Monday, October 03, 2011

Is Popular Romance Homophobic?

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-"
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)
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?

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.
(Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure, p. 109).
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)?

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)?
These are certainly questions I will be considering in my future romance reading.


  • 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)


  1. I was critiquing something for my writing buddy. He had a guy making a joke about something he was holding being a phallic symbol. I commented that seemed odd to me, because none of the straight guys I know would feel comfortable making a joke like that. That made him (the writer) laugh and he said he felt embarrassed for his character, and took it out.

    Now, with it removed, it's a more accurate characterization. But should he have left it in just to promote anti-homophobia? Do writers have a moral responsibility to promote their own belief systems? I don't think so. I'm a vegetarian, but I'm sure as hell not making my characters vegetarian unless that really fits their character, which hasn't happened so far.

  2. In recent years, certainly since 2009 and the new covers has come a rethink of the Modern/Presents line, which is the one you're discussing.
    While I'm not saying that you won't find it, certainly there has been a big shift in authors and in approach to these stories. If you don't read them consistently, you might not notice, but certainly there has been a change in the approach to disabled heroes/heroines and mixed race romances. The emphasis of the stories isn't necessarily with the "issue," for instance, a recent Maisey Yates novel featuring a caucasian heroine and African hero wasn't about that issue, but something else. I welcome it, and I'd be interested to know if you found any examples in more recent books.

  3. There's an article in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction that deals with precisely this issue. In "Straight to the Edges: Gay & Lesbian Characters and Cultural Conflict in Popular Romance Fiction," Kathleen Therrien argues that het romance uses homosexuality either as a way to offset other rebellion in the novel (the heroine rebels and/or has scandalously great sex, but at least she's not like THOSE people), or it's used to show how inclusive love is (ALL love deserves to be recognized and is good). I'm not doing it nearly enough justice, but it's a fabulous article that covers this issue. You'll just have to wait three more months to read it. :)

  4. I've come across gay characters in some Regency romances. Obviously, the setting means that they can't be out and proud, and there are often blackmail plots built round them (which is certainly authentic historically) but in the books I've read they seem to be sympathetic characters and not made effeminate or 'other'.

    The ones I can think of off the top of my head are in some of Mary Balogh's books. In 'Indiscreet', we learn that the widowed heroine's former husband married her for convenience, and had a male lover. Alhough his rejection of her caused her to have a complex about her own sexuality, he's still treated in a nuanced way and not demonised. Similarly, the heroine's much-loved former husband in 'Seducing an Angel' 'was not that way inclined' and they had a companionable marriage. One of the Bedwyn novels features a woman who goes to extreme lengths to avoid marriage so won't be parted from her 'friend'. There's also a Julia Quinn book where the heroine is supposed to marry someone who is secretly gay and he stands aside. I can't remember which book that is, though, sorry!

    So although there's no evidence of the homoerotic, there are examples of homosexuality (and of homosexual men and women forming lasting attachments) and being treated as sympathetic characters.


  5. didn't homosexuality used to be one of the go-to tropes for how to spot the villain in romance? i'd thought we were past that, for the most part, until i read stephanie laurens' "the ______ bride" series (black cobra quartet, i believe), where (spoiler alert) the bad guys are in a homosexual AND incestuous relationship with each other (and laurens may have tossed polyamory in there too, for good's been a while, and i rolled my eyes a lot during my reading of it, so apologies if my memory is a bit off).

    other than that, off the top of my head, a few years back, victoria alexander released a book where the i-believe-red-headed heroine with magically induced amnesia (no, really) encountered a ~*~FABULOUS~*~ (if you know what i mean) male wardrobe designer (or some such occupation) because along with her memory, she lost her luggage. and then there's sabrina jeffries' "in the prince's bed", where the heroine's childhood friend keeps procrastinating on popping the question until he Runs Away with one of his poetry buddies, leaving the heroine (and by "coincidence" her money) ripe for the hero's plucking. the only female homosexuality i've encountered in heterosexual romance was the bedwyn novel sally mentioned above. which could count as "gay = evil," except balogh relies on vast amounts of characterization and pathos rather than tropes and stereotypes (or she hides the tropes and stereotypes under vast amounts of characterization and pathos,anyway), so instead of "the villainous villainess who is also teh gay and that's how you KNOW she's evil," you've got a desperate woman who did the best she could to get out of what she felt was an untenable situation. which it was, so while manipulation is icky, so is being stuck married to someone of the wrong gender.

    but while i've encountered a few stereotypes here and there, i haven't noticed any outright homophobia in the assertions of manly-masculine-man-ness of the male protagonists. not even with all the booze, horse-racing, womanizing, and hunting trips.

