X is for X-Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 1)

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Romance has a distinct gender essentialist undercurrent, as I’ve talked about briefly in the past. Men are Men, and Women are Women, and never the twain shall meet except in approved narrative arcs with guaranteed happy endings. Between romance reading/criticism and conference marketing and the thousand or so friends of mine who are having babies presently (another one since I started this post! no, for real though, the pics just went up on Facebook) and thus seeing all the baby shower pictures and gender reveals, I sometimes have to fight off the absurd notion that genders are like Hogwarts houses in constant competition and we’re all just assigned to one or the other more or less at random even though many of us could have done just as well in Ravenclaw as in Gryffindor — oh, god, and now I have this image of the Sorting Hat glomming onto people’s junk and shouting out Man! or Woman! and now how could I possibly look J. K. Rowling in the face without blushing?

But ridiculousness aside, I’ve also started to notice the ways in which these false boundaries are asserted both within and around the romance genre. The performance of gender is repeated at every level in countless ways that reinforce the male/female binary, at the expense of people who don’t quite fit within the limits of that mode of expression. A list may be helpful at this point, moving from the level of the text outward through the discourse:

  • Many a romance novel uses terms like “masculine” or “feminine” to mark sexual desirability and/or arousal — as though gender is never inseparable from sexuality or is the primary basis for attraction (as opposed to honor, wit, charm, kindness, etc.). For instance, the hero who always smells like “some combination of Thing A, Thing B, and man,” where “man” is the word that clues you in to the fact that this is a sexualized sense experience for the heroine. It often happens with heroines, too — there’s a soap smell (lavender, lemon, sandalwood), and then something like “the indelible essence of woman/[heroine's name].”
  • Many a romance novel mentions how the hero/heroine is desired by all women/men — as though attraction is an objective measure, or as though gay and bisexual people don’t exist, or as though the hero/heroine’s sexual allure is a rule of physics like gravity or entropy and doesn’t involve another person’s desires or personal preferences at all. This often becomes a point of confusion for heroes in particular, puzzling over the heroine’s resistance to their advances. “Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?”
  • Gendered euphemisms: “her most womanly places.” As though gender were rooted in biology rather than culture and performance. And I don’t know about you, but when I get tingly in my tingly bits, I don’t respond by thinking, “How womanly of me!”
  • The improbably muscular hero — even if he has no reason to be muscular because he works at a desk all day or because gyms didn’t exist in Regency London. As though masculinity, social power, and physical power were all interchangeable, and a proper hero must have all three.
  • The improbably hairless historical heroine — as though modern notions of grooming and hygiene were in operation in earlier centuries. (Google “merkin” if you doubt me.)  As though ungroomed femininity is somehow unspeakable, in need of mediation through beauty work. Someday I hope to find a historical heroine who actually spends time depilating with some gross pre-modern concoction, simply because that would be novel. (And hair removal has a long and fascinating history.)
  • The “kickass heroine” — because she stands for type of aspirational womanhood that is inevitably tied up with the equivalence between violence and power that we see in the muscular hero. Fictive violence is in itself an inadequate rebellion against the stereotype of women’s passivity and weakness. If we have learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies (have we learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies?) it’s that power through violence does not automatically subvert patriarchal stereotypes. There was a moment from Laura K. Curtis’ Twisted where the heroine claimed she was not like the killer’s other victims, implying that she was physically stronger — sadly, this empowerment comes at the expense of numerous dead women.
  • Heroines are often special because they are Not Like Other Women. Heroes are often special because they Exceed All Other Men. Either way, masculinity is the benchmark by which all characters are judged.
  • The term “book boyfriends,” which elevates heroes over heroines and makes readers monolithically female and heterosexual. I’ve certainly fallen in love with fictional characters before — who hasn’t? — but I think the fact that “book boyfriends” exists as a term while “book girlfriends” doesn’t is telling. There is plenty of conversation around desiring men, but we so rarely talk about the heroines we want to hang out with — for instance, as great as Alec Kincaid is in Garwood’s classic The Bride, it’s heroine Jamie who I want to actually meet in person, because she’d be awesome. Sweet and thoughtful and if a horse tried to bite me she’d punch that horse in the face — she’s exactly what I want in a friend.
  • The idea that m/m romance is free from gender roles — as though masculine and feminine are the only gender options, and as though there’s only one way of performing each role. (More on this tomorrow in The Gender Binary Part 2!)
  • The appearance of male cover models at conferences, purely for titillation. It is presumed that (female) romance authors are interested in (male) cover models, which is not universally the case — think of all the lesbian romance authors, or happily married romance authors, or male romance authors, or romance authors who aren’t really into the cover model type (especially when he’s headless, the poor thing). Yet cover model appearances are always presented with a winking faux-naughtiness, the full weight of capitalist sexualization, and a great deal of pressure to go along with this imposed notion of fun. As though offering up cover models for readers’/authors’ visual enjoyment were the same thing as offering food or drinks.
  • Any romance writers’ conference is sure to feature a workshop on how to write plausible male characters — as though men are interchangeable and can be built from one set of blueprints, or as though creating complex male characters is qualitatively different than creating complex female characters. As though we do not get a crash course on male characters in fiction simply by surviving a single year of high school English (much less college or graduate school). “Plausible male characters” in romance so often translates into “emotionally closed off” or “casually misogynistic in a dudely fashion.”
  • The sharing of beefcake photos by authors on social media. This is a very complicated thing, because it is still a bold act for a woman to declare herself a sexual subject against the pressures of patriarchal culture. And there is a pure visceral pleasure in a good sexy pic that is very hard to deny: people are visual creatures. But I’ve come to believe that much of this photo-sharing also functions as performative heterosexuality — not so much an actual personal desire as a show of personal desire for the purpose of community building (the “socially intelligible” part of this Wikipedia chunklet). Especially since the “hot men” thing is so often used as a way of establishing an author’s personal brand for marketing purposes. This pattern echoes the way patriarchy asserts itself through the consumption of women’s bodies — to take one example, the sexually based bonding implied by the term “wingman,” where the friendship between two men is cemented through sexual pursuit of women (who are then presumably discarded, while the friendship is kept). <– Is this the most pedantic description ever of two dudes hanging out in a bar trying to get laid? Possibly!
  • Any time a major publication wants to talk about romance novels, they hire a male writer with little experience in the genre to write the piece. Noah Berlatsky’s recent article in Salon (via DoNotLink) was not the most egregious example, and I do share his taste in romances to a large degree, but it adheres closely enough to the established pattern that I can hardly read it through the rolling of my eyes. I can only think of two exceptions to this rule, and both have taken place this year: Sarah MacLean’s letter in the New York Times Book Review (about which she was interviewed at All About Romance) and Lorraine Heath’s recent piece on dukes for NPR (DO NOT read the comments on that one, unless you are near-fatally low on blood pressure).

