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.
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?
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?
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.
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)