Romance Languages or, Clearly, We Are Not Speaking the Same Thing.

Hi, peeps!

I hope everyone is going into the weekend with fabulous mojo. If you’re already in the weekend, I hope it’s awesome.

So I wanted to chat about something I’ve been noticing.

I’ve been reading some M/F romances. I’ve read several in the past month by authors whose work I don’t know as part of a reading challenge kind of thing.

Now, I haven’t really read much M/F romance over the past few years, but hey. A good story is a good story, no matter the genre. But after the first book, I realized something. And it became even more apparent after the second and third. By the fourth, I was even more fascinated and maybe a little perturbed by this something, and I’ve been mulling it for a few days.

In a nutshell, heterosexual romance is an entirely different language than lesbian romance.

OMG, shocker. I know. You’re all, and what rock have you been living under, Andi, that you just now noticed this?

A pretty big one, I’d guess, because even though I haven’t read M/F romance in a while, I supposed that it would, like other genres, demonstrate intrinsic shifts in how characters relate to each other over the years of changing cultures and contexts. That is, how male protagonists relate to female. But as I read — and I’m nearly through the last book I was given — I was really astonished at the portrayals of the main characters and the relationships between them.

Briefly, here’s what I noticed in the books I read over the past month:

1. The male protagonist is pretty much always the most ruggedly handsome specimen of stereotypical manhood/masculinity ever. For the most part, he’s brooding, tall, broad-shouldered, and emanates “manhood,” “masculinity,” and every variation of that gendered terminology you can think of.

source.
source.

2. The female protagonist always — in practically every scene — reminds the reader how amazingly handsome and masculine the male protagonist is, whether it’s in a line here or there or a full paragraph or more. Even if she just glances at him, she invariably notices something that is “masculine” about him. She is always relating her thoughts to him, even if she’s working on an issue of her own. Somehow, that issue comes back to him and whether or not he’d be interested in her.

3. The male protagonist, for his part, always thinks the woman he’s attracted to is really sexy and hot and he really likes her “feminine curves” and how her breasts look or some variation thereof. She is a stereotypical portrayal of what femaleness/femininity is thought to be, which of course stimulates a certain part of his anatomy at which point, the male protagonist thinks about…

4. How he’d like to “have” the woman. How he’d like to “possess” her. How he wants her to be “his.”

5. None of these books I’ve read, sadly, passed the Bechdel Test. I mean, really? A woman doesn’t have anything other than a guy to talk about with her friends? I realize this is a M/F romance, but really?

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Excerpt from "The Rule", from the comic Dykes to Watch Out For," Alison Bechdel.
Excerpt from “The Rule”, from the comic Dykes to Watch Out For,” Alison Bechdel.

That said, number 4 of my list here is the one that hung me up the most.

Even if the male character was charming, friendly, and came across as nice and genuinely interested in the female character beyond her physical attributes, in every single one of these books, more than once, the male character would engage in some kind of weird and almost stalker-ish thought process in which he was going to “take” her and “make her his.”

In about half the books I read, the male character was overcome at least once by some kind of weird jealousy if the female character talked to another dude or mentioned another dude. Even before the two characters had engaged in physical intimacy, the male character was flipping out about the female character talking to other guys, sometimes so much so that he was thinking about bashing the other guy(s) or saying something to the female character.

Seriously? Say what to her? “HEY! You can’t talk to other guys when you’re attracted to me!”

And then…THEN! The female character would wonder what was wrong and she’d try to talk to him to figure out why he was behaving so standoffish or pissy and if he actually admitted it to her, she’d be all, “oh, no, I only have eyes for you” or some such. In other words, she seemed to blame herself for his feelings.

But this weird almost possessiveness showed itself in many of the sex scenes, too. He was going to “take” her, by golly, and “make her his.” And the female character would pretty much go along with this, thinking that yes, she was “his.” Hardly ever, “this guy is mine.” No. It was pretty much “I’m his.”

So I’ve been thinking about this. Is this how heterosexually-identified women relate to heterosexually-identified men? How women relate to men in general if they’re engaged in an intimate relationship with each other? How they WANT to relate to them?

Is that part of the code — the language — of heterosexuality within the confines of physical and emotional intimacy? Is the language of heterosexuality intrinsically bordering on–well, maybe “rapey”? Or, at the very least, kind of creepy?

Surely not.

