by Renae Jones
I’m writing about why some straight women love reading male/male romance. It’s been covered already here and there, but people still wonder. Women who don’t have that particular penchant wonder, the boyfriends of women who read male/male books wonder, and gay friends are the most baffled of all.
The answer isn’t easy; there are a lot of factors at play, like the thrill of the taboo, the fun of messing with gender roles, the hotness of a man moaning and begging for more, the prominence of beta heroes, and doubling the fascinating men per book. But I think I’ve nailed down the biggest reason, at least for me and my limited panel of friends. It’s about feminism, and sexism.
I’m going to skip the long women’s studies analysis of the two in favor of a cutesy analogy. Every woman has a little demon and a little angel sitting on her shoulders. On one side they have their inner feminist, whispering things like “any job a man can do a woman can do too” and “if it’s love, he has to respect you”. On the other side, we have the inner sexist, whispering things like “I get so emotional, that’s a girl thing” and “oh no, girls can’t propose to guys!”
We mostly think, by rote, that feminism is good and sexism is bad. Maybe we’re not exactly activists or scholars–but when our girlfriend tells us that her and her husband agreed she would do all the “inside” cleaning and he’d do the “outside” stuff, we’ll stand up and say, “Oh no way! You live in an apartment.”
That said, most of us ignore our little feminist at least some of the time–especially when we’re just trying to watch a movie, damnit. Yes the movie would be loads better if there was at least one female character in it who wasn’t a horrible trite plastic-person, but it’d also be better with ninjas and unicorns. And that’s not going to suddenly happen, so we’ll just watch the damn thing. But we still feel a little guilty about it.
Most of us have to put up with blatant and subtle sexism, as well, at least some of the time. Even from our own minds–or especially from our own minds. But we at least try to recognize it happening, before someone uses “women are better at communicating” to offload their job answering customer service complaints on a women who works in accounting.
The thing is, when we read a romance novel, our angel and our devil are still sitting on our shoulders. We’re wading into sexism-filled waters, and it can get ugly. Often, you’re not sure how ugly it’s going to get until you’re well into the book.
A large number of my DNFs come from books that pissed off my feminist or set off my sexist alarm. Honestly, some of them were probably damn good books–well written, well-reviewed. But the last thing I need in my life is another example of someone I can’t respect getting the girl, or guy.
For example, I’m thinking of a book in Vicki Lewis Thompson’s Nerd series. The writing was good, the plot was keeping me interested, and I have a thing for nerds like you wouldn’t believe. It felt like a finisher. It felt like a book I’d probably rate at least “pretty good”. But then came a scene supporting the secondary romance arc. The hero was reflecting on his bitchy ex-wife, illustrating to the reader how the heroine was just so much better than his ex-wife was. He recalled how his ex-wife, who didn’t drink coffee, was so bad at making his coffee in the morning (woe is him). But the new woman drinks coffee, and made some for him and it tasted GREAT. It must be true love.
Now wait just a flipping minute. If he’s the only one who drinks the coffee, why wasn’t he making his own coffee? And if he’s complaining about the coffee she’s getting up early to make him, why isn’t his wife dumping it in his lap? He doesn’t want a relationship, he wants a professional chef. The new woman could do so much better than this asshat. And I got mad at the book, and it got sold back to Half-Price Books without me ever finishing it.
I’ve also been known to ignore or pander to little sexisms while reading that I don’t let fly in everyday conversation. Romance plots are full of stereotypes used asshortcuts to pack the interesting plot and character development into relatively few words. Take another example: “The all-star high school quarterback who grew up to be a police officer fell in love with the glasses-wearing, flute-playing girl who grew up to be a librarian with four cats.” Did you SEE all the conclusions about their personalities and circumstances you just jumped to there? And didn’t it make for a better story?
That little sexism leeway only gets to go so far, though. We all have little sexisms that get our goat. “Girls don’t like computers,” and “Girls don’t play sports,” and “Girls aren’t smart with money,” and “Girls don’t like sex,” all drive someone or another into a rage. I’m constantly re-evaluating what I’m reading, weighing whether it’s stepping over the line from excusable to offensive. And if they hit any of my trigger points (which, btw, include every one of those examples), that book becomes a DNF.
So with that angel and devil on our shoulder, feminism versus sexism, reading a romance novel can turn into a battlefield. Insults and objections start flying up there around our ears. Even when we aren’t hanging on every accusation of sexism, trying to find something wrong with the book, it still creates a sort of low level hum of complaint that grates on our nerves. Not to mention the guilt later for enjoying something that, yes, was really not empowering at all.
Male/male romance cheats the whole damning cycle.
Let me illustrate:
Chris was awful at her taxes. She always had been, she always would be, and everyone knew it. The math was hard, the instructions were impossible to decipher, and remembering when they were due was a problem as well. When she was single, she’d had to beg friends for help, until they mocked her about it. Jim thought it was cute, though. He took Chris in his arms, kissed her thoroughly, and whispered, “So that’s why you’re dating a CPA.”
My reaction goes, “Oh PLEASE. Taxes aren’t that flipping hard unless you’re doing something that makes it worth hiring someone to do them anyway. Chris sounds like a spoiled whiny snot. And Jim sounds totally patronizing.”
Now lets male/male it:
Chris was awful at his taxes. He always had been, he always would be, and everyone knew it. The math was hard, the instructions were impossible to decipher, and remembering when they were due was a problem as well. When he was single, he’d had to beg friends for help, until they mocked him about it. Jim thought it was cute,though. He took Chris in his arms, kissed him thoroughly, and whispered, “So that’s why you’re dating a CPA.”
Now my reaction goes, “That’s so cute. He sounds like an airhead artist. And Jim can do his taxes. They’re perfect for each other!”
The male/male version was just less stressful for me. Of course unhealthy dominance, abusive behaviors, patronism, self-inflicted airheadism, and assumed entitlement are problems in relationships between two men. But when I’m reading a male/male romance, I don’t feel like one or the other might be waiting to jump out and clobber my enjoyment of the story at any moment. My hackles don’t start to rise just because someone is bad at math, wondering when the ultimate misogynistic blow is going to come.
And, of course, probably the biggest reason this genre is winning converts left, right and center: male/male erotic romance has got some amazing wonderful talented writers out there right now. Seriously.
Renae Jones is an avid reader of both straight and glbt romance, with healthy sides of urban fantasy and erotica. She’s also the author of Umbra in Exile, a free online erotic romance serial. In this fantasy world, the proper Umbrans get rid of their regal but debauched Imperial Princess and her scandalous little court of witches, homosexuals, mages, whores and warriors. They politely exile her to marry the young Princess of Velise–a place of forthright frontiersmen and ancient earth magics. Umbra in Exile is the long, twisty tale of these two women falling toward love. You can follow @renae_jones on twitter, read Umbra in Exile, or just jump straight to the free erotic stories.