Entrenched gender performance like this means it really is an uphill battle for romance with trans or genderfluid characters to get enough mainstream traction to be noticed. That’s starting to change — witness the recent discussions of Painted Faces and Untamed — but there’s still a lot of room for growth. And I didn’t even begin to approach the ways in which gender is not sex and biology is not as black-and-white as culture would have us think. (Useful search terms for those wishing to learn more on their own: CAMAB and CAFAB.) I’m still at the point of thinking about this issue where I can recognize a lot of what’s wrong but have no map for where to go from here. I have said this before but it’s perennially accurate: I have a lot more reading to do.

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For a real-world example of how the focus on biology-as-gender-and-sex is harmful and reductive, here is Laverne Cox being interviewed by Katie Couric, and her response to a particularly invasive and common line of questioning.

If you have not already read Cordelia Fine’s excellent and most necessary book Delusions of Gender, I highly recommend doing so. It lays to rest a lot of the pseudo-science around the idea of gendered biology, particularly in regard to the idea of male brains and female brains being innately different. Eye-opening and keen and at times pure angry feminist fun.

Genderbent Romance is a young but worthy Tumblr I have stumbled over, that exists purely to swap the genders of characters in romance novel blurbs. The results are exquisite, and they accept reader submissions!

I am delighted to present you this charming piece from The Toast on Rules of Gender Variant Chivalry. Personal favorite: “A high femme must do battle for any androsexual in peril from dragon or Frenchman.”

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7 thoughts on “X is for X-Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 1)

  1. Terrific post, as usual. I especially like the points about beefcake, coming in under the “not really into the cover model type” as well as happily married. I really resent how thoroughly my tastes are shut out of the romance genre; all heroes have to be tall and built and hung and exactly like every other hero.

  2. Thanks, Willaful! I’ve got a manuscript I’m working on where the hero actually has a belly, and it gets remarked on, and it in no way stops him from being attractive. Because I’m getting quite tired of the cookie-cutter type myself.

  3. For a totally different kind of romance check out L.A.Witt’s, “Static”, which won the 2013 EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Coalition) award for Sci-Fi Romance. It makes you question just what is love…what are the components of what you love about someone? And what if he/she “changed”?

  4. Please let me know when that’s out!

    I realized I phrased my comment in a very personal way, when of course that’s not the only or even main issue… it just hit one of my particular buttons.

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