|"I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too"|
There's been quite a bit of theorising and discussion about readers' personalities and preferences which I wanted to see if I could piece together. Since I'm going to touch on controversial topics and describe reader responses which are not my own, comments which offer clarification and corrections will be particularly gratefully received.
Which of these two columns best describes your personality?
If you're a woman who feels as though you ought to say column two, but would really like to let loose the column one characteristics you've repressed, perhaps you’re the kind of reader whom Laura Kinsale and Linda Barlow describe in their essays in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.
In “The Androgynous Reader,” Laura Kinsale asks
What does it mean to a woman to feel – to want keenly to feel – what the male character feels as she reads?
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...], can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (37)Kinsale believes that what many readers “savor [...] is the freedom to expand into all the aspects, feminine and masculine, of their own being” (40). In “The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View,” Linda Barlow, who is
not ashamed to admit that I’ve always been one of those die-hard fans of the old-fashioned, hard-edged romances which feature a feisty heroine who falls into love and conflict with a dangerous hero with sardonic eyebrows and a cruel but sensual mouth. (45)argues that this type of romance hero is actually “a significant aspect of feminine consciousness itself” (46) and she adds that he provides female readers with
the means of facing and accepting the angry, aggressive, sexually charged components of our personality that we have been taught to associate with masculinity. From childhood, males have more outlets for their aggressions – sports, horseplay, roughhousing, the rite of passage schoolyard fight and resultant black eye that parents (especially fathers) seem willing to tolerate. They also have more outlets for their sexuality, the expression of which is not only tolerated but encouraged. Females, on the other hand, are instructed from childhood to control, repress, or even split off their aggressive and erotic drives. (49-50)In other words, he embodies the traits in column one. If Kinsale and Barlow are right, then while romances which pair ultra-feminine (albeit feisty) heroines with ultra-masculine heroes ostensibly endorse gender stereotypes, they simultaneously allow readers to experience a fuller range of emotions and behaviours than they are permitted by gender stereotypes.
Recently there have been discussions about how "the m/m genre is in a very large part, hostile to (fictional) women" (Voinov) and there has also been controversy (beginning here and continued here and here) about readers of m/m romance who really only want to read cis-m/cis-m romance. ["Cis" is a term used to "refer to someone who is comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth. Same for cissexual. If you’re comfortable with the sex assigned to you at birth, you’re probably cissexual" (Bran).]
Neither Kinsale nor Barlow discuss m/m romance but I can't help but think about their theories on androgynous readers and wonder if trans* protagonists are being rejected for similar reasons to those which cause some readers and writers to turn to m/m fiction. Could it be that the presence of a heroine would serve as a constant reminder to an "androgynous reader" that women are still expected (to a greater or lesser degree) to express the characteristics in column two? And is it perhaps possible that a trans* protagonist in a m/m romance would also make explicit issues of gender which the "androgynous reader" would rather not deal with when attempting to "realize the maleness in herself"?
Joanna Russ once observed that female authors writing m/m slash are
in disguise. They’re disguised as a man. I once noticed that in slash there are so many references to these characters’ penises that it’s like a little label that says “Hello, I am” and the name. [...] I think it’s something like this. As I said, the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” (Francis and Piepmeier)Could it perhaps be that some "androgynous" authors and readers feel that the anatomy of trans* protagonists would not serve so well as a disguise for female authors and readers? In addition could the "abhorrence of what's called 'girly bits' or 'girl parts', or 'vay jay'" (Voinov) in m/m romance and a marked preference for cis-male protagonists, stem from the cultural associations of different types of genitalia? Braun and Wilkinson "posit that experiences of the biological body are constructed by social/cultural/historical context and that interpretations of bodies need to be considered within context" (18). Part of that context is that
The vagina is often represented as part of the female body that is shameful, unclean, disgusting. [...] Women 'are brought up in a society which tells us that our bodies smell' (Smith, 1987, p. 21). Genital slang often invokes smell (e.g. stench trench) (Braun & Kitzinger, 1999a; Mills, 1991); to be called a 'smelly cunt' is a horrible insult (Smith, 1987). Laws (1987, p. 13) noted that 'many women hate their discharges, and find them very smelly and unpleasant . . . These attitudes come from our culture’s making out that women’s bodies are dirty, mysterious, oozing strange fluids - different from men’s, therefore wrong.’ (21-22)In contrast, as Kyra Kramer and I have noted,
while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,
The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)
Perhaps to some readers and authors no less than two penises capable of provding the reader with a "money shot" can symbolically ward off "shameful, unclean, disgusting" femininity and allow access the access to the personaity traits in columnn one?
- Barlow, Linda. "The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 45-52.
- Bran. "The Language of the Rainbow: Introduction." Embrace the Rainbow. 8 March 2012.
- Braun, V. and S. Wilkinson. "Socio-cultural Representations of the Vagina." Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 19.1 (2001): 17-32.
- Broverman, Inge K, Susan Raymond Vogel, Donald M. Broverman, Frank E. Clarkson, and Paul S. Rosenkrantz. "Sex-Role Stereotypes: A Current Appraisal." Journal of Social Issues 28.2 (1972): 59-78.
- Francis, Conseula and Alison Piepmeier. "Interview: Joanna Russ." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.2 (2011).
- Kinsale, Laura. "The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 31-44.
- Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).
- Voinov, Aleksandr. "The purity of fear, prejudice, and intolerance (the m/m rainbow has only one colour: gay)." 21 March 2012.
The image is of "The Gripsholm Portrait, though[t] to be Elizabeth I of England" (via Wikimedia Commons). The caption is taken from a speech she gave in 1588 as the Armada approached England's shores.