    personally, i think there's plenty of room for homoeroticism in romance. i mean, sexuality is a spectrum (add romantic inclinations and you've got a double rainbow!), after all. (although i do have a hard time picturing an asexual romance novel, unless it were set the victorian era when you weren't SUPPOSED to enjoy or want sex ANYWAY.) romance is defined by RWA as having a central love story with an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending, and that doesn't mean a hero/heroine can't do some field research while figuring out where they stand on the spectrum. having said that, most of the romance i've read (and i shop largely from the "popular reading" wall at the grocery store unless i know a favorite author has a new book out) has been man/woman. so is there room for the homoerotic in romance? yes. but i think whether that room will be made use of depends on the characters' stories authors want to tell, and whether publishers will allow those stories to see the light of day.

  6. Sarah - thanks for mentioning the 'New Approaches' article - I must admit, I was surprised that there isn't more critical work around on this, aside from brief mentions I've come across in other critical work about the heteronormativity of popular romances.

    In response to Lynne, Amber and nekobawt's comments, I wonder if there is a case for suggesting that popular romance should reflect contemporary society (as Lynne, you say that Modern Romance/Presents titles are increasingly doing) and having the main characters be lesbian, gay or bisexual. After all, popular romance is ultimately about a love story between two people, be they gay, bisexual or straight.

    I have often puzzled as to the predominance of heterosexuality in most popular (especially category) romances, particularly as other popular genres are working to become more inclusive and representative. Do you think there will always be separate categories of heterosexual and homosexual romance? And has anyone ever come across a bisexual romance?

  7. And has anyone ever come across a bisexual romance?

    There was some discussion just recently about the sexual orientation of the hero of Megan Chance's The Portrait. Maili felt he was bisexual. I'm fairly sure Allard, in Jules Jones and Alex Woolgrave's The Syndicate is bisexual.


    While I'm not saying that you won't find it, certainly there has been a big shift in authors and in approach to these stories.

    that's my impression too. At least, I wrote a post in 2008 in which I mentioned that it seemed to me that

    Ebooks seem to be the place where the dominance of heterosexuality seems most likely to be challenged at the moment, but I also wonder if there's been a trend towards including more secondary couples who are not heterosexual (and not merely the "gay best friend") in paper-published romances. The most well-known recent romance of this kind is probably Suzanne Brockmann's Force of Nature [...], but I know there are others, including Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me (2004), Louise Allen's The Dangerous Mr Ryder (2008), Anita Bunkley's Suite Temptation (2008), Ellen Hartman's His Secret Past (2008) and, of course, Sarah Mayberry's Cruise Control (2006) with which I started this post.

    None of these are HM&B Presents/Moderns but the Mayberry is an HM&B Blaze, the Hartman is a HM&B SuperRomance, the Allen is an HM&B historical and the Bunkley is a Kimani.

  8. Laura, thanks for those mentions, especially the bisexual ones. I know there have been more secondary non-heterosexual couples in mainstream romance, but I was wondering when we might start to see non-heterosexual primary couples?

    Obviously you can find these couples in less mainstream non-hetero fiction, such as those published by Bold Stroke Books ( but I'm not sure that I perceive a move towards primary non-heterosexual characters in mainstream Harlequin Mills & Boon romances.

    However, I am very happy to be proven wrong!

  9. I'm not sure that I perceive a move towards primary non-heterosexual characters in mainstream Harlequin Mills & Boon romances.

    Harlequin could be making moves in that direction via Carina. They currently have 2 novels tagged "female/female" and "romance" and considerably more tagged "male/male" and "romance." I couldn't see a "bisexual" tag.

  10. At the last IASPR meeting, Ann Herendeen gave a paper, "The Upper-Class Bisexual Man as Romantic Hero: The ‘Top’ in the Social Structure and in the Bedroom." Her two novels, Pride/Prejudice and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander come to mind.

  11. i think it will be a while before gay romance is seen as anything but a SUB-genre, and straight (white) romance as the default. not impossible, but there's the whole "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" profit model the publishing industry has to contend with.

    i just remembered a contemporary romance with a lesbian who finds her OTP (the middle-aged-ish friend in susan donovan's recent trilogy about a dog-walking circle who swears off men in favor the single life). she isn't the main character/focus of any of the books she was in, but her romance did get to be a side story in the last book. i wonder if donovan had intended for her to have her own book, or if she'd always planned to have her be the friend everyone had figured was gay and just happened to hook up with her Twue Wuv in the background while everyone else (and their respective stories) got Full Service (if you know what i mean). it didn't feel like an "oh, and also this happened," anyway.

