I recently came across the following passage in a Mills & Boon 'Modern Romance' sheikh title I'm researching. The passage struck me as odd, gratuitous and distinctly homophobic.
The heroine, Tally, is arguing with the hero, Sheikh Tair, trying to convince him that he is not as monolithically violent as he appears to be. The conversation goes as follows:
Tally: "You might say you're a brutal, vengeful man, but I don't see it. Your men adore you-"The line which gave me pause was Tair's comment 'It makes me extremely uncomfortable'. No explanation is offered for this statement, and the conversation swiftly moves on. But this jarring, homophobic comment stayed with me, as I began to think about how gay male sexuality is figured in heterosexual popular romance. How does this hero get away with being so homophobic?
Tair: "Please don't say my men and adore in the same sentence. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."
Tally: "The point is, you know your men care about you."
Tair: "You're confusing affection and respect. My men don't care about me. They fear me. Two significantly different things."
(Jane Porter, The Sheikh's Disobedient Wife, p. 105)
Clearly, the context of the desert culture of the sheikh romance cannot be ignored here. As parts of the contemporary Middle East and Africa continue to criminalise homosexuality, it could be representational accuracy that leads this hero to espouse homophobic views. Yet given that these romances deliberately distance themselves, both geographically and in political terms from the reality of their Middle Eastern and North African settings (for example in the creation of fictional nation states over which the hero rules), it seems unlikely that this statement is simply a reflection of contemporary social politics.
Perhaps this homophobia is part of the hero's overtly constructed masculinity. Sheikh heroes are amongst the most deliberately masculinised Harlequin Mills & Boon hero; the traditional dress he wears, usually a keffiyeh or dishdasha and a long robe, seems to carry the danger of making the hero appear effeminate. This is frequently addressed and vociferously denied in sheikh romances:
Like her, he wore a long, loose robe. But, far from making him look effeminate, the outfit somehow accentuated the width of his shoulders, the whipcord strength of his body, his innate masculinity.Is it possible that this homophobic comment serves to further masculinise (in the sense of heterosexualise) the sheikh hero (whose masculinity already treads the borderline between effeminacy and masculinity)?
(Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure, p. 109).
There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of critical work on male homosexuality within heterosexual romances (perhaps because of its usual lack of mention), although a Teach Me Tonight post from 2006 discusses homophobia in romance. There has, however, been considerable work on lesbian romances and Stephanie Burley has considered the homoerotic potential of the romance, although this article focuses on women as the primary readers and authors of romance ('What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance').
My reading expertise does not stretch far beyond modern sheikh romances, and homophobic references such as this do seem to be rare. But I would be very interested to hear about any other references to homosexuality (both positive and negative) within heterosexual popular romance. I wonder:
- Is gay sexuality always undesired/rejected in heterosexual popular romance?
- Is there room for the homoerotic in these romances?
- And how do these compare with representations of female homosexuality (of which, in heterosexual romance, I have encountered none)?
- Stephanie Burley, 'What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance', Doubled Plots: Romance and History, ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003)
- Jane Porter, The Sheikh's Disobedient Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006)
- Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)