Y is for Y Chromosomes: Gender Binary (Part 2)

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

Yesterday I talked about the gender binary in mainstream romance; today’s post is all about m/m and f/f romance. I’m a mere dabbler in each of these deep pools, with much of my knowledge gleaned second-hand from scurrilous if entertaining places like Tumblr, so I hope there will be experts around to chime in with points I may not have considered or come across. None of the below comments will have anything to do with the writing quality of either subgenre — instead I’d like to explore the various intersections that crop up around the reading culture and reception of m/m and f/f separately within the broader mainstream culture of romance.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that this month’s posts have not featured a romance with two male leads (though we have seen gay secondary characters). As I mentioned in comments to the Evangeline Parsons Yazzie post, I tend to give m/m romance a heavy side-eye: although I’ve read quite a few m/m fics and fanfics as a youth on the internet, my early experiences with m/m romance as a genre came when I started publishing erotic romance and joined my first author loops. (Oh, author loops, those gutters of self-promo and tone policing — it’s like being in a cutthroat high school clique with your mom.) <– Statement that may ensure I’ll never be in another author loop ever again?

The m/m authors I learned about on the loops were primarily straight women. They were upbeat, self-consciously naughty, and self-described allies of gay men. Note: gay men. A standard example comes from author Tara Lain (screencap), who writes m/m and the occasional m/m/f menage: “I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love.”

LACK OF GENDER ROLES COMMA DIVERSITY. This right here could easily fuel a two-thousand word post about privilege and appropriation and the way political theory devolves into marketing buzzwords. Limiting gender to one half of the binary is not compatible with diversity as a value. For one thing, despite the many parallel comments in this Goodreads thread on m/m romance, erasing the presence of women is not an acceptable solution to the problems that gender inequality presents. Not even in fiction. Because simply erasing one gender from a text does not erase capital-G-Gender from the text. A post at Vacuous Minx puts it most succinctly:

Let’s be honest and acknowledge that m/m provides a respite from what women’s gendered roles in romance novels make us confront, not from “gendered power relationships” more generally.

For another thing, “diversity” here is a feel-good term and an emotional manipulation: it aligns the straight author and her books with the morality of tolerance even as she makes money from the appropriated lives of marginalized identities. This is the very definition of fetishization.

When Victoria Brownworth wrote about m/m romance for Lambda Literary several years ago, including her own experience as a young lesbian reading f/f stroke fiction authored by men, it became A Huge Thing. [Updated to add: Victoria Brownworth has been active in TERF circles, which if I had known when I was writing this post would have made me pass her over in silence. Sometimes I get turned around by internet chronology. I stand by my citations below, mostly because they do not cite Ms. Brownworth.] One of the very first commenters was a female author of m/m who took issue with the terms:

[A] fetish by definition means to hold something in awe or in high regard. How does that jive with the hate-filled connotations that you want to associate with it? I also have a shoe fetish… does that mean I hate shoes?

Note: in her example, gay men = shoes. The definition of objectification. This is the facet of the m/m culture that always gives me the impression the (straight, female) author has taken two GI Joes and is mashing their faces together while saying, “Now kiss!” It gives me the heebie-jeebies and it means I hesitate to pick up an m/m romance that does not come with a recommendation from a trusted source. (Much more thoughtful responses to Brownworth’s argument can be found in this post by Sarah Frantz at Teach Me Tonight, and in comments. It’s a good old-fashioned internet clusterfuck and now my brain hurts so I’m moving on.) I know there are gay male authors of m/m and I know there are wonderful books out there — but the fetishizing gatekeepers have so far succeeded in scaring me away from nearly the entire subgenre.

Let’s revisit Tara Lain’s author page again, because it brings up another issue I’d like to develop more fully, and which I haven’t seen brought to the forefront of any mainstream m/m discussions in the past few years. Here is her front-page bio, in full, where I’ve added some crucial emphasis:

I’m Tara Lain and I write The Beautiful Boys of Romance. I love all my characters, but especially my unique heroes. I write mostly MM romance with some MMF as well. I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love. Giving my guys their happy ever after is my favorite thing. I write serious themes with a light touch and readers often call my books “sweet” despite all the hot sex!  I believe in love and enjoy giving more of it to the world! Please say hi, ask questions, and make yourself at home!  : )

The theme here is of ownership and control: the author is explicitly foregrounding her authority in the world of her texts, not only in regard to “her” boys but in regard to the shape of their (fictional) lives. The issue of control is also what makes discussions of m/m so quickly vitriolic on both sides: lgbt people object to feeling not in control of the bulk of fictional depictions of their own lives (and have been systemically erased from history and literature), and m/m authors and readers object to the idea that their own creative endeavors must be limited by considerations outside themselves (especially volatile for romance authors/readers, who are routinely pushed outside the literary tradition).

