Gentleman in Their Sensitivities
Hello Teatimers. It’s just me today. Talking about something that has long since concerned me, but it’s one of those things that keeps recurring in conversation about m/m so I thought I’d explore it.
One of the interesting but difficult things about communities is that they build consensus very quickly. This is why we have the concept of received wisdom. By whatever means, ideas get passed around and if repeated often enough get taken as truth by the people who repeat them. You get this with all kinds of things, from harmless misconceptions (like the one about only using only 10% of our brains) to deeply problematic ones (like unemployment primarily being caused by immigration). One of the things that interests me about romance in general and m/m romance in particular is the surprisingly consistent and remarkably detailed consensus within some parts of the community about What Men Are Like.
I should stress from the outset that this isn’t a complaint and I’m certainly not here to tell people The Right Way To Write Men (indeed, if I have a point here, it’s going to be that there is no right way to write men) but I find it interesting that the community has not only developed quite clearly articulated preferences about the portrayal of male characters (that is it say, a set of ideas about what readers like to read) but that it seems to conflate those preferences with a notion of authenticity (that is, a notion of how men “really are”).
The two, for want a better term, memes that stand out for me in these discussions are: Men Are All About the Physical and Men Don’t Talk About Their Feelings. And, obviously, the problem with stereotypes is that pretty much all of them are true of somebody. There must be at least one black man with a large penis and at least some women who like shoes more than they like football. And, ultimately, it’s a little sophomoric to suggest that a belief’s being widely held makes it less likely to be true. What I find difficult about these ideas is the way the assumption of their authenticity reinforces the idea of their desirability.
Let’s start with the first one. There is a very well established conception in romance, but also in society as a whole, that men are interested in sex while women are interested in … pretty much anything else. Normally feelings. But also shopping, financial security, weddings, that sort of thing. All of which is basically just a reiteration of the ideas underpinning the commodity model of sex. And, actually, what with it no longer being the 50s, we’ve mostly made a lot of progress in moving away from this model. People are now generally onboard with the idea that women can want sex for its own sake and on their own terms, and modern het romance paints a more nuanced picture of sexual and romantic relationships.
But sometimes it feels like m/m sort of missed the memo. Time and again you see advice for aspiring m/m writers that they should remember men prioritise the physical over the emotional, that their courtships are driven by lust more than by love, and that male sexual desire is fundamentally inexhaustible and uncontrollable. And I’m not saying that this does not reflect anybody’s experience and I’m certainly not saying that it’s not sexy if that’s what you’re into (although I think it’s important to recognise that “sexier” is not the same as “more realistic”) but this description of male sexuality does not resonate with me on any level. Nor do I really recognise it in any of my friends.
But what I find most troubling is that I absolutely do recognise it as a model of sexual behaviour to which I – and I suspect my friends – feel quite a lot of social pressure to conform. So it becomes kind of self-fulfilling. And, without wishing to reinforce problematic stereotypes about m/m writers, you can sort of see why those writers in the genre who are not men might get the wrong end of the stick. Because even if their male friends would, in fact, sometimes rather have an early night with cup of tea than a one night stand with a total stranger, they’re extremely unlikely to admit it.
I was a listening to a panel game on BBC iPlayer recently in which the panelists had to list the things they found most annoying about modern life and one of the panelists – whose name I infuriatingly can’t remember – specifically listed the pressure to have and constantly be wanting to have sex as his greatest modern bugbear. What I found interesting about this was the fact the other panelists clearly couldn’t handle it. Normally when someone does that kind of observational comedy routine, particularly on a panel game, other people will chip in with their own anecdotes or their own jokes. But this guy met with dead silence. And maybe it was that the other contestants genuinely couldn’t relate because they really do want to aggressively pursue sex with everything all the time but professional comedians can usually make a gag out of anything. It felt to me like they were just so shocked at the idea of a man breaking The Guy Code and publicly admitting that sex wasn’t constantly his number one priority that they didn’t dare associate themselves with it.
This sort of brings me to the second big rule which is that Men Don’t Talk About Their Feelings. And, in some ways, I’ve sort dug myself in a hole because I’ve just spent half this article explaining that part of the reason we have these distorted views about the way men feel about things is that men, well, don’t talk about their feelings. Or, more precisely, that men are socially conditioned to express themselves in a manner that precludes talking about many types of feelings. Men are perfectly capable of and socially sanctioned in expressing feelings of anger, horniness or angry horniness. But they’re basically not allowed to express of feelings of, well, anything else.
I’ve often felt that the reason Men’s Rights Activists are such colossal douchebags is that they’ve spent the whole of their lives not being allowed to feel legitimately sad about stuff. An example I’ve always found really problematic in this regard (and, let’s be clear, I find MRAs in general really problematic) is the idea of “men’s abortion rights”. From my limited poking around the internet, there are communities of men who are sad that their wives and girlfriends have had abortions. Now, they tend to express this in really unhelpful ways – like suggesting that the father essentially has a right to veto an abortion. To which the answer is: dude, no. But what’s really messed up about these groups is that at least some of their anger and misogyny seems rooted in a society that won’t accept that a man can be sad because a sad thing has happened. It’s kind of why manpain is such a common narrative device. The only emotions we allow fictional men to have are grandiose ones because nobody is going to read a comic book about a young boy who witnesses the murder of his billionaire parents and then grows up to have real difficulty forming relationships with people and feel very unsafe walking around the city at night.
So, in a sense, there’s a lot of truth to the talking-about-feelings stereotype but I think it’s important to realise where it comes from. There’s often a tendency, and this as true in popular relationship advice magazines as in tips for m/m writers, to assume the reason men don’t like to talk about feelings is that they don’t have them or, at least, don’t have them in the same way as women. But socially constructed differences in expression are not the same as innate or essentialist differences in emotion. The vast majority of teenage boys wouldn’t be caught dead listening to You Belong With Me, but that’s because of fear of social censure, not because it is somehow impossible for them to somehow relate to the sentiment. After all, Teenage Dirtbag expresses exactly the same idea, just with more bravado (and I recognise I am showing my age here).
I have absolutely no problem with people liking an all-sex no-feelz mentality in their heroes (in either het or m/m). I’m not, and have never have been, in the business of policing what other people find sexy. Or, for that matter, what other people are allowed to identify with. And, again, I am absolutely sure that there are plenty of sexually voracious, emotionally inarticulate men out there. What low-key bothers me is what I perceive as the tendency to conflate what people find sexy or exciting with what they find believable or acceptable.
It is, I think, an unfortunate quirk of the genre that male characters written by female writers will be closely scrutinised for authenticity. One of the unique challenges facing female writers of m/m is the tendency of some readers to question their right to write about what they’re writing about. But it’s important that this scrutiny not drive people to retreat into totems and stereotypes. Some of the m/m novels I’ve enjoyed the most have been the ones that have challenged conventional ideas of what men have to be like, but they’ve also been the novels most likely to be criticised for being too romantic and not portraying an authentically male experience. And, obviously, there is plenty of room in the genre for firemen and fratboys and alpha werewolves because all of those things remain cool. It’s just important to remember that they’re not the only way to be a man.
As ever, do feel free to join me in the comments to talk about men and women and their feelz. Do you prefer your heroes emotionally inarticulate and sexually aggressive? What do you think of the m/m articulates ideas about authenticity and masculinity?
About Alexis Hall
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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