Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A World Populated Only By White Male Heroes: thinking about audience, writing about the rest of us

I read " 'We Have Always Fought': Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative" by Kameron Hurley  this morning. It's an amazing article about women and the way we think about the role of women both in historical narratives but most specifically in fiction.

What particularly stood out to me was this quote from about the end of the article:

"Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world."

She also talks about how too often in speculative fiction we fall into the trap of viewing women only as mothers, daughters, wives or victims. As Hurley points out this is because these are the societal narratives we are given. Not that this reflects actual lived experience since all of us live lives filled with women who are and do so much more. The narratives we are given though, in books, movies, tv and politics are that women are valued by their relationship to men: how they are related to men, how they are useful to them, and how they are abused by them.  

All and all this is an amazing article, and makes a lot of really great points about the way we think and write about female characters in speculative fiction. I think, and argue, that this is true not just for speculative fiction but for m/m romance as well. Maybe even more so.

The nature of m/m romance means that our main characters necessarily have to be male identified but even so the number of m/m romance novels I've read where there are no female characters at all is legion. Even when there are female characters in m/m romance novels they tend to fall into stereotypes which do one of two things: cock-block the main couple or provide them with emotional support or physical care. Very rarely are they heroes of their own stories or even equal partners to the male characters in the stories.

This I think is problematic and I struggle with it a lot in my own writing and too often fail at dealing with it in my own works.

I write about it in the article for Storm Moon Press "More Than the Crazy Ex or Empathetic Best Friend: writing female secondary characters in M/M romance." 

I also read Chuck Wendig's blog post "The Underserved Population Of Readers"
this morning. He took it a step further and talk about not just female characters but LBTQ character, characters of color and basically all characters who are not middle-class white men (young, attractive men in my genre.) He did this in a really interesting way by talking about audience.  He argues that although in spectulative fiction we tend to think of our audience as prominently white middles class, straight dudes, or people who like reading about white straight men, maybe we shouldn't. Maybe we should assume women read speculative fiction, and people of color and differently abled people and LGBTQ people all of whom really want to see people like them represented in fair, accurate and fully rounded ways. While it might take a little more effort to write these kinds of characters in ways which are not stereotypical, Wendig argues it is well worth the trouble

Statistics found on sites like Romance Writers of America says that the average romance reader is female, straight, married, and in her mid-40s. Trends in m/m romance would indicate most readers want to see stories about white, cisgender, guys in their early-twenties, late teens with washboard abs and surprisingly perky pecs. 

There is nothing wrong with writing stories about these kinds of guys or being an average romance reader (as described by RWA) or being an average romance reader that likes stories about these kinds of guys. 

On the other hand what about the queer readers that don't fit into the gay male box, or the trans* readers? What about the differently abled readers that want to see more people like them represented? Or readers who like their guys with a softer, rounder build? What about all the straight, white married women who don't want to read about white middle-class twenty-somethings with perfect bodies and big cocks?

Maybe you're saying "but they aren't the majority of readers. We need to write to the majority of readers and the sales show most readers want white boy jocks with the build of Olympic athletes and gay porn stars." 

Do we? 
Do we need continue to support a status quo which relies on choosing to ignore the existence of not just half the world but considerably more of it than that?

But you might be thinking "this is supposed to be a fantasy! A fantasy about hot guy on hot guy action." 

While there is nothing wrong with that fantasy per say I think we need to ask ourselves more often who's fantasy is this? and what is the cost?  

Megan Derr wrote in her blog  "Closer to Home Than You Think" about how the m/m romance genre can fall into the trap of being misogynistic, homophobic and trans*phobic even as we pride ourselves on our inclusiveness (my words not hers). She wrote about the experience of creating a fully realized and beloved female character who dies in one of her stories, then being told by readers that they were glad the character died because she was in the way of the two male characters. She wrote about how we as a genre talk about inclusiveness but writers and readers alike complain when a character is trans* calling him not a "real" man or saying that it's not really m/m romance if both men aren't cisgender.