The idea of control helps explain why the same kind of rhetorical turns and attitudes that put my hackles up in professional publishing tend to merely (or sometimes profoundly) amuse me when I see them on Tumblr and in fan spaces. For instance: the Science Boyfriends fandom, which imagines that Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are in a romantic relationship and/or like to hang out and do lab work and experiments and make inventions together. It tends to be pretty cute, with a sweet rom-com vibe in both art and fic. Like many popular fan and slash pairings — the Winchesters, every Sherlock/Watson iteration, the original Kirk/Spock — these stories and artworks are a response, a reframing of an original work that is both culturally resonant and light on female characters or straight romantic relationships. Fanfic/slash is often deeply personal, experimental, self-aware, allusive, complex, and vivid. It is also mostly read and written by young women. In a world where young women’s own bodies and sexuality are constantly policed, scrutinized, and appropriated by everyone else, I suspect the way slash takes control back from creators (generally also men) is profoundly therapeutic: These are the characters you’ve given us, but we are reclaiming them as our own. Or else it’s an echo of the way young women feel appropriated by media? Taking the image or depiction of someone and putting that to your own use: if this is how value is created for young women, perhaps it also can become how young women create value? (See yesterday’s thought about authors swapping beefcake photos.) Remember the Creamsicle fandom? That time when a cartoon pointing out sexist depictions of girls on social media became a sweet lesbian romance between two characters who hadn’t even existed twenty-four hours earlier? God, that made me so happy. Young women (and some of them young queer women!) working together to create something positive out of misogyny and systemic erasure. I tear up just thinking about it.

Of course, if this is a major propellant of slashfic (hint: probably not entirely!), then it’s an impulse that must eventually need tempering with an eye toward other marginalized identities. No matter how many Science Boyfriend fics are written, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark will remain safely un-marginalized: actual gay men do not have this luxury. Making the switch to original characters transforms the writer’s ethical landscape — especially if this change happens to align with your own social privilege as a straight or straight-identified person in a homophobic culture. I’m starting to think this dynamic (a straight female writer progressing from slash fic to original fic to a career as an author of m/m romance) parallels one identified in this piece from Restructure, where geeky men redefine intelligence/math skills/computer savvy as masculine in response to jock bullying and identification of manliness with physical prowess. So when women claim to be intelligent/skilled in math/computer savvy in the same way, geek men push back out of ingrained self-defense. Similarly, slash writers potentially reclaim and reframe male relationships as a vital means of self-expression; when real-life gay men object, writers push back to defend themselves as a matter of course. I think this might explain certain common rhetorical moves in these debates — the description of m/m romance as works of respect and pure imagination, for instance, read very similarly to defenses of fan fiction against authors who object to it. You don’t own that, is the general refrain all around.

To get back on track … The money is, I realize now, a large part of what makes the m/m industry so distasteful to me on a grand scale. When the BBC Sherlock mocked fan culture in the Series Three premiere, I was appalled and put off. It was an inappropriate use of power: Moffatt and the producers of Sherlock were much more culturally and financially powerful than the fans they were poking at. In m/m, the existence of royalty relationships tends to amplify hegemonic power, so that straight women — Suzanne Brockman and J. R. Ward come to mind — reap the bulk of the attention and financial rewards in a subgenre centered on the love lives of gay men. Particularly when straight women can build entire careers and lengthy backlists on just books with m/m pairings. I can’t get past this as a sticking point, quite honestly. Not every m/m romance is automatically appropriative — but the structure of the industry itself deserves some sharp critique. So all this isn’t to say that I’m against m/m romance as a thing per se — merely that I’m going to be extra-careful about where my dollars go in an industry that feels so fundamentally imbalanced.

