Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Women Writing Men Doing Men

After the reference to Blur in my last post, I couldn't resist that title. Anyway, here's another call for papers and some of my thoughts on the topic:
Writing Across the Gender Boundary: SAMLA Women's Studies Panel

Throughout literary history writers have explored the perspectives of genders other than their own. This panel will explore works by both male and female writers who choose to cross the gender boundary in their writing and the effects of such border crossings. Writers might be viewed as crossing gender boundaries when they construct first person narratives of genders other than their own or when they focus on the experiences or worldview of another gender through third person perspectives or on the stage. Gender crossings can also be diversely defined as shifting from male to female or female to male, as well as explorations of queer, heterosexual, or trans genders from writers who might identify otherwise.
The closing date for proposals is 1 March 2007 and further details are available here.

Sarah posted a while ago about the fact that 'male/male erotica (or m/m/f) is certainly the growth industry in the online erotica publishing houses' and she suggested that the reason why straight women might 'be attracted to gay male romance and/or gay male sex' is
Because, if, as I argue in my article, romances are actually about watching the hero figure out and confess his feelings, if they're about watching him move from the "masculine economy of use" to the "feminine economy of exchange," then watching TWO men have to figure it out for and with each other is more than twice as wonderful as watching one man figure it out for and with a woman
I recently came across some of Jules Jones' work. Jules Jones is a woman, according to the biography at the Romance Wiki, and she writes 'science fiction and erotic romance, mostly with m/m themes. Much of her work is cross-genre, being science fiction or fantasy with a strong romance element'. These particular stories are really erotica rather than erotic romance, because they're too short to show the full development of a relationship, but they hint at further possibilities. They're also very explicit, so anyone likely to be offended or upset by explicit descriptions of gay sex shouldn't click on the links.

Lord and Master is a short story about the boss/secretary relationship, except there's a twist, because usually the secretary isn't male. The differences are stated by the narrator:
Yes, I'm a man, fulfilling the functions normally fulfilled by a woman. I sit here, looking decorative, smiling nicely at people who treat me like dirt because I'm only a secretary. It's worth it, because I fulfill all the traditional functions of that secretary, including that one. And let me tell you, I enjoy working for a man who has the balls to install a pretty little thing as his personal assistant and tell the world to think of it what they may. And I really enjoy working for a man who has the power to get away with it. And I'm better off than my female counterparts down the hall, because I don't harbor dreams of my boss marrying me [...]. He can't, not unless the laws change.
The boss is an alpha male, as is one of the characters discussed in Sarah's post: 'He's alpha male, with an aura of casual, unselfconscious power. He's king of the hill, and he knows it, and he doesn't feel the need to make an issue of it, make everyone else acknowledge it. He just is.' And yet, in line with Sarah's observation, there's a shift from 'the "masculine economy of use"'. The secretary and boss are, despite the poignant reference to the lack of a possibility of the most traditional sort of HEA, not immune from heading towards 'the "feminine economy of exchange"': the secretary can't help but wonder how his boss feels about him: 'But there's one thing I don't know, have never asked. Does he think about me when he's at home, lying in his bed?'. The question isn't answered in this story, but it may well be in Jules Jones' forthcoming novel with the same title.

In One Size Fits All the characters tentatively move towards emotional intimacy. It reminds me of something I said a while ago, having read some short erotic romance stories online: 'In the erotic romances acceptance of, and enthusiastic participation in, the other's fantasies is an indication not just of sexual broadmindedness and physical compatibility, but of emotional connection and trust.' Again, this is a story which contains explicit descriptions of gay sex, but the ending is 'optimistic', so it's closer to romance than the previous short story.

It begins when
Gavin checked the corridor one last time, and, satisfied that it was clear, slipped inside the bedroom. It would never do if Hugh caught him — Hugh had a strong sense of privacy, to the point of preferring to go to Gavin's place rather than his own. But since he'd given Gavin a key, and agreed to meet here tonight . . .
I don't want to spoil the story, but that 'key' isn't just a necessary tool to open a door: it also functions metaphorically as a key to greater emotional intimacy. It raises questions about Hugh's feelings and intentions in giving Gavin the key. Is Gavin looking at things Hugh would rather he didn't see? Or is Hugh hoping that Gavin will explore, so that Hugh doesn't have to put his desires and needs into words?