My heterosexual friends run the gamut in relationships, just as my LGBT friends do. So what’s going on, here? Why celebrate and encourage relationships that objectify the participants and invariably create a power imbalance and, worse perhaps, an EXPECTATION of a power imbalance?

I get that some people enjoy that whole “possession” thing in their intimate play. But this wasn’t just sexy-time between the characters in the books I’ve been reading. It was all the time, and not only does it deprive the female protagonists of agency in their identities, sexual or otherwise, but it also deprives both the female AND male characters of complexity not only individually, but in terms of any relationship they’re pursuing with each other.

I found myself thinking about all the men I know — gay, straight, bi, trans — and none of them are one-dimensional Adonises complaining about blue/aching balls without sexual release (seriously — that was a thing in half the books I read, to which I kept thinking, HELLO! Masturbation!) and obsessing about how to “possess” a woman or “make her his.” As if she’s some sort of object that requires being “kept.” As if she’s some sort of product to be tried out, like cologne, and then kept in your medicine cabinet except when you want to use her.

And this idea of stereotypical hypermasculinity is also problematic. Dudes who are over six feet tall — seriously! In every single one of these books, the male protagonist is at least six feet tall — and have major cut musculature, chiseled jaws, not an ounce of fat…like that. And they’re generally all brooding and the strong, silent type because apparently communicating with the women and other men in your life isn’t necessary beyond a few snarky comments in really deep voices that rumble from your big, broad chest. So a guy who doesn’t look or sound like that isn’t “masculine”? Isn’t “good enough” to engage in a heterosexual relationship? Or maybe ANY relationship?

And that then led me to thinking about how nobody gets out of this toxic culture without absorbing unhealthy messages about gender, sex, and sexuality and how you’re supposed to be one or the other in terms of gender and sex, but only one thing in terms of sexuality, and how you’re supposed to subscribe to preconceived roles in and out of the bedroom, and how those roles are policed through every aspect of this culture, from the ads we view to the majority of books we read in most genres.
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I thought, too, about the ways I relate to men, and how other women who identify as LGBTQ relate to them, and I thought how sad, that the only kind of relationship you’re expected to have with someone is predicated on the application of specific roles that you’re expected to adhere to, no matter who you might really be or what you might really want.

The relationships I have with the men in my life are not physically intimate, but they’re varied and rich, and demonstrate to me, at least, that there are all kinds of ways to relate to people that don’t have much to do at all with gender or sex or sexuality and that there are all kinds of ways to express gender and sex. And the heterosexually-identified women and men I know display all kinds of ways of relating to each other that aren’t strictly binary, whether those relationships involve physical intimacy or not.

So I guess I’m not understanding why the M/F romance I’m currently reading doesn’t involve that kind of portrayal of heterosexual men and women, relating to each other in ways that don’t police, in ways that allow the two to discover each other in respectful, human ways without the man coming across as some kind of possessive alpha male (and that term was used in these books) barely removed from some kind of four-legged predator who wants to “possess” another human being and the women coming across as lost without being “possessed” by a man.

Because though it may be the construct of a toxic, hierarchically structured and gendered culture, it certainly isn’t necessarily what’s happening on the ground, as it were.

And finally, I understand that OF COURSE not all M/F romance is structured that way. There are writers who DO explore the dynamics between men and women that don’t echo the toxicity of our shared culture, who are interested in the deeper layers between them and who create characters that reflect an array of diversity and for that, I’m very glad.

I want much more of that — diversity in relationships in expressions of gender and sexuality, in ethnicity and race, in class and background. We are an amazingly messy, complicated, and beautiful species, and it seems to me that relegating relationships to specific codes and expectations — using just one kind of language to enact them — deprives us of opportunities in our written work to reach across the culturally constructed divides in which we currently dwell.

In terms of my own life and writing, I’ve never personally fit binary roles and I’ve actively worked against the idea that I’m “supposed” to do certain things because of how this culture perceives my biological sex and presumed gender identity. I learned heterosexual codes — all of us who aren’t straight have to for survival — but the language I engage in when I live and write leaves a whole lot of room for people to express and explore who they are and it isn’t a binary.

All that said, there are some good stories in this small sample of books I’m reading, and some great writing. But I’m disappointed that the deeper story they tell is one that relegates us all to specific gendered boxes and ways of relating to each other and leaves no room for connection beyond those strict expectations.