And now, for f/f fiction!

I’ve had incredible luck with f/f romance for this series. I’ve found wonderful new authors whose books I’m now itching to read more of, and I’ve found great resources like The Lesbrary which features lesbian-themed fiction both popular and literary (often reviewed by actual lesbians!). Not everything has been perfect, but nothing has made me feel as deeply uneasy as with m/m, either — not even the unabashedly pulpy ones like Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Better Off Red. There’s probably something about the intersections between straight women/queer women, as opposed to those between straight women/gay men, that has implications (but people smarter than me will have to work on this for the moment). When discussing f/f fiction, there are few genre-wide arguments to cite, few clusterfucks to dig up — but why? I can think of many reasons and all of them are depressing. Is it because:

  • Two women having sex is not as much of a social threat as two men (witness all the anti-marriage equality materials that featured scare grooms, and the way lesbian sex was never as thoroughly criminalized as gay sex between men).
  • If romance is “women writing about women,” then f/f romance is “women writing about women falling in love with other women.” That’s like a Double Romance. “Gross,” says Patriarchy.
  • The much lower revenue streams of f/f mean there are far fewer presses, authors, and readers with a financial stake in the subgenre. So there will be arguments, but they will rarely reach the heights of a debate that hits, for instance, a revered literary institution for gay lit, a top-notch romance review site, Gawker, and OUT Magazine.

F/f has yet to go mainstream in the way that m/m has/is about to — but I’m certainly going to be reading more of it. And that seems as good a place as any to call it a day.

___

A Twitter-borne recommendation from queer gamer scholar Todd Harper has gotten me hooked on sci-fi gay romance animated webcomic Buying Time. I’m only a little ways in but I am thoroughly charmed. More like this, please.

Gay author of m/m romance Theo Fenraven has some thoughts on this issue, which do not entirely align with my own, but which are definitely worth bringing up for debate.

This year’s Lambda Literary Award winners were announced today! I freely admit this is just a coincidence, but it’s a pleasing one nonetheless.

Edited to add: An email remnded me of this thoughtful post from author E. E. Ottoman about the popularity of f/f versus m/m romance.

___

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24 thoughts on “Y is for Y Chromosomes: Gender Binary (Part 2)

  1. I used to write m/m romance. I don’t anymore—I had problems including the ones you mentioned, plus other ones that are even more profound that I don’t think anyone really understands unless they’ve been an insider. That being said, I actually think going after Tara Lain was a bit unfair. I remember from my time there that she doesn’t participate in the massive vaginaphobia, femmephobia and biphobia common in the genre. She’s simply being honest about the appeal of m/m in a public way, instead of using the typical code words.

    One of the questions I’m always wondering about it is, can we really use fetish to describe worship? They’re really overlapping terms and the word fetish has so many meanings depending on what theory or field you’re in. The typical idea is that we fetishize things that we have institutional power over… that’s how we express the fetish. Like collecting shoes. Or white men collecting Asian women. But when it comes to women “collecting” sexualized men, fictional or real, the institutional power isn’t as clear. A lot of “fetish” objects in m/m are men with a lot of power (almost always white men)—military, royalty, demons or gods. So I’m not sure where fetish shades and overlaps with the sexualized “worship” of someone less powerful towards someone more powerful. A straight woman and a gay man are privileged and marginalized in different ways depending on context, and not all the women in m/m are straight, by any means, so the fetishization isn’t always clear cut.

  2. I am in a very awkward position here of speaking from something like four different platforms — or at least, I have the history of four different platforms (reader, scholar, reviewer, editor — all of m/m romance). And I *know* they’re inseparable, so I won’t try. But I am very aware of how they inform each other or could…threaten each other?

    First: I really love what you say here. One rarely find such thoughtful discussion of m/m romance. Thank you.

    Second: I have no answers to the issue I bring up, so I’m one of those horrible people who dumps into a discussion to say “but what about…?!” with no answers of my own.

    But I am actually rather deeply troubled by your apparent insistence on the “straight cisgendered female author” of m/m romance as the only possible author. As reader/scholar/reviewer/editor, I will say that the majority of m/m authors are NOT straight/cis. I’d make a list, but I’m honestly concerned that I’ll out some authors who have come out to me because of our personal reviewer/editor/reader relationship. So I make this assertion but can’t outright prove it. Sorry for that. But…I do know it. FWIW.