  1. Interesting topic! But what about lesbian women reading and writing m/m slash? What about lesbian women acting out male (or at least masculine) homosexual fantasies, as in butch on butch or drag king on drag king? Is there any research on that? Straight faghags and fangirls are more easily explained, they're attracted to men after all, and the explanations for slash, yaoi etc I've come across all center on them.

  2. As you can probably tell from how often I've quoted Sarah, this isn't my area of expertise. Also, although I think Jules Jones is a woman, I don't know whether she's straight, bi or lesbian.

    I think I read these texts in a different way from the way Sarah reads them. My feeling after reading these and some other online gay male romance short stories was possibly a tiny bit closer to what you're describing, in the sense that reading so many stories which describe the appeal and beauty of male bodies temporarily made me feel that there was something lacking and unappealing about mine. But that's not what you're talking about either. It does suggest that it can't be assumed that all readers of the same gender and with the same sexual orientation will have the same response to a particular text (though I suspect that Sarah's response is more typical than mine).

    I haven't come across much research at all on gay and lesbian readers of romance, or on gay and lesbian romances. I'm not sure how much there is.

    On the romance wiki bibliography there are a few items about gay and lesbian romance/romance readers but I don't think they deal with the issue you raise:

    Burley, Stephanie, 2003. 'What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance', in Doubled Plots: Romance and History, pp. 127-46.

    Ehnenn, Jill, 1998. 'Desperately Seeking Susan Among the Trash: Reinscription, Subversion and Visibility in the Lesbian Romance Novel', Atlantis, special issue on "Sexualities and Feminisms", 23.1: 120-127.

    Esquibel, Catrióna Rueda, 1992. "A Duel of Wits and the Lesbian Romance Novel: Or, Verbal Intercourse in Fictional Regency England." in New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, ed. Regina Barreca, (Philadelphia, PA: Gordon and Breach) pp. 123-133.

    Hermes, Joke, 1992. ‘Sexuality in Lesbian Romance Fiction’, Feminist Review, 42: 49-66.

    Hermes, Joke, 1992. 'Entertainment or Enlightenment - Sexuality In Lesbian Romance Novels', Argument, 34.3:389-402.

    Juhasz, Suzanne, 1998. 'Lesbian Romance Fiction and the Plotting of Desire: Narrative Theory, Lesbian Identity, and Reading Practice', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 17.1: 65-82.

    There's also an entry on gay and lesbian romance novels in the glbtq, an online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture but it focuses on lesbian authors of romances about lesbian characters and gay male authors of romances about gay male characters, so again that's not much help with the issue you raise.

  3. Thank you for your extensive and helpful reply! "Desperately seeking Susan" I have read. I also think Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam both touch briefly upon the subjekt of gay females' attraction to/fantasies about gay males, although not in a romance context. Perhaps I'd better get to work and do the research myself!
    I think one obstacle might be the tradition of female separatism and sisterhood within lesbian circles. Drag kings and transmen are not always welcome. This is understandable from a feminist viewpoint of course, preferring "female-identified" women to "male-identified", and there is a great deal of misonyny in slash. That said, I do enjoy m/m erotica as well as f/f, while f/m leave me more cold as too often reinforcing gender stereotypes.
    Thanks again for your reply! I'm glad to find some fellow scholar bloggers (not that my own blog is scholarly at all)!

  4. Amazing what you find when you look in your website logs...

    For the record -- I'm female, and that rarity, a genuine Kinsey 0. I came out of slash fandom, though it would be more accurate to say that I was a fan of a particular show and that slash was the easiest way to talk about the sort of things I wanted to talk about in my fanfiction. There were certainly a number of self-identified bisexual and lesbian women among the m/m slash fans in that fandom.