I think, in light of all this, there’s room for LOTS of conversations between LGBTQ-identified women and heterosexually-identified women about this, whether in terms of life in general or how romance and intimacy is portrayed in written work. I’d love to engage in those kinds of discussions and I invite all of you to join me.

You can start right here in the comments. 🙂

Happy weekending, all! And definitely happy reading, happy writing!

Oh, and other links, other opinions:
Why it’s feminist to read romance novels
Why I read romance novels
Why do modern women love romance novels?
How much do romance novels reflect women’s desires?
Discussing rape in romance novels (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site)

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35 thoughts on “Romance Languages or, Clearly, We Are Not Speaking the Same Thing.

  1. couldn’t agree more…but it is fun to read the leading female fiction writers who omit the “mine” thing…I can think of more than ten easily…but then, that’s not a true “romance”, whatever that is….good article Andi

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  2. The M/F romance genre revolves around this idealisation of man: muscular, handsome, confident and competent, a fierce warrior capable of ruthless brutality, yet caring, protective and jealously possessive of the one woman that is his true love, whom he worships as a goddess. In particularly severe cases, he is impotent with any other woman, but with his one true love he is unceasingly virile.

    The heroine, on the other hand, is beautiful (though probably not aware of it) with a good heart, yet oddly without definition, a generic creature. She is quite possibly the only woman in the whole story to be portrayed in a positive light. The heroine is swept up by the hero’s wild passion, blissfully happy to be loved and protected for all eternity…

    … and it’s entirely unreal. It’s a fairytale that falls apart the moment it’s examined. As with Bella and Edward in Twilight, one person’s perfect romance is another’s nightmare of stalking, abuse and control.

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  3. Gay romance and Het romance novels are literally oceans apart. I love the romance genre as a whole and I absolutely cannot stomach Het romance at all for most of the reasons Andi points out.

    The whole possess her thing? Yea that’s something this globe has been dealing with for centuries. Where the woman is the personal property of the man. Part of his estate. Take his name. And don’t even let me get into the marriage farce. Well at least up till recently, thank you Supreme Court.

    Why anyone would think it’s realistic to have a woman portrayed as a demure, mewling weakling is beyond me. To be cast as a secondary character to his hulking greatness. It’s bullshit, it’s all rubbish. Why it sells is beyond me, completely incomprehensible.

    Yikes. That seriously got me spun up. lol. Oops.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think there was a publisher of romance, (Harlequin maybe?) that had a recipe for their characters, and the men you’ve described in the books you’ve read fit that recipe exactly. Over the years, it seems that’s the only male type in romance at all! Which of course we know is crap, The realistically written guys are just harder to find. I read your piece twice, actually, and on the second read, I found myself thinking about stereotypes in our LGBT world. You know, dykes are dykes and femmes are femmes and that’s all there is. Which is also crap. I can think of a few novels and novellas I’ve read that break out of those stereotypes, but damn they’re hard to find sometimes. I think that it’s up to the readers to search out realism, at least in our characters, and support the publishers that make a place for real characters. It isn’t enough to write a character with flaws anymore. We want to see a character that identifies as dyke that knits, or a woman that identifies as femme that can build a bookshelf. As you pointed out, not everyone fits in neat gender boxes.

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  5. One thing I remember when I encounter this is that romance functions as safe fantasy. It allows women to unapologetically experience what they wouldn’t permit in their own life. Some women, as a result, are okay with what I view as rape in their romances (Fifty Shades of Lack of Consent comes to mind.) I think your selection pool also reflects the FSG throwback phenomenon. A lot of writers are trying to hit that same effect and tap that market.

    Lots of women reads romance for a specific formula, like their favorite meal. They want exactly what you describe, and will read one of those books several times a week. It’s a mental tweak, but where I would read what you describe and react exactly as you have (that this is not what I want in a lover, and not how I want my life to be, and I want to read romance that mirrors ME), others aren’t looking for a mirror, they’re looking for an escape they control. They let the cardboard male into their life for the duration of the read, then dismiss him at the end of the book. Everything between the covers (both kinds) is temporary and the reader is in control of it.

    Yes, but. Right? As feminists, it’s hard to not point it out this this dynamic of powerlessness and objectification is… well, exactly that. As you point out, it’s important to note that this dynamic is NOT all of the romance genre.