    Which is not to say that there AREN’T prominent (or not so prominent) straight female m/m authors. Of course there are. I said a majority are NOT straight/cis females, but it’s a very slim majority. So your concerns still hold for just under half of m/m romance produced. And I am absolutely not denying that the points you bring up are valid. They absolutely are. I think there are issues of fetishization, objectification, and appropriation that are thorny and might not ever be easily understood or overcome. And they should be brought up as often as possible so we can try to deal with them. So thank you for that.

    But your failure to recognize that many authors of m/m romance are NOT straight or cisgendered is in itself also problematic and, frankly, a kind of straight-cis-washing itself. I don’t know if it means you just accepted the common wisdom that m/m romance is written by straight women for straight women, but it’s manifestly not true and kind of makes your argument a little suspect for lack of at least acknowledgement.

    I also don’t know HOW the fact that many female authors of m/m romance are not straight/cis affects your position or concerns. It might be not at all. But I do know I was troubled by it. Being queer myself, I don’t like being erased.

    Maybe two recommendations I can make you would be good places to start thinking about how non-straight-cis female m/m authors (gawd, the adjective pile there) affect your argument:

    K.A. Mitchell is one of the best and best selling authors of m/m romance. I think the first breakout bestseller of m/m and deservedly so, because she’s an amazing writer and storyteller. She’s also a very out lesbian. She’s with Samhain and Carina. I reviewed many of her books, but would recommend Collision Course and No Souvenirs.

    James Buchanan hasn’t published much recently but some of their earlier stuff is awesome. I reviewed some of their stuff, too, and would recommend Hard Fall, The Good Thief, and their Beating the Odds series. James is genderqueer.

  3. I’d like to add for clarification that neither of my recommendations are Riptide authors. So there’s as little conflict of interest there as I can make.

  4. You’ve summed up a lot of my own discomfort with m/m romance. I spent my 20s in fandom, and the severe cognitive dissonance I ended up with, when folks (self included) would talk about “our guys” or “our men” in a slash pairing, when in real life, with real people, it would be horribly condescending and objectifying to behave toward anyone like that, made me wary of fandom in general. The extra complications of noticing that some fans like to talk about a need for more f/f but rarely write it and that writing f/f was, in my group, seen as ‘less satisfying’ because the women were bound by gender roles (which begs the question, as you say, ‘and the men aren’t?’), when my deepest burning questions and ones I most wanted to discuss were how to manage gender roles in reality by modeling and exploring them in fiction, made my fandom experience even more confusing.

    The tides of fandom are mesmerizingly self-contradicting and complex, full of analysis and dissemblance, both. At this point in my life, I prefer f/m and f/f by women, because I know a woman’s in there writing about women. And I tell you what, writing honest f/f as a woman, or even fiction with very strong women friends, is very revealing! It takes guts. It pulls off three masks a woman writing can use to find status in the male-dominated world: writing under a man’s name, writing a main male character, and writing a world where a man is involved in a woman’s sexual pleasure. In f/f or even female-dominated narratives (female buddy or fellowship stories, which I love but of which there are so few), a woman writer says “I am a woman writing about women giving each other pleasure and support to give pleasure and support to other women.” What a statement! And how strong the woman who can make it.

  5. Um, yes?

    I also step fairly carefully on this subject because I left m/m fiction sometime in the mid-90’s as female authors of it were on the rise. There was (I felt) a shift from what felt like the love stories of men I knew to fetishized fantasy depiction about men I didn’t recognize. In short, many books read like het porn.

    Not ALL books.

    No, of course not all books. But while weeding through the issues of appropriation and objectification and fetishization I had to evaluate my own personal risk / reward ratio and it came up short. I wasn’t interested in investing the time it took to find books I wanted anymore. So I didn’t. Which is it’s own issue but one I decided to own.

  6. When I got to the end of this (quite interesting) column, I eagerly clicked through to Part 1 of Gender Binary … and then followed up on your tags “f/f romance” and “lesbian romance” (which only pointed back to this same lone entry), and now I’m feeling a little depressed. Is there an entry where you’ve done a similarly in-depth look at lesbian romance? I’d love to hear your thoughts beyond “Oh, yes, and there’s lesbian romance but there’s not much to say about it.” As a writer in the field, I’m extremely interested in critical takes on the topic.