  5. watching him move from the "masculine economy of use" to the "feminine economy of exchange," then watching TWO men have to figure it out for and with each other is more than twice as wonderful as watching one man figure it out for and with a woman

    This is interesting and somewhat convincing, but I confess that it also rather gives me to suspect that the 2-men-on-1-triangle strengthens rather than challenges romances's compulsory heterosexuality. The 2-men figure is, I suspect, a before-and-after, complete in "himsel(ves)," invested with a sort of irresistable balance. He is ALL other, twice the testosterone, a spectacle for female contemplation and consumption and less a subject of male/female struggle. Easier, more palatable, somehow -- while the brave new ethos of romance erotica while flattering its readers on their daring. Or so go my first stated thoughts on the matter (perhaps also betraying my optimistic radical disappointed hopes for the genre).

  6. Stella, please do let us know if you do decide to do research in this area. There's a romance scholar's email list here if you're interested. I had a look at your blog, but it's in Swedish and although I did find something online which can do automated translations they don't make a huge amount of sense.

    Jules, I'm very glad you found us. I hover between thinking it would be very arrogant to assume that anyone would want to know we were linking to them, and feeling that maybe it's rude not to let someone know we're discussing their work. I know that authors tend to be very busy people, so I'd feel rather cheeky asking them to come across and join in a discussion. But now that you're here, could you explain a bit more about how 'slash was the easiest way to talk about the sort of things I wanted to talk about'? What sort of things did you want to talk about? And did the 'self-identified bisexual and lesbian women among the m/m slash fans' ever say what it was that they found particularly interesting/attractive about this sort of fiction?

    I liked the humour in the short bits of fiction you have up about Allard, especially in the Prologue. The first lines:

    It took Allard precisely ten seconds to diagnose why “the screen thingy went all black.”
    “That’s the fifth power-cable out of its socket I’ve seen today,” he snarled gently.

    reminded me of the months I spent in a secretarial college trying to teach people how to use word-processing programmes. One person wanted to know why all her text had suddenly gone bold (she said it in an astonished tone of voice, as though she'd never seen the bold button) another student kept on clicking and dragging without realising it, and then he'd wonder why his text was scrambled. When I told him what the problem was, he'd just say that he had to press on, and then 5 minutes later or so he'd be wanting to know why his text was scrambled. Poor Allard. I found another job too. But it was somewhere which was pretty much the complete opposite of The Syndicate.

    Pam, the issue you raise about erotic romance not being nearly as daring as might have been expected with regards to gender is something that Robin's mentioned. I keep pestering Robin to blog for us, but she's very busy, so she hasn't had time yet. Anyway, what she said (in a comment at the Smart Bitches website) was that

    I’m a reader who looked initially to erotic Romance to break some of the more entrenched Romance stereotypes—i.e. the virgin heroine and her magical hymen to heaven, a pasted on HEA, hero as savior, etc. [...] Unfortunately, my experience of reading erotic Romance has been that’s it’s much more traditional than I would have thought, and when it starts out so subversively, the trek back to traditionalism frustrates me even more.

    That's not exactly what you're talking about, but she is expressing a shared sense of disappointment that much erotic romance isn't pushing some of the more intellectually and emotionally interesting boundaries as well as the ones regarding explicit sexual content.

  7. I wrote slash for a British dystopian sf show, and while some of my fanfic was just out and out porn (we all need a little good porn in our lives), a fair chunk of it was political sf that used sex to talk about other stuff. Oppression, repression, what identity really is, stuff like that. I talked in detail about fanfic in an essay in my LJ, though it's general rather specifically slash.

    Some old articles you might find useful; and when I say old, I mean over a decade -- these were posted to the archive before I got online, so I don't even know who contributed to the first essay, although I'd agree with what's said there. I do know the author of the other two, though I suspect she wouldn't be able to come over and comment in person -- she's too busy with the day job to get online much nowadays.

