Books to the Sky

old news; or, women like to watch two dudes make out

Posted on: June 24, 2009

Either I’m ahead of the curve, or the Baltimore City paper is getting to the party late, because they’re writing about the trend of women reading and writing m/m romance. Never mind that women have been writing romances (and, okay, porn) featuring two men since slash fiction was born in the late 60s, this is a “trend.”

In an article called “Zipper Rippers” (okay, hee), Heather Harris writes:

The romance novel, a static and predictable genre, is undergoing an evolution of sorts: storylines written by straight women for straight women . . . about gay men. Gay men are allowed to read them, of course–there’s no gender ID check. But the authors want the books shelved with romance novels, not gay literature, and they are straight women writing the stories that they would want to read. Alex Beecroft, the author of False Colors, an “m/m romance” set in the mid-18th century British navy, doesn’t see what the big deal is. “Whether your romance is m/f or m/m, love is the same,” she writes in an e-mail from her home in England, “two people, heart and soul, fighting for something beautiful, something worth fighting for.” Yes, but is it really a romance novel if there’s not a heaving bosom?

Let’s get the irritating part of this out of the way: I think the inclination to shelve gay romance with other romance is a noble one; as Beecroft explains, it’s because romance is romance, and shelving it with other romance is not so much a cry that this is a book that should be read by women (even though, okay, the majority of romance readers are women, they are not ALL women) but that it shouldn’t be isolated as GLBT fiction. I also don’t like the sneer here, like romance is for silly women. I have a literature degree and I like romance novels, okay? I know men who have read Nora Roberts. Everyone get over themselves!

The article credits Brokeback Mountain with ushering in some kind of new awakening in women and increasing the demand for m/m romance. I wonder how much this is actually true. See above about slash, but also, Queer as Folk had a pretty substantial straight-woman following, too. Maybe that reached fewer audiences, but my point is that it’s not like Brokeback Mountain was the first instance of two hot men kissing ever put on film and enjoyed by straight women.

Harris goes on to argue, using False Colors as an example, that perhaps this trend is just the latest iteration of the classic forbidden love trope. I will admit, this is one of the things that attracts me to the genre personally. I mean, don’t get me wrong, two dudes making out = awesome, but I think there’s a lot of room to tell interesting stories in this forbidden realm. Romance is one thing, having both characters involved in the romance be the same gender adds an extra layer of complication.

Beecroft adds

Beecroft also sees her stories as opportunities for her to play with and transcend traditional gender roles. “M/M romance can be used to examine relationships which don’t suffer from the same sort of built in power imbalances and gender role constraints that make m/f romance such a minefield,” she writes. “And of course, unlike f/f which has the same advantage of equality, m/m allows the writer to use characters who are not mired in feminine gender roles either. So it has a big element of escapism to it, plus the advantage of two gorgeous heroes for the price of one.”

I don’t know if I agree with her in terms of women pairings (go read a Sarah Waters novel), but I get what she’s saying here. You take the problematic role of women out of the story, especially if you’re writing historicals as Beecroft is, and you’re playing a different ballgame. You can have two dynamic characters, not one of greater social standing than the other.

I’m fairly new to the genre, but I’ve read a lot of m/m romance in the last year or so, including just recently False Colors, and there are a lot of great and a lot of really awful books out there. I’ve even read a few that fall into the realm of what I’ve seen bloggers call “OK Homo” where every character the heroes encounter is totally okay with the fact that they’re gay, which for me takes the meat out of the story. Because what are two character whose love is wholly accepted within the universe of the book but, well, two dudes making out? It’s gay porn, is what I’m saying, which is nice and all if that’s your thing, but doesn’t make for a terribly interesting romance. But that’s just my $0.02.

I had some mixed feelings about False Colors, which, if nothing else, is kind of a bildungsroman featuring John, a British naval captain, who befriends Alfie, another officer. John is deeply religious and also kind of a prude at the beginning of the novel. (Well, not kind of. He is a prude and his fellow officers mock him for it. He views even lust for women as a vice.) He experiences lust in Alfie’s company quite a bit but doesn’t really think much of it until Alfie confesses that he prefers the company of men, if you know what I mean. It’s not something John ever contemplated, and he has a long journey before he’s okay with his own inclinations, but that’s what’s interesting about gay historical romance: the novel takes place in a time before there even was the term “gay,” when sodomy was still a hanging offense. John at one point tells Alfie that it’s okay if they never have sex because he doesn’t think it’s worth the risk. (Of course, then they totally do it, and John is all, “Oh, so THAT’S what all the fuss is about.”)

See also Jezebel.

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2 Responses to "old news; or, women like to watch two dudes make out"

Argh, I mizzed the Jez article cos my reader was seriously piling up. And for the record, Queer as Folk… yes. That’s all.

[…] of my further thoughts are also mirrored here. In the end, though, I write what I’d want to read, and many of the m/m stories I’ve […]

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