For the hop against homophobia and trans*phobia I wrote about the acts of micro-aggression I experience all the time as a queer person. I didn't talk about micro-aggression from within the m/m romance genre in the post. However, I have been thinking a lot about how hard it is for me when the m/m romance community claims to be allies of the LGBTQ community but then only ever wants to read or write about or post pictures of attractive, gay, cisgender men. People are entitled to read what they like and like what they like. It does hurt though when people who claim to be allies never depict or in any way acknowledge people like me or the people I love and find attractive.

That's the cost when we only represent one kind of person, we become part of the problem, not the solution. 

I'm not saying we need to stop writing about attractive, cisgender, able bodied, white, young men. We just need to start thinking critically about why they are over represented in every genre including m/m romance. 

Likewise I am not saying no authors in the genre write about people of color, or fully realized female characters, or trans* characters or differently able characters, or characters with all different body types. There just should be lots more of these kinds of characters then there are. They should be in the majority

Because let's face it, young gay men who look like underwear models in the real world, even in the LGBTQ community, are a tiny percentage of the population. 

The world is full of a lot more kinds of people than that. The queer community is chock full of a lot more kinds of people than that. 

We are all deserving of our happy endings

We have all fought.  


  1. Nice post! I struggle with this a lot too, especially with writing good female characters into my m/m books. It's so easy just to plop them into the stereotypical supporting roles, it takes real commitment to write fully-fledged realistic female characters with their own stories. Same with racial minority or trans characters. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself "Why is this person white/cis/conventionally attractive? Do they have to be? Are they even, or am I just assuming they are?" And sometimes when I discover that a character is a minority it opens up a whole bunch more about them, their backstory, their world-view, even plot points. Because really, limiting our characters to white, able-bodied cis men also limits our ability to write a more varied spectrum of human experience.
    Of course, saying that is one thing, it's still something I definitely need to work on.

    1. oh I definitely struggle with this as well. Heart of Water and Stone as no memorable female characters at all as does Changeling Moon but when I realized what I was doing I've made it a priority now. Likewise I am much less willing to write a story where everyone is white.

      It's tough though I feel a lot of pressure (which I'm probably in large part imagining) from inside the genre to make all my characters classically good looking.

      I struggle with all of this all the time in my writing. I would love to see more authors talking about it because sometimes it feels like I'm the only one who ever deal with these issues and I know that's not true.

    2. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself "Why is this person white/cis/conventionally attractive? Do they have to be? Are they even, or am I just assuming they are?"

      Yes! I've started trying to do that myself with my characters -- "Okay, does this character have to be white? Or male? Or young and thin and 'attractive'?" There were a couple of commenters in Chuck Wendig's post talking about dealing with people who would ask "why did that character have to be gay/Chinese/etc?" and I think it's really useful to turn that question around and ask it about characters who are majority or default identities, too. It's so easy to just use the default background characters that older stories have primed us for, but breaking out of that easy pattern is so important.

    3. yes, exactly. I was just working on a new story about questing knights. While planning out a scene where the knights meet with the king it suddenly occurred to me that there was no good reason why it could not be a queen I'm just so used to it always being a king in fantasy novels that I hadn't stopped to think about it. Once I did thought not only does it totally work with a queen but it makes the whole back story more interesting and textured I think.

  2. This is a lovely post -- I really like the extension of Hurley's already fabulous post into the specific challenges of the m/m community, which definitely does, as you point out so well, still have a lot of work to do on this front.

    1. thank you so much. Wendig talks about what the take home message for writers would be from Hurley's article. I couldn't help thinking about that too especially for m/m romance which is the genre I write.

  3. I'm just going to hug you (virtually), because I don't think anything more needs to be said. You're awesome. (And the "surprisingly perky pecs" made me LOL.) :)

    1. Thank you, I'm so glad you liked this.

      Whenever I see a shirtless male model whether on the cover of a m/m romance novel or as an inspirational photographs posted by an author I always think "my what perky pecs!" I'm sure men with that kind of pectoral muscle definition exist I've just never met one live and in person before so it always takes me a little by surprise.