Holy balls! It’s been almost half a year since I’ve blogged. Aunty Mommy strikes again.
So what have I been doing? What kind of incisive commentary or big life events do I have to share? I mean… there’s a lot… like I “own” (the bank owns) a house now, and I moved, and politically everything’s a disaster even as my life is going well and…
I’ve been reading a lot of gay regency romance novels. Like. A lot. (Silly pre-November 2016 me didn’t think she would read romance novels, even while making a case for them. You sweet, stupid summer child. You know nothing.) Anyway, I picked up one, and it was good and part of a series. I finished that series, started another one, bought all the published works of that author (Cat Sebastian) and am on working on doing the exact same thing with another one (KJ Charles). People love to talk smack about romance writers, but the genre makes money hand over fist for a reason.
It frankly seems like an embarrassing compulsion. Like, why couldn’t I just be happy with quaint British TV shows? Except, I’m not alone. One of the podcasters of Harry Potter & The Sacred Text is starting a new one about romance writing, Hot & Bothered. She was inspired to do so because she turned to romance novels for comfort in 2017 during the terrible storms; she was doing what so many of us have been doing—giving money she didn’t have to charities, obsessively following the news, feeling a sense of dread and terror—and she finished 27 romance novels in two months. They were pretty much the only things that helped her sleep. Luckily, I can’t say the same regarding the sheer density of romance reading, but it is true that romance novels do provide comfort and escape for me.
You could make the argument that I shouldn’t seek out comfort and escape, but I also fail to see how developing a permanent sense of anxiety and political suffocation helps anyone, least of all me. Lying face down on the carpet waiting for the apocalypse doesn’t help anyone. Having a sense of hope generally spurs action.
Ok, hold up, though. Why gay romance novels? I started with the entry drug: straight, frilly, uppercrust regency romance. It was good; it was satisfying; and almost every book I yelled something like, “THAT IS A RED FLAG. HE IS TAKING YOU TO THE SECOND LOCATION. JEALOUSLY IS NOT LOVE.” In the set piece that is the Big Disagreement TM, instead of thinking that they could simply resolve things by talking it out, I was mentally telling the heroine to use the chair. Like, go all out, nail him to the wall, teach that smug asshole a lesson.
Because the writer I started with, Julia Quinn, is rather good, she doesn’t shoehorn modern sensibilities into a period setting. I’m sure she gets away with some stuff, writing for a modern audience and all, but things like separate spheres for men and women; women not being allowed to vote, own property, get an education, etc.; respectable single women needing chaperones; men being in pretty much complete control of anything beyond a conversation are non-negotiable for that time period if you’re going to create any kind of believable world. So, that means the heroes of her books act like monied, straight, white, cis, het dudes who don’t understand any other type of life: even if they’re nice to their heroines or even other people, they often say and do the kind of intolerable shit that drives me up the wall.
Even hetero romance novels in modern settings have bits a pieces that bug me when it comes to the heroes: all the goddamn arm grabbing, the way they want people to stop being upset about legitimate shit so they can just be comfortable again, their overbearing way of dealing with problems, the way persistence is apparently a sign of attraction and not a sign that he will never listen to people, and so forth. I’m not the only one finding old romance tropes, really problematic recently. (Look, I might as well say that sometimes straight dudes are super annoying, and I’m living proof that being gay is not a choice because why the hell would I be straight? Also: Love you, Mr Squish.)
I started reading romance novels for some comfort and escapism, but misogyny and/or sexism kept popping up. Especially when the books switched to a hero’s perspective, and especially during the assessment of beauty. Too often the assessment the heroine’s looks involves judging her not only from a personal perspective, but also a kind of social economy one: “X number of my dude bros will think this chick is super hot.” Then there’s the enumeration of hot bits: her eyes (best when blue), lips (best when slightly parted), skin (best when white), tits (best when large and gravity defying), ass (see tits), hair (best when long, flowing and usually blonde). The heroine provides sex, comfort, status through her good looks, and love. This is held up as ideal, and it gets old. Not that one’s partner shouldn’t provide these things, and it’s not that the heroes don’t provide these things, but it’s just so goddamn expected of every woman from so many men that it gets difficult to parse what’s being given out of love and what’s being given out of obligation and expectation.
Again, it makes me want to use the chair.
