Gay romance fiction

Worse than a Girl, Better than a Woman: apparent misogyny in M/M

 by Damon Suede
 
Young writers are often told to "write what they know." I have my own doubts about the utility of this timeworn advice. With my students I've always told them it's much more important to know what you're writing. I have great faith in imagination, and so (at times) does the world.
 
Still, there is fierce irony in the application of this advice to M/M as a genre since it is primarily written by women and its central concern is homosexual romance between men. What is a female M/M author to do? Obviously I am not suggesting that women cannot write men any more than men cannot write women, but rather that in fetishizing male homosexual relationships for a primarily female heterosexual audience opens a (fascinating) can of worms with regard to gender, stereotyping, and authorship.

When you think about it, M/M walks a strange gender line. Sprung of slash and suckled on Yaoi, M/M focuses adamantly on the romantic and sexual relationships between men, though it is primarily written by and for women... women who create and control imaginary romances between men who by their very description challenge the value and values of the patriarchy. That's a strange state of affairs, but no stranger perhaps than the hetero-male obsession with lesbianism from the authentic to the ridiculous.
 
Like all genres, M/M flirts with certain clichés. Certain relationships recur and refract with metronomic frequency: gay-for-you plots, hurt/care, secret crushes, family rejection, single parents, blackmail. M/M fans joke about them and Its authors probe certain topics and questions constantly: how to make a character believably male but attractively vulnerable; how to formulate a homoerotic relationship that resonates and titillates; how to dramatize a relationship between two men for an audience that is overwhelmingly female; how to build a family unit without a central woman; how to permit female characters to participate in plots without casting them in their traditional (and traditionally limited) roles; how to evoke and specify sexualities that may only be familiar as fantasy to their creators. As a fiercely loyal descendant of traditional romance novels, gay romance fiction retains many of the genres more formulaic elements: the Meet Cute, the mismatched couple, the Happily-Ever-After ending, melodramatic tearjerker complications, and above all the dominant charismatic Alpha male.
 
That last, the Alpha Male, creates a weird problem for women splashing around in the shoals of homosocial intimacy. Think about it. If you're going to write an Alpha Male character, what are you going to do with that other guy? Yeah HIM, the guy that Mr. Alpha McMuscle is sleeping with and falling for. It's like the question asked of so many gay men by well-meaning relatives: "which one of you is the girl?"

At one extreme, some authors of gay romance strike a precarious double-Alpha balance: two butch men who are mutually attracted and mutually satisfied as a result of their emotional interdependence and their versatility. At the other extreme, authors pair the Alpha male with his polar opposite: a delicate passive boyish receptacle for all that testosteronal mojo... in effect a feminized man who sticks pretty closely to the Mills&Boone heroines of the last century. Most gay romance titles fall somewhere in between these two options, but the public's appetite for Alpha Males and emotional access makes for strange textual bedfellows.
 
The strangest manifestation of this tension is a phrase that appears (with minimal variation) over a number of authors and titles in M/M: "worse than a girl." Emotional, flirtatious, vulnerable moments/actions are endlessly categorized as female, and specifically girlish (i.e. young and female) with a kind of flippant disdain for the idea of girlishness and "girlish" behavior by men. It's uncanny how often those exact words ("worse than a girl") or variations thereof recur in gay romance publishing.
 
Let's break that down. Romance authors write to produce appealing protagonists and the formulaic Alpha Male is plunked in the middle of the generic landscape. The readers' desire for emotional access (and thence vulnerability) requires certain events and behaviors assigned to female characters in traditional hetero-romance. In that romance you're writing, who's going to cry and suffer and hope and submit and pout and pine? Your protagonists, of course. Except they're guys, right? In fact they are guys who love and are loved by other guys, so they can be sensitive.

These characters have to feel and they have to express their feelings and they have to allow other characters to attend their feelings. That's one of the big appeals of LGBT romance for its fans. At a certain point, the rock-hard cop or the grizzled sergeant or the smoldering cowboy will and must behave in some very non-Alpha ways. Strong men weep, and here they often weep for/with/on another strong man. At a certain point, these monolithic macho men must express vulnerability and simultaneously maintain the strength that is the reason for their existence and appeal.
 
So inside the story, these strong-but-emotional men will re-assert their maleness to themselves, their fellows, their readers... shaming themselves back into their strong, silent roles as Alpha males the simplest and swiftest way. They ridicule the non-Alpha-male behavior by consciously identifying it as such. Over and over in gay romance fiction, heroes snap out of these emotional or vulnerable moments declaring that they are "worse than a girl." Again, it's worth underlining that M/M is a genre written primarily by and for women. Further, that the genre is built on certain generic expectations including Alpha males, emotional access, and the absence of women from the central romantic narrative.
 