  12. An interesting thing about that quote in that particular context is that 'the East' in prototypical Orientalist fantasies is often understood as a location of queer sexuality (so, the women in Turkish Bath paintings or the homoeroticism in Lawrence of Arabia, for example).

  13. Jessica - that's a really interesting point, and one of the reasons why I think the context of the hypermasculinisation of the sheikh is so important. It also might indicate how much those Orientalist readings of the east as 'queer' persist in modern sheikh romances.

  14. Late to the discussion as always, but thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    I admit, I read that extract quite differently than you did. I haven't read the book, so I don't have the same context you do, so it may be that I'm missing some cues. But I don't see how saying he is uncomfortable with the idea that his subordinates adore him makes him homophobic. It's not presented as a generalized attitude, but rather as a very specific attraction that would be problematic for a number of reasons.

    In addition, Porter might be using "adore" as a synonym for worship, which would be appropriate if the "men" described here are the Sheikh's subjects, soldiers, etc. If he's one of those Westernized Sheikhs we run across so often in M&B, then presumably he wants his men to respect him, not slavishly obey him (which is what he basically says in the next sentence).

    As for LGBT in mainstream genre romance, the only way I can see it emerging any time soon is as a new category line or through single titles in mainstream publishers (which is what Carina is doing). Het romance readers don't like m/m in their m/f, and m/m readers don't like m/f in their m/m, for the most part. Genre is at least partly about predictability, and changing up the genders of the partners doesn't fall within that category.

  15. Thanks for your comment Sunita - your take on the extract from Porter is really interesting! Although I personally still read Tair's words as homophobic (whether generalised or specifically) your reading touches on the cultural context of the sheikh romance which, I've been discovering in my research, presents all kinds of interesting and conflicting masculine identities, and these are certainly playing out in this passage.

  16. My take on it is undoubtedly influenced by my experiences with the different ways that masculinity and homosexuality are conceptualized and socially manifested in Middle Eastern and especially South Asian societies. But given that Porter is a British author writing Western sheikh-fantasy romances pitched at a Western reader, your reading makes a lot of sense.

    I was trying to think of another way to convey what the passage seems to be about, and I couldn't come up with one. Presumably the heroine is trying to reassure the hero that he is more emotionally open than he thinks. Porter could have had him say that affection/adoration was irrelevant, I suppose, but the way she put it was more emotionally rich.

    I feel bad for authors sometimes. If she had made him more accepting, then readers like me would have called her out for romanticising/idealising the homophobia prevalent in the region. But if she makes him authentically uncomfortable, never mind outright homophobic, she is open to criticism there as well.

    Fascinating discussion, though. Thanks for raising the topic!

  17. Porter might be using "adore" as a synonym for worship, which would be appropriate if the "men" described here are the Sheikh's subjects, soldiers, etc. If he's one of those Westernized Sheikhs we run across so often in M&B, then presumably he wants his men to respect him, not slavishly obey him (which is what he basically says in the next sentence).

    The theological connotations of "adore" did cross my mind too.

    As for respect, what he says is that

    You're confusing affection and respect. My men don't care about me. They fear me. Two significantly different things.

    That made me think of Machiavelli's The Prince and the question about

    whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you successed [sic] they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by nobility or greatness of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserved you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

    Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.
    (Fordham Medieval Sourcebook)

  18. Laura, that occurred to me as well. I was thinking of the opposition of love and respect, and the more modern idea that enlightened leaders/sovereigns claim to want their subjects to accept them rationally (because they are legitimate) rather than emotionally (because they are divine, or otherwise seemingly superhuman/perfect or attractive).

  19. One final thing that occurred to me was that the passage obviously brings up issues I associate with the Middle Ages/Renaissance. There's Machiavelli, of course, but also defining whether it's correct to adore someone, makes me think of someone like Aquinas, who would argue that

    in Christ there is but one Person of the Divine and human natures, and one hypostasis, and one suppositum, He is given one adoration and one honor on the part of the Person adored: but on the part of the cause for which He is honored, we can say that there are several adorations, for instance that He receives one honor on account of His uncreated knowledge, and another on account of His created knowledge. (Summa Theologica)

    On the one hand this seems totally irrelevant to the background of someone who (one assumes) is a Muslim. On the other hand, Amy has found that sheikhs are often described as having "medieval" attitudes and I wonder, when authors use that word, whether they're thinking about the Middle Ages in Christendom or elsewhere.