    Is this dynamic in our lesbian romance? Yes, I do think it is. Strong, silent, powerful, aggressive, women, sometimes described as “masculine” or “butch”, do exist in some of our most popular offerings. Smart, sassy, assertive but ultimately not quite as strong highly feminized women are often mated with them. I think the language of possession is muted in these stories, or expressed with mutuality which rises above the het version of the trope.

    Lesfic readers want mirrors more than escape, I think. However, many want escape too. Most often I see wishes for escape from the sturm und drang of gay life and our struggle for equality, to see women in the books free of all of that or dealing. Our readers want different things and our language of it is different, no surprise there, though I hadn’t thought it quite that way.

    I’ve been planning for a long time to write about the oft expressed desire we all have to see our stories crossover to mainstream audiences. Only a very few ever do, and that’s equally true in reverse. I think you have hit on one of the reasons why similar stories told by different writers find favor with one audience, but not both: language and the way it underpins gender presumptions. (Sorry for the half finished thought. on the topic.)

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking blog!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi, Karin!

      Thanks for stopping by. I agree, that it’s an “escape” in some ways — after all, allowing characters in a book to enact a romance in which the gender roles are strictly binary allows some a bit of pleasure, I would guess, but with the safety of knowing when the book is closed, you aren’t trapped in that storyline. Except you kind of are, given the misogynistic trappings of the larger culture.

      I’m reminded here of a story — perhaps it was something on one of your Facebook threads… — in which a straight-identified woman served as a beta reader for a lesfic romance. The reader and the writer were friends, so that’s how that came about. At any rate, the beta reader finished the book and though there was nothing technically wrong with it, and she thought it was a good story overall, she wasn’t comfortable with it and she said that something was “missing.” So she and the writer talked about it for a while and it finally dawned on the writer what the “something” was. The beta hadn’t read books in which male characters were either completely absent or relegated to secondary roles, in which the protagonists were women who didn’t talk to each other about men. And I thought: wow. That you would think something is missing because women take primary roles…

      So that’s why I’d like to talk to both writers of M/F and readers of it, and get a dialogue going about representation, characters, and gender. I think it would be really interesting.

      And yes, I agree that this dynamic is in play in lesbian romance, minus the overarching heterosexuality trope. Not all lesfic, to be sure, but yes, it is a dynamic.

      Love what you said about mirrors, too. And thank you for stating the other thing I’m thinking about — why crossover has barriers.

      Thanks again.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. As a couple of people pointed out, a lot of it has to do with fantasy and voicing (i.e., writing about) things that they would never actually live out. But the problem is if that’s all het women write about in romances, you end up with this glut of unrealistic (or, scarily enough, very realistic in the case of male domination) stories that just perpetuate the problems that women face in real life (domination, rape, “possession,” abuse, etc.).

    And I am soooo sorry that you had to read all of that. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It was really intriguing (and kind of alarming), actually. Because some of the male characters I really liked at first and then they’d get all weird and stalker-ish and I’d think, OMG, srsly? The guys in my life — however they identify in terms of sex, gender, and sexuality — don’t seem to be that way. Which is not to suggest that I haven’t pointed something out to them if I thought something they said or did was toeing that line of creepy stalker-ish.

    And like I said, I did like some of the stories. I found something good in every single one, and overall, there was some really strong writing, which was cool. But I had a very difficult time with the strict binary sex/gender thing going on and I’m actually hoping to talk to some of my author colleagues who write M/F about it. 😀

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  8. Excellent, excellent post. I started off reading het romance when I was a very young teen ( because they were available… and back then there was only fade to black), but on the rare occasion I pick one up now, I can seldom finish it. Especially those written by the “greats” of the genre.

    Would be interested in knowing what the project is that has you reading so many of them!!

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  9. Like I said, there are some good storylines in this batch of books, and some fun dialogue and nice flirtatious moments. A couple of them have great setting descriptions. Even a couple of the sex scenes were done very well. But I will admit that I got really tired of hearing how chiseled and cut the dudes were in terms of physique, and how much they wanted to “possess” the women. To be fair, my eyes glaze over if I’m reading lesbian romances and there’s a constant description of the characters, about how beautiful they are or athletic or whatever it is, and if a storyline in lesfic includes a weird stalker-ish possessive kind of thing, it’s a turnoff for me.