  7. I have so many complicated feeling about m/m romance. I appreciate your overview.

    As a bi woman I was very skeptical of m/m romance when I first heard about it. It seemed so strange to me that women, particularly straight women, would write gay male romance for women – strange, odd, appropriative, problematic. So of course I had to read some (just like I had to try shapeshifters and inspies and bdsm romance). I was immediately hooked. I’m a bit sheepish about how much I enjoy it. So far, f/f romance hasn’t hooked me in the same way, but I keep buying it because I want to support it.

    I continue to read m/m, because I like it (although I’m kind of damned if I understand why), but I am cautious and I try to be respectful or at least aware. I hate gay4u with a fiery passion and m/m sites plastered with beefcake photos make me incredibly uncomfortable. I’ve discovered that many of the m/m authors I read identify as some flavor of queer/LGBTQ, although I didn’t know that when I started reading them. But it makes me more comfortable continuing to read them. Not that being a bi woman automatically exempts one from exploiting a gay man, but at least writing from within the queer community makes more sense to me.

    @Meoskop – can you recommend some m/m authors from the 1990s or before? I’m curious to read them and see if I notice a difference.

  8. Heather: sorry about the confusion — my tagging system is still very much a work in progress. I don’t have a cogent view of f/f or lesbian romance as a subgenre yet, the way I do with m/m (well, semi-cogent, anyways), not least because it is much less visible in the mainstream. As an writer of lesbian romance, no doubt you have a much more clear-eyed look at the state of the genre than I do! But I’ve done a few in-depth looks at individual texts for this series, which have now been appropriately tagged.

  9. So far, this is quite similar to my own experience: m/m romance activates all my Dude Fatigue buttons, while f/f romance feels ‘safe’ in a way I haven’t been quite able to articulate yet, and which no doubt has a lot to do with my own personal experience of gender, sexuality, and oppression.

  10. Solace: thanks for commenting! One of the reasons I chose Tara Lain is that she’s been very keenly self-promoting her work for all the years I’ve been an author. She’s even on a workshop panel about m/m heroes for the upcoming RT Convention: https://www.rtconvention.com/eventworkshop/tops-and-bottoms-create-your-own-malemale-story-heroes I trust her intentions are benevolent, and I definitely hear you about the vaginaphobia, but even in its benevolent form there are issues with this kind of objectification.

  11. Sarah: I tried to make it clear (and seem to have failed, which is on me) that while I know there are many non-cis, non-straight m/m authors out there, they are much harder for me to find. Not least because the pseudonym issue is complicating m/m in a way it rarely does with m/f romance. I also see straight female m/m authors as the most commonly vocal — especially in author convention circles, though I admit my experience is not universal. And when fully half the genre is coming from somewhere that puts me on edge, and when I can’t seem to find review sites that ally with my particular tastes, it just takes more effort than I can spare to find the books I know will delight me. Combine that with frequent generalized Dude Fatigue (another medium starring men, oh boy!) and I usually just turn away.

  12. “…in an industry that feels so fundamentally imbalanced.”

    How is such an imbalance corrected? Writers and readers inhabit various points in a grand spectrum of sexualities and lived lives. And making the assumption all apparently-straight women are straight is not really advisable.

    I am always stopped short by “straight women writing m/m for straight women.” I wonder if most straight women writing m/m think about whether only straight women will read their books. I was naive enough when I first began writing m/m to think that anyone who likes a romantic historical might read my work. I didn’t imagine I was writing solely to a female audience (and I get enough emails from male readers now to know I do have some.) I didn’t really think extensively about my audience at all, because I wrote to fulfill a need to tell a certain story. The fact that I could put the story into the world and people of all types would read it was an after-the-fact bonus joy.

    I appreciate posts like yours that remind straight female (and male?) writers of lgbt they’re telling stories about people who have a much tougher real life path to tread. For every thoughtless lgbt writer, there’s another who’s constantly aware of the fine line between creating honest, multi-faceted characters and objectification. Not all m/m writers are focused on kicking Barbie out of the Dream House so the GI Joes can smooch in peace.