    Comments on why women write slash

    Two articles comparing common slash tropes to common tropes in romance and in fairy tales:
    Romancing the Slash
    PGP Fairy Tales

    Some of this shows up even in the pro romance -- I'm not kidding when I say that a lot of my work is more political sf with a romance plot than romance with an sf setting, though as I'm published by a romance house I have to at least make a sporting effort at the conventions of both genres. Fortunately my publisher is content with a happy-for-now rather than a traditional HEA, although I'm quite capable of providing white weddings when they're appropriate to the story.

    Example: Spindrift is a modern setting silkie story, that assumes that silkies are real, but that as the magic goes away (and yes, that's a deliberate sf reference), only a few seals are silkies. When one loses his skin to a thief and can't change back to seal form, he has to deal with a world that now has cradle-to-grave paperwork, of which he has none -- and it's not a coincidence that I wrote this when the UK sf community was chewing over the implications of the proposed British ID card system.

    And then there's this:

    Why do the bi and lesbian women read m/m -- pretty much the same reasons as everyone else, if perhaps a different balance. Anyone who's not Kinsey 6 -- "If one hot guy is good, two are better". The whole Exotic Other thing. Taking gender roles out of it (although there seems to be plenty of slash that promptly assigns one guy to the male role and the other to the female...). Slash is fanfic, and all too often there are no decent female roles in the source material , so we write about the characters who get to do the interesting stuff. And all the stuff in that first link I gave. I have posted a note on my LJ suggesting that those better qualified than I come over and talk about it.

    Ah yes, Allard. Allard is enormously popular with readers, in spite of being a total brat. :-) Possibly because so many of us would like to behave that badly when faced with idiots and get away with it. As you have probably gathered, the characters are fictional, but rather a lot of the frustrations in Allard's life are drawn from real life experience, both ours and our friends. I know I'm having a bad day when I can hear him muttering in the back of my mind...

  8. Something strange happened in the link to my LJ -- see if this works:

  9. Okay, I don't know the sexual dynamics, but I do know I like gay romance/slash/Yaoi. I haven't read a het romance in three years. Like Jules' I found it through a fandom (Agent Smith - Matrix)

    (Pulls open shirt, looks down... yeah, they're still there)

    I know that one of the reasons I like it was given by Laura. No matter where I go, if I read het romance, there's a bright pretty HEA, and nobody has too much emotion and everybody's going to get married at the end. *Gag* I can read Sci-Fi and Horror these days and find plenty of eroticism... but I don't find love stories.

    Gay Romance and slash, doesn't require Happily Ever After and maybe not even Happily For Now. They are love stories. But it's not hard lit either. I'm not sitting down to read Dickens, I just want to be entertained. Entertaining me means, take me somewhere I haven't been before.

    I write stuff that my readers tell me makes them cry at the end... and they want that. I am so much freer with what I can write in the context of gay romance. I can write a tragic love story that has horror elements so strong people say they couldn't sleep at night. Het romance won't accept that.

    BTW... want hot, boundry breaking erotic romance... go read Jules' Dolphins. Gahhhhhhh.

    And really, Lesbians liking gay romance is not a suprise. While they may not be characters of thier persuasion, they are people of thier experiance. Two people who find love despite the restictions of society who does not believe they should be together at all.


  10. Thanks very much for the extra links and explanations Jules and James.

    I had a look at the comments resulting from your recent post in your journal about TMT, Jules, and I'm sorry some of you have been having problems with the word verification. I have too, sometimes. I wonder if maybe it's to do with the word verification timing out if you spend a while tying your comment? But I don't pretend to understand the complexities of Blogger.

    There was one comment in particular, written by Emily, which I'd like to reply to across here, since it makes me think perhaps I wasn't clear in my original post:

    I think that it is an error to think there is a single motivation behind female-authored M/M. There are multiple academic explanations offered by the likes of Constance Penley & Mark McLelland, each applied well to the specific context they know (early zine slash and yaoi, respectively). Other academics have offered evolutionary or feminist explanations.

    As I've said, I think there are lots of different reasons why people read romance, and there will also be differences in how and why people read each of the sub-genres. As this isn't a sub-genre I'm familiar with I quoted a lot from Sarah, who does read erotic romance, and in particular m/m.