    So I’m owning my own personal biases here, friends. I don’t find that kind of dynamic in a relationship attractive. In fact, it’s a red flag for me. Now, if we’re talking about role play during sexy-time, that’s a whole other story…

    😀

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  10. Honestly, books like those you described were part of why I didn’t understand until my mid 20’s that guys COULD have a reasonable and even emotional conversation. I didn’t see that in my life growing up and I started, somewhere along the line, to believe that men were simply stunted beings incapable of meaningful friendships outside of work. By my late 20’s/early 30’s two of my best friends were hetero men and they did talk about feelings, emotions, and a variety of other things. It was so rewarding to learn that they were just as confused about their portrayal in the media as I was.

    I think though, as KK stated that some use those books as escapism or fantasy and then go back to reality with the (hopefully) stable, faithful, and considerate guy they actually chose. Truly though, the hetero communication dynamic can be very confusing for me. I know some emotionally connected men-but I see in my observation of people in public venues a lot of men and women who seem to not have a lot to discuss if they aren’t in a sexual relationship. Personally, I like my wife because she is smart, funny, kind, considerate, and thinks of others. She worries about the economy, housing market, crime, and justice. I LOVE her for all of that and more-that chemical thing perhaps that let’s us relate to each other. I think if we had met under while in other relationships-we would have been friends.

    Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t see a lot of m/f simple friendships in the het world of fiction/media. Its either one or both hold an attraction for the other, one is LGBT to the other’s hetero, or its a couples friendship because the guys know each other and the wives follow along.

    It make me wonder-are todays hetero women playing at roles? Are there as many strong straight women as I thought? I don’t have answers-just questions.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by.

      I have a friend who is straight-identified and she has friendships with guys with whom she is not involved and with whom she has no interest in being involved. One of her longest-term male friends is married to another woman and he and my friend have been buddies since college, which is about 20 years, now. My friend told me that his wife was a little weirded out at first, but he made it very clear to his wife that he and my friend have known each other a long time and that she (my friend) wasn’t a homewrecker. In fact, my friend has another close relationship with a guy she’s known since grad school (about 15 years), and he’s happily married to another woman and they have kids.

      So yes, I see straight women who are good friends with straight men, though I don’t see it as often as I would like.

      All that said, I agree that I’d like to see more friendships between straight men and women portrayed in media, whatever the form. I’m trying to think of any books I’ve read recently that had a relationship like that and nothing’s coming up, but I’m sure there’s at least one. Which demonstrates that yes, we need more of that!

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      1. I know a couple of friends like that (straight M/F) here- and every time someone is new to the group (and these are theatre people!) – the new person will inevitably sidle up to one of the other members of the group and say something along the lines of “is her husband aware that she’s so friendly with Joe?” Or “is his wife okay with him being so close to Jane?” One woman once went straight to the wife to ask if she was aware her husband was having an affair with Jane. She laughed in the woman’s face. That cultural norm is strong here, which is very unfortunate.

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  11. This blog deserves a wider audience; you make some extremely important points, Andi. I wrote an article for Gaia (online) magazine, partly tongue-in-cheek, called “That Nasty Pink Rash”, in which I blamed the conditioning of little girls largely on the imprinting of a love of the colour pink. It is, of course, only one of many factors, but the princess cult does channel the expectations of girls in a certain way, and look where it gets us: a Fifty Shades mentality which (arguably) leads young men to think that sex and dominance are linked. Slippery slope to abuse? Discuss!

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    1. But men, too, are subjected to binary gender conditioning. I mean, reading these books in which every single guy is tall, muscular, ruggedly handsome (and let’s not forget white — that’s a whole other issue for discussion), strong and silent and oh, so virile — wtf? Real life men run the gamut, too, in terms of who they are and how they look and maybe these fiction guys are the fantasy, but doesn’t that send messages to heterosexual and bi men about what heterosexual and bi women want and expect?

      I hear this from gay men, too — the expectation that they all have to live up to this idea of the pinnacle of male beauty when in fact the vast majority can’t. I mean, who has time to go to the gym for 7 hours a day? Who can afford a personal trainer/chef to make sure you maintain that image? Between working/going to school/raising a family/whatever the hell, there is no way dudes can live up to the standard set in advertising and fiction, just as there’s no way women can. It’s insidious, and though the culture in which we live is misogynistic, misogyny also affects men and creates all kinds of icky things there, too, which perpetuates the cycle.

      All that said, I’m interested in my reactions to these books. Like I’ve said above, I really liked some of the male characters, and felt that they were being unfairly written in some instances because it seemed there was so much more beneath their stereotypes and I was bummed when they were put in these creepy almost stalker boxes.