    Maybe I’m mistaken (I often am) but I also sometimes sense a certain innocence in these m/m portrayals by assumedly straight women, a desire to explore and understand male sexuality, to better understand relationships in general and relationships that they’ll never experience, themselves. They don’t *mean* any harm. They want to share their fascination. They haven’t yet realized or they just don’t quite comprehend the complex issues that spring from writing about characters whose real life counterparts have to deal with far worse shit in this world than they do.

    I’m still in the long-term process of trying to understand these issues, myself. While I’m trying to come to a better understanding, do I wait? Write only that which I do understand perfectly? (ha… no more writing, then.) I think correcting the imbalance begins with posts like yours, and continues with the purchase of work by lgbt writers (the difficulty there being we don’t always know who they are.) Writing is such a never-ending learning process, and learning to be more self-aware about what you write and why you write it is surely the most vital part of that process.

    And I’m sure there must be more ways to correct the imbalance. I don’t yet know what they are. I did enjoy your very thoughtful post, though.

  13. Hi Olivia

    I’ve loved all these posts that I’ve read, and thank you for writing them.

    As a straight female author of m/m, I’ll cop to being the problem as you see it. I disagree strongly with Sarah Frantz that straight women aren’t the majority of women authors in this genre – and at the very least, the majority of women authors are those enjoying heteronomative privilege (even while being bi or gender queer.) She is right to say that there are large numbers of non-straight cis women writers, as there were and still are in the slash community.

    That’s not really the problem – the gender/sexual identity of an author shouldn’t come into it. But as you point out, the way we write about marginalised groups we don’t ourselves belong to, *is* the problem.

    My reasons for writing m/m have not so much evolved, but become clearer to me. Slash spoke to me very powerfully when I first encountered it – first of all, it was a community of women doing it for themselves, and it was taking a very straight male-oriented gaze on relationships between people (men and women) and turning it into a female gaze. We took control of the stories and relationships as we saw them, and made them speak to our interests, our way of seeing things.

    I will admit initially there was a great many naughty thrills and indeed arousal to be had from writing and reading ‘transgessive’ sex (transgressive in the sense that it was non-vanilla PIV, not transgressive because it was gay men having it). But that passed a long while back. I mean, there are only so many sex acts, and once the shock/kink value is used up, then you have to go back to the emotions, the relationships. I write almost no sex scenes of any kind between any characters now, and skip over those in books I read. I want the *people*. However, there are clearly readers and authors who are in it for the smut almost exclusively, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not for me. (I’ll also add that for many ‘straight’ women, it’s a safe way to explore our inner sexuality which might not be all that straight, however we have framed our external existence.)

    Ultimately as an SFF writer, I believe in writing the change we want to see. I want non-traditional relationships, non-heteronormative lovers, to have the same acceptance and equivalence as I enjoy as a straight woman in a hetero marriage. So I show futures where same-sex marriage is utterly ordinary, where gender lines are blurred, and where the conflicts between people aren’t driven by the need to keep sexuality or gender hidden. I write contemporary fiction where LGBT relationships are shown as healthy and strong. I write my characters as usually bisexual, and their opposite sex relationships are given equal importance to their same sex ones. I show men and women as equals, and women as important in gay men’s lives, not as rivals.

    I am even more determined to keep doing this after one of my readers – who had, ironically, just had an enormous packet of my stories sent to her by me for free – told me that she hated one of my contempory stories (free to read) because she couldn’t believe a household of LGBT people could live happily together, because it wasn’t natural or right. And this from an avowed fan of m/m and slash!

    I’ve also had young gay men write to me and thank me for my stories, one saying that as he lived in a society where gay rights are suppressed, my stories gave him a great deal of comfort. So even as a straight women, I have some power to affect the emotions of gay people.

    Is it right or moral to write what I do? I believe it is, with a good deal of care, and I agree with everything Tamara Allen has written above (if you ever want to dip your toe into writing that is the opposite of fetishistic and exploitative, can I recommend her writing because it is the loveliest and most loving you will ever read.)

    Should I, as a straight woman, stick to writing het romances? If I had to, I would never write because those stories bore me. I have nothing inside me which wants to be told regarding men and women in love with each other. I want to write the world as it should be, could be. Not reinforce the status quo.