    I think it's good to discuss a range of sub-genres here (i.e. on Teach Me Tonight), to acknowledge the diversity within romance and among its readers/authors. It also sparks interesting discussions, comments from people who are knowledgeable about the topic under discussion and highlights differences and similarities between the sub-genres.

    I do try to acknowledge my ignorance when I'm discussing sub-genres about which I know little, and I try to respond to the texts and, as in this case, use the theorising of people who know more than I do. But that's open to comment/challenge too.

    One thing that was highlighted for me by reading one of the free extracts about Allard was that in Local Manners (again, for anyone who's offended by descriptions of explicit gay sex but is still reading this, please be warned that the contents of this extract will offend you!) is that reading erotic romance makes me feel as though if any of the characters are a 'place-holder' for me, it would have to be Harry, the voyeur. And the other characters see him as a pest. I discussed voyeurism and the romance genre a while ago, but reading this reminded me. It's why although I'm not morally offended by erotic romance, I wouldn't tend to seek it out except for the purposes of expanding my knowledge of the romance genre. I hope that doesn't sound horrible - it's about me and my own personal boundaries/quirks, not about the writing. When it comes to m/m erotic romance in particular, the effect was, as I said above, to make me feel that my female body was lacking/ugly and that only male bodies were beautiful/desirable. Again, that's a personal reaction, not any reflection on the writing. But I didn't feel that way about Forster's Maurice, so I think it's to do with the level of explicitness, not with the gender of the protagonists.

    And James, I avoid tragic love stories which make me weep. I don't want to weep. I don't demand a wedding, but I do like the idea of true-love-for-the-rest-of-their-lives-which-I-hope-will-be-long. I'd classify tragic love stories as 'romantic fiction' rather than as part of the romance genre. But again, it's about differences in preferences and in no way at all a reflection on the quality of the writing.

  11. Well, as I said, my blog is not scholarly anyway, it's just a personal blog about my writing (Which is not m/m - yet, anyway. I have plans...)

    I'd like to read (or write, if there are none) an extensive analysis of "female male homosexuality" - as in Halberstam's "female masculinity". That's really my main area of interest, rather than slash/yaoi/m/m erotica/romance However, I'd also like to see some kind of analysis of gay women's attraction to gay men that goes a little beyond "gay identification". Of course there are a number of possible explanations - exoticised Others, yes, general misogyny, general queerness rendering a label like "lesbian" obsolete... But the actual research seems to be missing still, unless I've just not looked very well of course.

    Speaking of which... straight men's fascination for lesbians is a commonplace, but how about gay males' attraction to gay females? Do gay men write f/f erotica/romance? And if not, why not (apart from the obvious duh which doesn't apply the other way around)? So many questions, so little time... ;)

  12. There are a million reasons why I'm an m/m girl (Jules has heard at least a few of 'em). In fact, I discover new reasons often -- every time I sit around overanalyzing myself, which happens a lot. Everything from deep stuff like the "feminine economy of exchange/masculine economy of use" thing, to avoidance of too-common het fiction gender roles, to absolute devotion to the "two hot boys are better than one" theory of life.

    This caught my attention: "When it comes to m/m erotic romance in particular, the effect was, as I said above, to make me feel that my female body was lacking/ugly and that only male bodies were beautiful/desirable." It's such an interesting illustration of the differences between reactions from different folks. In my case, one of the many, many, many perks of reading m/m is that I don't have to deal with the basic heroine standards: 1) skinny, beautiful, and knows it but is charming about it; 2) skinny, beautiful, but doesn't know it and is baffled whenever anyone is attracted to her; 3) apparent plain Jane who turns into a beauty when the hero comes along to introduce her to her own femininity; 4) non-skinny and occasionally even genuinely full-figured or plus-size (yes, yes, by this point of the post, everyone's figured out I'm not willowy), naturally beautiful but unaware, needs the hero to point it out and alter her entire self-perception. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, sometimes these can work. But they're common enough to have worn me down after having read them since kindergarten. Suffice it to say that I come out on the losing end of any beauty contest between me and a heroine. Every time I read a heroine, I read about someone who makes me look like the ugly stepsister. (Obviously we each, uh, have our own issues. *G*) But when reading m/m, there's two boys -- two versions of the gender I'm attracted to and like to look at -- and no overtly/innately/surprisingly beautiful/sexy woman to wander into things and make me start drawing negative comparisons. I get to read and enjoy the story and the boys and not have to have my own appearance shortcomings thrown in my face.