Because my Kindle collection is entirely made up of gay romance AND feminist essays, allow me to direct you to Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne. To boil down one of her arguments (clumsily), Manne indicates that misogyny is a tool that is used against women who do not meet societal expectations of what she should be giving. It’s not that misogynists don’t see women as people, but that they hate her for not giving what only a person can give, and what women are “supposed” to provide: attention, love, comfort, emotional support, etc. And while these are certainly nice things to receive, it takes a lot of work to give them, and it’s not just dudes you know asking you to give them these things. (See: Every woman who has done any online dating. Perhaps every woman ever.)
So instead of simply enjoying a fluffy romance novel; I end up trying to manage the misogyny. Just enjoy it, you may say. Stop thinking so hard about it. To that I say: trying to enjoy fluff with misogyny in it is like going to a nice restaurant where you know that half the time the cook puts his ass in the dish. You say to your friend, “Um, does the soup taste like ass?” Then they say, “OMG, it’s just a tomato bisque. Can’t you just enjoy it?” I really wish I could enjoy this BUT I JUST CAN’T. It is impossible not to think about.
Here’s the part where I tell you that gay relationships are not equality magic, that gay people can also be abusive assholes to their partners, and that the gay community has issues with misogyny (among other things) like everywhere else. This is also the part where I recognize that there is the potential for harm when straight women write gay male romances for other straight women, that it has the potential to be erasing or reinforce stereotypes. This is the part where I tell you that there is no such thing as “just fluff” because it is vitally important to recognize the good and the bad in the media we turn to for comfort.
There’s a real market for gay male romance for women, and it’s something that I know several of my friends enjoy or enjoyed at some point. The question is: Why? Why would in a genre predominantly written by and for women would there be a significant market for the heroine to disappear entirely?
My suspicion is that this is the case for a few reasons. If the relationship driving the novel is between two men, even if one or both of them are sometimes attracted to women, there’s no voice in the back of my mind reminding me that I should measure up to a society’s expectation of femininity in order to be worthy or love, affection, respect, etc. Nope! It’s just two guys who are super into each other. There’s no reveling in feminine beauty, delicacy, or shyness, and even if there are aspects of something similar, it doesn’t apply to me. Awesome!!
It can be a relief to plunge into a world where the characters’ humanity and desires are recognizable and relatable, but your concerns are completely absent. Ester Wang writes pretty much perfectly about the escape a lack of representation provides. Sometimes it’s great to see people like yourself going through similar crap, and sometimes it’s amazing to forget that crap exists. Granted, in gay male romance stories, women do exist as friends, allies, enemies, social gatekeepers, servants, confidants, family, bystanders, etc. but they’re never the main characters’ love interest. THAT is refreshing: Women doing stuff in the world as a matter of course without the approval of a man-boner. Too often women in stories are almost a stand-in for sex and romance; it’s the only reason they’re included at all. (I mean, what else are women good for? If a woman does stuff in the woods, but a man’s not there to tell her she’s hot does she even exist?)
Finally, the least deep reason why straight women read gay male romance: two dudes are better than one. I do not much care about the virginal flailing of nice, pretty lady who has just left teenagerhood behind her, not after the tenth (millionth) time of seeing this trope. But being able to see the attractive potential of both leads and to understand where they’re both coming from, is immensely satisfying. Frankly, m/m romance seems to include all the good bits of sex and attraction without all the war of the sexes baggage. I can actually just enjoy it.
If you’re interested in dissecting that baggage though, I recommend Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, especially the edition with a rather beautiful forward by Ariel Levy. All things eighties are coming back in style what with loud prints and music with electronic beep boops in it, so why not aspects of 80s feminism? To unfairly boil down Intercourse, the idea is that sexism and misogyny that take place outside the bedroom do not magically vanish once inside of it. Dworkin is famously angry, dramatic, and uncompromising in her writing, but she is also often, even usually, right. While it seems strange to end a blog post about romance with a note about perhaps the angriest woman of the twentieth century, even Dworkin married. Though the marriage was likely for health insurance, her husband, John Stoltenberg, a man who identifies as queer, sounds like the love of her life. From Levy’s forward, she quotes him saying about the night they met: “She was there, and I think we were dancing, and then I think I passed out because I had had a lot to drink. And this could be a little bit of revisionism, but I remember coming to consciousness with a clarity that I couldn’t imagine life without her.”
(Colonel Armstrong is not gay, btw, but the image was too perfect.)