Gendered power relationships and m/m

by Sunita

If I hear one more time that readers turn to the m/m genre because it is free of “gendered power relationships,” I will throw a large heavy object across the room. The worst thing about this bizarre statement is that it is often made by intelligent women who seem to have some familiarity with feminism and gender theory.

If these intelligent women were in class on the day that the professor lectured about how male roles are also structured by gender assumptions and patriarchy, they seem to have forgotten it. Gender is not just about women. Gender is about everyone.

I apologize to my readers who know this very well already, but just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the World Health Organizations’s definition:

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

In a heterosexual romance, the ways the hero and heroine behave are conditioned on how the author chooses to portray these socially constructed roles. The heroine may act in ways that reinforce “traditional” gender norms, or she may rebel against them. An Alpha hero is considered to embody “traditional” gender norms of masculinity, while a Beta hero, while still masculine, will be less “manly” in a stereotypical way.

In an m/m romance, the substitution of the heroine with a second hero does not mean that gendered power relationships disappear. It means that we now have two protagonists whose socially constructed roles are drawn from the same side of the gender binary** rather than one each from opposite sides.

Yes, the male-female power dynamic, which is structured by social expectations and patriarchy, is absent. But now we have a male-male power dynamic that is structured by social expectations and patriarchy. What are some possible ramifications of that? A short paper prepared by a social work professional offers a few:

Some problems within gay male relationships reflect the deficits inherent in the male gender role:

  • Some men have learned to be husbands who strive for competition for power and differentiation.
  • Some men are socialized to equate their value as a person with the power, prestige, and income of their work, and to see other men, at best, as worthy competitors and, at worst, as the enemy in this game of status and power.
  • Neither man in the relationship may be aware of how he is communicating either excess value or devaluation to his partner and himself based upon income and status criteria.
  • Power plays (subtle, obvious) will get acted out if not talked about, mainly through competition and negotiating tasks, duties, household, & finances.
  • Some men have been raised to be in control (of self and other). Thus, they will tell the other person in the relationship other what he should feel/think/be/do.

These attitudes and behaviors are part of being socialized as a male, regardless of sexual orientation (and that socialization begins at birth for most people). Not all men exhibit these attributes, of course, because response to socialization is conditioned on the individual. And gay men may fight certain aspects of gender conditioning more than straight men do. But gay men grow up in the same gendered world as straight men, women, and everyone else.

All human interactions (and many non-human ones) include negotiations over power, and some of these negotiations are influenced by the gendered perspectives of the actors. Gender and power are deeply intertwined; but not every power negotiation is shot through with gender issues, and not every aspect of gender involves thinking about power dynamics.

I agree that it’s wonderful to take a break from reading about male-female relationships that are inevitably structured by gender roles. But then you have to say hello to male-male relationships that are inevitably structured by gender roles.

Heteronormative, patriarchial structures shape society for everyone. Some m/m authors write wonderful books that explore the ramifications of this hegemony for romantic relationships between men and show how they are negotiated to produce an HFN or HEA. Others pretend equality is an unproblematic given in the relationship. And the same is true for m/f authors: some tackle the ramifications head on, while others don’t.

Let’s be honest and acknowledge that m/m provides a respite from what women’s gendered roles in romance novels make us confront, not from “gendered power relationships” more generally.

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**The binary division is a gross simplification, since it assumes cis-gendered identity. But that’s a more complicated conversation. Let’s stick with the “easy” stuff for now.

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