    Which all boils down to me feeling a significant contrast to the "When it comes to m/m erotic romance in particular, the effect was, as I said above, to make me feel that my female body was lacking/ugly and that only male bodies were beautiful/desirable" statement. When I read m/m, the effect is, if anything, somewhat the opposite -- that of letting me set aside awareness of my (at least personally perceived) lack of beauty and simply enjoy the literally incomperable beauty (even I'm not neurotic enough to compare myself to them) of the boys I'm reading about.

  13. Suffice it to say that I come out on the losing end of any beauty contest between me and a heroine.

    Ah, well, maybe that just shows how vain I am ;-) and, yes, it's also, as you say, 'an interesting illustration of the differences between reactions from different folks'.

    I've always thought of myself as being a bit like the 'blue-stocking' kind of heroine. She's a bookworm and the kind of woman who wears glasses and ties her seemingly mousy brown hair back in a bun, so is thought of as plain, but nonetheless has a stunning figure (which is disguised under her unflattering clothes) and amazing flowing locks of hair when she lets her hair down, and huge eyes (when she removes the glasses). I am a bookworm, I do wear glasses and have curly hair, so it's not a complete delusion. I suppose it's possible that my identification with that particular romance heroine type helped me to not feel inferior or inadequate when I come across the other sorts. I also have a feeling that the romances I prefer usually don't feature the most conventionally beautiful of heroines. Heyer, for example, has heroines with a range of body-types, and sometimes the most beautiful person in her novels is not the heroine e.g Tiffany Wield is beautiful but spoiled, in The Nonesuch, and in Frederica it's the heroine's sister who is the stunning, but silly, beauty of the family. Austen has Elizabeth Bennet, who has 'fine eyes' but isn't as beautiful as Jane, and neither is Anne Elliot as conventionally attractive as her sister. Jane Eyre's not a stunner visually either.

    So the message I got from the m/f romances I read, in general, was that it doesn't matter if a woman is considered ugly/plain/only 'tolerable' by everyone else, because the hero (i.e. the man who's right for her) will come to think her beautiful because he loves her. Darcy's opinion of Elizabeth's looks changes over time, with his assessment of them improving as he falls more deeply in love with her. Similarly, towards the end of Persuasion, Captain Wentworth tells Anne that 'to my eye you could never alter'. Earlier on Mary Musgrove had reported that 'he said, "You were so altered he should not have known you again."' (Chapter 7), so now

    Anne smiled, and let it pass. It was too pleasing a blunder for a reproach. It is something for a woman to be assured, in her eight-and-twentieth year, that she has not lost one charm of earlier youth: but the value of such homage was inexpressibly increased to Anne, by comparing it with former words, and feeling it to be the result, not the cause, of a revival of his warm attachment. (Chapter 23).

    I do remember feeling angry about the way fairy-tale princesses were so often blonde (I'm not), so it's not as though I haven't come across some portrayals of female beauty which made me feel inadequate. But I seem to have found romances which didn't do that to me. Maybe I've just been lucky in the ones I've had access to?

  14. A somewhat late follow-up... A couple of months later, I did a long-threatened summary of a long usenet conversation about why women like slash. My essay and the comments thread are in my LiveJournal:

  15. Thanks for coming back to add the link, Jules. I liked reading about the many different suggested reasons for the popularity of slash. Just as with any other sort of romance, there seem to be almost as many different reasons/preferences as there are readers.

  16. I must confess, I meant to post a link at the time, and forgot. I've also just noticed that I never answered crossthebar's question in the comment thread about the comment on whether it's possible to tell a writer's gender. But that's probably a post in itself. Maybe next week...