      Much food for thought! Thanks for stopping by!

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      1. I think it’s an interesting point Andi. In that a guy can’t live up to what they’re supposed to look like. I for one will never achieve it. I’m 6’3″ and a marathon runner. My upper body has no bulk but from the waist down, look out! So I can’t really relate from a straight guy perspective since I’m bisexual, but it’s damn near impossible to live up to what I’m supposed to look like. BUT. The same can be said for the ladies. The zero body fat expectation that exists out there is equally unachievable, and down right unhealthy.

        Another interesting point you brought up, is the aggressiveness in what you read. That in part is truth. And it’s an unfortunate by product of my gender. Testosterone is a really shitty hormone. It’s the root cause of not only the aggression but the incapability to emotionally connect with any gender really. Male or female. And that disconnect is usually the root cause of conflict.

        Its also why I think most guys are assholes. Cause they are. And I have near zero relationships with any of them. All my friends are women. And i’m fine with that 🙂

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  12. We get sent a high proportion of M/F romance over at The Good, the Bad and the Unread, and while I try to pick out titles whose blurb implies that romancelandia gender roles are subverted to some extent, I do sometimes end up with stories of the type you’re talking about for review. As I was readng your post, a number of historical series I’m reading sprang to mind, in which the heroines definitely talk to each other about topics other than men. The two most obvious feature young women who have resigned themselves to spinsterhood, and engage with each other over either charitable deeds or the latest novel they’ve picked up, and even when they discuss men it’s often about whether a particular man’s business exploits are likely to be good or bad for village life as they experience it, rather than how that book’s heroine feels about her beau.

    Have you visited Romance Novels for Feminists? They have a lot of these kinds of discussions.

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  13. Great blog and awesome comments. I loved reading all the viewpoints. Personally, unless it’s a short story I don’t care much for straight or lesbi books where the plots are strictly romance. I love a good mix of suspense, comedy, drama, with a dollop of romance.

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  14. I’d like to read a group of lesfic writers discussing how they portray lesbians. Not all lesbians are thin, stereotypically, model “beautiful” … but one would not know that by reading most lesfic.

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  15. This is a response to Ted’s comment, above!

    THIS ONE:
    TED SAID:
    I think it’s an interesting point Andi. In that a guy can’t live up to what they’re supposed to look like. I for one will never achieve it. I’m 6’3″ and a marathon runner. My upper body has no bulk but from the waist down, look out! So I can’t really relate from a straight guy perspective since I’m bisexual, but it’s damn near impossible to live up to what I’m supposed to look like. BUT. The same can be said for the ladies. The zero body fat expectation that exists out there is equally unachievable, and down right unhealthy.

    Another interesting point you brought up, is the aggressiveness in what you read. That in part is truth. And it’s an unfortunate by product of my gender. Testosterone is a really shitty hormone. It’s the root cause of not only the aggression but the incapability to emotionally connect with any gender really. Male or female. And that disconnect is usually the root cause of conflict.

    Its also why I think most guys are assholes. Cause they are. And I have near zero relationships with any of them. All my friends are women. And i’m fine with that 🙂
    ——-
    ANDI IS NOW SAYING:

    Ted, I have the sadz that you don’t have any male friends! I have a lot of guy friends — gay, bi, and straight (and a few trans acquaintances) who I really like. We hang out quite a bit and talk about virtually everything. I appreciate having dudes in my life besides my dad because I appreciate all kinds of different perspectives from all quarters.

    And though I appreciate your argument, I don’t really like to engage in gender essentialism/biological determinism (though sometimes, through sheer frustration, I go there) because that, I think, is a sexist argument on either side of the coin. “Boys will be boys” comes to mind — “they can’t help harassing women; it’s just testosterone.” And then we sort of excuse or dismiss that behavior because HORMONES. “Women can’t possibly be world leaders because…HORMONES.” Do you see what can happen when you use those arguments? You end up putting everybody into gender boxes, no matter how they express, based on hormones, and you can end up excusing or justifying certain behaviors, which is, I think, problematic.

    Having said that, yes, each of us has a hormone cocktail that plays into how we express gender, sex, and sexuality and even our individual personalities within those. But culture and environment play a huge role — from birth to death — in how those expressions are directed or misdirected, as the case may be. And right now, the culture we’ve constructed is toxic to all gender expressions — even the ones that are favored.

