Saturday, November 17, 2012

Body Image, the Gaze, Privileging of the Penis, Porn and the Naming of Things in M/M romance

So for all of you rushing over to read this and expecting a well thought out, academic article on these issues, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.

I've been trying to write several articles on some of these issues and keep failing. Mostly because of my lack of time but also because I think my thoughts on these issues need to be worked through before I can write anything coherent.

First off I am not seeing any of these issues talked about publicly within the M/M Romance writing community. I could be wrong and people could be discussing them in places where I don't go, if so tell me. I would love to see these issues talked about. I think that would make us stronger, better writers to get some stuff out there and on the table. It's easy to say "we write romance. It is light, it's silly, we don't take it too seriously and neither should you." Every image that is put out there though, whether in a book, a tv show, a movie, or a picture has power. I personally as a writer want to be aware of and take responsibility for some of that power. Or in other words I want to use my powers for good not for evil.

So here are, very briefly, some of my thoughts and some questions I've been mulling over:

Body Image: 
How do we as romance writings represent the male body? I've noticed in M/M romance men tend to come in two types: large and muscular (read often dominant) type. Then there are the guys who are small and slight (and too often submissive when paired with type A). Often both of these types of guys are ripped, young and hung like horses. There isn't a whole lot of older guys, chubby guys, guys with small or tiny dicks, etc.

I know this is romance and I am not necessarily criticizing as much as wondering what thought process goes on in making these desitions? How thoughtful are we? And what does it in turn say about (gay)masculinity when we construct it on to these particular bodies?

The Gaze:
this is one that gets talked about a lot when it comes to women's bodies but I think it's important to talk about it in terms of men's bodies as well. We create images of men -- usually gay men -- which are meant to be consumed, "looked at" through the medium of the word, and to provoke an emotional reaction in the "viewer." Although what we do is written it often also has a visual component. Most m/m romance book covers feature models and lots of authors most pictures of the models that inspire them.

So what are the politics of creating images for consumption and sexual enjoyment? What is the politics of representing a minority group for this purpose?

Again I'm not trying to point fingers or anything, I just want to hear it discussed.

Privileging the Penis:
Let's face it in M/M romances there are a lot of cock and a lot of penetrative sex. Neither of which is a bad thing.

But: penetrative sex is privileged in American society and I would say Western society in general. It is held up as the best kind of sex, the only real sex one can have. Linked to that is the idea that the only right thing to be doing the penetrating is a penis, and the ability to penetrate with a penis is highly privileged. Actually you could arguing at its crudest this is how modern masculinity is constructed in Western society: real men use their penises for penetration. To penetrate is wrapped up with masculinity and strength in our society, to be penetrated with femininity and weakness. Attaching "real" masculinity to the penis is problematic because it denies masculinity to people who don't have a penis. To attach masculinity to the act of penetrating is problematic because it denies it to those who either can't or don't enjoy penetrating others. It also gives credence to the construct of masculinity as stronger and better then femininity and men as stronger and better then women. Finally to privilege penetrative sex stigmatizes and depowers everyone who has sex any other way.  

This being said I feel very uncomfortable continuing to make images which privilege the penis and penetrative sex, and sometimes even followed the above power equation. I should be clear here, this is penetrative sex and penises in my writing and I'm not saying writers should stop writing either one. It's just I try to be extremely careful and mindful of how I'm portraying things like this. I am interested to know what others' thoughts on these issues are.

Porn and the Naming of Things: 
This is a subject which involves the entirety of the Romance genre not just M/M Romance. Recently I went on a kick reading through blog entry after blog entry by romance writers trying to define the difference between porn/erotica/erotic romance/romance.

I think there are differences and I think these each as separate categories can be useful. I am made uncomfortable though by the erotica writers who defined what they did as "not porn" the erotic romance writers who defined what they did as "not erotica" and romance writers as "not sexually explicated."I think that's problematic personally.

So, thoughts, questions, discussion? What do writers think? Have you considered any of these points and if so what is your take? Do you think these kind of questions are important? Or not and if not why not? 


  1. Body Image: This drives me crazy. I realize most people are reading romance as escapist fantasy, and thus want their guys as hot as possible, but still... I would love to read more romances about guys who just look like normal guys. (This was, in fact, part of the basis for my KMaM story; there's a very reactionary element to the romance--I wanted to write something where at least one of the characters had a smaller than average dick and/or was a little overweight, where one of them didn't like to taste himself in his lover's mouth, where they didn't have mutual orgasms every ten minutes, that sort of thing.) Which brings me to The Gaze: I honestly don't have any idea what most of my characters look like. Unless there's something important about the character's appearance, I don't really want to read about it, either. I know I tend to avoid book covers that have people on them unless I know I really want to read what's inside, because I really don't care about what the characters look like, and I don't want to perpetuate that "all romantic heroes are abnormally gorgeous" stereotype. I have a problem with it in advertising and magazines regarding portrayals of both men and women; why shouldn't it be equally offensive in publishing?

