The day job is kicking my butt this week so I haven’t had time to write a proper blog post. But there are a couple of great posts by other people which you should go read, on topics that deserve discussion and that I hope to write more about.
Amy Burge has a post at Teach Me Tonight provocatively entitled “Is Popular Romance Homophobic?” (My first, instinctive answer is no, it’s homo-oblivious for the most part.) The post was inspired by her research on sheikh novels; she has a quote from a Jane Porter Harlequin Presents:
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)
Burge interprets Tair’s statement as homophobic:
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?
I had a different reaction and said so in a comment to the post. I don’t think that it is necessarily homophobic for a straight man to feel uncomfortable at the idea that someone he knows personally and interacts with is attracted to him; I can think of any number of people whose sexual interest would make me uncomfortable.
In addition, as Laura Vivanco and I both brought up in comments, the use of the verb “adore” muddies the meaning because adore can be used as a synonym for worship. Tair, as a powerful sheikh, has subordinates who serve and presumably look up to him, and he may not want them to adore him for reasons that have to do with what he sees as healthy roles for leaders and followers. The author also weighed in, understandably disagreeing with Burge’s interpretation, but she did so in a reasoned and constructive way. Kudos to Ms. Porter!
Burge has written scholarly papers on sheikh romances, and I haven’t read the book, so she may be in the right here. Or it may be another example of the phenomenon that when you use a hammer for a while, everything starts to look like a nail.
The post also raised the possibility that some of the overt masculinity of sheikh romances is there to offset the potential for femininity raised in other parts of the characterization. Burge points to traditional sheikh garb:
[T]he 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 …
I was surprised by this example, because I’ve never seen sheikh clothing as effeminate. To the contrary, men in long white robes and keffiyehs can look extremely intimidating to me, especially when they’re tall. But then I’m used to seeing men in dhotis, lungis, and other non-Western garb, so maybe it’s just a cultural thing.
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Joanna, AKA Tumperkin, has a post on small-town contexts in m/m and whether they function as aspirational settings. I’ve expressed my discomfort in other places about depicting small-town USA as a happy place for LGBT people. Of course there are bound to be such instances in real life, but on the whole I think that the conservative-with-a-small-c worldview of small towns, together with their insular nature, makes it unlikely that new residents who are gay or lesbian are going to be instantly welcomed with open arms.
Tumperkin raises an interesting point, though, about how such settings can serve a useful purpose:
Maybe they help us to picture, in miniature, the sort of society we want to live in? See the shape of it, what it might look like, what it might feel like. Imagining the reality we want. Aspiring to it. Believing in it.
I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I agree that this can be an important side effect. Especially given how fiction can create or increase our emotional connection to issues that we might have thought about in primarily intellectual terms before. In T’s words:
I always believed in GBLT rights. I believed in gay marriage. I was horrified by homophobia. But reading gay romance brought that home to me in a more emotional way.
It’s the difference between knowing something and feeling it.
I’m still wary of the glut of these kinds of books, because I think it’s all too easy for readers to slide from a conscious awareness that these are fantasy settings to thinking such settings are commonplace and downplaying the difficulties found there. But Tumperkin’s post has made me more aware of the positive side and made me think that perhaps I need to trust readers more on this issue.
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Finally, speaking of small-town m/m romances, there was a lot of buzz around a debut m/m called Bear, Otter, and the Kid earlier this year. jmc talked about it at her blog and described her mixed feelings. I finally read the excerpt and agree with everything she said. It’s in dire need of content editing, the narration stays just this side of unbearably twee, and the Kid has the potential to drive me around the bend. But the book is oddly engaging in spite of that. It’s on sale this week at Amazon, so I downloaded it. We’ll see how it goes.