    Regarding the aggressiveness in the male characters I’ve been reading — it’s a problem and, I think, an unfair portrayal. There’s also a pass for that kind of behavior in the books, because the women characters glossed over it or excused it or went along with it when in my world, that kind of gratuitous aggression from anybody is a huge red flag for me and I sure don’t want to have beers with someone like that, let alone engage in sexy-time with them.

    Ultimately, people are complicated. We’re a mixture of DNA, hormones, upbringing, background, culture and environment, and the experiences we accumulate over a lifetime. There’s something profoundly amazing about that, and really beautiful (sometimes painful) and I don’t like to see that reduced to biology = destiny.

    All that said, thanks for continuing the conversation!

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  16. I have an impressive collection of M/F romance novels from my teens and 20s (yes, I have a book problem). I haven’t read one in years but I frequently loan them out to friends. If I didn’t have a nice stack of other books I’m wanting to read right now, I might re-read a few to remind myself. I did stick with specific authors who tended to have stronger female characters- Judith McNaught (love all of hers- Whitney My Love is a favorite), Jude Deveraux (favorite of hers is The Duchess), Johanna Lindsey (favorite of hers is Man of My Dreams); they also have good senses of humor. I noticed a huge change in their books in the 80s. Judith McNaught even reissued at least one of her novels with the worst possessive scenes removed.

    I know many straight women who like being overpowered and/or managed by their husbands. A friend who is a powerful, 6-figure earning manager in her work life allows her non-working husband (kids are older) to determine how the money is spent and also to determine much of her schedule. If he doesn’t want to go to something, she doesn’t show up either. She lets him make the money and life decisions because it’s apparently already emasculating enough that she makes all the money. She said this to me in perfect seriousness. She likes him in control in life and in the bedroom. She is not unusual among my straight friends.

    I know many, many straight women who aren’t friends with straight men for the simple reason that their husband’s get jealous and that is viewed as a legitimate reason to eschew friendship. Jealousy in men is not a fantasy, it’s a common reality that women who are married to men learn to deal with- and if you actually care to stay married, you’ll bend to that. Society expects it of you. If a straight woman wants to have a straight man as a friend, then they have to be “couples friends”, at least here in the small town Midwest. I have heard plenty of disparaging comments (usually made by straight women) about straight women who have straight men as friends without being “couples friends”. I’ve also heard plenty of women complain about not being able to have straight male friends without involving the other spouses.

    Of course I’m generalizing and there are plenty of heterosexual couples who have a more balanced approach. Among my closest friends I can count two like that. The rest are varying levels of what I have described above. I’m Gen X and live in the Midwest, both of which affect my experiences and observations, I’m sure.

    The M/F romance novel to me reads like a clarified and exaggerated version of heterosexual relationships.

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  17. Okay, that’s just freaking sad! Especially since that’s not what I’m seeing among my heterosexually-identified friends. I mean, I’m sure there are some and I haven’t picked up on it because it’s not something you necessarily say off the cuff: “Not going because my husband/boyfriend gets jealous if I go alone and he can’t go.”

    Which brings us right back to culture and environment. Why the hell are we inculcating those types of views about relationships in men and women? I know, it’s one thread in the toxic tapestry of our culture, and it’s intertwined with so many others, but the point is, it’s something that perpetuates toxicity, so why are we allowing it to keep on spooling out?

    Wow. Just…wow.

    Must continue to ponder. Thanks for stopping by.

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  18. Brilliant article, Andi, and full of excellent observations and questions. I’m assuming all the books were written by women? The themes and internal thoughts and external actions you discuss are fascinating because they hearken back to the 1950s! I wonder if straight women want to use fantasy to “go back” to an earlier time when things were simpler—kind of like me enjoying watching PERRY MASON occasionally even though the world detailed in the show is almost *nothing* like our world today. In Real Life, the male characters who women describe in het romance are actually few and far between.

    Such an interesting topic! Thanks for writing this blog, Andi!

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    1. As far as I know, yes, the books were written by women. I checked a few of the websites, and it seems all the writers are cisgender, but I certainly can’t say that with any certainty.

      I don’t know what the deal is with these themes. I’m in a conversation with a reviewer of M/F romances who also reads F/F, and that’s proving interesting. She has some theories but she hasn’t had time to share them with me. I’m interested to see what she says. I told her, flat out, that I’m clearly “not getting” something here, that either I’m not picking up on some kind of buried wink-wink/nudge-nudge or this trope is so foreign to me that I really can’t EVEN.

