books themselves.

Which brings me to the questions all of this thinking about the genre and its historical development have raised.

First, how can we diversify the genre beyond the paradigms it so often reproduces. Paradigms that privilege whiteness, heterosexuality, economic prosperity, and a post-Enlightenment model of romantic love that depends on historically defined gender roles and sexual expectations? Sunita’s call for Romances that do not presuppose Western notions of romantic love comes to mind here, because what better way to challenge dominant social norms than by shifting the paradigms?

Second, have readers become too fluent in genre? One thing that seems to be a real strength among Romance readers is the ease with which we can become adept at knowing the kind of books we like and translate genre shorthand when an author doesn’t necessarily spell it out. But with this kind of fluency can also come the laziness of thinking we know what a book is going to give us – positive or negative – before reading it. We take shortcuts as readers, not necessarily giving a new book a chance because it has too familiar elements. We may no longer read as closely or as carefully, failing to interrogate things that wouldn’t really sit right if we really thought about them, refusing to be challenged by the possibility of a different perspective or interpretation. So have we started to shortchange ourselves and the genre by relying too heavily on reader fluency?

Third, when readers say they want new and different and fresh, what does that mean? One of the things I’ve heard over and over about Fifty Shades, for example, is that it’s the same-old, same-old, packaged as new. And in some ways that’s very true. There is a lot that is derivative about the story, a lot that’s traditional. And yet, I also think there are some provocative elements, provocative enough to have caught on beyond genre readers and to have women publicly talking about sexuality in bolder, more empowered ways. Which is not to say that a book like Fifty is a new reading experience for every reader, nor that its popularity will be understood by every reader (I think Kaetrin’s post on the unexplainable is appropriate here). Also, in an environment where people are still talking about “da rulez” and how restricting they are, Kristen Ashley is pushing more envelopes in her books than I’ve seen in quite a while. She’s tackling race, class, and characters off the grid. Yet, like James, she’s also working with some very traditional genre elements, too. And, like James, her books are selling like crazy, although not necessarily to the same readers. Some readers cannot abide either author’s books, but are still calling for “new” and “fresh.” So is there anything here — either in the voices of readers who love these books or hate them — that provides some clue as to what else readers are looking for?

As I argued in my post on Romance genre boundaries (e.g. there aren’t really that many), any genre is a mix of well-worn and freshly turned raw material. And I am starting to wonder how open readers really are to novelty in the genre – or whether there’s a point at which genre fluency becomes cynicism (this post by Tobias Buckell is an interesting take on the experienced reader). We say we want new, but just not that type of new (whatever “that” is). What are we looking for?

Do readers want books that break the so-called rules, or do we want books we can count on to give us a particular experience? Do we need to start challenging the dominant tropes, devices, and motifs of the genre, and if so, what would we want in their place? Does the HEA restrict the genre in terms of being able to pull off more difficult power negotiations – that is, do the aspirational qualities of the genre mean that the genre should not present certain scenarios? Or is it that we are at a crossroads of sorts: wanting something new but not knowing what that is; feeling compelled to return again and again to familiar ground, no longer truly satisfied, but at least recognized and understood. Like the genre itself, perhaps?