The flipside of the "girlish=bad" equation appears with gay romance characters newly awakened to erotic potential of other men (manly=good). In gay romance fiction, Alpha Males repeatedly discover that the man in bed with him is "better than a woman." The kissing, the conversation, the companionship, the fucking, et al is "better" than they have found it in past with women in heterosexual intercourse/relationships. Again, a pretty clear fantasy in a genre based on eroticizing male relationships.

Of course it's better with a man in these books because the contrast makes for more conflict and higher stakes. Consequently, this discovery is one of the most common themes in LGBT romance stories, a straight man who finds out he's been wasting time with the ladies, and that what he needed was an experience outside the box, something forbidden, a convention-defying rut-buster neither he nor his community could have expected of such a man's man. To wit, a MAN's MAN.
 
That's not to say that gay romance is inherently misogynistic, but rather that it seems that much of gay romance writing expresses a deep mistrust and offers harsh criticism of traditional female roles. The girls that heroes are "worse than" seem more like the stereotype of girlhood, and the women that these "better" male/male couplings supplant are the traditional ideas and roles with which women are saddled.

Fans of the genre often remark on their impatience with female characterization in traditional romance fiction... joking that "two hot men are better than one." But the role of female characters in gay romance remains a bit of a briar patch. Often female characters are not only subordinate in gay romance fiction, they are downright marginalized, lobotomized, or demonized because they serve in roles.
 
On one hand, it makes sense that in focusing on men who love each other and have sex with each other, that ways of introducing drama and conflict would often rely on the familiar soap-opera tropes of divorce, infidelity, family rejection, single parenting. Many of these situations involve women by default.

It stands to reason: if you want to introduce an infant character, who is the mother? If your hero is divorcing someone, who was she? If his parents appear, who did the childbearing? The core relationship in gay romance fiction is between those two (or more) fellas. By necessity, women in these stories tend to slide into the ruts of sympathetic friend or castrating bitch. Over and over in gay romance we see shrieking harpies angry at their betrayal by "the degenerate faggot(s)" in their life and kooky, supportive gal-pals who want to watch television while they snuggle sexlessly on the couch with their hot-but-unavailable BFF.

Totally logical, if the female character is nice she supports that manlovin' and cannot and would not intrude with her own sexuality. If she's not nice, intrusion is the order of the day, complete with near-rapes and/or tantrums and/or recrimination because the evil female always wants to wreck the protagonist and anyone else caught in the self-righteous heterosexist crossfire.
 
It's hardly surprising. The sexual charge in gay romance is by definition situated between the male protagonists, so the women at their margins run the risk of disrupting the dynamic at the genre's core. What's the simplest solution for an unsteady author?: female characters must be defused, desexed, or dismissed... either as unattractive castrators or as loving-but-nonthreatening bystanders.

In less sophisticated gay romance, shaky authors often ape hostile misogyny as they attempt to wring as much conflict and drama out of their characters as romantically possible. The hacks of M/M fiction jump into the woman-as-robot clichés feet first: female aggressors assault, libel, and manipulate protagonists with sociopathic focus and detachment... loving female friends devalue, denigrate and martyr themselves to help the lovers reach their happy ending. It's unsettling and a little depressing in a genre primarily written and produced by and for women, but crudely dramatic. Clichés über alles; the same is true of lazy hacks of all eras and genitals. More sophisticated authors find ways to humanize and integrate adult female characters into their narrative organically; their books are unquestionably the better for it.
 
Authors of gay romance literally control their fictional men in startling nontraditional relationships. They control not only their gaze and desire in ways that a lot of the world finds distressing or distasteful. These books are romantic fantasy predicated on pretty rigid gender lines, but repeatedly LGBT romance titles explore serious themes: tolerance, recovery, healing, counseling, responsibility, community, family, integrity. Like other "women's genres" like soap opera and movies-of-the-week, gay romance fiction hammers at sensitive topics with fierce determination. The simple fact of gay protagonists means that many authors will default to storylines sprung from real and volatile politics. In a popular "trash" genre that crosses class and cultural lines, that's astonishing.
 
There's a truth in all this, swimming under the surface... a mistrust of stereotypes, an awareness of erotic and emotional potential, a sense of sentimental irony, a belief in exploration and acceptance, a world that permits people to live free of formula without being formless. Any female author who can identify a male character's behavior as "worse than a girl" and homoerotic coupling as "better than a woman" obviously has some feelings about "traditional" girlhood, womanhood, male authenticity, and gendered behavior as a whole. Like literal, real-world gay men, women resist and resent the roles in which they are cast, the subordination to which they are subjected, the power which they abdicate.
 
It seems like gay romance hinges on this strange seductive truth. And like many marginalized genres, there seems to be a spark at its core, fanned by its fans, changing the world one mind at a time.