    As for the penis: I know what you mean. There's a sense, though many books take pains to explicitly contradict the notion, that the bottom in an m/m relationship is less of a man than the top. And everybody tells real life gay guys that anal sex is not a necessary part of a healthy gay man's sex life, but when was the last time you read a book with a couple that didn't engage in anal and had no intention of doing so in the future? (It makes me want to write one.) And the implication then is that lesbians can't ever have real sex, which is incredibly offensive. I'm sure this is partly the result of women writing about m/m sex, in which anal is much closer to their experience of het sex than anything that's totally dependent on both possessing penises (have you ever noticed how much more often the POV is that of the guy being penetrated than the penetrator?). Of the questions you've raised, this the only one I see being addressed in writing, and that only goes so far as the top/bottom issue of equal masculinity, never the idea that they don't have to have penetrative sex at all.

    By the way, did you read the jessewave post yesterday about whether m/m is actually about men at all? I thought of you when I read it (mostly because I was thinking about how to some extent the issue is about whether characters are conforming to gender norms, which I think is ridiculous, particularly within this genre, and issues of constructs of masculinity). The comments disturb me, most of all because of the number of comments that essentially say "misrepresenting gay men is okay because women have been misrepresented for generations now."

    I don't have any insight into the nomenclature issue except to say that I agree: any definition that defines itself as what it is not is not a real definition.

  2. I was actually wiggling around in my seat with excitement reading your replies.

    I realize most people are reading romance as escapist fantasy, and thus want their guys as hot as possible, but still but what drives me crazy about the whole "I want to write about hot guys" is that's such a narrow definition of what's hot. That's like saying I only write about ultra thin, big breasted supermodels because I won't want to write about hot women. Not only would, I think, a lot of women have a problem with that just on principal but also I for one won't find that kind of woman hot. I like woman with big butts, wide shoulders and some girth to them. I get more than a little upset when I see women with these kinds of bodies but down as ugly and unattractive constantly. So I really don't want to turn around and do the same thing and say it's
    okay because it's a man not a woman.

    There's a sense, though many books take pains to explicitly contradict the notion, that the bottom in an m/m relationship is less of a man than the top. So this is also a common reaction within the gay community and problematic thing about that (read Straitjacket Sexuality by Celine Parreñas Shimizu or 'The Joy of The Castrated Boy' by Joon Oluchi Lee for this kind of critique) is by saying "no we're not weak or sissy! See we do manly things!" is it a.) still supports that construction where masculinity has to be tied to the penis and penetration, and b.) it demonizes femininity as the ultimate thing not to be. If I'm making any sense.

    I'm sure this is partly the result of women writing about m/m sex, in which anal is much closer to their experience of het sex than anything that's totally dependent on both possessing penises (have you ever noticed how much more often the POV is that of the guy being penetrated than the penetrator?). I have thought of this as well which I find sad and disturbing a.) it would mean straight women are only having one kind of sex and b.) that their sexual imagination is so limited. Also as a personal preference aside, it annoys me how many books are told from the perspective of the bottom especially when there is a real defined power dynamic because I'm a dominant.

    By the way, did you read the jessewave post yesterday about whether m/m is actually about men at all? I have actually but not until after a wrote and published this post. I found the comments disturbing as well, for all sorts of reasons. People should be taking it as a moment for self reflection (much like the drama around trans* characters or the portrayal of women in the genre) and not circling the wagons and pretending like everything is fine. Although the whole conversation about what is a "real" gay experience and who can and cannot write about it, troubles me I did like the questions he posed. I didn't think he went far enough though.

  3. I think the biggest problem with the genre, and what I think the jessewave article was getting at (but what I think it being missed because of some of the other things he said and the way in which he said them, and the comments), is that it stereotypes so baldly and badly. All hot guys look the same; all gay men have the same kinks (and they're all pretty kinky); all gay men have the same mannerisms, etc. I think the underlying issue, and the reason for so much controversy, is that people disagree about whether or not the genre has a responsibility to provide a representative sample, or whether it can exist solely in the land of fiction and fantasy without worrying about the real community. What disturbed me most about jessewave's comments were the number of people who clearly think the latter is acceptable, and that it doesn't even really affect real life people. The one that really made my jaw drop was the woman who essentially argued that gay men should get over it because women have been misrepresented as weak and stupid for decades and it hasn't affected them at all because they're smart enough to recognize it's not real. What?? Isn't the misrepresentation a problem? And does she really think it hasn't had an effect on women and their expectations of themselves and their lovers, if not in terms of what they should be, at least in terms of what acceptable ways to be treated are? And isn't tacit acceptance the same as permission and endorsement? Ugh. Women have been complaining for years that, according to popular culture, only one kind of woman is hot. Why on earth are we too stupid to see that we're doing the exact same thing with our men here? In my sister's gender studies class, they always spend a few days talking about the objectification of men, because a lot of people don't think it happens. But it does. I'm apparently supposed to find ripped blond guys with huge dicks attractive, but I don't. My first serious boyfriend was a super-skinny, freckled, diabetic redhead who was into math, music, and physics; my second serious boyfriend was a tall, broad, bearded guy who wanted to go into international politics; my husband is a medium height, slightly overweight blue-eyed brunet who digs computer science and video games. All of them were/are hot to me, and the only characteristic they share is that they were smart. I think we ought to be representing that wide variety in what we write/read. Recognizing that it's impossible, however, to represent everyone in the human race, what's most important to me is that the genre is a representative sample of the community it presents. Right now, it's not. And that's what jessewave was complaining about. Are there guys into biting/marking/hairpulling? Yes. But ALL of them? Even MOST of them? Are there gay couples with the uber-masculine and the more effeminate with size differences and 1950s relationship dynamics? Yes. But is it really as many as represented in books?