  20. As the author of The Sheikh's Disobedient Bride, I find Amy's interpretation of the passage, and the highlighted quote, troubling.

    I'm a former teacher, a mother of three sons, and I'm surrounded by men, love men, but believe that men can't be lumped together anymore than women can. And what might make one man uncomfortable, due to his family or upbringing, wouldn't bother another man. And just because a man isn't necessarily comfortable expressing emotion, or affection with or towards men, doesn't make him homophobic. Many men are raised to be emotionally contained...reserved...and have been taught that expressing emotion, or affection, is a weakness. I'm not sure how this becomes homophobic?

    From my point of view, Sunita's take on Tair is correct. I wrote Tair is a man of power. He is general--his men are his soldiers--and this is a leadership issue, not a gender and sexuality one. However, I do appreciate Amy taking time to read and discuss romances, as well as explore Mills & Boon books in terms of cultural relevancy. And a quick note, while I do write for HM&B I'm an American author and make my home in Seattle!


    Jane Porter

  21. Hi Jane, thanks for taking time to comment on this post: it's great to get an author's perspective.

    It also makes clear, as others have already commented, that the cultural context of this hero (he is a sheikh, a 'general' who commands soldiers, a 'man of power') is really important in interpreting what's going on here. I'm fascinated by the multiplicity of readings which have emerged from one brief passage - a credit to the complexity and sophistication of popular romance writing and research.

    I appreciate your clarification of your intention with Tair's character, and it makes me wonder if mine and others' reading of this passage as homophobic is related more widely to the expectation of homophobia within romance. This novel aside, if we expect heterosexual popular romance (and heteronormative culture more widely) to either be homophobic or even deny homosexuality (by omitting it completely) might this make some of us more sensitive to potentially homophobic under/overtones in romance?

    As many of the comments above have made clear, there is a growing market for lesbian, gay and bisexual romance, but not within mainstream series from the big publishing houses (especially Harlequin Mills & Boon). For me, this is the most interesting (and depressing!) insight to come out of this discussion.

  22. On the topic of Jane Porter's books, there's an interesting passage in her The Greek's Royal Mistress. The heroine, a princess, recalls

    her waiter just that morning in the hotel's restaurant. She'd had her own table - her personal secretaries and valets seated at one nearby - and her waiter defied description. Literally.

    "There was a waiter at the hotel's restaurant," she said slowly, picturing the tall waiter, who had to be at least six-foot-one or -two, and had long hair, a soft voice, sloping shoulders, soft waist, full hips, and yet, he was a man. At least, he'd been born a man. "The waiter didn't fit his body. I don't know if he'd been taking something to become more feminine, or maybe he was simply willing it, but ..."

    "But what?"

    "I admired him. [...] I admired him for refusing to spend his life as someone, or something, he didn't want to be ... for being unable or unwilling to spend the rest of his life in a body that didn't fit, or playing a role that didn't suit."

    "Seems the waiter took drastic measures."

    "I think he was brave," she whispered [...]
    In the restaurant this morning she'd been first puzzled, then confused, and finally sympathetic. And her deep sympathy made her feel an ounce of the pain he must have felt to have changed his world so.

    She knew what it was like to start out as one thing and to battle it constantly. To struggle through the days, to deny the natural impulses again and again, to order oneself to do it because ... because.

    "Coffee?" the waiter had asked her this morning, with a voice that was pitched soft like a woman's and yet still distinctly male.

    The waiter's voice had buried deep in her heart where she tried not to let emotion go. She'd felt such empathy for him that she tried to smile, and yet her eyes filled with tears. This poor man must have endured years of pain.

    "Please," she'd said, forcing herself to speak, and looking up, she'd met the waiter's eyes and smiled, really smiled, even as she thought that no one got through life without tremendous pain.
    (Kindle edition)

    I read the book years ago but that passage stuck with me because it's the only scene I can recall in an HM&B which includes a trans person.

    Now, it could well be argued that Chantal would benefit from reading up on "Trans Etiquette for Non-Trans People" but I think her mistakes are understandable given that she doesn't seem to know much, if anything, about trans people (if she had, presumably she wouldn't have thought the waiter "defied description. Literally").

    I suppose it could also be argued that there's something problematic in setting up minority groups as role models of patience, suffering, bravery etc. However, I didn't think that was what was happening here; my feeling was that this was a passage about two individuals, not about a representative of all cis people meeting a representative of all trans people.

    Other people's reading of the passage may differ, of course, but I was impressed that Jane Porter chose to write it and, given her intervention on the thread, it occurred to me that it might be relevant if one wanted to look at the treatment of LGBT issues in her work as a whole.