Gendered power relationships and m/m

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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12 thoughts on “Gendered power relationships and m/m

  1. Oh, TP, you are such a MAN. TheH is still laughing.

    If there is a married-to-a-woman man on the planet who would not give his left nut to be able to decide everything with a coin toss, I want to meet him. Not gonna happen, but a straight boy can dream.

  2. I’m absolutely certain I’ve used that expression incorrectly in the past. You are right: what I look for in m/m is the remove of heteronormative gender roles and expectations, rather than the removal of gender roles entirely.

    Of course, very often I find that even the male/male characters are wedged into standard female/male roles with only the editing of dangly bits and introduction of homosexuality as a surface difference.

  3. Yes, exactly! The heteronormative roles are the problem, not being male & female per se. And m/f romance is a big genre; you can find exceptions if you look. Not that anyone has to. If people want to stop reading m/f, they don’t have to explain. Just don’t give me an explanation that doesn’t make sense.

    And especially, don’t tell me you’re reading m/m for the lack of gender issues and then turn around and give gender-switched books 5 stars.

  4. I suspect I’m one of the people who have used this expression incorrectly as well. I do enjoy the dynamics of a M/M relationship because for the most part there seems to be a greater degree of equality depicted between two male characters. What I am really reacting to, however, is how much I dislike the stereotypical male/female relationship as portrayed in most romance stories.

    Why does the average heroine, no matter how much we are told that she is tough, smart, and independent, turn into an absolute idiot (or worse, a 12 year old girl) when she falls in love? Mind you, I feel the same way about male characters who do the same, but it seems to happen so much more often in the male/female relationship.

    jmcbk said it much more concisely and elegantly that I have. :-)

    And darn it, I am supposed to be writing, not getting involved in an interesting conversation just now.

  5. That’s what I love about reading and writing M/M stories, is that the gender dynamics are *different* than (most) M/F relationships; and I admit I don’t enjoy the stories that recreate M/F dynamics in M/M stories because, well, if I wanted THAT dynamic I’d read M/F stories. But it does seem nonsensical to argue that M/M stories are “free of gendered power relationships.” Is there ANY relationship that is free of that? I would say no. Really enjoyed this essay, it was clear and level headed!

  6. I confess, I never read romance AT ALL until I started reading m/m, so “being tired of m/f” never entered into the picture for me. I’ve actually started reading m/f here and there since then, and really want to write it in future. I think what attracts me more about m/m is that the conflict has more physicality to it. That’s a sensibility that can be brought over to m/f, it’s just hard, because it bumps into a lot of fear and anxiety surrounding m/f-gendered physical conflict.

    But I see basic gendered power stuff ALL OVER m/m. I wrote about it on my blog recently, and also recently DNF-ed a book that on the second page had the MC make fun of a campy gay secondary chapter and think to himself “I hate campy gay guys cause if I wanted to fuck a woman I’d fuck a woman.” I was so disgusted. I mean, sure, it’s an attitude that exists in real life, but I do NOT want to identify with a femmephobic MC who leaped straight out of douchebagsofgrindr.com. I read on a bit to see if his attitude was challenged. It wasn’t. I guess it was just the writer’s way of establishing his sexy sexy ubermasculinity. Ugh.

  7. I think what becomes frustrating in both m/m and m/f dynamics in romance is when the conflicts suddenly vanish into a fantasy HEA. Women readers, who confront those issues all the time, have really short fuses for that magical ending (I know I do). We probably cut the men in m/m more slack because it’s not so personal to us (so while we know the author is shortchanging the characters and the reader, we aren’t as infuriated by it, maybe).

    The physical conflicts point is a great one. That’s one of the aspects of Aleks Voinov’s Dark Soul series that I find so intriguing. You could not write that story in the same way if Silvio was a cis-gendered woman, no matter how kick-ass. Gender issues are front and center in that book, but of a very specific and story-appropriate type. It makes for an extremely compelling read, for me.

    And the gay camp character, ugh. Thanks, I don’t need that in anything, let alone my pleasure reading. I wonder if it’s also supposed to signal to the reader, “no female-type substance anywhere in this book, really!” It would be ironic if the book then followed any standard m/f tropes. Like you, though, I’m not reading very far to find out.

  8. Fascinating article. The assumption of equality simply because they are both men bothers me. There are so many other factors that will have an effect on the relationship, like age, social status and financial differences. If they happen to work together than there are all the complications that come with their relative positions in the hierarchy of their work situation.

    Of course men are training all their lives to deal with all those dynamics, but with friends, colleagues, other family members etc – not with a partner, since the assumption is their partner will be a woman and so there’ll be a whole different set of issues to deal with. So the guys with a man as a partner instead have to figure it out from scratch with no training and few examples to follow.

    That’s my take on it anyway.

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