Repeat post on m/m and gender politics because not everyone got the memo

we meet again

I don’t repeat my blog posts as a rule. I don’t have that many, and they’re not that timelessly brilliant. Plus, there’s a search box over there to the right.

But this morning I read, yet again, that “M/M is different because there’s no gender politics.” I decided rather than continuing to rant on Twitter, I would republish most of a post I wrote a while ago. Apologies to those who still remember it; for those who didn’t read it the first time, the comments to that post are well worth your time.

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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.

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 politics” 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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16 thoughts on “Repeat post on m/m and gender politics because not everyone got the memo

  1. Can you recommend any m/m books in which the writers do this? I don’t think I’ve seen it come up yet (unless I was just not paying enough attention.)

    • I’m sorry, Willaful, I’m not sure what you’re asking. Books in which authors show how traditional gender roles affect a gay romantic relationship?

      ETA: I would categorize Tere Michael’s trilogy (I haven’t read the fourth book) this way. Of course these are classic Gay4U characters, but by the third book Matt is the househusband and Evan is the ambitious career guy. Evan treats Matt the way a husband might treat a wife. And while the explanation is that Matt wants to be home and take care of the kids (but has conflicted feelings about it), we don’t see them seriously entertaining other means of dealing with house and childcare issues.

      There are also some stories that mess with the gender dynamics; through the five installments of the Adrien English series, I slowly came to believe that Adrien had a much stronger will than Jake did. Jake was more quintessentially “masculine” in his traits, but the power dynamic shifted over the course of the books.

    • Thanks, now I get it! I didn’t mean “negotiation” in the sense of an explicit bargaining process, but more in terms of the back and forth, not-always-explicit process of arriving at a compromise or a jointly agreed-upon outcome.

      Thinking about it, there are plenty of m/m stories that show this happening in the sexual arena (the Michaels trilogy does), but far fewer do it for the outside-the-bedroom part of the relationship. One that tackles the power and role issues pretty explicitly is Sean Kennedy’s Tigers and Devils. The Adrien English series does it more obliquely, but Lanyon has five books to work it out in. His standalone, Fair Game, is more direct about the tension between the MCs.

      A lot of times the conflict between career/public goals and the HEA keep the characters apart, but then the resolution involves either a Grand Gesture of Sacrifice or a smaller but still psychologically unproblematic (in the book) renunciation of something that used to be important.

      • Carol of the Bellskis and Miracle of the Bellskis by Astrid Amara also deal with power and compromise. In the first story, Seth is a paralegal who’s just ended his relationship with his closeted boss Lars, and the story deals with how they compromise and get back together. I didn’t like that the ethics of sleeping with your boss/employee was ignored, but the rest of it was pretty good. The second one takes place 3 years later – they’re a solid couple, Lars is out, Seth is no longer Lars’ paralegal, and you can see how the two are working to find the power balance in their personal relationship and their professional one. Neither novella is perfect – the plots are kind of silly and farcical – but I enjoyed them.

        • Oh, thanks for reminding me of this one! I just read it again a couple of months ago but it slipped my mind. I agree, it’s quite good on the power issues.

          I think that novels that have the MCs working together are able to weave the power issues into the story more easily.

    • Aww, thank you! I was actually thinking of your early Mahu books when I was coming up with examples for Willaful, but I wanted to make a distinction between the closet/coming-out issues and power negotiations between characters who are already out.

  2. There’s an old joke about a pastor who got a new job. The first Sunday, everyone complimented him on a great sermon. The next week, he preached it again. People thought it was weird, but they didn’t say anything. Finally, after several weeks of the same sermon, someone took him aside and asked when he was going to preach a new one. Of course the punchline is “When you all listen to the first one!” (Nothing like growing up with a pastor parent for jokes). I think you should just post this every week until people stop with the nonsense comments.

  3. I missed this the first time, so I’m glad you re-posted it (and also linked to the first post – I enjoyed those comments). I think I’ve probably misused the term too. You’re right – I read m/m for the respite from women’s gendered roles, not because m/m somehow magically eliminates gender or gender politics.

    I mostly read m/m when I want to read a romance without worrying about whether or not the hero is going to turn out to be a possessive, controlling asshole to the heroine. There are plenty of assholes in m/m, but somehow they don’t bother me as much (except when they’re assholes to the women in their life – that really bothers me). But the asshole hero in m/f takes me out of the story and ruins my pleasure reading. It makes it hard for me to find new m/f authors.

    • I can understand that; aside from the fact that women readers often interact emotionally with the female characters differently than with the men, the men have different tools at their disposal, so a man dealing with an asshole man will be able to behave in a way that a woman might not be.

  4. I’m glad you re-posted this as I wasn’t here the first time :D – Its a lot to take in – I kinda like what I like and read what is likable – I definitely like Tere’s books although the most recent is dare I say ‘unsatisfying’. — this possibly doesn’t answer any opinions set out but it is what it is :D [hope this comment fits]

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