      It’s really fascinating, though it really threw me for a bit of a loop.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  19. That’s a very interesting and important article.

    As a teenager I’ve read hundreds of mainly historical romance novels. It was what my mother read and after I had finished with the children’s section in our small village library I continued with her books in addition to the fantasy and sci-fi books my friends gave me. Around the time I started university I slowly saw the books from a feminist point of view and stopped reading them. Sometimes I returned to the books with a guilty conscience, skipping over the bad treatment of the women and concentrating on the emotional roller coaster of falling in love. Mostly I read sci-fi and fantasy books with the focus on other topics.

    Even the more “modern” women in the romance books with their own plans and jobs and sense of self-worth forgot anything else as soon as the “right” man came along and “conquered” them, sometime with words/good looks/charm/money, sometimes with actual force. Anything was okay as long as it ended with finding true love: kidnapping, forced marriage, rape-like “seductions”. That’s certainly not a reflection of the acceptable behavior in the real world.
    The romance books fulfilled a void in my teenage years and let me live through extreme emotional situations in the safety of my home, but they influenced my perception of heterosexual relationships in a negative way. Most relationships I saw in real life were build around the interests and calendar of the men, even if the men were not enforcing it. There was never a portrayal of an alternative relationship with equality in these books. As I didn’t want to loose my independence, I kept away from boys as a teenager and later it took me a few years to figure out that I had never fallen in love with any of the guys I knew because I was a lesbian and not because the “right man” hadn’t come along. 😉

    At first I was skeptical when I discovered the genre of lesbian romance because I could’t imagine falling-in-love-stories without the need of one person to sacrifice her former life for the sake of her partner, as I had learned that to be the formula of successful mainstream romance. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the large variety of successful and mutual respectful relationships based on equal rights for both partners. That finally reflects my own life and interestingly enough some of the heterosexual relationships of my closest friends (sadly not all). I wonder why the m/f romance genre didn’t catch up with the idea.

    – Christiane

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  20. Hi, there!

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this topic and I was reminded of something my mom said to me that echoes what you’re saying here. She reads a ton of mysteries, but she always stops reading a series if the female protagonist hooked up on a permanent or semi-permanent basis with a man. I asked her why and she said that because as soon as the author put her character in that situation, the character “lost her shit” (my mom’s words) and suddenly couldn’t function without the approval or implicit permission of the male character who was her love interest. My mom said it was the weirdest thing — the female protagonist would be fine dating and sleeping with a dude occasionally through the series, but once the writer put the female character into a more permanent relationship with a guy, the female character lost her mojo and was suddenly absorbed with the guy’s issues, life, and schedule. “It really pisses me off,” my mom told me, “because I was enjoying that series up until whatever the hell that was that the author decided to do.”

    And thank you for sharing that the messages you picked up from these books contributed to how you viewed relationships between men and women — toxic. I don’t deny that there are certainly unhealthy relationships across the human spectrum, but if the message that women are supposed to subsume themselves to men even if that’s not enforced continues to be perpetuated, it’s going to take a long-ass time to undo the damage that thinking does. This culture likes to pride itself on not being “as sexist” as others when the reality is sexism is an intrinsic part of it, and it’s institutionalized. Sexism is toxic not only to women, but also to men, and the tropes in these books left me a bit cold.

    To be fair, this is just a tiny cross-section of what’s currently going on in the M/F romance genre, so I may be drawing incorrect conclusions, which is why I’m going to talk to more people who read and write it. And of course I’ll do some more reading in the genre and see what I find.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

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  21. Andi,
    Unfortunately, what you read is indeed what I have found in a lot of romance fiction–F/M or F/F–which is why I seldom read romance that is strictly romance. There’s a lot of “taking her”; being “alpha”; and, in general one (usually the male) controlling the other. I love reading the stories–F/M or F/F–that have two people learning about each other and attracted for more than the appearance of someone.
    I read everything, including young adult books; especially since I like to see what young adults are reading today. A huge misfortune is that this trope is found frequently in YA books where essentially the female is strong and capable up until a male enters the picture and then she becomes helpless and a victim.
    Words matter–which is one of the strongest motivators in my own writing–and we need strong female characters that don’t become helpless when a male, or a love-interest female, shows up. I would also like to see more characters that are not based on unrealistic body images.
    Good article and I applaud you bringing out this subject in a thoughtful manner.

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