    Do I do that well? Only the readers can judge. And they will. I don’t hide my straight female being, so they know who’s writing what they read. If it speaks to them, then I am happy.

    Thoughtful post. Thank you.

  14. Hi Ann! I have read many things on your blog that are thoughtful and clearly presented, so I’m glad you’ve chimed in. I definitely feel like straight women who write m/m definitely have more work to do to combat their privilege. I don’t implicitly trust every author to do that, frankly — I feel the same about many authors in romance generally — or in sff — or in YA.

  15. I share the disappointment with the above commenter about the lack of critical discourse (or any discourse) surrounding f/f and lesbian romance. It also strikes me as more than a little ironic that a post about men seems more popular than any of the others–in a series about feminism! This is something I’ve experienced over and over as a reader of f/f with no interest in m/m. I often perk up at the sight of “best GLBT romance” lists or “menage reviews,” only to scroll through a bunch of m/m and m/m/f only. I’ve learned to ignore GLBT as a code word for gay male.

    I think you were clear in your post that the m/m authors you’ve noticed or interacted with are straight women. I’m aware that there are bi and queer women and gay men writing m/m. More than straight women? With so many self-pub authors out there, I don’t know. And the most successful authors of m/m are definitely straight women. Brockmann, Ward etc. I’ve read Brockmann’s m/m and found nothing remotely fetishy, but I’m no expert.

    The “lack of gender roles” issue has always confused me. Why doesn’t this apply to f/f? Two women in a relationship don’t have to deal with gender roles more than two men. Do they? I don’t get it. I also wonder why authors like Ann above chose to write m/m exclusively even when sex scenes aren’t even part of the draw. I think that Ann has said that she doesn’t like writing women for various reasons. Brockmann has expressed a preference for writing men. I think I’m like you, Olivia. I want to read more women. I like men and enjoy writing them, but I get enough men in m/f, life and fiction. I get more than enough. ;)

  16. “I also wonder why authors like Ann above chose to write m/m exclusively even when sex scenes aren’t even part of the draw.”

    Because writing female primary characters makes me feel all squirmy inside, because I have an extraordinary number of issues. The distancing involving in writing the other gender is a crutch I’m not ashamed to use.

    I don’t, for various reasons, feel I understand women and how they act, even though I am one. I have not shared in so many of the experiences that many women authors take for granted. So I would rather write a bisexual male spacer than a contemporary female lead out of fear of getting it wrong.

    Not that I really should be put in the position of defending my writing choices to another author, Jill.

  17. I admit I’m not a big fan of m/m romance, I’m sort of into menage romances but really do prefer f/f/m menages over m/m/f ones. I have read and enjoyed a few m/m but I just get, bored. I really like f/f romances though, except when it’s totally an m/f romance and they just gave the guy a vagina, then I want to throw things.

    I’ve found I tend to switch to f/f when I get tired or annoyed with alpha heroes and just, over them. This tends to happen a lot quicker for me when reading anything involving bdsm as the hero is practically always the dom, which annoys me so very much.

    The part I’ve found I really love about f/f romances is the feel of them. The communication problems tend to be less and they actually voice their feelings and emotions and say why. I’ve found the “I’m not telling you to protect you and wont even warn you about potential problems” bullshit is so much lower. Even when they’re not telling the other heroine something they tend to at least warn them.

    It’s hard to describe the difference I’ve found, the best word I can find is softer, there isn’t a lot of that core difference between them… ugh ‘m so not explaining this well.
    When it comes down to it they’re on the same team, they’re partners, even when they’re completely different types of people with a strong back and forth between them of who’s the dominant one; there’s always this underlying level of trust and respect between them. There’s friendship there, partners before anything else.

    And that’s something I don’t find in a lot of books with males as the partner they’re not always equal, the man is often the dominant person and he often does things without the heroine’s input that will affect the heroine but justifies it as protecting her.

    That soft feeling in those books makes me feel much safer in their romance, I trust them to actually be okay and not do something really douchey which sometimes happens in m/f romances. I’m really struggling to describe the feeling I’ve gotten from almost all the f/f romances I’ve read, soft really doesn’t quite cover it because sometimes they just feel so much deeper because of it so when something does happen it hurts more as a reader even when I know there’s going to be a happy ending.

