Quick post: Other people’s musings on m/m

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.

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12 thoughts on “Quick post: Other people’s musings on m/m

  1. I commented on the original post, but I’ve been thinking about it since then. If instead of “men”, if she had said “women”, would he have responded the same way? I think regardless of which interpretation of the word “adore” you use, the answer is no. He wouldn’t have said it like that, at the very least, to ask her not to use the word “adore” and “women” in a sentence because it makes him uncomfortable. If anything, he might’ve made a joke in the other direction, that he won’t complain about female adoration, etc (but actually funny).

    But even so, I think it is well within the norm of how a straight, probably alpha man, would act today and therefore fair game for inclusion in a book without undue complaint to the author. Furthermore, if assuming you would classify this discomfort as homophobia, it doesn’t mean that he would be anti-LGBT rights, which is an important distinction. There are several things in my life that might make someone with certain upbringings uncomfortable. It only matters if they have any intention of DOING anything about it, to restrict my rights, etc.

    I ran into an almost preachy M/M book recently. The H and H are out holding hands and smooching in what I see as a totally inappropriate place for overdone PDAs and someone gives them a dirty look, so they are labeled as anti-gay and screw them… what? If someone is facing real prejudice, then I’m all for reading about it. But if someone just doesn’t happen to like them or their lifestyle…well, welcome to the club, man.

    • Thanks for commenting! I agree with what I think you’re saying, i.e., that homophobia requires a higher threshold than discomfort, especially if there’s no evidence that the discomfort affects behavior (let alone spurs the person to oppose LGBT rights).

      One of the hardest things about being a minority group member is telling the difference between when the negative is because you’re a minority and because it’s something that happens to lots of people. Took me years to figure out that some people just didn’t like *me* quite apart from my background. :-)

  2. Interesting post, Sunita! And I enjoyed your links.

    I’m not entirely sure you can swap out “men” for “women” in that quote, given that it’s specifically about “my men” where presumably “my women” wouldn’t be in the world of this book? But I’m not entirely sure of the context.

    I particularly enjoyed Joanna/Tumperkin’s post. I think some novels are written more in the-world-as-it-should-be mode. If you stretch that too far, it’s going to stretch suspension of belief to the point of snapping for some readers (okay ugly metaphor, but hopefully makes sense). But I think it’s valid.

    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.

    Given the very specific way m/m romance has grown these last years, in terms of its writers and readers, I agree. Although presumably any kind of awareness of news and issues that the LGBT community faces would work against this kind of assumption.

    • That’s what I hope too, that there’s enough common knowledge out there to keep readers from mixing fantasy with reality. It somehow seems different when it’s a minority group population that’s the subject of the fantasy, though. That’s why it’s problematic for me (I can’t entirely articulate the problem to my satisfaction). But Joanna/Tumperkin’s post makes the strongest case in favor that I’ve come across, and one that I have to take seriously.

      • I didn’t mean to sound like I’m trying to talk you out of finding it problematic! I do think there are certain tensions/concerns/issues around m/m that are not easily dismissed. Even if I love many of its stories.

  3. Thanks for the linkage Sunita! I didn’t comment on the TMT post but read it – and I didn’t find the comment homophobic either. I have, however, read quite a few cateogries in which gay men (and women actually) are used as part of a Big Mis and that always makes my nose wrinkle a little, though it can depend on execution.

    • You’re welcome, it’s a great post!

      One where I thought the gay plot point worked okay was the book in the recent M&B Bad Blood series; the one with the Bollywood heroine. But that novel generally handled the multi-cultural issues well too.

  4. Where would I start in this genre? I read the highly overpraised* Regency m/m/f book (Phelandra, I think) … felt the wife was a bit of a necessity for carrying on the line, doncha know … so I’d love a suggestion for a contemporary m/m — what do you think? If it was a romantic suspense, then double bonus, I could use it for my TBR book. Thanks Sunita! * in my opinion

    • Oooh, now I’m put on the spot. :-) I really like Fair Game (Josh Lanyon) as a gateway m/m. It’s a classic mystery but m/m instead of m/f. My husband read it and liked it. Nicole Kimberling’s Bellingham series is light and fun and well written; the first one is called Primal Red. If you don’t mind a bit of paranormal, Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series is excellent. The first book is called Among the Living.

      For non-mystery contemporary, I really like Laney Cairo’s Bad Case of Loving You, but it’s pretty explicit. Sean Kennedy’s Tigers and Devils is wonderful although a bit long; I think you’d like the sports aspect.

  5. “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.”

    I call it my “Big Eden” complex.

    Big Eden was a STUPID gay movie I saw that tries to make a joke about the gay main character’s sensitivity to homophobia as groundless and silly. They proceed to show through the whole movie how his home town is full of all these caring open minded country folks.

    The entire punchline of the movie is a big old miss for me and even comes across as insulting. Gay people are not being paranoid or overly sensitive being cautious about homophobia.

    As with well known examples like Matthew Shepard… homophobia kills and nothing about that is funny and hollywood can shove it’s “spin” up it’s collective ass in this case.

  6. Hi TP! Nice to see you.

    Mercifully, I haven’t seen that movie. It sounds a bit like In and Out, that Kevin Kline film with a similar (but perhaps more competently delivered) message about a small town in which no one at all minded that the high school teacher was gay, in fact they had to explain his sexual orientation to him after he was outed by a former student who thanked him, his gay teacher, in an Oscar acceptance speech. The actors made that movie, but the message was still pretty offensive.

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