    Sorry, this is much more jumbled than I meant it to be. Hopefully I'm still making sense.

    1. The one that really made my jaw drop was the woman who essentially argued that gay men should get over it because women have been misrepresented as weak and stupid for decades and it hasn't affected them at all because they're smart enough to recognize it's not real.

      I don't know if I read the response but I did read several which where leading in that direction. Which is so stupid and wrong I don't even know where to start. And just to put it out there because I've been mulling it over for months now I personally think saying "I'm not interested in representing real gay men" is not an out because ultimately it's not about how we as the writer think about it. It is about how what we produces is perceived by the larger public.

    2. Absolutely. I've been considering the same thing; how much leeway do we have because we're writing fiction? How far does "it's just a story" let me go? And I think the answer I've reached is, when it comes to real life people groups, "not very far." Nobody would excuse a writer who depicted a member of a certain racial group in a way that was offensive to that group on the grounds of "I wasn't trying to represent a real ____________ person." That would probably just make it even more offensive.

  4. You're absolutely right about the "look at how manly we are even though we're bottoms!" perpetuating the problem. That's my issue with forcing people to conform to gender norms--it separates characteristics into "this is okay for you, but not for him" and "this is okay for him, but not for you," and it's impossible to do that without a value judgment. Women who act like men can usually get away with it, though they may be labeled as bitches, depending on their behavior and which characteristics they adopt. Men who act like women, however, are endlessly mocked and ridiculed, because, as you say, we demonize femininity and exalt masculinity. It's hard even for straight men--my husband wrestled at first with the fact that, in many ways, he's the traditional "woman" in our relationship: he's very emotional, makes decisions based on feelings rather than logic, wants to vent rather than problem solve at the end of a bad day, those sorts of things that usually go in the "woman are from Venus" side of the relationship equation, whereas I fall more in the "men are from Mars" side of things. But he's still very masculine in other ways. He struggles with the cultural "I'm supposed to ___ because I'm a man" (which is part of the reason I think "books don't affect real people" is such a ridiculous position to hold). Aside: my husband would rather have a blowjob than penetrative sex 9 times out of 10. Of course, that's also a sort of oral penetration, but it's a much more acceptable form for a gay man to receive without compromising his masculinity than anal penetration.

    I had the same reaction to the article--the questions he posed were good, the issues he raised were good, the "real" gay experience is not so good. What worries me is that I think a lot of people will see part of what he's saying and miss the rest: a rant about how women shouldn't write about being men because they don't understand the way a real penis works (which, honestly, I think is a valid point, though I don't think it means women can't write about men, nor do I think that's what he was trying to say), or a statement that the genre exists to serve straight women, or an unnecessary protest against the misrepresentation of gay men similar to het romance. What I see, and related to your earlier comments about nomenclature, is the need for division within the m/m community. Some people want it to be about what it's like to be gay. Some people want it to be about romance and relationships. Some people want it to be about sex. And some people, apparently, are just looking for a het romance with two penises because it's hotter than the ridiculous words used to describe a vagina. It's like holding porn videos, Disney movies, and independent films to the same set of goals and standards--it's not going to work. People who want porn aren't going to be upset by stereotyping the way independent film makers would be; people who rent a Disney movie don't want something that's trying to make a socio-political statement. Personally, I think porn stereotyping IS harmful both to self-image and sexual expectations, and sometimes Disney portrayals of relationships and gender can be, too. But I don't want heavy, thought-provoking independent films all the time, either. One of my lj friends writes incredibly long stories with casts of thousands because every time she reads an article, she feels the need to put a message about that theme in her story, so she adds another subplot and a few new characters. Suddenly her story about how a threesome can work in the real world is also about gender-neutral pronouns, fostering kids, homelessness, discrimination within the gay community against femme gay men, and twenty-nine other things. They become virtually impossible to read, and I struggle to keep interest part chapter 150. So what is our responsibility as writers? As readers?

    1. I think ultimately what I am taking away from writing this and from reading the article on Jessewave and the comments is that I'm not against any specific image, act or representative. If people want to write kink, or size difference, or penetration, or a specific power dynamic, or body language each of these in and of themselves aren't bad. What I dearly want to see is for them to ethical representations produced in a thoughtful, respectful and ethical way.

      I don't that's going to happen though until we really wrestle with these questions and examine how we create and consume within the genre.