    Does anyone else get this sort of feeling from f/f romances because I’m sure i’m not the only person.

    Also I totally Agree with Jill Sorenson on the LGBTI lists, drives me insane when I’m looking for new lesbian romances.

  18. @Cleo honestly, I’ve forgotten almost all of them. I was a huge fan of Neil Bartlett’s early work, and Geoff Ryman’s Was. Both authors are more romantic than romance, altho Neil tracks much closer.

  19. I’m fairly new to the feminism discussion and most of the time I feel I’m fairly bad at it. I see and understand the issues raised here and I agree they’re worth discussion and critique.

    But there is something else which hasn’t been mentioned. Maybe I’m off base to say it here but it’s a difference that reading m/m and queer romance (not as much of the latter; I’m working on it) has made in my real life and I feel it belongs in the mix.

    And that is, it has made me a more open and tolerant person. That is to say, reading m/m romance (initially) opened me up to accepting gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans* and all the other identities as perfectly okay. I don’t deserve any medals for it. But the truth is that what little thought I had given to it was based on the (incorrect) teachings of the church I used to go to and other, not accepting, media portrayals. Reading m/m romance opened me up to a whole new world and my thinking has profoundly changed (partly because, now there is actual thinking involved).

    It’s no longer just m/m romance that helps to shape my thinking about the queer community, but that was the start of it for me. And so, I can see that whatever the objectification, fetishisation, etc. issues that do exist within the genre (I’m really only now starting to grapple with them), there has been an actual real world benefit from me reading it no matter who was its author. Even the stuff I will maybe look back in a few years time and shake my head about, because it led me here.

  20. I haven’t read m/m or f/f in a long while, but I’ve written both for non-commercial, personal entertainment purposes. I completely agree that removing one gender does not erase gender roles. I think there’s a degree of safety in m/m romance for straight women which allows them to continue to explore a familiar power dynamic in a sexual relationship, without having a woman occupy the submissive role. It is, as you say, therapeutic.

    How do you feel about lesbians writing gay male erotica and visa versa? I haven’t read it yet (been on my TBR list for ages) so I can’t vouch for its quality, but ‘Switch Hitters’ (editors Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel) is such a book. I can, however, vouch for the writing of Andy Quan for gay man writing m/m literature. His stories tend more toward memoirs than romances though. As for purely m/m, f/f romance novels, I’ve got nothing, sorry. :/

  21. @Ilona I think I get what you mean. When I’m reading f/f, I don’t have to worry (as much) about tropes that involve the male asserting dominance or the attraction of submitting to the masculine. Obviously, the women can still play with those roles or have power imbalance between them, but I feel less asked to compromise myself when two women are having adventures (in bed or out) than when I have to think at every point in the adventure (with f/m and m/m) what the author is accepting and rejecting about gendered interactions. A bit hypocritical of me, because f/f also involves very deliberate acceptance/rejection of gendered tropes and roles, but, since everyone in the narrative is a woman, I’ll get women in power and out of it regardless of where the author chooses to place power. A very aware f/m author could do similarly, but they’d need to throw in a bunch of well-developed female characters in addition to the heroine, and it’s harder to know from a f/m book than a f/f book if you’ll get that ahead of time. F/F, the moment I know it’s f/f, I know I have women occupying a range of roles.

    I think of it as the ‘fellowship’ effect. It’s like reading The Lord of the Rings; I know all the guys are going to do great things for each other because it’s a story about a fellowship, a group of heroes. They’ll mess up, but there’ll be camaraderie that transcends the hardship and mistakes. A book that promises me a fellowship of women lets me feel safe in their company and their support of each other while reading.

  22. Oh, as far as recs for f/f romance: I love Stardust Bound, a shortie (about 140 pages) by Karen Cadora. It’s scifi romance, about women astronomers in a future where children are raised in communal creches. Quiet and thoughtful, with a few nice sex scenes. Gwyneth Jones’ Divine Endurance is also an interesting love story between women, in a far-distant post-post-apocalyptic future where gender roles are reversed, but it suffers from some exoticizing (and note that it’s a love story, not a romance). And, hey, it has a talking cat! Talking cats get automatic points in my world.

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